Monday, January 18, 2010

When does Communication count as Knowledge Sharing?

Following my post Intelligent Knowledge Management, taking issue with @snowded's "knowledge sharing" agenda, I have read a few more pieces about knowledge sharing, including Patrick Lambe's piece If We Can’t Even Describe Knowledge Sharing, How Can We Support It?. See also Mark Gould, Knowledge sharing: it may not be what you think it is.

Patrick describes a person with a life-critical illness, being told stuff by various healthcare professionals and others in what he describes as "a series of encounters with intersecting knowledge worlds", and has drawn a good diagram of this process. Patrick seems to regard it as a complex example of knowledge sharing. But in what sense does this count as sharing? To me it just looks like communication - translating specialist knowledge into accessible information.

In many contexts, the word "sharing" has become an annoying and patronizing synonym for "disclosure". In nursery school we are encouraged to share the biscuits and the paints; in therapy groups we are encouraged to "share our pain", and in the touchy-feely enterprise we are supposed to "share" our expertise by registering our knowledge on some stupid knowledge management system.

But it's not sharing (defined by Wikipedia as "the joint use of a resource or space"). It's just communication.


  1. Good question, one that might help sharpen what we exactly mean by knowledge sharing. If we look at the situation I describe from the patient's point of view, however, I think it amounts to a lot more than a series of communications of facts. His challenge is to understand what's happening to him, what is likely to happen to him, and what he needs to do about it (indeed what he can do). And he also has to evaluate what's being told him by the various actors, and figure out whether it's trustworthy - so he will also do some background research. All of this happening in a short, highly emotionally charged timeframe. For him, it is very much a knowledge and learning issue.

    The dislocation my friend felt here, was that several of the other actors were probably thinking as you are, that this was simply a series of communication events - they thought information transfer would do the job. Knowledge transfer is trickier, more complex, and involves some change in the way the recipient views or understands the world, and probably in how they act.

  2. Hi Patrick, thanks for your reply.

    So there is some set of transactions or exchanges between your friend and the other people. He sees these exchanges as some form of knowledge transfer (contributing to a learning process) while they see them as some form of information transfer (contributing perhaps to some decision-making process). The difference between these two views is important - differences of this kind can be found in many knowledge situations.

    However, I still don't see that the word "sharing" accurately describes either what is happening or what ought to be happening. People may share meanings and goals, but they transfer (more or less effectively, for various purposes) knowledge and information.

  3. Patrick,

    Thanks for the comment on my blog (and reference here). I thought I would respond here, to keep the conversation in one place.

    I suspect we are getting into 'angels on pinheads' territory here, but I can see a distinction between 'sharing' and 'transfer', which might be relevant. To talk of transferring knowledge suggest to me (a) that there is a knower and an inquirer and that those roles are rarely swapped, and (b) that there needs to be a knowledge object to be transferred. (As you put it, "a stupid knowledge management system" is probably the receptacle for that object.)

    As Patrick's blog post and longer article make clear, the idea of the knowledge object is seriously flawed (and I suspect you may agree with that). Equally, the direction in which knowledge flows probably varies from time to time. For me, this fluidity (combined with the intangible nature of what is conveyed in these knowledge generation processes) makes me comfortable with the notion of 'sharing' (even given the playgroup example).

    In fact, I might put it more strongly. The kind of sharing and complex knowledge generation that Patrick describes should be an organisational aspiration (not at all like 'sharing pain'), while exchange or transfer of knowledge objects into a largely lifeless repository should be deprecated.


  4. Thanks Mark

    I am very happy with the notion of shared knowledge generation - for example, sitting down and sharing the analysis and interpretation of something or other. I am also happy with the idea of some collaborative process in which each participant contributes some knowledge - like everyone bringing some food to a shared picnic. But that's not the prevailing use of the word "sharing" in the KM world.

  5. Richard,

    I think you are right about the prevailing use. I am increasingly aware of a vast gap between 'traditional' KM practice, which tends towards the unthinking use of KM systems and so on that Patrick rightly rails against and more thoughtful KM practitioners who are aware of the need for constant critique of the ways we do KM. What especially bewilders me is that the traditional camp either ignore the more challenging work or (worse) take it on and twist it to their own ends. I think that is what has happened in the case of knowledge sharing.

    (Apologies for calling you Patrick last time!)