Knowledge Management… the fountain of resilience, adaptation, innovation and sustainability (and buzzwords!)


It goes back a long while that I’ve been asking myself what KM is and why it matters. This morning, while running, it struck me: it is just what makes us more resilient, adaptive and innovative, beyond the immediate challenge we are facing. Incidentally, KM is also dangerous with that ability to catch all buzzwords in its trail (resilient is the new adaptive, and innovation is the talk of E-town)…

Miracles of Evolution - Africa - Tihamer Gyarmathy, 1977 (Credits: WikiArt)

Miracles of Evolution – Africa – Tihamer Gyarmathy, 1977 (Credits: WikiArt)

What is KM trying to do? 

Of course KM supposedly helps organisations achieve their mission, be more effective in that endeavour, but KM focuses a lot (my expectation) on ever-learning, looking back to look forward, keeping track and avoiding to reinvent the wheel (though it’s sometimes ok), institutional memory curation, lessons learned, picking peoples’ brains and co-creating… so really KM is about developing a collective intelligence and finding ways to anticipate and prepare for what comes next, away from silver bullets, in the itchy corner of our brain where the next solution (trial) lies.

That is at the heart of being resilient, of adaptive thinking and working, of innovation.

Hmmm. Only given that some key things are in place. I am thinking about all these things right now when thinking about our local KM4Dev Addis Ababa/Ethiopia network, so I can progressively disengage myself from the coordination side to ensure that this network can continue on its own (without a non-Ethiopian to coordinate it). So what helps in strengthening resilience, adaptiveness etc.?

  • Thinking from the start about an exit strategy (and a good induction program) or some strategy to ensure that the initiative is embedded and owned by whoever is directly concerned, independently from the individuals involved in that initiative;
  • Developing capacity consciously, from the start and throughout, by questioning beyond the WHAT? and focusing on the knowledge, attitude and skills required to make the initiative successful;
  • Documenting the process throughout, so that all the generic context (simple or complicated, not complex) of an initiative, can be partly passed on to anyone else;
  • Making sure that there isn’t a single point of failure, that responsibilities are shared over teams so the success and transferability of good work does not depend on one person only (even though individuals matter a lot);
  • Mapping relations and expertise so anyone can find out where to go to find answers to their questions…
  • Organising conversations around these issues of resilience, adaptiveness, sustainability, long-term, roles and responsibilities, risks and how to mitigate them…
Diversity... also good for better outcomes (Credits: Steve Jurvetson / FlickR)

Diversity… also good for better outcomes (Credits: Steve Jurvetson / FlickR)

Now, away from that KM4Dev network and back into the reality of organisations…

The issue – and the problem of a lot of KM initiatives – is that the transition from ‘the team here and now’ to ‘the others out there, now and for the eternity’ often proves a real chasm and gets in the way of making use of all the good work by that team.

Scaling up, out, in space and time, that is the real challenge of resilient, adaptive KM.

And yet organisations are much better placed than individuals (and perhaps even networks) to make that leap. Because organisations (supposedly) have a coherent narrative to them, that all their employees can relate to, whether they like it or not. And crucially an organisation has some control over its employees. So it can probably enforce the transfer of skills, the curation of information and the sharing of knowledge to other teams and future employees (the latter is notoriously difficult still)…

Is it actually desirable to seen an organisation enforce this? And does it really happen? There are quite a few other questions to sharpen our critical thinking about the promised lands of resilience, innovation and sustainability (and yes indeed Nancy, critical thinking is subtle):

  • Is it better to go for KM below the radar (stealth mode) as I usually advocate, or to go for a slightly more ‘out in the open’ approach that perhaps has better chances of achieving that resilience and innovation at (a larger) scale?
  • Is there actually a point at encouraging organisations to be resilient, adaptive, innovative, if their finality is perhaps to disappear (I’m thinking about international, Northern hemisphere-based organisations working on global development). Isn’t there a risk of perpetuating structures when they may not be needed, or even helpful?
  • Related to the previous point: is it possible, over the long haul, to combine resilience/adaptiveness with sustainability? Isn’t that a contradiction in the terms?
  • Where does KM set the boundary in focusing on the organisation’s mandate or rather on the wider agenda that consider tradeoffs or compromises in space or time (more on that in another post)…, with the risk of going against the organisation?
  • What are the political options of KM to counter with the self-sustaining drivers of organisations (how can KM continue to promote the right ideas despite the organisation’s [hidden?] agenda to invest in its survival cost what cost)?

Perhaps these questions are some of the reasons why scaling up good KM (in space or time) does not easily take place… and why KM keeps focusing on the next buzzword to find another way to get at the same objective?

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The death of nice communities of practice?


Greeks always argue about facts (Credits: papazimouris / FlickR)

Argument, oiling in respect among friends… but beyond? (Credits: papazimouris / FlickR)

An interesting conversation is happening in KM4Dev – when is it not the case? – in relation with Dave Snowden‘s recent inputs to the conference on ‘Knowledge for Development (#DIEK4D see https://tagboard.com/diek4d) and his reflections on this post (full meeting wiki notes are available here).

Oh and close down those communities of practice which are now so hide bound as to be only of use to the avid naval-gazers.  We need more disagreement, more passion, more argument, more engagement which is not conditional on not upsetting people. (Dave Snowden, reflections on #DIEK4D, 9 July 2014)

Two interesting take-homes from this:

a) Let CoPs die!

b) Nice is the new poison

Interesting and provocative statements of course – just wanted to rebound on these, but I highly encourage you to see all strings from that conversation on the KM4Dev mailing list here (link possibly requiring log-in credentials).

Ad a) Let CoPs die!

Not getting Involved (Credits: Tarik B / FlickR)

Communities of practice, between agreement, argument and indifference? (Credits: Tarik B / FlickR)

Communities of practice (CoPs) won’t die just now. Even though it seems many of them are not doing well.

The problem is rather the proliferation of these CoPs, and the fact that many of these CoPs might have been set up and labelled from the onset as ‘CoPs’ although they were just groups of invited people in a top-down manner. CoPs need their time to develop over time. The case of KM4Dev is testimony to that slow simmering process.

The proliferation of guidelines for how to set up and use CoPs (just see some of my personal bookmarks on CoPs) seems a fair indication that there is a lot of bad practice going on and that CoPs take time to grow to a mature level. So the problem is not so much with all those navel-gazing CoPs but rather all those that are steered by a navel-gazing base of narrow-minded people setting up the CoP without budging away from their original thinking, and probably inviting people that are too much alike.

The paradox is that even if it’s not forever and even if it’s not in a real community of practice, having a space for people to question their practice can be a really helpful thing – it just takes a lot of time to develop into a real community of practice that generates the critical mass required to make way for constructive disagreement… And it leads thus naturally to point b)

Ad b) Nice is the new poison

That argument really is an interesting one, as it seems to denote a trend that happens at some point to a lot of people studying (and ‘doing’) work on collaboration. The Wageningen UR teams who theorised multi-stakeholder processes have also progressively shifted their interest away from the positive aspects of cooperation to the conflicts and negotiation of these conflicts around setting a collective agenda.

I think the issue here is rather about the conditions of establishing a space for learning and decision-making. Learning is very much steered by the conjunction of ideas coming from people with very different walks of life. Allowing that diversity to flourish means that the people in that space need to be open to wildly different ideas, listen to all and make something of that. And the decision-making process in those spaces should cherish that diversity and not kill any deviation from an ‘orthodox practice’.

This can mean allowing disagreement to revisit the foundations of work as we know it. That is deeply disruptive. And itchy. Not pleasant to most people, and thus the reason why disagreement is somehow snuffed in the bud in some spaces. Now, while I see how sterile conversations can be if everyone agrees to everything, I’ve always been an advocate of the ‘Yes and‘ principle of improvisation theatre, which is not about disagreeing but building upon each other in a creative way.

Every conversation has its dynamics, they need not be all about agreeing, neither about disagreeing… It is all about the space that you entertain and the negotiated outcomes that a group seeks at a given time. And it’s all dynamic, so agreeing to keeping an eye on the diversity of views and possible disagreements is an essential part of the process. Some of the key questions are thus perhaps:

  • To what extent are you paying attention to diversity, curiosity over establishment and creative disruption in your collective learning space?
  • What tells you that a space has become stale? What are the early signs that something needs to be done or that space needs to disappear – or that it needs to go through a massive disruption process?
  • Who are you actually to say that this or that space is not helpful and should disappear, if it allows others to find their own space for personal development? What is your mandate and your stake in that decision?

    The Purpose of Argument (Credits: Imnotquitejack / FlickR)

    The Purpose of Argument (Credits: Imnotquitejack / FlickR)

Oh, an are you gonna say something about your silence these past few weeks? On another note, I’m coming to terms with some of the feedback – that I invited and – that I received a while back: This blog is indeed probably not the #1 most innovative of all blogs around. Yet it is my blog and that blog reflects who I am. I may not be Harold Jarche, but I think I do have some innovative ideas…Yet whether that’s true or not, I can’t really pretend to be someone else, so I reckon it will keep on reacting on the signals that I find interesting, because this is my mode of processing a lot of that information, and actually innovation happens at the edge, in transforming and combining bits of information such as these… that does not prevent me from taking into account a lot of the other comments I received. But I prefer to keep blogging with my limitations rather than be stopped by the blank page syndrome because I should be someone else…

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