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Technology for knowledge management

The reach of know-how and experience possessed by individuals can be greatly extended once it is captured and explicated so that others can easily find it and understand and use it.

In ancient Greece, the philosopher, Plato, in his dialogues, captured and elaborated the thinking of his mentor Socrates, and so succeeding generations have been able to discover and share that thinking, and in turn reinterpret those thoughts and to be stimulated to achieve fresh insights and creativity. In other cultures, the Analects of Confucius, The Art of War of Sun Tzu, or the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, have served similar knowledge sharing functions.

In modern times, reports of activities, minutes of meetings, memoranda, proceedings of conferences, and document filing systems maintained by organizations are traditional commonly-used devices for recording content in paper format so that it can be transferred to others.

More recently, electronic databases, audio and video recordings, interactive tools and multimedia presentations have become available to extend the techniques for capturing and disseminating content. Although these tools are not yet everywhere available in the developing world, they are spreading rapidly and present a unique opportunity for developing countries to benefit most from the technological revolution now unfolding: low-cost telecommunications systems can help countries to leapfrog ahead through distance education, distance health services, and much better access to markets and private sector partners abroad.

Nevertheless, even with modern tools, the process of knowledge transfer is inherently difficult, since those who have knowledge may not be conscious of what they know or how significant it is, or be able or willing to share it with others. Even when they are so willing, the readiness to accept the wisdom of others is often not obvious. Thus know-how is “sticky” and tends to stay in people’s heads.

Electronic technology for transferring knowledge

The availability of the World Wide Web has been instrumental in catalyzing the knowledge management movement. Information technology may, if well resourced and implemented, provide a comprehensive knowledge base that is speedily accessed, interactive, and of immediate value to the user. However there are also many examples of systems that are neither quick, easy-to-use, problem free in operation, or easy to maintain. The Web, for example, frequently creates information overload. The development of tools that support knowledge sharing in an appropriate and user-friendly way, particularly in organization-wide knowledge sharing programs, is not a trivial task.

Most of the technological tools now available tend to help dissemination of know-how, but offer less assistance for knowledge use. Tools that assist in knowledge creation are even less well developed, although collaborative workspaces offer promising opportunities, by enabling participation, across time and distance, in project design or knowledge-base development, so that those most knowledgeable about development problems — the people living them on a day-to-day basis – can actively contribute to their solution. Some of the more user-friendly technologies are the traditional ones — face-to-face discussions, the telephone, electronic mail, and paper-based tools such as flip charts. Among the issues that need to be considered in providing information technology for knowledge sharing programs are:

responsiveness to user needs: continuous efforts must be made to ensure that the information technology in use meets the varied and changing needs of users.

content structure: in large systems, classification and cataloguing become important so that items can be easily found and quickly retrieved.

content quality requirements: standards for admitting new content into the system need to be established and met to ensure operational relevance and high value.

integration with existing systems: since most knowledge sharing programs aim at embedding knowledge sharing in the work of staff as seamlessly as possible, it is key to integrate knowledge-related technology with preexisting technology choices.

scalability: solutions that seem to work well in small groups (e.g. HTML web sites) may not be appropriate for extrapolation organization-wide or on a global basis.

hardware-software compatibility is important to ensure that choices are made that are compatible with the bandwidth and computing capacity available to users.

synchronization of technology with the capabilities of users is important so as to take full advantage of the potential of the tools, particularly where the technology skills of users differ widely. Knowledge sharing programs that focus on the simultaneous improvement of the whole system, both technology tools and human practices, are likely to be more successful than programs that focus on one or the other.

One of the major risks in knowledge management programs is the tendency for organizations to confuse knowledge management with some form of technology, whether it be Lotus Notes, the World Wide Web, or one of the off-the-shelf technology tools that are now proliferating. In the process, the essentially ecological concept of knowledge management becomes degraded into a simple information system that can be engineered without affecting the way the work is done. It is not that information systems are bad. Rather, it is important to recognize that knowledge management is a different and better way of working which affects people, and requires social arrangements like communities to enable it to happen on any consistent and sustained basis.

Resistance to acquiring new knowledge

The sad reality is that human beings tend to resist taking on new knowledge, if it contradicts their existing views and beliefs. The phenomenon, which psychologists call the confirmation bias, was noted by Francis Bacon almost four hundred years ago: “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion . . . draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.”

Many experiments by psychologists have confirmed the existence of the confirmation bias. See for example.

C. Lord, L. Ross, and M. R. Lepper, “Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization: The Effects of Prior Theories on Subsequently Considered Evidence,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37 (1979): 2098–2109.

D. Westen, P. S. Blagov, K. Barenski, D. Kilts, and S. Hamann, “Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18, no. 11 (2006): 1947–1958.

The confirmation bias isn’t entirely illogical. Thus when I glance at a tabloid at the supermarket and read the headline, “Scientists Discover 4,000-Year-Old Television Set in Egyptian Pyramid,” I smile and question the reliability of the tabloid, not my belief as to when television was invented. When we think we know something to be objective truth, our immediate reaction to news indicating the opposite is to jump to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with the source. And for many purposes, the confirmation bias serves us well.

But what it means for the transfer of knowledge is that simply making new knowledge available doesn't typically result in it being transferred. If you want new knowledge to be imparted to people who hold contrary views, then you need to learn a different way of communicating, as explained The Secret Language of Leadership.


Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000.

Stephen Denning: The Leader's Guide to Storytelling (Jossey-Bass, 2005) chapter 8.

Stephen Denning: The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, October 2007)

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