KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Metaphorically speaking

with 4 comments



“Life is like a box of chocolates”

It’s a common device to use analogies and metaphors to help explain complex or unfamiliar concepts. It can be a helpful mechanism since it can help frame something that is rather abstract or unfamiliar in the context of something that is more familiar and concrete thus making it easier to understand.

Analogies can also be a useful way to look for innovation. If you can find a good analogy for the problem you are dealing with, you might be able to extrapolate from the analogy to also find potential approaches to tackling it.

There are some great analogies out there to help explain knowledge management and how it works. Here are a couple of examples:

1. Iceberg metaphor to explain the difference between explicit and tacit knowledge

2. Complexity theory explained through a children’s party

3. Knowledge as a garden. This occurs in multiple contexts and ways so I can’t give a single good link but a common related quote is “knowledge is like a garden: if it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested.”

You might  well have your own favourite.

But a word of caution – an analogy or a metaphor is only a device. It’s not a perfect match to the issue you are trying to explain. Sometimes the choice of metaphor can have strong effects on how you think about a problem that are not related to the nature of the problem itself. See this example on how choosing different metaphors (seeing crime as a beast versus seeing crime as a virus) leads people to favour different solutions  of the best ways to tackle crime.

Similarly a recent analogy used about the US federal budget likening it to a household budget shows the limitations and dangers of applying the insights you get from analogies too blindly (as well as highlighting their potential to mislead for ideological purposes).

Right now there is an interesting discussion taking place on the KM4dev mailing list sparked by an innocent query how to set up a “knowledge bank”, which has set off a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion about whether and how knowledge can be put into a bank and to what extent KM systems are like financial systems. Maybe they are, or maybe they are not, although I wonder exactly how that will help the original inquirer to achieve her goals (it seems those of us who work on KM do like to – excuse the metaphor –  indulge in epistemological navel gazing whenever we can Smile).

So while analogies and metaphors can be highly useful in helping explain our ideas and giving us inspiration, we need to be careful to 1. pick good analogies/metaphors in the first place 2. remember they are just metaphors, not the real thing 3. make sure that we carefully test any insights or inspirations we might get from the metaphor to ensure that they hold in the real world.

Happy gardening!

Written by Ian Thorpe

February 13, 2012 at 10:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Hi Ian,

    Nice post – quick action too 🙂

    I couldn’t agree more with your point on the fact that metaphors can be great but only as a way to test and challenge ‘the real thing’ but they don’t replace it. Besides, metaphors tend to stimulate (in us) in the self-fulfilling prophecy bias – by which we just try and find factors and items that confirm our theory (metaphor in this case).
    It’s like the deck of image cards that is sometimes distributed in workshops and participants are asked to relate the image they get with the theme of the workshop. And everyone can connect the two in one way… So metaphors are great teasers but they’re indeed just that…

    All the best,


    Ewen Le Borgne

    February 13, 2012 at 11:01 am

  2. You can even use an analogy to explain the difficulties and danger of using analogies: “the map is not the country”.

    The whole issue of using analogies is actually a specific instance of the more generalised use of models. Humans are very good at using models (analogies and others), but this comes at the price of sometimes taking them too seriously.

  3. Moses could have written this blogpost:

    “You shall not make for yourself a metaphore in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below and You shall not bow down to them or worship them”

    Vincent Harris

    February 14, 2012 at 2:35 am

  4. […] that occur in the formulation and presentation of “objective, scientific data”. Like the use of metaphor, stories are a device to aid transfer of ideas – but are not the ideas or facts […]

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