Harvesting insights (1): back to (KM) basics

As mentioned in my previous blog post, I have set out to distil some of the key insights that are in my view at the crux of the success (or failure) of many KM and learning initiatives. What are the most essential insights I have gathered over the last few years working on knowledge and learning? This is a modest attempt at making some of my experience available to others but also to synthesise those years of work into insights that are easier to absorb.

Summer harvesting works also for insights (Photo credits: ToniVC)
Many of these insights or messages seem trivial, yet overlooking them results in no trivial consequence. And the reality offers contradictions which are as just as trivial as my insights. As anything on this blog, this is a try-out and if you think there is a point in working on this ‘harvesting insights’ series, I will work on a handful of posts – there will surely be a sequel to this one anyway. If I’m totally missing the point, please be kind enough to tell me too!


For this initial post, let’s zoom in on some insights about the basics of knowledge management and learning:

  • Managing knowledge is impossible. The very term of knowledge management emphasises the possibility to manage knowledge but knowledge is not manageable because it is not explicit and will never be concrete like a newspaper. It is in my view more of a capacity to turn information into insights and ideas, sometimes leading to new initiatives or actions. It is possible to stimulate the conditions in which knowledge emerges – by e.g. helping people meet and discuss. Managing what comes out of those interactions between a person and another one (conversations) or a reading (reflection) is simply a dangerous fallacy. Ditto with transferring knowledge, an even scarier concept: since when can one’s experience be passed on in one block to another person, in the fashion of The Matrix training courses? Dave Snowden’s ‘knowledge can only be volunteered, it cannot be conscripted’ principle is a reference in case here.
  • KM as a discipline is most effective when tailored to specific issues. The orchard of KM initiatives that try to make information (called knowledge) available and usable for anyone anywhere is immense. But it’s an orchard of wilting trees and rotting fruits, and those trees and fruits are the KM strategies, best practice lists and lessons learnt databases that focused on the ‘just in case’ and ‘just in time’. They focus on general examples. But KM and learning is useful only tailored to specific issues. Understanding and addressing the context behind the issue is what makes or breaks KM initiatives. Hence the importance of developing many ‘points of conversation’ in KM initiatives to allow that context to surface and become visible, And that context is difficult to create with just written documents. From information we’ve moved on to sharing knowledge and ultimately paying attention to the context: KM ‘just in use’, echoing the history of three KM generations (see IKM-Emergent’s meta-review and scoping study about this).

  • KM and learning require time and dedicated effort, its rewards should be clear and within grasp. Making time for structured reflection, for talking with others, for collecting information and packaging it in different versions can be a daunting challenge, and it definitely takes time. Whether individuals wish to improve their work practices or organisations set out to develop wider KM initiatives, there is no hope to see learning thrive and KM work in the long run if the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) is absent in the proposition. We – lone workers and employees – are ready to dedicate time and sweat to KM and learning, but that dedication comes only if our knowledge work creates energy in return (see this post on channelling energy). The effort we invest has to connect to our personal aspirations. Are you sure that what you are proposing is of value to me, or even to yourself? Already by tomorrow or in a year? Many KMers’ chat events refer to the power of WIIFM and the rewards that should stimulate individual dedication.

  • KM is all about questions and pointers that come from meaningful engagement (and useful information resources). The loop between conversations and information is the playground where KM finds its value. If we want to learn and use our knowledge to improve what we are doing, if we want to develop our energy, we have to connect to others who have faced similar questions or may (should?) face them in the future. These questions arise with meaningful engagement – preferably conversations based on trust or constructive criticism. In the absence of a physical counterpart, information that stimulates these questions and points to paradoxes can be a great alternative. And here are the two arms of KM: knowledge sharing and information management. The application (tailoring) of knowledge to a specific issue delivers the full value to improve what we are doing – which is about posing even greater questions in our endless quest for improvement. This great document about the art of powerful questions (PDF) offers useful avenues here.

  • Knowledge is latent and innovation craves connections of all kinds. Not everything we talk or read about is directly put to use. A lot of latent associations are formed by the information we absorb. The use of this latent ‘knowledge’ happens when connections are made with a particular context or question. The more bridges we establish between all the latent knowledge zones we develop in our brain (what could seem like disconnected zones), the more chances we create to use this knowledge and reinvent it in ever different shapes and flavours. This is what lateral thinking is about and why bringing barriers between professional and personal life down probably makes sense to realise our full potential. Thinking in our own mental silos wilts our creativity and our potential to develop solutions. The more diverse experiences we go through and relate to other experiences, the more likely we are to always find a way up and out. On this topic, the work of Paul Sloane on innovation and lateral thinking, and the work on multiple knowledges by Valerie Brown (PPT) come to mind.

Does this reflect your experience and insights? Where am I missing the point?

Related blog posts:

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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