Entropy and knowledge management

What does the second law of thermodynamics tell us about knowledge management? There’s some pretty complex mathematics around the laws of thermodynamics, but the poet’s version will do for our purposes:

  1. You can’t win
  2. You’re going to lose
  3. You can’t get out of the game

Life is a constant battle against entropy or disorder. Cars break down; they don’t repair themselves. Left to themselves, files, books, and ideas become disorganized. Organizations and the knowledge workers inside them are engaged in a constant, but doomed, fight against entropy; the order they bring is always temporary.

Knowledge management is one of many disciplines engaged in that fight. If entropy is destined to win, what does that tell us about how to carry on the fight?

It reminds us that perfection is the wrong goal. You can’t define a perfect taxonomy; 100% compliance with the documentation standards is wasted effort; there will always be something more pressing than the paperwork. This matters because the personalities attracted to the apparent orderliness of knowledge management tend to be seekers of this impossible perfection. You want to temper that predisposition, not feed it.

Surrendering to disorder isn’t a good strategy either. Let the reality of entropy shape our strategies and practices. There are things we should worry less about and things we might better do differently.

We should worry a lot less about perfection and completeness and strive instead for a standard of “good enough”. That requires more judgment and sensitivity to unique circumstance than most organizations—and many individuals—are comfortable with. Black and white makes for easier, albeit impossible, compliance standards and management.

If you are in a position to shift an organization in the direction of more gray, encourage that. If you are enmeshed in unrealistic organizational expectations, strive for only as much compliance as will keep the auditors and censors at bay. I’m not advocating open rebellion, or even mild “civil disobedience”; simply be comfortable that you have the laws of physics on your side while you quietly ignore stupider requirements.

If entropy is the law, how might you operate differently?

Learn where small efforts now postpone or eliminate major remediation efforts. Whatever you opt to do now, you are going to live with that choice later. Make your choices with that appreciation of a disorderly later. You are never going to go back later to add the appropriate tag, improve the name of the file, or reorganize the project team’s directories. Recognize the places and moments where a tiny injection of order now will pay lasting dividends. Don’t pretend that you can get organized after the press of the immediate has passed.

Entropy is inevitable. As a knowledge worker, your task is to create pockets of order out of the noise. As you create those pockets, don’t increase the noise everywhere else.

EntropyAndKidsHMP Comics

Nancy Dixon on – A Model Lessons Learned System – The US Army

Nancy Dixon provides an excellent review and analysis of the US Army’s Center for Lessons Learned and its role in the Army’s KM efforts. The following model gives you a quick picture of Dixon’s take on the topic.


Army Lessons Learned - my model

A Model Lessons Learned System The US Army
Nancy Dixon
Thu, 03 Feb 2011 19:49:02 GMT

Nancy’s entire post is well worth your time. It illustrates the gradual evolution of the system and role of building solid organizational foundations. This system is well-matched to the particulars of the Army’s organizational structures, culture, and their most pressing knowledge management needs.

An online survey about personal knowledge management

I wanted to make you aware of a survey about personal knowledge management that’s currently underway that would benefit from your participation. Here are the details along with relevant background.

Survey for Knowledge Management (KM) Practitioners and Researchers

Hello! My name is Kate Bower, and I m a graduate student studying knowledge management, strategic change and leadership and development in the Learning and Organizational Change Program (MSLOC) at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. I m contacting you and others like you because you are familiar with the field of Knowledge Management (KM), in that you likely practice, study, research, instruct, coach or consult on KM to some degree. Your contact information was obtained through a personal connection or a public source, or this message has been forwarded to you by your own personal connection.

MSLOC program requirements include completion of a 9-month research project, called a Capstone. My Capstone project is focused on the concept of Personal Knowledge Management, or how we as individuals manage our own information and ideas. The purpose of this study is to determine whether individuals who consciously manage their personal knowledge also consciously manage other aspects of their behavior; the secondary purpose is to discover if people who self-describe as effective personal knowledge managers are also effective at managing their behavior in general.

The target participants for this research are individuals familiar with the concept of Knowledge Management in the sense I ve described above: people who practice, study, research, instruct, coach or consult on KM to some degree, as they are likely to be somewhat familiar with the concept of personal knowledge management (PKM).

If you are interested in participating in this study, please complete the online questionnaire, which can be found here. The survey is comprised of 2 open-ended questions and 39 multiple choice questions; it should take participants approximately 20 minutes to complete.

Please feel free to forward this message or the survey link to personal connections that also fit the description of the target participant group.

Thank you in advance for your time and consideration.


Kate Bower

Master’s Candidate
Learning and Organizational Change, Northwestern University 2010

I’ve had several opportunities to meet with Kate and discuss her research. I will keep you posted as she completes her efforts at Northwestern.

New Friends and New Perspectives from KM World 2009

One of the best parts of participating in KM World 2009 last month was the opportunity to catch up with some long-time friends, turn some long-time e-friends into face-to-face friends and to make some new friends.  One of those new friends was Allan Crawford, who directs an online master’s program in knowledge management at California State University Northridge. He’s put together a brief video post capturing the spirit of the conference:

Perspectives on KM World 2009

At this year s KM World conference I had a chance to talk to several of the participants and ask them the question what stood out for you from this year s conference.

Listen to what  stood out for Carla O Dell, Jim McGee, Patrick Lambe, Stan Garfield and others.

Here are a few of the responses:

Carla O Dell (APQC): Video will make a big difference in how we share knowledge YouTube has changed the world of KM

Jim McGee: The return to the organizational dimension of KM and the shift away from being enamored with technology

Bob Wimpfheimer (Dr Pepper): It has shifted how I think about KM.  Previously it has been storing documents and making them available I ve come to see it s much more important to connect people with people

Jon Husband:  After years of taking about how to reuse knowledge, optimize it and classify it, people are beginning to understand that it s really not very useful if people can t access it, share it and build upon it and that involves learning.  We are going to see blending of the disciplines we now know as learning, KM, personal development, organizational change

Eric Mack (ICA): The talk about social tools and social media the primary value of these social tools is in the connection they provide between other peoples knowledge and the work we do social networking tools allow us to bridge the connection between our experience and knowledge and that of others.

Patrick Lambe (Straits Knowledge): KM is in a long pause.  It has reached the limits of what it can do based on how we currently understand how knowledge is use in organizations.  It is still focused on individual transactions and individual pieces of knowledge .it needs to get to grips more with how organizations work as organisms as thinking organisms.  It is touching that with the collective intelligence and wisdom of crowds stuff but it is nowhere near sophisticated enough to show results and I think that is where it needs to go.

Stan Garfield (Deloitte): KM is definitely not dead it s alive.  But we still have a lot of things to do the things that I think are more important than the technology is the leadership the things we need to do to get people to behave in a certain way to get communities to take off.  These are leadership issues not technical challenges.

The consistent themes appear to be that KM is about connecting people to people KM is social and success is dependant upon behaviors.  Even with the emergence of E2.0 techology is an important enablor for the connections ( YouTube has changed KM ) but is not the center of KM.

If you were at the conference what stood out for you?

Perspectives on KM World 2009
Allan Crawford
Tue, 08 Dec 2009 23:46:34 GMT

Socializing and knowledge management

Before Lotus Notes or SharePoint we had Happy Hour. Arthur Andersen/Accenture grabbed an early lead in knowledge sharing because it recognized the value of a liquor license long before there was even a technological environment capable of supporting the likes of Notes or SharePoint. Their efforts demonstrate why successful knowledge management is rooted in the social, not the technical. It’s a lesson we keep needing to learn.

I started my professional career in the consulting arm of Arthur Andersen & Co. years before the divorce that led eventually to the creation of Accenture. When I joined, the consulting group was known as "Administrative Services" and I spent a fair bit of time explaining to friends and prospective clients that I had nothing to do with office supplies or janitorial services. In those days, Andersen was justifiably known for its large investments in training its people in the skills and knowledge they needed to work effectively. It was one of the selling points that convinced me to join.

I joined Andersen shortly after it had invested in St. Charles. One of the primary training expenses was housing and feeding the hundreds of junior consultants being trained. It was the second largest expense item after the people costs themselves (both for instructors and for the students who weren’t generating revenue while being trained). Booking blocks of hotel rooms in Chicago or New York or London wasn’t going to be sustainable as Andersen continued to grow.

Just outside of Chicago, in St. Charles, was the campus of a recently failed Catholic girl’s college. Andersen’s partners bought the campus and transformed it into a center to house their training efforts. It made a great deal of sense and provided a smooth transition for all those young larval consultants; most of whom had just left similar campuses.

St. Charles was isolated and remote; an hour’s drive to the semi-bright lights of Chicago’s Rush and Division Streets. Few of us had the wherewithal to make the trip and courses were designed to provide little or no time to do so anyway. As a consolation prize, St. Charles had its own bar on campus. What the nuns who had run the college thought of this remains a mystery to me. What I have come to believe, however, is that getting this liquor license was the single most effective investment in knowledge management that Andersen ever made.

The bar at St. Charles was a safe place to share stories and a place where those with good stories mixed freely with those who needed to hear those stories. Better yet, the bar wasn’t a classroom. In a classroom, the teachers feel compelled to teach and the students feel compelled to feign wakefulness. In the bar, there was no teaching going on to interfere with the learning.

Before we started dressing things up in fancy terms like knowledge management and knowledge sharing we "talked shop." The bar was a natural place to talk shop. It was also a place where people came from all around the world. It was a place where we could start building the personal relationships on which future knowledge sharing would depend.

Today, of course, we operate in a more complex and widely distributed world. It can be harder to create and sustain the interactions needed to create those relationships. But keep that image of the bar in mind when you’re designing for your environment.

Knowledge management: the latest battle between the neats and the scruffies

I’m off to participate in a panel session (B105 – Changing/Resetting the Enterprise With PKM & Social Software Tools) this week at the KM World 2009 conference in San Jose. I thought I would rerun this post from a couple of years ago, as it reflects some of the thinking I plan on sharing. If you’re there, let’s hope we manage to connect.


"There are two groups of people, those who divide people into two groups and those who don’t." – Robert Benchley

Years ago, when I was doing work in the field of AI, I came across one of those binary splits that continues to be useful for my thinking; the split between "neats" and "scruffies." In the field of AI, the split differentiated between those favoring highly structured, logically precise approaches and those who preferred something more along the lines of "whatever works." Wikipedia offers a nice summary of the debate from that field.

Back in my school days, I think I was a neat (philosophically, not in terms of my room or study skills). When I first delve into new areas I am drawn to those who argue the neat case. As I get older and, I hope, more experienced, however, I find myself increasingly scruffy.

Much of the recent debate in the narrow field of knowledge management can be interpreted as one more recapitulation of the neats vs. scruffies argument. The technologies of blogs, wikis, and social media that collectively comprise the emerging notion of Enterprise 2.0 celebrate scruffiness as the essence of success in knowledge-intensive enterprises. The claim, backed by appropriately messy and sketchy anecdotal evidence, is that a loose set of simple technologies made available to the knowledge workers of an organization can provide an environment in which the organization and its knowledge workers can make more effective use of their collective and individual knowledge capital. Grass roots efforts will yield value where large-scale, centralized, knowledge management initiatives have failed.

Several implications flow from adopting a scruffy point of view. For one, "management" becomes a suspect term. If you can manage at all, you must do so at another level of abstraction. You aren’t managing knowledge; instead you are trying to manage the conditions under which knowledge work takes place and within which valuable knowledge might be created or put to use. At that point, it becomes more productive to think in terms of leadership rather than management; particularly if you subscribe to Colin Powell’s characterization of a leader as someone you’ll follow to discover where they’re going.

Second, you will need to deal with the problems that the neats have created in previous runs at knowledge management without alienating them at the same time. In most large organizations, knowledge management has been characterized as a technology problem or as a analog to financial management; placing it squarely within the purview of the organization’s neatest neats. This is a recipe for disappointment, if not outright failure.

It might possibly be an open question whether knowledge management can be eventually reduced to something as structured as accounting or library science. But it is a lousy place to start. Most organizations aren’t yet mature or sophisticated enough about knowledge work issues and questions to be obsessing about taxonomies or measurement and reward systems for knowledge work. But those are activities that are neat and specifiable and only superficially relevant. They lead to complex efforts to get to the right answer when we would be better served by simpler efforts to focus on productive questions.

C-words of knowledge

I’m working on a report for a client about knowledge management and knowledge sharing and I am deliberately avoiding the question of defining “knowledge.” I’ve learned that it’s a rat hole of interesting coffee shop conversation that ultimately produces little of value. On the other hand, I started playing with the idea of words that you might use during the conversation. Combine that with Twitter, constrain the problem, and see what results. I posted the following Tweet yesterday to start things off:


So far that’s led to contributions from @shifted, @hjarche, @hylton, @coyenator, and @rsukumar. Here’s the list as of this morning, which I’ve split between verbs and nouns (we seem to be a bit short on the noun side):


What would you like to add to the list?

JP Rangaswami on KM … “Clear, Transparent, Searchable, Archivable, Retrievable”

This has been lurking in my RSS aggregator for quite a while, courtesy of Jon Husband. There is really a lot of highly condensed insight in this post.

Thanks to JP Rangaswami for distilling social computing (in the context of work) to an essence.

From his post “Facebook and the Enterprise, Part 5: Knowledge Management“.


“More and more, knowledge management is going to be about reducing the cost of, and simplifying the process for, letting someone watch what you do. Nonintrusively. Time-shifted. Place-shifted. Searchable. Archivable. Retrievable.”


Via Dave Pollard via Nancy White

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JP Rangaswami on KM Clear, Transparent, Searchable, Archivable, Retrievable
Tue, 02 Sep 2008 13:08:06 GMT

Some links on social media applications within organizations

As part of my talk yesterday at the Social Media Strategies conference, I made passing reference to a number of stories, blog posts, bloggers, thinkers, and writers. It’s an occupational hazard of being a former professor.

I’ve written about different elements of yesterday’s talk over the course of various blog posts over time. Here are links to some of the most directly relevant together with links to other items I referenced:

Finally, I drew on a number of smarter people than I on the topics of expertise and organizational change. Here are some good entry points for further reading.

Seeing Organizational Patterns : A New Theory and Language of Organizational Design, Keidel, Robert W.
Keidel is an organizational theorist/designer who builds a very practical way of thinking and talking about organizations around the simple observation that all interactions in organizations can be understood in terms of the blend of control, cooperative, and autonomous ways of relating that organizational members can engage in. For the sports-minded, Keidel maps these three basic relating choices to the sports of American football, basketball, and baseball. He builds a nice case that organizational design choices can all be understood in terms of how these three fundamental relationship choices are mixed and blended.

Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Lave, Jean
Jean Lave is an ethnographer working as part of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. In this volume, Lave explores learning as primarily a social phenomenon and builds a very practical theory of how apprenticeship forms of skill acquisition and learning work in the real world.




Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware, Hunt, Andy
I’ve become a general fan of Andy Hunt’s pragmatic programming series of books. They are useful well beyond the narrow area of software development. In this new book, Hunt offers a useful introduction to the Dreyfus model of expertise and how it applies in the general context of knowledge work.




Quality Software Management (V1) : Systems Thinking, Weinberg, Gerald M.
The first of a four-volume exploration of the particular and peculiar challenges of managing the development and implementation of software. The first volume introduces fundamental notions of how to model and think about complex systems and how they respond to change. Weinberg adapts Virginia Satir’s family therapy theories to the environment of complex organizational environments.




Quality Software Management (V3): Congruent Action, Weinberg, Gerald M.

While all four volumes of Weinberg’s work are valuable, this volume on what Weinberg describes as “Congruent Action” is the most useful for understanding organizational change in concert with Volume 1.

Dueling philosophies: social media vs. knowledge management

Venkat Rao of Xerox recently introduced an important argument about the underlying differences between social media and knowledge management approaches inside the Enterprise. Here’s the way I described them at delicious. Both are worth a look, a read, and some thought.