Of late, I’ve taken up a habit of interviewing people I find interesting for this blog:
- Jocelyne Yennenga Kompaore on pioneering KM in Burkina Faso;
- Carl Jackson on new trends of facilitation and collective meaning-making;
- Ann Waters-Bayer on social learning and farmer-led innovation;
- Michael Victor on the blurred boundaries between communication, knowledge management, monitoring and evaluation etc.
- Krishan Bheenick (upcoming) on finding a balance between information vs. knowledge management.
But this time I am the one interviewed. It’s interesting to see how someone approaches you with a specific angle and interest, which may be very different to your own hobby horses and headlights – a useful experience to keep in mind and relate better to my own interviewees in the future.
In this brand new APQC interview, I was asked to answer a few questions related to knowledge transfer and the difficulties of the neglected field of communication. A couple of points I’d like to emphasise here:
- Although the title mentions ‘knowledge transfer’, I already explained before that I don’t think ‘knowledge transfer’ is possible – based on a certain definition of knowledge.
- The interview relates to the wider field of KM, not necessarily the sub-domain of KM ‘for development’, with its long history of failures (but also all the opportunities that come with that), which probably explains why a lot of the KM projects I am referring to may not have such clear-cut goals and objectives.
APQC recently chatted with Ewen Le Borgne, senior editor of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal, about why communication is a key part of transferring and applying critical knowledge.
Ewen Le Borgne is knowledge sharing and communication specialist at the International Livestock Reseearch Institute, senior editor of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal, and core group member of the global Knowledge Management for Development community of practice. You can read his blog Agile KM for me..and you or follow him on Twitter at@ewenlb.
If you would like to learn more about transferring and applying critical knowledge, you can listen to our free webinar: 12 Best Practices to Transfer and Apply Critical Knowledge.
In a great blog post you said: “Communication and KM are ‘secondary processes,’ which means they are not central operations. As a result they are sometimes underestimated, understaffed and under-budgeted.” In our study, the best-practice organizations structure systematic knowledge elicitation as a time-bound event with clear goals, milestones, responsibilities, and outcomes. It seems so simple but why don’t all organizations lay out clear goals and objectives from the start of some KM projects?
Because KM had its chance a while back, failed because of the passion for tools, and is now finding it difficult to gain ground again. A lot of organizations don’t understand KM well enough and thus “shoot in the dark,” oversell it, and further down the line under-deliver. They are not seeing KM as part and parcel of normal operations but as either a) a special unit that will solve all their problems or b) a “mainstream” thing that doesn’t get accounted for anyway and thus leaves it up to anyone (aka no one) to do it right.
What is the main reason some organizations don’t have a clear line of communication for transferring knowledge?
The No. 1 reason might be that learning and reflecting take time to become an embedded practice. Most people go through their (professional) lives without paying so much attention to that practice. As a result, they don’t learn to look around and use existing stuff. I think the whole trick is really to encourage that personal KM and collective KM through regular reflection, reviews, etc.
Can you elaborate on your point that engaging trusted colleagues around the idea that communication/KM is a slow process that feeds off “little successes” and cooperation at all levels?
In some ways, (most) critical knowledge tends to make its way naturally to the people who need it, because they need it badly and find that knowledge wherever it is. The culture of spreading little successes and cooperation at all levels takes a lot more time, always. But if it works in certain teams—where management shows true leadership and people find a good, conducive peer support atmosphere for their work—it can more easily trickle down into wider units of the organization.
What I mean is that there are people who will “get” KM (whatever it’s portrayed as) and others who won’t. You can more easily create a culture that is conducive to it without the latter group involved, and you need to build on early wins that you socialize so that others see the value of your (KM) work. You build on these small successes for the culture. As for the critical knowledge that needs to be handled properly, the best option is to quickly identify it (knowledge needs) and to run mini-projects that focus specifically on addressing those key knowledge needs. The problems surge when an organization embarks on an ambitious KM program that requires a significant change of culture to be successful.
You mention that KM can be easy prey for budget cutters because the results aren’t clear. Do you have an example or experience where “little successes” helped save a KM program from the ax?
Not really in that way, because I never worked on KM programs that focused just on KM. I’ve always included KM in broader activities, and whenever I focused more specifically on KM I linked it back to the rest of the organization or program in some way. However, rather than examples of KM programs being saved from the ax, I have examples of where KM activities led to much bigger programs (i.e., scaling up KM)—for example, from an initial KM assessment of a previous initiative on water projects in West Africa (by USAID) to a large program with a significant component on KM, or from the modest design and facilitation of some workshops at the onset of another USAID-funded program (on agriculture in Africa) to carving out extra resources to make sure that communication/KM/facilitation of events and processes would support the entire program because the donors loved the inputs we provided in designing/facilitating/documenting/acting upon the workshops.
Finally, our best-practice organizations make sure stakeholders are explicitly accountable for contributing and applying knowledge. What is the best way to communicate and implement this in a positive way?
LEAD BY EXAMPLE: Start it from the management—if, and only if, they lead by example themselves. This means that in many organizations it’s just not going to fly because management is too ensconced in the old ways and doesn’t grab the opportunities of this era to empower employees to take hold of key business conversations, positively influence them, and do something with the outcomes of these conversations.
CONNECT CONVERSATIONS AND KEEP SHARING: I believe in personal knowledge management (PKM) also, and part of PKM suggests that we use our social networks (our personal learning networks) to expand the circle of our conversations. I think smart organizations can encourage a knowledge sharing/applying culture by allowing their employees to use their networks and connect them to their work conversations. That encourages sharing more and more, outside but eventually also inside the company.
DEVELOP A LEARNING CULTURE: Ensuring the “apply knowledge” aspect is more difficult because there are strong drivers working against it. Most people don’t like to look back at what others have done (e.g., applying existing insights from past experiences), and some make a point not to do so, so as to reinvent the wheel and leave their own stamp on the work. The (long-term) way to ensure that past knowledge is applied is to develop a learning culture by multiplying spaces and ways for people to engage, share, and reflect: brown bag seminars, learning retreats, online conversations and consultations, mentoring and peer-support, peer assists, after action reviews and the like, interactive workshops and meetings that focus on engagement/participation and learning. All the while, the trick is to exercise good practice—looking back at past experiences, systematic documentation, and proper facilitation—to ensure all voices are invited, etc. And back to PKM: Encourage personal reflection, blogging, diary-keeping, personal content curation, etc. This helps everyone get into the habit of processing the information they need to stay on top of their field, and they can use some of that personal routine for collective work too.
INDUCT NEW STAFF PROPERLY AND PAIR STAFF TO WORK TOGETHER. Perhaps that’s just part of the previous point but induction programs, joint work, and buddy-systems or mentoring programs are excellent ways to ensure the application of knowledge. Having knowledge sharing explicitly mentioned in the Terms of Reference for a given position may help, but norms are always less effective than practices (such as getting a mentor and mentee together to reflect on work).
I love interviews, so let me know if you want to be interviewed (or perhaps interview me?) ;)