Ever since Peter Drucker declared this to be the era of knowledge work, the rush has been on to landscape, structure and tool this brave new world of knowledge. The first attempt was called knowledge management, essentially the electronic warehousing of every bit of information, procedure, suspicion and idea-ette available about anything and everything that someone, someplace decided might be important. The theory was that by piling together everything everyone thought they knew about a subject, sifting it into little boxes of like ideas, and making those available to others, great and wise things would happen. It was an attempt to democratize knowledge and wisdom through technology.
"Thankfully, that early wave of knowledge management ran out of steam rather quickly, as technomyopic approaches consistently failed to live up to expectations," says Karl Albrecht, chairman of San Diego-based Karl Albrecht International.
They had to fail, Albrecht asserts, because of the conflicting natures of knowledge and management. "The idea that something as organically diverse and dynamic as human knowledge can be managed in the conventional sense is fatally flawed at the outset," he says. Instead of trying to box, bale and package knowledge, organizations should be managing the circumstances in which knowledge can flourish, Albrecht contends.
"Critical among those manageable circumstances is attracting and retaining smart people," says Albrecht. "While all employees deserve respect and appreciation from management, the simple fact remains that the successes of most businesses depend on the brainpower of a relatively small number of highly capable knowledge workers." These relatively few people, Albrecht continues, are the people who can plan, design, organize, lead, manage, analyze, conceptualize, strategize, decide, innovate, teach, advise and explain the ideas others must implement and act on.
The confusion has come about, Albrecht believes, because we've tried to re-brand everyone who doesn't bend metal or harvest crops for a living as knowledge workers and train, tool and task them accordingly. Most of the people we've labeled knowledge workers are really data handlers—people who manipulate data and information as raw material, without adding significant value through their own mental processes. By this definition, most knowledge-era jobs are no more knowledge-intensive than a typical moderately skilled manufacturing job. If what you do with data and information doesn't add value to the organization's end point, you aren't a knowledge worker, he would argue.
Albrecht's critique of the knowledge management movement struck a sympathetic chord for me. Over the years, I have been knee-deep in the general quest to put master-performer wisdom into easily accessible storage for others to use. While most efforts actually succeeded in leading to competent performance in areas of practice from medicine to robot repair, we were never really able to recreate the subtle wisdom of the master performers whose skill and knowledge informed the creation of those tools.
Two wise men I had the pleasure of working with, one a Nobel physicist, the other a brilliant research oncologist, gave me a clue to our inevitable failure to package wisdom in a bottle. After a day spent inspecting a room full of objectives, job aids, written tests and curriculum plans, the physicist smiled and cautioned our team, "You have done a wonderful job, no doubt, that can teach someone to do physics. But have you recreated a physicist here? Let me talk to your graduates for 20 minutes, then I will know whether or not they are physicists." The oncologist, upon inspecting and clarifying our carefully crafted diagnostic algorithms, gave us the same sort of knowing smile as the physicist had 10 years before. "The hard part, gentlemen," he said, "is in the gray zones, in the spaces between the yeses and the nos. That's where the very skilled practitioner does his or her best work."
Whether you accept Albrecht's arguments about knowledge management and its shortcomings is only partially relevant. What is obvious to me is that when it comes to working smarter, we've spent a lot more time and money upgrading hardware and software than we have on developing grayware—the human capacity for wise thinking.
Ron Zemke is the senior editor of Training. email@example.com