If We Can’t Even Describe Knowledge Sharing, How Can We Support It?

A combination of two very different incidents reminded me this week of just how incompetent we still are in KM at capturing the complexity, richness and sophistication of human knowledge behaviours. In the first incident I was asked to do a blind review of an academic paper on knowledge sharing for a KM conference. In the second, knowledge sharing was very much a matter of life and death. Although they shared a common theme, they might as well have represented alien universes.

Let’s look at the conference paper first. After working my way through the literature review (a necessary evil), I started into the research proposal with my stomach starting to knot up and a growing sense of incredulity.

Although the authors had adopted Davenport & Prusak’s perfectly respectable definition of knowledge as a “fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information, and expert insight” it was becoming increasingly apparent as I worked my way into the paper that what they really meant by “knowledge sharing” was confined to contributing to and consuming from an online KM system. The research being described was designed to identify the factors that would indicate propensity for or against said behaviours. A knowledge sharing system that could, theoretically, be engineered.

Shame on them. After a good decade of practical effort and research focused on KM, how can people still think so mechanically and bloodlessly? I have ranted about this before in an article called “The Autism of Knowledge Management”, but this red rag apparently still outrages me.

If the authors’ earlier acknowledgement of the complexity of knowledge wasn’t enough to shame them, it’s not as if there isn’t research on the complexity and range of dimensions affecting knowledge sharing, from Gabriel Szulanski on technical aspects of effective knowledge transfer, to Gary Klein’s work on cognitive aspects of knowledge sharing, and Atul Gawande’s wonderful book Complications illustrating the affective dimension of learning and sharing. All unacknowledged. Presumably not relevant to “KM systems”.

Perhaps this minor annoyance primed me for the second incident.

A good friend of mine has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. At dinner last week he shared with me how he’d been carefully stepped through a series of rituals of knowledge disclosure over the course of a couple of weeks: from the doctor who diagnosed him (“he was very uncomfortable” ) to the specialist who discussed prognosis and treatment (“he had an intern with him, so most of the time I felt like a lab rat” ) to the social worker who asked about his circumstances and talked about support (“she was very good, she was very practical and made me feel human” ), to the medical worker who donned a mask on seeing him (“I’m not infectious, she should know better” ), to the support group counsellor who gave tips from experience on the practice of staying healthy, and how to get effective treatment at minimal cost (“I learnt the stuff that nobody else could tell me” ).

As my friend described this process, I realised that there is nothing like a life threatening illness if you want to expose the dynamics and variety of knowledge sharing behaviours, motivations and drivers. My friend’s journey had become a series of encounters with intersecting knowledge worlds, where all he could think about was how to learn as quickly and as accurately as he could about his condition and about his future prospects. The diagram below tries to capture this.


Most of his interlocutors were sharing with him professionally. The doctor, specialist and social worker all have specialist domains of knowledge, but they are not really sharing those domains in the forms that they know them. They are translating what they know into terms that my friend, as their patient, needs to focus on. They will be translating professional jargon into “normal” language, and communicating the things that he needs to know to guide his next actions and decisions. For all this to happen, they also need to share information at a simple transactional level with each other (ie the doctor needs to transfer case notes to the specialist and the social worker, and keep track of progress).

Meanwhile, the normal knowledge and learning world of the medical profession continues apace: the consultant is simultaneously teaching his intern how to recognise the visual and tactile cues of the illness – cognitive work rather than informational work. This sharing is important to my friend in a general sense(because if consultants didn’t do that, there wouldn’t be enough specialists to treat my friend), but it doesn’t help his trust and comfort levels, especially when the sharing with the intern seems to take precedence over the different kind of sharing with him.

The counsellor is outside the “professional” knowledge sharing domain, but brings the element of “practice” to the sharing. He’s sharing voluntarily, as a way of supporting sufferers and connecting them to each other so that the experience of (and strategies for) coping with the illness can be shared and alleviated. This is much closer to the kind of sharing you’d find in a community of practice, and it’s very focused on informal but important knowledge about being a sufferer, the kind of thing that never really gets documented.

And behind all this of course, my friend was surfing the Net, trying to find out as much as he could about his illness, and trying to discriminate between the authoritative and the speculative. In the Net of course, we see “sharing in general” the simple act of making information and knowledge available to the world at large, for whatever purpose, and for a variety of motives. He believes that this background knowledge, together with the practical tips he gets from the counsellor, are very important to him in being able to ask the right questions when he meets the specialist “professional” knowers, so that he can guide their sharing in the direction he wants and needs. Right now, he feels very much at their mercy.

So what did I learn from this about knowledge sharing? A few small but important things: