Great and poor metaphors for knowledge, learning and change


Metaphor (Credits: Daniel Hoherd / FlickR)

Metaphor (Credits: Daniel Hoherd / FlickR)

Metaphors are great.

They reach out to the artist in us.

They tell us stories – not just plain facts.

They are, like modelling tools, great props to visualise the future.

But, like modelling, they’re only helpful to an extent – and perhaps their ultimate motive is to be proven wrong. Like a stick that helps someone recover into walking properly, only to get rid of the stick then.

Let’s examine a few metaphors that work or don’t (for me, subjectively) around agile knowledge management…

The knowledge garden(ing) – works

The knowledge garden, and all its benefits (Credits: PictureQuotes)

The knowledge garden, and all its benefits (Credits: PictureQuotes)

I love this metaphor as it considers the process of attending to knowledge: planting it, cultivating it, watering it, fertilising it, trimming it, harvesting it… nearly all related actions to gardening and letting the knowledge garden blossom work for me. And not only is this metaphor plastic and elastic but it really puts the emphasis on the communion between nature and culture, on the balance between intention and intentional letting go, on caring…

I share because I care!

This is one of my favourite metaphors.

The organisation as a family – doesn’t work

We are so often compelled, in organisations we work in, to be ‘part of the family’, to be ‘welcome to the family’, to ‘stick to the family’, to become a functional family member. And yet few metaphors rub me in the wrong way this one does because:

  • I choose the organisation I work with, it’s not a given to me;
  • I don’t identify with a daddy and a mommy in organisations;
  • I don’t want to consider any organisation the space where I’ll have to spend the next 15 or so (or more) years in;
  • I just don’t see the point of forcing to make any organisation the place that I should care for above anything else, as I do for my true family;
  • And some might even say that the family is not the most ideal to aspire to…

So this organisation-family metaphor is a complete flop for me. I actually tweeted about this last week:

 

Networks, on the other hand, might be much closer, for me, to a family, as KM4Dev was for me, from the start.

Knowledge as water – works… to some extent

Knowledge is fluid, knowledge sharing is like a flow and there is definitely something akin to the liquid plasticity of water, it goes in all directions, it’s adaptable, it can become something else like ice or vapour… Knowledge has some watery qualities for sure.

Knowledge, water, wisdom... hmm... tricky words to connect (Credits: EmilysQuotes)

Knowledge, water, wisdom… hmm… tricky words to connect (Credits: EmilysQuotes)

But the main limitation of that metaphor is that it gives the wrong impression that it can be ‘captured’, ‘measured’, ‘transferred’, stocked, and that’s where I don’t agree, since my definition of KM=CDL.

Knowledge as love – works… to some extent

This is not even an oft-used metaphor, and of course there’s a limit to that metaphor because there is nothing really romantic or erotic about knowledge per se, but essentially the big link is that knowledge and love sow the seeds for more. They self-multiply. Through sharing them you increase them. And you don’t lose anything yourself, even quite the contrary.

So the generous qualities of love and knowledge are very similar – and it’s that angle of this metaphor that I find useful.

Organisations are not machines... (Credits: Stuart McMillen)

Organisations are not machines… (Credits: Stuart McMillen)

Organisations and people as machines – doesn’t work

I can’t find it on Twitter (I should have RT’d it) but someone ranted about this last week. And for good reasons! We are not cogs. We are not machines. We are capable of feelings, ideas, creativity, genius, inspiration, excitement.

Of course we can always become more efficient, more productive, and perform in an increasingly well-oiled manner… but that’s only part of the story and as Seth Godin (again) would tell you  it’s remote from what linchpins stand for, with all their passionate art, right into the economics of gift!

And if that ‘machine-metaphor’ becomes our primary lens for understanding human relationships in the knowledge age, we have lost it – deeply, perhaps completely.

Military metaphors – don’t work

What’s your target group? When will you shoot me an email? It’s time to go to battle. We hit the ground running, have to bite the bullet etc.

If anything, let’s fire away at these military metaphors. Although there clearly are belligerent approaches to life and a fair bit of warmongering among people, life is not a battlefield. It’s not meant to be.

I’m not alone on this path, the Wall Street Journal ran the same rant. The famous media showed the limitations of extending that kind of language: “Suppose that we turned this idiocy on its head and imagined a world where it was the military that used ludicrously inappropriate terminology from the business world.” and end up with something like…

“We tried to move the needle with Al Qaeda, but there was a sudden paradigm shift,” says a tank commander in Syria. “At the end of the day, the low-hanging fruit turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg.”

Metaphors shape our language, our vision, our actions, perhaps even our feelings if they are deeply enough entrenched. So let’s pick our words carefully, and sow the seeds of peace with all the other gardeners of this world, rather than go to war with the people that are against us… Don’t you think?

What metaphors work for you or not for knowledge, learning, change?

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