Harold Jarche on Knowledge Management

The only knowledge we can manage is our own.

I met Harold a few years back through Peter Vander Auwera who runs the Innotribe activities for Swift and had us work together on a presentation on organizational models and culture for Sibos. We had a lot of fun, and I’ve been a follower ever since.

About Harold

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Harold Jarche

I couldn’t do better than this description from Harold’s website:

Harold has been described as “a keen subversive of the last century’s management and education models”. He knows that the ability to learn is the only lasting competitive advantage for any organization. Harold provides pragmatic advice and guidance on connected leadership, social learning, personal knowledge management, and workplace collaboration. He also distills heady topics like complexity theory into practical advice.

A graduate of the Royal Military College, Harold served over 20 years in the Canadian Armed Forces in leadership and training roles. Harold has held senior positions at the Centre for Learning Technologies and e-Com Inc. He is a co-author of The Working Smarter Fieldbook with his colleagues at the Internet Time Alliance. His preferred workplace is on his bicycle, where he gets his best ideas.

The Interview

Stowe Boyd: In a recent post, you mentioned the idea (attributed to Ed Lawler) that more ‘lateral’ organizations are fragile and require strong culture and trust to work. I’ve been discussing the need for a deep culture based on a broad, top to bottom rethinking of work, a business culture that subsumes the increasingly shallow nature of independent organizational cultures. What are your thoughts on that?

Harold Jarche: This is difficult without management giving up some control, but power is never relinquished easily. There usually needs to be a systemic organizational redesign to share power. For many enterprises this change may not be possible. The best description of the desired state, in my opinion, is Jon Husband’s wirearchy framework; “a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology.”

SB: So, if some companies can’t be changed, they are stuck? Or need to be shut down?

HJ: That would be my observation. Many companies are stuck and there are companies, and structures, that will shut down. An indicator of this is the trend of S&P 500 company lifespans to decrease; from 75 years in 1937 to 15 years in 2012.

SB: I agree with the principles of what you call personal knowledge management, although I simply say that we each have to reengage with our own work before we can think about engagement with the business. You’ve quoted Thierry de Baillon who said ‘The basic unit of social business technology is personal knowledge management, not collaborative workspaces’. Could you connect the dots, here?

Network analysis results in seeing organizations in a very different way from hierarchies and their organization charts. My experience with organizations is that visualization is very powerful in getting people to think differently. Cognitive science, anthropology, bioeconomics and other sciences may be the long lever, but visualization is the fulcrum to widespread understanding of social connection in business. — Harold Jarche

HJ: The only knowledge we can manage is our own. PKM is a framework to manage knowledge for ourselves. Organizations that support PKM can take advantage of the network effects of workers freely sharing their knowledge. I have found that two of the most important activities for knowledge workers are sense-making and knowledge-sharing. However, trying to externally manage these activities significantly reduces their value. Collaborative work has little value if the workers are not fully engaged in sense-making and knowledge-sharing.

SB: I often say that ‘all work is personal’, meaning that we each need to start with engagement in our work, whatever that set of skills, practices, and techniques is. But work is (often) social as well, and that is where emergent value is created. That is where the potential chaos in the increasingly fast-and-loose business context today is revealed to be unintended order, as Henry Mintzberg styled it. Don’t you think there is something more going on than the sharing of knowledge?

Collaborative work has little value if the workers are not fully engaged in sense-making and knowledge-sharing. — Harold Jarche

HJ: There is much more going on with social learning than the just sharing of knowledge, but that is the most visible part. Modelling of behaviour emerges when people work together, as humans seem to be wired to do this. As Albert Bandura wrote in “Social Learning Theory” (1977), “ … most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.” New behaviours emerge as work is done in new ways.

SB: I will certainly be using that Bandura quote in my own work, thanks.

The thesis of Socialogy is that scientific findings about sociality, social networks, and human cognition are only slowly becoming part of management thinking, and as a result, much of what goes on as established practice in business is actually folklore dressed up as policy. Where do you see the greatest point of leverage in the application of scientific understanding of social connection in business?

HJ: Social network analysis and value network analysis are two areas that can provide significant insights into managing knowledge work. Once networks are visualized, they can be discussed in a coherent manner. Visualization can also expose organizational flaws that may be overlooked or ignored.

All work is personal. — Stowe Boyd

SB: Yes, I agree with your statement, but are you saying that the area of scientific research that offers the greatest potential impact on business thinking is social network analysis? What about cognitive science, or anthropology, or bioeconomics?

HJ: All of these are very important, but I am looking at the question from the “leverage” perspective. Network analysis results in seeing organizations in a very different way from hierarchies and their organization charts. My experience with organizations is that visualization is very powerful in getting people to think differently. Cognitive science, anthropology, bioeconomics and other sciences may be the long lever, but visualization is the fulcrum to widespread understanding of social connection in business.

SB: Harold, as always, great to talk.

HJ: Thanks.

Originally published on stoweboyd.com, 8 November 2013.

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