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…

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6 thoughts on “Life after KM?

  1. an oxymoron?

    A figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction (e.g., faith unfaithful kept him falsely true).

    To me knowledge (in its widest sense) can be managed (in its widest sense) at meta-level in various ways. Think about the following statements:

    1. I know that I cannot fly on earth without additional means. I can write this down and others can read that my knowledge (rather generic human knowledge) is that humans cannot fly on earth without additional means. > knowledge can be written down.

    2. The mere fact mentioned above, that I write that piece of knowledge down, is an act of management, managing my knowledge (at meta level) > knowledge can be managed.

    I could go on with a whole series of similar statements about and around knowledge (management).

    What do YOU reckon? – Peter

  2. Thank you all for your comments!
    – @Carmen: Yes I’m following the L4C blog every so often. Shame it’s too far a bridge to contribute to it but unfortunately expect-able after several months. Learning is a vastly unexplored territory, but as IRC is exploring also what learning is used for, it touches upon this blog post: Is it for innovation? I remember quite a few people were obsessed with innovation at IRC when I was there. Innovation is good but not always… Anyway, that sense-making quest also depends on what each group of persons (here IRC) decides together. I do think that the matter is about connecting all people to inform adaptive management… but not just org’l management, also personal management (my point about it not being a top-down process).
    Oh, and yes it might help to change the title of the blog actually…

    – @Jaap: Yes, agree on all of this, we’re on the same wavelength. Though I’d emphasize the learning (individual and joint) next to your points 1 & 2 (which is what I emphasised in And I also think that words actually carry with them the power of mental images, so they are very important – they’re not just about pimping a word. For me that move to agile KM means I’m consciously emphasising the concept of ‘agility’ which Jennifer explained in (I guess my use is ever so slightly different but ok).
    Thanks a lot for putting down and sharing your thoughts Jaap!

    – @Frank: Yes, that’s a much better term I think, but perhaps it lacks the learning and documentation aspects which matter incredibly for what I consider ‘agile KM’.
    Thanks for the link anyway, I’ll definitely check your work!

  3. PS: should we now also change the title of your blog on our blogroll?

  4. Good morning Ethiopia!

    There is so much crossing my mind now … but I will never be able to write it down. I think what is confusing (oxymoronising) is that most KM is confined to organisations, departments, managers portfolios, managers egos, log-frames etc and thus the adagio must be constantly ‘strategy follows structure’ and we know this does not work. So, there will be forces to pimp KM; call it agile, call everything KM (or everything miscellaneous), talk about ‘knowledge products’, ‘black swans’ etc etc. And size does matter. On personal scale you know KM works out differently than at sector scale.

    I try to keep it simple; KM is about two issues: 1) make information flow to and from a shared source and 2) enable dialogue and activities (to share / co-create knowledge). To get from 2) to 1) one needs to organise the documentation of that enabled process (aka process documentation) and to get from 1) to 2) information must be nicely managed and versioned (in shape, language, access and time).

    Some examples:
    A) An individual learns on a certain topic and makes the build-up knowledge explicit (Document process) resulting in an article stored in a library (Information repository). The article can be communicated (Versioning information) to readers or presented at a symposium etc e.g. included in another Conversation / Activity.
    B) A team or community sits together to brainstorm on a proposal. A facilitator creates a mind-map and conducts three short video interviews which are stored in an information repository and can be disseminated to appropriate audiences and reported back to the team / community.
    C) An organisation plans a pre-test / pilot of a hygiene intervention; the process is documented (Document process) by means of focus group discussions resulting into information on success / failure / amendments and that information is fed back (Versioning information) to that organisation for evaluation (Conversation).
    D) A community of practitioners work and learn together to get an overview of current use of self-supply in Ethiopia and they decide to make a publication and present their work at a symposium organised by the RWSN.
    E) Key sector players meet for a yearly sector review and the result are communicated to the various government, NGO and CBO organisations.

    In the end KM is about engagement, connecting dots and people, reflection, making people understand / comprehend they have / can have access to valuable information and know how to empower themselves and engage is discourse on their future. And your task is to make their lives more easy (or agile) 🙂

  5. Hello Ewen, I like your post and your exploration of the different concepts we use. Your description of KM as a combination of conversations, documentation and learning puts an emphasis on interaction and sensemaking, the dynamic elements of knowledge management. Makes sens to me.
    We are still actiively exploring what ‘learning’ is all about (especially learning at scale) and regularly posting on
    We’re looking at learning as a pre-requisite for adaptive management, towards the goal of sustainable service delivery. But, there’s still a lot for us to fill in regarding how learning can be encouraged, resourced and planned for.

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