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Grassroots KM through blogging

May 14, 2001 - Maish Nichani, Venkat Rajamanickam

The blend of KM and e-learning initiatives is on every CLO's (Chief Learning Officer) agenda these days. The pitch is that, KM wrapped e-learning will enable instant sharing and flow of strategic information, or knowledge, seamlessly through all channels of the organization, ensuring a well informed workforce that can react to the vagaries of the new economy.

Having such a KM wrapper is a great concept, but there is one problem: most KM designs these days are fraught with complexity – complex processes, complex workflow, complex software, complex implementation etc., which lead to complex results and outcomes, all of which portray KM to be a little overwhelming. But, as we shall see, there is a way out.

In this article, we share our experiences with a strategy and technology so simple in design, that it could present the next wave of grassroots KM implementations. We are talking of the "storytelling" as the killer strategy, and "blogs" as the killer technology. Both of them share one common ground: grassroots interaction – a concept voiced by the likes of John Seely Brown, Larry Prusak, Steve Dennings, Dave Snowden, David Weinberger, among other prominent KM personalities.

Storytelling in KM

blogs, storytelling and KM

Recently, we came across a number of articles describing the use of the storytelling strategy in managing knowledge. On April 30, 2001, there was a symposium, Storytelling: Passport to the 21st Century, held at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. Speakers at this symposium were Larry Prusak, John Seely Brown, Steve Denning, and Katalina Groh. Their intent:

What we have is a set of lenses through which to view new landscapes of the 21st century. The richness of perspective, the diversity of frameworks, and the depth of insights the speakers provide on the subject of knowledge and storytelling offer a wealth of information that is seldom found in one place. It is our hope that these interactions and their multiple perspectives will help others to create new frameworks for constructing new knowledge and lay the foundation for future discussion, negotiation, and sharing.

In an article that appeared in the May 2001 edition of Knowledge Management magazine, Dave Snowden, director of IBM's Institute of Knowledge Management for Europe/Middle East/Asia, says:

When properly formulated and circulated, stories can be put to a variety of uses in KM and other business endeavors, including corporate communications and human resources. Stories may serve specific business purposes such as diffusing knowledge, capturing what is tacit and creating a memory framework.

In another talk with MITRE, Snowden points out that storytelling is an inherent part of an organization's life:

Storytelling could provide a useful tool for capturing and disseminating knowledge in organizations. Stories are already a necessary part of an organization’s life. They are told around the water cooler, confidentially whispered in the elevator, distributed via email. Moreover, organizations are beginning to understand that storytelling is not an optional extra. Stories are something that already exist as an integral part of defining what that organization is, what it means to buy from it, what it means to work for it.

Describing "Knowledge Narratives", David Weinberger, argues that it is through stories that we understand the world:

But the real problem with the information being provided to us in our businesses is that, for all the facts and ideas, we still have no idea what we're talking about. We don't understand what's going on in our business, our market, our world.

In fact, it'd be right to say that we already ∗know∗ way too much. KM isn't about helping us to know more. It's about helping us to understand. Knowledge without understanding is like, well, information.

So, how do we understand things? From the first accidental wiener roast on a prehistoric savanna, we've understood things by telling stories. It's through stories that we understand how the world works.

After going through all these wonderful articles and papers, we debated — In which knowledge domain is storytelling most effective?

Short answer: The tacit domain

Long answer: Read on...

Take a look at this very common KM diagram that the modes of knowledge transfer:

∗Tacit-to-Tacit Tacit-to-Explicit
∗Explicit-to-Tacit Explicit-to-Explicit

To understand these dimensions of transfer, we need to take a deeper look at what John Seely Brown refers to as "the twin faces of knowledge" - the explicit, and the tacit.

Explicit knowledge is knowledge that is very definable, and very objective. Hence it can be easily documented, and transferred. Tacit knowledge on the other hand, is the knowledge that lives in peoples' head and in their practices. It's the knowledge that hides itself from their consciousness even though they put it to use every day. Tacit knowledge manifests itself only through the practice in which it is used. And, it is this tacit part that is more important of the two.

In their book, "The Social Life of Information", John Seely Brown & Paul Duguid show this difference by taking the example of looking for words in the dictionary:

These [dictionaries] are guidebooks of language and particularly for spelling. But if you lack the tacit dimension for spelling, shelves of dictionaries will do you no good. For being able to use a dictionary (the explicit part) is not enough. You have to know when to use a dictionary. A good speller will say, "I just know that doesn't look right." This is the tacit part. Once it has done its work, you can turn to the explicit information in the dictionary. The problem for a bad speller, of course, is that if he or she lacks the tacit knowing that makes the words look wrong, then the dictionary's use is limited. In the end, paradoxically, you only learn to use a dictionary by learning to spell. (p.134)

Most KM implementations aim to manage both the explicit and tacit dimensions of knowledge, but as many have realized, managing the tacit knowledge is almost next to impossible. For the simple reason that one cannot aim to manage the part of knowledge that even eludes the owner himself.

But, you can aim to influence the tacit knowledge.

Example: Consider tennis. A coach shows a player how forehand and backhand strokes are to be played correctly — the timing, the footwork, the rate of swing, the follow-through, etc. All of this is the explicit knowledge that the coach imparts to his pupil. But along with the explicit, there is a whole lot of implicit, or tacit, knowledge that the pupil absorbs from the coach, or as John Seely Brown would say, steals from the coach without the coach being aware of it. This is done through the myriad of conversations or interactions the pupil has with his coach during the coaching sessions. Conversely, through his coaching, the coach aims to influence the tacit knowledge in his pupil. He just aims to do it, as he can never sure he is doing it. He can only be sure by watching his pupil play on the court. As any tennis player knows, what happens on the court is 99% improvisation on the basic rules. There are just too many variables at play that demand improvisation — it could be the slowness of the court, the agility of the opponent, the humidity in the air, the pressure of the balls, the support of the crowd, etc. So, in such a condition, how does a player still manage to hit the ball correctly, or at times from seemingly impossible angles? It's by using the tacit knowledge gained through hours and hours of coaching and practice. Thus, in this case, the coach would see the tacit knowledge manifest itself only by watching his pupil play on the court.

Storytelling is one way to influence the tacit knowledge in people, just as coaching (which is nothing but a whole bunch of stories) influences the tacit knowledge in players.

To understand how stories work to influence the tacit knowledge, let us first attempt to give some character to the tacit knowledge. Steve Denning has already done this by calling the tacit knowledge "the little voice in the head".

This little voice is nurtured by the myriad of experiences it goes through, so much so that it becomes the defining voice when it comes to interpreting new experiences. Further, because it is unique to the individual, different individuals would react to new experiences in very different ways, depending on what the little voice in their heads tells them.

Stories influence the little voice as they provide a richer interaction than other modes of information (the actual practice provides the richest interaction). The Knowledge Socialization Project at IBM, which "explores ways in which the strength of storytelling can be used to enable informal knowledge transfer", explains this richness in stories:

Stories are full of information because they draw on common understood truths to convey more information than is obvious. A story that "engages" people means that the listener or reader adds a lot of knowledge and information, so that the story "as experienced" can be extremely rich in terms of the total knowledge "activated" or "accessed" compared to what is explicitly mentioned.
stories as hooks for the brain

Take a look at this figure. Imagine the handles on the story to signify the richness of the story. Now, these handles indulge the little voice to interact with them. And when that happens, the little voice reacts to the story, assimilates it, analyzes it, compares it, contrasts it, and finally absorbs it into its internal structure. Compare this with the likes of corporate directives, the rules, the faqs, etc. As they have no handles, they do not indulge the little voice at all, leading to zero interaction, and ultimately leading to what we call "passerby information".

Thus, stories are fantastic in getting to indulge the little voice in our heads, leading to the holy grail of all KM initiatives — tacit-to tacit knowledge transfer.

Blogs as stories

blogs as stories

There are literally hundreds of articles, about blogs (or weblogs). Trying to define precisely what a blog is an exercise in futility, because blogs are constantly shifting, evolving and becoming something else. But, this seems to be the general consensus for the moment: blogs are personal websites, usually maintained by an individual, constantly updated with new information, personal experiences, analysis, hyperlinks and commentary on just about anything, to a repeat audience.

For a quick recap, check this definition by Guardian Unlimited.

For the purpose of this article, we need to bring out two salient characteristics of a blog:

There can be no doubt that blogging is a form of storytelling. Let us look at some of the salient features of stories and how they map on to blogs:

Stories Blogs
Stories are concrete. They deal with specific people, things, events, rather than abstract concepts. Blogs too are highly specific. Check out these blog directories and read some blogs to experience for yourself what they are talking about: bloghop; blogstart; eatonweb
Stories are temporal. They consist of events unfolding in time. Blogs are continuous and chronological updates of events. Most are updated on a daily basis, and some even several times a day!
Stories are purposeful. They deal with agents who have goals that they try to realize, obstacles or conflicts they encounter and (sometimes) solutions or resolutions. This is true of a typical entry in a blog. Read this story from Meg of notsosoft
Stories convey understanding because they are told in context. Context conveys emotions, triggers individual and group memories, provides intuition and insights to events. Bloggers establish context over an extended period of time and since their audience is made of regular visitors, context can be implied or can be explicitly hyperlinked to a previous entry.
Stories that have the highest appeal are the ones that have a degree of strangeness, yet plausible, have perspective of a single protagonist, told as simply as possible, recent and at least partly true.

The most widely read blogs have precisely the same qualities. Kulesh in this article 'Weblogging: Lessons learned' notes:

"Be original be unique. Always comment on links you provide. Tell the readers what to expect and what you think about it. Be observant, that is one of the best ways to find great contents. You are unique just like everyone else. You might see a different perspective altogether. Regular updates are mandatory daily updates are not."
Stories are direct and unfiltered communication of not only one to one but, one to many.

So too are blogs. Many agree that bloggers tend to be distrustful of established gatekeepers of information and celebrate their freedom to be able to communicate directly with their audience. Brad in his thoughts on 'Why I Weblog' remarks:

"As the weblog movement matures, our sites will wrest editorial authority the few editors of today and divide it among the many. "They" can continue to publish the chaff; we'll be there to point our hungry readers toward the wheat."
People use stories to enhance face. Related to face enhancement is Schank's notion of ME-GOALS. People often tell stories to demonstrate something they want to say about themselves (e.g., 'I'm smart', or 'I'm funny', etc.). Need we have to say about weblogs?
People tend to hear in a receptive mode rather than in the reactive mode that other forms of communications might create. That is, when listening to stories, people lower their defences to absorb what they're hearing instead of concentrating on preparing responses and questions.

Blogs by nature are free flow of personal ideas with, as Cameron Barrett calls it, "a zero tolerance for flames". Now consider this quote from this Slashdot article by Jon Katz:

"They seem to almost all be ideologically opposed to hostility, including essayish commentary and observations. Because the site creator limits and approves membership, they don't need to be defended as intensely as bigger sites, nor do they attract - or permit - posters who abuse others. One obvious payoff is that the flow of ideas is strong, uninterrupted and impressive."
Good stories resonate well between the teller and the listener. Its message is universal. Good blogs speak in an original and quintessentially unique voice, apprehended and comprehended by a wide constituency.
Stories are a good framework for sharing information, meaning and knowledge. Original blogs were similar frameworks for sharing links, commentary and personal thoughts

Thus it seems that blogs are a really cool way of telling stories. And because they are digital and use the Web for publishing and distribution, they have some advantages over traditional means of storytelling.

Blogs as a KM tool

blogs as KM

In this section we draw some glimpses on how blogs can be used as a KM tool.

∗Dave Weinberger, in his excellent piece, "Knowledge Narratives", mentions two lines of KM thought:

One line of KM thought says that the problem with information is that there's too darn much of it. Thus KM is really about selective forgetting. This part of the culture uses words like "filter," "focus," and "knowledge mining."

Another cultural segment says that the problem with information is that it lacks context. KM is about seeing the broader implications of information. You hear words such as "strategic," "trends," "synthesizing," and "mapping."

Each of these approaches takes an aspect of information and tries to ratchet it up so that it becomes knowledge.

The following two cases reveal how blogs cater to these two dimensions of KM.

1. Selective forgetting & Knowledge mining

The very nature of a blog is to provide an intelligent digest of commentary and links on a regular basis, and these links, as Scott Rosenberg argues in Salon, is a fundamental service to readers who are looking for information that has a personal touch to it:

On the Web, with its unspannable abundance of chaotic and ill-organized information, pointing people to good links is a fundamental service -- a combination of giving directions to strangers and sharing one's discoveries with friends.... More fleshed out than a simple link list but less introspective than an online diary, a good weblog is also a window onto the mind and daily life of its creator. By providing an up-to-the-minute and also fully archived record of what they've found in their browsing and what they think about it, weblog creators provide their readers with evolving snapshots of the Web, refracted through a single editorial mind.

In this rant in Slashdot, a blog reader says these resonating words:

Why I read weblogs? The filtering by different people with different tastes and different backgrounds. By checking 10 or 15 sites daily, I'm able to assimilate way more information than I would be able to all on my own, with a good slice of commentary thrown in. After visiting different sites for a short while, I have a fairly good idea of the viewpoints and interests of the authors; I have an idea of how they filter information. Weblogs allow me to get the point of view of smart people in varied fields; more people than I could reasonably meet and interact with in meat space. I find that valuable.

Thus, If KM is about getting low on the signal-to-noise ratio on information, then blogs seem to be the natural way to go about doing it.

2. Synthesizing information

During the recent presidential elections in the US, some blogs investigated electoral distributions to draw up some really interesting conclusions. (Note: You can read the entire entry here — roll down to the dataviz section)

Peterme linked a Tpodd entry showing Black and Hispanic distribution overlaid on the electoral map. From this simple post, observe the discussions that followed:

"It makes the case bloody obvious about voting along race lines. Interesting how African-Americans have collected along those highway swaths in the south."

The next day, the discussions spread to other blogs, including this thread on MetaFilter. More observations here too:

That blue area in Kentucky and West Virginia is Coal Country up in the Appalachians. Heavily union, heavily democratic. People there don't move away to the suburbs, they still remember their daddy's uncle got shot by the Pinkertons for organizin', that sort of thing. Anything near water is going to have a city. And if I'm not mistaken, that southern swath may well correspond with high African-American demographics.

That's true, dhartung, and the blue in Texas and all the way along the border with Mexico is heavily Hispanic.

Correct assessment of the long-time Democrat tradition in the coal fields. One problem though, both Kentucky and West Virginia went for Bush this election. The reason was simple. The union coal miners could not abide Gore's environmental policies that would in essence kill their industry. First Republican to win West Virginia since Reagan's re-election, and only the 2nd time since the Depression.

if I could nitpick, that swath doesn't actually go ∗though∗ Atlanta---if you look in Georgia, you'll see a blue blotch just to the north of the swath that's actually Atlanta... the swath itself is Middle Georgia, and as a former resident, I can tell you that what's there is a whole lot of nothing.

Again, the day after, there are more interesting analysis from Peterme:

In the discussion of what lead to the voting patterns mentioned in the previous post, it's come up that those swaths are likely along interstate highway lines. So, I've updated the map notes (new URL) mentioning the interstates that seem to be in play. I suppose it's obvious, but I'd never thought before how interstate highways are the new rivers, the means by which commerce flows, leading to encampments developing on their banks. Did the architects of the interstate system get this in the 50s? Was it factored into their decisions?

The discussion went on for a couple of more days, but just take a look at the knowledge that was created by analyzing, synthesizing, and mapping different, otherwise placid, information.

∗ In an another article, "Tacit Docs", David Weinberger, talks on the grassroots kind of exchange of documents "tacit docs", as he calls them, that enables sharing of knowledge in organizations:

Put it like this: Would you rather have tech support people with heads full of knowledge or people able to answer lots of different types of questions and solve lots of different types of problems? (Think carefully: there ∗is∗ a right answer to that question.) At best, transferring Knowledge Rocks from one head to another is but a small part of the task of making your organization smarter.

So, this tacit knowledge folderol is a distraction. But there is a type of tacit stuff that's well worth capturing and sharing: tacit documents. These are the writings that are under the radar of corporate information systems. For example, at one company I know, the support staff got so tired of waiting for the technical manuals to be updated that one of the support people wrote up his own set of installation instructions which then became the preferred documentation set among his colleagues – unapproved, colloquially written, and far more useful.

More frequently, however, the tacit documents in an organization are email messages. That's where coworkers trade stories, ask questions, propose new methods, debate techniques. But the very thing that makes email an attractive medium also makes it hard to manage. People write email where they wouldn't write a memo because it's far more informal and far more entertaining.

From our discussion on blogs, we can confidently say that they are a very effective type of tacit documents that can foster disseminating and sharing of knowledge in organizations.

∗In many KM systems, the emphasis is only on codifying and transferring knowledge. These systems intend to take the knowledge from an expert's head and pour it into a novice's head. There are two things wrong with such a scenario:

  1. These systems, although aiming to elicit and transfer the tacit, only manage to do so with the explicit dimension of knowledge. Because, as we have seen, the tacit dimension of knowledge doesn't take so kindly to packing and delivering
  2. The systems inherently don't give anything back to the contributors. That is why many KM implementations depend heavily on the use of incentives, such as gifts, rewards, bonuses, etc., to invite participation and sharing.

Contrast this with blogs. As we have seen, blogs are pithy stories that are packed with a lot of tacit knowledge. Through the blogs, we get to read the mind of the blogger; we get to know him/her, feel him/her, anticipate him/her, all aspects that interact with the tacit in the blogger. Here's a blog reader's experience:

The best weblogs have distinctive voices, they make you laugh, and they take you, for just a minute or so, into another person's world. What are they thinking about, reading, watching, remembering, eating? Where do they live, and how does that place influence the choices they make and the links they choose? They may put an original twist on a topic you thought you knew everything about, and make you look at it in a different light, from a different viewpoint. A good weblog shares all of that.

Further, by blogging, there is a marked transformation in the bloggers themselves. He/she gets to satisfy the need to self-actualize. Abraham Maslow, in laying out his theory of need gratification in humans in his book "Motivation and Personality", describes the need for "self-actualization" as the ultimate gratification:

Even if all needs are satisfied, we may still often (if not always) expect that a new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he, individually, is fitted for. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. He must be true to his own nature (p.46).

Take a look at what Rebecca Blood, the voice behind Rebecca's Pocket, has to say about her self-actualization:

Shortly after I began producing Rebecca's Pocket I noticed two side effects I had not expected. First, I discovered my own interests. I thought I knew what I was interested in, but after linking stories for a few months I could see that I was much more interested in science, archaeology, and issues of injustice than I had realized. More importantly, I began to value more highly my own point of view. In composing my link text every day I carefully considered my own opinions and ideas, and I began to feel that my perspective was unique and important.

Need we say more?

Organizational blogs

In this section we aim to distil from some efforts to build organizational blogs.

There are definitely more such blogs, but we would like to bring out a pattern here. Firstly, the blogs are either operated by single individuals (NUBlog, Scripting News), or as a team (Signal Vs Noise, Xblog). Secondly, these blogs are operated by people who are obviously very passionate about their work, and thirdly, these are people working with very small organizations.

There are similar blogs operated by medium-sized companies too, like the following:

Now, there could be blogs operating inside very large corporations, it's just that we haven't heard of any (anyone know of such blogs? Share it with us).

Armed with the above information, here's our take on the use of blogs for KM purposes within large organizations:

corporate blog architecture

Btw, there is a free product that does most of the above: Userland Technology's Radio Userland. Also, people are waiting for Pyra Software to release the enterprise version of their highly popular free product: Blogger.


Finally, as the popularity of blogs catches on, we are going to see many more twists on their use, but as we have noted, many will grow from their grassroots ability to communicate and share personal stories. In concluding this article, we take another quote from David Weinberger (he seems to have the most commonsensical approach to KM; simply can't resist quoting him):

So, here's a definition of that pesky and borderline elitist phrase, "knowledge worker": A knowledge worker is someone whose job entails having really interesting conversations at work.

The characteristics of conversations map to the conditions for genuine knowledge generation and sharing: They're unpredictable interactions among people speaking in their own voice about something they're interested in. The conversants implicitly acknowledge that they don't have all the answers (or else the conversation is really a lecture) and risk being wrong in front of someone else. And conversations overcome the class structure of business, suspending the org chart at least for a little while.

If you think about the aim of KM as enabling better conversations rather than lassoing stray knowledge doggies, you end up focusing on breaking down the physical and class barriers to conversation. And if that's not what KM is really about, then you ought to be doing it anyway.


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