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

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. Hi

    I agree that IKM emergent as a research project that is focusing on knowledge clarify its main concepts. I see some problems, for example
    – Customers that come to us (wearing my Library Wageningen UR hat) who want to use our content in their portals / websites (Sheep net, Pigs’ net, whatever) usually call their system a knowledge network where they would have called it information network 5 years ago. If a word is often used it is bound to be used with different meanings.

    I recently reread a papaer by Niels Roeling who introduced the concept Agricultural Knowledge Networks. If ‘knowledge’ is a questionable concept, ‘knowledge networks’ sound even more scary. But the concept is much more lucid: he uses it to point those people and institutions (schools, extension services, research stations etc.) that interact todo something with knowledge, as opposed to other networks that exist to buy or sell stuff, grow things together or get laws though or withdrawn.
    Knowledge is used here to qualify what kind of a network it is, and if there is no need to be very clear about the concept knowledge, not more than about the concept “stuff”. The network itself is built of people.
    My problem is with the concept knowledge as separate from people, something etherical foating around.
    If I am seen as a carrier of knowledge it makes me feel a bit like a piece of “self-loading cargo” (that is how some airlines describe their passengers, only when they are amongst themselves of course……)

  2. Hi Hugo,

    Again thank you for your challenging thoughts and frank observations. I share them to a large degree and particularly like your analogy with describing a horse. Yet I still see two reasons why it’s good to hold those conceptual discussions:

    – Research is meant (in my opinion), among others, to investigate and unpack ideas, hypotheses and approaches and make them more useful to either understand and hopefully to apply. In this respect I think IKM-E should engage in these discussions.

    – It is helpful for some people with a certain learning style (i.e. tell me first and I will try it) to have some basic understanding of what we’re playing around with, in this case knowledge, KS etc. Even if we limit ourselves to metaphors, images and the likes that can help those learners engage instead of stepping away in puzzlement.

    And perhaps the link between the two is that leaving unclarity leads to many practices starting on an odd foot (even if that can be a powerful learning opportunity): The realisation that knowledge cannot be stocked came a.o. from so many K=stock KM initiatives that failed miserably.

    Perhaps the key is just to combine the analysis of practices – successful or not – and a parallel theoretical exploration of the concepts that underlie these practices?

    This short dialogue is another form of contribution, don’t you think?

  3. Hi Ewen

    You challenged me to give suggestions how to get more clarity about concepts used in the IKM emergent context. I assume these concepts are knowledge and possible multiple knowledges. You are asking this from a natural skeptic, and I am particularly skeptic about about concepts like knowledge or truth. That does not imply that I find all processes initiated under KM/KS banners useless, but I am not convinced that those banners were indispensable, i.e. that they could not have happened without that banner.

    So all I can offer is this skepticism. And I believe that there is nothing like empiricism. So: describe a number of events in development organisations where people started stepping out of their settled ways. Try to describe them in “natural language”, without philosophical or scientific jargon, and then describe them introducing the (undefined) term knowledge or knowledges. If introducing the terms knowledge or knowledges gives an insight that one can not get without it, you may have found a property of “knowledge”. If that fails, you will at least have described in a systematic way the sort of processes that IKM is expected to deal with.

    It is a bit like the first time one comes across a horse: one needs a word for it in order to discuss it, and investigate how it is different than other four-legged animals

    Not sure if this helps


  4. Hi Hugo,

    Thanks for your comments! I agree with you entirely on a number of points:
    – philosophers have been writing about knowledge and learning and are better placed than us to keep doing that;
    – Describing KM/KS is largely more useful than having philosophical discussions on the terms behind;
    – KM/KS is not about the financial status of organisations;
    – The very process of discussing knowledge etc. is more useful than the end result.

    Yet this leads me to think that precisely because the discussion process (about K, L etc.) matters, we shouldn’t leave it aside as something unimportant. I don’t think the quest for 100% sense is a useful objective, but reducing unclarity and avoiding fallacies such as ‘knowledge can be managed’ is valuable.

    And think about many people entering the field of KM/KS: For many starters in any given field, getting a sense of boundaries behind concepts is a handy first step, even though the reality is a lot more complex than those boxes in which we put concepts. But a firm ground helps explore the soft edges and revisit the firm ground later on. In other words, having a firmer theory of what knowledge is can be helpful to discover that that theory perhaps doesn’t work and, more importantly why. This is action research, trying and testing, failing, reviewing and trying again… And even for those that have been investing the field, getting back to basics can be a powerful source of ‘ha ha moments’ – when we review our own theory of action – double loop learning surely has its value, doesn’t it?

    Being a research programme dedicated to knowledge management, IKM-Emergent cannot really afford to avoid these conceptual discussions. It can add some light, along many other sources, to the theory and to the practices that derive from that theory.

    Does this make sense to you? How do you deal with the clarity that some people require around these concepts? What can we do to strike a balance between the need for more conceptual clarity and steering away from philosophical verbose? Any tips?

  5. Just came across this, a belated comment:

    I wonder if it is useful to want to know about knowledge: can “knowledge” be subject and object at the same time? A bit like Epenenides’ paradox (the cretan who said the Cretas are liars) but the other way around. Maybe best to leave those discussions to such philosophers; they are doing it for millenia so be must be good at it.

    I believe the KM/KS movement is working on things that are more here and now, and it is more useful to descibe those
    – it is about the subject content of what development organisations are doing
    – it is not about the financial side of these organisations, and seldom about their formal organization

    There is something else about knowing that I realise now. When I was trying to understand KM/KS I read Wikipedia entries. I learned more from the discussions (where the authors write whayt they are not certain about) than from the entries themselves (where authors write what they think they know)
    Yet another paradox

  6. Hi Joitske, yes, I recognise this and it’s exactly the reason why I think we need to come up with better definitions, certainly being this dedicated KM research project. More widely, I think it’s useful to go back and explore the concepts of knowledge, knowledge management etc. on a regular basis because a lot of different disciplines toy with them and use different definitions.
    That is ok in itself (use the definition that works for you and keep exploring it!) but when you work on KM and focus so much on practices and ideas related to these concepts you need greater clarity about what you’re talking about.
    So, I’m happy to discuss it too and with you 🙂 Thanks for passing by!

  7. Hi Ewen, I’m happy you discussed the concepts as I think we got really confused working with IKM.. At times I wondered whether IKM used concepts without wanting to adopt mainstream definitions- if you have alternative frames and thinking you may need to use a new vocabulary too. Recognize this?

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