How many collaborators does it take to change a light bulb?
I was just visiting with a client and we had a long discussion about the benefits of collaboration in KM.
In KM circles, knowledge is often defined as either explicit (defined as knowledge that is codified and written down) or tacit (defined as “know-how,” and thus hard to write down and transfer to others). Some KM practitioners go so far as to claim that explicit knowledge isn’t really knowledge, but simply “information.”
KM practitioners who emphasize tacit knowledge tend to focus on collaboration and knowledge transfer via social interactions. This leaves books or other written materials out of the KM equation—and I believe that’s dangerous.
I do believe that collaboration is important and critical for KM, but I also believe explicit knowledge is a critical part of your KM ecosystem.
Knowing how to ride a bike usually falls into the category of tactic knowledge. We assume the skill of bike riding is know-how; it cannot be written down. We assume you need someone to teach you; you just can’t learn it from a book. Most of us learned to ride a bike by having a parent teach us, and with lots of practice. Let’s dig a little deeper into these assumptions.
I taught both of my children to ride a bike, and neither ever fell down. This is NOT because I am a genius and have some special tacit knowledge that I passed on to my children—but rather because I used a method that can be written down and followed. I am in essence claiming that learning how to ride a bike relies on explicit knowledge (which is different from knowing how to ride a bike).
Here is the method:
- Preparation: You have a normal bike (no training wheels), fitted to the trainee (person learning to ride).
- Step 1: Remove the pedals from the bike. (You can also use an expensive “Balance Bike” built without pedals. Like this one from Strider (http://www.striderbike.co.uk).
- Step 2: Find a very gentle downhill slope. Have the trainee place their feet on the side of the bike but off the ground. Push the balance bike forward. Try and coast the balance bike several feet. When the bike begins to tilt over, have the trainee stop the bike and stop it from falling over with their feet.
- Step 3: Repeat Step 2 many, many times, increasing the distance of the coast until the trainee can coast about 30 feet.
Note: They have now mastered the critical skill in bike riding—being able to balance yourself on the bike.
- Step 4: Put the pedals back on the bike. (If you have used a Balance Bike for the above steps, you will now need a real bike.)
- Step 5: Have the trainee sit on the bike with their feet on the pedals. Push the bike and have them repeat the success of their longest coast from Step 3. But at the ¾ point of the coast have the trainee pedal the bike to keep it moving. Make sure you have arranged a place to stop the bike and get off safely.
- Step 6: Repeat Step 5 many times, pedaling longer and longer distances.
Result: The trainee can now ride a bike.
So is riding a bike “know-how?” Yes, clearly the skill of being balanced on a bike is in your head and cannot be written down or easily transferred to others. But the ability to learn this skill can be written down, and can be followed so that others can learn it.
So, let’s circle back to the subtitle—“How many collaborators does it take to change a light bulb?” If instructions are written down—not many. If they’re not written down, it could take several, as various attempts run into difficulties, such as: the light bulb is broken because it is gripped too hard, the person receives a nasty shock when exploring the socket, etc.
I believe that KM systems must support both collaboration (knowledge transfer from person to person) and the ability to document and codify key knowledge (knowledge transfer from systems to people).
What do you think? Does your knowledge system support both collaboration and knowledge lookup?