Following Patterns Carves a Path To Success

February 2002
By Sharon Berry

Knowledge templates may bring stability to businesses struggling in a changing economy.

Professionals often find solutions that repeatedly prove successful. By documenting these best-of-breed approaches, experts are now able to develop working taxonomies of patterns of success. Known as knowledge patterns, these resources will result in an array of tools to help conduct audits, develop strategies and make decisions.

To compete, survive and flourish in today’s knowledge age, organizations must rely on more than traditional financial metrics as their guide to the future. With ideas as the new currency, businesses now must find better ways to manage knowledge—a factor that heavily influences a company’s ability to execute strategies and achieve goals.

Following patterns is a way to reuse information and share lessons learned in a specific business context, says Bryan Davis, president, the Kaieteur Institute for Knowledge Management (KIKM), Toronto. His team has been studying ways to leverage knowledge by decoding and applying knowledge patterns. “What we observed is a gap that existed in the current thinking, practices and methodologies,” he explains. “We think it is important to identify how glaring this gap is and note that this is a big opportunity to do a better and smarter job of knowledge management.”

Davis contends that pattern recognition has proven to be a powerful approach in many other disciplines. “Our question is, ‘Why aren’t we taking this approach in the knowledge game?’” he asks.

Pattern recognition guides action in many different fields. In the banking world, financial services companies employ software equipped with pattern recognition capabilities to spot anomalies and intercept fraudulent actions. In the military domain, it is used to identify enemy submarines by their acoustic signatures.

Using the right tools enhances the capacity to recognize and interpret what is happening with knowledge in an organization and sharpens the ability to communicate a course of action with others, Davis offers. Additionally, each pattern has a wealth of case histories in which other organizations have taken similar approaches. Using the pattern of knowledge mapping is not new, but it enables people to proceed judiciously and safely because they are using a proven method.

“We didn’t sit down in the laboratory and just dream this up,” Davis notes. Specialists have looked at schools of thought, case histories and software. Organizations that have significant process knowledge often embed their best practices in software, he explains.

KIKM has established an array of more than 30 patterns with the possibility of adding new ones. Davis calls the array the knowledge meta-pattern playbook. It provides companies with moves to make as they participate in the business decision-making process. For example, to make the first move, one may select the pattern on knowledge leadership and assign a team, a chief knowledge officer or a knowledge architect to head the effort.

Another pattern in the array is knowledge harvesting. This approach elicits knowledge from employees so it can be recorded and codified as a corporate asset. Subjects are interviewed and observed, and their know-how related to a task is documented. “A subpattern of this technique is called after-action review and is used by the U.S. military to extract lessons learned from action carried out in the field,” Davis explains.

The array also includes the storytelling pattern—a template based on a communication art. Using a combination of metaphors and images is an effective way to build common understanding in a knowledge management program.

The patterns encapsulate major intellectual capital strategy choices in playing the knowledge game, Davis states. “We have argued that these patterns can be very powerful for aiding understanding, communication, training and alignment.”

They also can be used as a diagnostic and assessment tool. When working with clients and completing the knowledge assessment and knowledge strategy assessment, KIKM teams question clients about how adept their organization is at recognizing and using the patterns, and each answer is given a score. “We then have a clear idea where there may be great potential for strategic investment and improvement,” he says. “The beauty of this approach is that while it is simple, fast and easy to use, it is calibrated to measure an organization’s knowledge strengths based on the experiences of others.”

Davis reveals that some people have suggested he should not discuss knowledge patterns and rather keep them as a black art. “The argument is that customers do not care,” he says. “If you have a company and you make pumps, you really don’t care a lot about pattern recognition. What you care about is getting more customers, increasing profitability and reducing costs. If we can show you how to do that, then that’s what you really want. You’re not interested in the mechanics of pattern recognition.”

Davis contends that anyone interested in the knowledge game can and should use the information. He relates that having access to multiple knowledge tools is like golf, where anyone playing must have an array of clubs available—tools used to play different shots. “If you are about to putt, you are not going to use the driver because it is inappropriate,” he explains. “We see these patterns as tools you have in your bag that you take out at the appropriate time and place of context to play an effective stroke. It is very action-oriented. You can’t be playing the knowledge management game seriously if you are not aware of the knowledge patterns that are the ways to play the game.”

Davis says the institute now is focusing on trying to isolate profit knowledge patterns. It is reviewing the patterns that are most profitable as well as those that provide the greatest amount of power and leverage.

He cites the knowledge toll wherein a business charges for access to a knowledge base. Celera Genomics, Rockville, Maryland, a private sector organization that oversees a human genome research program, is one such organization. The company is willing to grant access to its work for a fee. “If you were in a position to map a piece of the knowledge universe and have a lock on it, you could make a lot of money,” he says. “Access may not be expensive per use, but the aggregate over time is high.”

KIKM also is working on a project to embed the pattern array in software, which it is co-developing with a simulation and game expert in Sweden. They are looking at ways to create a game-like tool that would allow people to model their organizations and see their options and opportunities. Users would define their own environments and interests and then would be able to play with patterns that seem to fit their context best.

Davis notes that many of his clients say one of their biggest challenges in today’s knowledge economy is becoming knowledge based. The pattern array software is a way in which they could create a profile of what their company is currently like, he says. “Then they look at the 30 pathways by which to transform the company or to make progress. You could map knowledge. You could embark on a knowledge reuse program. You could go in the direction of trying to make use of knowledge markets. Depending on which choices you make, the software will take you down a road that will reveal options and opportunities to you, give you a better understanding of an approach and allow you to run new simulations. It would allow you to see how your choices play out.”

Running a simulation that has real-world input is more effective and faster than trying to map this into an organization, Davis emphasizes. “It is like being an observer of golf versus trying to play the game,” he adds. The software creates an immersive adaptive environment in which users can model and simulate their way forward.

“If you can decode a particular organization context, you can prescribe the pattern that fits that situation and lock onto the target and deliver the appropriate play,” he says. “People in the military are very tuned into this idea of pattern recognition. It’s something they experience around them. It’s in the weapons they use. We’re saying that if you’re playing the knowledge management game, that same type of thinking or constructs or weapons should be in your quiver.”

Additional information on knowledge patterns is available on the World Wide Web at