The one true KM challenge

As I view mailing list threads dedicated to KM, read documents about KM, talk with colleagues and partners about KM, work on KM programmes, it is becoming clear to me that the one main challenge we are struggling with is this:

How much should we try to document (i.e. observe, analyse, write and arguably stock) experiences to make them accessible to others and how much should we just share by talking or acting together?

Obviously both are needed. We need to talk and do things because it is the way we are creating sense and indeed turning information into knowledge. To me this is by far the most powerful way to learn: talking with and practicing about. But at the same time, the bias of talking / acting together is one of scale: we cannot share verbally with all people nor work together with them all. There is a certain degree of necessity in codifying / documenting / capitalising on what we have experienced to make it accessible to others – so that they don’t spend the same time making the same mistakes and end on the same results, but instead focus on the follow up to our own actions.

Now the trick is really that increasing amounts of information are available and as we have increased opportunities to communicate with more people, carry out various tasks at the same time, our time is reduced to read. And indeed people read less and less. So how to make the codified information useful, in a format and with content that is appealing to those who may enjoy the fruits of our experiences? And even what information is useful to document? Is it better to provide hands-on guides on a particular practice/experience or simply to indicate where more information can be found about it? Because knowledge is so much dependent on the previous experiences, personal view of the world, and immediate sense of purpose for which we will use information, is it even useful to make how to’s and other solidified knowledge? In many cases, how to’s end up being either so general that they are at best common sense check lists or so specific that they are not useful in other contexts. What always seems useful are the practical cases in which the context is created.

Is it not better to document instead emerging patterns? The cracks and holes of our paradigms? The unachieved or yet unspoken of? Documenting that information could be more useful to creating a framework for accommodating more useful knowledge. In other words, instead of trying to ‘make knowledge’ available as in statements (or rather ‘affirmations’ in French), we could instead propose emerging questions, insights and doubts to help the quest for knowledge more than the knowledge itself.

It strikes me now that we (here meant as KM4D practitioners) are aware that we  are not trying to single out knowledge and to put it in a jar, but still our quest for consolidated knowledge makes us forget that what matters is the learning process, not what we have learnt. And the codification / consolidation of knowledge is perhaps mostly a question of getting it organised on a personal level… at least until we find an example of an organisation that has consolidated all its experience and practices in a directly useful way to its employees and audience.

Until we find that example, I will keep for more examples of how to consolidate information well and why or in what conditions…


Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. Good article. I am quite interested in how much of the contextual knowledge surrounding the documents we create and use can only be communicated directly, how much of it can be captured and stored digitally, and strategies for capturing what can be captured.

    One idea – the idea that guided us in developing our contribution to knowledge management software, the Dekstrus DNE – is that if you work with software that manages what you do as process, rather than just managing the documents you produce as a result of processes that exist only in your head (or are laid out in some other document somewhere else), then there is no extra work involved in sharing the whole process you followed over and above sharing the documents you finally produced.

    So what we did was apply modeling paradigms to knowledge management, and apply knowledge management paradigms to modeling, to create a solution that is, we think, the best of both. You manage your knowledge directly on maps that show the context(s) in which that knowledge is valuable: where the knowledge came from, how it was used, etc. Call up a file, you get the file plus a map showing you how that file got produced and how it got used.

    We think it’s quite a useful tool for knowledge sharing, especially in situations like employee turnover, where one-on-one communication is often no longer possible. But a big benefit is that the knowledge-sharing benefits are a by-product of using a more efficient tool for their own work. People aren’t spending time (that could be spent on another task) sharing – they build their maps in order to manage their own tasks as they perform them. The fact that the maps end up being sharable is just a bonus. This is a big plus in terms of a company’s KM commitment, because it means they don’t need to invest themselves in a big KM push in order to get a big KM advantage.

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