Many years ago now I formulated three rules or heuristics of Knowledge Management. The first of these references the fact that you cannot make someone surrender their knowledge in the way that you can make them conform with a process. It was originally coined in reference to individuals but I have come to realise that it also applies to organisations. We are currently working on a major software development that requires sharing data across agencies. The goal is noble but there is no way that one agency is going to make all of its data visible to the others on the basis that they might need it. It would break ethical principles and some cases the law for them to do so. It is one of the reasons why I don’t panic too much about Government agencies gathering data, the likelihood that they will put it together or share it is not high.
All of this brought me to an extension of my first rule, which also encompasses the whole notion of gifting which has been so much a part of human evolution. So a new formulation or possible extension of the first rule would be: if you ask someone, or a body for specific knowledge in the context of a real need it will never be refused. If you ask them to give you your knowledge on the basis that you may need it in the future, then you will never receive it.

Having seen this extension, I briefly revisited the original three rules. These are more fully explained in a key paper Complex Acts of Knowing but I repeat them here.

1. Knowledge will only ever be volunteered it can not be conscripted

2. We only know what we know when we need to know it

3. We always know more than we can tell and we will always tell more than we can write down

Now the first of these was inspired by Peter Drucker. I had the honour to share a platform with him twice, and on one occasion we led an Executive Retreat together along with one other teacher. I think I learned more from those two days of interaction than I did through reading his books, and I probably learned more from those books than from most other management textbooks. One of the great things about Drucker is that he made you think, he did not provide you with answers. He could also be savage in the most gentle of ways. On the first occasion, I made the mistake of criticising Fredrick Taylor to an audience with him looking on. I then received the equivalent of the famous put down of Dan Quayle “Son I knew John Kennedy”, but I was allowed to return.

The third is an extension of Polanyi’s famous quote we know more than we can tell and the second is, so far as I know entirely my own.

Now it’s been interesting over the years to see these quoted, sometimes with acknowledgment sometimes claimed (or at least the claim is implied) as the author’s own. In one case the authors went back to the original source on two of them and failed to acknowledge my extension or formulation (full marks for low cunning there).

What interests me is first that they have propagated so well, for which I am naturally pleased, acknowledged, or not. What puzzles me is this. Despite the fact that people agree with them, they still design idealistic systems on the assumption that this time the rules will not apply.

It appears that we can know something without necessarily learning from it.


Post hoc note for readers

In 2008 I extended the number to seven in a post Rendering Knowledge

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