7 Principles of Knowledge Management: Elephant-Style

1024 682 Roddy Carter

“Elephants never forget”. Hearing this at dinner last week, I was transported back to the peak of the Knowledge Management vogue. I remember when Fortune 500 companies were hiring smart executives to manage their organizational knowledge. I wondered if anybody had studied elephant memory to derive principles for human organizational knowledge management?

The origin of the phrase is uncertain. Several online sources postulate its birth in an Indian village in the previous century. Villagers built their homes across an elephant migration path. When the animals returned to their customary highway the following year and found human habitation blocking their way, they were enraged and trampled the village to the ground. It sounds pretty, but I’m not convinced that this is the true origin. Humans and elephants have interacted for many centuries. Hannibal entrained them into his feared army, and African hunters that pre-dated European civilizations saw them as massive, desirable feasts. Perhaps reflecting my own love of elephants, I suspect (perhaps hope would be a better word) that the phrase originates with angry elephants charging hunters that had previously inflicted damage on their herd. Sadly, even if they avenged a few animal deaths, the hunters have won the overall battle over the years!

Either way, the poetic license implicit in the phrase is based on the solid fact that elephants have extraordinary memories. There are many tales of an elephant reuniting with herd mates or human trainers, as many as 30 years after their last contact. These stories not only describe the remarkable memories of the elephants, but also their powerful emotional instincts. Stories of elephant burial rituals may be urban, or more properly, jungle legend. Whether true or not, there is little doubt that elephants are endowed with deep empathy.

These 7 principles of knowledge management will hopefully provoke some valuable reflection for you and your organization.

7 Principles of Knowledge Management

  1. Knowledge is valuable. Ancient matriarchs are critical to the survival of their herds. Their memories of the geographic, social and human environment guide their herds safely. Herds with older leaders (and presumably more memories) fare better than younger herds.
  2. Knowledge is perishable. Even the legendary elephant must systematically encode and store knowledge in their massive brains, the largest of all land mammals. Storage takes place as enduring physical changes in nerves (brain cells), a science that is as hard to explore, as it is to explain.
  3. Knowledge is fragmented and messy. The brain is a tangled ball of neurons with its own complex order. It has linear and adjacent connectivity. It has specificity of function in discrete zones. It has a degree of plasticity. It has the incredible capacity to store a single memory comprised of both sensory and cognitive elements in a multitude of centers, ordering and retrieving it as required (apparently faultlessly in the elephant, although I’m somewhat skeptical about this assertion).
  4. Knowledge Management requires hybrid solutions. In the organizational context this means people and technology. In the elephant (or human) context, it refers to the brain and its operator. Memory is a three step-process of encoding, storing and retrieving information. Similar to the human brain, the elephant’s neural headquarters is remarkably evolved. It includes a well-developed mid-brain (seat of emotion) and cerebral cortex (home of reason and cognition).
  5. Failure imprints learning better than success. Elephants are one of the few animals shown to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They retain painful memories for long periods, mourning lost friends and relatives as we do. This concurs with the scientific observation in humans that emotionally charged memories are remembered more readily, a phenomenon known to neuroscientists as “memory enhancement”.
  6. No one person is in charge. I always smiled and commiserated with the lone (and often lonely) executive charged with the responsibility of shepherding organizational memory. Elephants know this. Although the matriarch (more by assumption than quantitative analysis) has the biggest memory, she relies heavily on the collective cognitive power of the herd in decision-making. Watch a herd mill around a watering hole before deciding which direction they will head next, and you’ll understand the inclusive leadership style of this matriarchal society.
  7. Access to knowledge is only the beginning. Possibly the biggest mistake of naïve organizations and immature elephants. The repository is meaningless without its active utilization. Elephant intelligence is more than simply memory. The retention and retrieval of valuable memories, plus the reasoning and inference that go into problem solving make these gentle giants legendary, and ensures their place alongside dolphins, apes and humans on the evolutionary scale.

I hope that the lessons offered by these gentle, warm giants provoke not only further interest into these fascinating creatures, but also prompt a few valuable ideas that will enhance your organizational design and function.

Have fun,


(Roddy Carter is an executive consultant who uses nature to provide analogues for human organizational structure and function. Through the BioSimilar Programs he helps organizations select and learn from a species or environment that closely resembles their own circumstances. This is a fun way to build and implement strategy and to enhance performance. Please reach out through the connect tab at Body-Corporate.org if you’d like to explore a BioSimilar Program in your organization.)

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