KM World 2012 Notes: Facilitating Knowledge Sharing

I am pleased to be at the 2012 KM World. Here are my notes for 2011 and 2010. I attended the keynote, Facilitating Knowledge Sharing provided by David Weinberger, Co-Director Harvard Library Innovation Lab.

I looked forward to this session as I spent some time with Dave at the Berkman Center at Harvard and really respect his perspective. Here is the session description.

Knowledge is becoming inextricable from — literally unthinkable without — the network that enables it. In fact, knowledge is now a property of the network, and the network embraces businesses, governments, media, museums, curated collections, and minds in communication. But, because the properties of the Net include overwhelming abundance, unmasterable messiness, and unending disagreements, the challenge of building networked knowledge is not simple.” So says Weinberger, who shares his insights on how the concept of knowledge is changing and how we can facilitate its sharing for organizational learning, collaboration, innovation, and more.

Dave began by debunking the data/knowledge/wisdom pyramid. It is too hierarchical and out of date. In the old world, knowledge was reduced as it went up the command chain so as to not overwhelm the person at the top. He said knowledge is under siege these days. Newspapers are closing, encyclopedias are not longer making print editions. In the English language knowledge does not have a plural. There is a hope for one knowledge and a hope for facts.

Traditionally knowledge was to filter out the noise. This was the Greek view. Knowledge was about what was agreed on. If people are still arguing about it, it is not knowledge. Third, knowledge is ordered. Plato said all knowledge is ordered and we need to know its place in the order. The fourth property is the issue that the world is beyond one person’s grasp. So the strategy is to reduce what is known and have an expert who resolves things so you have the answer. You can then stop searching for truth.

All four of these properties are also properties of the traditional physical media that has conveyed knowledge. Physical books have to be organized in a single way at once. We have assumed this for the realm of ideas but this is a mistake. Books are stopping points. They are not connected to other books so everything the reader needs has to be included. Footnotes are rarely followed up on.

Now we have a new media with links and not with physical boundaries. Now there are knowledge networks that are taking on the properties of the new medium. Now people get knowledge out to form viral networks about this new knowledge.

However, people often cluster around false statements. I have seen this happen in many fields. The first knowledge out on an event often gets picked up and becomes viral before a more accurate perspective has a chance to emerge. My daughter edits a mountain climbing magazine. She notes that the people at the bottom of the mountain often report on what the people actually climbing are doing. There can likely be mistakes here but their message gets out first before the people actually climbing the mountain can get their message out. The false statements go viral via social media and are accepted before the more accurate view has a chance.

David said there are sties that allow for disagreements and useful conversations can occur. There are lessons from science on this. First, peer review does not scale. It has its place. Second, networks can flood the universe. Third, knowledge contains differences.

Software developers have developed very efficient learning systems. There are many conversational sites for technical were issues can be resolved virtually through iterations.  With Open Source the results get reused and improved. The lessons are: humility and generosity are key. Also, iterations are valuable. The third lesson is the power of public learning. I see examples of this all the time. David said all learning should be made public so others can learn also.

People are good at organizing things. The Library of Congress has posted photos and allowed people to tag them to help with the organization of the photos.  People engaged in this in mostly useful ways.

We tend to share knowledge with people like us so there is an echo chamber. Dave said the echo chamber is not as extreme as some people claim but it is in effect. If this is really happening it is a real problem.

He gave an echo chamber example, Reddit. It is a site where conversations can occur. There are certain commonly held beliefs. There is a concept, IamA, where you nominate yourself as an expert on a topic and people ask you questions.  Great conversations can occur here and often it goes outside the echo chamber concept. There are both good and bad examples. The topic Woody Harrelson is a bad example.  Real conversations occur within a set of agreed rules and mostly common beliefs with perhaps some differences and they occur around shared issue.  If there are huge differences it is hard to have a conversation.

If we can set up useful disagreements then real learning can occur and these conversations should be public.  Also we need to embrace messiness and inclusion. Open a room within an echo chamber to let in other ideas like the IamA concept within Reddit.

In the past knowledge was considered singular, settled, resolved, and ordered. Now the new networked knowledge is the opposite of these characteristics.  Dave said this is a better expression of what it means to be a human knower. This is why it has been embraced so quickly, There is no one common knowledge. What we have in common is a shared world where we disagree. We need to be able to live in this world productively. I would certainly agree with this.

Blog post by Bill Ives of the Merced Group and AppFusions, and who also blogs at Portals and KM.

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