Why Manage Knowledge?

by Richard E. Combs

"All media are extensions of some human faculty -- psychic or physical. The wheel is an extension of the foot; the book is an extension of the eye; clothing, an extension of the skin; electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system. Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act -- the way we perceive the world."

Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage (sic), (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967), p. 26.


What Can We Know?

Before going into how we manage knowledge, maybe we should take a quick glance at ourselves. For a moment or two, get up close and watch us moving around; sleeping, eating, drinking, filing things, and trying to figure out who is in charge. What does our glance tell us? Who is this paragon of animals? As genomic research reveals, we are separated from our fellow creatures by less than we once imagined. Once we thought we were very different from those other animals. There was a time not long ago when we imagined ourselves to be a maker and user of tools, and uniquely so. We thought this defined us. Given that amazingly useful opposable thumb, we became THE CREATOR of tools. This idea of ourselves, this notion of ourselves as Man-the-Tool-Maker, lasted for nearly a century, right up to the moment someone saw a chimp break off a branch to retrieve ants from an ant-hill. Not that man isn't a tool-user and tool-maker of the first order. Think about the tools we have created: from the wheel to clay tablets, telescopes, printing presses, television, computers, hard drives, atom-smashers, and even the world-wide-web.

Maybe, more than any other creature, we're information-makers and users. We are surely driven by curiosity. It is this wanting-to-know and our own ingenuity that has brought us to where we are today. Does human curiosity invariably lead to more information-seeking? If a flower or plant is phototropic in seeking the light, are we infotropic in seeking knowledge? Why else are we driven to understand the world? Samuel Johnson wrote: "Curiosity is the thirst of the soul..."

"The gratification of curiosity rather frees us from uneasiness than confers pleasure; we are more pained by ignorance than delighted by instruction. Curiosity is the thirst of the soul; it inflames and torments us, and makes us taste every thing with joy..."

Samuel Johnson
Rambler, March 12, 1751

Information technology, the tool kit that might assist us in capturing the digital world, has led us into elaborate information-seeking over the years. Like the creation of an IT department for example. It's got everything, from INFORMATION to TECHNOLOGY, the best of both worlds, though maybe, as Peter Drucker suggests, we could do with a little more "I" and a little less "T" in our knowledge mix.

How has our infotropic nature led us into such a quagmire of knowledge-fragmentation? Or, better yet, let's say we understand how the corporation got to be where it is today -- it's a given. A better question might be, How do we get out of here, particularly if "here" is a place where important things can't be found?

"What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer ... but nobody actually knows anything."

Don DeLillo, White Noise

There's every possibility, based on more evidence than we have time to look at right now, that human beings are a lot better at information-seeking and knowledge-creation than knowledge management.

The image that keeps coming to my mind when I imagine some far-flung corporate empire, operating across a world of time zones, is a string of islands, an archipelago, maybe something like the Malay Archipelago, with 17,000 islands and hundreds of languages and cultures.

It's easy enough to see how we got ahead of ourselves in "managing" the data, information and knowledge that's used to run the company. The corporation put its information resources in all the usual places -- filing cabinets, human heads, databases, bookshelves, PC hard drives and IT departments. The people who opened the Atlanta plant replicated some of this stuff, creating new resources in the process. Their IT department created some things, but so did HR and R&D and Marketing and Manufacturing and Distribution. The company decided to open quarters in Berlin and Tokyo. Some gifted people developed deep expertise in obscure but important things. Their knowledge-seeking paid off, and their value increased. They lacked enthusiasm for sharing this expertise with just anyone.

In all probability, this is not an exaggerated picture. If anything, it may be understated. So how do we make the jump from globally-disbursed resources, where no one in the oranization really knows where anything is, with any certainty, to something more unified and find-able. Or do we? Are some black arts required, or is this something humanly do-able?

"I [never met] the senior manager who knew what information was available for decisions. Very few senior executives have asked the question, "What information do I need to do my job?" In part because they've all been brought up with the accounting information that they understand. But the other type of information system, they don't understand."

Peter F. Drucker
A Meeting of the Minds
CIO Magazine, Sept. 15, 1997

A recent study says that the average employee spends 7-10 hours per month tracking down information that is already known by someone or something somewhere within the organization. It could be more than 7 - 10 hours, or it could be less. As few as ten employees could be wasting 70 to 100 person-hours a month chasing information. What a crushing waste! And they told us the computer would save us time. Remember that promise? Where is the time this technology has saved for us?

"The information's unavailable to the mortal man
We're workin' our jobs, collect our pay
Believe we're gliding down the highway
When in fact we're slip sliding away."

Slip Sliding Away
Paul Simon

According to the accounting software giant Intuit, the average American today works 14 hours more per week than he or she did in 1969. Would it be naive to suppose that we can reverse this trend, or are we doomed to continue working harder, and getting nowhere fast in the process? Like a guy in a rowboat, rowing harder may not do the trick, particularly if the boat's pointed in the wrong direction.


Some Barriers to Learning

1. Knowledge Transfer

In tribal New Guinea - largest of the 17,000 islands in our Malay archipelago - around 800 distinct languages are spoken. Very little imagination is required to visualize how life might be affected by this. Some New Guinea tribes, dwelling in small isolated communities and speaking a language only they understand, live pretty much the way they did 25,000 years ago, their belief systems untouched by other civilizations. The sea or the forest supplies their primitive needs. Beyond the immediate environment, their home turf, lies danger, darkness, and strange people speaking foreign tongues. Knowledge transfer is not an issue in tribal New Guinea.

But for the modern corporation, knowledge transfer is ever-present as an issue, even though it may not always be recognized for what it is. As Thomas Davenport points out in Working Knowledge, without a shared language, the members of an organization can neither understand nor trust one another. He is speaking loosely of a "language", as in a taxonomy or shared understanding, and not just of speaking French or Tagalog, but also of speaking the language of mechanical engineering or even the language of social class. British Petroleum, for instance, hires consultants to translate reports made by "roughnecks" who work on BP's North Sea oil rigs, into a language that its executives back in London can grasp. 1

To get beyond this language barrier, a language-neutral platform is needed. A virtual community where issues of language don't exist, and individuals can interact easily.


2. Space, Time and Memory

How big is too big for an organization to know what it knows? More than one study suggests that the maximum size -- one in which people know one another well enough to have a good grasp of collective knowledge -- is between 200 to 300 hundred individuals.

Remember the space and time issues surrounding the thousands of islands within our virtual Malay archipelago of information. We intuitively understand the depth of knowledge and resources in far-flung corporate empires such as Siemens AG or General Electric, but consider the barriers to getting at the right information in such a diversified enterprise. Think about people working in plants and offices and laboratories scattered across the globe speaking 14 languages. Who knows who in such an enterprise? To be sure, there are electronic gadgets for everyone -- PDA's and powerful computers and databases and cell phones ad infinitum. A cynic might say, "So?"

How does an organization remember? If it is an extraordinary organization and has good access to projects that were kept on paper and digitally, how has it managed the recall of these events?

When Bridgestone/Firestone decided to recall some 6.5 million tires in August of 2000, some employees could remember the last such event. "Twenty years is a long time, but memories of how a huge government-mandated recall in the late 1970's nearly bankrupted Firestone Tire and Rubber -- the company's name before the Bridgestone Corporation of Japan bought it in 1988 -- clearly resonate."

"'The oral history around here is that we were a lot too slow to cooperate back then,' said Christine Karbowiak, a Firestone spokeswoman." 2

Though "luck" wouldn't seem to apply in a case such as this involving millions of potentially defective tires, having employees around who remembered the missteps of the 1970's, and who could therefore avoid repeating those missteps, may be lucky indeed.

Only time will tell if the vestigial oral history remaining among a few stalwart Firestone employees enabled the company to learn its lesson, or if the lesson must be relearned, to the loss of all concerned.

The ideal would be to transform such spatial complexity into a platform where space no longer exists. Marshall McLuhan, writing about his vision of a global electronic village, saw a place where space and time were no longer barriers to interaction or knowledge.1a It was a place in which the 17,000 islands in our information archipelago metamorphose into one continent.


3. Culture Clash & Competitive Intelligence

If we could implement a system that allows us to take advantage of the knowledge within the organization -- to manage all the information in filing cabinets, hard drives, book shelves, and the heads of the employees, we would have done a great deal. But not nearly enough. What we would not have done is take a look outside the corporation. If we don't peer out the window to see what the competition is doing, we could be deluding ourselves.

According to Peter Drucker, "Very few senior executives have asked the question, 'What information do I need to do my job?' The information you need the most --and not just in business --is about the outside world, and there is absolutely none. It doesn't exist. You'd be surprised how much outside information about customers and non-customers companies simply do not have and, in many cases, cannot get. And yet, you don't make your decisions [based] on what goes on inside the company; you shouldn't, at least." 3

During World War II, at the southern tip of the Malay archipelago, islanders were exposed to a sudden influx of goods and wealth, courtesy of the Allied Armed Forces. Ships, guns, airplanes, jeeps, and the myriad goods necessary for modern warfare were produced in mass quantities. Soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen were trained by the thousands and sent to the south pacific. The indigenous peoples living on these islands were totally awed when their normally placid skies resounded with the roar of aircraft engines, and their seas trembled not just with the massive whale, but with a ship's propellers.

After the war, when the abrupt flow of goods just as suddenly disappeared, "cargo cults" of islanders began imitating the rituals surrounding the influx of goods during the war. They set up fires along small replica bamboo or dirt runways. They designated "radio operators" to handle imaginary radio traffic and waited for more goods to arrive from the sky. Some went so far as to build bamboo control-towers, complete with radio aerials fashioned from vines. They got all the superficial appearances correct, yet the planes didn't return. Jon Frum, a cargo cult hero, is still awaited on Vanuatu. 5

It can be heart-wrenching to consider the futility of human hopes, in cargo cults and in our workaday world as well. Built to understand and to learn, we are also capable of self-deception, denial and blindness where our wishes are concerned.

There are any number of reasons that managers can be comfortable with things as they are long after the reality of external events should have made them ill at ease. With a little denial, the stench of a conflagration in corporate headquarters can easily be taken for a cook-out down the block, even when a fire-alarm is ringing in our ears.

"These days it may seem impossible that any manager could be so inwardly focused as to believe that their company is insulated from change or that the skills and markets relevant to today's success will be identically relevant tomorrow. Yet the front pages of the popular press are full of accounts of former flagship companies now apparently struggling to stay afloat -- Digital Equipment Corporation, Wang Corporation and Sears, among others."

"Sears counted on its excellent store sites, its decades of dominance in retail, its mighty purchasing power to maintain its position in the market. Some critics aver that Sears managers disdained to notice Wal-Mart's incursion into their merchandising territories: well into the 1980's, Sears position papers did not even list that company among competitors to be watched." 6

Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, later noted in his autobiography, "One reason Sears fell so far off the pace is that they wouldn't admit for the longest time that Wal-Mart and Kmart were their real competition. They ignored both of us, and we blew right by them." 7

In some cases, cases such as this, company culture can lead to grave misunderstandings about the external environment; or about the nature of reality. Ernest Hemingway, when asked what is needed to be a first rate writer, brashly said "To be a truly good writer, you need an automatic crap-detector."

What's needed is a competitive intelligence system that looks at the reality of exterior events, and a management willing to look at what lies before it.


4. Managing Historical and Tacit Information

"The ignorance of how to use knowledge stockpiles exponentially."

Marshall McLuhan

The blueprints, diagrams and written programs for building an atomic bomb are kinds of explicit knowledge, but the tweaks made during the construction process are tacit knowledge. A signed agreement is explicit knowledge; what was said by the participants up to and during the signing is tacit. Both can be vital corporate knowledge, but we do a better job of capturing explicit knowledge.

"Los Alamos, NM -- When John Richter retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory three years ago, he took with him nearly the equivalent of China's entire experience with nuclear weapons... As wizards like Dr. Richter retire, they are taking with them invaluable expertise about just what makes bombs work.

There are only about 50 people in the U.S. who, like Dr. Richter, possess both the know-how to make a nuclear weapon and the "fudge-factor" -- the memory of last minute tweaking and intuitive short-cuts that made some of the nation's 1,000 or so nuclear weapons tests work.

"Nuclear-weapons design was then [when Dr. Richter was a young apprentice Ph.D. at Los Alamos] taught in a kind of medieval apprenticeship. Dr. Richter hung around one or two bomb designers to see how they did it. 'You worked for those guys until you didn't need them anymore,' he says. "The quicker you did that, the quicker you could do more things on your own." 4

What's needed in any organization is a way to capture the "fudge-factor"; to save and store what was said and done and acted upon outside of formal documents and procedures -- a way to manage not just explicit documents and events, but tacit events and actions as well.

Where are we?

We've explored some of the terrain between where we are and where we need to be. It's not a pretty picture, and most painful of all, there's no one to blame but ourselves. We need to do a better job at managing time, space, culture and human nature. Particularly human nature. Can this be done easily? No, not on this planet.

But there is a glimmer of a solution on the horizon. Perhaps we've finally fashioned a technology that will get us out of this information archipelago. After all, our curiosity and its information outgrowths got us into this mess to start with.

There's every chance that the web, and our access to it via the browser, KM solutions, and portal techologies will allow an organization to manage its knowledge assets better. But this new KM technology will only succeed if we put more emphasis on content and the people who develop, retain and share that content. One cannot be done without the other.


1 Davenport, Thomas H., and Laurence Prusak, Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know, 1998, Harvard Business School Press, Boston. MA, pp. 98-99.
1a Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967, 26-41.
2 Deutsch, Claudia H., "Where Rubber Meets the Road: Recall of Firestone Tires is Aimed at Damage Control", The New York Times, August 10, 2000, pp. C1 and C4.
3 Drucker, Peter F., and Thomas H. Davenport, "A meeting of the minds," CIO Maga-zine, Sept. 15, 1997.
4 Fialka, John, "Cold Warheads: Los Alamos Lab Tries to Stem the Decline of Bomb Know-How", The Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2000, pp. A1 and A10.
5 The Jon Frum web site -- http://www.jonfrum.com
6 Dorothy Leonard, The Wellsprings of Knowledge, Harvard Business School Press, 1995, p. 31.
7 Walton, Sam, with John Huey, Made in America: my story. New York, Doubleday, 1992.