Knowledge as a rubgy ball or knowledge as a relay baton?
Do you pass knowledge forward, as in a relay race, or do you pass it backward, as in a rugby match?
The metaphor of a relay race is often used in Knowledge Management. Knowledge is seen as a baton that is passed from a runner (project team), after they have finished their leg (project) to another runner (project team) that is just starting.
Knowledge transfer is serial – from one, then to the next, then to the next. This is what I refer to here as “serial transfer” of knowledge. This is supported well by knowledge handover; which Pfizer called “baton passing” in a direct reference to the relay run).
Nonaka and Takeuchi contrast this with the Rugby metaphor, where the whole team runs forward, passing the ball from hand to hand between them. In Rugby the ball cannot be passed forward, and when one player meets an obstruction they seek to pass the ball to another player behind them who tries to find a way through.
By sharing small advances, the whole team moves forwards and eventually one player crosses the winning line.
In some ways this is a much better metaphor for knowledge transfer many organisations, where the aim is to make progress on all fronts, and where knowledge is shared between the different divisions and the different teams like a rugby ball, where small gains in knowledge from one part of the business are combined with small gains from another part, so that everyone advances together, rather than in series.
This is particularly true in Pharma organisations or in research organisations, where few projects succeed in developing a new product and success comes from knowledge which passes through many hands and is accumulated through many projects. Rather than the knowledge being lost or archived when one project is closed, it is far better if the knowledge is passed on and “kept alive” – built up over time through the experience of many projects.
The ball in rugby is always passed backwards – from leader to follower – but the roles of leader and follower are always changing, depending on who made the breakthrough. In knowledge terms I referred to this as “synchronous transfer“, and this is supported by communities of practice, lessons learned systems,and knowledge exchange and by “learning while doing” rather than “learning after doing”.
If you are unfamiliar with rugby, see the masterclass demonstration below, which shows that display of passing the ball from hand to hand until the breakthrough is made (particularly clear in teh overhead shot). The match was in 2002, England (in white) were playing Ireland (in green), and the ball was passed from player to player as each in turn met an obstacle, always passed backwards, involving almost the whole team, until finally the winning line was crossed.
If only we could do this in our organisations, with knowledge rather than with a rugby ball