Class Reflection – Managing Knowledge

“Is knowledge management possible? It depends on how you define knowledge. When you define knowledge more as information, management is much more feasible.”

That’s what I have written at the top of my notes from our class discussion. In fact, I think the question “is knowledge management possible?” goes to the very heart of our identities as current/future librarians.

I have some other notes written down that have not yet gelled into a discourse and so I’ll add them here and then comment. Hopefully, by the end of this, I’ll be able to answer the question that I first wrote during class, “What the hell does this mean to us?”

One thing that I found interesting was that the phrase “knowledge management” came from the business world and has the implication of external control. Maybe it’s this implication that really cheeses people off. When we think abstractly about knowledge, we want to give it the nutrients it needs to flourish. The idea that someone else may determine in which direction it grows and how big it will get can be very irritating. We also tend to think of knowledge as something that is much more unpredictable and uncontrollable. Heat from a fire is knowledge. Heat from an electric element is knowledge managed. There is something much more visceral about the unmanaged knowledge. We like the sense of freedom.

At the same time, if the development of knowledge does not address the needs of a community (small or large), it serves no purpose. I think that is probably a big reason that “community of practice” has become such a catchphrase among those who would seek to manage knowledge. These communities tend to address a need and serve to corral and develop knowledge that is vital to that community. I also have written down “negotiation of meaning – careful navigation along with give & take between community members as a means to develop identity.” Not only do communities of practice develop the knowledge required by its members, they also help to create languages and develop identity. The creation of language and development of identity establishes the credibility of that community with larger communities. This seems to be a pretty critical aspect of communities of practice as knowledge development pools.

The analogy of communities of practice as a type of farm seems pretty apt. You have a farm whose purpose is to sustain a group by producing and distributing a crop (or crops). In the case of communities of practice, the purpose of the community is to provide for the knowledge based needs of a group of people united by a common something by producing and distributing more knowledge about that something. The main goal is to provide “food” for the farm family or knowledge for the community members. At this point, it is a subsistence farm. When, however, the crop becomes larger than the needs of the group or more lucrative as a commodity than a food source, it can be harvested and sold outside of the community. In the same way, a farmer may choose to focus on developing one crop that is more lucrative rather than a kitchen garden that only serves to benefit his family as a food source rather than a source of income.

Communities of practice can be a way to manage knowledge in much the same way that a farmer manages a farm. He provides a place and a purpose – soil and crop production. He kills the weeds and kills the bugs. He harvests the crops, and then finds a way to make money from them. A “knowledge manager” provides a place and a purpose – the workplace (or something else) and the development of knowledge surrounding something relatively specific (Xerox copier maintenance). He harvests knowledge and then finds a way to apply that knowledge in a way that represents investment in the company (tangible or abstract). It’s important to note that neither a farm nor a community of practice is a one-off endeavor. Farms should not produce for only one season and cannot produce only one type of crop. Communities of practice do not exist only to figure out the solution to one problem (that’s what teams are for) and cannot produce only knowledge defined within a certain range. Farmers that try to kill everything that might adversely affect a crop end up doing irreparable damage to the land, their crops, and their reputations. Managers who try to stifle all criticism in their pursuit of perfection also stifle creativity and community and often undermine their own credibility and effectiveness.

Now, I feel like I need to answer the initial question. “What the hell does this mean to us?” I guess I should begin by saying that, in my mind, I define the us (at least for this) as “public librarians.” I know that others may think this is too narrow, but I find a vast difference between public librarians, school librarians, academic librarians, and special librarians (fodder for another fire). On the one hand, I think of our patrons as a community of practice. They are seeking knowledge of some sort. It is our responsibility to provide the mechanism for them to find and develop that knowledge. We need to be paying attention to what they’re asking for; we need to be facilitating conversation; and, in some ways, we need to be connecting community members. They may not even see themselves as part of a community. We, as much as we are information specialists, also need to be people specialists recognizing potential community members. On the other hand, public librarians are already members of a community of practice. We need to recognize the value in participating with our community. We must also recognize that we, as a whole, tend to be rules based and that this can stifle the creativity and effectiveness of a community. It’s important that we don’t let our individual proclivities be the weeds that choke out our knowledge development.

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