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:
- 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?
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.
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!