Working Knowledge

Notes from Working Knowledge, Davenport and Prusak

This book is a highly referenced KM text. While the technology it mentions is dated (published 1998) the concepts are not. Discussed is, knowledge, knowledge markets, organization, creation, transfer, roles and skills, technologies for, types of projects, success factors, pitfalls, and pragmatics of knowledge management.


This book is a highly referenced KM text. While the technology it mentions is dated (published 1998) the concepts are not.

p. xi. “The assumption that technology can replace human knowledge or create its equivalent has proven false…. Developments in technology, on the other hand, are among the positive factors fueling interest in knowledge and its management.” KM is not about the tools, but is enabled by the tools.

p. xii. Companies need value-added information and knowledge at the right moments. They may have this information but it’s not accessible or available when needed. Companies are looking for insights: best practices, new ideas, and processes. Organizations have knowledge markets, with buyers, sellers, and brokers. These may not always operate efficiently.

p. xiii. Companies are “organizations that know how to do things.” Knowledge is the company. The ability to produce depends on what they currently know and on embedded knowledge. The material assets of a company are of limited worth unless people know what to do with them.

Ch. 1 discusses ‘knowledge’ and how it differs and depends on data and information.

p.3. More data is not always better then less. Piles of scientific data sometimes creates the illusion of accuracy. But too much data can make it hard to make sense of the data that matters. But data is the raw material for information, which is “data that makes a difference.” It’s the receiver not the sender that decides if it’s information or data. In other words the dividing lines between data, information, and knowledge are not rigid but are flexible, dynamic, and subjective.

p.4. information has meaning, relevance and purpose. We transform data into information through methods:

contextualized – we know purpose of data gathering
categorized – we know units of measure, or key components of the data
calculated – data is analyzed mathematically or statistically
corrected – errors removed
condensed – summarized in a concise form.

Note that computers can help with some of these, but not all. Humans are needed to provide context, and usually to help with categorization, calculation and condensing.

p.5. Their definition of knowledge: “Knowledge is a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information, and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information. It originates and is applied in the minds of the knowers. In organizations, it often becomes embedded not only in documents or repositories but also in organizational routines, processes, practices, and norms.

p.6. information is transformed into knowledge though human tasks:

Comparison – how does this information compare to other situations?
Consequences – what are the implications of our decisions and actions?
Connections – how is this bit of knowledge related to others?
Conversations – what do other people think about this information?

Knowledge is closer to action than either data or information

p.7. Knowledge can move up or down the data-information-knowledge value chain. The most common reason for ‘de-knowledging’ is too much volume.

p.10. Unlike data and information, knowledge contains judgment. Not only can it judge new situations and information in light of what is known, it judges and refines itself in response. But stock answers, the same old answer to any new questions from “experts,” or opinions and dogma are not knowledge. However, knowledge works through rules of thumb or heuristics. These are shortcuts to the solutions to new problems previously solved by experienced workers. We don’t have to build an answer from scratch every time. Knowledge provides speed to deal with situations quickly.

p.12. Discussing knowledge as a corporate asset, managers making a decision are more likely to ask people they respect than look for information in a database. Studies have shown that managers get two-thirds of their information from face-to-face or phone meetings. Only one-third comes from documents.

p.13. …define a business firm that thrives over the next decade as “an organization that knows how to do new things well and quickly.”

p.16. Technology disappears as a sustainable source of competitive advantage, because essentially the same technology is available to everyone. The half-life of innovation is getting shorter. “Life cycles are short and we want to obsolete our own products before the competition does.” In contrast, an knowledge advantage is a sustainable advantage.

p.17. When firms need to “know what they know” size and geographic distribution become important. The maximum size of an organization in which people know each other well enough to have a grasp of collective organizational knowledge is two to three hundred people.

p.18. Knowledge is a valuable asset only if it’s accessible. Reinventing and duplicating effort occurs because knowledge of already developed solutions are not shared. If there is no system in place to locate appropriate knowledge resources, employees make do with what’s available. It may be reasonably good, but that’s not good enough in today’s economy.

p.18. communication and storage capabilities of networked computers make them knowledge enablers….can point to people with knowledge and connect people to share knowledge. [network] technology is only the pipeline and storage system for knowledge exchange. It does not create knowledge and cannot guarantee or even promote knowledge generation or sharing in a corporate environment. “If we build it, they will come” does not apply to information technology.

Ch. 2, p. 25 describes ‘knowledge markets’ with knowledge buyers and sellers and brokers. Brokers are an interesting concept. Librarians usually act as brokers, they have contact with many in the company, and understand a lot of the knowledge needs

p. 30. Why sell knowledge? Reciprocity – someone will return the favor. Repute – having a reputation as a knowledge seller makes it easier to be a knowledge buyer. Altruism – nice guys like to share.

P. 34. trust. Without trust, knowledge initiatives will fail. Trust must be visible – people get credit for sharing, ubiquitous – if part of the knowledge market is untrustworthy it will be less efficient, must start at the top – trustworthy top managers.

p. 40. Knowledge market inefficiencies. Key factors: incompleteness of information, lack of maps and “yellow pages”; asymmetry of knowledge, some departments know more than others; localness of knowledge, people make do with less than optimal knowledge because its local and trusted.

Ch.3. knowledge creation. Acquisition, buy it, hire employees that know what you want to know. Rental, hiring consultants, working with universities. Dedicated resources, an R&D group.

Ch.4. Knowledge Codification and coordination. Put organization knowledge into a form that makes it accessible to those that need it. Basic principles of knowledge codification. Managers must decide what business goals the codified knowledge will serve. Managers must be able to identify knowledge existing in various forms appropriate to reaching those goals. Knowledge managers must evaluate knowledge for usefulness and appropriateness for codification, codifiers must identify an appropriate medium for codification and distribution. Codifying all corporate knowledge would be an immense and futile undertaking. Relevance is far more important than completeness.

p.72. Mapping and modeling knowledge. A knowledge map – an actual map, a yellow pages or a clever database – points to knowledge it doesn’t contain it. A guide not a repository. Developing a knowledge map involved locating important knowledge in the organization and the publishing some sort of list or picture that shows where to find it. Knowledge maps typically point to people as well as documents and databases. They show people where to go when they need expertise.

Ch.5. knowledge transfer. The best way for an organization to transfer knowledge is to hire smart people and let them talk to one another. Encourage spontaneous exchanges of knowledge. Face-to-face meetings are important channels. Water-coolers….in a knowledge driven economy, talk is real work.

p. 101. Transfer=transmission + absorption (and use) Knowledge that isn’t absorbed hasn’t really been transferred.

p. 102. velocity and viscosity of knowledge transfer. Velocity is affected by many factors. Computers and networks excel in enhancing velocity. Viscosity refers to richness of knowledge transferred. A mentoring relationship is much ‘thicker’ than reading an article. How much does the original knowledge get pared down?

Ch. 6 knowledge roles and skills. If KM is to thrive, organizations must create a set of roles and skills to do the work of capturing, distributing, and using knowledge. There a re many strategic tasks to perform and it is unrealistic to simply throw KM activities on top of existing positions. Employees in dedicated roles with specific responsibilities must perform some aspects of this process. On the other hand, KM will not succeed if it is the sole responsibility of a small or even a large staff group. Managers and workers who do other things for a living have to do the day-to-day activities on knowledge management. The most successful organizations are those in which KM is part of everyone’s job.

p.108 knowledge oriented personnel. Managing knowledge must be part of everyone’s job.

p.109. knowledge management workers. The day-to-day work of KM. Includes technical aspects, html, perl scripts, maintaining knowledge-bases, installing knowledge-oriented software packages. But pure tech is not enough. The most intriguing new knowledge jobs are knowledge integrators, synthesizers, reporters, and editors. Few organizations have many employees who are skilled at framing and structuring their knowledge and fewer yet take the time t sit down and input it into a system. Nobody has the time or skill to describe what happened and put it in. Organizations need people who will extract knowledge from those that have it, structure, maintain and refine it. Good knowledge workers have a combination of “hard” technical skills and “softer” traits with a sense of the cultural, political, and personal aspects of knowledge.

p.111 Knowledge workers cont. Some firms draw knowledge management workers from the ranks of their employees. People that maintain knowledge in a particular areas worked in those areas. Organizations are also redesignating existing groups of workers – often librarians – as knowledge managers.

p. 112. Managers of knowledge projects. The middle level of the formal knowledge management infrastructure. Much of the real work of KM takes place in the context of specific projects to manage specific forms of knowledge. Good KM managers should have facility in project management, change management, and technology management. Good candidates may have led successful research, reengineering or behavior-changing IT projects in the past. Ideally a knowledge project manager should come from a background that emphasizes the creating, distribution or use of knowledge. Functions: developing project objectives, assembling and managing teams, determining and managing customer expectations, monitoring project budgets and schedules, identifying and resolving project problems. The role demands an unusual mix of technological, psychological, and business skills.

p. 114. the Chief Knowledge Officer must:

  • evangelize knowledge and the role of knowledge in strategies and processes
  • design, implement, and oversee a firm’s knowledge infrastructure…libraries…human and computer knowledge networks…
  • manage relationships with external providers of knowledge (e.g. database companies)
  • provide critical input to the process of knowledge creation
  • design and implement a firm’s knowledge codification approaches
  • measure and manage the value of knowledge
  • manage the firm’s knowledge managers
  • lead the development of a knowledge strategy

Of all these CKO responsibilities, three are critical: building a knowledge culture, creating a knowledge management infrastructure, and making it pay off economically.

P.117. CKO criteria: Deep experience in some aspect of knowledge management, including its creation, dissemination, or application. Familiarity with knowledge-oriented organizations and technologies (libraries, groupware, and so forth), display a high level of “knowledgeability” directly related to one’s professional stature, comfort (and ideally personal experience) with the primary operational process of the business. A blend of technical, human, and financial skills. The CKO position can be stand-alone reporting to the CEO, or combined with HR or IS. Combining KM with other functions dilutes its importance.

Ch.7. technologies for Knowledge management. Technology’s most valuable role in KM is extending the reach and enhancing the speed of knowledge transfer.

p.130. One of the best-known approaches…a repository of structure, explicit knowledge in the form of documents. The best example of a broad knowledge base is the internet. But overwhelming number of hits compound the problem of judging the knowledge that is being provided. Emergence of human internet brokers or librarians with reputations for finding quality material would enhance the value of the internet as a knowledge tool (web logs and!). Mentioned were Lotus Notes and Intranets.

p.134. If you plan to use web technology, you need publishing tools, search functionality, and some approach for handling metaknowledge. And other requirement is the development of an on-line thesaurus. Searchers will be looking for terms that you can’t always anticipate. The idea is to connect the terms by which you’ve structure the knowledge with terms employed by the searcher (tags!)

p.136 There’s no need to rush to settle on a single technology strategy. Early on in the life of a KM initiative “let a thousand flowers bloom.” Later on, sharing knowledge across the organization will be easier will a single broadly employed toolset.

p.142 Technology alone won’t make you a knowledge-creating company. KM cannot take place without extensive behavioral, cultural and organizational change. Technology alone won’t make a person with expertise share it with others, or get an employees who is uninterested in seeking knowledge to hop onto a computer to start searching.

p. 143 However if the appetite, the skills, and the attention to knowledge are already present in an organization, technology can expand access and ease the problem of getting the right knowledge to the right person at the right time. The presence of KM technologies may even have a positive effect on the knowledge culture, giving an incentive to take KM seriously. As long as technology isn’t the only aspect of your knowledge management effort, the most essential thing is just to get started with something.

Ch. 8 types of KM projects. Reported are case studies. Much of the energy in KM has been spent on treating it as an “it.”

  • Knowledge repositories: the typical goal is to take knowledge embedded in documents – memos, reports, presentations, articles – and put it into a repository where it can be stored and retrieved. Basic types of knowledge repositories: 1. external knowledge – competitor information. 2. structure internal knowledge – research reports, marketing materials, 3. informal internal knowledge – discussion databases full of know-how, lessons learned.
  • Knowledge access and transfer. Developing a knowledge yellow pages and focusing on sharing knowledge.
  • Knowledge environment. Focused on creating a KM conducive environment. Knowledge as a corporate asset.

P 150 Some companies concentrate on the process for creating, sharing, and using knowledge. A process oriented approach.

P. 151 success in KM projects. Growth in resources (staff and budgets), growth in volume of knowledge content and usage, the likelihood that the project will be an organizational initiative not an individual one. Comfort throughout the company with the concepts of KM, some evidence of financial return.

P. 153 The projects we defined as successful had most of all of these indicators present. In contrast, the unsuccessful projects had few or none. Managers had to scrounge for resources, they struggled to get members of the organization to contribute to repositories or use discussion databases. A few visionary – but lonely – individuals championed these projects.

P. 154 factors leading to knowledge project success.

  • A knowledge-oriented culture
  • Employees willing to share and explore
  • Absence of knowledge inhibitors, people are not afraid that sharing knowledge will cost them their jobs
  • Technical and organizational infrastructure
  • technology is easier to put in place
  • A uniform set of technologies across the organization, e.g. word processing software.
  • Organizational infrastructure means establishing roles, org structures and skills from which individual projects can benefit. This is more difficult.
  • Senior management support
  • types of helpful support:
  • sending out messages to the org. that KM is critical
  • funding infrastructure
  • clarifying what type of knowledge is most important
  • A link to economic or industry value, a modicum of process orientation
  • The most impressive benefits of good KM involve money saved or earned. Maybe process measures like reduced cycle time customer satisfaction, phone calls avoided.
  • A modicum of process orientation
  • The KM project manger should have a good sense of the customer. Not usually useful to describe the detailed process steps though.
  • Clarity of vision and language, is it knowledge or learning, or data, or information. Clear terms are necessary.
  • Nontrivial motivation aids
  • The success of a project may hinge on the long-term incentives a company provides. Ice cream bars may not work for long.
  • Some level of knowledge structure
  • With regard to a repository, some structure is beneficial, with categories and terms and a thesaurus. A KM manager should be prepared to redefine the structure as the pattern of use changes.
  • Multiple channels for knowledge transfer. Face time is still important.
  • p.160. Factors that matter most – lacking all these three a firm should only begin KM on a small scale with objectives involving efficiency or effectiveness of a single knowledge oriented function or process:

    • knowledge oriented culture
    • human infrastructure
    • Senior management support

    Ch.9. P.162 Pragmatics of knowledge management. Common sense: the place to start is with high-value knowledge, start with a focused pilot and let demand drive additional initiatives, work along multiple fronts at once (technology, organization, culture), don’t put off what gives you the most trouble until it’s too late, get help throughout the company as quickly as possible.

    p.164 Don’t talk up the project until you have something to talk about . Start small, actually accomplish something, and then trumpet what’s need achieved. KM should start with a recognized business problem that relates to knowledge.

    p.164 Different ways of getting started

    • Leading with technology, p. 166 If you’re implementing a new technology just for the purpose of KM, it may be a waste of money. The knowledge behaviors you’re seeking from users of the knowledge system may be slow to emerge.
    • Leading with best practices, p.167, knowledge broker skills: interviewing, categorizing, documenting, and searching.
    • Leading with organizational learning
    • Leading with decision making, If knowledge doesn’t improve decision making than what’s the point of managing it?
    • Leading with accounting. Thinking of knowledge as corporate asset.

    P. 173 pitfalls.

    • If you build it…they won’t come. If you are spending more than a third of your time, effort, and money on technology, you’re neglecting other factors that will help them to come – the content, the culture, the motivation, etc.
    • The personnel manual and bus schedules are not ‘knowledge.’ Simply putting paper documents online will weaken your terminological currency
    • If the word “knowledge” is suspect in your company, a knowledge management program probably won’t work anyway.
    • “We think KM is everybody’s job so we’re not going to build some big staff organization of knowledge managers to do the work that everyone should be doing” Everyone should be creating and using knowledge, but not everyone can or will do a good job at writing down what he does. KM will not succeed if there are no workers and mangers whose primary jobs involve extracting and editing knowledge from those who have it, facilitating knowledge networks, and setting up and managing knowledge technology infrastructures. The next time someone says the “everybody’s job” line, say “since it’s everybody’s job to monitor costs and enhance revenues, we’ll also eliminate accounting.”
    • Based on faith. We need to start measuring the worth of the KM initiative.
    • Restricted access. KM is not just about creating better access to information. The word “access” could be replaced by attention, appetite….
    • Bottom up? You need management support.

    P. 178 As long as you work along multiple fronts and don’t believe that any one tool or approach is the answer to knowledge management success, your effort has a good chance of thriving. We must be careful to balance learning and doing, and not spend too much time acquiring and managing knowledge for its own sake. A healthy tension between knowledge and action is the key to organizational success.


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