Knowledge management and learning

Interesting how the terms knowledge management and learning are sometimes used almost interchangeably when they indeed refer to distinct things, as pointed out by Julie Ferguson her meta-review of literature reviews on KM. The author prepared this review in the framework of the Information / Knowledge Management emergent (IKM emergent) programme sponsored by DGIS, the Dutch Directorate for international development cooperation.
At the same time, both terms also refer to a slightly different focus: while KM is still widely used, its meaning seems to be related more closely to the first generation of KM initiatives aiming at codifying and almost “copying” knowledge from people’s heads to information databases. This is particularly the point of view of the beacons of ‘organisational learning’ who tend to have a desire to distance themselves from KM heads… Isn’t it all a question of words?

And yet, words are still resurfacing in the debates on IM, KM, learning etc. because we have not yet found a way that makes sense to everybody to explain what is the difference between learning, knowledge and information and the interaction between these three terms.

On the other hand, if I had to focus on either of the terms, I would probably choose learning. Indeed it sounds more interesting, in the sense that it is through the action of using knowledge (as opposed to e.g. managing it) that learning happens and that individual experiences and insights can be shared and more completely (but not entirely) experienced by others.

Will there be a new term to encompass knowledge management, learning and other related aspects in the future? Using just existing words, learning coordination would give more justice to the actual interests of the people working on KM (for development)… Indeed knowledge, learning etc. do not matter and interest us (me!) as such, but the capacity to use knowledge and to learn gradually to identify what is required to advance our living and social conditions is the real challenge. In this sense, learning coordination is really that good old afternoon gone fishing to understand what it takes to catch some food for one’s own consumption… words change, images stay… Images should indeed be the next KM (shall I say LC?) issue to focus on?

How do you do? How do you do-cument?

An eternal struggle in Knowledge Management remains the balancing act between actually doing things: implementing a project, organising an event, writing a case study and documenting those: reflecting about them, collecting insights, analysing them, taking a neutral role to observe what is going on.

At an individual level, it is hard enough to find the time to document a lot when taken prisoner of the ‘do-mode / do more’: work and other pressures usually have the upper hand on the struggle and the Do wins, leaving the familiar impression that it would be excellent to document what is going on against the risk of being confronted with the same situation in the future. When it comes to an organisation, roles may be split: some may be documenting the work of others while a core of ‘doers’ are actually carrying out a number of activities. Both roles are important – but it still remains hard to justify documentation against delivery.

When one adds the issue of reporting and monitoring – which for some may be felt as imposed documentation – the need to document for real learning purposes becomes even more difficult to justify and make happen. And yet it is in this documentation that the long term patterns that come back and haunt our work are to be discerned. It is in that (light) documentation that one learns how to improve the way s/he carries out his/her work.

In a number of projects where I am involved, we carry out ‘process documentation’ work, which is a very murky concept at the junction of communication and monitoring, addressing sensitive issues but not necessarily allowing to get them in the public. This is the kind of documentation that needs to inform the ‘do’ mode. While still making sense of this concept and its potential implications, one thing is clear: our motto should be “do less, document more”. It is in the documenting that one understands how one is doing and how to improve it next time. The more we do, the less we can document – until we have convinced donors that it is essential to dedicate more funding on documentation of issues, in particular processes.

In the development sector, in the absence of excellent examples, the journey has to temporarily become the end rather than the means so that we find the best journey possible to reach the ultimate end. And so among so much ado, we will have to document…