A Thought-provoking Perspective of Knowledge Management by Dr Nancy Dixon

Dr Dixon is one of the early thought leaders in the Knowledge Management field. 

Her book, Common Knowledge, which was based on a research study of how fifteen of the most successful companies were leveraging their knowledge gets to the heart of one of the most difficult questions in knowledge transfer: “What makes a system work efficiently in one organisation but fail miserably in another?”. This has set a path for her work as her consulting company conducts in-depth assessments of knowledge sharing efforts within organisations. 

Dr Nancy Dixon

If you asked her, she would simply say that her work is dealing with the human side of Knowledge Management, always interested in bringing people together, believing that this process is necessary to achieve the best results when dealing with important issues that are going around in the organisation. More information about this process called Collective Sensemaking was our first question:

Nancy Dixon: There is a new kind of worker - the knowledge worker, that's been occurring in all organisations in the last, say, thirty or forty years. Before, most workers would not have known as much about how to do their job as their bosses did. But with the advent of knowledge workers that began to change. The term was first introduced by Peter Drucker in his book "Landmarks of Tomorrow" published in 1959, and it was talked a lot about in the sixties in The New Yorker, as they introduced the idea that we are in the knowledge age. We are now in a situation where the workers in an organisation know more about how to do their work then the manager who supports them. 

At the same time, almost 50% of workers are virtual, or "distributed", if you will, and they are not working at a place where a manager would usually see them working which requires a different way of engaging with them compared to what they've had in the past. I see Collective Sensemaking events as a tool that can deal with both of those issues: the different kind of worker that is a knowledge worker and a different kind of worker that is virtual. 

Collective Sensemaking events

TallyFox: How can software help in this process? 

Nancy Dixon:  People are increasingly working more independently, separated at a distance from their bosses, and are having to make more decisions themselves, to communicate with team members through software, etc. 

We are so virtual now that it has begun to cause problems. 

One of those problems is that people who are communicating only virtually tend to lose the sense of purpose of what the organisation is about. In many situations, we see that distributed workers are not being promoted as often as people who are in the office. They are not visible to their managers or their management system. The interaction software is critical to the kind of work we now need to do, but it is not enough. Periodically they need to come together, face to face, discussing the issues they are all concerned about, not just for team building. 

I see knowledge management as an oscillation of using very sophisticated software such as Tallium, for example, supported with a sophisticated way of interacting in person periodically. 


TallyFox: From your extensive experience as a consultant, were you able to single out the biggest problems organisations now face that they want to solve with KM?

Nancy Dixon: Knowledge Management started with the idea that knowledge was essential and that it needed to be managed. The first process was just to collect it all and that it was just a part of what needed to be done. 

Now we understand that Knowledge Management has to solve a business problem. 

Instead of saying: "We're going to put in a Knowledge Management System", the organisation needs to say: " OK, here's the problem we're having, and we need to apply a Knowledge Management process to fix it". It is not just about enabling two people to share their knowledge more and in a better way. We need to motivate our experts to share tacit knowledge to make the knowledge from inside of a project available to the team of another project.  There are different methodologies, supported by technology and personal interaction, that can solve the problem.


TallyFox: How can we measure the impact of a KM process in an organisation?

Nancy Dixon: The best way to do that is to start with an issue and to apply a Knowledge Management solution to that issue. We can tell if it worked if the issue gets solved. The measures of success need to be set by the organisation, and the KM team needs to show that knowledge solves this issue. For example, if the issue is that the people we are hiring take too long to get up to speed, we address it by applying a knowledge management process to get people up to speed more quickly. This should lead to better profits if they have diagnosed the issue correctly. 


TallyFox: You've often spoken about the Three Knowledge Management eras. Are we in the Third Era yet with KM managers establishing a new way of thinking about KM?

Three KM Eras Nancy Dixon

Nancy Dixon: Yes I believe we are. 

The interesting thing about those three eras is that all of those eras need to continue. When I talked about the first era, the era of Information Management - Leveraging Explicit Knowledge, we still need people to be able to find the information, to be connected to the information. This era has progressed, and we've gotten much better in information management compared to the old way of stuffing information in a repository. Now, supported by appropriate technologies, the process is quite sophisticated. The same thing is true for the second era - Leveraging Experiential Knowledge. When we began to put communities of practice together and connecting people online, we didn't know how to do it, and we didn't know how much of it needed to be facilitated. Now we know that these communities need to come together periodically, which is essential if you want to get community members connected to each other. They cannot just be there virtually. The third era - Leveraging Collective Knowledge has come along, and I think that Collective Sensemaking is a piece of the process which will show us how to take advantage of the virtual and still stay connected in a human way. We are doing it by crowdsourcing, by Innovation Jams, by Working Out Loud, and all of those ways are bringing back the Human Side into the Virtual.

From my perspective, the more virtual we become, the more we should come together in a human way face-to-face. To me, it's almost like breathing out and breathing in. We breathe out by working separately, individually and independently, and we come together to breathe in. It's the oscillation that we notice in the third era that we did not see in the first and the second era as there was no need for it at the time, people were in the same offices all of the time. 



TallyFox: Your work shows us that you believe KM can help address many of the World's issues, and I would like to tell you about Mission Ganga. It is a community, which is a part of The Water Network, an open network developed on the TallyFox Tallium platform with the help of the TallyFox team, dedicated to solving the world's water crisis. The members of the community, are trying to bring together collective intelligence to help clean the Ganges river. How do you feel about it being an example of a well implemented KM practice?

Nancy Dixon: Well, I like your example we're very much. That's a good illustration of what I was just talking about. This network of people that have come together to solve the problem of the Ganges River is a specific issue for Knowledge Management and if they succeed in it, if they even improve it, then the network will have succeeded, the Knowledge Management would have succeeded. 

 NancyDixon Work developing countries

To answer a larger question, a great deal of my work, and if you've been to my blog you've seen it, is working with organizations who are working in developing countries in the healthcare sector, trying to reduce the mortality of newborns, the incidence of HIV, tuberculosis etc. and Knowledge Management has done wonderful things for those countries. We've been able to make a huge difference by providing them with a western knowledge and helping them to apply it in their countries. That is a fantastic example of what knowledge can do to help the world, and I think that you're right - it is the most important thing that we should be doing. Sharing that knowledge.


TallyFox: What would be your advice to Knowledge Management experts that are reading this interview?

Nancy Dixon: I would like us to start using our own advice more. There have been many Knowledge Management conferences, and what I see happening in most of KM conferences is that we do not use the principles of Knowledge Management to run the conference. In most of them, the speakers are standing in front of the audience, giving a lecture usually by PowerPoint, and that is a textbook example of an action that does not transfer much knowledge. At KM world last year, when you presented your software, we put up a Knowledge Café, and it helped some, but that was one day. On other days you would see people in the lobby talking with each other because they didn't get what they needed in those sessions. What we should be doing is having conferences where people can talk to each other not just giving out presentations and that is something that needs to change. 

The second advice would be: "Don't end up thinking that technology can do everything and continue to know that for people to learn, they also have to meet and share knowledge". The strategy is not to talk instead of using technologies; it is a combination of having sophisticated technologies and also being able to come together because that is what makes the difference. People don't offer their knowledge because they don't know what the other person needs, and recognising those needs will come through face-to-face interaction. We thought that we could do it all virtually and we can't, it requires the combination of the two. 


What do you think? Feel free to leave your questions for Dr Dixon and the TallyFox team in the comments below. 



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