The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
— T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets: East Coker
I have with me
all that I do not know
I have lost none of it
— W. S. Merwin, The Nomad Flute
Voracious in my appetite
For the uncertain and unknown
— Charles Baudelaire, Congenial Horror
Out of confusion, as the way is,
And the wonder that man knows,
Out of the chaos would come bliss.
— Dylan Thomas, Being But Men
We write less than we speak and know more than we say. It is an aphorism that owes much to the thinking, writing and sharing of others. In his 1966 book The Tacit Dimension, Michael Polanyi posited the notion that ‘we can know more than we can tell’. Dave Snowden subsequently offered a refinement, observing ‘We always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down.’ Chris Collison then expanded the idea further, arguing that ‘We know more than we can ever tell, we tell more than we can ever write down, and we write down more than we ever act upon.’
Collison’s addition of action was a useful variant. Before humankind had language we still had the ability to learn from one another. We did this through observation and imitation. This remains part of our learning capability today, part of the toolkit alongside language and thought. Can knowledge ever be transferred, though? I am sceptical on that point. But I certainly believe that knowledge, like information and data, can be made available. It can be done so in a variety of forms too: demonstrated, acted, verbalised, drawn, codified. As Jane Bozarth observes in her recent book Show Your Work, ‘showing work helps an idea connect with someone else who needs it.’ A stagiaire cyclist learns by riding alongside professionals in the peloton; a linguist learns a new language by immersing themselves in the culture of a country where that language is spoken; an infant learns to walk, to talk, through copying and repetition.
In each scenario certain preferences and individual choices come into play. These relate to how knowledge is discovered, accessed, processed, absorbed, imitated and sampled. We are always at the edges of not knowing, curiosity and experimentation helping us bridge those gaps. In a world of networked knowledge, we constantly discover opportunities to connect to new knowledge or, at least, to the people who carry it and are able to put it into practice to our mutual benefit. Access to new knowledge also initiates an interesting process. As with food, we consume, digest, retain and excrete. Personal filters, personal context, will govern what we find useful, what we will act upon ourselves. The point is that this process is internalised. Knowledge remains personal, implicit.
I can make some of my own knowledge visible through my actions, words or writing. I have shared it but it remains mine, constrained by my own context, my own experience. You might consume some of what I have shared – observing, listening, reading – but you will make it your own, pass it through your own filters. Is that transference of knowledge? Not really. At best, I have helped catalyse your own thought processes, nothing more. I think this is why I was always uncomfortable leading a knowledge management function: I do not really believe that collective, corporate knowledge can be managed in the same way as data and information can. This is because knowledge is personal. Separate it from the individual and their context, and I question whether it is still knowledge. Rather we are left with digital and analogue artefacts: videos, documents, slide decks and social networks filled with words, numbers and images.
As a student of literature and film, I was required to explore ideas that had emerged from semiotics and structuralism. These schools of thought were indebted to the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. For him, the sign was the organising concept for all forms of language. A sign was comprised of two elements, the signifier and the signified. So, if I were to say or write the word cat (signifier), a fellow Anglophone would infer from that a four-legged creature with a tail, pointy ears and whiskers (signified). Similarly, if I were to draw a sketch of such a creature (signifier), people would understand that I was alluding to a domestic pet that looked roughly the same (signified). The idea is beautifully captured in René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images in which his painting of a pipe is accompanied by the words ‘Ceci n’est pas un pipe’ (This is not a pipe). It is not a pipe because it is a picture of a pipe, a simulacrum.
Something similar happens with the exposure of our own knowledge. Knowledge is personal, there is a human dimension to it. When I write it down or speak about it, I serve up a signifier. But my intentions may differ from the way another individual interprets what I write or say. They need to make it their own. Much in the same way that I use the quotes that top and tail this post. I have removed them from one context, interpreted them and used them in a different way. The ideas I share only become knowledge again when they have been internalised by someone else, made their own. This is, for me, one of the great attractions of personal knowledge mastery as advocated by the likes of Harold Jarche and Kenneth Mikkelsen. PKM is a continuous human activity, not a mechanised procedure redolent of old knowledge management initiatives in the corporate world. It recognises that knowledge remains personal.
Knowledge is sought out, ingested, personalised and applied.
Knowledge, unlike information, is a human characteristic; there can be information no one knows, but there can’t be knowledge no one knows.
— Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus
Practising PKM, as a flowing series of half-baked ideas, can encourage innovation and reduce the feeling that our exposed knowledge has to be ‘executive presentation perfect’. Workplaces that enable the constant narration of work and learning in a trusted space can expose more implicit knowledge. Organizations can foster innovation by accepting that collective understanding is in a state of perpetual Beta. A culture of innovation can be created by changing daily behaviours, which the practice of PKM can do.
— Harold Jarche, Innovation Means Learning at Work
We follow people because of what they know, not because of what they don’t know. We engage consultants because they know something that we don’t.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing
It is increasingly important to be seen to add value. To be seen to be knowledgeable and willing to share your knowledge. In the old days “knowledge is power” used to mean holding on to it and only giving it out judiciously to certain people. In an Internet world there is no point in having knowledge if people don’t know you have it, and if you are not prepared to share it.
— Euan Semple, Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do