Power your communication with ‘KM inside’


Where to nestle knowledge management in the work place?

Is it a field or discipline that deserves a unit in its own right – with its own breed of specialists (the knowledge manager) – or is it a mainstream support function that shoulders every other process? The answer differs in every organisation. In many cases, knowledge management (KM), or knowledge sharing (KS), is hosted within communication (for instance my own function title at ILRI is ‘knowledge sharing and communication specialist’). What are the relations between communication and KM?

How does KM/KS really support communication or even power it?

How knowledge management powers communications

How knowledge management powers both primary (top tier) and secondary (bottom tier) communication functions

The graph here depicts some of the basic outbound or primary functions of communication (on the top half), that is, the front-end activities where communication serves its own purpose and some of the key inbound or secondary support functions of communication, i.e. the activities that make primary communication possible).

Primary communication functions might typically include:

  • Announcing and raising (public) awareness – the typical PR gig,
  • Disseminating information (in various ways and for various audiences, from sending freebies, publications or newsletters to partners and clients to sending press releases to the media),
  • Sharing it both physically (at events) and online or virtually through engaging sporadically with other people around a specific information,
  • Engaging with audiences as a longer term structured process to develop trust and share information more effectively – either as part of an action research programme, a multi-stakeholder process or something else,
  • And ultimately collaborating (assuming that a clear protocol of cooperation and coordination is in place to allow that collaboration to flourish).
These functions are increasingly focused on engagement and co-creation (from announcing where there is no real focus and no or little interaction to collaborating where everything is about collective sense-making and co-creation of content).

Secondary communication functions include:

  • Writing outputs (of all kinds),
  • Documenting (either processes, conversations, work, protocols etc.) which prepares the way for the writing,
  • Publishing and design, which is about getting the written outputs to the next level (design, peer review etc.) and out,
  • Training on a number of communication channels and processes,
  • And finally supporting in any other way (coaching, informing, guaranteeing a helpdesk function etc.).

At the centre of it all, I deliberately put ‘internal communication’ because it is the ‘glue and grease’ that allows all these primary and secondary functions to work in an integrated manner and to create a team spirit and dynamics. It is also what allows information to flow and be used for all these purposes. It is perhaps where KM might operate from.

So how does KM power these functions?
KM is basically a strong enabler of communication for a number of these functions.

First off, though, we need to agree on a working definition of what KM is and does. Without going into very lengthy and cumbersome discussions, let us say that KM encompasses knowledge sharing (interactions between people to use information and making sense together), information management (processes geared at managing, storing, rendering information findable and usable) and critical thinking (where learning helps to keep sharpening knowledge sharing and information management and the wider purpose of achieving one’s set agenda).

Working with this definition, KM supports communication in the following ways:

  • The knowledge sharing element stimulates all interactions in a more effective way – ensuring frequency and good “quality of conversations that get your job done” (borrowed from the definition of knowledge management that Euan Semple and others have provided in the past), which leads to more effective sharing, engagement and collaboration – the top right tier of the graph.
  • The information management element ensures that information a) is there in the first place (generated through writing) but particularly that it b) can be traced and found at all times c) is easily and accessibly organised to raise awareness, be disseminated and/or shared, and d) is systematically channelled back from knowledge sharing, engagement and collaboration activities. It supports directly the left hand side of the graph and indirectly the knowledge sharing processes (offering information that can be used for knowledge sharing, engagement and coordination).
  • The critical thinking / learning element particularly strengthens the documentation (of processes) but also enables all other functions by ensuring stronger questions, stronger ideas, stronger ownership (thinking makes people more involved), stronger content altogether, stronger engagement by grappling together with ideas, chances for survival of the work and stronger embedding in a given context (because the very process of embedding is supposedly questioned then). Subsequently it supports the full spectrum of communication.

Communication, without knowledge management, might fall back to a series of messages that do not inform learning and adaptation, may end up as a series of sporadic and disconnected activities and does not link information with personal interactions and learning strongly enough, leaving a ‘back office’ messy and useless, like a ghost ship adrift.

Does that resonate with your experience?

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Stop judging and move on, because we all do (follow the seeds of change)


Have you ever found it unfair that people put you in a straitjacket and failed to recognise your complex personality? Have you ever truly tried to change one part of yourself and managed to do so? Do you perhaps value intent more than actual results?

What we see and judge is often just a reflection of someone's changing self (Credits: Steve Patterson)

What we see and judge is often just a reflection of someone's changing self (Credits: Steve Patterson)

This post is about all that. About the fact that everything ‘human’ or social is dynamic. We know it for ourselves, yet, we tend not to acknowledge it for others. We tend to see things in static ways. We tend to judge, to put people in boxes and state that they act and that they are ALWAYS like this or that – as they act or are at the time we are observing. Making dangerous universal rules out of singular events.

Nothing could be more wrong. If we fail to recognise that every human develops actions and engages in social interactions in a non-static way, we do not give ourselves the credit of learning, of intent, of drive and inspiration. We are not robots, we are living, changing beings, following the multi-faceted and not-so-straightforward pathway of our life. We are all in perpetual transition – the ‘life in perpetual beta’ dear to Harold Jarche.

Even our cultures keep changing, so does our language; they reflect new conventions, adapt to novel situations and newly felt needs. That is the beauty of it. And this is also why I personally really don’t feel comfortable with the concept of civilisations when talking about current human groupings (though I have no problem talking about it for past phases of human history in a given context) and why I will never accept racism – we all come from a common cell too and like that cell we keep on changing and recombining ourselves.

Back on our individual behaviours: we may do things wrong, we might make mistakes, we perhaps miss the subtle and smart ways to perform a task or behave in a certain way. But we are trying. We are learning. We are adapting and changing. Even when we are deeply convinced that what we do is right and everyone else is wrong, we are not immune to external stimuli of change – ideas, questions, criticisms, intuitions, emotions… It might even be the moment when we are about to change our state, somewhat following the behaviour rules of a complex adaptive system. So, even in the thickest of our convictions, when we appear as rocks and blocks to others, we are changing. Our intent might guide us from inside, or those stimuli might pull us towards change from outside but, unless we follow a strictly codified dogma that prevents us from questioning parts of our path, we are moving ahead.

We are all following, sowing and reaping the seeds of change, and so are others around us. So let’s stop judging people and putting them in straitjackets on the basis of who they (always) are – because who they are is much influenced by what they do and what they do keeps changing, dynamically.

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The chemistry of magical facilitation (2) – Put the bossy herald to play for you


Facilitation is the art of seamlessly inviting all contributions to collective sense-making. As such it is an essential element of knowledge sharing, knowledge management and social learning.

So, in the previous chapter of this series, we’ve looked at the big picture of facilitation, how to handle the BOSSY HERALD, particularly in its bossy part. Let’s assume we’re there, we’ve dealt with the politics of the event. Now comes the moment to apply the design in practice i.e. to focus on the HERALD (part) in detail, and to put it to play for you. This moves the reflection from ‘what should be?’ to ‘what could be’. The herald determines the ballpark you play with. Each of its pointers helps you design the workshop in a more appropriate and operational way.

In this second chapter, I’m looking at the first three pointers of the HERALD: How-to/heuristics (facilitation tools and approaches) very briefly, Extent (duration) and Running the event (the facilitator/s).

Proces design and facilitation, a complex ballpark (credits: The Value Web/FlickR)

Proces design and facilitation, a complex ballpark (credits: The Value Web/FlickR)

How-to and heuristics (the tools)

As much as knowledge management is about tools – once, and only once everything else has been dealt with and thoughtful decisions have been taken – facilitation is all about facilitation methods and approaches, once the politics and design is by and large dealt with. In a way How-to and heuristics thus come as the final part of this puzzle – once all other blocks are covered. But it is a very powerful part of the puzzle and one on which you have a lot of control as organiser or facilitator. I will deal with the choice of tools and approaches in a subsequent post (chapter 3 of this series) so I won’t look in detail into this. Just want to highlight that the exact set of facilitation methods, tools and heuristics generally reflects and derives from the other elements from the HERALD:

  • Extent: The length of the event itself points to a specific set of facilitation methods or a specific way of applying a given method;
  • Running the event facilitation: How much can you and should you challenge your preferred facilitation style or push yourself to new limits?
  • Attendance: In line with the participants’ profile, how much can you and should you challenge the expectations of your participants regarding the overall facilitation approach at the event?
  • Location: How the venue itself lends itself to using the space and organising tables and group work;
  • Dynamics: How does the dynamics of the event affect the choice of specific facilitation methods?
Facilitation methods mapped for an event design (credits: me)

Facilitation method set-up mapped for an event design (credits: me)

Pay close attention to these elements before you come back choosing  facilitation tools and approaches.

Extent (the duration)

How long will your event last? How many events/episodes will you be having? Here, keeping the beat and the flow in check is all that matters. If you don’t, you risk losing your audience and it can be quite tricky to win it back. Look at your final destination and manage those poles.

The flow is the path that you are following during that event, which you can see as a voyage on which participants are embarking. You will have to clearly mark the beginning, the middle and the end of that voyage. Along the way, you have different standposts (the various workshops sessions), milestones (the achievements around significant blocks of your event) and stop-overs to break the voyage in manageable chunks. These standposts, milestones and stop-overs are essential for your participants to keep the beat. Here are a few considerations to make the journey as pleasant for your participants:

  • Mention where it is they are supposed to get at the end of your journey (the objectives and outcomes of your meeting) – that clarity relates to the focus of the event and you might even invite your participants to discuss the focus so as to surface additional ideas or concerns;
  • If you’re having an event that builds upon another one (and another one etc.), link the various events to one another to clearly to give that sense of the voyage to the participants: where you have been, what milestones you have achieved, what you’re focusing on now and where you will be in the next event – and how the different events are linked. And re-state how much of the overall voyage you intend to cover with this event – like a stage on a pilgrimage. This makes it easier for your participants to maximise their time however they please and to appease their potential anxiousness to achieve. If people worry too much about being productive and the time they have at hand, they are not in the ‘here and now’ the ‘mindfulness’ that is key to strong engagement.
  • Make sure that each stand post (session) also clearly follows the sequence ‘introduction – middle – end’. Event facilitation follows a fractal pattern where this sequence mirrors itself at various scales (workshop, day of workshop, session etc.). You have to link up these scales, show how one session builds into the day and into the workshop, give a sense of how the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts. It makes most participants happy with the achievement and the sense of ‘going forward’ and not just ‘talking’. You’re taking the anxiousness to achieve away from them.
  • Make it clear also when a milestone is achieved – a particular agreement, a write-up etc. Celebration builds the team dynamics and adds energy to everyone. If, in practice, you have not gone as far as planned but really need to achieve a particular milestone, either build space in your event to achieve it milestone or explain how it will be finalised and achieved after the event – there is much fear of seeing workshops turn into talk shops with no action among all of us event-goers.
  • Whether your workshop follows a straight path and there’s no going astray, or whether you are open to changing your path as you please and remain flexible, tell your participants how ‘set’ or flexible their journey is likely to be.
Sam Kaner's Diamond of participation (Credits: Chris Corrigan/FlickR)

Sam Kaner's Diamond of participation (Credits: Chris Corrigan/FlickR)

Another underground flow is running in parallel: that flow relates to the degree of clarity and agreement (or consensus) for the participants. thisa relates to Sam Kaner‘s famous “diamond of participation” diagram (see graph on the right). Be aware that it will almost undoubtedly happen, especially if your event runs for more than a day. In a week’s workshop, it will almost surely be at the middle of the week, when participants are too far away from the energy of the beginning and the final destination is not yet in sight…

The beat is the energy that you (and particularly your participants) have to run that pathway. There are a few things that help along that pathway to keep the beat:

  • The clarity on the final destination and on the main stop-overs on this voyage, as mentioned above;
  • Developing a sense of the group. Ice breakers are great in this sense, particularly those that explore some personal details, anything that gives more information about participants than their professional ‘function’ (there is a person behind that professional). Group work is also great as it brings people to get to know each other and effectively collaborate (thereby bringing much stronger bonding than just talking). Humour and informality help too, it breaks down barriers between people. As my boss – a very experienced facilitator himself – says: when a group starts having its own jokes and plays with it, it’s going very well;
  • Your personal energy as a facilitator – the more energised you are the more energy you give your participants. Speak clearly, enthusiastically if possible, add to the fun, move around, look at people in the eyes, engage, show them that you believe in this workshop and in achieving something)!
  • Keep the beat up by organizing energisers and occasional breaks when you see that participants need fresh air. Observe how the group energy is going and feel free to ask your participants how they feel about having a break or doing something different, like going away for a walk (why not even build some sessions around a walk or an interview in the park etc.?).

Running the event (the facilitator/s)

The next bit that matters in the design is: who will be running this event? Who will be facilitating it? If it’s you, that’s easier, because you know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses.

Still, how much ‘up to the task’ are you? How much does the design of the workshop reflect your way of working or not? A first balancing act here: between alignment and authenticity. How much have you played to your strengths and how much have you challenged your comfort zone? A delicate balance to strike here. Obviously, playing to your strengths means you are more likely to do things well. But you need to keep yourself sharp – and keep the events interesting for you as facilitator over time too – so how much are you stretching yourself to try out new things?

In practice I find that it’s worth doing something slightly different every time to keep the show interesting.

The facilitator: a multi-faceted, multi-skilled animator

The facilitator: a multi-faceted, multi-skilled animator

If someone else is facilitating – or perhaps if someone else helps you facilitate – what is their profile?

Here are a few things to review for yourself first, when selecting or hiring an external facilitator:

  • How high profile is your event going to be? How much will failures be tolerated?
  • How heavy on facilitation is your event going to be?
  • How intercultural is your event going to be?
  • How flexible should your event be?
  • How interactive is your event going to be?
  • How large is your group of participants going to be?
  • How tense is your event likely to be?

The more your event follows these characteristics, the more experienced a facilitator you will need.

Experienced facilitators usually have enough distance to manage tensions and readjustments with flair and fun – and they critically know WHEN to readjust, they hopefully are socially intelligent enough that they can pick up intercultural communication clues, they are used to interactive methods to the extent that they have no trouble explaining sub-group facilitators what their task is, they can handle large groups and they know how to manage tensions – whether appeasing them or precisely releasing and dealing with them rather than letting a ‘passive-agressive’ atmosphere develop. An instrumental skill that facilitators – experienced or not – should develop and nurture is the art of listening. It is their main tool to gather clues about the event climate and the need to readjust. Listening is not just auditory, it also means listening with your eyes: scanning the room around to see if people are engaging, deciphering body language to find out who is irritated, sad, tired, out of focus, stirring up trouble (rare but happens)… Another useful skill is that of synthesising and of paraphrasing, asking questions (even disarmingly simple ones) to address the concerns and issues that the participants are probably dealing with at the same time. Clarity of elocution is another essential skill: speaking clearly, loud enough, not too fast, paraphrasing what was said to synthesise it and asking the participants if everying is clear and if they have any question. And as mentioned above, openness and humour for fun, fun and fun are other must-haves. If your event is ‘facilitation-heavy‘ (demanding), It might even be a good idea to hire a couple of facilitators. Facilitation takes a lot of attention. Having a couple of facilitators is useful in many ways:

Two facilitators make the process stronger (credits: sreisaat/FlickR)

Two facilitators make the process stronger (credits: sreisaat/FlickR)

  • It helps prepare more quickly the materials and instructions (there is usually a number of flipchart sheets to prepare, posters, colour cards and the likes etc.);
  • It brings a variety of facilitation styles to the participants;
  • It helps facilitators facilitate well but also pay careful attention to the energy in the room, the body language of some participants, the signals that are emerging;
  • It keeps the energy of the facilitator up because they have time to charge up their batteries;
  • It makes it easier to organise sub-groups where there is usually a need for a sub-group facilitator (an/or chair, and/or timekeeper);
  • It helps to introduce exercises, make presentations, hold props, mime assignments etc. or even engage in on-the-spot jokes etc.;
  • It helps with the documentation of the event – as one of the facilitators can be documenting the discussions while the other one is indeed organising an exercise.
This sounds like a mountain of details, and truly there is much to the complex art of facilitating, but unveil the facilitation onion layer by layer. Embrace what you can now and leave the rest for later. A lot of it will become tacit knowledge in due time.

In the second part of this second chapter, I will examine the attendance (the participants), the location and the dynamics of the event, the other three crucial elements to make the HERALD play for you… and also the information that the herald governs, the content matter that is addressed in the event.

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Alignment and authenticity


This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time. I alluded to it in ‘Radical ideals and fluffy bunnies’ and in ‘Using dissent as a driver’ but not head-on. Here is a shoot that I hope will settle this matter for a while, for me at least, but I hope it also resonates with you (1).

In work, in any work that puts your personality on the line, and clearly in facilitation – where so much of your personality potentially affects the works – should we remain true to ourselves, or align with the wider agenda or other concerns?

You might think: “easy, just be yourself”. But the reality is more complicated, as we know we sometimes have to deal with another agenda – in facilitation that would be the bossy part of the BOSSY HERALD. We have to perform in different working cultures and we cannot be obsessed with doing things the way we like all the time. Or can we?

A practical example of this dilemma might be to respect hierarchy in e.g. a workshop. Will you challenge it or respect it? Tough call.

I absolutely don’t pretend to hold any truth here, just offering my views: On the alignment vs. authenticity spectrum, I place myself on the latter and try to bend towards the former. I start with being authentic with myself. The more I can be myself, the more I will be at ease and perform well, add humour (which is a great way to release tensions of this vein) and arguably the more I make others also comfortable because my behaviour does not display tensions.

Alignment or authenticity? Alignment with your authenticity it seems (Credits: PhotoBucket)

Alignment or authenticity? Alignment with your authenticity it seems (Credits: PhotoBucket)

In the process, I keep open to differences of views and practices and I have to remain astute to the specific issues where authenticity becomes awkward. Then I have to peddle back and adjust, (re-)align to reach out.

Perhaps the trick I have found here is to stretch authenticity as much as I can without upsetting anyone, following the proverbial French statement ‘Jusqu’où peut-on aller trop loin?‘ (until where can we get too far’)? In my philosophy, I’d rather let people be. A lot of respect, a bit of fun and you erase any risk of ‘your freedom infringing on mine’. So, alignment or authenticity? Judy Garland, among many others, reminds us:

“Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else.”

I’ve made up my mind. And there are two interesting parallels here:

  • One is with our work-life personalities: how much of yourself, of your real personality do you reveal at work? How much connection between these two poles of your life can you cope with (particularly if you are not self-employed)? I have found that being myself at work makes it all the more enjoyable, so while I try and preserve my personal and family life from too much travelling and over-work, I tend to not act so differently at the office or at home. I’ve found that in any occasion, thinking, feeling, talking and acting in the same perspective makes me happier and grounds me much more than entertaining split personaliities. But everyone has their own coping mechanisms…
  • The other is with intercultural communications: how much do you adapt to a culture and remain true to yours? This is a tricky one. Yet again, perhaps openness and humour are the best weapons against the tricks and traps of intercultural communication. I personally feel that since I cannot become someone with a totally different culture overnight, I’d rather stick to who I am, with all my sub-cultural backgrounds. I definitely try to understand, and I remain open to other cultures, but will not pretend I am someone else – while recognising that I am in a dynamic process of change where my culture(s) will be affected too.

How do YOU cope with alignment and authenticity?

Notes:

(1) Funny enough, someone just wrote another post a few days back, titled ‘alignment and authenticity’ – serendipity, that’s another topic worth blogging about…

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International (knowledge sharing) Women’s Day


Today, 8 March, as every year, it is International Women’s Day. It’s only one day in the year and that’s little. It’s also too much: Why do we need a special day for women? There is a subtle implication – wanted or not – that the remaining 364 days of the year (365 in 2012) are for men? Regarding this International Women’s Day I feel a bit like Morgan Freeman about Black History Month…

Morgan Freeman on Black History Month: Nonsense!

Morgan Freeman on Black History Month: Nonsense!

Yet there is also the ‘affirmative action’ argument about this day and it makes sense. There is so little sharing of decision-making power and overall empowerment effectively happening for women worldwide. This is true from the bottom poorest in development to the top (less than 1% of billionaires worldwide are women as I found out in this article in Le Monde this morning).

In this post I just want to celebrate the great contributions of women in the knowledge sharing/management and learning environment – in development and I am sure in the corporate world too. A former colleague of mine, surprised by my enthusiasm for KM4Dev, also thought that it was a community of practice for middle-aged male nerds. She was stupefied to find out that a lot of them are women, and some of the more influential ones (10 out of 19 KM4Dev core group members are women, and 9 out of 17 potential volunteers).

And it makes sense – not based on scientific studies but on my own personal experience, not claiming any universal rule here:

  • Women in my life have been natural knowledge-sharers, from simple (and sometimes silly, however) gossiping to discussing really personal issues;
  • By resorting to their feelings perhaps more naturally, they have a wider repertoire for international and intercultural sharing and learning – where the world of mind and ideas sometimes finds its limits for lack of language to interpret concepts;
  • Perhaps because they doubt more about themselves (arguably as a result of being in a traditionally male-dominated world) they have more tendency to listen carefully than many men;
  • As a result of these two characteristics, they are able to connect at a deep level with other people – something highly desirable in the development work’s quest for trust as the cement of sustainblee achievements;
  • They are also able to interconnect thoughts and ideas perhaps much more so than men – as portrayed comically in the video below;
  • They are natural learners, as they have had to seizeany opportunity to counter the power challenges they are facing everywhere;
  • They are natural communicators, not just because they have biologically better communication means but also because they have had to make a stronger case to be heard than men and to present their ideas with a high degree of seriousness and professional credibility;
  • Women tend to focus on the cooperation and collaboration, a natural self-defence mechanism for any community somewhat deprived of political capital and one which is embedded in the ways girls play with another another when they  are young;
  • By extension of this they also are more geared towards negotiation and consensus than men;
  • The apprenticeship model is also more natural for many women, with respect to the importance of role modelling to believe that they can make it (get to a higher level, break the glass ceiling);
  • Women (again, in my life) have usually less time to dedicate to work as they also pay close attention to their family life, tend to be quite pragmatic rather than theoretical – they seem to want to see results and practical actions, not just talk;
  • Perhaps as a result of their own struggle and their need to readjust and try different approaches to counter negative power play, they may be in a better position to look carefully at the process involved, not just at the results and big ideas but also at the nitty-gritty ‘how do we get there’.
Women sharing and gathering - the natural born social learners? (Credits: Indhslf72/FlickR])

Women sharing and gathering - the natural born social learners? (Credits: Indhslf72/FlickR)


If you take all these characteristics into account, you get a fabulous knowledge worker and learner from the 21st century – one that is truly able to act effectively in the networked age, to connect and engage at a deeper level and to make people feel good about joining hands and working towards a common goal.

This is not to undermine the role of men – if anything, I support a conception of gender that is all about men and women working and living better together, not women vs. men – nor to recognise that I am depicting an ideal image of women here. But that ideal is based on the extraordinary facets of courage, determination, professionalism and kindness of the women that I have been fortunate to work with in knowledge sharing and management for development.

This day is for you, ladies! But also for all of us. May we all share, learn and improve ourselves, our actions and our world together following the best of your examples.

With lots of love, happy International Womens’ Day!!!

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The birth of a thought and the life-times of a concept


I love thoughts, always have: How they come about, what lineage they follow etc.

The birth of a thought? (image credits: unclear)

The birth of a thought? (image credits: unclear)

Something as simple as a thought is somehow as thorny as impact and as untraceable as a travelling lighter:

Who came up with a thought first? The person that first talked about it? The person that promoted it? The person that applied it?

Can we actually come up with genuinely original ideas?

Are we not the product of a constant to-and-froing of ideas with others as shown on the illustration on the right?

Isn’t there also something to say about how we use our tacit knowledge (in Michael Polanyi’s sense, e.g. the insights we have but do not think about it any more because they are part of us, they have almost become  reflexes) to include streams of thoughts from the past too?

Are we not just the fruit of a long history of mingling with others’ minds?

We may have just made ours what others said and did in the past. We are “resting upon the shoulders of giants” – whether we like to recognise it or not.

So we might want to remember at all times that thoughts and ideas are: collective, iterative, multi-faceted, ever improvable (like a diamond asking to be ever more polished); that they benefit from slow simmering and from confrontation and combination with other ideas – whether from reading or talking with others. At any rate, time is an essential element in the creation of (good) ideas.

Steven Johnson’s video illustrates this very well.

There is some kind of a parallel here with the lifetime of concepts – the glorified generic thoughts that illustrate a category of things

I also love talking about concepts. And yet, that’s where problems start: we all have a different perspective, different glasses on, and every concept means something slightly different to each new person. When it means anything at all.

Sometimes, the concepts that matter to us are totally useless to others… and sometimes, we just don’t know that we don’t know something, like a concept. That’s the blind spot or the unknown of the Johari window.

This is really important for our use of concepts: It’s all in the timing. A concept is only really useful when people are aware of their need to get their head around that concept or – more likely – its practical application. A) Before that time, the concept is theoretical fluff – because people don’t know that they don’t know (or they don’t know that they might need this concept). If you invest a lot of efforts, you might convince them about that blind spot they have and about doing something to tackle it, but it’s a long way. B) Past that time of emerging or felt need, they might have embraced the concept and its practice so totally that it has become tacit knowledge (hello Michael Polanyi again!). It could also mean that the concept has gone mainstream to the extent that it’s old news that does not interest anyone any longer – as has been the case with storytelling for a long while for instance. It could also mean that the concept was not used at all and it was a missed opportunity – but there’s no point running after it.

The lifetime of a concept does not limit itself to one time and one space though: it goes through several of these stages of before-during-after. It gets discovered, applied, integrated, forgotten by different people at different times. It has different lifetimes, different iterations in which other people rediscover the power or relevance of that concept again and need to apply it in a different context. With a slightly different focus this time.

When we work on or with concepts, we might want to find out at what stage of discovery the concept is, at what iteration in its lifetime. This requires a bit of research. It might be annoying to look back and dig through the archives, but paying attention to history guarantees a better embedding of concepts in peoples’ practice.

An example? Knowledge management: yesterday it actually meant information management and it was a rage; then as KM initiatives promising the right information to the right people at the right time started to falter it became a plague and was abandoned by much of the corporate sector. Now it’s just yesterday’s news, a slightly embarrassing term. It is progressively upgraded to the much sexier and fresher ‘innovation’ – the new buzz in town – with the danger of getting rid of all the good lessons of the golden age of KM. The reality behind a certain conception of KM (the idea of connecting people and their knowledge) has never been more topical. And talking about KM is both highly desirable (in the knowledge age) and potentially very hazardous (because knowledge cannot be managed). How will these ideas unfold in the golden age of innovation?

At what iteration in its lifetime is KM in your context? Is it worth pursuing it or focusing on innovation like everyone else? How to avoid the ‘baby-out-with-the-bathwater’ syndrome? It might be difficult to tell, but it has perhaps never been more relevant to question this…

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