Implementing
Stealth
Knowledge Management
(download zipped Word 6.0 version)

Rick Dove, Paradigm Shift International, www.parshift.com,

As a youth I never understood why doctors had a practice but my dad had a job. A little older, in my cynical years, I figured it was because they didn't really know how to do anything well yet, sort of like my sister and her piano lesson homework. With the wisdom of age, however, came the appreciation that the medical profession is quite up front about how much more there is to learn - and that the real learning comes with front line activity and experience - not from books and schooling - and never ends.
   "You are what you eat" may say something about your physical makeup, but you are really what you've learned, nothing more, nothing less. Little of what you've learned has come from schools, training classes, and books - most has come from your life-long social interactions with others: family, friends, enemies, fellow workers, neighbors, your tribe, whoever you meet as you travel through life and whatever you do along the way. That's the way you're wired. Humans have been doing this since long before the invention of institutional education, and long before the invention of a written alphabet.
   How we learn is coming under closer scrutiny these days, especially now that life-long learning and life-long earning have been closely related - a relationship that applies to companies as well as to people, and to top executives as well as hourly employees. Once the eye of science focused, it found that we learn how to do what we do by talking about it with other people who do the same thing. This is a major reason why doctors like to hang out with other doctors - socializing among their Community of Practice.
   But this behavior is not peculiar to doctors, everybody does it: managers hang out with managers, welders hang out with welders, rock stars and fire men seek the company of their peers, and so on. We can't help ourselves, that's the way we're wired. Sure, we all have other interests and other communities we belong to as well, but the one associated with our income generation has a special place.

You are what you've learned,
nothing more, nothing less
.


   A group of people bound by informal relationships who share a common practice, whether it's project management or basket weaving, drag racing or metal forming, is the definition of a community of practice (CoP). John Seely Brown, head of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, underscored this informality in a 1991 white paper for the Institute for Research on Learning: "The communities that we discern are ... not recognized by the organization. They are more fluid ... than bounded, often crossing the restrictive boundaries of the organization to incorporate people from outside." A community of practice emerges when people with similar interests seek each other for discourse, experience sharing, and problem solving assistance. This is self-motivated continuous learning that has always been present in the work place - it's not a new concept.
   Participation in an active community is not without obligation. As to direct "can you help me" appeals, cultivating a network of people that you can seek direct advice from is a two way street. One Bell Labs employee called it "trading in knowledge," and recognized his obligation to possess knowledge of use to others in return for the privilege of seeking another's knowledge. A study at Bell Labs showed that among engineers a higher IQ did not correlate with higher productivity, initiative and networks counted the most - networks composed of people who cultivated respect so they could trade knowledge.
   Active communities also learn through indirect conversation, and necessarily invest in trust building. Yet in the bottom-line industrial environment work-hour socializing, war story telling, and water cooler chat is typically discouraged. Many places still restrict access to the Internet - and even the corporate intranet - powerful new expansions to one's community of practice. These are policies that unwittingly rob the potential for natural learning. Nevertheless, the real work environment has always been based on collaborative learning, even when it is discouraged.
   CoPs are becoming fashionable, and more robbers are on the way. With the increased awareness and understanding of the value and roles that CoPs play in the workplace, progressive companies are asking how they can get more of them, and how they can make them more effective. Some companies even find the idea novel, and are asking how to build some, not realizing that they already have an active foundation in place. Consultants and information technology vendors never ignore such questions.
   Fortunately, science hasn't either. At least one voice of sanity out there has put these fashionable communities of practice in perspective: "They are not a new solution to existing problems; in fact they are just as likely to have been involved in the development of these problems. In particular, they are not a design fad, a new kind of organizational unit ... to be implemented. ...they cannot be legislated into existence or defined by decree. They can be recognized, supported, encouraged, and nurtured, but they are not ... designable units. Practice itself is not amenable to design." If you really want to know about this thing we all do, read Communities of Practice - Learning, Meaning, and Identity, by Etienne Wenger [1998, Cambridge Press]. Wenger is a senior research scientist with the Institute for Research on Learning in California, and was instrumental in bringing focus to the concept ten years ago.
   In our last essay here we introduced a stealth knowledge management architecture that featured a facilitation of natural interests, building on underlying needs and amplifying the effect. The judo mode of using the existing momentum to your favor. The focus in that essay was on collaborative learning group events which create new strategic knowledge, and the bringing together of people with personal interests in the knowledge to be developed and learned. We offered an example of this process employed by the Agility Forum in the mid-90s. Participants in those Agility Forum learning events created new knowledge that enabled the development of new expertise (knowledge plus experience). People left those collaborative learning events and took new knowledge back to where they came from, to solve problems and pursue opportunities with new insight. Alone. Learning more in the process. Alone.
   But some didn't do it alone. Some sought out others in their organization with known similar interests, and many reconnected informally with the other participants that had helped develop this knowledge in the first place - in those focused collaborative learning events.


   Collaborative learning groups were the formation of informal networks and communities of practice that outlived the learning projects which originally brought people together. These group learning projects helped form the trust and respect bonds across corporate boundaries that are necessary for effective networks that trade in knowledge. In hindsight it would have been valuable for the Agility Forum's staff group to take a stronger facilitation role in the formation of CoPs, and in the creation of a supporting infrastructure of Internet tools.
   Actually some of this was done. At the instigation of the group focused on Agile Virtual Enterprise, for instance, Ted Goranson pulled together a sizable and quite active community that exchanged thoughts and emerging knowledge for this area with an Internet list server that the Agility Forum provided. That this community was productive is evident in the uniquely insightful and pragmatic book that Ted's just written on the subject – The Agile Virtual Enterprise will be published this September.
   This essay completes our look at stealth knowledge management by suggesting a natural, rather than directed, way to create and nurture a culture of collaborative learning, which meets both the organization's strategic knowledge development needs as well as its grass roots operational priorities.
   Collaborative learning projects are an effective mechanism for strategic knowledge agenda fulfillment, knowledge diffusion packaging, collaborative culture initiation, and community of practice formation. Communities of practice are an effective mechanism for nurturing a collaborative culture and increasing the velocity and richness of knowledge diffusion. Bundling these as corporate knowledge management initiatives, or even focusing on the formal creation of communities of practice, runs the serious risks of creating bureaucracy, and process for process sake. Just as many TQM programs got enamored with forms and procedures to the neglect of the customer relationship, so too can knowledge management take on an abstract and unnatural life of its own.
   The accompanying figure suggests a few simple steps that focus on solving real business problems, not on creating new business practices, or even on changing a corporate culture. The culture change is a byproduct - of doing things right.
   Don't attempt to direct and control the formation of a knowledge management practice or the creation of a collaborative learning culture with edict and procedure – facilitate them, nurture them, encourage them. Knowledge management activities and communities of practice already exist in every organization. What they need to be more effective is support and infrastructure which is motivated to assist what naturally exists, not to redefine from scratch or import what seems to work somewhere else.
   Of CoPs and robbers: too much abstract concept, direction, and procedure robs the opportunity for people to go with the flow of what they already do; tight technocratic procedure will rob the potential for continuously evolving innovation; and a preemptive focus on technology will rob the human element from this very human experience.

1999 RKDove - Attributed Copies Permitted
Essay #054 - Published 6/99 in Automotive Manufacturing & Production, Gardner Publications


Would you like to offer some thoughts or add to the dialog? Your sending of a comment automatically grants us permission to edit and post at our discretion. Send your comment to
========= Reply =========================
From: gordon.rice@m1.irs.gov  (Gordon L. Rice) Date: Thu, 16 Dec 1999
Rick, "Avoidance of Real KM" and "Implementing Stealth KM" both great "think" pieces - thanks!
My comment: The former paper seems to disparage building organizations (CKO's etc.) to manage KM and nurture COPs - and the latter paper says "don't attempt to direct and control the formation of a km practice, or the creation of collaborative learning culture with edict - so that implies facilitating, nurturing and encouraging km practices in an informal, ad-hoc way. How do you make that concept work in large organizations (in my case government) where we all have distinct, well-defined missions, goals and objectives. Help me out on this one.

========= Reply =========================
From: (Rick Dove) Date: Thu, 11 May 2000
Sorry for the long delay in answering - but we had to take some time out.

The right answer is: Change the mission, goals, objectives....and culture.... to include and value the concepts of continuous personal and organizational learning. When you don't have the clout, or the insight (if you have the clout), to affect the mission/goals/objectives/culture, what you get is a lot of purchased technology solutions that don't address the real issues.
========= Reply =========================


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