Where is the Knowledge? Part 1

Uploaded by johngirard on 29.09.2009

Hello, my name is Dr. John Girard and I am the co-author of “A Leader’s Guide to
Knowledge Management: Drawing on the past to enhance future performance. Today I would
like to discuss the first chapter of the book, which is titled “Where Is the Knowledge?”
The title comes from a poem called The Rock, written by T.S. Elliot in 1935. In The Rock,
T.S. Elliot asked the following questions: Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The works of poet T.S. Elliot appear regularly in management books, even though he technically
was not a management guru. So why is it that so many of us turn to a poet rather than an
academic, corporate executive, or some other management pundit when we feel the need to
explain how knowledge is lost in organizations? Surely, a poet from another century is not
the leading authority on creating and exchanging enterprise knowledge.
T.S. Elliot’s frequent quotation is likely because he so eloquently stated what many
of us try to express to describe the environment in which we operate. His two lines from the
opening chorus of The Rock articulate the knowledge management dilemma. One would assume
the aim is to gain, not lose, wisdom and knowledge as managers ascend the cognitive hierarchy.
That said, it seems T.S. Elliot’s questions are more valid today than when they were scribed
so long ago. So let’s begin our exploration of knowledge
with an examination of the building blocks. Just as a mason must have a sound understanding
of his or her tools before building a magnificent structure, we must understand the bricks and
mortar of our structure. The bricks of our craft are knowledge and the glue that holds
this together is knowledge management, akin to our mortar. The focus of the first part
of this book is on how to build a solid foundation of knowledge upon which we will build organizational
memories. Some people may argue that there is no need
to learn this foundational material. We cannot imagine a mason constructing a cathedral without
understanding the different types of bricks and mortar that are at his or her disposal.
In the same way, the executive who is responsible for designing, implementing, and maintaining
organizational memories must strive for an absolute comprehension of the knowledge necessary
to manage this critical resource. Much as it is very difficult to repair the
foundation of a large building, it is very time-consuming and expensive to reengineer
the knowledge architecture of a poorly designed organizational memory system. In the construction
industry, there are strict building codes, often based on experience, to guide our actions.
In the knowledge industry, the codes are far less well defined. An implicit aim of this
book is to help steer you by providing some guiding principles. These principles are not
as explicit as the building codes, but they may go some way in aiding your construction
project. So do we really need to discuss knowledge
management and ideas such as dealing with organizational memory loss? We think the answer
is yes, but you can be the judge. The following is a real-world example of why this is important;
there are many others in the pages ahead. During an interview on CBS News on September
11th, 2006 New York Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief John Norman described the unfathomable
loss of life of the Department’s Special Operations Command five years earlier. On
that tragic day, September 11th, 2001, Special Operations Command lost 95 men—totaling
1600 years of experience. This is simply unimaginable when one considers
this specialized unit pioneered techniques for urban rescue and terrorist attacks. Surely,
it would be impossible to reconstitute the unique and vital knowledge of these brave
men. Norman’s team proved that they had plans in place to quickly rebuild their team
and once again become the best in the world. Five years later, the knowledge loss of the
team was virtually unnoticeable as the team responded to 50 calls. (Pitts, 2006)
We do not use this story to demean the heartbreaking loss of very brave men[scr1][JPG2], but rather
it is to commemorate the outstanding leadership, courage, and culture of a team that would
not give up. Fortunately, most organizations do not have to suffer the tragic loss that
Norman described, but perhaps we can learn from their tragedy. Virtually all organizations
must deal with organizational memory loss to varying degrees. Could your organization
rebuild from such devastation? What are you doing today to make sure the next generation
of leader is as well prepared as Deputy Fire Chief John Norman?
So What Is the Problem? To some degree, the problem is about Elliot’s
second line: Where is the knowledge that we have lost in information? Many managers seem
to be swamped by the quantity of information in their organizations. A recent KPMG knowledge
management study reported that two-thirds of the sample complained of information overload.
A second study determined that 38% of the surveyed managers waste a substantial amount
of time locating information and that 43% of the managers delayed decisions because
of too much information. A Gartner Research report suggests that a major driver of this
problem is distraction since many managers “dwell on information that is entertaining
but not informative, or easily available but not of high quality.” Add to that a June
2008 Business Week article that suggested 28% of an average U.S. worker’s day is wasted
dealing with these distractions, perhaps reducing productivity by $650 billion. A myriad of
other studies report similar disturbing findings that appear to be information related.
From these studies, one may deduce that managers suffer from information bombardment and yet
they seem to crave more information. This vicious cycle is caused because most of the
material available to these managers is unstructured and not of much value. In other words, these
managers are dealing with data or information instead of the sought after knowledge. Ironically,
the more information many managers receive, the more they yearn for even more information,
further compounding the crisis. However, what if that all changed and these overloaded managers
abandoned their quest for information and began an expedition for that elusive entity
entitled knowledge? Knowledge management is becoming the panacea
of the 21st century or so many organizational gurus would have you believe. Quarterly journal
articles add to the tomes on knowledge management; despite all of this material or perhaps because
of it, there appears to be absolute bewilderment over the meaning of the expression. Although
knowledge management is often the subject of boardroom discussions, business and government
leaders seldom understand the subject. Instinctively, they yearn for the ability to manage their
enterprise knowledge, whatever that is, without truly appreciating the potential benefits
or pitfalls of knowledge management. Professor Nonaka sugegsted, “In an economy
where the only certainty is uncertainty, the only sure source of lasting competitive advantage
is knowledge.” What a powerful idea, an idea that many of us embrace. But what does
this mean? How can we apply this powerful idea in a business environment? Equally important,
we would argue, are the factors that create this uncertainty such as globalization, deregulation,
technology, terrorism, the economy, downsizing, and information overload but we will talk
about that in the second part.
[scr1]Were all the firefighters who lost their lives men? If not, consider using gender-inclusive
language. [JPG2]They were all men