Max Boisot once said that we cannot directly perceive a person’s knowledge; we can only detect it by indirect means. Talking to someone for the first time we gain an impression of their intelligence and knowledge. They are usually summing us up as well. In a professional setting, we constantly are forming and reforming personal knowledge assessments based on the external evidence provided by our colleagues’ intellectual outputs. This is most effective when the interaction is a professional one. Social chit-chat does not always aid the assessment of personal knowledge.
In my university knowledge management class I ask masters level students to look around the room and determine who is the smartest and most knowledgeable amongst them. I then ask the group, most of whom have been told their whole lives how special and smart they are, to rate themselves within the group on a scale of intelligence and knowledge. I challenge them as I challenge you, the reader, to do the same in a work setting. Where do you place yourself amongst your peers?
Our opinion and familiarity of our work colleagues’ knowledge is a determinant in whether we seek their advice. A new employee will often seek advice from those who hold positions that suggest their knowledge-ability: managers or others whose title acts as a knowledge guidepost. After interacting with colleagues over time we assess their knowledge capabilities (eg. “my boss doesn’t know anything. Asking is a waste of my time…”) and change our knowledge-seeking behaviours. The purpose of asking more knowledgeable people is to improve our own intellectual outputs and therefore outwardly demonstrate our own capability. This is common knowledge management lore.
How we can affect this behaviour is worthy of attention. If our knowledge guideposts are fixed by the external intellectual activities of our colleagues then to what extent does a firm provide mechanisms to locate the broad variety of knowledge assets available to the firm? Most of our exposure to personally held knowledge is a by-product of other activities, many of which are standard, recommended, contemporary or traditional, prescriptive knowledge management activities: cross-functional teams, communities of practice, personal networks, knowledge fairs, talk rooms, yellow and blue pages etc.
Are we relying too much on accidental collaboration? Or are there ways to engineer improved assessment our colleagues’ knowledge?
We all carry indexes of the personal capabilities of others. In other words, we know who are worthy knowledge sources in particular domains. We build these indexes over time principally through personal interaction on a professional level. Many times these personal indexes are supported and reinforced by recorded public indexes: organisational charts, knowledge yellow pages, job titles and qualifications.
Similarly we also carry personal indexes of recorded knowledge: databases, reports, documents, books etc. And these are also supported by public indexes such as metadata and catalogues.
But unlike public indexes these personal indexes can fade from memory in the absence of constant reinforcement. Consider the following example.
You are a professional knowledge worker. After serving in one firm for several years you change to another firm. On leaving you box up your assortment of reports, electronic backups, folders and books for which you have no immediate use and store them under your house. Twelve months later you decide to “clean out” these resources and in doing so discover many useful items that you take into your new offices. You may also throw out various items that you decide are no longer useful. Three weeks later you realise that one of the items you discarded is exactly what you need to complete a task!
What you have done is refresh your personal index of these knowledge objects and in doing so you can re-integrate them into your knowledge work. Similarly you need to refresh your personal index of colleagues’ ever-changing personal capabilities on a regular basis. Such refreshment will enable you to incorporate their personal knowledge capabilities into knowledge tasks at hand. Information objects may (sometimes not) employ visible metadata such as report titles and book sleeves. Computer files can be searched electronically. Unlike these externalised knowledge objects, personal knowledge capability is not as visibly detectable. We literally don’t wear our knowledge on our sleeves.