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The Emergence of Knowledge as an Ecology

Scott Shemwell's picture
President & CEO Strategic Decision Sciences

Scott Shemwell is the president and CEO of Strategic Decision Sciences. His firm provides its clients with Quantitative and Qualitative analysis and insight throughout the major decision...

  • Member since 2003
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  • Jun 28, 2004
If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.
- Benjamin Franklini
For more than a decade, knowledge management has been an elusive goal. Recently, the pending "great crew change" as the oil industry calls the imminent retirement of the baby boomers is forcing organizations to reevaluate approaches towards capturing over thirty years of investment in people.

Early knowledge management systems held the view that we could either capture the learning of key personnel and then record that expertise into artificial intelligence systems or develop extensive data stores enabled by a variety of software products or a combination of both. In reality and for a number of reasons these systems fell short.

Oxford defines ecology as, “The science of the economy of animals and plants, that branch of biology which deals with the relations of living organisms to their surroundings, their habits and modes of life, etc.” Additionally, this source defines knowledge as, “Intellectual acquaintance with, or perception of fact or truth; clear and certain mental apprehension; the fact, state, or condition of understanding.”ii Therefore, one might define Knowledge Ecology as the interrelationship of intelligent living organisms and their perceptions of fact and understanding. Somewhat different from just business intelligence and information warehouses, knowledge builds on the intuition and experimentation that comes from relevant experience. A knowledge base extends outward, not just capitalizing on the sum total learning of a specific individual organism or the collective experience of a cultural set, but expanding to encompass new ideas and concepts. An ecology of intellectual exchange. Many organizations proclaim that they have embodied knowledge management as a core competency. However, what does this mean? In many cases, management does not even understand the intellectual horsepower they command. Stifling initiative and forcing employee creativity into existing “boxes” all the while proclaiming that they value thinking outside the box, most organizations really prefer the status quo to change based on their expensive knowledge base. Knowledge is expensive and it must be used if shareholders are to receive value from this investment.

The Price of Knowledge
The accumulation of knowledge is not free. Whether school taxes paid to advance children through the primary grades through high school or college tuition, the development of a knowledge base requires both a financial investment and a period-of-time. The later component can be the basis of barrier to entry into market niches or technological expertise driven advantage. Money alone cannot buy knowledge. Time alone is also not enough either. The time spent must be productive. We have all heard the joke about the 30-year employee that had one year of experience 30 times. Knowledge is also a function of synergies obtained by the organization and its supply chain partners and even customers. Internal processes must capture and codify a wide range of data and information into “Intellectual Property” (IP). When these processes are effective and efficient, the organization’s IP is enhanced and competitive advantage can be obtained. Moreover, the investment must be continuous, a process of lifelong learning. New things must be tired, lessons learned and then applied. In other words, knowledge management is a broad and informed approach to decision-making and problem solving, integrating past experience with new experimentation.

The Compass
Knowledge must be directed. Focused towards a specific direction that builds upon the base and capitalizes on the possible. If knowledge management is a poorly defined framework with expectations that “best practices” across many industries will add value, “failure becomes an option”. By definition, unless this framework is well defined and aligned with the business model there is no knowledge. In fact, learning obtained in such an environment might even be considered anti-knowledge because decisions taken from this foundation are unlikely to add value and may even detract. The equivalent of an individual’s moral compass, the organization’s knowledge framework must be aligned with and contribute its culture. Always pointing north, knowledge capital helps the firm remains on course despite the normal course adjustments required by everyday challenges. Best Thinking
When an organization views it knowledge and subsequent IP from an ecological lens, it is able to capitalize on a breadth of current and forward thinking. One’s ability to “think outside the box” is limited if the view is always outward looking. Ecological interaction enables best thinking, not necessarily best practices to surface. Best thinking, in that new solutions may emerge that puts the organization on the forefront of its industry, not simply reacting to the so-called best practices of others. Organizations spend significant resources to select the best employee candidates. This front-end practice seeks to populate the concern with the best and the brightest minds and work ethics. Each firm the in ecosystem attempts to do the same. Organizations that can capitalize on this vast collection of the best and the brightest available to it in an effective and efficient manner can achieve competitive advantage over those with less managerial prowess. Bringing best thinking to bear on critical problems can only be accomplished using a knowledge ecology framework.

An investment in the organizational head always pays the best interest.
iKnowledge Quotes, Knowledge Quotations, Knowledge Sayings Famous Knowledge Quotations.
ii Oxford English Dictionary.
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Ralph Boroughs's picture
Ralph Boroughs on Jul 7, 2004
The writer is correct on all counts, but it is not clear to me that it is helpful.

I am reminded of a passage from Norman Douglas's 'South Wind'; which is quoted by Eleanor Roosevelt at the end of her autobiographical 'You learn by Living'.

(Speaking of the old teacher. ) "-do you know what he said?"

"I cannot even guess."

"He said: 'What is all wisdom save a collection of platitudes? Take fifty of our current proverbial sayings--they are so trite, so threadbare, that we can hardly bring our lips to utter them. None the less they embody the concentrated experience of the race, and a man who orders his life according to their teaching cannot go far wrong. How easy that seems! Has any man ever done so? Never. Has any man ever attained inner harmony by pondering the experience of others? Not since the world began! He must pass through the fire.'"

"I had no teacher like that," observed Denis. " He must have been a man of the right kind."

"Oh, he meant well, the old rascal," replied the Count with a curious litttle smile."

Len Gould's picture
Len Gould on Jul 17, 2004
in his book Disciplined Minds he (Schmidt) narrows his focus to graduate and professional training, which, he says, “Ultimately produces obedient thinkers—highly educated employees who do their assigned work without questioning its goals. Professional education is a battle for the very identity of the individual.”

"Schmidt examines and criticizes the professional credentialing process by recounting his own struggles in graduate school, assailing GRE and other professional testing results as nothing more than gauges that determine a person’s willingness to be an obedient thinker and describing the conditions graduate and professional students live under as amounting to something like that of cult indoctrination: Exhaustion, isolation, humiliation, etc., over a period of years. Schmidt’s cult indoctrination theory manifested itself after he interviewed students and found their stories uncannily similar to this type of brainwashing process."

Above from

or see

Fairly co-incides with my own experience of large hierarchies. Essentially BY DEFINITION "professional management" (i.e. can't technically evaluate work) has no recourse but intimidation to keep creative professionals "in line" with their own goals, which may or may not co-incide with Board of Directors goals or those of society. See Jack Walsh.

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