Knowledge Management is like a Boomerang.

There’s so much I don’t know (about knowledge). I don’t feel particularly confident about writing this post. The more I’ve learnt about ‘knowledge’, the more I realise that I don’t know very much.

However, sometimes I feel the need to speak out – in a helpful sort of way – to prevent others making the mistakes I’ve made. I might not know much, but what I do know is that trying to create an ‘All Singing and All Dancing’ Knowledge Management Database is probably doomed to failure. A “digital repository to hold all of your organisational knowledge, that will allow unprecedented access to deep insights with a few keyboard taps” is a fantasy that only exists in the minds of people selling you a Silver Bullet. If it was true, why hasn’t everyone got a brilliantly functioning one already?

It’s like a Boomerang. I first took some serious interest in Knowledge Management about 15 years ago when I heard Dave Snowden speak. One of the things Dave said was things that had failed in the Private Sector typically get ‘recycled’ in Public Services about 10 years later. Knowledge Management Databases were one of those ‘things’.

In a recent conversation with Dave he offered a variation on that ‘rule’. For Knowledge Management Databases it’s actually a repeating cycle, wherever the sector. Like a Boomerang; Knowledge Management Databases keep coming back around. The desire to ‘capture human knowledge’ and place it in a database keeps returning and currently the Boomerang is having a third loop around the Private Sector (you can quiz Dave on that).

So what is Knowledge. This is where I’m starting to wade deeper out of my depth… Knowledge isn’t like; data, facts, scientific evidence or knowing how much something weighs. Knowledge is something that comes from humans. It’s that human ‘contact’ that makes it different. That’s all I’m going to say other than:

  • Facts will tell you that a Tomato is a soft red fruit.
  • Knowledge tells you that you don’t put Tomato’s in a fruit salad with the Strawberries.

Knowledge is a bit messy. It’s like the difference between having a tin of magnolia paint and what happens after someone has applied it to their living room. The magnolia paint isn’t like it was before – or any other tin of magnolia paint. It’s been changed by some human interaction. Sorry if the paint based analogising has offended (if the analogy makes it past The Editor I will have had the thrashing I deserve). The point I’m trying to make is that human knowledge doesn’t come in neat packets or units that can be easily organised and ‘managed’.

So what’s this got to do with Databases? Databases will hold just about anything you choose to put in them – as long as it can be represented by some numbers. I’ve no problem with databases. They are a very necessary part of how life is organised. The problem for me is where people claim they are THE ANSWER to human knowledge management. A database is great for counting and organising the tins of magnolia paint, but not so great at helping understand it once people have splashed it on their walls. I think I’ll stop now…

The Seven Principles of Knowledge Management. The best thing I can suggest you do from here is have a read of what Dave Snowden has to say on the subject. Then sit back and have a deep think. This post, Rendering Knowledge describes Dave’s Seven Principles of Knowledge Management. It was written in 2008 and I keep coming back to it.

The perpetually useful thing I find about the 7 principles is that they highlight the fact that human knowledge is unique and shaped by individual experience. It can not be squeezed out of people in an easy and standardised way. So, the idea of it then existing in ‘consistent packets’ in a database – that can be extracted ‘at the push of a button’ – is a bit a non starter. There are other points like the difference between how we make sense of things and report them which I’ve tried to capture in the drawing above.

There’s plenty that has been written about Knowledge Management and huge conferences dedicated to it. It’s a massive and complex subject. All I’ll say is that if someone is suggesting a ‘simple and easy solution’ to Knowledge Management, go and read a few things and talk to some ‘KM Veterans’ before you say yes.

So, What’s the PONT?

1. Knowledge is largely about human experience and meaning. That’s going to be different for each person.

2. Knowledge cannot be ‘squeezed’ out of people’s brains. People have to be willing to share what they ‘know’.

3. Trust and congeniality help. If people like and trust you, they are more likely to share their knowledge.

Resources and previous posts:

Nick Milton is worth checking in on: Have a look at this post – Some addenda to Snowden’s 7 Knowledge Management Principles.

Complex Wales -The Organisational Goldilocks Zone. How the system runs on 4 year cycles so things that go back 7 years are frequently ‘recycled’. Link here:

The Disconnected Jerk. One of mine that picks up on the idea that we don’t share knowledge with people we don’t trust, or like. Link here

Document Management is not Knowledge Management. Another one of mine trying to make the link with ‘The Knowledge’ required by London Black Cab Drivers. Link here

Sliver Boomerangs and the lifecycle of a Sliver Bullet. Something trying to get underneath why management fads keep coming around… like Boomerangs. Link here:

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

4 Responses

  1. You don’t contain knowledge, there is no filing cabinet in your head or the radiologists would have found it. Your brain runs off and recreates knowledge, just before it reckons that it’s likely that you’re going to need it.

    Don’t believe me? It’s easy to prove in a small experiment. Try your very best to be really be aware of what your about to do, to prove that you construct knowledge on the fly. The experiment is a demonstration of what I call – get ready – the Cheeseburger Effect.

  2. I think what most of this comes down to is that ‘knowledge is constructed’ in the moment. By this I mean ‘data is retrieved’ while ‘knowledge is constructed’ by a process in order to suit a particular purpose in a particular context. The purpose and context define the process that puts together knowledge from selectively retrieved available data. Therefore knowledge cannot be ‘written down’ in the absents of purpose, context and process. Process is defined in the moment, on the fly, by purpose and context and the application of process results in knowledge that is purpose and context specific.

  3. Fatima

    Thanks for this great article. I often tried, without success, to discuss it with colleagues around me. I am not a specialist in the matter, neither an expert;
    I had been through situations where being sure to hold the necessary knowledge to face them, I ended up by “but what/why did not it work?” result.
    So here is my humble opinion, learned the hard way: “Trying to “store” knowledge has a limited value in time and space; One can not deny the usefulness and the need to preserve knowledge, but must be aware that it is the result/compound of facts, beliefs and feelings, instantly updated (corrupted?) by the current context whenever requested.This is what makes this field so exciting, so continuously topical and always challenging!

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