icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an 

ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.

Chronological Index | Subject Index

Are all our thoughts just gambles or predictions?

About the infinite, unfinished story of knowledge management standards

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2019). Are all our thoughts just gambles or predictions? About the infinite unfinished story of knowledge management standards. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 8.3 (March).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2019). Are all our thoughts just gambles or predictions? About the infinite unfinished story of knowledge management standards. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 8.3 (March).

Information can illuminate, transform, or displace reality. [...] Signs came to stand apart from things and at the origin of entirely new things. Covenants helped tribes to become nations, plans guided the construction of cathedrals, and scores enabled musicians to perform cantatas. [...] Information through the power of technology steps forward as a rival of reality.
Albert Borgmann (from Holding on to reality: the nature of information at the turn of the millennium, 1999)

London, 8 March 2019 - Between 2001 and 2005 a number of international organisations, and in the UK the BSI, felt the urgency to publish guidelines on good knowledge management (KM) practices with the explicit intent to prevent KM projects from risks of systemic failure.

As I wrote in icm2re 5.1 What is the essence of data science, the 1990s were a decade of tumultuous change in the sector, affecting in some ways all the traditional professional families interested in data, information and knowledge management.

The main idea pervading the 2001-2005 wave of standardisation efforts was then that whatever managers and professionals thought knoweldge management consisted of in terms of activities or technologies, they had to connect their functions and processes to the organisation's goals. Stop building silos etcetera etcetera. Think in terms of knowledge organisation instead.

Everything done for the purpose of knowledge management should be seen as an embedded part of another objective.

At the end of last year (2018) a new International Standard (ISO 30401) was published to reiterate such message. This time around there is even more emphasis on people learning, communication skills and actual behaviours that, all together, determine a “KM culture”. This is said to be critical for the success of the organisation's projects.

How could we ever disagree?

Notwithstanding, knowledge is a subject on which it is always convenient to hold a certain degree of uncertainty and doubts - otherwise it gets easily messed up, in practice, with religion or propaganda.

Lining the food waste bin

Whatever reflection on the subject (knowledge management) starts - and often ends - with the question of how we define knowledge and … bla bla bla.

While lining the food waste bin with pages of old issues of the London Review of Books my local library discarded last year, the other day I came across the review of a book by a neuroscientist I could not help reading.

My memory went swiftly back to 2009-2010 when I was quite fascinated by the rise of attention for neuroscience in the business world, and particularly in advertising, as it was a sort of augmented field of knowledge management advice for managers and entrepreneurs.

In 2010, to support a vision I had agreed with the late Bob McKee, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, I sorted to engulf myself in a complex - if not impossible - knowledge transfer project for which promoting metacognition (that means thoughts about the way we think and acquire knowledge) would be quite strategic.

Bob and I were almost strangers to each other but I was convinced we had found a common goal in considering and experimenting how convenient would be for librarians and information professionals, whose skills and work processes had been deeply shaken by the internet since the mid 1990s, to work together with other contiguous professional families and see to achieve some degree of deep integration, modernisation of best practices and also interchangeability of their formal qualifications. The first step of such innovative confluence of interests we had imagined would be to achieve mutual recognition and equivalence of qualifications within libraries archives and museums services.

The following milestone would touch matters of integration of professional bodies of knowledge with information scientists, computer scientists, software programmers, information and knowledge management experts: it was evident there was no left area of activities in data, information and knowledge organisation and management that, by the end of the last Century, had not been deeply redefined by information and communication technologies and above all by the internet.

Such plans were brutally halted at the inception stage. Bob McKee unexpectedly passed away while attending an international conference in September 2010, few months after he had announced he would retire and step down soon. My engagement with various professional communities fell into a sort of social media flypaper in which every argument gets moulded and distorted, filtered through a sort of sticky celebrity fog.

We were unfortunate and possibly too early, but not wrong. It is as always very satisfying to see that after few years things have moved on in the direction one has thought and imagined. And I am sorry not just for myself, as I have been socially and professionally marginalised by my peers and treated as an incompetent amateurish villain, but even more for Bob that is not anymore with us to witness the huge socio-technical transformations our visions anticipated.

So there I was, reading about an hypothesis on how the human brain makes hypotheses and subsequently adjusts all the reasoning, predictions, projections or guesses to test it, change it or reject it (by the way, the review in question was about the book Surfing uncertainty. Prediction, action and the embodied mind by Andy Clark, 2016).

The knowing - doing gap is now overturned

If the urgency of our times, endorsed by the standardisation bodies, is to find ways to reach people minds and projections, it is convenient to take into account that many managers have grown up and acquired their knowledge management skills under the pressure of a deliverology culture that sometimes seems leading nowhere.

They need to do something now or yesterday in order to demonstrate their mastery and competence. Hard to learn that sometimes just doing nothing is the best pathway to innovation, as inaction draws the mind away from usual behaviours, automatic and reactive responses or lessons learned too well to lead towards a change.

To understand the drawbacks of the deliverology culture and all its juvenile, agile, justifications, here it comes another flashback.

In 2000 two professors from Stanford’s School of Business and School of Engineering published a book that galvanised my approach to KM and engineering at the time, saying that the knowledge advantage is actually a myth and what really counts in terms of better performance and success is not yet knowledge management or knowledge organisation but the ability to translate knowledge into action at the right time. (The knowing-doing gap. How smart companies turn knowledge into action by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, 2000).

That was like to say that the only realistic way to manage human knowledge consists in supporting doers through cycles of continuous professional development plans, training on the job, active learning. Music to my entrepreneurial ears at the time.

It was not such an obvious message at all. At the end of the 1990s knowledge within large organisations (the ones that had roles of special librarians, information scientists or knowledge management experts often separated from IT managers) was still considered as an asset to be managed statically, for instance, through intranets, archives and repositories, business decision support systems and then, dynamically, as maps of experts and networks of knowledge workers within a certain professional family of function, with or without dedicated “connecting” groupware solutions (Lotus Notes revolution anybody?).

But it is true that much of the focus of any KM practitioner was in those days on objects, databases, collections and telecommunications: shifting attention towards experts' networks and their exchange of expertise was quite a big change of perspective, putting emphasis on thinking and learning within a certain context, for a certain purpose.

Pfeffer and Sutton - as well as other management gurus that suddenly came into the field - pointed out the importance of informal sharing of human problem solving and creativity. They also legitimised gossips, stories, imitation and other employees' spontaneous behaviours - what it would be normally called implicit or tacit knowledge among information professionals circles - now seen as means of knowledge translation or knowledge transfer. Not just that.

They stated that traditional knowledge management practices usually make the knowing - doing gap even worse, endorsing the idea that knowledge is something that can be optimised once separated from the people that own it and act upon it.

At the time the idea of a "performance knowledge" distinct from a "silos knowledge" seemed what large organisations were just waiting for to push the pedal for more technology, more intranets, more expert systems.

However, silos of knowledge were and are still very far from being dismantled. Conversely, in practice, to recall Borgmann’s classification, collections of static data - from libraries to digital records - had started the mutation from cultural artefacts to platforms in which information is embedded within technological systems and tend to be functional to symbiotic human-software interactions, almost levitating over meanings and actual relationships. In other terms, silos became an entire new world of mostly commoditised data freely reusable in the public domain.

We have seen with the Web 2.0 and the birth of the "blogosphere" where the knowledge - doing gap actually ended, most of the times inflating the web with free publicity and offering the opportunity to kick off interminable communication loops.

The KM accent - as a matter of industrial standard - is now on managing people minds and their knowing-doing gaps.

This can be done leveraging on metacognition and awareness of the innumerable cognitive, perceptual and socio-technical traps we are all exposed to, while we are submersed in an ocean of technological information.

On second thoughts, after almost two decades of deliverology culture, it may be true that in some circumstances... doing nothing can be the wisest way to start learning something new.


KM has now a new international standard that promotes an interdisciplinary approach to the issue of… holding on to reality.

And yet, it remains a field in which there is an oversupply of conceptual models from academic researchers, very little sharing of actual organisational policies and case histories, overwhelming influence from providers of information and communication technologies in setting the marketing and professional agendas. Unfortunately, the standard does not help with this flypaper aspects of the issue.

When we bother to have a look at what large organisations really mean and do in terms of KM we are likely to find they have no knowing - doing gap in place, but they do not entertain teams or crowds on experiments neither.

Instead, they want, for instance, pragmatic outcomes: to fix a price around their intellectual property rights, or to define time and space for software dissemination plans, or to contract suppliers and clients in terms of access to their technologies (such as licenses, equipment, infrastructure or expertise). Reductionist data engineering view?

Many believe, on the grounds of a wide range of anecdotal evidence, that social cohesion (and also what some researchers have called knowledge leadership) have enormous influence on the efficiency and ultimately on the success of knowledge transfer plans - the UK, for instance, made a case for a "one team network of networks" engaging approach in 2012, with the ICT Knowledge Transfer Network established for the Olympics.

But approaches based on crowds or networks engagement are short-term ways to address communication emergencies, are not sustainable and not fit for purposes other than for word of mouth, propaganda campaigns or very polarised - no matter if they seem right or wrong - movements.

On the contrary, for consistent and lasting application of knowledge to innovation, developments and decision making, we should be wary of people states of mind and their fundamentally vulnerable cognition.

For instance, a recent review (Dowling, 2015) of policies that foster collaboration for knowledge transfer between universities and businesses found that both parties need to improve their skills in terms of contracts and intellectual property agreements and there should be more partnerships between industry and research institutions.

In sum, when we need to pin it down in factual and economic terms, either as performance or as people interactions, knowledge needs always to be sought in and linked to measurable actions, objects, structured data, legal documents or well designed communication processes and technical procedures: all these are the punctuation of change, the traceable signs that human expertise and creativity has been articulated into information and with intention, applied within a plan or carefully gathered in support of a decision or an action.

It does not matter if these are projections or guesses anyhow. These signs are the humble material ways in which knowledgeable people within all sorts of organisations make their plans and prepare to surf uncertainty.