MAKING SOFT KNOWLEDGE HARD


MAKING SOFT KNOWLEDGE HARD

We have already noted that, although KM practitioners and researchers recognise that there is knowledge that is difficult to articulate and capture, most are still approaching the problem from a representationist point of view and are trying to proceed by exploring ways of representing the unrepresentable, by trying to make soft knowledge hard so that it can be represented. Wenger's (1998) duality gives a clearer view of why this is perhaps the wrong route to follow.

A key aspect of the three different views is the importance to a greater (Distributed Cognition) or lesser (Common Ground) degree of objects. The information that the artefacts contain is not the same as the knowledge required to use them, which may be socially constructed—this is the softer component, or the participation component of knowledge. This provides some indications that sharing the softer part of knowledge is not as simple as making it hard.

Distributed Cognition would imply that the softer aspects of knowledge could be made hard by embedding them in artefacts, for example, procedures, physical artefacts, and stories. However, the predominantly representational approach of Distributed Cognition is shown by CoPs to be lacking. The CoP approach shows that the participation aspect is overlooked in Distributed Cognition. The participation and socially constructed component does not become apparent until the artefact becomes a boundary object and crosses the boundary to another community. Boundary objects show that if the knowledge was simply softer knowledge made hard, then it could be easily extracted. This is not the case, as boundary objects demonstrate that a degree of knowledge is needed to be able to use the artefact—there is a degree of interpretive flexibility. A newcomer to the community could possibly understand the artefact at face level, a member with more experience would understand more of the artefact, but an old-timer with a greater store of softer knowledge would perhaps be able to make new inferences from it and so develop new knowledge. This is especially true of artefacts in the form of procedures that serve as a framework and support for newcomers who follow the procedures, whereas old-timers develop the experience and skill to be able to "break" the procedure where necessary to work more effectively or efficiently. In becoming a boundary object and crossing to another community, the artefact is also being moved out of the context of the community in which it was created. Context plays important roles. It is closely linked with identity, for example, if a member of a community does not know who has created an artefact (s)he might not have confidence in it. Goguen (1997) also shows that some aspects of meaning are also context dependent. As an example he offers:

"Do you want a cup of coffee?" "Coffee keeps me awake."

The question can be understood at a literal level; however, the answer could be affirmative or negative. It is not clear without the context. In making softer knowledge hard, the literal parts could be captured but the contextdependent components would be lost. This shows that the utterance is what is hard and the understanding of the meaning is the softer aspect. Clark (1996) expands the notion of context into Common Ground. In losing the context of the community in which an artefact is created, there would only be the Common Ground of the wider community available, for example, the community of English speakers. According to Clark (1996), this is also to be seen in personal experiences that cannot be represented as such and are recorded in a mental "personal diary" and provide a context and a Common Ground. This shows that softer aspects of knowledge are to be found in Common Ground and also indicates that in trying to make the softer aspects of knowledge hard, the context (and, with it, Common Ground) would be lost.

As softer knowledge cannot simply be made hard, this has implications for KM and the use of IT for managing knowledge.

Some attempts have been made to manage soft knowledge by recording "war stories" of the people involved in the work of the organisation. The importance of war stories and chance conversations at the water cooler have been recognised as being so important that a Hewlett-Packard (HP) division developed a system using Lotus Notes in order for the company trainers to be able to enter any insights, tips, tricks, observations or insights (Davenport & Prusak, 1998). This was regarded as a form of knowledge repository and was initially very successful. Of late, however, it appears not be used to the same extent. This indicates perhaps that its initial impact may have had some novelty value and that more is needed to maintain its use. This points to the importance of the "people" aspect when trying to share softer knowledge.

It also raises the question as to what form the knowledge takes in a "war story"—has the softer knowledge simply been made hard? If this were the case, it would be a simple matter of reversing the process and retrieving the softer aspects. This is clearly not the case. During the transition, there is always a degree of abstraction. In order to get something back out, more softer knowledge is needed. Someone who had concentrated on the harder aspects of knowledge (for example, a newcomer) would understand the story at face level, the more experienced practitioner would get more out of it, but different people would not get out what was put in. People would have different interpretations (Kidd, 1994), and some might be able to make new inferences and create new knowledge. For this they need to develop the softer part of their knowledge, as in the potential future knowledge of autopoiesis.

DC has shown us how artefacts can have knowledge embedded in them. The same question as to whether they are softer knowledge made hard also applies to the artefacts. The answer is also the same—the process cannot simply be reversed to retrieve the softer knowledge. Something else is necessary. It is, in this case, interesting to note that the artefact is of little use outside the context of the community in which it is created, for example, the navigational aids described by Hutchins (1990, 1995a) could not easily be used by someone who was not in the community of people with navigation skills. As expressed by Interrogate the Internet[7] (1996), "knowledge taken out of context is really just noise." This is also true of the expert systems described by Berg (1997) in Chapter II. They were even less successful when tried in a different environment; that is, they were of little use outside the context of the community in which they were developed, a fact also noticed earlier by Cicourel (1990). This shows how such systems concentrated on the harder aspects of knowledge that could be captured and codified, but failed to take into account the softer aspects. The systems were therefore incomplete.

Hutchins (1995a) points out that although artefacts have the knowledge of other people embedded in them and represent a problem in a different way in order to make its solution easier, they do not change our cognitive abilities—rather, they present the situation to the user in a way that requires a different ability. He suggests that this is, in a way, rather like the attempts made at creating expert systems in the 1980s. But these artefacts work, unlike the expert systems that were disappointing in their results. They are more like tools that the user can use. It is a different view of codifying knowledge. It has not been codified in the way of AI. Davenport and Prusak (1998) explain it:

Some knowledge that is quite complex and initially tacit can be externalized and embedded in a company's products or services. The knowers use their expertise to develop a process or product that contains at least some of what they know (p. 83).

The fact that the artefact is of little or no use outside of the community in which it has been created means that—although knowledge is embedded in the artefact—newcomers to the community still need to learn how to use it. This knowledge is often learned from people who are already members of the community.

The importance of the social context, the learning of softer knowledge from existing members of a community, and the lack of success of trying to see IT as a solution all indicate the importance of the human aspect to the sharing of softer knowledge and suggests something more is needed. In fact, if human factors are not taken into consideration during a KM project, can we really call it KM? Fahey and Prusak (1998) consider not catering to human interaction to be one of their 11 deadliest sins of KM. They explain that IT is an enabler and its strengths lie in the transmission and distribution of data and information. However, they point out that dialogue between people has a "rich interactivity" that enables communication and learning.

Knowledge is primarily a function and consequence of the meeting and interaction of minds. Human intervention remains the only source of knowledge generation (p. 273).

In catering to the sharing of the softer side of knowledge, we should therefore ensure that there is sufficient time devoted to personal contact. Relationships need to develop for the meaningful sharing and transfer of softer knowledge to take place. Therefore, rather than simply attempting to implement technological solutions, a key part of the management of the softer aspects of knowledge is facilitating communication and interaction—connection not collection. Sachs (1995) reports on studies that suggest that the webs of relationships that workers develop in communities are more important than seeing the workers as cogs in a wheel. How important this is in the organisational context is illustrated in Table 1. The table shows that Sachs' "explicit" view demonstrates the usual emphasis on the harder aspects. She recommends her "tacit" view where the softer aspects receive more emphasis.

Table 1: Views of Work as Both Tacit and Explicit (Adapted from Sachs, 1995)

Explicit Origanisational View

Tacit Organisational View

Trainning Tasks Position in hierarchy

Learning Know-How Informal political systems, network of contacts

Procedures and techniques Work flow

Conceptual understanding Work practices

Methods and procedures Teams

Rules of thumb, judgement Communities

These challenges are perhaps well met by the management of the softer aspect of knowledge by using Wenger's (1998) approach encompassing the three views (Distributed Cognition/Common Ground/CoPs) that we used to refine the notion of soft knowledge. His reification/participation duality provides a way forward for KM, as it takes into account the need to maintain the balance between the harder and the softer aspects of knowledge. However, we need to look more closely at a solution for managing the softer aspects of knowledge in a distributed environment.

As the softer aspects are found in relationships, are constructed in a social context, and are difficult or impossible to articulate, they pose particular difficulties to KM, namely, how can they be managed, and how can they be managed in the global environment? The dominant capture-codify-store approach is not suitable for sharing soft knowledge, for it is not a simple matter of making the softer aspects hard. In his work on CoPs, Wenger (1998) showed that the reification of knowledge/practice cannot be divorced from participation, for the meaning of artefacts does not reside in the artefact alone—knowledge as practice is distinct from knowledge as representation. CoPs are groups where the softer aspects of knowledge are created, nurtured, and sustained. They can help with the temporal distribution of knowledge caused by the loss of staff (unless the whole CoP is lost) in that, with LPP, newcomers are constantly learning from old-timers, and the CoP is constantly undergoing a re-generation. As organisations are having to operate in an increasingly distributed environment, the question is raised as to how the management of the softer aspects of knowledge might be achieved through sustaining CoPs virtually. This leads to the question, How does a CoP function in a physically distributed environment? This will be the focus of the CoP that we visit in Section Two of this book. However, before we meet the CoP, it will be useful to see what issues are involved in working in Virtual Environments (VEs) and with Virtual Teams.

[7]Interdisciplinary working group, meeting bi-weekly in order to examine and discuss the implications and impact of the Internet. The group consists of members from diverse backgrounds including students, system operators, computer consultants, professors.