The curse of knowledge and the danger of fuzzy statements

Fuzzy statements in lessons learned are very common, and are the result of “the curse of knowledge”

Fuzzy Monster
Clip art courtesy of

I blogged yesterday about Statements of the Blindingly Obvious, and how you often find these in explicit knowledge bases and lessons learned systems, as a by-product of the “curse of knowledge“.

There is a second way in which this curse strikes, and that is what I call “fuzzy statements”.

It’s another example of how somebody writes something down as a way of passing on what they have learned, and writes it in such a way that it is obvious to them what it means, but which carries very little information to the reader.

A fuzzy statement is an unqualified adjective, for example

  • Set up a small, well qualified team…(How small? 2 people? 20 people? How well qualified? University professors? Company experts? Graduates?)
  • Start the study early….(How early? Day 1 of the project? Day 10? After the scope has been defined?)
  • A tighter approach to quality is needed…. (Tighter than what? How tight should it be?)
You can see, in each case, the writer has something to say about team size, schedule or quality, but hasn’t really said enough for the reader to understand what to do, other than in a generic “fuzzy” way, using adjectives like “small, well, early, tighter” which need to be quantified.

In each case, the facilitator of the session or the validator of the knowledge base needs to ask additional questions. How small? How well qualified? How early? How tight?

Imagine if I tried to teach you how to bake a particular cake, and told you “Select the right ingredients, put them in a large enough bowl. Make sure the oven is hotter”. You would need to ask more questions in order to be able to understand this recipe.

Again, it comes back to Quality Control.

Any lessons management system or knowledge base suffers from garbage In, Garbage Out, and the unfortunate effect of the Curse of Knowledge is that people’s first attempt to communicate knowledge is often, as far as the reader is concerned, useless garbage.

Apply quality control to your lessons and de-fuzz the statements

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Knowledge Transfer is the wrong concept – Knowledge co-creation is nearer the truth

In another post from the archives (with some updates) let’s look at the common phrase “knowledge transfer” and discuss whether this is the wrong concept.

Knowledge transfer, when illustrated graphically, often looks like the picture below – knowledge leaving one head and entering another. 

image from wikimedia commons

This model is wrong in at least 3 ways.

Firstly when knowledge is shared, it doesn’t leave the first head – it stays there. You do not lose anything when transmitting knowledge to someone else. You do not pass knowledge to someone in the same way that you pass money

Secondly, in many or most acts of “knowledge transfer” the giver also learns and gains.  A Peer Assist is a prime example – the people who come to share their knowledge often some away with more knowledge than they started.

Thirdly knowledge changes as it is exchanged. The receiver adds their knowledge to the knowledge of the donor, and makes something new and better. In fact, the concept of donor and receiver is probably wrong as well. Both parties give, both receive, and collectively create something new.

Knowledge is more often co-created than it is transferred in a one-way direction.

Think of the following examples;

  • A Peer Assist, where peers from all over the organisation pool their knowledge to create new solutions and insights for a project team. This is not a case of one group of peers lecturing to another group; it is a setting for dialogue, where the peers collectively discuss how to apply knowledge from the past to challenges of the present and future.
  • A meeting within a Community of Practice where SMEs come together to create best practice, pooling their knowledge to create something new. This again is not a meeting where people sit passively and listen; it is a setting for dialogue where practices are discussed with the intention of co-creating something better.
  • A Knowledge Retention meeting between a senior and a junior – theoretically for the junior to learn, but where skilful questioning means the senior develops new insights into the practice. Both parties learn.
  • An After Action Review where the team comes to a collective understanding of the lessons from an activity. This is not a meeting where the team leader briefs the team on what he or she learned; it is an all-hands discussion so the collective learning of the team can be identified, discussed and developed.
  • People collaborating on a knowledge asset. This is not, or should not be, someone publishing a document for another to read. It should be more like collaboration on a wiki, containing knowledge supplied from many people and from many documents, and combined into something none of the people knew individually. Or collaboration on a checklist or a procedure, making sure the checklist is regularly updated as new knowledge becomes available, so that it becomes the record of knowledge from many many sources and the means to avoid all the mistakes of the past.

In each case this is not the transfer of something from one head to another, but co-creation of knowledge, or co-learning.

This co-creation is the C in the Nonaka and Takeuchi model – the idea of Combination of knowledge, so often missing in KM programs.

Perhaps Peter Senge said it best, in the following quote

“Sharing knowledge is not about giving people something,or getting something from them. That is only valid for information sharing. Sharing knowledge occurs when people are genuinely interested in helping one another develop new capacities for action; it is about creating learning processes.”

The co-creation process therefore looks more like the picture below than the picture above.

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Extending SECI – 9 transitions of knowledge transfer

The SECI model is a common model in KM. This blog post from the archives suggests a way to expand this model.

One of the basic models of Knowledge Management – often discussed, frequently challenged – is Nonaka and Takeuchi’s SECI model. This is a 2×2 matrix, looking at the transitions between tacit and explicit knowledge (and the challenges to the model is often whether tactic knowledge can ever be made explicit, or whether it needs to be, or whether explicit knowledge is the same as documented knowledge).

I would like to extend this model, because when we start to work with Knowledge Management in organisations, we find that knowledge actually lies in three natural states rather than two, and that we therefore need a 3×3 matrix rather than a 2×2.

The three states are as follows;

1. Unconscious “Knowledge in the head” – the things you don’t know you know.
2. Conscious “Knowledge in the head” – the things you know you know (of course the boundary between states 1 and 2 is gradual, and more of a transition than a boundary).
3. Recorded Knowledge (captured in documents, audio, video etc).

The most powerful knowledge – the deep knowledge  that experts possess – is in state 1. However if knowledge is to be transferred easily between people, it may need to change it’s state in order to allow transfer. The 3×3 matrix above represents the 9 possible transitions.

The dark blue squares are where Knowledge Management traditionally focuses (you can see that traditionally we only cover about half of the diagram).

It should be stressed that  every one of these transitions involves loss of value and loss of knowledge. We know (unconscious) more than we can say (conscious), and we often say (conscious) more than gets captured.

Here are the 9 transitions or transfers.

  1. The transition from one person’s unconscious knowledge to another’s can be called “Emulation“. This is how a baby learns, or how a craftsman can pass deep knowledge to their apprentice – by working together over years, often wordlessly. This is effective but very slow.
  2. To make unconscious knowledge conscious requires some form of analysis – usually self-analysis, as the knower has to be deeply involved in the process. Group self-analysis, or sense-making, is a powerful technique, and a good interviewer, facilitator, coach or psychotherapist can also help make knowledge conscious. Coaching and mentoring is a useful tool in this box, as are tem reflection exercises such as After Action review or Action Learning.
  3. To record unconscious knowledge is difficult. About all you can do is record what the knower does – through videoing them at work for example – for later analysis. But to be honest, it’s not yet knowledge, as all these recorded work products have to pass back through an analysis step in order to draw out the conscious knowledge. Maybe you can call the things in this box “latent knowledge”.
  4. The transition from conscious to unconscious knowledge is habituation. At one time you were conscious of your golf swing, your fishing cast or your ability to drive a manual car, but over time it becomes unconscious.
  5. The transition between one person’s conscious knowledge to another’s often comes through conversation and discussion (particularly dialogue), and through techniques such as demonstration and teaching. Here is where discussion processes and structures such as Communities of Practice and Peer Assist become useful.
  6. The transition from conscious knowledge to recorded knowledge comes through interviewing, writing, documenting, capturing lessons – all the standard tools of knowledge capture.
  7. The transition from written knowledge to unconscious knowledge is a tricky one, but we know it happens. If you are brought up on a diet of Fox News, you end up “knowing things” that are different from those you would “know” if you were brought up on a diet of the Washington Post. I don’t have the correct term for this box, but “Indoctrination” may be a good term.
  8. The transition from written knowledge to conscious knowledge is also difficult – here we can use the term “Internalisation” for that whole chain of “Read, Mark, Learn and Inwardly Digest
  9. The transition between various forms of recorded knowledge we can refer to as Synthesis – the bringing together, combination and “making sense” of disparate recorded sources into Knowledge Assets.

Depending on the sort of knowledge you are dealing with – the deep unconscious knowledge of the experts, or the shallow knowledge of company procedures – you may need to deal with more or fewer of these 9 transitions.

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Knowledge suppliers and users

We often get hung up on treating knowledge as if it were impersonal pieces of content; instead let’s look at it as an interaction between supplier and user.

Image from wikimedia commons

All knowledge, if we think in terms of “Know-how” originates from people, and is re-used by people.  Sometimes it passes from person to person through conversation, and sometimes the interaction is more remote – through written or recorded words and diagrams.

Knowledge Management, therefore, is a systematic and structured approach to transferring strategic and operational knowledge from suppliers to users through whatever interactions are most effective and efficient. And in many cases co-developing the knowledge as well as transferring it.

In a recent blog post, I explained about Collect and Connect as being two routes for knowledge transfer between the supplier and user, but now let’s look at the supplier and user themselves.

Knowledge is created through experience, and through the reflection on experience in order to derive guidelines, rules, theories, heuristics and doctrines. Knowledge may be created by individuals, through reflecting on their own experience, or it may be created by teams reflecting on team experience, or communities of practice engaged in collective sense-making. These are knowledge suppliers.

Knowledge is applied by individuals and teams, who can apply their own personal knowledge and experience, or they can look elsewhere for knowledge – to learn before they start, and benefit from shared experience. These are knowledge users. One of the challenges for knowledge transfer, is that often the user is unknown and the supplier has limited ways to interact with this user.

Knowledge management consists of building an enabling environment, or framework, where the users are expected to, and given the tools to, seek for and re-use knowledge whenever they need it, and where the suppliers are expected to, and enabled to, share and/or store their knowledge, wherever and whenever they have something of importance to share, using either Connection or Collection, depending on which is appropriate.

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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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The "Umbrella Week" as a means of sharing lessons.

The Umbrella week (aka Knowledge Handover) is a face-to-face process for sharing lessons with the rest of the organisation. 

Umbrella week image from

You can read about a recent Umbrella week here, where Captain Scott Kuhn of the 3rd Armoured Brigade described an event last week. According to Scott, 

An Umbrella Week is scheduled by brigade-level units or higher “within 6 weeks of completion of major deployments or Combat Training Center rotations in order to share lessons and best practices, and facilitating changes to Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership and Education, Personnel, Facilities and Policy. 

The Umbrella Week basically gives other units a chance to come and gather knowledge from a unit right after a deployment, through a structured series of facilitated discussions. The  process is as follows:

  1. There is an initial phase of lesson-gathering from the Brigade, for example through After Action reviews
  2. The team from the Centre for Army Lessons Learned who organise the Umbrella week also create a collection plan to collect these lessons, and also to look at the points of interest for the rest of the organisation, and the issues where more knowledge needs to be discussed and gathered
  3. Various departments and agencies are invited to the Umbrella week in order to take part in the discussions, which may be in a focus-group setting or may be individual discussions. Even though lessons are prepared in advance, the discussions are question-led, rather than being presentations to an audience. 
  4. At the end of the week each agency takes away the lessons they gained and updates training, doctrine etc, and the Analysts at the Centre for Army Lessons Learned also update their own materials. 
Similar processes are run in industry as well, such as the 2-day Knowledge Handover process we ran at BP after a major pipeline project. The steps were the same – gathering of the lessons first, identification of the questions which needed to be answered and the people who needed to attend, and two days of facilitated discussion to ensure the knowledge was transferred to those teams an experts who needed to know.
So this is not just a military process; it is something that can and should be done in any organisation after a major piece of work, as a way to communicate the lessons and to facilitate any changes to procedures that need to be made.  And it uses that good old-fashioned technology – face to face discussion.

“Umbrella week is our chance to contribute to future engagements. What we share this week will ensure that units deploying in the future can build and learn from our lessons learned.”

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Using MOOCs to transfer knowledge at WHO

When it comes to transferring knowledge to a massive audience, MOOCs are a potential solution.  Here is a fantastic example from the World Health Organisation.

Image from wikimedia commons

There are some Knowledge Management cases where knowledge is created through research and analysis, then needs to be spread around a wide audience. There are challenges to this sort of knowledge transfer, and just sending our reports and emails often does not work. MOOCs – Massive Open Onloine Courses – can be an answer.

This article describes an approach taken at WHO, and contains the following quotes from WHO scientists and doctors:

  • “The major epidemics we have seen this century highlighted the need for a system that quickly transforms scientific knowledge into action on the ground,”
  • “The key is actionable knowledge. For us the value of knowledge is when it is shared – and it is especially important that responders have enough knowledge to protect themselves and do good work. We had information on diseases like Plague, MERS and Ebola, we had a number of courses but they were on paper, not accessible from the field.”

WHO have created 34 online courses in multiple languages on a Portal they call “Online WHO”, covering 4 areas

  1. pandemics and epidemics
  2. emergency response operations
  3. soft skills such as risk communications, social mobilization and community engagement, and 
  4. preparation for emergency field work.

So far response has been very good, and more than 25,000 people have signed up for the course.
Let’s finish with a couple more quotes that show the critical importance of the effective transfer of transfer.

“We don’t call it training – we call it knowledge transfer. OpenWHO allows us and our key partners to transfer life-saving knowledge to large numbers of frontline responders quickly and reliably,” 

“Too many people have died from lack of knowledge. We want these online courses to help save lives.”

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4 ways to increase knowledge flow – lessons from fluid dynamics

If we look at knowledge flowing through a company as an analogue of fluid flowing through a porpous medium, can we draw any conclusions to help us with KM?

In their 2011 presentation, Tim Stouffer and Reid Smith did just this. They took an interesting look at the flow of knowledge, and likened it to the flow of oil, water or other fluid in a fluid-bearing rock.

In such circumstances,  flow is governed by the equation shown here, which is known as Darcy’s law. Flow is governed by the permeability of the rock, the dynamic viscosity of the fluid, the pressure difference, and the distance the fluid needs to travel.

Stoufer and Smith used this equation as analogy to draw some conclusions about how to increase knowledge flow in organisations, and focused on four factors.

  • If we want to increase knowledge flow, we need to make the organisation more permeable to knowledge. This is the area most KM programs focus on – providing the tools and the organisational structures that remove or reduce the barriers to knowledge flow, making the organisation as transparent as possible as far as knowledge is concerned. They do this through the introduction of community forums, good search, well constructed knowledge bases, lessons management systems with good workflow etc.. This is vital to success of a KM program, but is only 1/4 of the equation.

  • If we want to increase knowledge flow, we need to reduce the viscosity (the stickiness, or flow-resistance) of the knowledge itself. Many organisations will claim on the one hand that knowledge does not flow round their organisation, while on the other hand agreeing that gossip spreads like wildfire. That’s because gossip is low-viscosity knowledge – it will find any little gap through which to flow. We need to reduce the viscosity of technical knowledge to a similar level, through packaging it well, through the use of stories, video, examples and lessons. Well written, catchy, punchy, and speaking directly to the reader/listener/viewer.

  • If we want to increase knowledge flow, we need to increase the driving pressures – both Push and Pull. This is the cultural side of the equation, the pressure to share and (more importantly) the pressure to Ask and Learn. The pressure is the sum of Pull and Push, and is the sum of peer pressure and management expectations. The more attention you give to creating expectations for both sharing and learning, the faster the knowledge will flow. 

Stoufer and Smith conclude as follows:

“Getting Knowledge to flow is much like the physics contained in Darcy’s Law  

  • Increase “Permeability” 
    • Improve access to knowledge
    • Build knowledge connections: P2P and P2K
  • Increase “Pressure” 
    • Management leadership
    • Metrics
  • Decrease “Viscosity”
    • Turn tacit knowledge into explicit, actionable knowledge
  • Decrease “Distance” (make things easy)
    • Bring people, knowledge and communities closer together.

So although Knowledge flowing through an organisation is unlike Oil flowing through a rock, the factors of Darcy’s law can still be used as an analogy to give us insight into 4 ways to improve the flow of knowledge. 

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The Aha! moment – how to tell when knowledger transfer is successful

There is one immediate test of effective knowledge transfer, and that is the Aha moment.

Image from wikimedia commons

Anyone who has ever, at any time, tried to explain something to someone else, is aware of the “Aha moment”.

The Aha moment, oterhwise known as the Light-bulb moment, is a moment of sudden inspiration, revelation, understanding or recognition. It’s such a common experience that it has made its way into cartoon iconography, with the image of a light bulb lighting up above a character’s head when he or she suddenly “gets it”.

You can see the light bulb in real life – you can see the moment when understanding dawns. It’s a brightening of the features, an increase in the level of engagement, stiffening body posture, a widening of the eyes, a smile. Those are the outward signs of the inward dawning of comprehension.

The Aha moment is a very valuable indicator in Knowledge Transfer, because it means that the recipient has “got it”. They have recognised the new knowledge for what it is – namely something better and more valuable than the knowledge they currently hold in their head.

I remember a classic example when I was running a Knowledge Management training session in Alaska, and I was trying to get across the idea that KM is not an abstract notion, but is something that needs to be applied to real business problems. I saw someone at the back of the room suddenly “light up”, come to attention, and start scribbling rapidly on a piece of paper. I asked him later what had happened, and he told me that the light bulb had come on when I had said “KM can help you with the things you need to know, right now, to deliver your business” – and he had immediately jotted down 10 business problem that KM would be able to help. These would become the basis of his KM strategy.

The Aha moment can only be recognised, and happens in the most dramatic form, when knowledge is transferred face to face. In fact any trainer or teacher looks for that moment, and keeps trying different ways to transfer the knowledge until the lightbulb lights. They watch the faces, and watch the eyes, and watch the body language, and look for the moment when people “get it”. Until that point, the knowledge has not been received. So for important knowledge, where the light bulb needs to go on and stay on, you need to look at tried and tested mechanisms such as Peer Assist, Knowledge Exchange, Knowledge Handover and so on, where the facilitator can prompt for, and watch for, the Ahas and the light bulbs.

Knowledge Managers, please watch out for the Aha moment, That is your best indicator, metric or KPI to show that Knowledge Transfer has really happened.

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Why effective knowledge transfer requires nuanced language

To be able to transfer subtleties of knowledge, we need subtleties of language.

Image from wikimedia commons

The Eskimo languages have, it is claimed, 50 words for snow (falling or lying snow, and ice).  This may or may not be true, but their various words can carry a huge amount of subtle detail, and this detail is vitally important for a people that live, travel and hunt on snow.

For example there is a word “Nuyileq”, meaning “crushed ice beginning to spread out; dangerous to walk on. The ice is dissolving, but still has not dispersed in water, although it is vulnerable for one to fall through and to sink. Sometimes seals can even surface on this ice because the water is starting to appear.” (source here). This is a crucial distinction if you intend to  travel on this ice.

Those of us who live in temperate and tropical cities find this level of detail remarkable.  Snow is an unusual feature for us, and we basically only have two or three words for it; snow, slush, and “the wrong sort of snow” (the stuff that shuts down the rail network).  To have 50 words seems quite amazing.

Winter mountain climbers on the other hand, who rely on snow and ice for the safe ascent of mountains, have additional words –

  • “Neve” – that tough snow that securely holds the pick of your ice-axe
  • “Rime” – the coating of frost and snow over rock which you can brush off using a glove
  • “Spindrift” – fine falling snow swirling in the air, not enough for an avalance, but enough to get down your neck and soak your shirt
  • “Cornice” – the awkward overhang of snow at the top of your climb which you must circumvent, or tunnel through.
  • “Verglas”  – a thin coating of ice that forms over rocks when rainfall or melting snow freezes on rock. Hard to climb on as there is insufficient depth for your crampons to have reliable penetration.

Words convey nuance, and the more important a context is to you, the more nuance you need and the more words you use. Some call this jargon, but really it is nuanced communication which allows efficient and effective knowledge sharing.

As an example of nuance, the UK is a very wet place, and how many English words do we have for water?  Falling water, or water lying or running across the ground?  We certainly have many more than 50, and yet water is not much more complex than snow.  See the list below, and add more if you want to. (This article suggests the Scots have 100 words for rain, but to be honest, some of these are cheating).

We have so many words because water is a very familiar concept to us, we know it well, we see it in its manifestations and all its scales, it affects our travel, our gardens and our crops, and we know it well enough to make fine and subtle differentiations. It is useful for us to be able to differentiate between different types of water, just as it is useful for the Inuit to differentiate between different types of snow.

This actually makes it quite difficult to exchange knowledge between two such different contexts. 

 Without some experience of different types of snow, or different types of water, you don’t have the words to explain the difference.  In fact without the experience of the subtleties, you can’t understand the differences.  And how do you communicate when you cant understand the meanings behind the words? How do you exchange knowledge, when the contexts are not there?

That is why one of the first things you need to do when setting up knowledge transfer between people with different contexts is to agree on terminology, and what it means. 

And those fifty words for water? Here’s 55 – tell me if I have missed any!

  1. Drip
  2. Drop
  3. Droplet
  4. Rain
  5. Shower
  6. Deluge
  7. Downpour
  8. Drizzle
  9. Mist
  10. Fog
  11. Smirr
  12. Puddle
  13. Pond
  14. Pool
  15. Lake
  16. Tarn
  17. Loch
  18. Lochan
  19. Mere
  20. Ditch
  21. Dyke
  22. Swamp
  23. Bog
  24. Lagoon
  25. Oasis
  26. Seep
  27. Spring
  28. Source
  29. Spout
  30. Fountain
  31. Rising
  32. Creek
  33. Trickle
  34. Rivulet
  35. Tributary
  36. Stream
  37. Brook
  38. Bourne
  39. Brooklet
  40. Streamlet
  41. Beck
  42. Burn
  43. Gill
  44. Rill
  45. Runnell
  46. Rapids
  47. Waterfall
  48. Force
  49. Falls
  50. Cascade
  51. Cataract
  52. Flume
  53. River
  54. Flood
  55. Estuary

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