Harvesting insights (2): Beautiful KM

This week, me and a colleague of mine had a great opportunity to talk about knowledge management with the director of our organisation. It was good to see an open mind willing to know more about KM and to hear what our ‘corporate’ thinking about it is – if there is such a thing as corporate thinking. It also gave me a wonderful opportunity to write another post on harvesting insights about knowledge management.

In the previous ‘harvesting insights’ post, I looked at some of the simplest issues that concern KM. In this post I would like to share some insights from my practice as knowledge worker, some tricks of the trade which I hope might be useful to you too… And they’re about seeing the beauty in what may seem counter-intuitive at first. These are just some insights we touched upon with our director, not an exhaustive list in any way.

Broken is beautiful

Maybe the most important one: good knowledge work is not always straightforward. In fact it usually isn’t. Because it’s based on many failures. The potential of learning from failures is really much greater than that of learning from success. From the Mistake bank to AfriFail, the Dutch institute of brilliant failures or the many writings by a.o. Mary Abraham, Dave Snowden or Nancy Dixon about learning from failures… there is a wealth that demonstrates that success is not straightforward and that there is genuine value in looking at what’s broken. A word of caution here: broken alone doesn’t get you anywhere; it needs to be questioned. Simple initiatives fail often enough. Complex initiatives such as those involving knowledge transactions between various people are all the more likely to be failing, messy and fuzzy – quite something else than the beautiful polished process one would dream of. Good knowledge work gets dirty. So don’t go for bling bling, don’t (just) stick to the plan, go with the flow, fail, reflect, and try again!

Broken is beautiful

Quick and dirty is beautiful

They’re close cousins to broken, those twins quick & dirty. But their message is that we should focus on writing and documenting work in short cycles, not striving for perfection. Why? a) because we need to fail, that’s the lesson above but b) also because there’s a lot of value in what’s just being unearthed, it’s fresh and should be shared in a fresh state still. Let’s agree that it makes sense to capture in writing (or in other forms) some conversations and insights so that others can enjoy them too. What matters then? To come up with a beautifully polished product or to get the information out asap? I think you know my answer. I’m not demeaning the importance of publishing attractive materials, it certainly makes the reading easier and sometimes captures the context better. But the point is to keep the momentum of fresh news and hot insights. One of the reasons behind the success of Twitter and to a lesser extent Tumblr is that they allow sharing information in a few seconds. They pass on the essential stuff – and others pick it up all the more quickly. So in your KM work, don’t linger on brush and polish, pass on the nuggets – they will be polished soon enough, by yourself or others!

Up and down – not just forward – is beautiful

What I certainly notice in the water and sanitation sector, is that there is a tendency to go increasingly beyond organisational learning and KM. A majority of organisations still focus on that level, but increasingly they tend to look both up and down: up to other institutions, organising conversations beyond own little navel, cooperating with(in) networks and coordinating their actions with other akin institutions. This is the time of multi-stakeholder processes and of larger initiatives such as the Change Alliance.

At the same time, we have much to gain by looking down from organisations to individuals. It makes sense: people, not institutions, are sharing knowledge. As the focus of KM also shifts towards individuals, a whole strand of the knowledge management field is concerned with personal knowledge management (PKM), particularly since social media are becoming so important in our life and work. A couple of links there: The old (2001) article about the 7 skills of personal knowledge management and the more recent (2010) KMers discussion about PKM.

What this reveals is that more and more institutions are recognising that we are working at a high level of complexity and interdependence. Individuals and other groups of institutions are being recognised as other parts of one same network we are all connected to. The point here is thus: stop navel gazing as the employee of a self-indulging and supposedly cutting edge institution – be yourself as an empowered and valuable individual, and connect to wider causes and groups of institutions – it’s efficient, effective and fulfilling!

Stealth is beautiful

In the May 2009 issue of the KM4Dev Journal, Sarah Cummings and I wrote an article about the role of organisational KM strategies and we looked among others at the type of strategy followed by various organisations regarding KM: on the one hand, a ‘big bang’ approach where the KM strategy would be heavily promoted and heralded by the unit in charge and more often than not imposed on its workers for insufficiently involving them in the process; on the other hand, a stealth approach that builds upon what an organisation does well and expands these good practices. The key message here is that rather than thinking ‘tabula rasa – starting from scratch again’, there is much to gain from looking at what is already going on, what good practices can be amplified and what not so useful practices can be dimmed. In this sense, stealth is beautiful. There is nothing worse than even talking about KM suggesting that it is a special activity. We all talk, we all work together, we all write, we all learn, we all DO KM – we just don’t call it that way. Remember: keep it simple stupid. Oh yes, simple is beautiful.

Time, the great ennemy of creativity... (Photo credits: http://mohamedbhimji.com)

Time management is (or can be) ugly

Finally I come to one ugly aspect: what kills the capacity and ambition of people to become dedicated, empowered knowledge workers is to watch their every move and try to link everything that they do with a particular output. A very effective way to kill people’s creativity and motivation is a bad use of time management. Tracking time sheets could be actually useful to understand how long a task really takes (serving a learning agenda, to plan more realistically next time around). In many cases though, it is used as a way to scrutinise how efficient one really is – no gap allowed, no time wasted. No time for chats, no time for reading, no time for just thinking – THOU SHALL DELIVER…

Knowledge feeds on social interactions, on reading and on reflecting. Good KM should go beyond just time; it should settle for quality. And quality is fuzzy, dirty, nosy (going up and down) and sometimes even hidden. Spotless plans will not help us there.

So let’s fail again and reveal all the beautiful things that we went to pick up in the mud. Let good KM shine through!




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KISS my comms

A new project has just started this week and I’m involved in the communication work around it.

In our kick-off workshop, we discussed external communication but also, crucially, internal communication.

As one of the participants put it, what will make or break the project is not the plans and work packages and procedures and outputs but how the people involved work with one another. And with seven institutions, working in six different countries, communication with one another has to be as smooth as possible.

After an open and very participatory discussion about it, the central principle of communicating among ourselves will be the famous ‘KISS’: Keep it simple stupid.

Keep it simple stupid (Image credits: Squidoo)

And what does this mean in practice for this project? Setting up a simple file-sharing network (DropBox), sharing information about our activities and interesting information via a bi-weekly email newsletter shared on an email group and finally a monthly Skype chat with a representative of each institution to sort out issues.

This is almost as bare as it goes. It is both interesting and puzzling. Can this really be enough to encompass the different functions that internal virtual communication entails, i.e. (in an increasing order of complexity):

  • Storing information to keep track of it later;
  • Informing others in a simple way (displaying information that can be useful for others such as meeting minutes, procedures, checklists etc.);
  • Discussing issues and sharing ideas;
  • Working together on documents;
  • Taking decisions;

We have set out to review this info-structure within the next six months and I am already curious as to whether or not it will work. But going for simplicity in a participatory way sounds like a very good starting point. Start small, fail, review, improve, start again…

Let’s talk about this in six months’ time. For now, I’m curious to hear what you think about our bare set-up…

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What is good in a project?

Where to start again on this blog after such a long interruption? Not with a digression (*) straight away!

Anyways, I’ll start again with a question that has been tickling me for a long time:

What are the good parts of a project to keep and use?

Development, oops rather aid (i.e. donor-driven development) is largely structured around projects. This is how many of us out there work. We end up cooperating for three, four, five years in a given place, with a group of people and institutions, following semi-random streams of activities sometimes called ‘work packages’. And throughout the project years we come up with ideas, principles plans, activities, approaches, tools, reports, templates, lessons, publications to do what we think we have to do. And then one day the party is over, alliances fade, activities stop, the flow of knowledge and information dries out. And then comes the question: what really makes sense to keep track of at the end of the day, other than the great moments spent together and the nuggets that have pleased project beneficiaries, staff and/or donors?

Much like there are various beef cuts that can be used in a cow (sorry for any vegetarian or vegan reader out there), what are the parts of the project that we can use (in this case, again) because they could be useful?

Beef cuts and project nu(gge)ts - what should we keep? (Photo credits: global wildlife warriors)

Beef cuts and project nuggets - what should we keep? (Photo credits: global wildlife warriors)

What is there to ‘capitalise’ on afterwards? This question is becoming crucial for me as I’m involved in a soon ending project and am puzzled as to what to do with all the process information we have collected through the years.

We have of course, like many projects, the official documents – the emerged side of the iceberg: the papers, newsletters, websites and the upcoming book we’re writing… the flashy documents we have happily commit to produce as agreed in the contract.

But hidden all around, are the guidelines, templates, checklists, information sheets, how-to’s, process reports etc. that we have developed in the past five years.

Usually these documents do not make it to the official ‘documentation’ of any given project. And yet perhaps what might be precisely most useful to others, more than the results of the project even is that process information describing how a project has looked at certain activities and proposed to go about them. This is what can be re-used, learned from, integrated. So that next time a team starts similar work, they focus on slightly better sets of questions and issues…

What do you think? What is good to keep? Does it make sense to keep track of all the ‘process’ outputs of a project? Is it worth investing time to polish them so they can be understood by an external audience? How shareable are they compared to the project outputs?

I hope you can shed your light on this, as this may be an important KM question for development projects… And that specific project I mentioned is about to be cooked up so it might as well be useful and inspire others…

(*) It probably doesn’t matter much where I start blogging again, since I suspect only few people are checking this page after several very quiet months. Besides, those that do visit this blog sometimes tell me they don’t always understand what I am saying. So, for you puzzled reader, read my profile. And by the way, and I always welcome questions, so share your puzzles!

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