What makes a good knowledge professional?

Some reflections on my experience at the Exploiting Knowledge and Information symposium held at Cranfield University on 1-2 October 2008. The event was sponsored by the UK Government’s Knowledge Council.

Given this was an event for senior civil servants I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised by the fact that most speakers spent a good proportion of their time explaining how important they were, what power they wield and what governance structures they had set up/were responsible for. As a freelance consultant I wasn’t intimidated by this show of raw power and influence, but a quick glance around revealed a few awe-inspired faces.

All of the presentations were on PowerPoint, most were pure text (some you could even read!) and nearly all used a 2 x 2 grid to explain information/knowledge management (have Microsoft been pushing a new ‘must-have’ ppt design template?). A notable exception was Cabinet Office social media web guru William Perrins’ presentation on The Power of Information, which took us on a quick tour of various website mashups.

I also noted as general point that the phrases ‘knowledge management‘ and ‘information management‘ were referenced quite freely and interchangeably, almost as if they were the same thing. Fortunately that didn’t confuse me, but clearly it did for some as I overheard a fiew heated debates during the lunch break (for some, KM means the storage, organisation and dissemination of information…mmmm!)

I woke up later in the day when Professor Jane McKenzie from Henley Management School talked about “Developing Knowledge Professionals with different ways of thinking“. Amen to that, I thought.

I then pondered whether I (as a self-proclaimed Knowledge Professional) had a different way of thinking. I hoped I had, on the evidence I’d seen so far. I checked out the bios of the speakers, and noticed that everyone had proclaimed their achievements and their importance (importance = power) whereas my bio (included in the delegate pack because I was presenting a session in the afternoon) was about my beliefs. Sufficiently different thinking? Not sure.

So, I came away with a few observations on effective knowledge sharing and some thoughts for aspiring ‘Knowledge Professionals’:

  • Hide the ego. You don’t need position or power to be heard. If you have something interesting to say, most people will listen.
  • Knowledge is fluid, relevant and dynamic. It can’t be captured in a box.
  • Knowledge is gained from experience.
  • A document/information repository is where knowledge goes to die.
  • Encoded knowledge becomes ‘information’; Information is not knowledge; information + context + sensemaking can support the development of knowledge.
  • Conversations bring knowledge alive.
  • Giving information some structure (e.g. metadata) and making it accessible will make it easier for people to find and use that information to support knowledge development.

And for all those still debating the dichotomy between ‘knowledge‘ and ‘information‘, a simple illustration of the difference:-

If I wanted to drive from Liverpool St station to Earls Court, I would use a map, or some written/printed instructions or maybe a SatNav device. All instances of ‘information‘.

If I took a taxi from Liverpool St Station to Earls Court, I’m relying on the ‘knowledge‘ of the taxi driver. The driver would know which roads to avoid at certain  times of the day and which alternative routes to use if there is unexpected congestion. He/she may not ultimately be taking the shortest route, but it is likely to be the quickest route because he/she will want to drop me off and pick up a new fare as soon as possible. This is ‘tacit knowledge‘ in action, and like all knowledge it is very difficult to capture and make it explicit – hence why we trust taxi drivers to get us from A to B over and above our navigation skills. No matter how hard I studied maps and directions (information), I would never gain the taxi driver’s knowledge.

On a final point, I came across an excellent blog from Dave Pollard on the topic of empowerment, and with specific reference to the Art of Hosting.  Well worth reading the whole blog, but I picked out the following abstract to reinforce my message about what makes a good Knowledge Professional:

  • a thirst for truth, and an insistence on speaking the truth and being honest to a fault
  • extraordinary perceptiveness, attentiveness, and presence
  • intellectual and emotional sensitivity
  • an almost erotic level of passion and energy
  • total dedication to their chosen practices, pursued as lifelong practices, through which they seek only to get better (i.e. no expectation of mastery)
  • great instincts
  • wonderful improvisational skills
  • a love of aesthetics, and not inconsiderable artistic and creative talent (my sketchbook yesterday was my struggle to keep up, as they all seem to be able to draw brilliantly)
  • a high level of self-confidence, but never arrogance (in fact, humility)
  • a desire to be of use and service to others, and the courage to do that anytime, anywhere (though when I asked them they said it was the only thing they could conceive of doing that would have meaning for them, so it wasn’t courageous at all)
  • exceptional communication skills — oral, written, and non-verbal
  • delightful imaginations
  • great trust and respect for each other and for others who are, like them, dedicated to unselfish pursuits
  • an aversion to power, and the use of power, and aversion to hierarchy and the cult of leadership
  • great intelligence, knowledge and curiosity
  • a subtle and gentle sense of humour, sometimes self-deprecating, never cruel or demeaning of others

A mantra for all aspiring Knowledge Professionals maybe?

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