Use a precise language for precise results


Language is a challenging issue.

People have different relations to it and different abilities.

Language

From which it results that, we more often than not, not quite understand each other the way each person talking is hoping to get understood. Which is why, by the way, paraphrasing is a good idea for today and every day.

We aren’t all native English speakers (to take the example of English). I am not. We aren’t all paying attention to how detailed someone says something. We aren’t all ready to take the time to discuss ‘semantics’.

Yet having a precise language is really important! All the more when we give feedback to each other. Here is why:

  • Detailed language allows us to be very precise and focused about what we are talking about, thus it eliminates a lot of unnecessary vagueness and generalities around what we are discussing. “The table of contents of this document is missing a couple of key items, let’s get back to the author Michael M” is vastly better than “There’s something wrong with the table of contents” (of what by the way)?
  • Detailed language can give much more information than just the ‘what’ we are talking about, it gives information about the kind of statement or question, the intention, the focus, the scope, the kind of response it pitches for etc. “What I mean to say here is that it saddens me to see you struggle with putting together the pictures for that information brief because it’s not the first time I’ve noticed this and I would like to offer my help to avoid falling back into that trap” is again vastly better than “You’re not dealing with that job well”.
  • When giving feedback to each other, precise language zooms in on the one ‘technical’ area that we are focusing on, which means it’s easier to accept than receiving general feedback e.g. ” Your presentation was good” – erm what about it was? The technicality of the content, the pitching, the tone used, the delivery of the presentation, the length, the visuals, anything else from wow presentations?
  • More generally, while semantics can lead to tiresome conversations, a decent measure of it helps develop enough common ground for a ‘working definition’ that may not be perfect but should be good enough to work with for a given group for a given time. Putting semantics under the carpet is only inviting more and more and more questions, acrimony and waking the dead man from the carpet up again.

So it’s really useful to invest in sharpening our language. And here are some tips for both speakers and listeners.

Speakers:

  • When talking about someone, be considerate enough to be precise about WHO WHAT WHEN WHERE WHY and HOW. A statement like “He did that to him” is considerably less clear than “John Doe charged Bob Smith 200 USD extra”. Even if the statement is obvious to you, it may not be to your listener.
  • If you’re giving feedback, you might want to ask questions rather than give feedback as statements.
  • If you do give a statement of feedback, one of the best ways to do so is to say: “when you did(/said) xyz, the effect it had on me was abc”. That is basic hotel school training and a lifeskill to learn.

Listeners:

  • Even if you’re not yourself paying much attention to precise language, pay attention to whether the speaker is, and then pay attention to every word they say, and question (clarify) their use of this or that word.
  • Paraphrase again and again, to make sure you understood – and check that you got it right.
  • And both listeners and speakers could do worse than ask each other whether they like semantics discussions and pay attention to details in their language before they create misunderstandings with each other.

So much to improve on interpersonal communication at every level. So let’s get going and discover the trees in the forest of our minds!

Language is an old-growth forest of the mind #quotesRelated blog posts:

 

Be genuine and genuinely care for your neighbour’s pace on the way to change


A lot of conversations, in general and also on this blog, are exploring past reflections and previous conversations. I am in one of these iterations about Alignment and authenticity.

I’ve said before that -for me- authenticity is essential in what we do, when we engage with others, because that genuine approach shows the real us and helps others develop trust with us (and I’ve also stated elsewhere that ‘TRUST is the truth‘).

However there is one exception to this principle: the pace. Pace of language and of motion.

Courses on communication remind us to mimick the other person’s behaviour, tone, body language to subconsciously create a positive rapport with that other person. And that is very true (though I usually don’t pay conscious attention to this). And as much as that is true, the pace of how we talk, and the pace of what we think and do is really important to create a fertile ground.

I’ve learned in that recent management training course (where I discovered my contribution statement for what I bring to the world) that:

“One step by 100 men is greater than 100 steps by one man”

And so it derives that to achieve this one step taken by 100 men, we need to adapt to others. We may have our own personality and our original ideas, but if we are to achieve any stage of common sense-making and action, we need to slow down (or occasionally speed up) the way we talk, think and act to level with these other people we want to take on the journey with us.

We must care for the pace of our neighbours. Because ideas will not come really into fruition before their time…

Ideas don't blossom before their time anyway (Credits: QuoteAddicts)

Ideas don’t blossom before their time anyway (Credits: QuoteAddicts)

This means that while we can’t force things to happen (ish), we can prepare the ground for it by mirroring the pace of language, thought and action of the people around us.

I tend to be very quick in many things we do. I even talk fast. And I’ve had to come to terms with that, particularly when I’m facilitating. I still have much progress to make in terms of adapting to the pace of action of people around me, and adapting to their thought model. But the road to real change emerges from the combination of all our little trails together. When we converge and align we start taking a direction that is much firmer and stronger than the one we were on.

That is my very modest ‘shoot‘ for this week: remain genuine to your ideas and who you are, but connect to the pathways of others by adapting to their pace. That is an effort worth investing in.

Alignment (Credits: Aftab Uzzaman / FlickR)

Alignment (Credits: Aftab Uzzaman / FlickR)

What’s coming up for you?

Related blog posts:

Great and poor metaphors for knowledge, learning and change


Metaphor (Credits: Daniel Hoherd / FlickR)

Metaphor (Credits: Daniel Hoherd / FlickR)

Metaphors are great.

They reach out to the artist in us.

They tell us stories – not just plain facts.

They are, like modelling tools, great props to visualise the future.

But, like modelling, they’re only helpful to an extent – and perhaps their ultimate motive is to be proven wrong. Like a stick that helps someone recover into walking properly, only to get rid of the stick then.

Let’s examine a few metaphors that work or don’t (for me, subjectively) around agile knowledge management…

The knowledge garden(ing) – works

The knowledge garden, and all its benefits (Credits: PictureQuotes)

The knowledge garden, and all its benefits (Credits: PictureQuotes)

I love this metaphor as it considers the process of attending to knowledge: planting it, cultivating it, watering it, fertilising it, trimming it, harvesting it… nearly all related actions to gardening and letting the knowledge garden blossom work for me. And not only is this metaphor plastic and elastic but it really puts the emphasis on the communion between nature and culture, on the balance between intention and intentional letting go, on caring…

I share because I care!

This is one of my favourite metaphors.

The organisation as a family – doesn’t work

We are so often compelled, in organisations we work in, to be ‘part of the family’, to be ‘welcome to the family’, to ‘stick to the family’, to become a functional family member. And yet few metaphors rub me in the wrong way this one does because:

  • I choose the organisation I work with, it’s not a given to me;
  • I don’t identify with a daddy and a mommy in organisations;
  • I don’t want to consider any organisation the space where I’ll have to spend the next 15 or so (or more) years in;
  • I just don’t see the point of forcing to make any organisation the place that I should care for above anything else, as I do for my true family;
  • And some might even say that the family is not the most ideal to aspire to…

So this organisation-family metaphor is a complete flop for me. I actually tweeted about this last week:

 

Networks, on the other hand, might be much closer, for me, to a family, as KM4Dev was for me, from the start.

Knowledge as water – works… to some extent

Knowledge is fluid, knowledge sharing is like a flow and there is definitely something akin to the liquid plasticity of water, it goes in all directions, it’s adaptable, it can become something else like ice or vapour… Knowledge has some watery qualities for sure.

Knowledge, water, wisdom... hmm... tricky words to connect (Credits: EmilysQuotes)

Knowledge, water, wisdom… hmm… tricky words to connect (Credits: EmilysQuotes)

But the main limitation of that metaphor is that it gives the wrong impression that it can be ‘captured’, ‘measured’, ‘transferred’, stocked, and that’s where I don’t agree, since my definition of KM=CDL.

Knowledge as love – works… to some extent

This is not even an oft-used metaphor, and of course there’s a limit to that metaphor because there is nothing really romantic or erotic about knowledge per se, but essentially the big link is that knowledge and love sow the seeds for more. They self-multiply. Through sharing them you increase them. And you don’t lose anything yourself, even quite the contrary.

So the generous qualities of love and knowledge are very similar – and it’s that angle of this metaphor that I find useful.

Organisations are not machines... (Credits: Stuart McMillen)

Organisations are not machines… (Credits: Stuart McMillen)

Organisations and people as machines – doesn’t work

I can’t find it on Twitter (I should have RT’d it) but someone ranted about this last week. And for good reasons! We are not cogs. We are not machines. We are capable of feelings, ideas, creativity, genius, inspiration, excitement.

Of course we can always become more efficient, more productive, and perform in an increasingly well-oiled manner… but that’s only part of the story and as Seth Godin (again) would tell you  it’s remote from what linchpins stand for, with all their passionate art, right into the economics of gift!

And if that ‘machine-metaphor’ becomes our primary lens for understanding human relationships in the knowledge age, we have lost it – deeply, perhaps completely.

Military metaphors – don’t work

What’s your target group? When will you shoot me an email? It’s time to go to battle. We hit the ground running, have to bite the bullet etc.

If anything, let’s fire away at these military metaphors. Although there clearly are belligerent approaches to life and a fair bit of warmongering among people, life is not a battlefield. It’s not meant to be.

I’m not alone on this path, the Wall Street Journal ran the same rant. The famous media showed the limitations of extending that kind of language: “Suppose that we turned this idiocy on its head and imagined a world where it was the military that used ludicrously inappropriate terminology from the business world.” and end up with something like…

“We tried to move the needle with Al Qaeda, but there was a sudden paradigm shift,” says a tank commander in Syria. “At the end of the day, the low-hanging fruit turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg.”

Metaphors shape our language, our vision, our actions, perhaps even our feelings if they are deeply enough entrenched. So let’s pick our words carefully, and sow the seeds of peace with all the other gardeners of this world, rather than go to war with the people that are against us… Don’t you think?

What metaphors work for you or not for knowledge, learning, change?

Related blog posts:

Getting to ‘wow’ with public speaking and presenting


Getting to wow with public speaking (Credits: Jonny Goldstein/FlickR)

Getting to wow with public speaking (Credits: Jonny Goldstein/FlickR)

My current work environment is academic. Which means people around me produce a hell of a lot of information. And presentations.

I would have thought their presenting and public speaking skills were very good, considering… uh uh… not quite the case. And there are many reasons for that. But I guess many people around me are actually busy undertaking their research, not spending (so) much time fine-tuning their presentation. “It only takes a few minutes to put together a presentation”, right? UH UH!!

This a real pity, because it means entire years of research can see their future use be wasted by one single badly designed, or badly delivered presentation (or both). So after thinking about this for a while, and encouraged by a couple of colleagues who wanted to get this kind of information out, I put together a presentation about what it takes to give well-designed presentations in an effective way.

There are many good presentations about how to make good presentations out there. I put some of these in the links at the end of this presentation. But I needed something combining it all for the sake of my own audience.

SO here it is – and please let me know what you think…

Oh and a disclaimer: I’m hereby presenting a beta version of this presentation so I might upload an updated version at a later time.

And with a zest of serendipity, here’s what John Stepper just blogged about on the topic of getting better at public speaking!  The links are very good.

Related blog posts:

 

‘Open’ as default, not the exception – oh, and please get over your self importance ;)


Open Up and embrace the universe (Credits: Allstair Nicol/FlickR)

Open Up and embrace the universe (Credits: Allstair Nicol/FlickR)

Openness is a scary thing indeed.

Opening yourself is really difficult, letting go all the more so (oh, read this beautiful testimony about it).

And even opening your information to others seems to intimidate people more than is necessary…

Many people I work with or come across have difficulties operating in ‘open spaces’ – and I’m not referring to Open Space Technology here but the virtual collaboration spaces where we can do things together (e.g. wikis, Google documents). They feel open is a hurdle for their sharing information and making use of the space.

 

I recently had such a conversation with a colleague in a project. He confessed in good faith that:

“It’s [the virtual space] supposed to be a ‘workspace’ but it is open to the public so there is not much dynamism & liberty in actually using it. It’s like the information that has to be posted needs some extra layers of censorship which then limits the frequency of use.”

So this might just be an interesting avatar of ‘knowledge is power’, or rather ‘closed knowledge is comfort’…?

In trying to answer that colleague I reflected on the many reasons why -until now unconsciously- I don’t share that point of view.

Hereby…

'Open' is getting traction everywhere (Credits: Ron Mader)

‘Open’ is getting traction everywhere (Credits: Ron Mader)

The world is opening to ‘Open’

Open is becoming the default, the rule rather than the exception. In global development, various funding organisations are actually making it a rule they enforce to have all outputs from initiatives they fund publicly accessible as ‘general public goods’. So there you have it. Open is the way the world is turning.

Resisting it is a challenging uphill pathway.

 

Get over yourself and the importance of your information

The information that we typically share in projects is for 99.99999999% of the population really not critical – so what is really the big deal about putting our informal information out there?

And on the other hand, aren’t there serious opportunity costs with having the teams involved in a given initiative not getting information that is potentially of use to them? Nothing new under the sun here. In any case – in the vast majority of cases let’s say – don’t expect your information to be so cutting-edge that it is information your potential competitors are dying to get.

Do people have the time to look for your information?

Unless you are based in China, North Korea, Eritrea or some other country that strictly controls information, it’s unlikely that anyone is actively crawling the web to find your content – let alone to do anything toxic with it. ‘Open’ doesn’t mean ‘reached’ 😉 People are just too busy with their lives. They will only find your content if they’re actively looking for something specific about it.

Trust the search engine algorithms to keep your work space rather intimate

So next, even if people had time to look specifically for your information, even if they were interested and actually looking for your information, the algorithms of search engines are based on mutual linkages first and foremost, on ‘referrals’. In other words the more a website is linked and pointed to from other sources the higher up it shows up. In the absence of many other websites pointing to your workspace, that workspace is more than likely to remain ‘undercover’ when it comes to search results. So you actually enjoy your privacy despite operating in an open environment and approach.

What is the likelihood that people do mean harm with your information?

And this is my biggest point here: Even despite all of the above, what is the chance that people accessing your information really want to do something harmful with it? What are the risks?

  • That they use and abuse your information without giving you credit for it? You can use Creative Commons licences to say what’s ok or not – and if you want to go down that road you can always hire a lawyer to sue whoever is breaching your agreement.
  • That they use your information to beat you on certain ‘market opportunities’? Perhaps true in the corporate sector, much less so in the global development one.
  • That they will ‘troll‘ your workspace? Well that’s a real risk, though of all the open groups I’ve been involved in in the past, I haven’t had one instance of this happening. What would you do against it?

If your fear is ‘half-baked thinking’, think again!

It could be that the legitimate concern of my colleague (who operates in the academic world where that fear is quite common) is of presenting ideas and thoughts that are not fully formed etc. But HEY that’s how innovation happens!

And more and more we find out examples that ‘quick and dirty’ is actually beautiful

Open is beautiful and it's everywhere (Credits: OpenSourceWay)

Open is beautiful and it’s everywhere (Credits: OpenSourceWay)

It’s not a 0/1 thing, you can find middle ways with open…

As a matter of reaching consensus, whether on wikis, on Google documents or websites or whatever, there’s all kinds of ways to make parts of a work space closed.

In the case I mentioned above, my colleague was reacting about a work space we are using as entirely open because we didn’t use the more expensive version with more privacy control… But that option is there and can be switched any time.

So in conclusion…

All the above makes me think that we can and should see Open really as default, and share most of our information publicly on our workspaces and other virtual platforms. Not least since ‘we share because we care‘.

That doesn’t mean ‘open knowledge’ cannot be even achieved in ever smarter ways…

Related posts:

Moving conversations up the trust ladder… and scale of influence


The infinite recognition [R. Magritte, 1963]

The infinite recognition [R. Magritte, 1963]

At the end of the day, as some would say (‘KM is about increasing the quality and frequency of conversations that get your job done’), in KM it’s all about conversations.

Conversations of contact-making (contextual webs)

Conversations of meaning-making

Conversations of joint exploration

Conversations of co-creation (in events and otherwise)

Conversations of trust building

Conversations of network weaving

Conversations of influence

But: we’re not well-suited to have all these conversations with everyone any time. Because that trust is not there, because we don’t understand everyone else’s language, because we don’t know what motivates them, because…

So the trick is – for professional purposes – to converse as often, as deeply, as intentionally with as many people people that are interested or influential in the work you do, so you move away from a small opportunity to talk, towards a small chance to work together up to a major joint endeavour. bearing in mind:

  • What you hope to and what you realistically can achieve with or vis-à-vis the person you’re conversing with…
  • What degree of affinity you have with that/those person/s (remember the 50 shades of influence?);
  • Simply what pleasure you derive from conversing with that/those person/s;
  • And sometimes indeed just drifting by, letting yourself go gently together wherever the conversation takes you, without predefined end destination…

By doing so, you increasingly develop a rapport, trust (once again – and I really have to write a post entirely on this cornerstone of agile KM) so that you can move mountains.

Some ideas for conversing more effectively – if you want to influence things as you go forward:

Step out of your social comfort zone, speak with the people that are blatantly not part of your natural 'clique'!

Step out of your social comfort zone, speak with the people that are blatantly not part of your natural ‘clique’!

  • Converse with the non-converts – you can stick to your comfort zone but this world will change only when you start uniting fronts that are not directly bought to your cause. So go out there and engage!
  • Bring eclectic mixes of people – the way Theodore Zeldin tried it at his dinners – as it is the surest way to get an interesting collage that resembles more the bigger picture than you yourself or you and your friends would be able to paint otherwise;
  • Adopt unconventional standpoints to provoke reactions and additional layers to the conversation(s);
  • Use techniques that push you to take other peoples’ perspectives to understand and shift perspectives… DeBono’s six-thinking hats is only one of various such methods…

But remember that conversations – although they should be enjoyed in and of themselves, simply – are always opportunities to move up on the scale of getting the next big thing done, the next big movement marching on.

So go out and converse, don’t be shy, that’s the way humanity has been going on and growing up… And this way you avoid dotty communication and that’s not a bad starting point 😉

Related posts:

Sharing and learning: the ‘glue and grease’ of comms and (I)KM


The ‘glue and grease’ – what a horrible expression!!!

The glue and grease: sharing/learning (Credits: GaryPuppa)

The glue and grease: sharing/learning (Credits: GaryPuppa)

 

The first time I heard a former colleague of mine use that expression to refer to the role of communication I didn’t like it either.

But I’ve got to say that until I find a better expression for it, it’s a pretty accurate description of what our (then) comms team was supposed to be to others: the glue that brings everyone together, and the grease that lets knowledge flow easily.

But the ‘glue and grease’ only happens when the sharing (and learning) in KM comes together with communication.

Not many organisations have a KM unit that covers knowledge sharing. Not many companies have a comms team that looks into the learning and sharing that true agile KM offers… In a typical (research for) development organisation, one finds a ‘comms’ unit that typically takes care of media contacts, press releases, corporate communication and public relations, and generally publications. It’s the ‘big mouth’ of an organisation. And then one finds a ‘KM’ unit which essentially is an information management unit taking care of databases and portals and all kinds of information systems etc. That’s the ‘legs’. But where are the hands and arms that join forces and the brains that connect all actions with intentions?

The glue and grease is the sharing and learning (not in a literal, respective manner). And it’s time to bring comms and KM together, to power comms with KM inside, to pay a central attention to processes of sharing and learning. So: what are you doing in your organisation or environment, to ensure there is this glue and grease?

And add that to your process literacy kit, please 😉

Image from page 344 of "Anthony's photographic bulletin for .." (1870)

Related blog posts:

Getting KM and comms accepted, valued and right – An interview for APQC


Interview (Credits - Eelco Kruidenier - Smiling_Da_Vinci - FlickR)

Interview (Credits – Eelco Kruidenier – Smiling_Da_Vinci – FlickR)

Of late, I’ve taken up a habit of interviewing people I find interesting for this blog:

  • Jocelyne Yennenga Kompaore on pioneering KM in Burkina Faso;
  • Carl Jackson on new trends of facilitation and collective meaning-making;
  • Ann Waters-Bayer on social learning and farmer-led innovation;
  • Michael Victor on the blurred boundaries between communication, knowledge management, monitoring and evaluation etc.
  • Krishan Bheenick (upcoming) on finding a balance between information vs. knowledge management.

But this time I am the one interviewed. It’s interesting to see how someone approaches you with a specific angle and interest, which may be very different to your own hobby horses and headlights – a useful experience to keep in mind and relate better to my own interviewees in the future.

In this brand new APQC interview, I was asked to answer a few questions related to knowledge transfer and the difficulties of the neglected field of communication. A couple of points I’d like to emphasise here:

  • Although the title mentions ‘knowledge transfer’, I already explained before that I don’t think ‘knowledge transfer’ is possible – based on a certain definition of knowledge.
  • The interview relates to the wider field of KM, not necessarily the sub-domain of KM ‘for development’, with its long history of failures (but also all the opportunities that come with that), which probably explains why a lot of the KM projects I am referring to may not have such clear-cut goals and objectives.

Anyways… Hereby the text of the interview – though you can find it on the APQC website following this link. Thank you APQC for approaching me and for allowing this re-posting 🙂

—–

APQC recently chatted with Ewen Le Borgne, senior editor of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal, about why communication is a key part of transferring and applying critical knowledge.

Ewen Le Borgne is knowledge sharing and communication specialist at the International Livestock Reseearch Institute, senior editor of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal, and core group member of the global Knowledge Management for Development community of practice. You can read his blog Agile KM for me..and you or follow him on Twitter at@ewenlb.

If you would like to learn more about transferring and applying critical knowledge, you can listen to our free webinar: 12 Best Practices to Transfer and Apply Critical Knowledge.

In a great blog post you said: “Communication and KM are ‘secondary processes,’ which means they are not central operations. As a result they are sometimes underestimated, understaffed and under-budgeted.” In our study, the best-practice organizations structure systematic knowledge elicitation as a time-bound event with clear goals, milestones, responsibilities, and outcomes. It seems so simple but why don’t all organizations lay out clear goals and objectives from the start of some KM projects?

Because KM had its chance a while back, failed because of the passion for tools, and is now finding it difficult to gain ground again. A lot of organizations don’t understand KM well enough and thus “shoot in the dark,” oversell it, and further down the line under-deliver. They are not seeing KM as part and parcel of normal operations but as either a) a special unit that will solve all their problems or b) a “mainstream” thing that doesn’t get accounted for anyway and thus leaves it up to anyone (aka no one) to do it right.

What is the main reason some organizations don’t have a clear line of communication for transferring knowledge?

The No. 1 reason might be that learning and reflecting take time to become an embedded practice. Most people go through their (professional) lives without paying so much attention to that practice. As a result, they don’t learn to look around and use existing stuff. I think the whole trick is really to encourage that personal KM and collective KM through regular reflection, reviews, etc.

Can you elaborate on your point that engaging trusted colleagues around the idea that communication/KM is a slow process that feeds off “little successes” and cooperation at all levels?

In some ways, (most) critical knowledge tends to make its way naturally to the people who need it, because they need it badly and find that knowledge wherever it is. The culture of spreading little successes and cooperation at all levels takes a lot more time, always. But if it works in certain teams—where management shows true leadership and people find a good, conducive peer support atmosphere for their work—it can more easily trickle down into wider units of the organization.

What I mean is that there are people who will “get” KM (whatever it’s portrayed as) and others who won’t. You can more easily create a culture that is conducive to it without the latter group involved, and you need to build on early wins that you socialize so that others see the value of your (KM) work. You build on these small successes for the culture. As for the critical knowledge that needs to be handled properly, the best option is to quickly identify it (knowledge needs) and to run mini-projects that focus specifically on addressing those key knowledge needs. The problems surge when an organization embarks on an ambitious KM program that requires a significant change of culture to be successful.

You mention that KM can be easy prey for budget cutters because the results aren’t clear.  Do you have an example or experience where “little successes” helped save a KM program from the ax?

Not really in that way, because I never worked on KM programs that focused just on KM. I’ve always included KM in broader activities, and whenever I focused more specifically on KM I linked it back to the rest of the organization or program in some way. However, rather than examples of KM programs being saved from the ax, I have examples of where KM activities led to much bigger programs (i.e., scaling up KM)—for example, from an initial KM assessment of a previous initiative on water projects in West Africa (by USAID) to a large program with a significant component on KM, or from the modest design and facilitation of some workshops at the onset of another USAID-funded program (on agriculture in Africa) to carving out extra resources to make sure that communication/KM/facilitation of events and processes would support the entire program because the donors loved the inputs we provided in designing/facilitating/documenting/acting upon the workshops.

Finally, our best-practice organizations make sure stakeholders are explicitly accountable for contributing and applying knowledge. What is the best way to communicate and implement this in a positive way?

LEAD BY EXAMPLE: Start it from the management—if, and only if, they lead by example themselves. This means that in many organizations it’s just not going to fly because management is too ensconced in the old ways and doesn’t grab the opportunities of this era to empower employees to take hold of key business conversations, positively influence them, and do something with the outcomes of these conversations.

CONNECT CONVERSATIONS AND KEEP SHARING: I believe in personal knowledge management (PKM) also, and part of PKM suggests that we use our social networks (our personal learning networks) to expand the circle of our conversations. I think smart organizations can encourage a knowledge sharing/applying culture by allowing their employees to use their networks and connect them to their work conversations. That encourages sharing more and more, outside but eventually also inside the company.

DEVELOP A LEARNING CULTURE: Ensuring the “apply knowledge” aspect is more difficult because there are strong drivers working against it. Most people don’t like to look back at what others have done (e.g., applying existing insights from past experiences), and some make a point not to do so, so as to reinvent the wheel and leave their own stamp on the work. The (long-term) way to ensure that past knowledge is applied is to develop a learning culture by multiplying spaces and ways for people to engage, share, and reflect: brown bag seminars, learning retreats, online conversations and consultations, mentoring and peer-support, peer assists, after action reviews and the like, interactive workshops and meetings that focus on engagement/participation and learning. All the while, the trick is to exercise good practice—looking back at past experiences, systematic documentation, and proper facilitation—to ensure all voices are invited, etc. And back to PKM: Encourage personal reflection, blogging, diary-keeping, personal content curation, etc. This helps everyone get into the habit of processing the information they need to stay on top of their field, and they can use some of that personal routine for collective work too.

INDUCT NEW STAFF PROPERLY AND PAIR STAFF TO WORK TOGETHER. Perhaps that’s just part of the previous point but induction programs, joint work, and buddy-systems or mentoring programs are excellent ways to ensure the application of knowledge. Having knowledge sharing explicitly mentioned in the Terms of Reference for a given position may help, but norms are always less effective than practices (such as getting a mentor and mentee together to reflect on work).

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I love interviews, so let me know if you want to be interviewed (or perhaps interview me?) 😉

Communication for development, KM and blurred boundaries: an interview with Michael Victor


In December 2013, a couple of very interesting workshops took place on the ILRI Ethiopia campus around the topic of knowledge management and communication. On that occasion, I interviewed Michael Victor, communication ‘Comms’ and KM coordinator for the Challenge Program for Water and Food (CPWF) and for the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems. 

Michael Victor, Communication and Knowledge Management coordinator for the Challenge Program for Water and Food (Credits: Ewen Le Borgne/ILRI)

Michael Victor, Communication and Knowledge Management coordinator for the Challenge Program for Water and Food (Credits: Ewen Le Borgne/ILRI)

Having been involved in the Nile Basin’s share of the CPWF experience with research for development, I had heard of the concept of ‘blurred boundaries’ that seem to be at the heart of comms and KM in that program, and Michael is one of the proponents of this approach. Here he explains what is meant with it, what his interest in KM is all about and how he sees the field evolve…

  • Blurred boundaries between KM, communication etc. what is it all about?

It’s that

It’s with these system-based learning approaches (knowledge sharing, information management, communication, monitoring and evaluation etc.) that you see learning blurring all connections. You have specific disciplines but you no longer have a database manager, a librarian and a writer. Now the IM/Comms field is a lot more blurred. It’s about getting knowledge at the right time to the right people to make the right decisions. I don’t even understand the difference between comms and uptake.

However there’s real resistance to see these fields get interlinked and to see them support programmatic or external change. And you still need specialists but they should all be working together.

  • What trends are you observing in comms/KM in the development world (or any closer arena)?

Moving from service orientation (corporate) to much more outcome-oriented focus. Also moving from a support.administrative function to a strategic one.

With all the social media we’ve been spewing, I think we’ll see more targeted approaches. We’ve lost the whole connection with national systems and with national comms/KM conduits. We forget that our next users will be the national level users which are not using all these online channels all that much.

  • What is your personal interest in the field of KM – now?

My personal interest is communication for development (comms4dev) and policy communication  i.e. finding ways that we use comms/KM approaches, tools, products, processes, networks (informal or formal) to get research into use and people to get engaged in the research process, using the knowledge from the research in a certain way and get research to be more relevant, better informed etc.

The trick is to trap people to get interested in research but there’s another loop to use people to influence the way research is done.

I’m also kinda interested in this innovation systems and learning to make it practical. It’s still very airy fairy but it sounds very powerful – the question is: “how to get it into use”?

  • What are your sources of inspiration in KM/C?

By talking with people, learning. I don’t think I’m an active learner (e.g. on social networks) but I’m engaging with people. The inspiration for me, overall, was my community forestry experience, learning about Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), understanding that what we’re dealing with is not a technological change but a social movement, getting people more involved and to take over, not just “be developed”. There’s a couple of people that really inspired me: Cor Veer, John Raintree..

At the edges of knowledge work, the new beacons of ever-sharper collective intelligence


Modern knowledge workers don’t really exist. Not with all the highly desirable features we may want them to have. But breaking down what such a super human should do into distinct functions could be a good start to training us all at becoming better knowledge workers. I noted a few of these functions in the profile of a modern knowledge worker such as documenting conversations, filtering information etc. Yet these functions are dynamic and reinvent themselves, and new ones appear.

What are the next knowledge work super-hero functions? (credits - Photonquantique / FlickR)

What are the next knowledge work super-hero functions? (credits – Photonquantique / FlickR)

These new functions are partly addressed already by agile knowledge workers, but perhaps not always with enough intent and consistency. While we may not recognise the following functions, they may become increasingly pertinent in the modern knowledge era, with the intention of mobilising collective knowledge as best we can, particularly around events (online or offline) that bring people to strike rich conversations:

Ex-post sense-maker 

An event that is documented properly leads to rich notes on e.g. a wiki, a Google document, a written report (or otherwise). This is great: anyone participant in such conversations – anyone at all actually – can find and use these traces of conversations. But digital conversation notes are often TOO rich. Too long, too complex. A very useful extra mile for knowledge work would be to go through these notes and tease them out in useful bite-size chunks and compelling formats. An excellent example of this is this documentation of work done on ‘anticipating climate risks in the Sahel‘.

Memory connector (literature sifter)

This is the normal job of researchers. They dig through past documentation and build upon it. But they do it in a specific way – not always most straightforward. So before any planned/structured conversation happens (or any event gets organised), having someone go through all the literature related to the issues at hand, summarising key questions and issues that were raised around that field the last time around (picking up on the trail of ex-post sense-makers), on the latest recommendations etc. would add immense value to the conversations. It’s about mapping out the grid of our collective intelligence and building on it.

Too often we reinvent the wheel out of laziness or lack of awareness about related past conversations. The trick is again to package that preexisting information in ways that make it attractive to the people who will be engaged in the audience. Cartoons? A short video? A Pecha Kucha presentation (see example below)? A list of documents commented with humour? There are many ways to do this. So why do we too often fail at linking the past with the present?

Visualisation engineer

The documentation of conversations is more often than not done in a written format. Or in the best of cases in a myriad of videos. This makes it hard for us to absorb and synthesise that information. So how about visual engineers: people who are able to prepare visual handouts as the conversations unfold, organise intelligent lists of contacts that make networking and connecting easier, sifting through stats and presenting graphs in a radical and compelling way, developing complex thoughts into an-image-is-worth-1000-words kind of graphs and conceptual models.

Graphic recording - a whole palette of options before, during and after... (Credits - Susan Kelly)

Graphic recording – a whole palette of options before, during and after… (Credits – Susan Kelly)

There’s already a lot of graphic recording (see above) happening. I believe in our Instagram-culture of Pinterest drives we are only at the dawn of on-the-spot visual engineering. And this is perhaps not as much a function as an activity that just should occur more systematically.

And here’s another example:

Social network gardener

Perhaps this function is covered under any of the above. The idea is that someone really uses the information recorded and nuggets harvested to plant it/them in the right channels, networks and locations. Combined with the work of a visualisation engineer, this job allows targeted sending of compelling information to the right people.

Social media gardening - takes time but pays off! (Credits - j&tplaman / FlickR)

Social media gardening – takes time but pays off! (Credits – j&tplaman / FlickR)

Social network gardening does take time, but really adds a lot of value to the exchange that happened in the first instance, because it contributes to a universal information base that can reduce the learning curve the next time a group of people are wondering about a similar set of issues. And it does so not just by making information available but also by connecting people, i.e. knowledge – so it’s much more dynamic. Of course a lot of modern knowledge workers are already doing this to some extent. The point is to add structure and intent to this, to maximise opportunities for interaction beyond the group of people already involved.

Interestingly, what all these functions have in common is to combine conversations (knowledge sharing) and their documentation or processing (information management) both before, during and after the conversations happen… Acting upon the conversations as they happen, the nexus of agile KM don’t you think?

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