Get personal: KM closer, together, for the bigger picture

Three related events push me to blog about the importance of getting personal in KM this week:

  1. The preliminary results of a fascinating study we (IRC) are conducting in Burkina Faso to find out what are current practices for information management and knowledge sharing, under an overall banner of sector learning (find an introduction to sector learning on the Learning for Change blog);
  2. The negative advice I was given to the initiative I had designed to investigate personal effectiveness among my colleagues – an idea I had introduced here;
  3. The video below which I saw recently on the blog of ZDNet about the social media revolution (though dating from 2009).

Getting closer to see the details and the bigger picture
Getting closer to see the details and the bigger picture (Photo credits: TheFocusPhotography)
The first study mentioned above clearly emphasised the importance of personal KM, both in terms of personal information management (to filter the wealth of information, to keep one’s expertise sharp, to get a bigger picture) and in terms of knowledge sharing (by attending the meetings and events when crucial knowledge is exchanged and relationships are built, but also virtually by means of communities of practice which for once, in the WASH sector, were mentioned as key to get a lateral view of an issue and find better solutions).There is a wealth of information available in the sector but everyone relies on personal contact – and prefers doing so. Perhaps it is the oral culture that prevails in West Africa which puts so much importance on interpersonal contact – one of the respondents even mentioned: “I would like to keep that side of things where we meet people”. People are key. Personal communication is central.

The second event was of course a blow to my aspirations – though I haven’t given up ;). When informed that one of the main reasons for the rejection of that initiative was that it ‘wasn’t the right time for it’, I realised how we all tend to undervalue the contribution of every individual to the well-functioning of an organisation (or any other human grouping, for that matter). How is it that we can expect to have well-functioning, ever learning organisations if the people that make it up are not organising their learning and their expertise gardening? Actually that last point also reminds me of that Ted Talk video with Seth Godin about leading our tribes where the man with 1000 ideas brilliantly makes the point of hiring caring individuals if you want a caring organisation – among many other gems that I invite you to discover in that really inspiring video speech. The bottom of it is again: we have to get personal!

The video about the social media revolution (below) is perhaps less about personal KM but it does emphasise the importance of getting social and personal. It actually triggered a flashback in time to the kick-off meeting of a new project earlier this year, where the entre consortium dismissed the idea of social networks as being too early-in-the-day, too fluffy, not serious enough for the work we had to do. And then I had a ‘hum hum’ moment: how can we dismiss the social nature of our work? How can we say no to connecting to other individuals and organisations that are genuinely interested in what we are doing? How can we keep believing that people prefer formal environments when we have ALL experienced the warmth and quality of conversations at the bar or reflections in a car, or walking on the beach? How can we afford not to get personal if we want to understand and improve our world with others in a deeply meaningful way? And that is exactly what social networks do.

You must understand that in spite of initial frustration, I am not stigmatising the reactions I faced. I am only trying to understand what is at play behind these reactions.  And it raises questions:

  • Is what I am seeing the fruit of my imagination or is it really happening? Is there a point of putting persons at the centre of it all?
  • If I am isolated in a pocket of converts to these ideas, how can I reach out to the non-converts?
  • What makes people – and the organisations they form – value any other factor than human beings?
  • How can we most effectively demonstrate the value of investing in people’s personal KM for the organisation and wider arenas (e.g. as in ‘sector learning’)?
  • What is the added value of documenting processes of personal knowledge work as opposed to letting it be and counting on people’s natural tendency to share insights about it with one another?

We are perhaps (I would personally say very probably) at the dawn of an entirely new age of communication, but it seems business is going as usual in many ways. All I know is that I prefer to dream about this deeply-caring personal world than to just focus on its down-to-earth nemesis.

It is high time we got personal, don’t you think?

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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 Peter,

    Many thanks for your excellent comment Peter! There’s a lot to react on too. Here’s an attempt:

    – On face-to-face contact in West Africa and elsewhere: that’s absolutely correct, I think everyone, universally, values face to face over virtual contact. Except it’s amplified that much more in West Africa (people are so hooked up on their mobile phones because they can also meet up more easily to talk f2f) but it’s also reassuring to have first hand data about it, however limited the ‘data set’ is,
    – About e-learning, that’s interesting because I read results of a study recently (can’t source the info but let me ask on Twi….sorry, on the web 😉 saying that people following distance learning had actually better grades for a similar exam than students following a regular course on the same topic. I think there’s mixed factors in: it’s not per se e-learning vs. f2f learning. It’s rather about the methodology (and energy put in) isn’t it? I mean, I had horrendous teachers against which any basic distance learning would have been way better, also because you can take things at your pace. Then again, a good teacher is absolutely – and will probably always be – unbeatable.
    – Completely agree on the failings of virtual communication to convey particularly humor. if I call you ‘wee shite’ on an email it certainly wouldn’t convey the same load of fondness that Scots mean when they say this – and that I would mean for you too.
    – Again the Arab spring example is for me another case of ‘don’t shoot the medium’. it’s never about technology really, it’s pretty much always down to what people do with it. Smart/inspired people just make magic happen, silly people just expand their silliness to new levels 😉 You’d be surprised at how much wisdom there can be in 140 characters though… It’s why I’m still on the T-word sphere 3 years in and loving it more and more…
    – About the questionnaire, i was actually thinking of f2f interviews, particularly focusing on good practices and even nifty work-arounds that colleagues use to fill gaps left by insufficient, inadapted or absent procedures… I realise it would have been kind of intimidating for a few people but the whole focus was on learning and showing good practices / inspiring others with those. Too bad it’s not happening (yet?)

    At the end of it all, for me too, REAL social networks are indeed the real thing. Or rather, face to face will always prevail. That said – we did have an interesting online exchange just now, wouldn’t you agree?

  2. An interesting blog Ewen but I wonder if you sense a contradiction between the findings from Burkina (including your remarks about he back of the car and the walk on the beach)and what the ‘revolution’ of social networks from the new technology offers us.
    Your findings from Burkina are not so unique to West Africa – even in Europe we still value face to face learning and meeting more than we admit. I am writing about a masterclass for young oncologists which brings them together for an extremely intensive week of 12 hours work a day, much of it given over to rather old fashioned pedagogical lectures – albeit from brilliant experts – to keep them up to date on latest good practice. Everyone admits this is not a perfect format, but they all prefer it – students and teachers alike – over e-learning, even when the e-learning is hosted and gives the ability to ask questions. It is the face to face element that they repeatedly mention as the reason for leaving their work for a week and travelling large distances to sit together. The interaction in the coffee breaks – the ability to use all their senses, not only their (considerable) intellects.

    Eletronic communication (including what I am doing now) is incredibly useful but fails us on so many communication fronts notably ability to judge appropriateness, timeliness and response (for example the difference between a joke and an insult).

    And if I mauy go ona little detour, while’social networks’ claim credit for mass social movements in the Middle East for example, I think there are also very legitimate concerns about reducing social and political debate to a simplicit summary of an issue followed by a petition. Us goodies versus those baddies – “urge your leaders to bomb them now”.

    I know this is not what you are proposing with your questionnare for colleagues (I hope not!). Although the questionnaire would not apply to me, I must amdit to feeling some resistance to filling it in. Maybe, we are not the best witnesses to how and how far we keep our knowledge up to date. Maybe, over analysing how we do it, might overlook or blight the the things we do well…. I am not entirely sure where the resistance comes from but I have learned to listen to my instincts.
    Communication and learning are very subtle processes, some of it happens above the surface but much of it is hidden, which is why face to face communication is so valued, and why it is so difficult simply to list the benefits. It is nourishing in the sasme way as real food is nourishing and vitamin pills are not. (If only you knew how hard it is for me not to mention the tw… word here.)
    In any event I wish we would distinguish between social networks and eletronic networks. Social networks can have electronic elements; electronic networks can have social elements, but one is a pale shadow of the other.
    Best wishes until we meet again…..

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