Does Knowledge Want To Be Managed?

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff, asapm President.

This posting was inspired during a trans-Atlantic air travel dialogue with a young lady whose job responsibilities include Knowledge Management in an alternative energy company. We explored, and brought together, a range of the relevant terms and disciplines involved with knowledge acquisition, assimilation, retention and application. Upon my return, and reflecting on the unresolved parts of our discussion, I scheduled an interview with Knowledge. This was more difficult than I thought, even though I had long-ago attributed traits of anthropomorphism to her. Finding Knowledge was easy. Getting dedicated time to interview her was the difficult part. Her? Of course, Knowledge is feminine in gender. Few men really understand more than Facts, the younger brother of Knowledge.

Our Interview with Knowledge
My first question was the title of this posting. She asserted that “No one ever asked me!” She expressed concerns that many of those purporting to “manage knowledge” do have some insights, but most do not understand the entire story. She pointed out that Knowledge is only one member of her large family of Intelligence, and some of her senior siblings are even less-understood than she. And, she asserted her deep concern that there are whole industries, educational systems, software support, and even certifications based on just her part of her family. While some, such as Peter Senge, come close to deep understanding, many of his followers only grasp the obvious parts. And, especially disconcerting to Knowledge was her belief that man has had few new insights about her for several thousand years, since the illuminations in China, India, Greece and Egypt. The interview, while wide-ranging and deep in content, was a firehose blast of perspective, all absorbed in a 5 second interview. Ms. Knowledge had other pressing commitments elsewhere.

The Taxonomy of Data
The interview led me to reflect on my own journey toward Knowledge and the rest of her family many years ago. In the late 1970s I performed presentations to various professional groups. One of my favorite presentations, especially for groups involving data and information systems, was The Taxonomy of Data. I did not invent the concept; undoubtedly I had read something in the mid ’70s that inspired me. And, I recently saw something our dear friend Max Wideman had written on the subject—but I have not been able to track it down again.

The presentation (recalling a now-30+ year old memory) starts with Data: Common as the sands on the beach and in the oceans. Data has potential value, because similar to the art glass of Murano (near Venice) it begins with a common material, then goes through a morphing process to produce a thing of beauty and wonder. We morph Data to derive Information. Part of the role of computer systems (as I said then) is to compile, select, sequence and present Data to targeted audiences, such that it becomes useful Information. Information is a higher level of abstraction (and combination) of related basic components. With Information, plus other inputs, people can make decisions. Better Information results in better decisions.

But there are more steps in the sequence. Decisions rely on more than just Information. There are actions required to bridge the gap. Information is external to the decision-maker: You read it, hear it, see words, charts, and numbers. All in the quest to internalize that Information: Establishing or increasing Knowledge. And, different people respond to different methods of presentation. There is also an acceleration factor that is evident. If the decision-maker has prior Knowledge, and the new Information can be related to that Knowledge, it is easier to quickly assimilate the Information. If not, it takes longer to build the “tags,” the indices that help in retrieving, comparing and acting upon the Knowledge. And yet, even with the presence of accumulated Knowledge, there is still something missing in effective Decision Making.

In my interview with Knowledge, she asserted that one of the eldest in her Intelligence family is the least understood. Different civilizations over the millennia labeled her with different names, but the ultimate extent of the Taxonomy of Data, as currently understood, could be labeled Wisdom. And how does Knowledge contribute to Wisdom? This clearly involves mastering the external-to-internal transition, correlating new Knowledge with existing Knowledge, and then applying it. Following that, applying judgement (thanks to Larry Prusak for this key step); reviewing how this new insight works in a given situation, and then adjusting and applying it all again. Note that as we move from Data, to Information, to Knowledge, to Wisdom, we see increasingly higher levels of cognitive behavior, as measured by Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning (the 2001 update is more-applicable for adult learners).

The Performance Progression
The above offers a foundation in the creation of knowledge—and beyond. And in truth, this is not really just a taxonomy, or classification system, but a progression, isn’t it! But we have called it a taxonomy for over 30 years. So how does this relate to PM Certification? And how does this reflect asapm’s and IPMA’s focus on progressing from the above-mentioned Knowledge to advanced, professionally assessed Performance Competence? This time the answer is one that applies a systematic, traceable, coachable, assessable progression. Now that we are aware of the senior siblings in Ms. Knowledge’s Intelligence Family, how does one move from basic Knowledge, to Competence, to Performance?

When my company (ProjectExperts) developed a PM Competency Model in the early 1980s, we described a progression towards what we then called PM Effectiveness, and now call PM Performance. It begins with Knowledge, and her attributes. Already, we are near the top levels of the Taxonomy of Data described above. Knowledge is an essential beginning point, because she relates and organizes external information into potentially useful intelligence. Yet there must be more. As we have said many times, Knowledge is like Potential Energy (remember your Physics? By itself, Potential Energy accomplishes nothing). And, Knowledge can have a very short half-life. We have said for years that Knowledge acquired, but not used, has a half-life of six weeks. We recently found that we have been wrong: The current research says two weeks.

When you apply Knowledge, you are introduced to her big sister, Skill. Skill is like Kinetic Energy: She accomplishes things. Skill has a longer half-life, but is harder to claim. She is also harder to assess. One key to sustaining Skill is recognition, which reinforces your commitment to keep her closeby. Thus, the next-higher level in the progression, the reinforcing Attitudes. Here we see a key role of managers, who recognize and reward a practitioner’s application of classroom-based or other learning. The three ASK sisters (Attitudes, Skill, Knowledge), are are well-known in instructional design, competence development, and performance assessment. But there are progression steps that are missing, and these are crucial steps in any organization’s PM Performance—beginning with Behavioral and other Interpersonal, Skills.

The diagram to the right looks similar to the one we showed above. One item is the same, and others are different. You can see that Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes, mentioned above, are part of the Progression to Performance. But look closely at the Attitudes item. Your Behavioral and Interpersonal Skills, which we group as Attributes, are also an essential part of the progression. During the 1980s, most organizations did not wish to engage this key ingredient, preferring to focus on technical PM Knowledge. Today, seemingly everyone is realizing that how you relate to your stakeholders has more impact in project and program success than all the technical PM factors combined. So because of the symbiotic relationship between reinforcing Attitudes and the Behavioral Attributes, we combine them in the Knowledge-to-Performance Progression. And I hear you asking, “are we there yet?”

Not quite. Knowledge, Skills, Attitudes & Attributes, when appropriately applied, can result in what we call Competence. This does not necessarily happen the first time you try it; but it can result from multiple experiences. Given multiple opportunities, and the resulting experiences, you move toward the next level of the progression, Competence. And, this progression is still not-yet complete.

Inputs Versus Outputs: All the above members of the Intelligence Family, including those we discussed in the Taxonomy, and those from this Progression, are merely inputs. They are the ingredients. Inputs or ingredients of what, you ask? They are the inputs to the success Executives, Managers, and other Project Stakeholders seek. They are the means to an end. Certainly they are important, indeed essential, yet what our stakeholders really want is the outcome: Performance. Results. Success. Thus, all training, all coaching, all certifications, all tools, all processes, all other inputs, that do not contribute to Success, are dispensable. Even worthless, when they do not contribute to success, or when they actually detract from it (as too often happens). This Output, or Performance orientation is a theme throughout our asapm initiatives, from our Advanced PM Certifications to our Assessment and Certification of Organizations, using aPRO: asapm Performance Rated Organization.

One Combined Intelligence Progression
So now, dear reader, we have moved from the outrageous (an interview with Knowledge) to irreverent (suggesting that most of the members of the family to which Knowledge belongs are mere inputs, or ingredients). How far, you wonder, will he go, to offend everyone equally? OK, here goes. These are not two separate frameworks, but different viewers’ perspectives of one Intelligence Progression. Don’t worry: Ms. Knowledge’s place in the progression is secure, because she appears in both frameworks, and is essential in each. But, let us put the two frameworks together, so we can see how they support each other, and interact. Review the new progression below, and note that Knowledge is a higher-end player in the Taxonomy stream and the entry player in the Performance Progression. Note also a new assertion: That Wisdom and Competence are closely-related; perhaps they are even the same; or at least twins.

The implications: Knowledge Management is an important part of every organization’s success. But the right selection of Knowledge requires application, needs reinforcement and rewards, demands re-use (an oft-missed attribute); seeks adaptation, improves with each opportunity of use, and most-importantly, is used not just for the sake of use, but for the increasingly improved outcome your organization seeks. Everything you do in PM training, learning (often two different actions), certifications, decision-making and other support, that does not achieve organization success contributes to Ms. Knowledge’s frustrations. Not to mention the ongoing disappointment of the enterprise in this discipline we call Project Management. Here is another insight in the Intelligence Progression: The lower path moves from outside self to deeper inside. The upper path leads from inside to increasingly visible and outside. Want evidence? The arrowhead wraps around, and Performance is measured by… Data.

Relevance to the asapm Cause
We in asapm have understood the above-described Performance Progression from our founding; indeed, advancing our practice and its results was part of our original goals. We joined IPMA because we saw that this Global Federation of PM societies not only understands the relationship between the progression steps, but has established a way—far beyond exams—to assess the penultimate achievement: PM Competence, across 46 Elements of PM success. Are there more, undiscovered steps that will add to this Intelligence Progression? Time will tell.

As to the original question, whether Knowledge wants to be managed, we all understand that Knowledge, first of all, wants to be free. But part of that freedom is to enjoy her useful and proper place in the Family of Intelligence, contributing where she does the most good. And now, based on our air travel dialogue, our insights from our interview with Knowledge, and our reflection on formerly disconnected models, we have good news. The good news for the advancement of PM is that now, there is a discipline, populated by passionate professionals and experts, of Knowledge Management. The practitioners do not yet have all the answers, but they do now have most of the questions. With their assistance, and with the help of others, everyone who wishes to do so can move up the Intelligence Progression. This is a win for all, don’t you think?

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