Category Archives: Knowledge Management

Plain Speaking blog comes to an end

It is one year since I lasted posted a comment on Plain Speaking.

There are many reasons as to why content was suspended during this time. Suffice to say, the time has come for this blog to come to a close.

Thank you to the many people who have helped me over the years, especially those people whom I met as a result of the Plain Speaking blog. Blogging enabled me to think through a number of issues and helped record some of the events I have attended over the years. In that regard, blogging was both a personal and social activity on issues in communication, media and knowledge management.

I anticipate creating another blog in the near future on communication, media and knowledge management under a different name and within more defined parameters. Once the new blog is created, a notification will then be made on Plain Speaking. As such this is the penultimate post, but an end nevertheless.

Use the right language

How many times have you heard the expression: “You need to talk/write in the language of your audience”? If you want to be able to communicate with people , you need to know “the language” they are using. I am not talking about different languages – English/German/Spanish for example. I am talking about the need to communicate with the right words and expressions of your audience, of your target group, or of your clients.

Gerry McGovern speaks of the need to speak the right language in his recent blog post: Organization language versus customer language. He gives a good example of how governments (in this case the European Union) substitute organisational language for customer language. You have to ask yourself why this would be the case. Is it to obfuscate and confuse? Or is it simply that the people writing this material are trying to impress their superiors? Or is it a lack of awareness?

If it is the latter, then communicators need to better understand the people they wish to communicate with.  Using the right language will enable true understanding of the message and facilitate meaningful two-way communication.

Website and intranet content managers are one group of people that must use the appropriate language to meet the needs of their target audience. This often proves difficult when content management is decentralised within an organisation to individuals who have no knowledge of good content management practices.

In knowledge management, we need to ensure we use the right language too. Sometimes knowledge management terms are used without an appreciation that the people we are communicating with do not understand these words. One reason for this is that we sometimes assume that our KM language is the norm when in fact it is only the norm within our KM profession. Another reason is that some people who are not knowledge managers appropriate the terms to give themselves professional validity. And another reason, common to all types of content creators, is the idea that we are communicating (usually in written form) for our own egos and not focusing on the needs of the people we wish to actually communicate with. In other words, we need to be careful in how we communicate.

We can learn from the field of marketing communications how to improve our ability to better understand our audience, target group, or clients. The message here is to actually spend some time with our audience or target group, or at least do some research about them. We can also learn from each other in knowledge management – what have been some effective and not-so-effective ways we have tried to communicate knowledge management? If we can improve our own communication, then we can advance the broader understanding of knowledge management and advocate more effectively within our own organisations.

Knowledge management, codification and tacit knowledge

The latest issue of Information Research has a great article by Chris Kimble, entitled Knowledge management, codification and tacit knowledge.

The paper takes an interesting approach; looking at knowledge from the perspective of economists. The idea is to provide a “view of knowledge that allows it to be considered as a stock that is accumulated through interaction with an information flux”.

Kimble looks at two key interpretations of tacit knowledge – from Polanyi and Nonaka. This discussion is very useful. Kimble summarises the key points from both theories in relation to knowledge management and shows the distinction between the two. Purists have argued that Polanyi’s view of tacit knowledge means that tacit knowledge can never become explicit. Nonaka takes a more practical approach, claiming tacit knowledge can be made explicit under some circumstances or approximations. Nonaka was interested specifically in “knowledge conversion”.

Kimble then discusses an interesting approach to the tacit/explicit knowledge issue – a topography of knowledge transaction activities. The typography comes from the following cited work: Cowan, R., David, P.A. & Foray, D. (2000). The explicit economics of knowledge codification and tacitness. Industrial and Corporate Change, 9(2), 211-253.

What is interesting here is that the focus is on where the knowledge transactions take place rather than the form in which the knowledge is contained. Kimble goes on to say: “While Cowan et al. may have little to say about the benefits of codification, their topography does provide a structure to examine its costs. Perhaps the most obvious cost associated with codification is that of creating the codebook.”

Kimble concludes his paper looking at the duality of information and what it means: “By focusing exclusively on codified knowledge, the advocates of codification may lose sight of the intimate linkages between tacit and explicit knowledge.”

Kimble’s paper is well worth a read for stimulating thought about tacit and explicit knowledge; a significant point of discussion in knowledge management over many, many years.

KM Australia 2013

I will be attending the KM Australia Congress 2013 this year. It’s on 23-25 July at Crystal Palace, Luna Park, Sydney. The venue is close to Milsons Point station which allows good public transportation to the event.

I will be going to the conference sessions on the first two days.

Here is a list of the confirmed participants:
University of Oxford
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
US Army
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
The Institute of Knowledge and Innovation (IKI-SEA)
Strategic Knowledge Solutions
Working KnowledgeCSP
Hunter Water
Department of Primary Industry (VIC)
Cancer Council Australia
NSW Treasury
Ernst & Young

I hope to see a good crowd there to participate in a potentially very interesting conference.

The great debate – tacit knowledge and collaborative technologies

I have been looking at the program for the upcoming KM Australia Congress in Sydney on 24-25 July with a strong degree of longing.  At this stage, my employer doesn’t look like sending me to this conference so I am very disappointed in not being able to attend.

However, I was particularly taken with the proposed debate on Day 2 – making tacit knowledge explicit with collaborative technologies. There are two debaters on both sides. I personally know one from each side – James Dellow (on the yes team) and Shawn Callahan (on the no team). The debate is worthy of some pre-congress discussion because it is a key knowledge management problem – can tacit knowledge ever become explicit?

I always remember Dave Snowden saying that we always know more than what we can write, we know even more than that when we speak, but we know even more than all of that inside our own heads – tacit knowledge. It is an interesting point to make in the context of how we might look at the tacit knowledge-explicit knowledge conundrum within knowledge management.

Is it therefore impossible to directly transfer tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge because tacit knowledge is full of personal experiences, nuances, and particular contexts than cannot be replicated or converted into a codified (explicit) format?

I recognise that the earliest expositions on tacit knowledge pretty much said that you cannot make tacit knowledge explicit. And I can certainly sympathise with the position (I am assuming) to be taken by Shawn in the upcoming debate since Shawn is the man behind Anecdote, a company that is in the business of storytelling and narrative. The focus here is on the speaking and personally shared experiences which cannot be communicated with the same contextual references and meaning if it was to me made explicit, say, by writing it up in a Minute for capture in an electronic database.

On the other hand, certainly within the realm of knowledge management, there has been much to say about tacit and explicit knowledge. In my readings over the years, I am inclined to think that in the field of knowledge management there is a belief in tacit knowledge – explicit knowledge transfer in what Nonaka first espoused as the knowledge management spiral. I can see James Dellow (from Headshift) making the point that collaborative technologies facilitate tacit-explicit knowledge transfer.

In my opinion, it may be true that a person’s complete tacit knowledge is unable to be codified and captured in an explicit form. I can see the purist belief in this. However, I do happen to believe that one can make some tacit knowledge explicit.

Collaborative tools such as wikis and blogs, and even listservs and email groups, can assist in having some tacit knowledge becoming explicit knowledge. We can see how this might happen when a person with particular knowledge and experiences shares them by writing it down (thereby becoming codified and explicit) for others to read and discuss. The codified knowledge is distributed and shared via collaborative tools to enhance reach and scale. A conversation may ensue using these collaborative tools, which may even foster face-to-face communication as well. The point is that now we have knowledge and experiences surfacing for other people to benefit from and/or participate in. What becomes explicit may only be a fraction of the tacit knowledge this person posesses, but this fraction may indeed be a gold mine of value to someone else.

This was certainly my experience when I established and facilitated communities of practices at Rabobank in Sydney. The communities of practice surfaced tacit knowledge (became explicit) from a host of knowledgeable and experienced people that could have remained underutilised without a mechanism to bring this knowledge to light.

I think it is more important to recognise the degree to which tacit knowledge can become explicit and thereby move the debate into the issue of quantity and quality of that knowledge, and how that knowledge can be communicated and re-articulated to generate thinking, discussion and new knowledge.

Unfortunately, while I am not likely to be able to attend KM Australia, I will be there in spirit hoping that the discussion enables some solid thinking about how we might try to use tacit knowledge more effectively and with greater scale.

I wish the debaters all the best for an interesting and intellectually challenging discussion.

KM Australia 2012

KM Australia is on again this year. KM Australia 2012 will be held in Sydney at Luna Park (Milson’s Point) on 24-25 July.

Featured presentions are scheduled from the following organisations:

  • McDermott Consulting (United States of America)
  •  LEGO Group (Denmark)
  • Toyota (United States of America)
  • Federal Transit Administration (United States of America)
  • Federal Aviation Administration (United States of America)
  • Department of Defence (Australia) Rio Tinto (Australia)
  • Queensland Treasury (Australia)
  • Genea (Australia)
  • Woods Bagot (Australia)
  • The Paige Group (Australia) Anecdote (Australia)
  • KPMG (Australia)
  • Telstra (Australia)

Should be a great event.

What you say is not what you do

There is a bit of ruckus at the moment about the power of Australia’s supermarket duopoly – Coles and Woolworths.

In the past the criticism was that the two supermarket chains had too much market power – over 80% of the Australian market. That percentage probably remains the same today despite all the brouhaha about market dominance over the past decade (i.e. there were lots of protestations at all levels of the community, and a number of government inquiries, but there has been little tangible action to reduce this market dominance).

The main brunt of the criticism relates to market concentration (the duopoly has reduced competition in the market) and has too much market power on the buying side (the duopoly can squeeze suppliers to almost unsustainable levels). In addition, supermarkets can cross-subsidise their products when it suits them, thereby using their market power to artificially lower prices in “competitive” products.

In 2008 there was the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) inquiry into the competitiveness of retail prices for standard groceries. In September 2002 there was the Report to the Senate by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission on prices paid to suppliers by retailers in the Australian grocery industry.

One of the interesting snippets of information from these public inquiries is that there was evidence that showed a difference in pricing at the supermarkets depending on whether the duopoly was in the one location and where the duopoly had a third supermarket in competition in the one geographic location. In the scenario where a location had three competing supermarkets, the Coles and Woolworths retail prices were generally lower than at locations where it was just Coles and Woolworths in competition. Well, as Michael Porter identified, businesses try to avoid price competition wheneve they can because it directly affects margins.

The impact on suppliers is clear enough. It was loud and clear when I worked at Rabobank throughout the first half of the naughties. I would hear how the supermarkets were screwing agricultural suppliers through reduced prices and increased compliance costs. For example, one banana producer told me that the bananas had to be packed in a box in a very specific way otherwise Woolworths would not accept delivery.

Nowadays, farmers have the same concerns but there are increasing demands from the duopoly concerning on-farm activities. Recently, one berry producer told me that having a dog on a berry farm was unacceptable because the dog may have been washed in a chemical bath that could get onto the berry fruit!

The supermarkets say that driving down consumer prices shows that a competitive market exists. Driving down the retail cost of milk to one dollar a litre makes a lot of sense if one wants to sell lots of milk but milk has a relatively inelastic demand – the lowering of the price does not necessarily see an increase in consumption. For the duopoly, however, a low price for a food staple like milk makes a lot of sense because it attracts shoppers to the supermarket rather than the corner store. If a shopper perceives the saving on milk is large enough, the shopper will alter his/her shopping behaviour to shop at the duopoly at the expense of other food retail providers and small businesses. Instead of going to the local convenience store to pick up milk and some ancillary groceries, the shopper will concentrate their total grocery shopping activity to the supermarket.  The duopoly wants consumers to stop buying any skerrick of grocery items from alternative convenience stores and grocery retailers. The milk war is less about increasing consumer demand for milk, but increasing the market power of the duopoly.

Currently, there is a lot of concern over the duopoly supermarket chains driving down supplier margins even further through “home brands” (also called private labels).  This article and this one sum up the private label issue nicely.

Everyone is out there saying how dreadful it is that the supermarket duopoly can do all these terrible things. However, the supermarket duopoly reduces prices on grocery items at the checkout for consumers (the same consumers who are equally screaming about the high cost of living).

A recent poll in the Sydney Morning Herald found that over 70% of people are against home brands because they limit variety (i.e. consumer choice). There is plenty of chatter to indicate that a similar percentage (or more) of people think that the supermarket duopoly has too much power.

But what does the behaviour say? Talk is cheap when there is no direct and tangible linkage to benefits or costs (i.e. there is no benefit or sanction as a consequence of our response to a survey or to give an opinion). A poll or a survey asks us what we think and we say so. We really believe what we say as well – Coles and Woolworths are bad.

However, it is likely that the very same people do their weekly grocery shopping at Coles or Woolworths. Mums and dads have Coles and/or Woolworths shares as an investment; either directly or via a superannuation fund. Our actions really do speak louder than words.

Whilst the supermarket duopoly is an important economic and marketing case study, the implications of saying one thing and doing another are huge. Are opinion polls really worth anything at all? The monthly tabloid treats of political opinion polls tell us the Gillard government will be wiped out if an election was held today – but it’s not. The next federal election (the real poll where an outcome actually happens) isn’t for another couple of years. Opinion and speculation are now touted as fact in the media. However, these same opinion-makers are not held accountable when the future unfolds in real-time and they are proved wrong.

If we are to make any sense of opinions linked to action, we need to actually examine the behaviours. This applies equally to marketing, economics, and knowledge management. It’s the logic behind behavioural economics, real-life behavioural research, and user experiences. Mark Hurst’s Good Experience is a good example of looking at what actually happens as distinct from what reportedly happens.  It’s the logic that we need to apply in our knowledge management research as well.