Originally posted 07-Mar-24

Stan Garfield


After the first 60 posts in this series featured women who are thought leaders in knowledge management, the next 60 will be about men. This is the first one in the second half of the series.

David Bennet is the cofounder, with his wife Alex, of the Mountain Quest Institute. MQI is a center focused on achieving growth and understanding through questions about knowledge, consciousness, and meaning. He and Alex co-wrote many books, book chapters, and articles.

David was CEO, Chairman of Board, and CKO of Dynamic Systems, Inc. from 1990 to 2002. He led and managed this professional services firm. David was an advisor to senior leaders in government and industry in areas of strategic planning, decision-making, knowledge management, organizational learning, acquisition reform, enterprise alignment, integrated product teams, and integrated product and process development. He holds six degrees: BA, BS, MS, MLA, MA, and PhD.

For more on David and Alex Bennet, see Profiles in Knowledge.

Selected Books

The fallacy of knowledge reuse: Building sustainable knowledge (with Alex Bennet)

Differentiating Knowledge

Embracing Stonier’s description of information as a basic property of the Universe — as fundamental as matter and energy — we take the amount of information to be a measure of the degree of organization expressed by any nonrandom pattern or set of patterns. The order of a system is a reflection of the information content of the system. Data (a form of information) would then be simple patterns, and while data and information would both be patterns, they would have no meaning until some organism recognized and interpreted the patterns. Thus, knowledge exists in the human brain in the form of stored or expressed neuronal patterns that may be activated and reflected upon through conscious thought. This is a high-level description of the creation of knowledge that is consistent with the neuronal operation of the brain and is applicable in varying degrees to all living organisms. From this process neuronal patterns are created that may represent understanding, meaning and the capacity to anticipate (to various degrees) the results of potential actions. Thus, it is not just information that defines knowledge, but the relationships or associations (in space and time) among that information. Through this process of associating (or complexing), the mind is continuously growing, restructuring and creating increased organization (information).

Taking a functional approach, our definition of knowledge then becomes knowledge is the capacity (potential or actual) to take effective action in varied and uncertain situations. Knowledge consists of comprehension, understanding, insights, meaning and the ability to anticipate the effect of our actions. Knowledge is neither true nor false and its value is difficult to measure other than by the results of its actions. Hence, good knowledge would have a high probability (P=.9) of producing the desired (anticipated) outcome, and relatively poor knowledge would have a low probability (P=.1) of producing the expected result. It should also be understood that desired outcomes cannot usually be described with high precision. Rather, there is likely to be a cone of acceptable outcomes that have different measures of goodness (see Figure 1). Of course, any attempt to measure the value of specific knowledge may be quite difficult due to its dependency on situational context.

This definition of knowledge highlights knowledge as a creation of the human mind. The term knowledge is often used in organizations, popular literature, and technology solutions to mean the same thing as “information.” Recognizing that knowledge is the result of associative patterning in the brain, we choose to consider knowledge as comprised of two parts: Knowledge (Informing) and Knowledge (Proceeding). This builds on the distinction made by Gilbert Ryle between “knowing that” and “knowing how.”

Knowledge (Informing), or KnI, is the information (or content) part of knowledge. While this information part of knowledge is still generically information (organized patterns), it is special because of its structure and relationships with other information. KnI consists of information that represents insights, meaning, understanding, expectations, theories and principles that support or lead to effective action. When viewed separately this is information that may lead to effective action. However, it is considered knowledge when it is used as part of the knowledge process. Note that when “knowledge” is described and stored in a database or book, only the information part of that knowledge is stored, often considered as knowledge artifacts.

Knowledge (Proceeding), KnP, represents the process and action part of knowledge. KnP is the process of selecting and associating and applying the relevant information (KnI) from which specific actions can be identified and implemented, that is, actions that result in some level of effective outcome. There is considerable precedence for considering knowledge as a process versus an outcome. As Kolb (1983) forwards in his theory of experiential learning, knowledge retrieval, creation and application requires engaging knowledge as a process, not a product. The process our minds use to find, create, and semantically mix the information needed to take effective action is often unconscious and difficult to communicate to someone else. The more complex a situation, the more difficult it is to find a solution, and the larger the role played by tacit knowledge in our unconscious mind.

Tacit knowledge (Knt) is the descriptive term for those connections among thoughts (neuronal patterns) that cannot be put into words. It is a knowing of what decision to make or how to do something that cannot be clearly voiced in a manner such that another person could extract and re-create that knowledge. An individual may or may not know they have tacit knowledge in relationship to something or someone. But even when you know you have this knowledge you are unable to put it into words or visuals that can convey it. To “convey” is to cause something to be known or understood or, in this usage, to transfer information in a manner such that the receiver is able to re-create the intended knowledge. In contrast, explicit knowledge (Kne) is the process of calling up information (patterns) and processes (patterns in time) from memory that can be described accurately in words and/or visuals (representations) such that another person can comprehend and re-create that knowledge. This has historically been called declarative knowledge. We use the term implicit knowledge (Kni) to refer to knowledge stored in memory of which the individual is not immediately aware. While this knowledge is not accessible on demand, it may be pulled up when triggered (associated). In other words, implicit knowledge is knowledge that the individual does not know they have but is self-discoverable! Implicit represents a mobile spectrum between explicit and tacit.

There are four aspects of tacit knowledge: embodied, intuitive, affective, and spiritual. Embodied tacit knowledge (both kinesthetic and sensory) is knowledge represented in material form stored within the body. Intuitive tacit knowledge is a sense of knowing based on life experiences, or as Antonio Damasio put it, “the mysterious mechanism by which we arrive at the solution of a problem without reasoning toward it.” Affective tacit knowledge represents feelings that are not expressed — perhaps not even recognized. Spiritual tacit knowledge is a form of higher guidance with unknown origin, providing a transcendent frame of reference that puts things in relationship to a larger perspective while promoting self-knowledge and learning.

Sustainable knowledge is considered as knowledge that is robust enough to handle some level of variability within its domain of action and can be dynamically modulated to handle large-scale changes, uncertainties or increasing complexities within that domain.

The Partnership Between Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management (with Alex Bennet)

Learning and Communities of Practice

Communities of practice accelerate learning. The practice of COPs denotes a group with the same work focus, and therefore a group that has much in common in their everyday work life, including a common language. The community part of COPs denotes a group that has a relationship built on trust and a focus on the open sharing of ideas and best practices. In COPs the creating, learning, sharing, and using of knowledge are almost indivisible. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid explained this phenomenon: “… talk without the work, communication without practice is if not unintelligible, at least unusable. Become a member of a community, engage in its practices, and you can acquire and make use of its knowledge and information. Remain an outsider, and these will remain indigestible.”

Etienne Wenger, a thought leader in communities of practice and formerly of the Institute for Research on Learning, found that group was important to both what people learn and how they learn. Within the group setting of claims processors, Wenger discovered that knowledge, traveling on the back of practice, was readily shared. This same pattern was found from shop floors to professional fields, where scientists, doctors, architects, or lawyers, after years of classroom training, learn their craft with professional mentors. Brown and Duguid: “Here, they form learning communities capable of generating, sharing, and deploying highly esoteric knowledge.”

Communities can facilitate both single-loop and double-loop learning. Single loop learning occurs when problems are solved by changing actions or strategies for achieving a desired result without changing the underlying theory or assumptions about those actions. Focusing on a particular field, communities provide a thought test bed for creating and sharing better ways of taking actions, developing new processes, tools and methods, and the application of new management ideas. This is single-loop learning.

But the open exchange of ideas and interactions among members of the community may challenge the basic theory and belief about how the system works. In other words, when problems arise and never seem to be solved, the underlying theory of how the system works may be wrong. Or when the environment changes, the system must change to continue to meet its responsibilities. When this occurs, an entirely new understanding of the system’s structure and what makes it behave the way it does must be reviewed and a new theory developed. This is double-loop learning. It is the most difficult of all because it requires groups of people to change their understanding of their theory of success, to break through their defensive routines to accept and believe that a new theory of action is right and will work.

This is where communities have an advantage. Communities encourage the exchange of ideas, assumptions, and theories that open their members to new ways of seeing situations. The continuous, rapid feedback system of a community provides the opportunity to tie discussions and dialogues to decision results, generating new ways of understanding the system. Within the trusting framework of communities, individuals can observe other’s results and rethink their assumptions and theories.

The value of learning in general, and double-loop learning in particular, will be to speed up the acceptance and application of new ideas, techniques, methods and tools that provide themselves in the workplace. Of equal importance is the full acceptance of new ways of doing business that change roles and relationships among organizations and individuals. Relationships among manager-employee, colleague-colleague, community-community members, government-industry, headquarters-field activities, buyers-users will all change in one form or another. How effective these changes will be depends on the beliefs and actions of the individuals in each area. Learning and change are the primary forces for success because they are absolutely essential for adaptation, experimentation, and innovation. In today’s world, every decade and every year we find new technologies, new rules and new environments which demand new perspectives, new insights and new actions.

From stories to strategy: Putting organizational learning to work (with Alex Bennet)

Stories in Support of Strategy Creation and Execution

Because stories can be generated by individuals in real time and under local conditions, they naturally reflect the culture, language, and feelings of the troops. In other words, internally generated stories are most likely to resonate with the people directly involved in strategy creation and execution. This resonance gives stories a powerful role in supporting and managing strategy execution. In addition to resonance, it is important to recognize that the levels of meaning introduced in the previous paragraph can be communicated by carefully selected stories. These deeper levels can be very effective in influencing cultures and sharing understanding throughout a targeted group or environment. Their power lies in the fact that the listener is the one who “discovers” the underlying meaning in the story and, because of this discovery, has ownership in it. This ownership moves the “meaning of the story” (perhaps a core value) into the belief system of the listener where if repeated enough it will become a habit of the mind and therefore a habit of action. Through this process stories become powerful vehicles for communicating and transferring tacit knowledge. They are not just transmitters of information but may also move and inculcate complex beliefs, ideas and even processes within individuals throughout the organization.

Where a strategic goal has been identified and the strategy selected, the question becomes: what role can stories play in the strategy? Here the stories themselves would be selected, designed and implemented to ensure the support and acceleration of the desired strategy. Some examples of the ways stories can support strategy creation and execution are:

  • Like scenario planning, stories of past successes can be used to help an organization develop the capacity to lay out paths into the future, based upon what is known now and what is anticipated.
  • Stories can be used to guide actions during strategy implementation and to explain the purposes and objectives of a given strategy.
  • Stories can be used to provide a connectedness of choices during strategy execution, thereby fostering coherence among personnel.
  • Stories can foster innovative thinking during strategy execution by suggesting new ways of looking at issues or solving problems. As David Jonassen and Julián Hernández-Serrano concluded, “Stories can function as a substitute for direct experience, which novice problem-solvers do not possess.”
  • Stories generated from the execution of strategy can be made available through After Action Reviews or action learning teams and can serve as inputs to communities of practice, communities of interest, training materials and knowledge libraries.

As key decision points arise during strategy execution, detailed decision stories may be created that provide decision learning examples and case studies for training purposes. Since a portion of decision-making is intuitive and non-factual, these stories may represent a way to communicate the intuitive aspects. Stories can do this by immediately transferring insights that are difficult to explain in everyday language. In all but the simplest of situations, decision-making requires not only facts and information but also experience, intuition and judgment. The capacity to make a good decision often lies in the unconscious mind as relevant patterns of knowledge that may come forth when needed. As stated earlier, good stories operate at this subconscious level and can be very effective in supporting specific areas of decision-making.

It is in the stories of individual experiences that tacit knowledge, so critical to judgment and decision-making, can be brought out into the sunlight. As situations become more complex and decision time compresses, leaders must create, nurture and rely on their tacit knowledge and its mouthpiece, intuition. To create, share and expose this tacit knowledge people can tell relevant stories about what they did, how they did it, and what they learned from the experience. These stories can take many forms from simple narratives to mythical hero’s journeys. At the same time, they can convey models, organizational paradigms, perspectives, values and beliefs.

There is an important difference between stories with underlying themes of rules, standards, checklists and efficiency and those that convey creative thinking, flexibility, and effectiveness. This difference is critical to every organization. It is not that one is good and the other bad. Rather, it is understanding when, where and how each comes into play as the organization evolves. For example, during the battle of Midway in WW II the Japanese Admiral thought he had located the American Fleet and sent all of the planes from his four aircraft carriers to attack. Unfortunately, in the heat of battle the gas cans and extra explosives were left out on decks of the carriers after the planes took off. The U.S. Fleet had already determined where the Japanese Fleet was and because of the messy decks of the Japanese carriers the Americans were able to sink three of the four ships. Discipline is life or death in some situations. On the other hand, at the start of the American Revolution, American militiamen fought 1800 British Regulars using little discipline but a lot of common sense, fighting Indian style from behind trees and in houses against the British who fought in their traditional rows. The result was 250 British killed versus 95 Americans killed, and the Americans won the day. These examples highlight the importance of both discipline and flexibility. Both sets of stories are needed; it is the relevance and context of the situation that demands leadership judgment.

The key to the effective use of stories is to ensure a close link between the specific story selected and the strategic objectives desired. As Steve Denning has found, stories are particularly useful for jump-starting or transforming organizations. Because they are easily remembered and are a natural part of communication, stories can have a rapid diffusion rate which supports strategies designed to deal with change or organizational transformation. Stories of past experiences may be guides to future actions or signposts of future disasters.

Afterword — The ICALS Consilience Framework: A Life, A Journey, A Quest

From Alex Bennet: “In the Afterword to Unleashing the Human Mind: A Consilience Approach to Managing Self, Bob Turner and I took the opportunity to honor David Bennet. We are so glad to be able to share this work of the heart while David is still with us.”



Stan Garfield

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/