On the decay (or remarkable recurrence) of knowledge

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“That’s only 10%…”

One of my mentors who is mentioned in the book I wrote with Kailash (Darryl) is a veteran project manager in the construction and engineering industry. He has been working as a project manager more than 30 years, is a fellow of the Institute of Engineers and marks exams at the local university for those studying a Masters Degree in Project Management. His depth of knowledge and experience is abundantly clear when you start working with him and I have learned more about collaborative project delivery from him than anyone else.

Recently I was talking with him and he said something really interesting. He was telling some stories from the early days of alliancing based project delivery in Australia (alliancing is a highly interesting collaborative project governance approach that we devote a chapter to in our book). He stated that alliancing at its core is the application of good project management practice. Now I know Darryl pretty well and knew what he meant by that, but commented to him that when you say the word “project management practice,” some would associate that statement with (among other things) a well-developed Gantt chart listing activities with names, tasks and times.

His reply was unsurprising: “at best that’s only 1/10th of what project management is really about.”

Clearly Darryl has a much deeper and holistic view of what project management is than many other practitioners I’ve worked with. Darryl argues that those who criticise project management are actually criticising a small subset of the discipline, based on their less than complete view of what the discipline entails. Thus by definition, the remedies they propose are misinformed or solve a problem that has already been solved.

Whether you agree with Darryl or not, there is a pattern here that occurs continually in organisation-land. Fanboys of a particular methodology, framework model or practice (me included) will waste no time dumping on whatever they have grown to dislike and swear that their “new approach” addresses the gaps. Those with a more holistic view like Darryl might argue that crusaders aren’t really inventing anything new and that if a gap exists, it’s a gap in the knowledge of those doing the criticising.

As Ambrose Bierce said, “There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of things we don’t know.”

From project management to systems thinking…

Now with that in mind, here’s a little anecdote. A few weeks back I joined a Design Thinking group on LinkedIn. I had read about Design Thinking during its hype phase a couple of years ago and my immediate thought was “Isn’t this just systems thinking reinvented?” You see, I more or less identify myself as a bit of a pragmatic systems thinker, in that I like to broaden a discussion, but I also actually get shit done. So I was curious to understand how design thinkers see themselves as different from systems thinkers.

I followed several threads on the LinkedIn group as the question had been discussed a few times. Unfortunately, no-one could really put their finger on the difference. Eventually I found a recent paper by Pourdehnad, Wexler and Wilson which went into some detail on the two disciplines and offered some distinctions. I won’t bother you with the content, except to say it was a good read, and left me with the following choices about my understanding of systems and design thinking:

  • That my understanding of systems thinking is wrong and I am in fact a design thinker after all
  • That I am indeed a systems thinker and design thinking is just systems thinking with a pragmatic bent

Of course being a biased human, I naturally believe the latter point is more correct. clip_image002

From systems to #stoos

Like the Snowbird retreat that spawned the agile manifesto, the recent stoos movement has emerged from a group of individuals who came together to discuss problems they perceive in existing management structures and paradigms. Now this would have been an exhilarating and inspiring event to be at – a bunch of diverse people finding emergent new understandings of organisations and how they ought to be run. Much tacit learning would have occurred.

But a problem is that one has to have been there to truly experience it. Any published output from this gathering cannot convey the vibe and learning (the tacit punch) that one would get from experiencing the event in the flesh. This is the effect of codifying knowledge into the written form. Both myself and Kailash were fully cognisant of this when we read the material on the stoos website and knew that for us, some of it would cover old ground. Nevertheless, my instinctive first reaction to what I read was “I bet someone will complain that this is just design thinking reinvented.”

Guess what… a short time later that’s exactly what happened too. Someone tweeted that very assertion! Presumably this opinion was offered by a self-identified design thinker who felt that the stoos crowd was reinventing the wheel that design thinkers had so painstakingly put together. My immediate urge was to be a smartarse and send back a tweet telling this person that design thinking is just pragmatic systems thinking anyway so he was just as guilty as the #stoos crowd. I then realised I might be found guilty of the same thing and someone might inform me of some “deeper knowing” than systems thinking. Nevertheless I couldn’t resist and made a tweet to that effect.

The decay (or remarkable recurrence) of knowledge…

(At this point I discussed this topic with Kailash and have looped him into the conversation)

Both of us see a pattern of a narrow focus or plain misinterpretation of what has come before. As a result, it seems there is a tendency to reinvent the wheel and slap a new label on claiming it to be unique or profound. We wonder therefore, how much of the ideas of new groups or movements are truly new.

Any corpus of knowledge is a bunch of memes – “ideas, behaviours or styles that spread from person to person within a culture.” Indeed, entire disciplines such as project management can be viewed as a bunch of memes that have been codified into a body of knowledge. Some memes are “sticky,” in that they are more readily retained and communicated, while others get left behind. However, stickiness is no guarantee of rightness. Two examples of such memes that we covered in our book are the waterfall methodology and the PERT scheduling technique Though both have murky origins and are of questionable utility, they are considered to be stock standard in the PM world, at least in certain circles. While it would take us too far afield to recount the story here (and we would rather you read our book Smile ) the point is that some techniques are widely taught and used despite being deeply flawed. Clearly the waterfall meme had strong evolutionary characteristics of survival while the story of its rather nuanced beginnings have been lost until recently.

A person indoctrinated in a standard business school curriculum sees real-life situations through the lens of the models (or memes!) he or she is familiar with. To paraphrase a well-known saying – if one is familiar only with a hammer, every problem appears as a nail. Sometime (not often enough!) the wielder of the metaphorical hammer eventually realises that not all problems yield to hammering. In other words, the models they used to inform their actions were incomplete, or even incorrect. They then cast about for something new and thus begin a quest for a new understanding. In the present day world one doesn’t have to search too hard because there are several convenient corpuses of knowledge to choose from. Each supply ready-made models of reality that make more sense than the last and as an added bonus, one can even get a certification to prove that one has studied it.

However, as demonstrated above with the realisation that not all problems yield to hammering, reality can truly be grasped only through experience, not models. It is experience that highlights the difference between the real-world and the simplistic one that is captured in models. Reality consists of complex, messy situations and any attempt to capture reality through concepts and models will always be incomplete. In the light of this it is easy to see why old knowledge is continually rediscovered, albeit in a different form. Since models attempt to grasp the ungraspable, they will all contain many similarities but will also have some differences. The stoos movement, design thinking and systems thinking are rooted in the same reality, so their similarities should not be surprising.

Coming back to Darryl – his view of project management with 30 years experience includes a whole bunch of memes and models, that for whatever reason, tend to be less sticky than the ones we all know so well. Why certain memes are less successful than others in being replicated from person to person is interesting in its own right and has been discussed at length in our book. For now, we’ll just say that those who come up with new labels to reflect their new understandings are paradoxically wise and narrow minded at the same time. They are wise in that they are seeking better models to understand the reality they encounter, but at the same time likely trashing some worthwhile ones too. Reality is multifaceted and cannot be captured in any particular model, so the finders of a new truth should take care that they do not get carried away by their own hyperbole.

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee (with Kailash Awati)


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11 Responses to On the decay (or remarkable recurrence) of knowledge

  1. Richard Harbridge says:

    Since so much knowledge is tacit based (in project management) and must be experienced in order for it to have the necessary context and understanding… maybe we should focus more on accelerating the experience itself.
    So much time is spent defining concepts, methodologies, approaches, and situational or conditional factors… maybe we should just figure out ways of ‘writing’ or ‘categorizing’ experiences more effectively. If we could accelerate the experience or give people the ability to ‘consume’ the experiences more rapidly, would that lead to the best possible result for tacit knowledge?
    I spend most of my time pulling out (what I perceive as) explicit knowledge from experiences. Then formulate mock experiences or partial experiences to communicate the explicit knowledge in context. I don’t spend as much time just communicating experiences themselves.
    I wonder if people like Darryl would actually help people the most by just communicating experiences (perhaps that is indeed what he does).
    Not sure if what I wrote made sense, but I just found it interesting that I don’t place as much stock, or energy into communicating, writing, or describing experiences (which contain tacit knowledge) as I do around explicit knowledge. This arguably is probably more useful to more people (since explicit knowledge is often regurgitated).

  2. admin says:

    Hi Richard

    Thanks for your comments.

    I see what yoiu are getting at – but I would frame it a little different. I just made a comment on a KM forum on this topic and I have pasted here…

    There are a couple of fundamentals that need to be understood before looking at knowledge management strategies:

    Firstly, one has to understand the difference between complex problems and complicated. Essentially if a problem has a clear relationship between cause and effect (ie if you have symptom X, do Y and all will be good), this the the realm of complicated. This sort of knowledge can be well codified into documents. This is the world of business process diagrams, policies, procedures, helpdesk knowledge base articles and the like. Because all the variables are known, it is easy to codify it into something explicit.

    In the complex domain there is no such cause and effect relationship and as a result, the document is often a poor choice (alone) for the capture of the sort of knowledge that helps with these sorts of problems. The complex domain is where there is a reliance on gut feel, intuition and sensing patterns for insights. It is also the place where organsiations have their competitive advantage. Eg, Steve Jobs would never be able to write a business process diagram that explains how Apple envisions the next device that begins with “i”. If he could, that knowledge would be a commodity and Microsoft’s would not suck at competing 🙂

    The point is codifying this sort of expert knowledge into written form loses a lot of context. As Polyani said “We know more than we can tell” and Snowden then added “we tell more than we can write”.

    This leads us to a misconception around the notion of tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is unique to each individual. The minute you communicate any of your knowledge, it is no longer tacit. It becomes explicit knowledge with a certain degree of richness/fidelity depending on the method because as I stated earlier, you always know more than you can tell.

    The person who is learning takes your codified explicit knowledge, internalises it and creates their own tacit knowledge. This is why face-to-face or apprentiship learning is the most effective – the exchange of explicit knowledge between people is much richer and higher fidelity than an email or position paper.

    Why is all of this important? It is because the notion of capturing *tacit* knowledge is the focus of many KM initiatives, yet it cannot be done. The normal assumption from this misconception is that tacit knowledge can be captured in prose (text). Yet we all know that most people can always convey much more in conversation that written form. In conversation we have the ability to adjust the flow of the discourse and change the metaphor, story or approach to explanation. But conversation is inherently inefficient since there is no artifact representing it.

    So KM needs to stop thinking about capturing tacit knowledge and think more about “What conditions need to be in place to…

    * Reduce the effort of the person with the knowledge (teacher) to convey their insights
    * Increase the fidelity of what is conveyed by the teacher
    * Reduce the effort of the student to synthesise it and create their own tacit knowledge from it.

    Take a look at Snowdens principles of KM for the most complete insight I have come across:


    The problem with SharePoint and document centric systems is that they work great for the complicated domain, but not so much the complex. There are ways to address this however…

  3. IBIS maps or other visual/’better condition creating’ methods (as per the focus on conditions) communicate more about the ‘experience’ of the conversation or series of decisions and considerations. Perhaps I went down the wrong path by using the term tacit knowledge.

    I guess what I am getting at is that I think we spend so much time focused on the ‘results’ or ‘easily codified’ aspects of an experience, often forgetting how important experience (including it’s many nuances) is in the first place (generating context). Apprenticeship programs work because they are ‘experience’ focused and based on experience over… results? findings? Whatever the less successful(?) alternative forms focus on.

    Videos capture a considerable amount (and are a form of coaching in the right context), but take a long time to digest and watch. Where as an IBIS map or dialog map can be read and digested faster (and can have a more particular experience focus). Of course you could structure video content to be just as effective, but the format/method isn’t as effective or easy for others to learn…

    So what other methods exist that ‘accelerate’ experience… or perhaps documentation… or perhaps consumption of experience? I am arguing that IBIS maps actually do this to a degree versus other methods (like long text).

    Then again I might just be rambling. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Decay capture | Zwazwa

  5. Chris Beckett says:

    Let me start by saying how much I am in agreement with most of the things you are writing in your various blogs. Whether it is Ackoffs F-laws, The Dilbert Principle by Scott Adams, or Dan Ariely writing about our cognitive biases, lizard brains, and other seemingly irrational behaviors I think what really frustrates me the most is that we always try to assume that the problems we face are a knowledge issue; that most of our problems stem from a lack of communication, fear, ignorance of facts, or mis-interpretation.

    So only people who don’t know it is bad for them smoke? People are fat only because they don’t know about nutrition and health? The truth is that many of our problems are not because we don’t know better, we either knowingly made questionable choices because we are seeking to satisfy needs that contradict each other, or simply because we don’t care. There is plenty of “I’ve got mine” thinking in our competitive societies. If there is a global misunderstanding or misinterpretation, it is how we label winning and losing as right and wrong, and success or failure as monetary wealth and power.

    We are trying to align two systems that are fundamentally in contradiction with each other; the social being, and the economic being. While both selves are bombarded by external stimulus seeking to manipulate our actions, I postulate that it is our economic selves that are under the biggest assault with the modern corporation being a contrived, high exaggerated and exploitative environment designed *with purpose* to use emotional levers (sadly, mostly negative levers) to exploit people’s efforts for the benefit of others. The only question is whether all this exploitation is really beneficial to the *system* or not, and even if it is, do the needs of the many really outweigh the needs of the few; how do we balance those interests, and who decides what that balance is?

    It is probably not much of a surprise that as someone who came up through the software developer ranks that I have found myself at odds with project managers most of my life. As I took on opportunities to manage projects myself (with the associated reading and learning in project management practices and knowledge), I also became much more aware of overall organizational dynamics. I like to call this “taking the red pill”. My eyes were opened. Project managers were not irrational idiots who didn’t know any better; in most cases, they know exactly what they are doing, they just didn’t care about the consequences it causes others. They serve power, whether that power is right or wrong, and they rationalize their existence! We all do!

    It came to a head for me almost a decade ago when I confronted a project manager on the obvious irrationality of the project plan he was demanding the team follow when he sullenly looked at his shoes and said “I have a right to keep my job”. It sunk in that most of the irrational constraints being applied to the project were being demanded by the executive stakeholder, secretly communicated to the project manager, and that he felt he would lose his job if he did not deliver. It was clear he knew what he was doing, and was doing it by choice.

    The ability of human beings to distort reality purposefully to align with their own self-interest (or worse the self-interest of people in power who use force to coerce others) is the heart of it, creating a divergent body of thinking that no facilitation technique can resolve.

    Too much truth here? Is this some sort of argument for giving up on facilitation, dialogue mapping, systems-thinking? Quite the contrary, these tools are the armor we don for today’s battle. The fight for a better way, a more egalitarian and equal society, truth, justice, and the (no, I will be the last person to say the “American” way). Let’s just be clear, the knights of systems thinking are probably fighting against overwhelming odds.

  6. admin says:

    THanks Chris for the time you took to make this comment. I’ll speak to the last two paras in your comment.

    Kailash and I spent a lot of time on the issue of self interest in the book and realised that no techniqque, approach or the very best Organisaitonal Development practitioner can ever override self interest (in whatever form that takes). So on that I completely agree with you. In fact we used Habarmas conditions for rational dialogue as a litmus test to see how well these techniques do.

    Habermas lists the following conditions for what he termed rational dialouge. We used them as a litmus test for assessing various methods and approaches and found them all to fail. The conditions are:

    • Inclusion: all affected parties should be included in the dialogue
    • Autonomy: all participants should be able to present and criticise validity claims independently
    • Empathy: participants must be willing to listen to and understand claims made by others
    • Power neutrality: power differences (levels of authority) between participants should not affect the discussion
    • Transparency: participants must not indulge in strategic actions (i.e. lying!)

    from the book:

    “While we agree with the intent of this list, it is just as hopelessly idealistic in the real-world as the theory of communicative rationality itself. While it is possible, via structure, rules and process to deal with inclusion, autonomy and power neutrality, the requirements of transparency and empathy are another matter altogether. ”

    In this context, chapter 10 of Heretics is the most interesting because it outlines the closest thing I have seen to actually meeting these conditions. I’ve sent you a link to that chapter over twitter.

    Thanks again


  7. Kailash Awati says:


    You’ve hit the nail on the head – there is a conflict at the heart of organisational life, and it is one that is hard to resolve. Juergen Habermas, the social theorist / philosopher Paul mentioned, has some further insights to offer on the conflict, why it arises and what can be done about it. I describe this in brief below.

    As individuals working in larger organisations, we bring to the workplace our own experiences and beliefs as to the way things should be done. These generally reflect the values of the everyday world we share with others. Habermas calls this social sphere the “lifeworld”. On the other hand, workplace norms and values are imposed by institutional authority which are generally driven by power and money. Habermas refers to this “professional/administrative sphere” as the “system” (note: this is unrelated to “systems thinking”). The system is embedded in the lifeworld but grows at the expense of the lifeworld. In Habermas’ terms, the system colonises the lifeworld. Most of us live this in the day-to-day struggle of achieving that mythical work-life balance.

    Within the rationality of the system, people are treated as “resources” who are manipulated to achieve the ends of the system (whether they agree with those ends or not). However, this rationality is ultimately self defeating because the end effect is to demoralise individuals and cause them to have a cynical view of their work lives. The central failing of modern management is that it does not address this issue.

    BTW, in case you are interested in more on the above you may want to have a look at a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago: http://eight2late.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/the-system-and-the-lifeworld-a-note-on-the-gap-between-work-and-life/

    The solution, as we agree, is to engage in dialogue. However, this is easier said than done because of the usual organisational roadblocks to genuine open dialogues (power, politics etc.). As Paul mentions, there are structures and mechanisms such as Alliancing (discussed at length in Chapter 10 of the Heretic’s Guide) that can be used to engender open dialogue in large multi-organisational projects. Some of these principles can also be scaled down to apply in smaller single-organisation settings. That said, one can open up safe spaces for honest conversations in small meetings or one-on-one interactions without the use of any formal structures. Indeed, I think (part of) the answer – particularly in large organisations – lies in such “micro-efforts”; one cannot change the system overnight but one can bring it closer to the lifeworld, one interaction at a time.

    In summary: although Habermas’ perhaps offers a broader perspective of the problem, I think the practical actions (of starting small and local) are pretty much in line with what you mention in your comment.



  8. Chris Beckett says:

    Thank you for the great replies Paul / Kailash. I will definitely follow up with some reading on Habermas, and your related blog posts.

    Scientific management models that evolved with the move to industrial production and assembly lines acknowledged that assembly line workers would be difficult to motivate. Popular culture at the time reflected the malaise of workers who felt they were controlled by the machines instead of the other way around. You have to have some empathy for this the reality of this at the time however; people needed to staff the assembly lines; the work needed to get done. One of the brilliant elements of the Toyota Way was the recognition that giving workers the ability to halt the assembly line when they felt something was wrong was hugely empowering, and helped boost morale and productivity.

    The challenges of today’s business environment, the information age, and the rise of Knowledge workers has forever changed the principles that scientific management grew from, and you are right, management is failing to adapt and change to meet the new realities; and everyone is suffering. It is really the lack of an effective management model and sustainable resource management processes that is compelling managers to resort to the weaker side of our human nature when managing employees. The world economic upheaval of the last few years has hardly helped.

    I completely agree that *success* is going to be found in the “micro” engagements between employees who can use technology to perform more direct collaboration to get things done… despite management. We all see this happening, and I applaud both your efforts to be strong voices for effective tools and techniques to help improve this.

    Hoping management catches up soon…

  9. admin says:

    Ah, you have now hit upon what I think is the biggest attribution error of our time. The misattribution of the success/failure of processes and methods to just the method itself an not the conditions in which it operates.

    The interesting thing about the Toytoa way is the conditions that it operated in. Those conditions can be summed up as Kaizen. Now Kaizen is commonly misunderstood but I read about Kaizen in this book: http://www.amazon.com/Kaizen-The-Japans-Competitive-Success/dp/007554332X/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top and the first chapter speaks to its philosophy and principles which underpin all of the processes that fall under it. When you read it, it speaks to the conditions or “holding environment” that people work in and you can see how, in Habermas terms, it strives to balance the system and lifeworld. You can be Kaizen without actually doing any of the processes outlined in the book.

    When you take those conditions away, what happens? You are left with a bunch of processes that get codifed in books and certifications. This the very thing that makes it magic is lost because when you change the conditions, it doesn’t work anywhere near as well as advertised. The process is then seen as flawed and people grasp onto the next thing to hopefully address the gap.

    SharePoint delivery aside, Agile practices also live and die by the conditions that they operate under. People will argue back aand forth around time box (scrum) vs flow (Kanban) or whether earned value is better than velocity. But if the holding environment is not there, they become a framework for apportioning blame or butt covering – and we all know what that does to team efficacy.

    With my (post) SharePoint architect series, I am trying to get people to understand that creating the right conditions is the single most important thing you can do for SharePoint delivery. The Alliancing approach that Kailash and I spent a chapter on attempts to create those conditions via the contractual clauses that participants operate under. While org development romantics may not like this, these collaborative contracts *have* been shown to deliver better outcomes. But it has to be said that an Alliance operates to produce a specific outcome – aka a project so its easy to contractualise it. That is infinitely easier than embedding the conditions into an organsiation for perpetuity which is more of a social contract. (Mind you, you can also google things like “Holocracy” and “Venture Socialism” to see attempts at this). I have dialogue mapped organsiations on *both* of these sides and I can tell you that getting those conditions right is a hell of a lot easier in alliances.

    I was interested in writing the next book on this topic but I think its a bit esoteric for most audiences 🙁


  10. Marc D Anderson says:

    Much of what you each has said in the recent exchange goes over my head (I avoid reading the sort of background material you each quote, probably to my own detriment), yet I sense we are of like minds.

    I’ve always believed that discipline for its own sake is an anathema. Once you absorb a doctrine and can’t think outside it, you are lost. I have seen this to be true of project managers, management consultants, developers, even religious people. One can end up with a narrowed world view which becomes self-fulfilling.

    I do believe that fear drives much behavior. Fear of embarrassment or being called out on something unknown, straight through to fear of being able to feed and clothe one’s self and family. If you stack those fears up against Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it makes good sense, at least to me. The more desperate the underlying need, the more desperately the fear drives people to do things in certain ways. Those smokers may know about the health risks of cigarettes, but there’s an undying fear that they cannot stop. In the workplace, those fear nuances can have horribly confusing ripples and effects.

    In my life I try mightily not to absorb specific doctrines too deeply. (Perhaps that’s a part of my own fear: that I will cease to be inventive and innovative.) I attempt to apply holistic, open thinking to the problems I’m trying to solve, knowing that I have a small set if hammers hanging from my belt just like everyone does. We are all the sum of our own experiences, so ignoring that toolkit entirely is virtually impossible.

    “…creating the right conditions is the single most important thing you can do for SharePoint delivery”. Great truth lies in those words. I’d even say that you can replace “SharePoint delivery” with just about anything you’re up against.


  11. admin says:

    We are of like minds and you actually do absorb things deeply. The brilliance that is SPServices would not exist if that was not the case. 🙂 I focus on understanding doctorines because I like to know what I am up against and that knowledge comes in handy when it becomes a blocker :-).

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