• David Griffiths

Knowledge Management Insights: unflattening KM, a dilemma for the taxonomy culture

What could KM learn from the Polynesians and what does it mean for taxonomy driven KM programmes?

Employee turnover provides an opportunity for Knowledge Management to capture critical knowledge and create value for the organisation. So, why does KM so often fail to deliver; could it be that knowledge capture is too big a dilemma for todays taxonomy driven KM culture?


"Our research this year shows that many organisations remain focused on - and struggle with - the basics of Knowledge Management." - Deloitte 2020

I speak a lot about opportunities that exist in unflattening Knowledge Management, but what does this mean for you, and what does it have to do with a taxonomy driven approach to KM?


Take, for example, a typical KM challenge, turnover and retaining the knowledge of people who are leaving the organisation. In my experience, the scenario goes something like this: employee gives notice, KM or HR responds through exit interviews, where a non-SME (Subject Matter Expert) facilitates the identification, extraction and embedding of critical knowledge for re-use after the employee leaves. Sometimes, the interviews include other SMEs who spend four-to-six hours with the subject over two or three interview sessions.


These knowledge elicitation sessions are standard practice and a product of the flattening of KM. The field is missing the critical reflexivity that would expose the missing dimensions eroded by a Western approach to knowledge capture and categorisation. By opening our eyes to the contradictions, doubts and dilemmas attached to KM today, we reveal the opportunities that can shape a brighter future.


Before highlighting a different dimension to knowledge capture, I am going to shine a light on its origins from one of the world's best at Knowledge Management, the Polynesians.

In a challenge reminiscent of that facing today's KM programmes, The Polynesians created a dilemma for early Colonial explorers. The problem was that the Eurpoeans could not fathom how the Polynesians had traversed the Pacific, an ocean that covers one-third of the earth's surface, without any of the technologies required by the Europeans (compass, sextant, chronometer, maps and charts). A bit like traditional Knowledge Management programmes focusing on technology-led knowledge capture techniques, European explorers assumed that the Polynesians should not have been able to explore the Pacific without 'their' technology.


"Polynesian navigators traversed the complex island network of the pacific steering their ocean-going craft by celestial navigation, knowledge of the wind and wave patterns and other environmental reference points such as the locations and habitats of marine mammals, 'navigator birds, and submarine phosphorescences." (Stongman, When earth and sky almost meet: the conflict between traditional knowledge and modernity in Polynesian Navigation, p. 50)


However, this immersive approach didn't sit with the dominant European view of navigation, based on maps, logs, compass readings and chronological timekeeping. The difference is that European navigators saw themselves as removed from the world they traversed, a temporary object on the water, where their tools recorded and represented movement within the environment. The Polynesians, on the other hand, saw themselves as being of the water and immersed in the environment (see my blog on Mode 1 and Mode 2 KM).


"Polynesian navigational techniques were based on a complex system of physical signs, markers and symbols...a system in which past, present and future were interconnected in narratives of creation and transformation, rather than the suspension of time in a synchronic present deferred between past and future and encapsulated in maps and charts" (ibid p. 60)


The Polynesians believe that knowledge transfer happens person-to-person, where the sanctity of knowledge is bound to identity - time, people and place - that digital formats miss. Reading the poem below, it is not difficult to translate the Maori challenge to the library culture to the capture and categorise culture that drives many of today's organisational KM programmes.


"A dilemma for the library culture

of access for all, no matter who, how,

why. A big Western principle stressing

egalitarianism. My respects.

However, Maori knowledge brings many

together to share their passed down wisdom

in person to verify inheritance;

without this unity to our collective knowledge

dissipates into cults of personality" (Sullivan, 1999, p. 59)


European navigation techniques create a representation of the world where knowledge is abstract, a body removed from the water. For example, Captain Cook approached discovery through a static categorisation of the world for record and display. The objects he observed were there to be collected (e.g. fauna), categorised, displayed in books and display cases, but removed from their environment they lost their meaning to ocean navigation.


Think on this from a KM perspective. Is knowledge in your organisation lost to a capture and categorisation processes that remove meaning?


Technology-driven Knowledge Managementfunctions often attempt to extract, capture, categorise and share knowledge without considering fidelity (see the xample below). In my experience, the outcome is low fidelity information that is little use outside of the mind of the individual or team that provided it.


The Polynesian navigation techniques were of the water, not on the water. Consider this in the context of employee turnover and Subject Matter Experts leaving your organisation. A flattened KM approach will focus its efforts on one-on-one exit interviews that attempt to capture critical knowledge. Unflattened thinking will invest energy into the SME's team or community, providing those who remain with the tools to inherit - surface and embed - knowledge that they determine to be valuable.

Real World KM Example from a Lessons Learned Programme (LLP) in a German engineering company


Enquiry 1: I conducted a system test of the LLP knowledge base and demonstrated that lesson captured by engineers were being uploaded but could not be located by other users. For example, we located an interesting lesson that spoke about a process change and asked 10 engineers to locate the same lesson we had found. In each case the engineer, using key-words typical to the problem discussed in the lesson, did not present the document we had previously located.


Enquiry 2: I spoke directly with the LLP management team about access rates, re-use rates and impact/results from the lessons captured. The managers were not able to provide any evidence for a lesson being accessed, re-used or how the LLP had created an impact. This equated to zero value being linked to a LLP that had cost in excess of $1.3 million over a two year period. This included zero ROI on:

  •  LLP staffing costs

  • Investment and maintenance costs of the software platform

  • Costs associated with 1300 engineers completing a lessons learned template that

  • required, on average, 5 hours of input from 5 staff – a total of 32,500 resource-hours.


Enquiry 3: I surveyed the users to ascertain their feelings toward the LLP. The feedback was extremely negative. Engineers made statements such as, “85% of what is in [the lessons learned] just doesn’t make sense and I have 30 years of experience” or “nobody uses it, you can’t find anything useful and it is just a tick box, something we have to do and we just work to get it done.” The LLP management team had peer reviewed content. However, they did not peer-review the document for quality of content, only whether the content was accurate.

What will opportunities will you discover in the unflattening of Knowledge Management?


If you are interested in high-impact Knowledge Management principles or perspectives on the unflattening of Knowledge Management, drop me a line and start a conversation (david@k3cubed.com).

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