Reducing complexity to a workshop? Wake & step up!


Workshops are just like stepping stones on our sense-making and trust-building pathways (Credits - Xeeliz / FlickR)

Workshops are just like stepping stones on our sense-making and trust-building pathways (Credits – Xeeliz / FlickR)

A short shoot post today. The white screen syndrome is kinda hitting me at the moment. But one thing is coming to mind: the delusion of packing the complexity of multi-faceted, multi-stakeholder, multi-perspective programs into planning activities in a planning workshop of one, two or even three days.

I have recently facilitated a number of workshops (some of them listed here) for initiatives that integrate very different disciplines and arguably worldviews: social science, biophysical science, economics, mixing different fields of expertise in one same agricultural stream.

Almost every time we schedule such planning workshops, the commissioners’ expectations are that we will be able to come up with a neat action plan. This is where the delusion starts.

We can achieve a neat action plan in one workshop:

  • When we have a very good idea of where we want to be
  • When participants know each other very well: their strengths and weaknesses and their capacity to work together
  • When participants share the same language (jargon, concepts and approaches)
  • When the program relating to the workshop is straightforward and not a complex multi-stakeholder program
  • When the group of participants is small (ideally 5 to 10)

If these conditions are not gathered, I doubt that one workshop can really go beyond great conversations – sometimes tense but certainly clarifying discussions – and some very draft ideas of wide streams of activities. We should tone down our expectations.

Workshops are just stepping stones towards a more coherent plan and future; they’re also bridges among worldviews; and they are wonderful opportunities to network or gel teams. That is already extraordinary and certainly most helpful in complex initiatives.

Small is beautiful. Expecting less quantity but more quality should be our guiding aspiration  in (planning) workshops. Spread the word!

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Harvesting insights (5) KM / Over rated or under the radar


KM overrated / under-rated? (Credits - BrazenApparel)

KM overrated / under-rated? (Credits – BrazenApparel)

Knowledge management, as a field, is no longer hyped. It has gone under the radar. As a practice, however, it keeps surviving and remains useful. But some of its past life is still lingering, pumping up absurd expectations among (knowledge) managers. So it’s time to review some of the over-rated expectations that people once (or still) bestowed upon KM – and some of the ‘under the radar’ features that KM can help fix.

Over-ratedStocking and managing knowledge

Although this was the main credo of various KM initiatives from the first KM generation, it still pervades some organisations that want to set up lessons learnt databases, that want to stock everything they do. Lost cause. Bottomless pit of quickly failing and fading relevance…Let go of stock approaches. And managing knowledge is impossible.

Cultivating future leadership (Credits - Neighborhoodcentersinc)

Cultivating future leadership (Credits – Neighborhoodcentersinc)

Under the radarCultivating knowledge and leadership

Instead, how about ensuring that knowledge flows and is applied to solving problems? And what about developing a strong focus on personal  knowledge management, personal and collective effectiveness, personal and collective decision-making and the development of leadership? Don’t build knowledge silos, build and encourage knowledge leadership through ongoing cross-culture conversations and action-focused meetings.

Over-ratedIn the interest of the organisation only

Granted, we work in organisations to serve their purposes. But keeping a blind eye to our personal aspirations is a massively missed opportunity to brace the motivation of staff. Expecting that we all work only in the interest of the organisation is a misconceived, obsolete take on employees. No one ever starts working for an organisation hoping to be there 30 years later any longer. So open to your employees’ aspirations.

Under the radarIn the interest of the organisation first

On the other hand, granting staff the liberty to work on their own projects and initiatives – provided that they might serve the organisation ultimately – that is a useful way forward. And that is the success behind Google Friday. KM in 2012 (and 2013) is all about using social media and enhancing personal knowledge management, in the interest of the organisation and that of the employee.

Over-ratedIn the organisation network only

Directly deriving from the above, we have been focusing too long on the organisation’s network (if on any network at all). This is what causes very fuzzy discussions in any organisation about ‘who are our partners?’, ‘how do we define partners?’, ‘what do we do with which partners?’. Being aware of the constellations of organisations around which a company evolves is obviously important, but it’s not enough.

Under the radarInterweaving networks 

Social network analysis has become an important tool of the networked society we live in. And indeed this tool has helped us refine our understanding of network dynamics. Of the distinction between institutional and individual networks, of professional and personal networks, of peer and alternative networks, of conversational and coordinating networks, of our main network and all other networks on the edges, of central nodes and outliers. And there is much we can benefit from using this refined understanding in the way we weave conversations and relations around the organisations we work in. With social media we are all spiders on the web and our webs gain from mingling with each other. Recognising the contributions of our individual connections to the work that our organisations can deliver is equally crucial. We are no longer in the organisation-centric network age but rather in the age of network-centric organisations…

Over-ratedIntranets

Traditional intranets fail (Credits - Teale & Shapcott)

Traditional intranets fail (Credits – Teale & Shapcott)

So many articles talking about intranets and their shortcomings. Let’s face it, (traditional) intranets have generally failed to deliver on their promises. For wanting to be too much for too many, they have ended being too little to too few. A wrong balance setting between stock (important procedural information) and flow (news and updates), between information and conversation, between compliance-based reporting and trust-based sharing? I don’t know but clearly this is one over-rated expectation in the KM realm.

Under the radarInternal services at your fingertips.

Rather than expect people to visit an intranet and hope they will linger there (why would they), how about reaching out to staff habits, bringing internal services to their habits rather than forcing their habits to comply with the intranet? Developing a bespoke smartphone application with all kinds of useful internal services, creating a web browser toolbar giving access to all kinds of information from the organization, setting up widgets related to the organisation’s workflows… that might prove a much better track to ensure staff find and use handy information services, following current behaviours, not desired ones.

Over-ratedOne-stop shops

The delusion of one-stop shops is close to that of global information systems which I blogged about recently. It’s also close to that of intranets. No one system can realise all your wishes. You wish, but it’s not the case. So for all people struck by the YACC syndrome, unfortunately there’s not much hope for a solution soon. Even though Sharepoint seems to have improved hugely over time, many problems remain (see this conversation).

Under the radarConstellations of winners

Instead of one-stop shops, KM can be mobilised to connect ‘winner platforms’, champions of their services (e.g. Slideshare for presentations, Yammer for conversations, wikis for collaboration etc.). By means of RSS feeds, interlinking platforms, connecting work processes across platforms, it’s possible to ensure that a set of different platforms converse with one another and form a winning constellation. The services they will accommodate will be much stronger than any one-stop shop. And if password management is an issue, there are password manager solutions out there.

Over-ratedThe Golden Folder structure

Before we realised that information was going to overwhelm us anyhow, we believed that we could come up with a logical, clean and clear folder structure to let information get found by anyone. No need to emphasise the cruel delusion of this aspiration. I have yet to come across an organisation’s set of shared network folders that staff do not describe as ‘a big mess’, ‘a big dump’, ‘a big nightmare’. And once again, we reinforce the heresy of thinking that everyone would order information in folders the way we do… Not so, alas…

Under the radarThe big search

A former colleague of mine was always a fervent advocate of a great search facility over a logically ordered folder structure. His approach has come of age – so this one is not so much under the radar – and I am happy that more and more effort is put into developing strong search capacity, following the Google trail. And together with the big search comes the big filter that well-manicured social networks provide. A wonderful set of mirrors to global content, which help us find the gems out there.

Over-ratedExpertise databases

I plead guilty for this. I once thought it would be great to have databases explaining who’s good at what, who has what knowledge and know-how. But let’s face it: we never use those databases when they are in place. Because we know the people. Because these systems are more often than not out of date. And because we don’t all have the same understanding of a field of expertise. I don’t believe in expertise databases any longer.

Re-creating the socialising magic of water cooler conversations (Credits - Rich Lem's)`

Re-creating the socialising magic of water cooler conversations (Credits – Rich Lem’s)

Under the radar: Expert watercoolers

Rather than sustain a system that is doomed, best is to unravel the expertise of in-house people in exercises and assignments. Working together, with as many people as possible, that’s the best option to let awareness of various expertises permeate the fabric of the organisation or network. Re-creating, as it were, the socialising magic of watercoolers to find out more about each other and each other’s work. Using the power of informality. As much as possible, as wide as possible.

Over-ratedSocial media galore (be there)

The tool obsession is particularly present in the social media world, with all its bells and whistles. So tempting to try it all out (and we should, that’s the best way to learn what works for us or not) and to let it be without further thought. But we can’t just let social media proliferate. As mentioned in the social media guide ILRI and AfricaAdapt released a few months back, every social media outlet we open is a shop window to ourselves (whether organisations or persons) and if we don’t manage those outlets well, it reflects badly upon us. So step back and think about why you want to choose social media.

Under the radarSocial media purpose

Or social media with purpose! Once you know what you want to achieve with social media, it becomes a lot easier to decide the mix of social media you’ll be using. It doesn’t prevent you from exploring new tools, but perhaps you can explore with some process in mind to make out the wheat from the chaff. Better invest in a small set that you use well than a large set of tools that reverberate and amplify your inability to cope with the social world.

Over-ratedThe KM silver bullet big bang

Another avatar of the 50-cent approach? Lots of people still think that a big bang KM approach will come solve all the problems. One system that will solve all the issues. One initiative that will mysteriously remove all the hurdles. With such ambitions, how to resist heralding a KM initiative loud and clear? That’s the KM big bang approach. Mixed with silver bullet ambitions, it’s a clear recipe for a disaster and the guarantee of a backlash that will create a long term aversion to KM. In an article from 2009 I looked at this issue already. Managing expectations… that’s the secret for a happy life.

Under the radarShadow KM warriors

The opposite end of the spectrum is the stealth approach to KM. There are, in your organisation and networks, lots of people that are very effective KM agents – sometimes without realising. The best we can do is to highlight them as role models and to amplify their practices. #KMhappensanyway.

Over-ratedBig data

And now, as our servers’ hosting capacities and computers’ processing capabilities allow, we are moving into the ‘big data’ phase. Everyone wants big data, everyone wants to dig data and to come up with the best number-crunching systems. Of course we’d be foolish not to take advantage of big data. But ‘don’t believe the hype’! Or keep wary of it… Data can be dangerously manipulated, and it takes a fair amount of experience to be used well.

Under the radarWide learning

Instead of focusing on data, or even information which is ever expanding (for a couple of years we’ve known that every two days we double the amount of information available), we’d be well advised to focus on learning – the capacity to process information and turn it into knowledge – and to do that as widely as possible, involving as many people as possible. That’s the best guarantee to make sure we avoid any of the above-mentioned mistakes in the future…

Social learning strategy framework (Credits - Jay Cross)

Social learning strategy framework (Credits – Jay Cross)

So while there’s much we can do with KM, there’s much we can learn and un-learn from the past and there’s a lot of other ideas we can try out… Time for mature, dynamic, ever-learning agile KM, you reckon?

Related blog posts:

Back on monitoring learning, from social media to impact


Second attempt to review some of the work done recently in the communication and knowledge management workshop (for CGIAR research programmes).

Another building block session was about the monitoring and evaluation of KM and communication. The group of participants was very interesting: a mix of researchers who are interested in monitoring participatory work, monitoring & evaluation (M&E) folks who know that impact assessment is the part that leads M&E and interests donors and organisations most, and finally comms/KM folks who usually monitor web stats and social media measures of influence, if anything at all.

Monitoring learning is about connecting knowledge dots, from social media 'signals' to evidence of impact (Credits - Dkuropatwa)

Monitoring learning is about connecting knowledge dots, from social media ‘signals’ to evidence of impact (Credits – Dkuropatwa)

Usually these three categories of people do not mingle (so) much with one another – each evolving in their comfortable silo. As a result, M&E is usually not integrated and serves only the interests of either of these communities. So this session was another interesting attempt at bringing together the learning/monitoring brothers.

Here are a few reflections that came up in our conversations:

  • Monitoring communication and knowledge work is essential in complex initiatives where both documentation and engagement are necessary. How we can best do this? By ensuring that comms and knowledge are at the heart of impact/outcome assessment and M&E, looking at where information management (availability of scientific information, high standards of data and information), knowledge sharing (engagement, dissemination) and learning (personal KM and social learning etc.) can contribute to better impact.
  • There are a series of interesting monitoring areas that comms and knowledge work partly cover, which can be of help for wider impact assessment:
    • Reach (how information reaches intended or unintended beneficiaries)
    • Appreciation of the information sent (or appreciation for the fact of being kept updated)
    • Influence of that information on thinking, discourse, actions
    • Results of these influences: changes in policy, practice etc.
  • All these aspects both work internally and externally: We try to reach, influence etc. both inside our programs and organisations and outside.
  • While impact assessment on the one hand and social media monitoring on the other hand are approaching evaluation questions in a very different way, a simple bridge between comms and impact crowds is a major step forward: after conducting social media monitoring, getting back to the audience with a couple of deeper questions could reap useful deeper reflections. Similarly, when developing impact assessment baselines etc., paying attention to the contribution of simple communication activities, tools and approaches can also help reveal more of these crucial connections.
  • The approach of bringing multiple stakeholders together to negotiate intended outcomes (as we suggested in one of the IKM-Emergent research program papers on this topic) might be one step too far at this stage but I feel it will come back on the menu sooner than we think…

The CGIAR Aquatic agricultural systems research program is trying to move towards the recognition of the importance of a knowledge sharing and learning culture – as a separate research strand, which is innovative in the CGIAR system – as a whole approach that federates KM, communication and monitoring and evaluation.

I will be working with some people from that program, from the recent workshop and from colleagues at my former organisation IRC as they are also looking into monitoring knowledge work. After the conceptual time of IKM-Emergent looking at these issues, I feel this might follow a rather pragmatic approach.

Yeeha! And here I come back on one of my favourite pet KM topics…

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