The Knowledge Funnel

A helpful way to think about knowledge in an organization is using the metaphor of a funnel.  At the highest level, you have a wide variety of disparate ideas, concepts and tacit knowledge that have not yet been made explicit. There is a lot of good intelligence and know-how in this collection, but it isn’t very useful to anyone other than those who hold the knowledge in their heads.

With some expert help (say by someone on the Knowledge CATS team), you draw out this tacit knowledge and make sense of it. You package it into models or heuristics and in so doing you move it from tacit to explicit and now other people can use it. At the Models & Heuristics stage, the knowledge or know-how is in guideline form.  In other words it is principles and rules-of-thumb that the expert uses to make decisions quickly and efficiently.  Typically cues or signals are also included at this stage, so it’s not just the heuristic or rule-of-thumb, but it’s also knowledge about when to use it.

The bottom of the funnel is Systems and Procedures. This is where knowledge is distilled into uber explicit procedures. Step 1, do this, Step 2 to this. The ultimate path from this point forward is from procedures to systemization or into code.

There is increased usability and cost savings as knowledge moves down the funnel.  But there are also risks. Once you capture in depth knowledge and put it into procedures, you now have to keep up those procedures. Models and heursitics don’t require regular updates, but procedures do, because so many of the variables (equipment, people involved, contexts, etc.) change frequently.

Secondly, once proceduralized or systematized, the know-how can be easily copied.  As my friend Adrian Davis says – once systemitized, it can be commoditized!  Which means it no longer offers you any sort of competitive advantage.

Bottom line – not all knowledge should be pushed down into the Systems & Procedures part of the funnel. We’ll go into how to determine which should and when you should stop at Heuristics in a subsequent post.

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