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Bodies of Knowledge

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Much of the world is broken up into different professions, each with its own body of knowledge. Historically, this knowledge has been widely spread and often jealously guarded, such that learning what you need to know would take years of study (and cost). The Project Management Institute (PMI) started a modern trend in 1987 towards making knowledge explicit with a white paper entitled the Project Management Body of Knowledge.

The idea is simply to take a discipline and document what you know about it in a structured way that creates a useful reference, both as reminders for professionals and as a development resource for people learning more about the discipline. Many professional bodies have done significant work on a body of knowledge for their area of interest, including the CQI. You can find the Quality Body of Knowledge on the main website, with general knowledge publicly available and deeper knowledge available only to members.

You can also take this idea further, building one or more bodies of knowledge in your workplace. This needs care as making knowledge explicit can lead to people working in the area becoming defensive as they fear their value is being eroded, yet there is a huge imperative for organisations to sustain knowledge where it may be lost when people leave or retire. ‘Knowledge Continuity’ is a very important subset of Business Continuity, which often stops at IT disaster recovery and ignores the critical human dimension.

An early question is to how break the area in question down into manageable parts. A useful principle that can be used here is that of a ‘taxonomy’ or system of classification. An early example from 1735 was the biological taxonomy of Carl Linnaeus, who defined the system of species, genus, and so on. A process focus can be helpful in quality-related areas and a clothes manufacture may break things down by design, sewing, storage, etc.

One approach is simply to review and ‘brainstorm’ all the things that you do, writing whatever is found on Post-It Notes and then clustering them into related categories and sub-categories. You can then start asking of each area questions such as ‘What do we know about this? Is the knowledge held diffusely or by one person? Can we document it?’ This will help you prioritise action to capture the key items.

Sometimes documents are a good way to go but there are other ways too, such as videoing people doing key tasks, from skilled manual activity to decision-making and social interaction. As a part of retirement or leaving activity you can also just record people talking about what they did, particularly the ‘significant events’ where things went badly or well.

An important part of any body of knowledge is the keeper of that knowledge. A library without a librarian quickly falls into decay and so also will a body of knowledge that is not actively managed and promoted. If you want a living system of knowledge then you need to ensure that there is a clear owner who ensure that it continues to grow and add value into the future.

A body of knowledge is never complete. You can only write so much and new areas are always being discovered and developed. There may also be such a wide range of things it would take forever to write down, so you need to decide what best to capture and (always) write it and store it in a way that is easy to find and use. For larger topics, you may also just keep references, for example to key journal papers, books and so on that may be explored where there is a need in the given specialist area.


Next time:  Seven eyes


This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Chartered Quality Institute

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