Does Knowledge Want To Be Managed?

First published by Stacy Goff April 2, 2011, republished in 2021. We post this article to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of IPMA-USA, founded April 9, 2001. Our founders have been long-time leaders and innovators in the project and program management (PPM) practices. We have contributed greatly to the growth of PPM practices, and to other professional associations that had advanced them.

One of our founding objectives was to move past a project management certification process that focused just on knowledge. Instead, we focused on skills, attitudes and competence, on strategic alignment of projects, and improving project management interpersonal interaction. Our goal: to vastly increase project team and enterprise competence, performance, and business results.

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff, ProjectExperts CEO.
This topic was inspired during a trans-Atlantic air travel dialogue with a young lady seatmate whose job responsibilities included Knowledge Management in an alternative energy company. We explored, and brought together, a range of the relevant terms and disciplines involved with knowledge acquisition, assimilation, retention, and application. Upon my return, and reflecting on the unresolved parts of our discussion, I scheduled an interview with Knowledge. This was more difficult than I thought, even though I had long-ago attributed traits of anthropomorphism to her. Finding Knowledge was easy. Getting dedicated time to interview her was the difficult part. Her? Of course, Knowledge is feminine in gender. Some men don’t really understand more than Facts, the younger step-brother of Knowledge.

Our Interview with Knowledge
My first question was the title of this posting. She asserted that “No one ever asked me!”  She expressed concerns that many of those purporting to “manage knowledge” do have some insights, but most do not understand the entire story. She pointed out that Knowledge is only one member of her large family of Intelligence, and some of her senior siblings are even less-understood than she. For example, her Grandmother is Wisdom. And, she asserted her deep concern that there are whole industries, educational systems, software support, and even certifications based on just her part of her family.

While some, such as Peter Senge, come close to deep understanding, many of his followers only grasp the obvious parts. And, especially disconcerting to Knowledge was her belief that man has had few new insights about her for several thousand years, since the illuminations in China, India, Greece and Egypt. The interview, while wide-ranging and deep in content, was a firehose blast of perspective, all absorbed in a 15 second interview. Ms. Knowledge had other pressing commitments elsewhere.

The Taxonomy of Data
The interview led me to reflect on my own journey toward Knowledge and the rest of her family many years ago. In the 1970s I performed presentations to various professional groups. One of my favorite presentations, especially for groups involving data and information systems, was The Taxonomy of Data. I did not invent the concept; I had read something in 1974 that inspired me.

Here is that 1974 source: Henry, Nicholas L. (May–June 1974). “Knowledge Management: A New Concern for Public Administration”. Public Administration Review 34 (3): 189. I couldn’t find an actual link to the content online. However, Max Wideman has written on the subject: He mentions it in relation to an acronym, DIKW, honored with many web search hits.

My presentation (recalling a now-47+ year old memory) starts with Data: Common as the sands on the beach and in the oceans. Data has potential value, because similar to the art glass of Murano (near Venice) it begins with a common material, then goes through a process to produce a thing of beauty and wonder. We process Data to derive Information. Part of the role of data processing (as we named it then) is to compile, select, sequence and present Data to targeted audiences, such that it becomes useful Information. Information is a higher level of abstraction (and combination) of related basic components. With the right (useful, timely and accurate) Information, plus other inputs, people can make decisions. Better Information results in better decisions.
Taxonomy of Data

And there are more steps in the sequence. Decisions rely on more than just Information. There are actions required to bridge the gap. Information is external to the decision-maker: You read it, hear it, see words, charts, and numbers. All in the quest to internalize (explicit to tacit knowledge) that Information: Thus stablishing or increasing Knowledge. There is also an acceleration factor that is evident. If the decision-maker has prior Knowledge, and the new Information can be related to that Knowledge, it is easier to quickly assimilate the Information. If not, it takes longer to build the “tags,” the indices that help in retrieving, comparing and acting upon the Knowledge. And yet, even with the presence of accumulated Knowledge, there is still something missing in effective Decision Making.

In my interview with Knowledge, she asserted that the elders in her Intelligence family are the least understood. Her example, mentioned above, is her grandmother. Different civilizations over the millennia labeled her with different names, but the ultimate extent of the Taxonomy of Data, as currently understood, is labeled Wisdom. And how does Knowledge support Wisdom? This clearly involves mastering the external-to-internal transition, correlating new Knowledge with existing Knowledge, and then applying it. Following that, applying judgement (thanks to Larry Prusak for this key step); reviewing how this new insight works in a given situation, and then adjusting and applying it all again. Note that as we move from Data, to Information, to Knowledge, to Wisdom, we see increasingly higher levels of cognitive behavior, as measured by Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning (the 2001 update is more-applicable for adult learners).

The Performance Progression
The above offers a foundation in the creation of knowledge—and beyond. And in truth, this is not really just a taxonomy, or classification system, but a progression, isn’t it! But we have called it a taxonomy for over 45 years. So how does this relate to Project and Program Manager Certification? And how does this reflect IPMA’s (International Project Management Association) focus on progressing from the above-mentioned Knowledge to advanced, professionally assessed Performance Competence? The answer is one that applies a systematic, traceable, coachable, assessable progression. Now that we are aware of the senior siblings in Ms. Knowledge’s Intelligence Family, how does one move from basic Knowledge, to Competence, to Performance?

When my company (ProjectExperts) developed a PM Competency Model in the early 1980s, we described a progression towards what we then called PM Effectiveness, and now call PM Performance. It begins with Knowledge, and her attributes. Already, we are near the top levels of the Taxonomy of Data described above. Knowledge is an essential beginning point for higher performance, because she relates and organizes external information into potentially useful intelligence. Yet there must be more. As we have said many times, Knowledge is like Potential Energy (remember your Physics? By itself, Potential Energy accomplishes nothing). And, Knowledge can have a very short half-life. We have said for years that Knowledge acquired, but not applied, has a half-life of six weeks. We recently found that we have been wrong: Current research says two weeks.

When you apply Knowledge, you are introduced to her older sister, Skill. Skill is like Kinetic Energy: She accomplishes things. Skill has a longer half-life, but is harder to grasp. She is also harder to assess. One key to sustaining Skill is recognition and reward, which reinforces your commitment to keep her close-by. Another is frequent application. Thus, the next-higher level in the family progression, the reinforcing Attitudes. Here we see a key role of those managers who recognize and reward a practitioner’s application of classroom-based or other learning. The three ASK sisters (Attitudes, Skill, Knowledge), are well-known in instructional design, competence development, and performance assessment. But there remain progression steps that are missing, and these are crucial steps in any organization’s PM Performance—beginning with Behavioral and other Interpersonal, Skills.

The Progression to PerformanceThe adjacent diagram looks similar to the one we showed above. One item is the same, and others are different. You can see that Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes, mentioned above, are part of the Progression to Performance. But look closely at the Attitudes item. Your Behavioral and Interpersonal Skills, which we group as Attributes, are also an essential part of the progression.

During the 1980s, not many organizations engaged this key ingredient, preferring to focus on technical PM Knowledge. Today, seemingly everyone is realizing that how you relate to your stakeholders has more impact in project and program success than all the technical PM factors combined. So because of the symbiotic relationship between reinforcing Attitudes and the Behavioral Attributes, we combine them in the Knowledge-to-Performance Progression. And I hear you asking, “are we there yet?”

Not quite. Knowledge, Skills, Attitudes & Attributes, when appropriately applied (Experience), can result in what we call Competence. This does not necessarily happen the first time you try it; but it can result from multiple experiences. Given multiple opportunities, and the resulting experiences, you move toward the next level of the progression, Competence. And, this progression is still not-yet complete.

Inputs Versus Outputs: All the above members of the Intelligence Family, including those we discussed in the Taxonomy, and those from this Progression, are merely inputs. They are the ingredients. Inputs or ingredients of what, you ask? They are the inputs to the success Executives, Managers, external Customers, and other Project Stakeholders seek. They are the means to an end. Certainly they are important, indeed essential, yet what our stakeholders really want is the outcome: Performance. Results. Success. Thus, all training, all coaching, all certifications, all tools, all processes, all other inputs, that do not contribute to Success, are dispensable. Even worthless, when they do not contribute to success, or when they actually detract from it (as too often happens). This Output, or Performance orientation is a theme throughout IPMA initiatives, from Advanced PM Certifications to our Assessment of Organizations, using PRO: our Performance Rated Organization standard.

The Progression From Data to Performance
So now, dear reader, we have moved from the outrageous (an interview with Knowledge) to irreverent (suggesting that most of the members of the family to which Knowledge belongs are inputs, or ingredients). How far, you wonder, will Stacy go, to offend everyone equally? OK, here goes. These are not two separate frameworks, but different viewers’ perspectives of a Performance Progression. Don’t worry: Ms. Knowledge’s place in the progression is secure, because she appears in both frameworks, and is essential in each.

In fact, she is the linking pin between the two frameworks. When we arrange the two frameworks together, we can see how they support each other, and interact. Review the new progression below, and note that Knowledge is a higher-end player in the Taxonomy stream and the entry player in the Performance Progression stream. Note also a new assertion: That Wisdom and Competence are closely-related; perhaps they are even twins, with Wisdom the firstborn.
The Progression to Results
The implications: Knowledge Management is an important part of every organization’s success. But the right selection of Knowledge requires application, needs reinforcement and rewards, and demands re-use (an oft-missed attribute). It seeks adaptation, and improves with each opportunity of use. Most-importantly, Knowledge is applied not just for the sake of use, but for the increasingly improved outcome your organization seeks. Everything you do in PM training, learning (often two different actions), certifications, decision-making and other support, that does not achieve organization success contributes to Ms. Knowledge’s frustrations. Not to mention the ongoing disappointment of the enterprise in this discipline we call Project Management. Here is another insight in the Performance Progression: The lower path moves from outside self to deeper inside. The upper path leads from inside to increasingly visible and outside. Want evidence? The arrowhead wraps around, and Performance is measured by… Data.

Relevance to the IPMA Cause
We in ProjectExperts have understood the above-described Performance Progression from our founding in 1982; indeed, advancing our practice and its results was part of our original goals. We joined IPMA because we saw that this Global Federation of PM societies not only understands the relationship between the progression steps, but has established a way—far beyond exams—to assess the penultimate achievement: PM Competence, across several dozen Elements of PM success. Are there more members that we will discover in this Intelligence Family? Time will tell.

As to the original question, whether Knowledge wants to be managed, we all understand that Knowledge wants to be free. But part of that freedom is to enjoy her useful and proper place in the Family of Intelligence, contributing where she does the greatest good. And now, based on our air travel dialogue, our insights from our interview with Knowledge, and our reflection on formerly disconnected models, we have good news. The good news for the further advancement of PM is that now, there is a discipline, populated by passionate professionals and experts, of Knowledge Management. We practitioners do not yet have all the answers, but we do now have most of the questions. With your assistance, and with the help of others, everyone who wishes to do so can move up the Performance Progression, to achieve superior business results. This is a win for all, don’t you think?

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