Life after KM?

After so many years working on knowledge management I have grown tired of the term (and even finding it an oxymoron). I like to refer to ‘KM’ because it rolls easily in the tongue, but when I look around at other people that also work explicitly on KM, it gives me the impression that we are a bunch of stuffy dinosaurs fighting an old war.

So what is it that KM really means to me? What could be a better term to describe this?

What's my next destination on this KM sense-making journey? (Credits: James Jordan / FlickR)

What’s my next destination on this KM sense-making journey? (Credits: James Jordan / FlickR)

Recently I suggested that KM was the combination of conversations, documentation and learning. Conversations and documentation are the means. Learning is the end. Is it really? Learning for the sake of it is irrelevant too. It’s learning for action. But what action?

Learning for change perhaps? We mean to change our actions, be more relevant. But sometimes change is not the best pursuit either. Change for the sake of it is no more worthy of attention than learning for the sake of it. Remember the baby with the bathwater?

Ha! I know: Innovation! This surely is the holy grail. But (constant) innovation is yet another fantasy to chase. There is a time for innovation. And that time is not ‘all the time’. Same case as change. Nothing should motivate this innovation hype I already talked about.

Adaptive management is perhaps more accurate? We want to be able to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Yeah, but what about being proactive rather than adapting reactively? And most importantly, it’s not just about ‘management’, it’s about all of us, whether in managing positions or not. I care about empowerment. I want everyone to be part of the movement, each at their scale and pace.

Perhaps it is indeed what Jennifer Sertl refers to when talking about ‘agility’. I haven’t read her book but what I like about that concept of ‘agility’ is that it focuses on a general state of flexibility and for that it encompasses learning (you need to master learning to be agile – you need to practice it in tacit ways); potential change and innovation (if you are agile you can change and innovate); adaptation but also proactive preparation for the next changes; and it doesn’t just emphasise management, it is for everyone – so it implies the use of personal learning/knowledge/networks to amplify the capacity of a group of people to act more effectively and dynamically (i.e. to remain most effective at all times).

The only thing is: agility might be Jennifer’s trademark and I’m not necessarily using it along her understanding. So for now let me stick to KM and just say I work on agile KM… Check this blog header’s title, it’s just started another little life of its own…

Related blog posts:


Pictures say more than words

KM for me... and you? in pictures on Pinterest

KM for me… and you? in pictures on Pinterest

If that’s true, and for all those visual heads among you, here’s an overview of the more interesting posts of this knowledge management and learning blog on Pinterest:

I hope this will help navigate through these posts, questions and conversations in an enriched and different way.

Annual reports, the gold standard for the state of KM in the company?

The annual report, a flame in the dark to highlight our practices or to shine without reason? (Credits Josh Kenzer / FlickR)

The annual report, a flame in the dark to highlight our practices or to shine without reason? (Credits Josh Kenzer / FlickR)

Annual reports are a painful exercise, for most companies anyway.

I have seen managers, designers and communication specialists from various organisations tear their hair by lumps working on this annually recurring chore.

Being personally much more inclined towards the knowledge-sharing and collective thinking side of communication (away from unidirectional message massaging, marketing verbose and public aware-mess) I never quite understood what was the big deal about the annual report: a glossy production that usually reveals little about the real struggles and aha-moments of a company. And that report is sent to a group of people that either don’t really read that information because they don’t care or they do care but know enough about the company in the first place to make the reading of this peculiar publication totally superfluous.

But then, perhaps annual reports are actually interesting in another way: They may be the gold standard that reveals the maturity of knowledge management and its status in each organisation – an epitome of all the struggles and opportunities that knowledge management may face in an organisation all bundled in one.

Annual reports are indeed an open battle field of different influences and forces in presence which reveal a lot about the ‘KM culture’ of each company:

  • Form vs. function: The design says a lot about the place given to form vs. function (pure text text text). The integration of multimedia, the use of infographics, a different way to present the report are all ideas indicating there is attention put on the way information is presented or not (with a view to encouraging the reading of the contents);
  • Formality or informality: The very tone of the report indicates to some extent the degree of informality that is tolerated in the company. In many cases, annual reports are very corporate and formal productions, but the wording and design can make informal dents into that ‘keep-it-serious-don’t-smile’ publication, which might also say something about the tolerance for informal peer-learning at other moments than the development of the annual report;
  • Marketing vs. learning: How much of the report is oriented towards promoting the organisation and how much is it focused on the agenda (i.e. the set of strategic issues and challenges) that the organisation pretends to address? If it is learning-oriented it might stress crucial questions and aha moments achieved in the past year, rather than reassure everyone that the the organisation is doing the best job in the world in the most important arena of the world.
  • Internally focused vs. externally focused: The position of partners and other actors or networks acting at the edges of the organisation is presented quite starkly in most annual reports (or indeed royally ignored). This might give an indication as to the tendency of the organisation to include learning on the edges (through personal and organisational networks), which itself indicates the organisation’s maturity vis-a-vis learning (as we know that learning at the edges is crucial);
  • Unidirectional vs. engaging: most annual reports tend to just disseminate carefully selected information without inviting any feedback. However it doesn’t have to be this way – perhaps the annual report could indeed invite others (especially important partners) to share their view. Perhaps it was done in the process of compiling the annual report and that can be mentioned – but perhaps nothing of the sort happened and then so much for a culture of engagement and conversation;
  • Centralised vs. decentralised knowledge flows: The production process of annual reports reveals some power and knowledge flow tendencies: will it be compiled by a central unit or with a wide involvement of other staff – crucially those in decentralised offices? This is a very good indicator of the state of documentation as well. In many cases, this is precisely the painstaking point of annual reports: it feels like pulling teeth and tongues from all staff members to get these stories that will illustrate the work done, results achieved and new questions unravelled… Although an organisation with a mature approach to knowledge work should find it easy to reap the fruits of working out loud and continually documenting processes.

How do all these factions and factors come into play in a concerted way (or not)? This is what the annual report production process (and the finished product itself) actually reveals. It does give a good overview – perhaps more so for internal staff than external audiences – about the state of learning, knowledge sharing, documentation and conversations (remember KM=CDL) in the organisation. It also weighs KM against public awareness and message-based communications.

So, however painful the annual report exercise turns out to be, it does disclose a great deal of useful information for the organisation. Perhaps it’s time for me to look into the ILRI annual report and get a better sense of where we’re at…

Related blog posts:

The most difficult job in the world?

It may not be the hardest job in the world, but it still isn’t easy peasy to be a communication and/or knowledge management specialist in many (research for) development organisations. Typically, communication (let alone KM) has always been one of the first areas where budget cuts affect staff first. There is much expected from communication and knowledge work, which backfires in times of crises, but there is not always a lot of credit given to the people in charge of that work when success happens.

The communication/KM specialist, a mysterious function? (Credits: Eyesplash / FlickR)

The communication/KM specialist, a mysterious function? (Credits: Eyesplash / FlickR)

The reasons are manifold:

Communication and KM are ‘secondary processes’, which means they are not central operations. As a result they are sometimes under-estimated, under-staffed and under-budgeted.

Communication and particularly KM (and learning) processes are indeed very heavy on the process, which is less straightforward than providing just a product. They are about an ensemble of activities and products that together lead to results. But these processes are usually overlooked in documentation and monitoring. They are therefore rarely tracked and less so understood, however important they are (arguably such processes are the only elements that might be scaled up from successful interventions).

Of all processes, they deal a lot with behaviour changes. These are very complex and slow processes, potentially involving information (evidence?), emotions, trust, discipline, support etc. The complexity and slow pace of these processes makes the demonstration of their value difficult and an easy prey for budget slayers.

Communication and KM are highly interdependent. If specialists can play a role in guiding these efforts, they critically need the support from other people and units to feed content, engage in conversations, provide feedback on conversations/processes, ask questions etc. They also need other parties (partners, patrons, beneficiaries) to engage successfully in order for communication and KM to work out (for conversations to spark off, for better questions to be shaped, for research to be taken up, for changes to happen). This interdependency makes communication and knowledge work all the more difficult.

Because there is such a high interdependency, when success arises it is very difficult to attribute it to the communication/KM team (or specialist) alone, however much they may have played a role in it. The team dynamics plays out in successes, individual points of failure are unfortunately too easy to identify in case of no success. So it’s easy to blame communication/KM for its failings but difficult to demonstrate its success.

And finally, having communication and KM specialists rising from the in crowd is the exception rather than the norm. In a research organisation, rarely do researchers end up becoming communication specialists. Knowledge management specialists do not often stem from engineering backgrounds. This creates an additional layer of potential defiance between these soft process specialists and the main crowd in an organisation which is busy with what is perceived as ‘the real work’.

So what can we do about it?

For comms/KM specialists themselves:

  • Brace yourselves for the criticism and lack of cooperation that might affect your work to start with;
  • Develop a rapport with your other colleagues as soon as possible to understand how they work, think, see the world, use information, engage in knowledge processes, communicate, what their needs are etc. Be supportive in the lightest and most relevant way possible;
  • Provide your value by expanding the good work of colleagues, setting easy processes and structures, providing adequate training and on-demand coaching;
  • Provide an example – lead and inspire by example. Be the communication and KM example that you want to see;
  • Engage your trusted colleagues around the idea that communication/KM is a slow process that feeds off small successes and cooperation at all levels;
  • Demonstrate when little successes are achieved (e.g. how the documentation of a workshop can really improve decisions further down the line, showing that a consultation process leading to a communiqué is a step forward etc.);
  • Work together more and more and aim at exploring more complex and deeper dimensions of knowledge work progressively, so they understand this complexity and contribute their part to it.

For others, colleagues of comms/KM specialists:

  • Recognise that soft processes take time and are complex;
  • Accept that good communication and KM requires everyone’s efforts, including your own;
  • Work with the comms and KM  specialists to understand their work processes, expectations, ways to define success and in turn to show them your own way of working and perspective – establish a rapport;
  • Show specialists ways to make their work useful and relevant for you and others by telling them where are challenges you are facing that they could help you with.

We all have different perspectives on the job, but that is precisely what makes our collective work more relevant and interesting. Accepting these differences and using them for a wider goal is the long and tedious road to engagement but that initial investment is ten times worth it, for complex social change work.

Related blog posts:

KM=CDL, on the journey to universal sense-making

Knowledge management (KM) is about conversations. It’s about conversations that make us more effective, both personally and collectively. It’s also about the documentation of these conversations, so that we can track back information coming from those conversations for the record, or to help others who didn’t participate to these conversations connect to them. And in the middle it’s about ensuring that these conversations and documentation help us learn to get more effective, innovative, relevant, purposeful, connected and connectable.

KM, connecting all knowledge constellations for universal sense-making? (credits: Extrabox / FlickR)

KM, connecting all knowledge constellations for universal sense-making? (credits: Extrabox / FlickR)

This is about my working definition of KM these days.

And it goes further: I believe KM is meant to connect us to a meta-grid, a matrix of understanding where all our collective wisdom could flow simultaneously and solve problems as and when. This is of course a far and ideal destination. In development work, this ideal would also conjure up the imperative of empowerment: learning to become autonomous and to make choices that affect our livelihood; that is when the meta grid allows us to be active connections and connectors because we naturally help connect to others through our choices.

This is why we need both conversations,  documentation and learning. KM=CDL.

  • Conversations connect us, help us break down language barriers and speak the same language, to let that knowledge flow on the collective grid. We can have conversations that tend to innovate and explore (vertical conversations, as we are trying to go deeper and deeper) or that tend to consolidate and level understanding among people (horizontal conversations). These conversations can either be synchronous or asynchronous, face-to-face or online. But they are the main gate to connect individual dots on the grid.
  • Documentation keeps fragments of conversations that can also help connect to other people, networks, organisations. It invites others to join in on this conversation and subsequent related ones. Blog posts, wiki pages, discussion list archives, tweets, Yammer messages etc. are all traces that help others engage, question, comment, respond to etc. Of course, they may not connect as powerfully to the grid as synchronous (and particularly face-to-face) conversations but one learns a lot by reading too.
  • Learning (through either conversations or reading documentation) empowers us and gets us more effective. It not only creates sense for us to join these conversations (as we see the value of being connected to the grid) and use this documentation but in the process hopefully it also gets us to learn about learning, understand how we can become better at the art of conversations and the science of documentation. To get the grid to work effectively, each and every one of us has to be an active learner, converser, documenter, to inspire others to do that too and increase the pace of connecting everyone to the grid up.

Joining the grid is our distant goal, but we are following a course that is drawing us closer to it at every step. Every time we are better able to collectively deal with problems, making the most of connected intelligences and emotions. And all dots want to join up, because we human beings are curious, so we keep looking around the edges of our world, helping that grid shape up through connections between distant regions.

As Jennifer Sertl was saying on Twitter: “We used to write stories on walls in caves now we write stories on walls in clouds…”. On this reflexive Sunday, KM could be considered the epistemological discovery of man, a voyage into our collective history of thoughts, actions and emotions and into our destiny. No less…

Related blog posts:

The 50-cent and 2-second immortality syndrom

I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, I want it NOW!
Old-timer Queen (of England, but not the monarch, the band) was already onto it: We want things to happen too quickly, in life and at work…

‘Make that website work by next week’, ‘Get our social media strategy functional by next month’, ‘get our team to influence policy by next quarter’, ‘make sure that multi-stakeholder platform is fully operational in 10 months’, ‘show me impact on 50 million lives in 5 years’.

It’s insane!

The dictatorship of pace goes even up to the 30-second elevator pitch and the 2-second attention span that affects us when browsing our tweets…

But our collective delusion doesn’t stop there.

We also want to leave an immortal impression of our passage on Earth. We go for the 50 Cent ‘bling bling’ approach, with the information systems that have the most complete panoply of whistles and bells, the KM strategy that everyone around or yet to born always awaited, the research agenda that will change the face of the planet, the network that will solve everyone’s problems, the development project that will be scaled up ‘till the end of times…

Should we not slow down and take a bit of perspective? (Credits: Jsome1 / FlickR)

Should we not slow down and take a bit of perspective? (Credits: Jsome1 / FlickR)

Woooow, hold on a sec here!

I can understand the conscious or unconscious quest for immortality and leaving traces behind, which Milan Kundera described so well in the eponymous novel.

I can also understand that people want to move fast – I’m not the most patient of earthlings myself. But combining eternal glory and glitz with light speed is just about as mature as a five year-old thinking the world is his/her royal court.

And yet, fast bling bling impact drives the reality of much knowledge management in development.
The tyranny of development ‘projects’ and their limited lifeline pushes us to promise unrealistic impacts; the crowning of complexity has stirred up a cohort of concertation networks and multi-stakeholder processes (great idea) that should all work out at soonest and remain sustainable for ever (oh oh, unrealistic thinking and not even justified); the big-bang KM strategies of development organisations hold all the promises that information filtering and the reinvention of the wheel (which is not always bad) will be erased once and for all; the increasing pace of our social media world seems to condemn slow work, and partnerships should deliver now, regardless of whether or not they are based on solid foundations…

Yet the best development success stories among us are slow, organic, civic-driven developments, from the Grameen Bank to Ushahidi, from Paulo Freire’s popular education to the biggest NGO in the world – Bangladeshi giant BRAC – from Digital Green’s participatory video work to communities of practice like KM4Dev.

Immortality is perhaps not best achieved through fast bling bling, not even through slow shine, but through the seeds of change we plant in each other all the time, carrying, reshaping and expanding the collective wisdom that has brought us up to where we are now (remember the shoulders of giants?)…


  • No, that website won’t work by next week. Even if I killed myself setting it up, it would take time to train people, it should have taken time to consult them in the first place, and it will take time to generate and content and keep pumping more of it into the site, around a solid content strategy;
  • No our social media strategy will not be functional by next month, because it takes weeks  to try out social media, months to find the right people at the edges of your network and years to develop great content and strong engagement around it;
  • No, our team will not influence policy by next quarter because policy-makers have to deal with many different items at a time (of which research evidence is only one by the way), and it will take our team a couple of years to have built a good rapport with policy makers and to be able to start influencing policies;
  • No our multi-stakeholder platform will not be fully operational in 10 months because it will take everyone two to three years to understand each other’s language, perspective, agenda, to grapple with it, agree with a common direction and start effectively building  something together (and we’re not talking about funding the platform beyond project funding if that’s the set-up, which takes additional time);
  • And finally, no, we won’t be able to show impact on 50 million lives in 5 years because impact is very difficult to trace, we cannot really anticipate tradeoffs of our initiative just now and because quick demonstrable, quantifiable indicators have nothing to do with the real quality of life, happiness, connectedness, empowerment and freedom that people enjoy, they’re only crass over-simplified proxies that hint towards that.

And so to the people that Freddie and his Queen fellows addressed in their tune, here’s what my mates from Radiohead have to tell you now: Hey man, slow down!

And please forget about that cheap rap joke… Even if you go for bling bling, remember: speech is silver, silence in golden. Rub it in 50c.

Related blog posts:

Looking back to move forward

Just taking a short pause to look at the past 5 months. The most active months of my blogging life thus far. So this is a good  occasion to see what ground has been covered and what remains to be covered in the next few weeks and months, with the hope to see how KM, learning and facilitation can play a crucial role in development work and empowerment more widely.

Will knowledge safeguard freedom (painting by Uzo Egonu)

Will knowledge safeguard freedom (painting by Uzo Egonu)

Many shoots and some tools

After starting this new year of fun, focus and feedback I started a series of ‘shoot posts’ to reflect in short bursts on what could be big ideas, among others for development work:

And also what seem like dead-ends:

I also started a new series of posts that looks at information and communication technology ‘Tinkering with tools’, with now two posts on Yammer and on LinkedIn.


Over the past five months, a whole chunk of my work has been around facilitation of events and processes and I have therefore written a fair bit about it: the net value of engaging and networking with other participants at events, how to harness the power of introverts (I just covered introverts and social media a few days before), as well as three posts about the secrets of magic facilitation (post 1 about the political field, post 2 and post 3 about the strategic design).

Among the events which I attended or facilitated in that period, I particularly reflected on a knowledge management workshop I gave for some friends’ very promising think tank, a very interesting workshop from the Information Knowledge Management – emergent programme through two posts on (a.o.) participation and accountability and finally a wonderful but challenging workshop on social learning in climate change.

Learning and knowledge management

Still, this blog aims at unpacking knowledge management and learning more than anything else, either from a conceptual side or from a practical side (such as how to put learning loops in practice). It was timely for my work to think about how to power communication with KM, thinking about the fact that reinventing the wheel is not always as bad as the common KM orthodoxy would admit and recognising the incredible profile of some women in knowledge sharing for International Women’s Day. Finally, in relation with work I’m doing for the community of practice ‘KM4Dev’ I also thought about how to assess the wealth of communities of practice.

In this whole period, two of the most successful posts on the blog have been about the eternal debate ‘what is knowledge’ (where I personally move away from the idea of knowledge as a commodity that can be transferred) and the Portrait of the modern knowledge worker.

What next then?

Phew! That was a lot.
And lots more is cooking up in the next phase.

  • I will be shifting my focus back on multi-stakeholder processes again (as I will be preparing a training workshop for facilitators of ‘innovation platforms’)
  • and on the monitoring/assessment of knowledge work as we are working on this at ILRI.
  • The ‘chemistry of magical facilitation’ series should be finalised too;
  • I also have a couple of ideas for the ‘tinkering with tools’ series and for the ever successful ‘stock-taking’ series.
  • Finally, I’d like to spend more time about deeper reflections on empowerment, enterprise 2.0 and the changes that social media and networked learning bring to the  world, the way Esko Kilpi and Harold Jarche are reflecting – obviously without having the pretention of being as good as they are.

And other posts will come with last minute and ‘spur of the moment’ inspiration.

Sounds like the next 7 months might be just as busy if not more… So place your orders for blog posts and let’s see how we can further understand this world of networked learning. And as it happens, it’s good learning practice to look back to move forward…