Wellspring of Knowledge

In the spruce forest behind my parents home in Sweden springs a natural well. It is so small that you don´t notice it until you almost stumble upon it. What you see is a pond of water no more than a half meter in diameter. The surface looks calm, but then you see that water is slowly emerging on to the surface from a source hidden beneath. The water is slowly flowing over the edge of the pond and spreading into the ground below it.

When we were little my brother and I sometimes used to play there. It was great fun, we could build dams in the small streams that the water formed and we sent our bark ships to each other on the water surface along it. I could see the clear water surface, but I did not think much about where the water came from.

We were forbidden to even dip our hands into the pond; in fact we were forbidden to play there, because the family depended on the pond for drinking water. The water tasted so good that my parents had refused the communal serviced water pipe when it was drawn through the village in the fifties.

The surface was clear, yet the pond so dark. If I had dared to look under the surface of the pond, lighting it with a torch, I would probably have seen a bubbling, streaming, movement of water, blended with sand and a few dangling sprouts of water lilies, but I would still not have seen the actual opening from where the water was coming.

The wellspring seems a limitless resource; my brother, who now owns the farm, still taps it for drinking water. When I visited it a couple of years ago the surface of the pond looked the same today as it always has done. But the water is not the same of course. It changes every second, still the pond looks the same, from the surface. The real value of a wellspring is its renewal rate, not in its reservoir.

Dorothy Leonard-Barton (1995) inspired me to this wellspring metaphor for an organisation´s unlimited resource of knowledge. The visible surface is the explicit knowledge, the deep dark dynamic constantly renewing pool beneath is the tacit. The visible surface of the water, explicit knowledge, is a very small proportion of he total, maybe 1% of the pond and we use it for visible communication, our ships of messages.


All our knowledge starts with a tacit process, which is unlimited scope and unknown. The explicit is only the surface of it. We know the source of the tacit knowledge, it comes from the individuals, and they are constantly renewing it. Indeed, as Michael Polanyi (1967) expresses it: “Knowledge is an activity which would be better described as a process of knowing”.

Measure for Learning!

Let me stretch the metaphor a bit. Suppose we get the task to measure the water. The solution of the task will depend on the purpose of measurement, and also on who the measurer is and his/her values.

The water engineer probably wants to know how much water there is in the pond, and how it develops over the year. Measuring the volume adds to our understanding, but only the first time. Next time the volume is roughly the same, although comprised of different atoms. To measure the atoms one by one would be desirable, but would be very costly because they change all the time. The water engineer might suggest that we can try and put a gauge that measures the input or the output stream into the water source, as an indicator of how much one might tap. How about measuring the diameter of the surface? Yes, but it measures only the visible part, and again it remains the same.

The economist would suggest that we measure the commercial value of the wellspring using dollars as our metric. There is a market for water, so it is fairly easy to find out the commercial value of water, but do we learn more about the true state(s) of the wellspring? Will we know more about where the water comes from? The quality of it? Where it ends up? The renewal rate? What we can do to improve the quality? The risks of drought? The efficiency of the actions we take for improving the wellspring?

Trying to measure the hidden source seems a better approach, but it is a risky enterprise. If the engineer helps us to drill a hole into the ground and insert an instrument we might accidentally dry out the pond.

Which one should managers listen to?

The economist’s approach seems outright silly; money indicators give at best indirect indications on a very aggregate level, but no accurate guidelines for where the companies or processes are going. And what if there is no market for the water in the area? Does that mean that, in an economic sense, the water does not exist?

Very little of knowledge has to do with money, so why measure in money terms? We must seek proxies that come closer to the source. The engineer’s approach therefore is slightly better, because it uses proxies closer to the natural processes, but it can also be quite risky since we might accidentally kill the source.

How about using a more indirect way, for instance a seismographic instrument to send sound waves down and then try and learn indirectly from the reflection?

This indirect way is what I prefer, because it is non-intrusive. The indirect approach is to design indicators which correlate to some extent with the processes we wish to monitor. And we need to come as close as possible to the source. Therefore we are better off with non-financial indicators, such as litres, litres per second, purity index, etc.

But correlations change over time, so the art of measuring knowledge is too imprecise to be used for control purposes – see the measuring process as an invitation to dialogue in our endless quest to understand the wonderful world around us.

Measure for Learning not for Control! In this way we will never destroy the Wellspring of Knowledge – only help each other to protect it and to utilise it better.

In that way we will never destroy the wellspring – only help each other to utilise it better.
©Karl-Erik Sveiby 12 February 1998, 2001. All rights reserved.