Where The Bodies of Knowledge Are Buried - PART 2 #innovation #benchmarking #institutionalism #socialscience / by John Schlichter

by John Schlichter

This is a continuation of “Where the Bodies of Knowledge Are Buried - Part 1.

The conclave of the OLC in Virginia was not the last time NASA was involved in semi-secret knowledge management activities. A decade later I was invited to join the Federal Knowledge Management Working Group, a virtual community (which included people like me from the private sector) whose mission was to educate and support federal government departments, agencies, organizations, and their constituencies in the research, development, identification, and implementation of knowledge management activities, practices, lessons learned, and technologies. Members included David Bray, Jeanne Holm, John Bordeaux, Denise Bedford, Jimmie McEver, and many others.

When Haiti was devestated by an earthquake, we were asked for creative ideas regarding how to coordinate uncoordinated relief efforts speeding toward the island. Apart from random queries like that, we formed groups that explored how individuals and institutions can more easily distill knowledge from complexity and make policies and decisions using knowledge based processes. People asked questions like "How could simulation-scripting exercises in virtual worlds accelerate the sustained use of ontologies in the real world?” We discussed ways to leverage ontologies to help improve knowledge management, and in so doing, allow organizations to make better decisions. Some of us created standards for meta-data embedded in digital communications. Some were building the semantic web. We argued about the merits of tokenized communications used by airport control towers as a model for decentralized knowledge sharing. We brainstormed ways to preserve the knowledge of warfighters in Afghanistan when soldiers rotated out of service. I thought the group was sponsored by the US military but later discovered it was run by the FBI with support from the Secret Service and servers donated by - guess who - NASA.

What was the thread that bound all of this together? It was the same that led to the OLC. Knowledge work and, by extension, the development of standards were the OLC’s raison d'être. Organizations throughout the government and across the private sector are heavily invested in knowledge work and, by extension, in the codification of knowledge and development of standards that enable that work.

Power concerns itself with defining reality rather than discovering what reality really is.

Unfortunately the efforts of the OLC never produced a single definitive standard that integrated everyone's views about the project management body of knowledge. The IPMA had theirs, and PMI had theirs, which was published as a guide that ballooned to over 1,000 pages. Others have been proffered over the years. Such standards can have far reaching consequences, becoming the basis of individual and organizational certifications, shaping how organizations work (particularly how people from different organizations work together) across the world. As such, the creation of standards is a deeply political affair that may have as much to do with aggregating power as distinguishing prevailing practices. Bent Flyvbjerg has noted "Power concerns itself with defining reality rather than with discovering what reality really is." The major project management standards today are rather less the result of high-brow conclaves like the OLC and more the result of powerful business mechanisms, producing distillations of knowledge that take on lives of their own.


If knowledge work is pervasive, and standards are the key to knowledge work but efforts to create them are prone to failure, it’s worth pausing to ask what a standard really is. That is something I addressed in another blog post by citing the example of roads. In ancient times, roads became de facto standards as the way that travel occurred, standards in reality by fact of widespread use. That is foremost what a standard is: the prevailing practice. Tacit knowledge of the paths taken by travelers was translated into explicit knowledge in the form of maps that codified popular routes. That too is what a standard is: a paradigm or framework whose authority is asserted. The standard practices of traveling known routes were accompanied by rules or standards de jure (that is, officially or by law) like weights, measures, and coinage that enabled commerce. That is yet another way of understanding standards, i.e. as abstractions contrived to enable interaction.

Today, project management standards are an amalgamation of these things that begs the questions "This is the prevailing practice according to whom exactly? This knowledge has been codified by whom exactly? Its authority is asserted by whom exactly? And if a standard has been adopted as the rules of the game, they are the rules according to whom?" Fundamentally these are all questions of trust. Power-brokering is trust-brokering, a proposition that is undergoing a sea change for technological reasons in the 21st century.

Blockchain can put trust back into standards creation.

Today the International Standards Organization (ISO) requires those bodies it endorses as developers of standards to develop their standards in a transparent and fair manner that ensures open consensus building. But one wonders how it assures that this occurs? One may note that organizations pay money to ISO to be endorsed by ISO as accredited developers of standards. Emerging technologies like blockchain can improve trust in standards creation.

Blockchain could introduce full and immutable attribution not only of individual sources but of individual votes by individual persons to include specific content in a standard (both for and against), which could transform how an entity like ISO could accredit standards development. It could fundamentally change the nature of standards like PMI's "A Guide to the Project Body of Knowledge" (which is updated every few years by a cast of hundreds if not thousands of volunteers). It could also change how standards are published, extending to the decentralization of copyrighting.

Certified assessments of the adoption or application of a standard by an organization could be viewed as transactions that are reconciled to the original standard itself. Specific and immutable records of adoption of a practice (or failure to adopt a practice, as the case may be in any given third party assessment) could be embedded in the published standard dynamically, demonstrating whether the standard (or any part of it) is indeed a de facto standard.

With data on usage embedded into the standard, we could see which parts of the standard are used most, i.e. Pareto. We could see which kinds of organizations and users use different parts of the standard, i.e. consumer segmentation. We could compare usage (or lack thereof) to performance problems, i.e. effect stratification. And we could update these and many other dimensions dynamically, refreshing the standard with value-added information in keeping with the real world. Importantly we could cause this updating to occur without the intervention, filtering, or meddling of powerful knowledge-brokers who should recuse themselves.

φρόνησῐς or phrónēsis is understanding or wisdom relevant to action, i.e. practical virtue.

To the larger point, with emerging technologies we may be able to solve the problem that the OLC encountered in Virginia Beach nearly 20 years ago and which every effort to establish a standard since then has faced. That is, we can distinguish discrete knowledge from shared knowledge; demonstrate the extent to which any knowledge is shared; provide views of knowledge standards that are most relevant to different parties; update knowledge-based standards automatically with usage data - avoiding Orwellian dystopias like China's social credit system by applying Phronesis methodically; and in doing so, we can bypass centralized authorities or gatekeepers (whose own views of the situation are perforce limited and biased).

Through technologies like blockchain, we can add new knowledge like links added to a chain, improving knowledge for all of us with each link in an ever-growing circle of trust. Knowledge in the respective minds of practitioners that may have been buried in backroom battles can be resurrected, and the playing field can be levelled. The highly political and esoteric standards-making machinations of the few can be traded for truly transparent and decentralized knowledge creation by the many. And we don't need to be NASA's rocket scientists to realize that these things would improve the universe of project management for all of us.