Knowledge Management and Collective Learning in the Age of Google

This week’s readings were fascinating to me.  I’m hoping this area will potentially be a part of my dissertation research.  I’ve been curious about communicating leadership via technology, as well as facilitating (teaching) creativity through technology.  In my role as an educator in several creative disciplines, I’ve wrestled with how leaders can foster communities of practice and open up dialogues in on-the-ground classrooms and online courses.  Specific to the knowledge management discussion, I think there needs to be a balance between archived, best practice, explicit knowledge (Dixon, 2009) and postmodern, socially generated heuristics developed in the cloud (Weinberger, 2011).  I would tend to agree with Jarche’s (2016) recent assertion that, “While people learn from formal instruction, they also learn in the workflow and outside work” (para. 8).

In my classrooms and online classes, I believe it’s still important to “deposit” – as Freire (1968) might describe it-  explicit knowledge into the minds of the learners.  In graphic design, there is a specific tool to use when attempting to accomplish a specific task.  In web development, HTML syntax is extremely important… a missing semicolon can ruin an entire web page, not to mention frustrate students and instructors alike!  In this way, I think that knowledge management serves an important function.  Organizing and disseminating (Dixon, 2009) the proper tools and processes is a requirement that must be satisfied before we can even begin to think about creativity or adaptive challenges (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009).  Once a student or employee has access to a baseline amount of information, then the leader can begin to shape and use sociotechnical systems (Burke, 2014) to optimize social learning (Jarche, 2010).

In terms of confronting those adaptive challenges (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009), I do believe that collective experiential knowledge (Dixon, 2009b) is powerful (and necessary).  In my web development level III course, for example, we work a lot on troubleshooting obscure problems that don’t necessarily have a right or wrong answer.  There’s no way I can teach the solution to every potential technical problem.  In this case, I need to manage the process of identifying aspects of the challenge, thinking critically about paths to resolution, and, most important to the new KM discussion, how to seek out and apply the expertise of the multitudes.

Just yesterday, I got an error on a client’s website: “php.mailer.Mzh.517.UNOFFICIAL FOUND.” The first place we go is online to the “expert exchanges.” Sure enough we landed among the discussion forums and GitHub pages posted by experts, and wove our way through different resources to find the right places to look to fix the error.  Through this network of professionals, and my own decade of experience with the system we were using, we were able to locate the right file, and fix the problem.  This is an example of socially generated knowledge that is then archived in the online format.  I’m curious to think about how this changes as storage and access methods evolve.

To Davenport’s (2015) point, I would imagine that few companies in the digital media space would ever attempt to deploy a traditional KM system in light of the available social knowledge already available online.  I know some organizations do maintain code repositories and other such silos of information that can be readily accessed.  I think a major difference in the new knowledge management world is context.  Most of Davenport’s critiques seem to boil down to a forced flow or a context-agnostic adoption of a system for the sake of having a system.  I appreciate Jarche’s (2010) comment that “Stock [archived information] on the internet is everywhere, and the challenge is to make sense of it through flows and conversation [context]” (para. 23).  Thus, I think the role of the leader is to help maintain a basic level of explicit knowledge through systems and institutional memory, as well as allowing for the creation of knowledge networks and organizational learning.  Not easy, by any stretch of the imagination, but doable with the right tools and human resources!

Burke, W. W. (2014). Organization change: Theory and practice (4th ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Davenport, T.H. (2015). Whatever happened to knowledge management? The Wall Street Journal: CIO Report.
Dixon, N. (2009a, May 2).  Where knowledge management has been and where it is going- part one. Conversation Matters [blog]. Retrieved from
Dixon, N. (2009b, July 30).  Where knowledge management has been and where it is going- part three. Conversation Matters [blog]. Retrieved from
Freire, P. (1994). Pedagogy of the oppressed.  Continuum Publishing Company: New York, NY.
Heifetz, R.A., Grashow, A., Linsky, M., (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Brighton, MA: Harvard Business Press.
Jarche, H. (2010). Closing the learning-knowledge loop. Harold Jarche: Adapting to a world in perpetual beta [blog]. Retrieved from
Jarche, H. (2016). A framework for social learning in the enterprise. Harold Jarche: Adapting to a world in perpetual beta [blog]. Retrieved from
Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.

7 thoughts on “Knowledge Management and Collective Learning in the Age of Google

  1. Nice post. Your ending with Jarche’s comment has me wondering if advances in AI will impact this area as well. Will computers become capable of understanding flow and context? After all, it was discovered late last year that Google’s translation tool had developed its own internal language –

    And if so…will that impact or enhance leadership?

    1. Thanks, Dr. Watwood!
      Fascinating article from FreeCode Camp – thank you for sharing. In my limited understanding of the way that this AI works, it seems as if the machines are on the way to a development of flow and context.

      The comment from nafrondel helped me more clearly undersatand what’s at play within Google Translate. The user states, “Instead of thinking if dog=chien, and chien=perro, perro must = dog, it thinks dog=0x3b chien =0x3b perro=0x3b. Where 0x3b is the idea of dog, meaning it can then turn 0x3b in to whichever language you ask for.”

      As the commenter continues, non-symbolic AI is designed to fill in the knowledge gaps by inventing language and heuristics. It’s not a far jump, then, to get to filling in the gaps between more complicated “ideas.” That is, instead of building language around the idea of a dog, the machine might build an algorithmic heuristic around the idea of efficiency, or something else more abstract.

      I’m working through a fascinating book (The Undoing Project) that talks about the background of scholarship into human perception, prediction, and information evaluation. It outlines some of the ways in which we make sense of incomplete or unknown information, many of which are similar to those outlined in the story above. What’s interesting, though, is that we invent these heuristics to help us, but more often than not, they seem to let us down because they are not scientifically or statistically valid… I would imagine that advanced AI would have no problem evaluating the validity of the methods it used to fill in the gaps.

      Regarding leadership, I think a similar lesson applies. Leaders must be aware of the ways in which we connect the dots, especially when it comes to the unknowns of technology. Leaders might feel good about adopting a certain tool, but from a financial or organizational learning perspective, it may not make sense. We must continue to be very aware of context and be nimble enough to facilitate new, generative flows through both interpersonal and mediated channels.

      Thanks for the push on this!

  2. James:
    Nice post this week. You provided a great illustration on how you are using technology to help facilitate teaching. I was wondering how you have experienced (either observed or applied) leadership through technology? As I read you post, I also thought about the struggle I had with the definition of knowledge management versus content management. I found this white paper written from a provider perspective on the difference between enterprise content management and enterprise knowledge management:

    Did you also find similarities between content and knowledge management or were you able to keep these as separate concepts? Since content and knowledge are so ill-defined (in the traditional sense of definitions), I can see how they would be the same. So why don’t we just replace content management with knowledge management–or perhaps we already have.


    1. Great resource, Krista, thanks for sharing that whitepaper.

      I felt like I was doing well working with the different types of management we’ve been reviewing, but I will admit that this whitepaper muddied the waters for me. For me, the Oracle document makes unnecessary complications to the understanding of content management. I think that they’re presenting two approaches to the same problem, which is, how to transmit knowledge (either deliberately crafted or more contextually generated). The content is still stored, and needs to be managed, and I don’t know if I see enough of a distinction between presentation methods in the Oracle piece to warrant the separate definition – it’s close, though. I would push knowledge management more in the direction of your previous discussion about what your teams were able to do on Slack or other real-time collaboration tools. Perhaps some nuggets of wisdom that come out of a spontaneous, collaborative interaction should be archived and managed as “content” while others may not warrant documentation?

      I think that also raises the question about who controls the information and who decides what is important for archiving, what deserves to be saved for later retrieval, and in what format.

      Lots to think about – thank you for bringing up these questions!

  3. James,

    Good evening. The experience you described by explaining how you used a network of professionals to solve an issue with one of your client’s websites stuck with me. Some years ago now, my father became extremely ill. After several weeks in our community hospital, we transferred him to the University of Chicago Hospital. U of C is an outstanding teaching hospital, and my father had an excellent doctor trying to figure out what was wrong with him. After two weeks of the doctor and his students being completely stumped, a conference happened to be held at the school. After presenting on a topic, my father’s doctor happened to describe my father’s situation, his symptoms and how he was at a loss for what the diagnosis might be. Immediately following the talk, another doctor approached him tell him what he was describing sounded like a rare disease this particular doctor knew something about. He suggested treatment, and after administering the treatment, my father awoke hours later after being in a comma like stage for weeks. I am curious if a treatment would have been discovered quickly in today’s world of online networks. In my opinion, two challenges we have as leaders is to educate our team to ask questions, the right questions, and to find the “right” networks to surround ourselves with. Do you have suggestions as to ways we can do this? It seems to be a challenge as the number of networks and so-called experts seems to grow every second.


    1. Jason – what an amazing story! It goes to show that all of this knowledge and learning management discussion has real life ramifications. I agree with your statement that we need to help our teams ask the right questions to the right networks. Of course, the right networks can be hard to discover, especially as we begin to see the bombardment of “fake news” and armchair experts publishing whatever they feel like (not to take the political direction here).

      Media literacy (in terms of both the mass media as well as media as any tool we use to connect with others) should be a priority in today’s workforce. I am surprised at how many of my college-aged students still struggle with basic computer literacy; we assume that “kids these days” know technology inside and out, but ask them to send you a Word document or PDF file and watch the panic set in! As is the case with textual literacy, the digital workforce needs a basic operational level of skills in order to be productive. Specific to your question, when we develop these skills in employees, those networks become easier to navigate, sharing becomes more transparent, and organizational learning develops more quickly.

      When it comes to learning to ask the right questions, I think that’s the more difficult part. Creativity and generative leadership are topics I’ve thought a lot about and will continue to investigate as I hone my dissertation topics. I believe that we don’t do enough to foster creative thinking in earnest. I think it’s become very trendy and buzz-wordy in business, and I worry that it could become diluted. It will be interesting to continue diving into that area. Anyhow, I believe that we can encourage all sorts of different thinking processes. We must reserve judgement (at first), and celebrate multidirectional thinking – the “right answer” isn’t always in front of us!

      Thanks again for sharing your wonderful story!

      1. James,
        Another great post, generally…and I appreciate your interest in further exploring creativity as it relates to leadership. Teresa Amabile and Mukti Khaire (2008) offered some interesting insights in their HBR post, Creativity and the Role of the Leader ( They note one challenge for organizations is creativity’s “less immediate payoff” as compared to focusing on matters of execution, but there seems a definitive role for leadership…in NOT managing creativity but in managing FOR creativity. The authors suggest three required conditions: slack (time and resources dedicated to exploration); hubris (a culture that promotes risk-taking); and optimism (the appeal and promise of something different over the status quo. I have long reflected on the notion of slack–particularly its value–but also the difficulty to reconcile “slacking” with traditional models of accountability and performance. How might we bridge this gap…or should we even try?

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