Socrates on Explicit Knowledge

Here’s a reprise from the archives – Socrates on the limitations of the written word.

SocratesSocrates, as reported by Plato in The Phaedrus, was not a fan of explicit knowledge.

Explicit knowledge, in those days, meant Writing, and Socrates never wrote anything down – he had a scribe (Plato) to do that for him. He mistrusted writing – he felt it made people stupid and lazy by giving them the impression that they were recording (and reading) real knowledge.

Here’s Socrates

“He would be a very simple person…who should leave in writing or receive in writing any art under the idea that the written word would be intelligible or certain; or who deemed that writing was at all better than knowledge and recollection of the same matters….. Writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence….

You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer…..Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this? … I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent”.

In the form of a fable, he says this about writing as a means of transmitting knowledge

“The specific which you have discovered (writing) is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing”

In Summary, Explicit Knowledge, for Socrates, is poor because it cannot be questioned, gives always the same answer, and is the “semblance of truth”. Far preferable is Tacit knowledge (“an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner”) which can be questioned.

Socrates (as befits one of the world’s leading philosophers) had a good point.

How then can we reduce these real risks when it comes to transferring knowledge? We have four options.

  1. For the most important knowledge, aim to Connect people rather than relying on Collecting the written word. Use Peer Assist and Communities of Practice, rather than relying solely on knowledge bases.
  2. When you do record explicit knowledge, ensure that the details of the author are attached to the knowledge, so that the reader can find the writer and question them directly. In this way the explicit record becomes a pointer to tacit knowledge, and a reminder (Socrates’ “reminiscence”) to the author. 
  3. Use explicit knowledge for those topics which require “one unvarying answer”, such as best practice, “rules of the road”, instructions, manuals and policies, bearing in mind that the answer may evolve over time, and that the written word must evolve similarly.
  4. When you record explicit knowledge (as text or video), bear in mind all the questions the reader/viewer is likely to have, and answer them. The FAQ format is a better format than dry prose or instruction, as it is reader-focused and question-focused.
I think Socrates would endorse 1, 2 and 3, and perhaps be less happy with 4.

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How to learn from critical decisions (video)

This video from the University of Bath, UK, shows Joseph Borders describing a varation of the Critical Decision Method.

This is a method used to elicit knowledge from an expert, in the context of an unusual even they were involved in, through an analysis of their decision making process.

You might use this technique as part of a Knowledge retention strategy for example, or as a form of Retention Interview.

The Critical Decision Audit: Blending the Critical Decision Method & the Knowledge Audit from University of Bath on Vimeo.

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How bullet points kill knowledge.

Bullet points may have their place in helping punctuate meetings, but are no way to capture knowledge. 

image from wikimedia commons

Discussion and dialogue are still the most effective ways of transferring knowledge from person to person. Although”we know more than we can tell”, we can still tell enough of what we know to transfer useful understanding and insight to someone else when they are standing in front of us, asking questions, and taking an active part in trying to understand. That’s why techniques such as Peer AssistKnowledge HandoverKnowledge Exchange and so on are so powerful.

However the nature of the human memory is that as soon as we hear something we start to forget it.

Notes from the meeting are crucial, even for the people who attended. Traditionally, facilitators of such events stand up the front of the room and write bullet points on a flip-chart. However when a good discussion gets going, there is no way that you can write bullet points quickly enough, and in enough detail, to capture the details, the subtleties and the context of what is being discussed. And most importantly, bullet points don’t capture the stories, and we learn best from stories.

Bullet points may be useful aides-memoire for those who were part of the discussion, but even then they are only useful for a very short time, and are totally useless for anyone who could not attend.

You can do a better job sat at the table, taking shorthand, but for the best results, you need to audio-record the meeting.

Then, what do you do with the recording?

  • Option 1 – transcribe it yourself. This is time consuming, but accurate. My favourite approach is to use voice recognition software trained to my own voice, and dictate into the computer while simultaneously listening to the recording (slowed down to about half speed).  The transcription can be used as the basis for a Knowledge Asset containing advice, good practice, stories and examples.
  • Option 2 – use a transcription service. This is quicker, but the transcription service will not understand any of the technical terms. You need to send them an entire glossary. This transcription can be also used as the basis for a Knowledge Asset.
  • Option 3 – edit the audio or video recording into a podcast or videocast. This can be useful, but a recording of an active conversation (rather than an interview) is actually very difficult to follow unless it is very well edited, and few people will sit through a recording of an entire meeting.
  • Option 4 – my preferred option – use options 1 or 2, and then in addition, get people to video-record a series of small summaries of the main points (rather like a big brother diary room).

Any one of these is infinitely better than bullet points on a flip chart.

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Are we the first generation to know less than our parents? And does it matter?

A famous author claims we are the first generation to know less than our parents, and calls this a “net loss of knowledge”. Is he right? 

Image from wikimedia commons – “The Dunce”

According to the writer, Sebastian Faulkes
, reported in the Daily Telegraph, this generation of will be the first in Western history to know less than their parents.

The best-selling writer said those now reaching their late 20s no longer felt the need to “capture” information, with the advent of the internet meaning it was always at their fingertips. Instead, he said, facts and figures were readily available at the “press of a button”, leaving the modern intellectual world in a “kind of catastrophe”. Speaking at the British Library this week as part of the City of London festival, he said it was an “extraordinary reversal” of Western history so far.

Firstly, is this true, and secondly, does it matter?

Faulkes is looking at shift from knowledge as being personal, held tacitly, to knowledge being collective, held in explicit form. This shift has happened before; when writing was developed, when the printing press was invented, when literacy become widespread, and when public libraries became widely available. None of these shifts were as abrupt as the shift operating now, but with each of these developments, it became less necessary to remember things, as you could rely more and more on the written word.

Prior to the first cookery book, for example, all cooks needed to hold the recipes in their heads. Once printed cookery books became widely available, for example with the publication of Mrs Beetons Household Management, or La bonne cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange, then we had “the first generation of cooks in Western history to know less than their parents”. They no longer felt the need to “capture” recipes; the advent of cheap printed recipe books meaning that recipes were always at their fingertips.

Was than an extraordinary reversal for Western Gastronomy? Probably not.

The publication of guides on any type of activity – gardening, metallurgy, navigation – means that we could rely less on our memory and more on the written word. The spread of the Encyclopaedia Britannica into many homes was part of the same trend. My Grandparents had a book called “Enquire within upon everything” – the very purpose of this book was that you did not have to know everything, but could look it up! Did this make my grandparents less knowledgeable than their own parents? Probably it did. Did it stop them writing down their own household hints? Probably it did.

Was this a bad thing? Probably not.

The Internet is the modern version of Enquire within upon everything. It’s not an “extraordinary reversal” of Western history so far, its a continued trend.

If it is a bad thing, then the gradual shift from head knowledge to captured knowledge has also been a bad thing. The introduction of libraries, the publication of guides, “Enquire within upon everything”, Mrs Beeton, the  Encyclopaedia Britannica, must all be bad things.  Socrates argued that writing down knowledge was bad, but I imagine few nowadays would agree with him.

I personally don’t think this shift is bad. The more we can store knowledge somewhere that it is easily accessed when and where we need it, whether that is cookery books on a kitchen shelf or knowledge on the Internet, the more we leave ourselves open to learn more.  Also the more we can store knowledge somewhere “in common”, the easier it becomes to develop knowledge, to innovate, to build on what is known.

The holding of knowledge collectively, in common, is part of the shift to Druckers vision of the productive knowledge worker.

So in summary, Faulkes’ statement quite possibly isn’t true, and that, as knowledge over history became consigned more and more to the written word, there may have been previous generations where their head-knowledge was less that that of their parents. And it probably doesn’t really matter.

An alternative reading of Faulk’s thesis is that the sum total of knowledge is declining, and its not just the tacit knowledge of the present generation that he is concerned about, but the sum total of tacit and explicit. I am not sure that this holds water either. Certainly explicit knowledge is much more accessible, but explicit knowledge does not seem to be decreasing, so I can’t quite see how the sum total is decreasing.

What is changing, is the ACCESS to knowledge, and what we are seeing in the current day is the biggest leap in access since the introduction of public libraries. But it’s not a catastrophe, nor a reversal, but an opportunity.

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Knowledge as "the voice of experience"

Is KM a way of sharing the “voice of experience”?

In many ways, you can look at much of Knowledge Management as being a systematic approach to identifying, distilling and transmitting the voice of experience around the organisation.

Experience is the great teacher, and experience which is shared through Knowledge Management can teach many people other that the person who had the experience themselves. People trust knowledge when they know its provenance and when they know it is based on lessons from real experience.

So how do we make this voice of experience heard? Here’s some ways –

  • Always attribute the source of the knowledge. Give its provenance, put people’s names against it. It shows that it comes from a real and experienced source.
  • Use people’s own words if possible. Include quotes. Let the experience talk.
  • Include pictures of the people who provided the knowledge. Knowledge seems more authentic of you can “see” the person who provided it.
  • Capture the stories. Provided they are true stories, told in the words of the people involved, they convey authentic experience.
  • Include the case studies. These are the record of experience.

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How the Emergency Services are resourcing real-time learning

It is common practice to invest time and resources in learning after a project.  Here are some examples of investment during a project. 

I blogged lasy week about lesson learning in the Australian Emergency Services, and made passing reference to Real-Time Evaluation. It’s worth spending a little more time on this topic, as this is a departure from the general practice of capturing lessons only in the aftermath of an event.

My colleague Ian sent me these two examples from the Australian emergency services putting resources on to the ground to collect lessons during an incident, rather than waiting until afterwards.

Learning from the Nov 2017 Heavy Rain Event
The Victorian State Emergency Service and Emergency Management Victoria teamed up over December 2017 and January 2018 to conduct a series of debriefs at the incident, region and state level relating to the heavy rain event that occurred at the end of November.
For the first time under the new arrangements a Real Time Monitoring and Evaluation (RTM&E) team was also deployed during the event to inform real time learning. The resulting report, together with the debrief outcomes, will be analysed for insights and lessons and included in EM-Share to support ongoing continuous improvement.

RTM&E Deployed into the State Control CentreOn 19 and 20 January 2018 a small Real Time Monitoring and Evaluation (RTM&E) team was deployed for the first time into the Victorian State Control Centre (SCC) to support the real time learning of SCC staff during the recent heat event.
It was a great opportunity to look at new arrangements and inform future continuous improvement activities across the Victorian Emergency Management sector. All outcomes will be also included in EM-Share.

These are examples of what I call “Level 3” lesson learning; the proactive hunting for lessons rather than reactive capture of lessons after the event.  Please note that Real Time Evaluation is not an alternative to Post-Event Evaluation – both are needed. However the benefits of Real Time Evaluation, and the Proactive capture of lessons, are as follows:

  • The level of resourcing is often greater, rather that trying to squeeze in evaluation time after the activity is over
  • Lesson can be acted on, and problems corrected, while the activity is in progress
  • The RTM&E team can look out for early signs of things happening, and can specifically watch out for lessons on specific topics
  • The RTM&E team can capture lessons while memories are still fresh, before people start to forget.
The main reason why RTM&E needs to be partnered with Post-Event Evaluation such as a Retrospect or After Action review is that until the event is complete, you don’t yet know the outworkings of the decisions you made earlier. For example, you may take a course of action that speeds things up, record that as a successful lesson through RTM&E, and then after the event find that there were a whole series of unintended consequences which meant that the course of action was, with hindsight, unwise. 

However, given that caveat, Real Time Evaluation, and the capture of lessons as an event unfolds, can be a really valuable partner to more traditional Post-Event Review.

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Is questioning the most important skill for the KM professional?

Perhaps the most important skill for the KM professional is the skill of Questioning.

Questions are the hook from which most of your knowledge hangs. Anyone with small children knows that itireless questioning underpins their early learning. The same principle applies in organisations.  Making knowledge conscious, making it explicit, and capturing or transferring that knowledge is triggered through the use of questions.

Poor questions result in poor knowledge, or result in knowledge never been identified in the first place. We recognised this recently when working with a company who had been trying to identify knowledge through Retrospects, without giving any training in questioning skills to the Retrospect facilitators. As a result, the knowledge gathered was superficial and of very low value.

Questioning is important in knowledge interviews, when you are trying to help the interviewee to reflect on their experience. Group questioning works the same way in the after action review and retrospect processes. In communities of practice, the facilitator often needs to “question the question”, and find out what a community member is really asking about and looking for, before they a question can be answered.

Questioning techniques include the use of open questions, the use of probing questions to get down to the next level of detail, the use of closed questions to home in on a learning point, and the use of summarising and feeding back to ensure you have fully understood the answers. We terach the skills of open questioning, and the use of question trees, in our core Knowledge Management traning courses.

Listening skills are also very important, and are part of good questioning technique.  Listening carefully to the answer, assessing how much knowledge has been provided, and asking additional questions to fill the gaps – this is also part of the Knowledge Manager’s skillset.

Ensure your KM staff are skilled in questuioning and listening.

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Why storing project files is not the same as storing project knowledge

There is often an assumption that storing project files equates to managing knowledge on behalf of future projects. This is wrong, and here’s why.

For example, see this video from the USACE Knowledge Management program says “if you digitise your paper files, throw in some metadata tagging, and use our search appliance, finding what you need for your [future] project is easy”. (I have added the word [future] as this was proposed as a solution to the next project now anticipating things in advance).

However there is a major flaw with just digitising, tagging and filing the project documents and assuming that this transfers knowledge, and the flaw is that the project may have been doing things wrong, and almost certainly could have done things better with hindsight. Capturing the files will capture the mistakes, but will not capture the hindsight, which is where the learning and the knowledge resides.

It is that hindsight you need to capture, not the files themselves.

  • Don’t capture the bid package presented to the client, capture what you should have bid, the price you should have quoted, and the package you should have used. All of these things should come from the post-bid win/loss review.
  • Don’t capture the proposed project budget, capture the actual budget, where the cost overruns were, and how you would avoid these next time. This should come from the post-project lessons review.
  • Don’t capture the project resource plan, capture the resource plan you should have had, and the resourcing you would recommend to future projects of this type. This also should come from the post-project lessons review.
  • Don’t capture the planned product design, capture the as-built design, where the adjustments were made, and why they were made. (See  my own experience of working from stored plans and not as-built design which cost me £500 and ten dead trees).
  • And so on. You can no doubt think of other examples.
Capturing the hindsight is extra work, and requires analysis and reflection through Knowledge Management processes such as After Action Review and Retrospect. These processes need to be schedules within the project plan, and need to focus on questions such as 
  • What have we learned?
  • What would we repeat?
  • What would we do differently?
  • What advice and guidance, with the benefit of hindsight, would we give to future projects?
These are tough questions, focused on deriving hindsight (as in the blog picture above). Deriving hindsight is not easy, which is why these Knowledge Management processes need to be given time, space, and skilled facilitation. However they add huge value to future projects by capturing the lessons of hindsight.  Merely filing and tagging the project files is far easier, but will capture none of the hindsight and so none of the knowledge.

Capturing documents from previous projects and repeating what they did will cause you to repeat their mistakes. Better to capture their hindsight, so it can be turned into foresight for future projects. 

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What to do when knowledge is a core product deliverable

For some projects, knowledge is their most important deliverable, but how is that deliverable defined?

We are used to thinking of knowledge as an input for a project, but it is often an output as well. Projects can learn new things, and can create new knowledge for an organisation. Often we assume that this new knowledge will be transferred through the lesson learned system, but is that really enough?

Usually it isn’t, and instead a different approach might be better.
Lessons are increments  of knowledge, usually identified after the event, at the end of an activity or a project stage. In an ideal world every lessons would be associated with an action, and each action would lead to the update of a best practice, a doctrine or a corporate standard. Lessons are usually captured in a team meeting such as a Retrospect.
However if a project is doing something new – something which has never been done before – then the standard lesson approach is insufficient. Rather than identifying and capturing the learning after the event, the organisation should identify the potential for learning at the start of the project, make sure resources are assigned to learning, and require the project to create a guideline, best practice or standard as a project deliverable. 
Imagine an organisational project to set up the company’s first manufacturing facility in Asia – the first of many such plants in an expansion program. The project is expected to deliver a manufacturing plant with a certain production capability, and the success of the project will usually be measured by whether the plant is delivered on time, to quality and to budget. However the success of the program will be influenced by how mush knowledge is passed from the first plant to the others, and the value of this knowledge may be higher than the value of the plant itself.
Therefore the project can be given a second deliverable – to create best practice guidance documents, doctrine or first-pass standards on topics such as
  • Doing business in that particular Asian country
  • How to negotiate the bureaucracy
  • How to obtain permits
  • How to construct the plant efficiently and effectively
  • How to recruit a skilled workforce
and many other topics. These deliverables should be managed through the project KM plan, and reported to management the same as other deliverables.
This set of knowledge deliverables could be given its own resources and its own workstream, in order to make sure that the knowledge is captured. Without this focus on knowledge, it is quite possible to get to the end of the project and find that no knowledge has been captured at all. 

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