Knowledge management is far too abstract. Not only does it neglect the concrete, natural ways we use information and knowledge, it over-simplifies the infinitely subtle and sophisticated ways we play with information and knowledge in natural settings. So we make our crude distinctions between tacit and explicit knowledge, or between data, information and knowledge.

And we treat everything as if it’s something that happens in the head, or between heads and heads (involving soundwaves) or heads and text in various forms. Specifically, I don’t see us anywhere talking about the importance of touch. This is not unique to knowledge management – it’s true of management science in general. “Touch” is as crudely understood as knowledge is, notwithstanding the equally subtle and sophisticated ways that we use touch socially. In fact, it’s largely avoided; the role of a bureaucratic organization is to inhibit touch as far as it is possible to do so while still working with humans.

We are, for example, much more comfortable thinking and talking about touching things (to control them), than we are about touching people. Touch screens, touch pads, excite our enthusiasm. Talking about touching our colleagues is deemed improper, inappropriate even.

But we touch each other all the time, within the boundaries of our cultural, religious and instinctive rituals and rules around touch. There’s the playful tap when scolding someone half-seriously. The hand on the shoulder when sharing something, or on the arm to get someone’s attention in a crowd, or to convey assurance. The comforting hug when something terrible happens. The awkward embraces at farewells. The ritual handshakes at introductions and to signify agreement.

The renowned author Paolo Coelho keynoted recently at the Digital Life Design conference in Germany. Several bloggers have picked up on his revelation about how he increased the sales of his books by providing support for piracy of his editions. But nobody I’ve seen picked up on a more interesting story he told towards the end of his speech.

Every year he holds a party for his friends. Being very active on social networking sites online, he decided to invite ten of his online “friends” who were his readers, so he issued an invitation to the first ten respondents via his MySpace page.

His party was in the middle of nowhere in Spain, so he was shocked the next day to find that he’d had replies from Venezuela, Japan, UK and other far-flung places. He wrote a clarification to let them know he was only inviting them to his party, and wouldn’t be paying for their travel and accommodation. They all wrote back and said they understood that, but would still like to come. In fact, some asked whether they could bring their families. And they turned up.

Coelho opened his keynote by saying “we only do business with people we like” and this is why any serious agreement needs eye contact – that interesting precursor and reinforcer of touch. He ended his party tale by talking in very concrete terms about the meaning of this event for him. “This human contact, regardless of whether you sell 100 million copies, where you don’t have eye contact, so it becomes an abstraction, this [human contact] is basic, and this is the blessing of the internet.”

Coelho does not talk directly about touch, but I am sure that he and his guests touched each other as part of that ritual of meeting and celebrating – this too is part of the “basic human contact” that establishes and maintains relationships of trust.

So I’m convinced that touch – and regular touch – is an essential element in growing and expressing trust and assurance. In the multi-initiative field of KM, where we are messing with the way people have organized their work and their information and knowledge flows, with their relationships and sharing patterns, in this field trust and assurance – it seems to me – are critical.

So why don’t we talk about touch, when we talk about change management and KM communications? And why do organisations insist on believing they can completely remove face to face meetings – basic human contact – from their virtual teams and communities of practice once they have put collaboration infrastructure in place?

13 Comments so far

coleman yee

Touch can also be a subtle or subconscious show of power.

A boss might touch an underling while talking to them (e.g. hand on shoulder), showing friendliness yet it’s clear where the power lies.

You don’t find an underling placing a hand on the boss’s shoulder.

Posted on February 18, 2008 at 08:44 PM | Comment permalink


Brilliant blog.  This is so true (speaking as a very touchy feely type of person).  It leaves me wondering about western society and our current requirement of teachers not to touch the children for fear it might be misconstrued.  Children need to be touched and it is one of the reasons my children went to Rudolf Steiner schools when very young.  This requirement is not put upon the teachers in this system.  How can children learn from someone they don’t trust?  Surely you want our children to feel cared for by those they can really trust - hopefully this does include their teachers.  A teacher who is always at arms length sends a very strange message to our children. 

Does this then flow over into the workplace as they become adults?

Some food for thought


Posted on February 19, 2008 at 11:38 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Yes, that’s so right Coleman - that’s another example of our natural sophistication around touch… and yes, Nerida, I think there is a conditioning influence at work, and it wasn’t always about fears of inappropriateness, in education at least, I think there was a power dynamic at work for a long time - non-touch is also about power (ie distance) - no touching except for punishment or control. My mother has a lifelong aversion to teachers as a result! Thankfully that part is now on its way out, but we have also lost the humanising sensibilities around touch.

Posted on February 19, 2008 at 12:55 PM | Comment permalink

Thank you Coleman and Patrick

I have an interest in how an imbalance of power manifests itself in both social and work settings.  I find it fascinating to sit back and watch how body language can effect both social and work settings and indicate power where it is not as obvious unless you sit back and watch.  My dear friend Hamid Soltani ( has been my guide and mentor for many years and he really is in this space.


Posted on February 19, 2008 at 05:07 PM | Comment permalink

Matthew Rees

One of the things that HMG wants to tell new immigrants to the UK is to avoid touching people as it is not part of our culture.

Posted on February 19, 2008 at 08:11 PM | Comment permalink


This seems like a gross generalisation to me.  Perhaps some cultural awareness training is called for here


Posted on February 19, 2008 at 08:18 PM | Comment permalink


while ending a counselling session (it was the final one) the lady then turned at the front door as she was leaving and hugged me and said thank you for your support.  I was told by my tutor/supervisor that this was unethical and i could never counsel her again.

How tragic that the system dehumanises people in the name of professionalism.  Is this a class problem?..


Posted on February 25, 2008 at 06:54 AM | Comment permalink



I agree in the importance of face-to-face interaction but I am not so convinced about your desire to “touch” - if you mean in a physical sense.

There is a high range of sensitivities concerning physical touching, and some touching is actually professionally illegal. So touch is a “touchy” issue.

Touch is really indicative of a strong and personal social bond rather than a professional bond, unless part of the professional ritual - a hand shake or a guiding hand.

I do, however, like the idea of a party to physically meet “virtual” friends and contacts. It’s the same for me when meeting people face-to-face at conferences or dinners.

Interestingly, a recent ABS report in Australia on how we spend our time indicated that we spend more time watching a screen (tv or computer) than we do physically socialising.

The whole notion of connection in the digital age (via intermediation) versus face-to-face is one of the great sociological questions yet to be satisfactorily answered.

Posted on February 25, 2008 at 01:41 PM | Comment permalink


"Touch is really indicative of a strong and personal social bond”.

Maybe this is what touch has become in the name of professionalism.  Professionals are often fearful of touch. 

Touch administered correctly can be very empowering and communicate caring and congruent behaviour. It can also say ‘thank you’.

Posted on February 25, 2008 at 02:22 PM | Comment permalink

Daniel Andriessen

Thank you Patrick, for this contribution to the KM field. It is very much in line with my recent research on metaphors for knowledge, in which I discovered that authors in the West mostly use “stuff” metaphors to think about knowledge, because in business we are used to touching “things” to control them. So we act as if knowledge is an object that can be “stored”, “shared”, “distributed”, and “managed”.

One of the things we need to bring KM further is alternative metaphors for knowledge that highlight the dynamic, non-intellectual, and social aspects of knowledge. In a workshop I conduct with clients I use the “knowledge as love” metaphor as a contrast to the more common “knowledge as water” metaphor. Introducing this metaphor always shifts the conversation in a radical way. Suddenly the group starts to talk about trust, relationships and indeed… touch.

More information can be found in the upcoming issue of Knowledge Management Research & Practice and in the following Slidecast:

Posted on February 28, 2008 at 07:31 PM | Comment permalink


Thnaks Patrick although I dont have a ‘desire’ to touch but if a client feels the need to say thank you be it

Posted on February 29, 2008 at 01:59 AM | Comment permalink

Luke Naismith

Thanks Patrick for the post and to others for their comments - a collective hug to you all.
I think the power aspect is incredibly important.  One of main principles is to mirror the level of interaction of the other person - or go only a little way further than them.  If a woman comes up to me and extends their hand in friendship, I will do the same to them.  Extending the touch to hugs or a kiss on the cheek before the relationship has been confirmed to that level (and it is different for different people of course), could embarass or destablise any trust.
NLP has similar messages with the importance of trust to confirm a communication - a hand on the shoulder or arm when relaying a message anchors the communication and embeds it more into the subconscious. 
More generally, KM tends to be incredibly brain-oriented and does not use or explore the other emotions or senses nearly enough.  Knowledge is far more than just what is in the head (or on paper).

Posted on February 29, 2008 at 04:27 PM | Comment permalink


I have also seen the hand on the shoulder indicate a power imbalance.  Like everything we say and do, it is about context.  In touch it is about how we are touched, like in speech it is about the inflection we put on each word - for example WHAT are you doing? vs What are YOU doing?
I have been listening to my daughter’s cello teacher explaining to her about how emotion can be embedded in music in so many different ways and he uses the sentence as an example of how you change meaning (and emotion) with emphasis on different words.

I have also witnessed a senior person within an organsiation be blissfully unaware of his impact when he places his hand on someone’s (particularly young women) shoulder.
However, I believe we have dehumanised our workplaces when everyone fears touch.

Posted on February 29, 2008 at 04:44 PM | Comment permalink

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