Opportunity costs of documentation and how to make it work…


In my book of KM, documentation is an essential part of the work.

Documentation - do you read it (Credits: Matt Ray / FlickR)

Documentation – do you read it (Credits: Matt Ray / FlickR)

Not everyone agrees to it. Someone who works a lot with Liberating Structures recently told me he didn’t necessarily see the point of harvesting anything because the people that were ‘doing the work’ would remember.

But then there’s always the point of documenting for the sake of the people who are not ‘doing the work’ there and then. Keeping traces so others can pick up the trail and use it in ways that help them.

However the question always remains: what should you document (e.g. what is good in a project) and how much should you invest in documenting it – and how – vs. how much you should set up processes to directly connect people with relevant experience?

This is the eternal debate of documentation vs. one-on-one experience sharing, of Alexandrian libraries vs. campfires – something that is currently being debated on KM4Dev around the title “How Elon Musk can tell if job applicants are lying about their experience” (link pending on membership).

Yes, Alexandrian libraries are only a partial solution because they don’t relate a lot of the complexities. And as Johannes Schunter pointed recently on his blog, lessons learnt that generate bland statements are useless (the ‘Duh’ test).

And there is the issue that documentation takes time and effort. Not everything can be documented, everywhere, all the time, by everyone. It’s the same opportunity cost as for monitoring and evaluation (for which we can also adopt a somewhat agile approach).

Here are some ideas to identify what to document and how:

What to document?

  • What is new?
  • What is significant?
  • What’s been done about this already (in some form or shape)?
  • What is simple (and can be codified into principles or best practices)?
  • What is complicated (but can still follow good/next practice)?
  • What is complex and inter-related about this?
  • What is unknown?
  • What is helping us ask the next best questions?
  • Who knows more about this
  • What could be useful next steps?

How to document?

  • Develop templates for documentation for e.g. case studies (link pending KM4Dev membership);
  • Keep it simple: as little information as needed to inform people, but linked sufficiently well to other sources;
  • Develop a collective system where people can add up their experiences and insights (e.g. the KS Toolkit) – make sure you have one place that people recognise as the go-to site for this information;

How to prepare that documentation work? And this is the most important part.

  • Stimulate your own documentation through blogging, note taking, managing a diary etc. It always starts and ends at the individual level – as the constant knowledge gardeners we should be;
  • Make sure your documentation is related to conversations (as Jaap Pels also recommends in his KM framework) so that you get an active habit of identifying;
  • Make sure you have formal and informal spaces and times for these conversations to erupt, both at personal level with our personal learning networks, within teams, within organisations, across organisations (e.g. in networks) etc.;
  • Develop abilities for documentation (which is part of the modern knowledge worker’s skillset);
  • Develop a strong questioning approach where you are constantly working on foresight, trend watching, complex tradeoff assessments etc.;
  • Role model documentation of the important aspects emerging from learning conversations, to stimulate a culture of intelligent documentation;
  • Assess how your documentation makes sense and what is required – and this is the art and science of documentation, to strike the balance between time inputs and learning/productivity outcomes…
Documentation as the next opportunity? See this 'Documentation Maturity Model' (Credits: Mark Fidelman / FlickR)

Documentation is an interesting KM opportunity for many people. See this ‘Documentation Maturity Model’ (Credits: Mark Fidelman / FlickR)

How do you approach documentation in your conversations?

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