Going Back to Dave Snowden’s Seven KM Principles

In June this year I attended the International Conference on Knowledge Management (ICKM) 2022 which conveniently took place in Potsdam, right around the corner of my current home base Berlin. One of the highlights was the key note speech of David Snowden. David is of course always a treat to listen to, but in his speech intro, he once again summarized so succinctly some of the key aspects of what KM is all about, that I wanted to re-state them for myself. So here are his gold nuggets:

1. Knowledge can only be volunteered, it cannot be conscripted

The sharing of knowledge is inherently a human behavior. Yet it only happens when we are intrinsically invested in the positive impact that the sharing of our knowledge has on the receiving end (because we want to help, because we get nice feedback, because we want to build relationship, because it might help ourselves in the future, etc.). If we are told by someone else that we must share a particular knowledge, there is automatically a loss of quality, because we have no actual stake in the outcome of the knowledge sharing process. So the piece of knowledge that is shared is of lower quality, which inevitably leads to lower adoption and ultimately to lower impact (or no impact at all). This is maybe the most important KM principle of all, yet organizations unfortunately ignore it all the time when they create mandatory knowledge transfer processes, databases of lessons learned or force individuals into regulated knowledge exchange formats and groups. Instead, we must work with the intrinsic motivation of people to be of help to others, to achieve impact, to get acknowledged as experts, get elevated in their status or be rewarded for the good work they do.

2. We only know what we know when we need to know it.

The effort to document every bit of knowledge in advance is a huge waste of resources. The reason is that it is impossible to know ahead of time which parts of all our potential knowledge will be actually useful to someone else in a specific situation. “With high abstraction and high codification, you get rapid diffusion, yet the knowledge remains superficial. With low abstraction and low codification, diffusion becomes difficult, but the knowledge is actually denser.” And whether we can afford to go the path of low abstraction depends on the context one is in. In a specialized group with experts in a topic, another expert can convey more deep knowledge in 2 min than what he could communicate in 6 min to a laymen’s group, because there is a common reference based and a common knowledge around the topic. That’s why silos exist in the first place. Because it is more economic (in terms of effort) to focus on knowledge transfer just within silos. One way then to handle knowledge transfer across silos then is either through metatdata (so people can find things without having to know the professional lingo). The other way is to foster the emergence of informal communities, which leads us to the next principle.

3. In the context of real need few people will withhold their knowledge.

Which is why we have to be careful in formalizing and putting mandatory elements around communities. We don’t create healthy communities by building formal constructs in which networking must happen in this or that way. We must stimulate the formation of informal communities, and those informal communities which stabilize we then re-enforce so they can thrive. So we shouldn’t create a predefined set of Community of Practice from scratch, because the energy cost to do so is massive. We instead stimulate the environment to see what gets traction and then we enforce and put boundaries in place and invest more energy in to it in order give them the institutional support they need.

4. Everything is fragmented.

One of the reasons social media works is because it is fragmented. People like to share anecdotes and snippets. “The human brain evolved to handle fragments and put them together, not to process structured information.” This is how we humans share knowledge, at the fire place, at the dinner table, at the coffee machine. And “a cluster of such anecdotes is more valuable than a structured document”. We must keep this in mind when we encounter tendencies to overly rely on explicit knowledge encoded in formal documents. Formal documents, while not without merit in specific situations, are not what is best suited to diffuse knowledge. We think and communicate primarily in fragmented anecdotes and snippets, so we need to foster environments where such knowledge fragments can live and promulgate.

5. Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success.

“All the stories we tell children as learning stories around the world are stories of failure, not success.” It’s never ‘Hansel and Gretel had a plan, went into the woods and know how to get out of it.’ No, its ‘Hansel and Gretel got lost in the woods and imprisoned by the witch, and had to learn on the fly how to rectify their mistake.’ The human brain picks up failure faster than success, because avoidance of failure is a more successful strategy than the imitation of success. We should build worst practices, not best practices (which might include fictional stories as well as real-life stories). The principle of loss aversion popularized by David Kahneman shows us that humans are biased to value the avoidance of pain multiple times higher than the prospect of gain. We have to work with that bias in KM as well.

6. The way we know things is rarely the same as the way we report we know things

We should capture learning as the learning happens, because a few hours later, we remember the learning already differently. “If we do a project retrospective, people who fail in a project will remember the past completely differently than people who succeed in a project. We adjust our memory to conform with the reality of the present”. That is important to know, because so much in KM relies on retroactive reporting, which is almost certainly wrong and will not repeat itself in the same way. The answer to this is again the fostering of informal communities, in which experiences can be talked about and are reflected upon in real-time.

7. We always know more than we can say, and we can always say more than we can write down.

There is always a great loss of content and a loss of context when transferring knowledge. It is much easier to capture a narrative and re-use a narrative e.g. in a best practice document than to improvise solutions when the situation and context changes. That doesn’t mean that best (or good) practice documents can’t be helpful in certain situations. But we must not delude ourselves into thinking this is the essence of knowledge. The essence most likely got lost along the way, and we need to find complementary formats and channels through which the essence of our experiences is shared. This is again a warning of the overreliance on encoded knowledge in documents.

I always find it helpful to re-phrase and document (ha, the irony!) such pointers for me once in a while, so I can go back to them again and again to remind myself of what not to lose sight of. No matter where we are in our professional journey, it is always useful to hone the basics, lest we get overconfident and complacent. I hope it is helpful to you too.


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