BUSINESS N ARRATIVE
STEVE D ENNING
Making Sense of the Knowledge Era
13 Myths of Knowledge Management
I was recently invited to a conference where participants were asked to write a paper addressing the question, “Why aren’t knowledge-based organizations a reality?” This question was said by the organizers to be based on the premise that“knowledge production and mobilization (are) the raison d'être for organizations, explain how competitive advantage flows from the creation, ownership and management of knowledge assets, and champion the transformation of social capital into intellectual capital.” Everyone was asked to write a paper. So I decided to address their question directly. My hypothesis was that the prevalence of some mythssurrounding knowledge and knowledge management not only prevent knowledge-based organizations from becoming the reality that was promised but also tend to get in the way of effective discussion of the issues. I use “myth” in the sense of “a fiction or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an ideology.” I advanced my hypothesis in the spirit of the organizers to “think out loud,” and “float atrial balloon”, as well as to “build links between ideas.” I was thinking that if I was proven to be wrong, then at least I would have stirred up debate in a domain that in recent years has been more somnolent than exciting.
Some prevalent myths about KM
A. The nature of knowledge 1. “Knowledge is always a plus”
It’s true that knowledge is generally a plus when the firm is doing “more of thesame”, but is it so, when it comes to transformational innovation? In disruptive innovation, knowledge is often a handicap. The people who know how things are done around here, the official experts, generally know why disruptive innovation won’t work. They have market research, studies showing the technology isn’t proven, that necessary competencies are lacking. And what do the innovators have?
©Copyright Steve Denning 2006 www.stevedenning.com
BUSINESS N ARRATIVE
STEVE D ENNING
A mere dream of how the world could be different: for instance, a world in which hundreds of millions of people might fall in love with an iPod. This wasn’t knowledge. It was a hunch, a surmise, a guess by Steve Jobs. In disruptiveinnovation, knowledge can be a barrier, not an asset.
2. “Knowledge is sticky”
Many writings dwell on how hard it is to transfer knowledge: knowledge is sticky. Yet John Seely Brown showed this is also a half-truth. The paradox is that knowledge is not only sticky: it’s also very leaky, particularly high-value knowledge. In fact, high value knowledge tends to fly out the door at the speed of light, asXerox PARC found.1 It’s often low-value knowledge that is sticky – with peons hanging on to their little piece of knowhow in the hope that it might give them job tenure for just a few more hours. Meanwhile high-value knowledge flies out the door, often because the management isn’t listening and doesn’t realize what riches it has.
3. “The concept of knowledge is infinitely extendable”
When Iwas at school, knowledge was “true, justified, belief.” Then Michael Polanyi told us about tacit knowledge. More recently, the KM literature tends to include in knowledge, insights, hunches, surmises, educated bets, business models, strategies, scenarios, whatever. Do we know what is knowledge? In fact there seem to be at least four very different concepts of knowledge floating around. A. Classicphilosophy: Knowledge is justified, true, belief. In mainstream Anglo-Saxon philosophy, knowledge is generally taken to be some variation on: “justified, true belief.” This view stems from Part 3 of Plato’s dialogue, Theaetetus. Thus something is knowledge if it is believed, true and if the person is able to “give an account” i.e. can justify it. Various refinements and nuances (e.g. Gettier...