Knowledge management

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Knowledge management is an essential support function to an organisation. It does not stand by itself, but is dependent on the wider needs of the organisation. To be successful, it needs to create a co-dependence or a co-evolutionary potentiality from which symbiosis can emerge.The reason for this is that no life form, can survive without another life form. How things work is largely determined by how things fit together.In the acquiring and passing on of information and knowledge to steer energy and matter in there respective life forms, mutual accommodation and cooperation play and important role( next to competition). Knowledge is both a thing and a flow requiring diverse management approaches. KM helps to improve decision making or create the conditions for innovation. The approach described here offers a way to get into strategy in real time, and makes people aware of things that they can change. It can be useful in:

  • evaluating processes;
  • making decisions about what technologies to use
  • making decision about which projects to start;
  • framing problems;
  • innovation;

Knowledge management, as presented here, is a process that allows us to build the information bottom-up. It implies to start where we are and with what we know, and offers to address the problems we have now. One of the key difference with traditional approaches is that knowledge is assembled in the context of need and not in the context of its creation.


Knowledge management enables and facilitates meaningful knowledge-transfer (as both thing and flow). Meaningful knowledge transfer is only possible through meaningful communication. Meaningful communication is only possible within an acceptable zone of abstraction and codification.

The first age of knowledge management – information for decision support. In The first age, prior to 1995 the focus is on the appropriate structuring and flow of information to decision makers and the computerisation of major business applications leading to a technology enabled revolution dominated by the perceived efficiencies of process reengineering. By the mid to late nineties a degree of disillusionment was creeping in, organisations were starting to recognise that they might have achieved efficiencies at the cost of effectiveness, they had laid off people with experience or natural talents, vital to their operation, of which they had been unaware.

The failure to recognise the value of knowledge gained through experience, through traditional forms of knowledge transfer such as apprentice schemes and the collective nature of much knowledge, was such that the word knowledge became problematic.

The second age of knowledge management - tacit/explicit distinction and codification.. The book “The Knowledge-Creating Company” by Ikujiro Nonaka 1991 had a crucial effect on the popularity of knowledge management. The author created a model called SECI. The focus of the model is on the movement of knowledge between tacit and explicit states through the four processes of Socialisation, Externalisation, Combination, Internalisation. This model implies that all knowledge can become explicit if you follow the right procedure. But, despite drawing on Polanyi’s concept of tacit knowledge, it contradicts its idea that no explicit knowledge can exist without a tacit component. Indeed, tacit knowledge can’t always be made explicit, because it would be compromised as a result.

The third age of knowledge management - the paradoxical nature of knowledge in CAS Some of the basic concepts underpinning knowledge management are now being challenged – ‘knowledge is not a ‘thing’, or a system, but an ephemeral, active process of relating. If one takes this view then no one, let alone a corporation, can own knowledge. Knowledge itself cannot be stored, nor can intellectual capital be measured, and certainly neither of them can be managed,’ (Stacy 2001). This new understanding does not require abandonment, much of which has been valuable, but it does involve a recognition that most knowledge management in the post 1995 period has been to all intents and purposes content management. In the third generation we grow beyond managing knowledge as a thing to also managing knowledge as a flow. To do this we will need to focus more on context and narrative, than on content.

In opposition to SECI's model, knowledge management draws on Principles for managing knowledge related to Polanyi’s work, and particularly on the first three, which are:

  1. We always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down.
  2. We only know what we know when we need to know it.
  3. Knowledge can only be volunteered it cannot be conscripted.

Common misunderstands in abuse

• Far too many knowledge management programs and all too many story tellers focus on a shift away from fragmented material to structured and coherent documents or stories under the mistaken impression that this improves their use. It doesn’t. Instead, it makes the material context specific and introduces a high degree of bias in the way the material is constructed. Given a difficult problem most people would prefer access to fragmented raw material from people with relevant experience. • We spend millions on IT systems to capture, store and disseminate ‘stuff’. We endlessly attempt to codify “what we know” into different forms of media for those who might benefit from it, so they can completely ignore it. We set up communities of practice to connect the unconnected and link our structural silos. We endlessly promote the virtues of Web 2.0 and social media as the panacea of all our knowledge ills. We do all sorts of things in the name of KM it seems – except tackle potentially the most productive and lowest hanging of all our fruits, our meetings.In terms of knowledge-transfer and decision-making our meetings are potentially our most potent method because presumably we have the right subject matter experts invited an attending, if so, they should be there with intent, and they are in a face-to-face setting where you would imagine the most meaningful communication should be possible. • One of the big mistakes people are making is to see knowledge as the new asset type in succession to land and capital. I think that is wrong for three reasons. (i) knowledge is not tangible in the sense of land and capital, an ASSET model (basis of the intellectual capital movement) is therefore inappropriate. (ii) I see no evidence that the capital model has yet been shattered, although it is changing. Money is still the transaction base of knowledge exchange like it or not (and I don’t by the way). (iii) For whole economies LAND is still central and may become so again in the west. Water and living space with population growth and global warming by result in a partial reversion to Feudalism. There is a general trend in all of these and your comments to see the world as necessarily progressive which is a dubious proposition. • The misconception of the data-information-knowledge- wisdom model, the DIKW pyramid which has multiple origins but was popularised by Ackoff, who to my mind should have known better. The idea is that Data becomes information, becomes knowledge that in turn becomes wisdom. That inevitably leads to the one-upmanship, with some people claiming to have transcended mere knowledge management into wisdom management and some even found multiple levels beyond wisdom. Given that in general, information is codified data and can be managed with technology it is not surprising that most KM initiatives ended up as information management in some guise or other.If two people have an accounting qualification then a summary set of accounts is informative to someone without that knowledge it is still data.This means that knowledge is a way for data to become information

Core theory

Knowledge management is one of the oldest bodies of methods within Cognitive Egde. The original use of Cynefin was in knowledge management and sense-making. The definition of sense-making as how do we make sense of the world so that we can act in, it reflects the reality that we need to know when we know enough, we never have perfect information. Our ability to comprehend and respond to the reality around us is a question for knowledge management. As sense making can be seen as a knowledge production activity. We can then use that knowledge toward a shared understanding of problem areas, this definition carries with it a sense of sufficiency and this also incorporates a sense of how do I know when I know enough to act. The objective of managing knowledge to create a shared knowledge context led to the creation of the ASHEN. Our ability to comprehend a situation ranges from the totally expected to the unexpected and unimaginable but feasible. Our ability to respond to a situation ranges from known through knowable to unknowable.

Knowledge management and organisational learning theories each lacked a theory of how cognition happens in human social systems.

Conceptual blending: the brain assimilates fragmented data from both personal experience and variously through narrative. It blends that (based on a contextual recall) with its current situation to come up with a unique and contextually appropriately form of action. This is backed up by other sources (although not in the same formulation) from a wider variety of sources. We like fragmented messy recall, it gives us evolutionary advantage and increases the chances of making abductive leaps. SenseMaker® replicates this natural process, using technology to augment but not replace human intelligence. But we can go further, we can take historical data and have experts signify that at a fragment or composite level. We can take ideas and experience from related fields (development sector for peace keeping operations for example) and signify those. A field worker can then ask an ambiguous question and get fragments from multiple sources that they can conceptually blend with they current situation to come up with a unique form of action. That action itself can be signified to build a body of knowledge that is constantly evolving and which is structured through human intelligence without the normal overhead of taxonomies and the like.

Narrative and messy coherence: in Km narrative serves as a half way house between experience( tacit) and written documents(explicit). the key aspect of SenseMaker® is that the power of interpretation and also engagement rests with the originators of the story. In effect, we want to encourage distributed facilitation and horizontal engagement with ideas in far less structured ways, the key to achieving what I call messy coherence; curation needs to be distributed and to achieve that we need abstract typologies not culturally determined taxonomies. The dangers of epistemic injustice are ever-present with structured approaches to curation. Narrative forms of knowing and communication carry necessary ambiguity which allows them to more readily adapt to changing contexts than written documents. Its all about getting the right level of granularity to allow material to be rapidly blended in unexpected ways to deal with changing circumstances. The more structure the less flexibility.

Formal and informal networks:To understand, navigate and change Complex systems: How things connect is more important than the nature of the things themselves, for the knowledge and learning capacities of and organisation this means: it’s not what you know but who you know represents reality in any system. Linking and connecting people is more important than storing their artifacts. informal networks have zero energy to the system to establish, they will happen regardless, but neglecting them can cost you a lot.Human decision-makers will never have all the information they need to act rationally so trust in the person, or persons providing information and/or recommendations matters. And while some trust resides in roles a lot of it arises from interactions over time, but it can be lost in seconds. Moreover, if trust in roles starts to break down or there is a conflict between those roles then increasingly we fall back to those informal patterns of trust.It follows that one approach to managing uncertainty(and knowledge) is to manage the way in which informal networks form and are nurtured.The basic metaphor of is that of the mycorrhiza, deeply entangled symbiotic systems that provide key nutrients to plants. When looking at formal and informal networks in an organizations,the focus should be on managing the entanglement to optimise diversity and connect it to the formal system so it can be activated at need. The first and simplest way is to trigger the informal networks when a formal system is needed. As a general rule if there isn’t already an informal network of interest around a subject then starting a community of interest, practices or whatever is going to be difficult. So finding an existing activity and giving it quasi-official status while encouraging it to expand its membership is a lot easier.In effect, this is a trigger to shift informal points of coalescence from the complex to the complicated domain and Cynefin and that is best done by making small changes in the liminal zone before committing resources.The second is to manage the formation of the network itself. Social Network Stimulation as a method is a helpful method another the use of Entangled Trios. This approach has as its basic building block the idea of three individuals (although that could be identities) from diverse backgrounds interacting around some type of task or activity that is meaningful to them.

Abstraction and codification:Knowledge management started with the intention to capture, codify and distribute organisational knowledge in computerised environments. The questions of when and how you codify formal methods and also at what level to pitch the language of a paper is a matter of abstraction and codification. The very early precursor of Cynefin took the abstraction and codification aspects of the I-Space, developed by Max Boisot. The basic idea is that the highest level of abstraction is where I have a conversation with myself. I share all the same education, experience, and insight/prejudices. At the other end of the spectrum, the cost of codification becomes infinite as it is simply not possible to fully share context. That gives us the idea of upper and lower levels of acceptable/useful abstraction based on what is an acceptable cost of codification. There is a balance here, high abstraction, high codification allows ideas to diffuse faster but often at a loss. Essential for KM: 1. Meaningful communication is only possible within an acceptable zone of abstraction and the broader the range the more expensive the cost of creating it 2. Scalability or high diffusion only happens with high codification AND abstraction, if you just codify before the abstractions are established and evolved then integrity is lost. 3. Exaptation or radical repurposing is the lowest cost for innovation in an organisation 4. Mapping knowledge as a fine enough level of granularity to allow it to be recombined (exapted) in a novel context is key to human innovation and should not be left to change 5. Suboptimal individual behaviour generally allows the system as a whole to optimise, within limits 6. Vigorous debate and the ability to experimentally argue a position with commitment is critical to the advance of knowledge.

The three core functions of Communication, Understanding, and Recording translated into Story Telling, Narrative Research, and Knowledge Management

Knowledge management as an ‘active process of relating’ enables: Learning from failure, Learning from experience, Learning from a network, Process or embedded knowledge for decision making and innovation.The objective of managing knowledge therefor, is to create a shared knowledge context • There are two key words for the knowledge team: service and symbiosis. to be successful KM needs to create a co-dependence or a co-evolutionary potentiality from which symbiosis can emerge. • KM more than most disciplines needs to adopt a safe-fail experimental approach rather than attempt to achieve a fail safe design. Find some of the key people, let them play, as things work give them support, make other people aware of what they do. Keep it messy and patterns will emerge that are either good enough, or which do your design for you. • As such, A knowledge strategy should be a portfolio of knowledge projects.

Supporting artefacts


decision mapping

knowledge mapping


entangled trios

Social Network Simulation




Articles and books

The basics of Organic Knowledge Management - a series of 3 articles by Dave Snowden

1. Snowden, David J. (2000c) The ASHEN model: an enabler of action’ Knowledge Management 3 (7): 14-7 In 1998, David Snowden laid the foundations of an approach to understanding the intellectual assets of an organisation using techniques derived from anthropology and based on the organising principle that ‘We only know what we know when we need to know it’. These articles contributed significantly to what has become known as Organic Knowledge Management. The first article of three looks at the language of knowledge and suggests a model of description that leads to constructive action.

2. Knowledge elicitation: indirect knowledge discovery In the second article of three on organic knowledge management, Dave examines some of the dangers of knowledge elicitation and outlines approaches rooted in anthropology that enables the identification of knowledge assets in organisations. Indirect knowledge discovery & strategic knowledge mapping.

3. Story circles and heuristic-based interventions In the final article of the series, Dave Snowden completes the catalogue of methods for eliciting anecdotal material from which knowledge assets can be identified using the common sense language of the ASHEN model. He then establishes three heuristics or rules of thumb that can be used to guide the design of knowledge interventions once the knowledge audit is complete.

  • Nonaka, Ikujiro; Takeuchi, Hirotaka (1995) "The knowledge creating company: how Japanese companies create the dynamics of innovation" New York: Oxford University Press,
  • Polanyi, Michael (1966) "The Tacit Dimension" London, Routledge.

Blog posts

  • Dave Snowden, Creating a knowledge strategy, Cognitive Edge Blog (November 4, 2014), contextual introduction to knowledge mapping
  • Dave Snowden, Purpose as virtue: mapping, Cognitive Edge Blog (December 13, 2012), ASHEN and other methods mentioned within the context of mapping-based methodologies
  • Dave Snowden, Updating knowledge mapping, Cognitive Edge Blog (September 3, 2009), contains a high-level flow chart of an early form of the assemblage

Related concepts


Link to case articles here or third party material