KM and the Tipping Point

I’m in the middle of reading Malcolm Gladwell’s, “The Tipping Point.” It’s a very interesting read, in which Gladwell attempts to put his finger on how certain social behaviours or events go from being a blip on society’s radar, to being a full-blown social phenomenon. Gladwell argues that these success stories got to a tipping point, and then exploded into popular culture.

The particular section I’m reading is an anecdote about a company called Gore – as in GoreTex, though they also make tons of stuff for the electronics industry, health care and the military (and here I thought they only made rain jackets). Gore never has more than 150 people at a single plant; if a plant grows beyond that, they buy a new plant and split the group in half. The founder, Bill Gore, noticed that things get clumsy at a hundred and fifty, and that in small plants every part of the process for designing and making and marketing a given product is subject to the same group scrutiny to ensure a constant climate of innovation and sharing, and a holistic understanding of production. There is a common relationship among workers so that they are constantly moving forward and a sort of “peer-pressure” develops which ensures everyone is working toward a unified goal.

I don’t really care about making billions of dollars in the armaments business (I’m in library school so that’s obvious). But what I found really interesting about this story is its obvious connection to notions of knowledge management (KM, if you will).

I wrote a paper on knowledge management for a class this past year, and I found the topic very interesting; When Gore talks about the need to foster small, close-knit teams of employees, what he is essentially concerning himself with is the successful sharing of tacit knowledge. Formally speaking, tacit knowledge is defined as knowledge that cannot be codified but is paramount to the mastery of a particular skill. How do you create instructions on how to enjoy a play, or win a baseball game? It’s difficult for us to express because it can’t be clearly verbalized as a cohesive set of rules. There are heaps of neat examples of how companies have created particular environments for their employees to foster and cultivate knowledge sharing. I read a book called “The Knowledge-Creating Company” by Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi – a KM classic – for my paper, and liked the following passage about Japan’s big auto companies’ approach to knowledge sharing:

“Japanese companies… recognize that the knowledge expressed in words and numbers represents only the tip of the iceberg. They view knowledge as being primarily “tacit” – something not easily visible and expressible. Tacit knowledge is highly personal and hard to formalize, making it difficult to communicate or to share with others. Subjective insights, intuitions, and hunches fall into this category of knowledge. Furthermore, tacit knowledge is deeply rooted in an individual’s action and experience, as well as in ideals, values or emotions he or she embraces.”

Companies like Honda have tea rooms where employees are obligated to sit with members of other divisions and chat. Just sip tea and talk to one another. The assumption is that engineers and marketers and designers sharing information about work ensures that everyone knows what the other is doing; the money flows because the product is a well-orchestrated, focused effort from the entire group; a coordination of all their perspectives… And we all know how Japanese automakers are doing.

Here’s an example of how to ignore tacit knowledge sharing, ultimately to your company’s detriment:

When IBM entered a time of needed innovation to ensure their future success in the IT market, the chairman of the company circulated a memo telling employees to “stay way from the water coolers and get back to work” (Doesn’t he sound like a gem). The cultural norm of being at one’s desk doing productive tasks was trying to be imposed on a group of workers who were attempting to collaboratively discuss potential solutions to IBM’s trouble. This casual exchange could have been of much greater benefit to the company than formal work tasks, but in a company with a narrow understanding of what productivity and work look like, management couldn’t recognize the positive outcomes of informal discussion.

You see this type of problem all the time; my boyfriend just changed jobs and his(now) former employer admitted that his entire project has been somewhat derailed because nobody bothered to have him share his knowledge – his tacit understanding of how to do things and do them efficiently, only came about from trial and error, and when he left, his knowledge went with him. Or on student council, where we discovered that a giant document we had drafted had already been written by the student council of a few years ago… and that we knew the people who’d written it! Hours of effort and time could have been saved if there had been better efforts at knowledge transfer and knowledge management. I’d be really interesting in learning how to cut down on these information silos in a workplace, particularly in a library – I hope to learn more about it at FIS and hopefully in my professional career as well!

If you’re interested in reading up on KM, here are some good reads (and they’re easy, not hard!):

Davenport, T. and Prusak, L. (1998). Working knowledge: How organizations manage what they know. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Polanyi, M. (1962). Personal knowledge towards a post-critical philosophy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.


2 responses to “KM and the Tipping Point

  1. I must say this is a great article i enjoyed reading it keep the good work 🙂

  2. Before leaving my alt library job in april, I wrote a document detailing what our goals were for the past year, what we accomplished, what our goals are for next year, and ways to accomplish that. It also included a detailed description of where things are in the library, and where they should hopefully end up. I also included contact information for the volunteers and suggestions for recruiting new volunteers and patrons.

    I like to think that it will be of great use to the next Library Coordinator.. who, as it turns out, is me (for the next two years, unless I screw it up).