Wanted: Knowledge Assets - Dead or Alive?

There have been a few threads on LinkedIn KM groups on the topic of “knowledge assets” recently. It’s one of those words which gets thrown around by KM people without any agreed definition.  For many people, they are interchangeable with the term “information assets”, but sound sexier.  (Much like databases became “knowledgebases” a few years ago.)

Now I’m not going to assert definitions here – rather to give my view on the different perspectives, and share the way I distinguish between knowledge assets and information assets, building on the descriptions that Geoff and I wrote in “Learning to Fly”.

Speaking of flight, there’s something about butterfly collections which always leaves me feeling slightly saddened.   The colours and fragility are still there, but of course the life has gone.

I think we do well to remind ourselves that when we capture knowledge and write it down as information, we kill it. That’s not to say that the information is not immensely valuable, and may even have a long shelf life.

But it is dead.

Knowledge is information with the life still in it!

For me, the role of a knowledge asset is to consolidate the learning from a number of activities, and produce a distilled set of guidelines or recommendations, with (importantly) a clear and well-linked signpost to contact the source, to drill down into more detail and examples, and to contribute further stories to build the asset further.  Oh, and there’s some kind of mechanism for validating the input – ideally via a community of practice.  They keep it alive.

I've seen a lot of examples which start out as "knowledge assets", but quickly become "knowledge graveyards" because there is no community to own and refresh the content, and the links between the information and the authors/sources are not clear or maintained. Once you lose the connection between knowledge and the person who provided it, it's a bit like switching off its life support machine...

  • There is an "extractionist" school of thought out there which focuses on separating knowledge from an individual, then combining, distilling and packaging in into a convenient and accessible products.
  • And there's a "connectivist" school of thought which seeks to turn information into an advertisement for a conversation with the source.

I think the best knowledge assets combine these perspectives.   Too much extractionism (is that a real word?), and you can end up a logical but inflexible, self-reinforcing summary of the views of the editor-in-chief.  Too much connectivism, and you can get endless repeating, diverging threads and snippets which can be frustrating to draw insight from, and require too many phone calls to answer the all questions they elicit.

There are some topics which lend themselves to something approaching a “single version of the truth” (we call that known area “best practice” don’t we?), and for them, the logic of an extractionist-oriented knowledge asset will work.

Then there are topics which are more complicated, and benefit from the constant iteration and interaction of a connection-rich asset. (That’s knowable “good practice” in the Cynefin framework).

I suspect it’s in these two quadrants where knowledge assets add value. Shifting further to the left takes us on a journey into emergence and chaos where pre-packaged knowledge is unlikely to fit the bill, although the fragments and stories they contain may well be informative.

One of the LinkedIn discussions asked: "Is a cookbook was an example of a knowledge asset?"

My answer was:

... a cookbook isn't really a very good example of a knowledge asset because it represents a snapshot in time of a particular recipe, and doesn't usually provide me with an easy way to ask questions of the chef, or other cooks who are learning/experimenting/adapting... I would say it's really an Information Asset.  That's not a bad thing - I have a kitchen full of them!

However, a recipe *blog*, which has all the benefit of the book, but which is socially constructed, grows and develops, commented-on added to by other cooks and enthusiasts who ask and answer questions...  Now that feels more like a *knowledge* asset to me.

Chimps, Grapes and the cultural power of social learning

Came across this article on the BBC website today.  Interesting to read the interpretation that power of "social learning" in the chimp community is so strong that  the chimps stopped innovating and adapting, and complied with "what they had learned" - however inappropriate and suboptimal that approach was.

Now we can all smile at the chimps with their sticks and grapes - but I can see some parallels here with how culture develops in organisations, and what we learned once about something which works, left unchallenged becomes a barrier to future adaptation. Which in turn, is why I have such a struggle with the term "best practice".

Reminds me of the old apes, the banana and the water spray story.

Here's the BBC article:

Copycat chimps build their own tools after watching video demonstrations.

During a study, the animals were shown footage of a trained chimp combining two components to construct a tool that enabled it to reach a food reward.

When given the same two components, the chimps made their own tools and used them to drag over a tasty treat.

Reporting in the Royal Society journal Proceedings B, scientists say this demonstrates what a "potent effect" social learning has in the primates.

Elizabeth Price, from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, led the research.

"With video, we can control exactly how much information the animals see, so we can understand exactly how much information they need to work out how to do the task," she explained.

This type of behaviour is very rare in the wild
Elizabeth Price St Andrews University

Dr Price and her colleagues put the chimps into five groups during the test.

One of the groups was shown the whole demonstration - where a chimp was handed a rod and a tube that it slotted together. The demonstrator then used this longer composite tool to retrieve a grape from a platform outside its cage.

The other groups were shown progressively less information - with one group just shown the chimp eating its grape.

The researchers then recreated the set-up for the subjects.

They placed a grape on a platform against the outside of each chimp's cage, and handed the animals a rod and a plastic tube.

"Those chimps that saw the full demonstration learned better how to construct the necessary tool (to reach the food)," Dr Price told BBC News.

"The fact that they can learn how to build a better tool for a particular task is very exciting. This type of behaviour is very rare in the wild, and it's an essential part of human tool use."

Watch and learn

"A handful of the chimps that weren't shown the full demonstration learned how to make the tool on their own," said Dr Price.

Chimp using stick as a tool
Chimpanzees usually modify sticks by stripping them of their leaves

"What was interesting about this group was that, when we presented them with the grape at different distances from the cage, they made the appropriate tool to reach it."

Rather than faithfully copy the demonstration, these animals switched between using the unmodified tube or rod, and using the combined tool, depending on how far away the grape was.

"Those that had been shown the full demonstration, and had socially learned to make the longer tool, continued to make it even when the grape was so close that it was more awkward to use," said Dr Price.

"It could be that social learning is such a strong force for the chimps that they apply a blanket rule of 'go with what you've seen' (rather than work out what's most appropriate for the task)."

The team is now planning to carry out the same test in young children to find out how much they rely on social learning.

What the team still do not know why this type of tool-building is not seen more commonly in the wild.

"We've shown that they're clever enough, so there must be something else at play," said Dr Price.

"It may be that when chimpanzees reach an age at which they are... capable of performing these higher level techniques, they may be too old to have access to sufficiently tolerant demonstrators."