Uplifting Story of how Nelson Mandela understood the value of knowledge

Here is another post from the archives – an uplifting story of the recognition of the Value of Knowledge from the Great Man himself – Nelson Mandela

Image from wikimedia commons

The text below is taken from the excellent book “playing the enemy”, by John Carlin – a book about the transition in power in South Africa from the old apartheid movement to Nelson Mandela’s new government, and the role that the 1994 Rugby World Cup played in this process and in the reunification of national spirit.

There is a little section in this book that made me light up as I read it, because it shows the importance Nelson Mandela places on knowledge and experience.

The scene is just after Mandela’s appointment as president, and John Reinders, chief of presidential protocol under De Klerk, and the former head of the prison service, is in his office packing up his desk.

 “I came in early that morning to collect my things”, Reinders recalled. “All us whites had applied for jobs elsewhere, sure that they would be asked to leave. Quite a few of us meant to go and work for De Klerk in the deputy presidency”.  

Reinders was packing away his mementoes of 17 years spent running the presidential office, when suddenly he was startled out of his reminiscences by a knock at the door. It was another early riser. Mandela. 

“Good morning, how are you?” he said, stepping into Reinders’s office with outstretched hand. “Very well, Mr. President, thank you. And you?” “Well, well but ….” Mandela said, puzzled, “what are you doing?” “I am collecting my things and getting ready to go, Mr. President”. “Oh, I see. And may I ask where you are going?” “Back to correctional services, Mr. President, where I used to serve.” 

“Mmmm,” said Mandela, pursing his lips. “I was there 27 years, you know. It was very bad.” He grinned as he repeated, “very bad!” Reinders, flummoxed, offered him a half-smile back. “Now,” Mandela continued, “I would like you to consider staying here with us.”  Reinders examined Mandela’s eyes with astonishment. 

“Yes. I am quite serious. You know this job. I don’t. I am from the bush. I am ignorant. Now, if you stay with me, it would be just one term, that is all. Five years. And then, of course, you would be free to leave. No, please understand: this is not an order. I would like to have you here only if you wish to stay and share your knowledge and your experience with me.” 

Mandela smiled. Reinders smiled, wholeheartedly now. “So,” Mandela continued, “what do you say? Will you stay with me?” Amazed as he was, Reinders did not hesitate. “Yes, Mr. President. I will. Yes. Thank you.” 

At which point his new boss gave him his first task: to gather together all the presidential staff, including the cleaners and gardeners, in the cabinet room for a meeting. The new president walked among them, shaking hands with each of the hundred or so people assembled, saying a few words to each, in Afrikaans where appropriate. Then he addressed them all. “Hello, I am Nelson Mandela. If any of you prefer to take the severance package, you are free to leave. There is no problem. But I beg you, stay! Five years, that is all. You have the knowledge. We need that knowledge, we need that experience of yours.” 

Every single member of the presidential staff stayed.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Finding an answer in the Long Tail of Knowledge

When looking for knowledge, let’s not just rely on finding the experts.

We know that actually only a small percentage of knowledge in an organisation can be accessed through documents, and that most of it is in the heads of people. We know that if we can “find the people who know”, then we can access that tacit knowledge through asking them questions.

One common approach to “finding the people that know” is to build an Expert Locator System. You think – “Who are the experts in the organisation? Can we make an index of the experts, so that people can find them, and ask them for advice?”

However Expertise is not always synonymous with Expert, and certainly Experience is not synonymous with Expert.  The Experts hold only a small percentage of teh organisational knowledge and experience.

Much knowledge lies in the Long Tail

Consider the graph above – a plot of the years experience in an imaginary company. We see red bars and blue bars – the red bars are the Experts, who have 35, 32, 28, 27 and 25 years of experience – a total of 17 years. The blue bars are the workers. They individually have fewer years of experience, but there are a lot of them, and their collective experience adds up to 1187 years of experience – 8 times more than the experts. So if you need an answer to a problem, and if you want to tap into the experience of others, where is that relevant experience likely to sit? 8 times out of 9 (in this example) it will sit it the Long Tail of experience, not in the Short Head of the Experts.

Does this happen in practice? Do we get answers from less experienced workers rather than from more experienced experts? I think in real life – where knowledge exists in context, where contexts vary widely, and where many staff see knowledge in many contexts, then this happens quite a lot. Here is a story from a real company.

“I had written a report on the success of a particular operation in my business in the USA, and I made this report because one of my managers asked me to do this to support a decision. I was able to document some of our information from the last 4 year to help this decision. This is was a significant thing for my team, but it turned out to be significant for other teams as well. I saw a question through the web system asking “what has been the success of this operation in the company?”. This was a question from a team in Africa, and it was a close enough scenario to the scenario for which I had written my report. You feel the Power – you feel the power of knowledge and the value that it might represent when you receive a response “Thank you very much for your reply, because this actually helped us to make a decision”. It was an incredible experience to answer a question in the forum, with only 2 1/2 years experience in the company, and already being able to advice the whole world on the things we do and how we do it”. 

The answer was in the Long Tail, with a junior engineer. The context was similar, the knowledge was transferred, and time and money were saved.

So when you create your systems for tapping into tacit knowledge – your Expertise Locators, your “Ask a question” functionality – do not fall into the trap of involving only the few Company Experts. Remember the long tail, which may contain nearly 90% of the experience and knowledge, and include those guys as well.

View Original Source Here.

Where does knowledge come from? ( a post from the archives)

Here is another blog post from 6 years ago, which is worth revisiting – the question of where Knowledge comes from.  This post generated a lot of dicsussion last time, largely because I was challenging a popular and common model. See what you think.

In most of the Knowledge Management training courses I run, I ask the question “where does knowledge come from?”

Always, every time, the first answer I get is “Experience – Knowledge comes from Experience”.  “Knowledge comes from Information” is never the first answer. Maybe the second, or third, or fourth, but never the first.

If you don’t believe me, try it yourself. Ask people “where does knowledge come from”? and see what they say.

So why do we persevere with the Data/Information/Knowledge pyramid? You know what I mean – that common diagam that asserts that knowledge comes from information, and that information comes from data. This relationship is not aligned with the majority view of where knowledge comes from.

We could in fact come up with a different pyramid, shown here, where experience leads to knowledge, knowledge leads to decisions, and decisions lead to action.

The great thing about this version of the pyramid, is that action then leads back to experience. And if we can share the experience from many actions, we can build shared knowledge which others can use to make correct decisions.


So the pyramids stack, as shown below.

If you believe that knowledge comes from experience, and shared knowledge comes from shared experience, then your KM approach will be based on review and transfer of experience, connection of people, and conversation.

This contrasts with approaches based on the Data/Information/Knowledge model, which can lead to Knowledge Management being seen as an extension of information management and data management, resulting in a belief that organising and aggregating information somehow turns it into knowledge.

Instead of Knowledge Management being seen as an extension of information management, let’s rather look at it as an approach of sharing experience in order to make better decisions and to take better actions.

(I followed up the original blog post with an interesting online poll, described here and results shown below, where only 6% of respondents believed that Knowledge comes primarily from information)

View Original Source Here.