Knowledge as a process: Interview with George Siemens

This year’s keynote speaker at Online Educa Berlin, George Siemens, is a leading theorist on the implications of technology and societal trends for learning and knowledge. He is founder and President of Complexive Systems Inc., a learning lab that assists organizations in developing integrated learning structures to meet the needs of global strategy execution. He consults with international organizations, government agencies, universities, museums, and non-profit groups. In the following interview, he tells us about the exciting development process of his new book and website “Knowing Knowledge” ( and invites ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2006 attendees to contribute to his keynote speech at the opening plenary.

Your book “Knowing Knowledge”, which will be published in October, was developed in a non-traditional process. Could you explain what that means?

Instead of an extensive writing/editing/publishing process – often in excess of eighteen months – I adopted a democratic, end-user-controlled process. My intent with “Knowing Knowledge” was to initiate a conversation. Much of what I claim in the book centers on the changing context and characteristics of knowledge. Instead of seeing knowledge as only a product like a book, a course, or formula, I suggest that it is more of a process; we should understand knowledge as a river not a reservoir. It didn’t seem sensible to state that knowledge is moving too fast to be held in traditional products and then write a book in traditional form. I opted to write the book through a fairly open, transparent model and enable readers to revise, update, or re-write the text in a wiki. In a world where knowledge is continually being updated and rewritten, many books risk obsolescence by the date of publication.

What was your idea behind it?

My main idea was to invite people into a conversation about what’s changing with knowledge and what it means to organizations today. To understand and dialogue about these changes is vital to our economic and societal development. Knowledge is the central driving force determining organizational success and innovation. As I state in the book, the structures and spaces in which we organize our businesses and ourselves are shifting rapidly.

The product view of knowledge is too prominent in education and business climates today. This view essentially treats knowledge as an entity that we acquire and incorporate into our work. It assumes that knowledge has a known structure and shape. Our task is to find and use it, but life is not like that. In today’s complex world, knowledge and learning are primarily about connections – knowing to whom and where to go, seeing the continuums and shades of knowledge instead of a monochromatic view. These connections form a rich, adaptive model of functioning – where changes in the context or environment are filtered through the network to create an accurate view of changes.

When we take knowledge and integrate it into our work habits, it creates organizational ripple effects. These ripples change the context in which knowledge is used. If our view of knowledge doesn’t account for these changes – that is, if we hold that knowledge is a static entity that we simply implement – we may end up with obsolete or outdated knowledge. In a global environment, this can have a catastrophic impact on an organization. We have seen this recently in media and news fields where executives didn’t sense the changed needs of consumers and continued to offer the same product in the same methods. Newspapers and music companies are experiencing continual decline. People still read and listen to music, but they do so in a manner that affords greater personal control. People are willing to pay, but only on their terms, in their context.

In training and education markets, I argue that we are approaching a stage where our methods of learning and knowledge sharing no longer align with what employees need today. If we don’t start pursuing different models, we will make costly errors due to misreading the market, trends, or our own ability to compete in a global marketplace. In order to move the conversation of changed characteristics and context of knowledge to the widest possible audience, I opted to provide the book for free download – in addition to purchase – and allow readers to re-write the book in a wiki.

Where do you see the main benefits for your readers?

The main benefit for the reader is the opportunity to dialogue with peers. An author typically provides a framework to a conversation or gives voice to emerging trends. Unfortunately, in the one-way flow of traditional publishing, readers are not able to share their wisdom and experiences with the author.

In “Knowing Knowledge”, I created the construct of a conversation about knowledge, and I’m inviting readers to dialogue about their own experiences – to share case studies, successes, failures, and visions. I am looking forward to learning from the readers as they move from passive recipients of someone else’s viewpoints to active participants in an important and needed conversation. We can only revise our existing approaches for so long until further revisions no longer make sense. We need a new model. I believe we are now at a point where we need to rethink how we learn and share knowledge organizationally – and examine how those changed processes impact our ability to compete and achieve strategic goals.

At ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2006, you are going to elaborate your idea of the changing nature of knowledge and your thoughts about how organizations and society need to adapt to this process. Participants can help to “build the keynote”. How can participants contribute, and what can they expect?

The wiki will allow ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2006 registrants to “build” my keynote. I will post a few concepts that I would like to tackle for the conference and will then request individuals to share their ideas, thoughts, and concerns. Learners can post directly to the wiki or carry on a dialogue on different aspects of the keynote. Participants can expect that their comments will be reflected in the creation of a keynote that is more relevant to their concerns than a canned presentation. I also hope that it will enable me to form a bit of a relationship with ONLINE EDUCA participants in advance of the keynote.

The interview was conducted by Beate Kleessen.

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