Vices and Virtues in Knowledge Management


The other day Dave Snowden asked via his blog for ideas on what would constitute Sin in knowledge management, for a presentation he was about to give at a conference. We had two hours to respond, and several did, a testimony to the speed afforded by the internet, and perhaps also to the eagerness with which we sit awaiting the latest gems from The Dave.

Tasty, I thought, and being Catholic, immediately thought of the Seven Deadly Sins. Being more versed in the practice than the theory, I scurried over to wikipedia and refreshed my memory, and I wrote on Dave’s blog:


Lust - insisting on “best of breed” solutions with all the bells and whistles simply because someone some day might conceive of a way to use it – when all you really need are three simple tools to do a handful of straightforward things

Gluttony – trademarking a successful intervention in one context in one organisation and turning it into a worldwide consulting crusade tied to you and you alone

Avarice – imagining that you can capture all your organisation’s knowledge into a single knowledge repository

Sloth – hiring consultants in the expectation that they will figure out your problems and solve them all for you with minimal (preferably no) involvement and effort from you or your company’s management team

Wrath – making a business of elevating your stature and selling your services by knocking other people down and decrying other methods

Envy – looking at what other people are doing in KM and imagining that you can do KM simply by going through imitative motions – aka benchmarking to best practices

Pride – in CoPs in consulting and in facilitation thinking you know what’s best for a community and making unilateral decisions based on your power status

Gratifyingly, Dave liked and used my vices – and has blogged his whole presentation here. Another of Dave’s helpful commenters reminded me of Fahey and Prusak’s excellent 1998 article “Eleven Deadliest Sins of Knowledge Management”.


But then I got to thinking, maybe we’re being overly negative here. What about the Seven Cardinal Virtues? Surely there are KM virtues as well? So here goes (thanks to wikipedia again):

Chastity (opposes Lust) – 
taking the time to educate yourself on the technology environment and current possibilities, learning how to specify your technology needs in a way that is closely geared to your business needs, and buying to suit those needs, investing prudently so that you have the capacity to change when your needs change

Abstinence (opposes Gluttony) – refusing to get carried away by fads, and deploying strategies, methods and tactics only to the extent that they meet your needs and deliver value

Liberality (opposes Avarice) – accepting that a large part of the knowledge value in an organization is based on the free flow of tacit knowledge which may not be codifiable, and creating environments where this can happen without pressure, creating the possibilities of sharing, but then stepping back and trusting employees to share

Diligence (opposes Sloth) – being prepared to resource KM with 
suitably qualified staff, and devote regular management time, attention and resources to KM efforts

Patience (opposes Wrath) – understanding that KM is a new discipline, that there is no clear right and wrong in many areas of KM practice, and that trial and error is to be expected along the way; being prepared to listen to different perspectives, take failures as a learning experience, pick yourself up and move on again

Charity (opposes Envy) – engaging with your peers in KM in other organizations and sharing openly with them, seeking to learn from their experiences by understanding their contexts and needs; being open about seeking advice without giving up the responsibility for making your own decisions based on your organisation’s unique needs

Humility (opposes Pride) – accepting that KM is a collective effort and does not solely depend on a single person’s contribution (eg yours); that it needs to be sustainable beyond your tenure as knowledge manager, has an ethic of openness; that you will probably be wrong some of the time, and that the whole thing is not just about you (sorry folks)

My colleague Paolina, I am sure, will be happy. She’s been trying to convince us that humility is important in KM for several months (her posts and comments are here and here and here and here).

4 Comments so far

Dave Snowden

Great addition Patrick
The sins were very interesting and I put them in intact, you might want to link to this with a comment
However I think you are better on Sin, and Paolina should explain how she combines humility with her support of process control grin

Posted on June 29, 2007 at 10:45 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Yes, the sins are definitely much easier Dave… I’m sure Paolina will respond in her own inimitable way smile

Posted on June 29, 2007 at 11:03 AM | Comment permalink

Paolina Martin

Dave, I was wondering if you were serious about requiring an explanation. Tsk, tsk...humility and process control is easy -

Manager: I know I don’t know it all, so if everyone does it the way I think it ought to be, we can all share the blame.

Process workers: We acknowledge we are all ignoramuses (American read goofballs) so let’s just do it the way he wants it and no one will notice.

Did you not learn that in Poorcess Control 101?

Posted on July 03, 2007 at 11:28 AM | Comment permalink

Dave Snowden

Ah, so humility=ignorance and process control means handling ignorance by giving into the simplistic rather than attempting to understand (and take responsibility) for the sophisticated?


Posted on July 03, 2007 at 01:26 PM | Comment permalink

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