IKM emergency


Last week the IKM-Emergent working group 3 (focusing on the management of knowledge – read on to see what we mean) had two important rendezvous: IKM_logo

  • A two-day internal working group meeting (in Maastricht) to discuss past, present and future activities,
  • An afternoon public discussion (held at ISS in The Hague) to introduce the programme to anyone interested and to discuss some of the IKM work with participants.

It was an intensive and surprising three days and a sense of emergency crawled up as a subtle red thread; I’ll leave the public day for a later post and focus on areas of emergency in the first part.

I felt the emergency at different levels:

- To hold thorough conceptual discussions on the most basic term we’re playing with, knowledge;

- As a result, to redefine our group name and its focus;

- To come to a series of end-of-programme artefacts that would be produced by teams comprising members of all working groups;

- To explain the value of IKM-Emergent to as wide a group as possible;

The case of conceptual discussions surfaced several times during the discussions in Maastricht: what is knowledge indeed? Is it an intrinsic property of human beings? Is it something that we develop but keep inside of us? Is it the fruit of social learning by the combination of ideas?

Really not convinced that knowledge is this easy to represent

Really not convinced that knowledge is this easy to represent

We did not all agree on one definition and actually didn’t have a conceptual discussion about knowledge but the term would reappear at various times and confronted us with our confusion.

The only aspects we all seemed to agree on is that knowledge is not a commodity and as such cannot be transferred, stored or managed and that Michael Polanyi’s reference to tacit knowing is a useful reference to understand the concept of knowledge - even though a few of us felt that his legacy had been unfortunately instrumentalised by Nonaka and Takeuchi for the purpose of ‘capturing’ tacit knowledge, which had generated countless KM initiatives seeking to find an illusion (and indeed countless disillusioned people in the post-KM-fad hangover phase).

For my part, I do think that knowledge has two meanings – but as usual on this blog I only offer my views to engage and explore them further with you, not as a truth:

a) Knowledge is the sum of our experiences contained in our head in a semi-structured way, i.e. with many associations and interconnections between words – hence the importance of language in knowledge processes and learning. The key word could be tacit knowing. I like the use of a verb, it’s geared towards an action, and it then feels as if knowledge in this sense is a latent capacity that can be called upon when necessary. This leads me to my second meaning of knowledge.

b) Knowledge could be the avatar or appearance that the interaction between the knowledge mentioned above and an external stimulus takes. In other words we combine those stimuli (by reading, thinking, talking with other people) with our own knowledge (meaning #1) to further explore it and provide a response to the stimulus, or not. This ‘knowledge’ (#2) is influenced by our skills and attitude to create knowledge. If we don’t want to invoke this knowledge, we just don’t. Keywords here are: knowledge generation (or development), combination, application, sharing, social learning.

c) Sometimes knowledge takes even a third meaning when referring to knowledge about a given topic, in which sense it seems (to me) to refer to the collective sum of humans’ experiences and insights with a given field. E.g. ‘knowledge about ancestral rainwater harvesting is vanishing’.

So, on the basis of the first two suggested definitions above, yes I think we have knowledge in ourselves but social learning (or knowledge sharing) is certainly a powerful enabler of new combinations of our respective knowledge (in the first sense) and hence of our capacity to react to stimuli.

Overall, in the absence of a consensus, the discussion goes on in IKM-Emergent and to my feeling pretty much everywhere in the KM world.

A side consequence of this kind of discussion is that most of us in this working group 3 are not really happy with our group label (the management of knowledge). Indeed the term management is oxymoronically related to knowledge: whether you have the perspective that knowledge is personal or that it comes out of social interaction, it cannot be managed; at best its sharing could be facilitated. To help us, Mike Powell, programme director, suggested instead referring to the management of development and its particular relation with knowledge.

And while at redefining our group focus, we also feel that learning in the development sector should not focus only on organisations – usually seen as the central unit for KM and learning – but also on the two ends of that spectrum: personal learning and social learning at a wider scale: in inter-institutional communities of practice, in networks, in multi-stakeholder processes, in human systems at large. The work that will start in 2010 will address these issues even further.

The emergency around the end products of IKM-Emergent is simply because the programme is coming to an end in 2011 and while all working groups have been developing a myriad of activities (see the latest newsletter issue to discover them), these should start converging, at least to some extent, to extract some key insights, suggestions and ideas that will form the legacy of IKM-Emergent, hopefully presented in compelling ways.

In any workshop, event, programme, intervention that includes social learning, there is usually a sequence of divergence – groaning – convergence and I guess we just have to let it all happen as our IKM-E multiple knowledge mix is gently simmering for now. We have put some ideas on the table already and the 1.5 years to come will leave us more time to develop these into exciting initiatives.

IKM-E in the groaning phase? (From Sam Kaner et al.)

IKM-E in the groaning phase? (From Sam Kaner et al.)

Finally, the emergency that’s perhaps felt least but sounds really important to me is to engage a much wider audience around the insights and ideas of the programme.

There have already been a number of public events but I feel we could engage ever more people into our work to let them own and combine the ideas into other relevant ventures.

The urgency is also in releasing more and more of the outputs publicly, in a regular stream of papers, videos, extracts from workshops etc. (and I’m on a personal crusade here to encourage the use of Twitter to quickly share these releases and the insights that come out of our research). Otherwise, there could be a high risk to release wonderful end-of-programme publications without much hope for their use, simply because audiences find it out later without the context. And this gets back to my eternal question of the key KM challenge: shall we focus on point-in-time information that reaches more people but superficially or on dynamic knowledge-sharing and joint action learning on issues that reach fewer people though much more deeply…

IKM-Emergent hasn’t found an answer yet for all these issues, but it grows with the confidence of a self-adaptive organism that is about to shed an old skin and reinvent itself under another avatar, or perhaps a set of avatars, keeping truthful to the multiple knowledges that it wishes to serve. Keep watching the IKM-E wiki, and let us know if you’d like to reflect with us!

the ideas

Cycles, circles and ripples of learning


Last Monday, I gave a one-day workshop [1] on knowledge management, learning and cooperation to help an organisation (and wannabe network) to harness opportunities and to address existing gaps, while focusing on a long term vision that inspires them.

It was a very valuable and useful experience at many levels, not least because it gave me a chance to review my own KM basics and to consider the big picture of learning again… a luxury I don’t often have, being involved in many different projects and activities (and I’m not even emphasising the constant attention spam that Twitter and other means provide).

Perhaps a specifically interesting point for me was the particular combination of learning cycles, circles and ripples (even though I didn’t mention this as such during the workshop) which may be strong drivers to successful learning initiatives and environments:

The learning cycles refer to the sense of continually engaging in iterative cycles of learning where doing is connected to observing to reflecting to reforming (taking on board new insights, ideas) and to planning again to doing again etc. (entering a new cycle).

This is simple ABC of learning and there are plenty of different learning cycles out there – just google a simple image search on learning cycle and you end up with quite a few hits.

One of the many learning cycles one can find on Google

One of the many learning cycles one can find on Google

The circles are perhaps better referred to as learning loops: single, double and triple. There was a recent discussion about these loops on the Pelican initiative mailing list and Irene Guijt mentioned a very nice example of these three learning loops in an article by Marleen Marleveld and Constant Dangbégnon [2] – freakingly dated from as far as 1998!!!

It is useful to use…

  1. Single loop learning: to analyse if we have achieved the goals we set out to achieve and potentially revise our approach to do the same better. This, to me is about being efficient.
  2. Double loop learning: to analyse the assumptions that led us to define a particular goal (and potentially revise the basis of our activities, in other words to do different things to have a better effect. This, to me, is about being effective – but perhaps as a point in time.

    Single / double / triple loop learning

    Single / double / triple loop learning

  3. Triple loop learning: to analyse how we can continually be effective by learning to learn. This concept is only half-baked I think but what seems important is that it is the precondition to being dynamically relevant, i.e. relevant all the time, by reinventing ourselves regularly to come up with the most appropriate way (possible to us) to respond to or anticipate on our environment. The interesting aspect of triple loop learning is the emphasis on transforming oneself and on the importance of questioning oneself deeply to assess what may prevent us from learning more deeply (hence from being yet more relevant).

Finally, the ripples are the different levels at which we are learning, and using the fruit of learning, since there is not much point in learning if not applying its fruits: by ourselves as individuals, with internal teams we’re working directly with, the wider organisation within which we are operating and finally the wider ripples of outsiders we work or interact with. Of course this is a simple picture and we can imagine a much more complex series of learning interactions with various groups in various activities. But the point is: learning happens at different junctions and the interaction of our ripples sharpens it.

How wide are your learning ripples?

How wide are your learning ripples?

With all these elements in hand, we get the following picture:

Cycles are concerned with the direct actions around us; circles are stretching us internally while ripples are stretching our surroundings. Therefore it is in the combination of these learning cycles, circles and ripples that learning reaches out to all its dimensions and it is in that combination that learning becomes indeed a vast and deep sea we all dive in.

On the sideline, after looking at these pictures it is difficult to think of learning as a square matter. Of the importance of circles in human societies… that would be an interesting blog post to track or write.

In the meantime, the next week will be all about circles and it sounds promising: I will be attending a meeting of the IKM-Emergent programme where we’ll be discussing progress so far and planning exciting activities for the next phase. More to come on this very soon – perhaps directly from Maastricht where we’ll be holding the workshop. For now, I’ll call this a day and use my (bi)cycle to get back home…

Additional notes

[1] Although I’m not proud of the design of my presentations (I don’t like Powerpoint, even if I recognise its usefulness and the fact that it’s possible to create amazing presentations with it), but still find hereby the main presentation I gave in a quick and dirty way.

[2] Check section 2.2.2 in http://www.iwe.wur.nl/NR/rdonlyres/9B516255-D70C-4A86-855B-40E57BDBAC59/49433/Maarleveld.pdf.

Related blog posts:

Overlapping ripples: learning together

Overlapping ripples: learning together

Using dissent as a driver


These days it’s difficult to get away from the Twittermania, but I will refrain from doing so on this post and go against the stream, perhaps indirectly proving the point of dissent as a driver.

So what about dissent? Why do I want to talk about this? It started all with some simple ideas about interpersonal communication. In an old post about emergence and complexity I mentioned that I disagreed with the approach of a colleague of mine who seems to seek arguments with the people that don’t agree with his points of view.  He argues that it makes discussions and work all the more interesting. I assume he says so because it would help explore arguments more deeply and because if everyone agrees there is no need to look for more insights.

I agree with this – but only partly. There are a few interesting angles to this:

a)      Yes it can be interesting to seek arguments and work with people that disagree with you, because you then need to articulate (and make sense of) your own logic a lot more strongly. In fact, making a digression, I think that many French people have inherited this tradition of verbal jousting and this perhaps explains partly why the French are considered arrogant by many others. There are some facilitation methods based on arguments and dissent (e.g. the ritual dissent introduced on Dave Snowden’s website, or event the six-thinking-hat – see a description on mindtools.com)

b)      It is all the more important to seek arguments with people if there is a tension that prevents from progressing. Sometimes a good fight is the best start of a solution as it deflates tensions held up to the chest and opens issues for discussion – in other words, avoiding conflict can sometimes block the situation and leave all parties unsatisfied, and in those circumstances there’s nothing like a good conflict.

c)       It is also interesting to work with those that don’t believe in your work because it is of little value to preach to converts and because it is in the interaction between various publics – at the edges of silos – that real innovation happens.

Where to strike the balance between productive and pointless arguing?

Where to strike the balance between productive and pointless arguing?

Yet I see other sides to it:

a)      On the one hand there are other ways to gather insights: in a typical face-to-face KM4DEV discussion, I see a lot of respect for each other’s point of view and although people may not agree with one another, they hardly ever argue with one another. Instead, they end up plugging ideas on top of each other, exploring the issue together, each from their angle and using their own experience and expertise. Another digression here: seating arrangements can have a definite impact on the kind of discussion: having chairs facing each other conducts to more arguments; having chairs side by side facing something else conducts to more ‘plug-up’ exploratory dialogues. See this fascinating article on seating arrangements: http://www.jstor.org/pss/974403 (login required for full reading).

b)      Cherishing arguments as a de facto discussion perspective is likely to generate arguments for the sake of it and irritate people around. It is a self-reinforcing mechanism that can also curb trust, which is one of the beds of learning…

Perhaps more than seeking arguments, what matters is simply seeking a variety of points of views, perspectives, walks of life – creating a balanced team of very different individuals that can help each other in complex tasks. And perhaps quite simply this is the idea behind dissent as a potential driver.

If this is really the case, it’s good news for IKM-Emergent and the quest for multiple knowledges, as well as for multi-stakeholder process such as learning alliances.

And just to end on almost another digression: as I like to provide some more reading on the topics I blog about, I sometimes also look for additional info and this time, while writing this post, I came across this article about how to write strong arguments and this one on how to disagree. In fact, both articles are pretty much the same except the former introduces the text in a visual way (and makes it a lot stronger)… Here’s a nice link to a promised post on visualisation techniques…

Gardening in organisations: how to cultivate expertise and make it blossom


It’s almost summer and the nature is at its most luxuriant, even in Holland – so famous for its Dutch summer (rain, rain and more rain). The case of Holland (and by Holland I actually mean what it is: the Western provinces of the Netherlands) is quite interesting because it is an area that has been very much claimed from the sea through the ages (see the maps). One of the consequences is that Holland cultivates its landscapes and this engineering leaves mixed feelings of dismay (for such an artificial result) and awe (for the masterful work of organising one’s own land).

The Netherlands around 1000 AD

The Netherlands around 1000 AD

The Netherlands now (and their underwater lands)

The Netherlands now (and their underwater lands)

When it comes to organisational capabilities, is the Dutch example good to follow? Should we also cultivate those capabilities or let them grow wildly in the confidence that mother nature and father open space will anyway bring the best out of everyone – or the best purpose anyhow – ?

I’m rather pro-nature and open space, but on the other hand, learning doesn’t come by itself, and in order to boost organisational capabilities (let’s say the business processes and thematic expertise that an organisation possesses through its staff), a tad of capacity gardening could really turn a wild bush into a beautiful self and cross-fertilising garden…

In an organisation like IRC, where chaos is at times a matter of pride because it allows the best ideas to come naturally to the fore, a wee bit of cultivating expertise could also be a welcome move. With a high emphasis on innovation and a low staff base (50 people!), it is difficult to avoid relying on one person pooling some expertise around one theme. And I bet the case of IRC is not isolated…

So what can our organisational learning gardeners propose to make us and our organisations blossom?

  • How about coming up with a good encyclopaedia of the plants or at least an idea of what plants you want in your garden? Having a sense of the capabilities and being able to define these areas of expertise would be a good first step. The framework provided by ECDPM and Peter Morgan (see my stock-taking post on capacity development) offers some avenues.
  • Once you know what you want in your garden, you can read some more on the specifics of each plant to let them grow the best way: knowing who you work with, realising their added value to the organisation and the specific touch that they bring. A good recruitment policy looks carefully at a) the competencies that a person brings and b) the kind of working environment that could allow those competencies to come to the fore and flourish.
  • Then how about planting those flowers and trees that you want in your garden and watering them on a regular basis? ‘Planting’ workers (inviting them to the organisational environment when they start working) requires a dedicated and adapted introduction programme that helps their own roots find their ways through the organisation. The watering comes with shared vision, communication, reassurance, giving feedback (see this interesting post on giving feedback) etc.
  • And while at that, how about looking at the natural alliances between certain plants and trees: some like the shadow, others the warmth, others the protection from the wind, so pair them and get the most out of it. This is where you can organise teams according to the individual styles. I don’t have a final answer on this one, but I believe that recognising team roles such as Belbin’s is not necessarily bad; we all have our hunches, we all have our styles and putting up teams of clones doesn’t help (even though it makes it easier) – a nice link to the forthcoming post on dissent as a driver.
  • Every now and then, they may need a bit of pruning and trimming to make sure they keep beautiful and can reach out to the sun without having to fight for it with one another: a good personal development strategy and regular training or other capacity development activities would help to keep your staff interested and able to adapt to changing circumstances.
  • But the real deal is to get the cross-pollination to multiply your plants, grow taller trees, stronger bushes and more beautiful flowers. There are lots of examples of approaches and tools enabling cross-pollination from exchange visits to peer coaches, to communities of practice, joint missions, on-site training, job rotation etc. just find what your bees and butterflies enjoy most, where they thrive, and keep experimenting…
The real proof of the blossoming is in the pollinating

The real proof of the pollinating is in the blossoming

So while the Spring and Summer months are exhibiting the lush nature of nature itself, let’s see what we can do to keep our gardens beautiful and strong, self-regenerating and yes, also wild – because a French style garden is prone to wither and die when the only entitled gardener goes away.

And you know what? Having green fingers comes with touching earth, so come down from that cloud and meddle through the dirt and mud… mother nature knows how to gratify its children.

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