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December 28, 2015

If you work with knowledge, think like a farmer

There are many aspects to being a knowledge worker, this day in age, and a lot of disengaging factors as well. I’ll disregard the subjects of organization, leadership and teamwork for a minute, and focus on one very basic subject: Understanding what knowledge is, and why you can’t EVER escape the social element, if you’re in the business of knowing, and generating knowledge.

Where does knowledge fit into the picture ?

One model I came across, which I find very sensible, is that you basically have 4 levels to work with:

  • Data: Facts and observations.
  • Information: Data with context.
  • Knowledge: Information with meaning.
  • Wisdom: Knowledge with insight.

So basically you make an observation of a fact. E.g.: “There are lots of enterprise social network platforms available”.

You turn that into information by adding context, e.g. “And these 3 seems to suit the purpose of our knowledge sharing initiative”.

You turn that into knowledge, and this is where the magic happens within each and every one of us, when you add meaning: “Ah, what X is saying is useful to me, because I’ve learnt that […]”.

Finally, when you learn from practicing what you know, this turns into wisdom. You gain insight.

How is knowledge generated ?

This fits very well into the SECI model (Takeuchi, Nonaka). Mind you, there are lots of ways to understand knowledge, but I find the SECI model to be both simple and accurate, based on my own experience.

The SECI model basically tells us how new knowledge is generated. Personally, I work with the assumption that tacit is knowledge, explicit is information. So in my world, this is also an explanation of how knowledge goes from something inside you, to something others can understand, and through shared experiences (dialog, teamwork, etc.), it turns into new knowledge.

  • (S)ocialization: These are the shared experiences where tacit knowledge (the knowledge we carry within ourselves, which is very hard to formalize) is transferred between individuals. This can be meetings, it can be facilitated processes, workgroups, or day to day teamwork.
  • (E)xternalization: This is where knowledge is sort of refined into something which can be shared and “transported”. A very common understanding is, that this is when knowledge is turned into information, as knowledge is very related to our own understanding of what we’re presented. There are lots of ways to do this: Reports, infographics, process documentation, etc.
  • (C)ombination: This is where new and existing information collide, and combine, to form new information based on the shared experience you’re a part of.
  • (I)nternalization: This is where we all consume the infomration. We add our own experiences and understanding, and turn it back into tacit knowledge.

Basically, the social element is absolutely necessary to create new knowledge. It’s that simple. You need other people, either in real life or through some kind of social network.

So what’s one way of supporting that in our organization ?

This is basically why Enterprise Social Networks have their place in the modern knowledge organization.

Enterprise social networks (think Yammer, Slack, Podio etc.) are what lowers the barriers drastically in our day to day work. It’s what allows us to more easily reach out, make connections, and find other knowledgeable professionals with whom we have shared experiences, thereby creating new knowledge and understanding.


  • You now know where knowledge fits in.
  • You now know how new knowledge is generated.

However, various surveys have shown that when you’re physically more than around 30 meters away from your coworkers, you mentally might as well work on another continent. It really is “out of sight, out of mind”. When that happens, relations weaken. And since the social element is crucial to knowledge work, your tacit valuables start decreasing in value.

Technology is one essential way of lessening that effect. It’s also a factor that will potentially lower the barriers for connecting with others, decreasing the cost and effort of finding experts and communicating your knowledge, and save you a lot of time on a daily basis.

Are there other ways of supporting knowledge work in our organization ?

Of course there is. And it’s very analogue. But like anything you want good results from, it takes care and maintenance for it to work. I’ll provide two tips which I guarantee you will help:

  • Meet with purpose. Don’t meet up just to meet up. Have a purpose for meeting each other. Then document what came from the meeting, and share it !
  • Facilitate processes. We humans are a faulty bunch. We have a habit of connecting with people we like. That’s all great, but that’s not necessarily where we create the most value. We create more value by getting out of our comfort zones, and by disagreeing in a constructive way. Also, we have a tendency to avoid pain. Pain is not only when you scrape your knee. It’s also when you’re confronted with opinions or attitudes which are discomforting. Facilitating meetings and processes can help alleviate these pains, by adding structure and create common understanding and learning.

Of course, both are not always possible. It gets real expensive if your team is located various places across the globe. And cumbersome.

By the way, these two things are also very valuable even if you support your organization with digital tools. There’s no escaping the actual, physical way of meeting, at least once in a while.

So, be a farmer

Any good farmers goal is to get a great harvest. But your harvest will most likely fail or fall short, if you don’t create the optimal conditions for the crop to grow into something you can actually use.

You need to plow. You need to sow. You need to nourish the crops. All before you can harvest and cash in.

  • Think of the field as your organization.
  • Think of the seeds as your knowledge.
  • Think of the nourishments as your employees and other stakeholders, whether they’re internal or external.

Create the optimal conditions for everyone to prosper, by preparing the field, and adding that one social ingredient that allows everyone to come together, to create fantastic results.

So, are you being the farmer or the hillbilly?

Oh, and don’t forget to cash in.

Picture credits: mo.photography


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