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

“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 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 make things better.


9 thoughts on “Knowledge management: the newest battle between the neats and the scruffies”

  1. Thanks for reminding me about the Benchley quotation. I’d had that rattling around the back of my mind for years, since the first time I hear the “10 kinds of people” version of the line, but the connection with Benchley had eluded me.

  2. Great post.. you touch the very two elements of the problem, technology and management. My view is that yes, it is complicated the ” neat” way, but the what ever works approach, sometimes need a little structure behind.
    In general, very good article.


  3. Great post, great quote!

    I find that most very intellectually active people gravitate towards more ‘mental tolerance’ with time – become more liberal in moral views, become more tolerant of people around them, and, yes, become more ‘scruffy’ thinkers. Yet I am puzzled as I remember, as a child, I used to think we, the young, were the ‘scruffy’ thinkers and the older people were prohibitively ‘neat’.

    I tend to think what’s needed is a new type of ‘neat scruffiness’ – mostly making sure that all of the relationships are in place. The kind of ‘neatness’ that’s annoyed if something does not link to where it should be, if something is categorized in a limiting manner and not tagged in all of the useful and necessary ways, that is able to mentally hold complex webs of relationships and ideas.

  4. Interesting way to think about it. I’m coming to the view that the scruffy category incorporates the neat, which sort of compares to your “neat scruffiness” notion. Maybe it is about greater maturity in conceiving and managing complex change.

  5. Ditto, thanks for the Benchley quote … I’d lost track of where that came from.

    This “loose-vs-tight” management paradox is as old as the hills – applicable to knowledge management as much as any other kind od management.

    A few years ago .. the turn of the millennium – I thought people had got it at last when the word “meta” became popular. People mistake management for control … and in environments where creativity is important, control is the worst kind of management. Knowledge is a classic case … trying to extract / create more than the eum of the parts …. what needs managing is the meta-model, the meta-content, the meta-processes. Attempting to manage the knoiwledge model, the content and the processes / the people directly is the kiss of death to the objective of the exercise … creativity.

    It’s not a new idea, just that knowledge is the latest fad to have to get up this learning curve.

    The US Auto industry milked mass-production to death, it’s own death – by focussing on managing the process itself. Toyota focussed on the meta-processes of change and renewal, not the manufacturing processes – look where they are now. I hope the knowledge industry learns sooner.

  6. Ian,

    I suspect that you are right on the importance of the “meta” level. It reminds me of an observation that Alan Kay once made. which was that every important advance in computer science came by introducing a new layer of abstraction or indirection.

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