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:

Needless to say, none of these issues were represented in the conference paper I reviewed, which paints a sorry picture for how KM as a discipline can support the needs of people who really need knowledge sharing. Put another way, quite apart from the abysmal autism of the conference paper, none of what I discovered about knowledge sharing is of any use to my friend. KM is utterly irrelevant to him. Only when knowledge management can help people with real needs and make their process of discovery easier, then can it claim to be a useful, practical discipline. If we can’t even describe knowledge sharing, how can we claim to support it?

10 Comments so far

Earl Moore

About your bullet point

“Knowledge sharing is not simply about transmit-receive transactions: even when there is a prime receiver in an asymmetric relationship, the receiver can shape and guide the sharing based on what he/she already knows”

Not only can a receiver shape and guide the sharing but they will also be a primary guiding factor in what exactly is shared, or at least in what the final results or conclusions of the sharing will be.  Even if the transmitter is presenting the same information, two different receivers are likely to reach two different knowledge exchange results. It goes with your other points about not operating in a vaccuum and being highly influenced by other factors. Each knowledge exchange is likely to be unique in some way or the other.

Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking read.

Posted on June 02, 2006 at 10:57 PM | Comment permalink

Dr. Mohamed Taher

Hi. Greetings.
KM always needs sharing.
We capture, we organize and we share. And, you got it right.

Thanks to Nancy’s <a href=http://www.fullcirc.com/weblog/onfacblog.htm>Full Circle</a>. I saw your blog described by Nancy, June 02, 2006. By the way, every week I cross Nancy’s path and thence we simply share knowledge across blogosphere boundaries.

Wondering, if you would permit me to reproduce the diagram on my blog’s latest post: Knowledge Management Applications in Multifaith & / or Multicultural Transactions Revisited.

And, would appreciate if you would leave your visual signature on my blog.
Peace. Mohamed

Posted on June 03, 2006 at 01:50 PM | Comment permalink


Hi Earl, Mohamed

Thanks for your comments and feedback. Mohamed, you’re welcome to post the diagram on your blog. What do you mean by a visual signature? smile How do I do that?



Posted on June 03, 2006 at 02:49 PM | Comment permalink

Dr. Mohamed Taher

Thanks Patrick.
I wanted you to visit my blog and leave your comment (your comement if signed as a registered blogger, not anon. I mean), leaves a visual signature.
I will upload your diagram, asap.
best, Mohamed

Posted on June 03, 2006 at 09:33 PM | Comment permalink

Hal Richman


I would like to offer some additional thoughts to build into your model.

Physicians are often taught to “dumb down” information to make it presentable. They are often constrained by time to host these discussions, even if they would like to. In a recent series of interviews and focus groups we ran on end of life the consistent message was they are simply out of time to deal with this.

Evidenced based medical practice is often distorted into quoting the most recent articles or findings without respect to placing this knowledge in context - What is the scope and depth of the knowledge? How extensible is the knowledge? And what does this mean to the patient?

In most medical practice there is a state of “now knowing” rather than having a predictable set of algorithms. Physicians are loathe to admit this and often materially misrepresent knowledge and practice as coming from a deity. When you expose this for what it is, the patient needs to make decisions under uncertainty and come to terms to how they wish to deal with risk.

With the best of regards from Nova Scotia, Canada

Hal Richman

Posted on June 04, 2006 at 01:11 AM | Comment permalink


Hi Mohamed, I think I’ve succeeded in making my visit and leaving my mark smile Thanks for posting this, I was interested by Joelog’s suggestion about thinking about the factors affectibg wisdom of crowds.

Lots to think about in Hal’s observations too. Over at Nancy White’s weblog, it struck me also how serendipity and synchronicity play a part in knowledge sharing. This topic is growing, needs more reflection!



Posted on June 04, 2006 at 11:16 AM | Comment permalink

Dr. Mohamed Taher

Thanks Patrick.
I just responded to your comment on my blog. In my comment, I have an humble suggestion (or 2 cents worth), for your creative visualization.

My suggestion, is about probing and growing further, either horizontally or vertically.

Best, Mohamed

Posted on June 04, 2006 at 11:48 AM | Comment permalink

Awie Foong

Hi Patrick,

I’m a final year PhD student at the National University of Singapore. I like your description (rather than definition) on knowledge sharing. And I’m excited to share the following thoughts with you.

You’re right about the confusion and sometimes simplification of knowledge sharing in KM literatures. It’s common to put the two concepts together, but in reality KM & KS are very different in context. KM is often seen as a formal, deliberate organizational effort to better exploit what the firm (its people) knows. KS is an essential part of KM, but KS is more than that. It’s a fact of life. KS takes place in an organization everyday. Almost everyone share knowledge with someone at work everyday. When KS is described in the context of KM, many of these informal, contextual activities will be simplified.

Knowledge is shared for various reasons, some of which you have mentioned. Knowledge is also hoarded for various reasons. I’d like to see such behaviors as a mean to fulfill the individuals fundamental motives. Individuals share or hoard knowledge, under different contexts, in order to fulfill their various fundamental motives (see Steven Reiss’s “Who Am I: The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Actions and Define Our Personalities").

If you are interested in this issue, I hope we can discuss it again. Drop me a mail if you wish.

Keep uo the fine work.


Posted on June 25, 2006 at 05:03 PM | Comment permalink


Hi Awie

This topic has been turning around in my brain for some weeks now, and the whole subject of motivation is a very interesting one… as you say, the counterpoint (though not necessarily the opposite) of sharing is hoarding, and this also needs effective description. We should talk!


Posted on June 26, 2006 at 07:33 PM | Comment permalink

Dr. Mohamed Taher

Hi Patrick
I have a new blog for quotations. Today I have one with a title (that which is a passion for us), i.e., Knowledge Sharing. I have cited you for much more....
Best, Mohamed

Posted on June 30, 2006 at 12:04 AM | Comment permalink

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