A knowledge management primer (5): VWXYZ

This final section of the agile KM alphabet primer covers VWXYZ (Credits: DreamsTime)

This final section of the agile KM alphabet primer covers VWXYZ (Credits: DreamsTime)

This is a new series of posts, an alphabet primer of agile knowledge management (KM), to touch upon some of the key concepts, approaches, methods, tools, insights in the world of KM. And because there could have been different alternatives for each letter I’m also introducing the words I had to let go of here.

This is the final part, covering the V of vision all the way to the Z of Zombies.

V for Vision

Any agile KM initiative ought to start with a vision, even if having a plan does not provide a silver bullet and even if a vision doesn’t mean you are close to realising it. But it is an aspiration that gives you an idea of where you want to be (and by default where you are now) so it gives both some non-compromising view of what you’re up against, but also some aspiration and inspiration for where your journey should take you.

V could also have been…

Value – Whether the value of communities of practice, of a new portal, of a training or coaching program, of a series of meetings etc. the value of any KM initiative and of knowledge work has to be assessed, monitored and demonstrated.

W for wisdom

Knowledge without wisdom... (Credits: Michael Fisher / FlickR)

Knowledge without wisdom… (Credits: Michael Fisher / FlickR)

And I don’t mean it in the way the DIKW pyramid works (not), but rather the way continual learning sharpens senses and quickens the road to gathering wisdom (through effectiveness, focus, humility and empathy). Wisdom is about asking the right questions at the right moment, it’s about paying attention to the right people – it permeates all good agile KM initiatives or at least it is openly invited to nestle in such initiatives.

W could also have been…

WIIFM – The famous ‘What’s in it for me’ factor that shows where the benefit is. Without it, kiss your agile KM goodbye because the behaviour change involved with most agile KM initiatives is too high a hurdle for the people concerned if they don’t gain anything and/or don’t see what their personal gains can be. Articulate that WIIFM from the start, and prominently, without making empty promises. It’s part of the personal factor in KM.

Win-win – With the difficult promise of selling KM to anyone, the perspective of ‘multiple fits’ and of minimising tradeoffs (even though they are mostly unavoidable in the complex contexts where agile KM is set) is compelling. So win-win is crucial. And that means for instance web platforms that work for both users, managers and IT managers; or communities of practice that serve creative and productive purposes, or events that please patrons but also benefit all participants etc.

Cross Pollinator (Credits: Jonny Goldstein / FlickR)

Cross Pollinator (Credits: Jonny Goldstein / FlickR)

Web (stuff) – The inevitable expansion of connectivity means the web has become the space of choice for agile KM, even though face-to-face contact is not about to disappear and has much going for it. Still, the web is the reason why knowledge management came of age in terms of connecting learning etc. And the future of the web is proactive, and contextual.

X for X-pollination


Let me cheat here and use X as a cross 😉 Cross-pollination is just a convoluted way of looking at knowledge sharing across (institutional or other) boundaries. It’s the way institutional memory is built across project silos.
X could also have been…

X reasons not to learn – As mentioned in this blog post: X reasons not to learn, not to share, not to progress.

Y for Why?

Another cheat here – we’re in the difficult section of the alphabet he he he – but the point here is to keep on questioning, asking yourself why, educating your questions etc. Why is one of the most powerful questions one can ask. And at this it is one of the most important weapons in the agile KM arsenal.

Y could also have been… well… what, really?

Meeting zombies... (Credits: ReadyTalk)

Meeting zombies… (Credits: ReadyTalk)

Z for Zombies

I’m not talking about the dead-alive of the films, series and games, but about the people who attend poorly designed and ill-facilitated events. This is a good reminder that good, strong agile KM is about avoiding to turn more people into zombies in your conversations, meetings, events… Focus on learning, engagement, excitement and all that the letters of this agile KM alphabet primer have to offer…

Meeting zombies (Credits: CreateLearning)

Meeting zombies (Credits: CreateLearning)

Z could also have been…

Zen, zooming, zones etc. – But at this stage, I think I have explored enough alternative letters in this agile KM alphabet primer, which is coming to an end.

Let me know what you thought of this agile KM alphabet primer, in all honesty and with constructive feedback 🙂

A knowledge management primer (4): PQRSTU

This is a new series of posts, an alphabet primer of agile knowledge management (KM), to touch upon some of the key concepts, approaches, methods, tools, insights in the world of KM. And because there could have been different alternatives for each letter I’m also introducing the words I had to let go of here.

PQRSTU are on the menu of this KM alphabet primer portion (credits: Jericho Design)

PQRSTU are on the menu of this KM alphabet primer portion (credits: Jericho Design)

This is the fourth part of this alphabet primer, with some heavyweight words between P and U.

P for People

In order to have any success, KM has to be about, for, and by the people. It’s the people that think, that feel, that identify, that explore, that analyse, that summarise, that rally, that use, that reflect, that unite, that live with anything that KM produces. Focus on the people, YOUR people and at least you don’t miss the most fundamental first step. Who are they? How will they think and feel and react about issue abc, system pqr, approach xyz? Let them help you!

P could also have been…

P is also a heavyweight letter, covering many rejected candidates:

Processes – In the KM heyday, people, processes and systems were the litany of KM heads. While this has waned to some extent, processes remain an important lens to see how the information (the content) is used and absorbed by the people, and how to organise workflows that work. And process literacy is essential to KM success.

Portals (expired) – For a long time many KM people were building portals just because it sounded like the right thing to do, until there was already too many platforms out there and it became cumbersome. Nowadays agile KM no longer looks at portals as the go-to solution, but rather looks at meta portals for helping the questioning process, such as with Quora or Wikipedia.

Patterns – An essential aspect of learning, and of complexity, patterns are necessary for knowledge management in that they offer ‘invisible feedback loops’ that can be used to inform how KM is doing and how all the people and elements around them are gelling or not.

And I could have also written about: platforms (covered in this primer through systems, portals etc.), pacing, purpose, personal, presence, participation…

Q for Question(ing)

Question everything! (credits: Henry Bloomfield / Skype)

Question everything! (credits: Henry Bloomfield / Skype)

Q has to be about questions and the act of questioning to find out what is the next quest, what is the new insight, what is the emerging feeling, what is the anticipated vision. Questions are at the heart of learning and (ever) adapting. Methods like ‘nine whys‘ are at the heart of agile knowledge management. So practice your questioning!

Q could also have been…

Quality – In some environments where KM is not so well-known, and where social media are questioned, as in my home country France, the quality approach is another term for parts of what KM tries to do, around information management and ensuring the right service at the right time for the right person. With quality comes also the idea of quality standards and monitoring processes, other elements that guarantee a certain degree of service that can be expected.

R for Rituals

Central to learning are rituals. And although in the industrial age rituals were perhaps partly eclipsed, they are gaining ground again in the network age, as a rediscovered attribute of ‘tribes‘ and of community gatherings. In KM, rituals entail both the ritual of a quality approach e.g. reviewing what’s out there and building upon the latest available information, but it also entails group rituals that mark important moments in the knowledge life of a grouping e.g. in(tro)duction of new staff, exit interviews, after-action-reviews, yearly learning retreats etc.

Here’s more about tribes from Seth Godin:

R could also have been…

Results, reviews and ratings – Results, reviews, ratings are all part of a healthy approach to any (set of) system(s) that are used, to better understand what is going on and what needs to be kept, tweaked or removed. In other words, use metrics to define your baseline, and then assess your end result through reviews, ratings and other tests that provide you with that data. And think about the functions you need for the results you wish to obtain.

Reinventing the wheel – I illustrated in a post about KM in cartoons this common challenge that KM aspires to tackle once and for all. Even though a small dose of reinventing the wheel is unavoidable and perhaps even desirable to tickle peoples’ curiosity and empowerment.

Role modeling – In any behaviour change approach, there are models that inspire others. These are the champions that lead the way, the positive deviants that discover smarter ways, the herders that pull everyone in a direction etc. Find out what are some of the role models you need for your initiative and see who can role model for you. These people can be your most precious assets.

And still R could also be… relationships (covered by people, and trust), reflecting etc.

S for Social

In the first era of knowledge management (partly disputed by these 7 ages of KM), all that mattered were information systems. But fast forward to 2016 and no one doing KM can pretend to do a good job when they’re not looking at the social dimension of knowledge management. And engagement and learning through the social interfaces is key.

3 eras of KM (credits: Nancy Dixon)

3 eras of KM (credits: Nancy Dixon)

S could also have been…

Systems – as in ‘information systems’. Yes systems are as central to KM as the social side of things. But I just happen to believe in the people using the system more than in the systems themselves. And not least because too many people got attracted to the idea of ‘be-all-do-all’ global information systems.

Sharing – Nothing new under the sun: information – and knowledge – are meant to be shared for any agile KM approach to thrivingly flow. HOW you get there is a different issue, but sharing is one of the archetypical expected behaviours of successful knowledge management (and knowledge sharing one of the three pillars of KM in my definition).

And S could still have been stealth (KM), scaling etc.

T for Trust

Knowledge management is not flavour of the day, and the reason behind this is that it takes time: to understand the situation, to imagine fit approaches, to build systems and crucially to build trust among the people that are part of an agile KM ecosystem. But trust is one of the cornerstones of sustainable knowledge management (and a great many other things)…Trust is the truth.

T could also have been…

Thinking – Because knowledge management is very much in the realm of logical reasoning (even though there is much place for feelings too) and because analysing, reflecting etc. are all avatars of thinking.

Tools – Another name for systems, but in knowledge management circles there is also a whole wave of people enthusiastic about tools, exploring them, playing around with them, understanding their value… before they may get turned into systems. That playfulness with tools is essential – without falling in the tool trap on the other hand.

Tradeoffs – As with any complex domain, knowledge management is about choosing certain things – or rather slightly favouring them – over others: information vs. knowledge, pilot vs. large scale, stealth vs. big bang, centralised vs. decentralised. So tradeoff thinking is a useful card to have in your agile KM deck.

Whatever you think, think the opposite (credits: Paul Arden)

Whatever you think, think the opposite (credits: Paul Arden)

U for Unlearning

Learning, unlearning, two sides of the same coin. In agile KM we have to let go of certain ideas, behaviours, aspirations, ways of doing things. And so unlearning is just as important as learning new things. Make room for what comes next.

U could also have been…

Unconferences – Wikipedia describes these so: “An unconference, also called an Open Space conference, is a participant-driven meeting. The term “unconference” has been applied, or self-applied, to a wide range of gatherings that try to avoid one or more aspects of a conventional conference, such as fees, sponsored presentations, and top-down organization.” And rightly there’s a place for these different types of gatherings in agile KM, because the gist of it is to let ideas flow, trust build, creative energy to get unleashed. It’s also about unlearning, and taking calculated risks… and that’s what agile KM is all about.

What would be your letter choices for this section of the agile KM alphabet primer?


A knowledge management primer (3): JKLMNO

The KM alphabet primer continues (Credits: Le web pedagogique)

The KM alphabet primer continues (Credits: Le web pedagogique)

This is a new series of posts, an alphabet primer of agile knowledge management (KM), to touch upon some of the key concepts, approaches, methods, tools, insights in the world of KM. And because there could have been different alternatives for each letter I’m also introducing the words I had to let go of here.

Today, after the ABC of KM and the next six letters (DEFGHI), I’m pursuing the alphabet discovery with JKLMNO.


J for Journey

Any and every KM initiative is a journey unto itself and because it is a learning journey with no fully guaranteed results, the journey matters as much as the destination. It brings up lots of ideas, feedback, insights and more.

J could also have been…

Journaling – A great practice for documentation, journaling (as blogging is) has the potential of revealing deeper patterns that explain a lot of things. For KM, journaling on the KM initiative, documenting the process, and even impressions of individuals involved can be the difference between success and failure, between quick and slow, between good quality and sloppy.

Knowledge (Credits: Iqbal Osman)

Knowledge (Credits: Iqbal Osman)

K for Knowledge

Of course, what else? Knowledge is the capacity to turn information to action, and if it’s the sum of insights we have, but not a commodity that can be transferred. There are many (also visual) understandings of knowledge. I’m just offering my definition here. But knowledge is certainly what puts KM in a mystical world, as it relates to how our brains work and how we connect with each other to form a collective intelligence.

K could also have been…

Know-how – Next to what we know there are also many processes set know that help us to do things. Practical knowledge, hands-on, instructional stuff to move from theory to practice, including practice smarts.

L for learning

I wouldn’t leave the last part of my definition of KM as it is the most important one to justify the existence of knowledge management. And whether it’s about learning how to retain institutional memory or how to innovate, learning is the driving force to make us every better equipped to deal with challenges and to increase our capacity to adapt and anticipate, to be resilient etc.

L could also have been…

Management versus Leadership (Credits: David Sanabria)

Management versus Leadership (Credits: David Sanabria)

Leadership – leadership is the vision that drives initiatives, shows the way  and rallies support all along. No KM endeavour survives without strong leadership and leading by example – and innovating. And this is true at all levels, not just about top management. The KM project leader, management and personnel alike must demonstrate that sort of leadership – but they can only do so if they have all been properly involved and empowered to do so of course.

Library – Libraries used to be the crude epitome of knowledge management in the times of old. The vast quantity of information that codified the knowledge of the ancients was so great that it’s no wonder the first era of KM wanted to mimic this in the digital world. But that was not enough. Online brochures’ advocates learned that at a high cost.

M for Management

Leadership is key in KM. But management is also very important. Managing change, managing assets, managing processes, managing tools and managing people to make sure all these elements work in synergy and support each other.

M could also have been…

Monitoring – Part of the management of KM is monitoring how it is going, collecting metrics that give indications of visibility, use, appreciation and gains in produce of any kind. Monitoring is at the heart of learning and thus of KM too – even though it is usually the reason why people give up on KM because it is so difficult to go beyond the use of information platforms and learning processes to point to what people are doing with it.

Meta tags – An essential element of curation are the meta tags that allow to describe a resource and make it easier to retrieve later through search.

N for Network

From networkshops to communities of practice and assessing networked value, from personal learning networks to engaging in social networks, networks are ubiquitous. The world of KM in 2016 cannot avoid this fact, and it explains why so much emphasis goes nowadays on distributed learning, on massive open online courses, on cultivating personal learning networks etc. Knowledge management always was a network thing in itself. It now hast just become utterly obvious.

Networks, interconnection (Credits: Rob/FlickR)

Networks, interconnection (Credits: Rob/FlickR)

N could also have been…

Your suggestions?

O for Open 

If the ultimate goal of knowledge management is to connect and convert everyone to cultivating our collective intelligence, then a general state of Open-ness is central to it. Open knowledge, open source, open access, working out loud and all the rest of it.

The reality is still a bit more subtle than this: in certain areas where the mindset is not all that open, agile KM has to create safe closed spaces where progressively people can taste the power of Open, little by little, in smaller groups first. But open KM is almost a tautology.

Open Knowledge

A knowledge management primer (2): DEFGHI


And the primer continues...

And the primer continues…

This is a new series of posts, an alphabet primer of agile knowledge management (KM), to touch upon some of the key concepts, approaches, methods, tools, insights. And because there could have been different alternatives for each letter I’m also introducing the words I had to let go of here.


Today, after covering the ABC of knowledge management I’m continuing with the next six letters of the alphabet primer: DEFGHI.

D for Documentation

Following my definition of what KM is, documentation is another leg of knowledge management, focusing on information management and curation. But documentation is also about taking it to a personal and behavioural level, in order to learn (e.g. blogging!). Where discipline reaps rewards and inspires others too. In this respect, documentation

D could also have been…

Data – I don’t believe all too much in the logical model of DIKW from data to wisdom but data is – or can be – definitely an important part of KM. Data are surrounding us and part of the information management is to organise that data and turn it into information that is available, affordable and accessible. Under ‘data’ you also find databases and ‘big data’. The former were the object of the first generation of KM, while the latter is what preoccupies a lot of new knowledge managers now…   

E for Engagement

Let it be said once and for all: KM is not just about the systems and tools, it’s crucially about people. Engaging people in KM is as important as -and I would argue even more important than- the information systems that hold the promises of big data… Engage for success! And there are many traditions of engagement to start from.

E could also have been…

EmpowermentEmpowering employees or the people generally involved in a KM initiative is not always an objective. But sure enough it helps engage them in your general KM approach and with the tools and systems that it relies on.

Enabling (environment) – Management, funding etc. are all part of an environment in which knowledge gardening can really thrive. The culture is also a big part of this enabling environment if it emphasises curiosity, learning, openness, acceptance of others and of failure, empathy, humility etc.

Exit interview – After action reviews are one well-known KM tool. In the older tradition of KM, exit interviews are another one. How to make sure that a person leaving is not leaving with all their knowledge, network and more. This has been the object of fascinating debates on KM4Dev and I already reflected on this in the past.

F for feedback

Feedback and its specific offshoot ‘feedback loops’ are central to any knowledge management approach that puts learning at its centre. Feedback is -on a personal level- an essential piece in improving one’s actions and questioning frames of reference and mindsets. And it’s all the more important to make feedback an important part of KM that it is difficult to give feedback, and even more so to give (and receive) good, useful feedback.

Feedback loops, are to knowledge management processes what feedback is to interpersonal relationships, a way to build in signals giving indication of what is going well or not along the way. Feedback loops are essential to any learning system or approach. And the earlier they kick in, the better!

F could also have been…

Failure – What with the fail fair, safe-fail approaches and more. Failures in KM are not the holy grail, but they’re one sure way to learn from important mistakes and improve (feedback loops again). Fail fast, fail often, stand up again. Quick & dirty KM to get to the real thing. That is also the history of development cooperation.

Facilitation – Nick Milton from Knoco said it: the first skill any KM team should learn is facilitation. Without it, how to get the best thinking from everyone to make a KM approach work? And with knowledge sharing and learning at the heart of KM, there is just no way around understanding how facilitation helps and applying it to all collective endeavours.

Folksonomy – Taxonomies are an important part of information management, to agree on the terms that will help curate a collection information items on a meta-level. Folksonomies are crowdsourced -or at least user-defined- taxonomies that help users find content related to what they’re searching, using their language (rather than language defined by a corporation).

G for Gardening

Knowledge is a garden, and knowledge management is the gardening of that knowledge. The knowledge ecology that KM feeds off of depends on the sowing (starting individual or collective initiatives), fertilising (capacity development, innovation, monitoring around these), pruning and trimming (curation) etc.

Knowledge gardening for collective sensemaking (credits: Jack Park)

Knowledge gardening for collective sensemaking (credits: Jack Park)

G could also have been…

Gamification – An increasingly important approach in various areas, but also in KM the use of games or gaming elements applied to serious initiatives is a way to create buy-in where simple databases and manuals failed miserably.

Gains – Since KM is so much about behaviour change, the idea of gains must be central to any KMer, Articulating the gains, the win-win, the ‘what’s in it for me’ is essential for KM buy-in.

H for humility

Learning (the third and in my view most crucial element of KM) is an eternal quest towards recognising the limits of your knowledge and building our (understanding of our) world upon the shoulders of giants. As such it makes us humble about the wealth of uncharted knowledge that we still have to get familiar with. But humility is also about managing expectations about KM. Since knowledge management has so much to do with behaviours, it takes time to effect change and being humble rather than over-promising is a useful stance when you have to roll out a KM program. I mentioned in the past how the path to wisdom is paved with effectiveness, focus, humility and empathy.

H could also have been…
Honesty – This was the only other H-word I found useful in the realm of KM, though there must be more of these out there. In any case honesty is, for very similar reasons to humility, a useful quality to have in KM particularly when it comes to managing expectations, and making yourself and your work more acceptable by building trust (and trust is the truth.

I for Infomation (management, systems)

After the letter C, I is another one of the KM heavyweight letters in this alphabet primer. The choice here is large, as you can see from the other options below. But of course information should be sitting on the I-throne. Information is at the core of KM, both in the documentation side of things, on the personal learning side through absorbing that documentation, and generally because it is about codifying other peoples’ know-how and knowledge in ways that benefit a much wider group of others than would be possible through human mediation. Under information come also information management and information systems.
I could also have been…

Innovation – More than KM, innovation has really become the centre stage of knowledge work and some would even mention that of all KM generations, the new one is all geared towards innovation. For sure getting people to share knowledge and learn together brings them to innovate. If a culture of curiosity, safe failing, encouragement, daring is there, then the ground is extremely fertile for ongoing innovation capacity.

Institutional memory – Another of the classic entry points to knowledge management: how to make sure an organisation remembers what happened in the past and prevents reinventing the wheel all over again. This goes together with exit interviews but goes much beyond that to the collective records of an organisation or network.

Intention – The last I-word I would add to this list – more could have made it – but an important one: the sense of purpose, and the intention that is at the heart of the rituals of learning. Intention helps us get better and that is why it features highly in agile KM initiatives…

And let thy feet milleniums hence be set in midst of knowledge - Tennyson (Credits: Joanna Penn)

And let thy feet milleniums hence be set in midst of knowledge – Tennyson (Credits: Joanna Penn)


A knowledge management primer (1): KM as simple as ABC

What to find in the ABC of the knowledge tree? (Credits: Lisa Roberts)

What to find in the ABC of the knowledge tree? (Credits: Lisa Roberts)

This is a new series of posts, an alphabet primer of knowledge management (KM), to touch upon some of the key concepts, approaches, methods, tools, insights. And because there could have been different alternatives for each letter I’m also introducing the words I had to let go of here.

Today I’m starting this primer on the first letters of the alphabet: ABC – not necessarily the easiest in the KM world though… 


A for After Action Review

After Action Reviews are one of the closest synonyms – in people’s minds – of what knowledge management is all about. And surely it is one of the sure fire methods to bring learning straight into knowledge management, where it is due. After action reviews help discover insights and – if carried out consistently – progressively instil a spirit of curiosity and openness to change, which is fundamental to KM.

A could also have been…

Agile – this whole blog is dedicated to agile knowledge management because agility refers not only to the business method of improving and rolling out softwares known as Agile Software Development but also, by extension, an approach of ‘safe failing’, failing fast, often and improving quickly, which again is the whole point of KM.

Authenticity – In your efforts to work on KM, authenticity is probably one of the best behavioural cards to play, because rolling out KM, whether a system or an approach or any combination thereof, is not easy and requires people to trust in you. Being authentic shows that you have nothing to hide and that people can believe in what you are saying and suggesting, that it is in their best interest.

B for Behaviour

If you take my definition of KM which is about conversations, documentation and learning, the first and third part have much to do with behaviour (change). Stimulating conversations and gearing them towards learning are both influenced by the current behaviour of the people involved, and are also influencing these same people to share, learn, document, engagement more… Behaviours are also what makes KM work so hard at times, because behaviours take time to change… But sometimes the seed of success is also in the interesting and different behaviours of positive deviants.

B could also have been…

Blogging – Blogs are seen as places of personal opinions, genuine, authentic sharing of thoughts and engagement. They have found their way in the typical arsenal of options for knowledge managers. And I personally totally see why.

Big data – The new holy grail of KM: since sharing knowledge is so hard and takes so much time, how about using data to getting insights that we need. If only it were so simple

C for Change

Deep down, KM is all about change and change processes, only from the knowledge side of change. It’s about behaviour change, change in how people think, talk and work alone and together, change in how organisations use their knowledge assets to organise themselves and get better and more relevant at what they do, social change that brings vast communities together. And as we know change is hard, so KM is up against a real challenge but also one that is worth it.

C is one of the heavyweights of this KM primer. So many C-words could be essential to KM… here’s a few.

C could also have been…

Conversations – This is the second leg of my definition of KM and one that is central to another definition of KM stating that KM is about ‘increasing the quality and frequency of conversations that get your job done’.

Communication – Despite many people misunderstanding and mistaking KM for information management, there is a lot of communication in KM and that’s the reason why they come together in my work.

Curation – Part of the documentation is to curate information around us to be able to retrieve it and make it accessible to others at any time.

Culture – The hidden part of the iceberg that KM attempts to change.

Community (of practice) [CoP] – One of the most spearheaded tools (or approaches) for getting conversations that get your job done. And CoPs are facing challenges.

Capitalisation – In the francophone world ‘capitalisation des expériences’ is the closest thing there is to KM.

Complexity – What we face in ever more facets of our work and life, and one characteristic that makes KM so relevant in its attempt to connect us all together to better appreciate the intricacy of this complexity.

Cycles – The learning cycles that help us look at what we do in different, novel lights.

How to find your ABC in the KM cycle (Credits: Valenok)

How to find your ABC in the KM cycle (Credits: Valenok)

Related blog posts:

Enough were mentioned already, don’t you think?

But in addition, here’s this 2005 document from the World Food Organization ‘the ABC of KM‘ (PDF) that I thought was worth referencing.

Anatomy of learning: how we (individuals) make sense of information

We talk a lot about PKM – personal knowledge management, i.e. KM for individuals – but as Nick Milton indicated recently, at heart KM is a collective effort; when done well it becomes the effort of social learning.

Where do the two scales (individual – social) really connect?

Let us assume that KM is about conversations, documentation and learning. That’s what I do. My friend Jaap Pels has his own framework (embedded in this program’s theory of change) but it speaks to this foundation very much too.

Jaap Pel's KM Framework

Jaap Pels’s KM Framework

Since I want to build on the equation KM = CDL and want to explore how individual and collective spaces interact, I am starting a journey, here and now, exploring a possible framework (on a series I’ll call ‘Anatomy of learning’) which is progressively shaping up in my mind.

The starting point here is this graph from Jaap and the related set of activities, particularly learning: at a personal level, what do we do about learning?

  • We sometimes focus (we seek, Harold Jarche might say); I’d say we sometimes envision, we sometimes simply seek, we often just stumble upon stuff… But whatever it is, there is a relation between us and different sets of information that we are interested in or engaging with;
  • How do we create that relation and let it develop from there? We read, we chat, we just relate ideas in our head and it makes us realise some connections in information. Contrary, perhaps, to Jaap I’d argue that it’s not just in the conversations that we learn, though conversations are terrific learning teasers. Yet sometimes we just start exploring something with ourselves, on our own – like me on this blog – and the reel of thread starts unfolding little by little;
  • As we make connections we may decide to register these by documenting our thoughts, readings, conversations, to single out patterns and slice through them. Or we simply add these connections to our existing thought system, as updated appendices to our previous insights on the matter;
  • In the process we thus transform our mental pictures, our interests: we codify data into information through our knowledge capacity, either into something that becomes unconscious, something that becomes obvious, something that starts to become apparent (an emerging pattern) or something that just starts puzzling us because we’re early on our journey to get our head around it.

So we end up with a quadrant of insights like this, vaguely relating to the Cynefin framework:

Stuff that starts to become apparentWe need to discuss this further (or do something about it)

Complex domain

Stuff that becomes obviousWe need (us and others) to do something about it as we understand how it works

Complicated domain

Stuff that starts puzzling usWe need to unravel this (alone / together)

Chaotic domain

Stuff that becomes (or adds on to our) unconscious competenceWe don’t need to do anything about it except occasionally update it

Simple domain

Some might think we follow these steps in a linear and ideal manner, but we don’t. Ever. Or only for very short dashes of time. And then our human nature kicks in again, like a Pavlovian reflex rebelling against routine, against what is good vs. what feels good. We return to random. Thank goodness for that. We’re not robots!

But just like practice doesn’t make perfect – purposeful practice does – it takes regular efforts to expand the field of our conscious incompetence (remember this?), and that happens more easily with others at our side, exploring together.

So the next step in this journey will be to look at other scales related to us as individuals – how learning moves from individual to become collective, or event social – something which I’m sure will turn clearer as I delve into Julian Stodd’s book ‘Exploring the world of social learning‘.

In the meantime, any light is welcome as ever 🙂

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What’s really new about social learning?

In the recent annual science meeting of the CGIAR research program on climate change, agriculture and food security (CCAFS), the theme for the event was ‘social learning’. Upon hearing what social learning referred to, a lot of the workshop participants were wondering what was really new about social learning. For reasons that are too long to explain – and it’s not the purpose of this post – we didn’t really take the time to zoom in on the differences.

So here’s an attempt at making distinctions between social learning and related initiatives and schools of thought in previous experiences. Because there are a lot of previous trails leading to the social learning bush: Participatory action research (PAR), participatory rural appraisal (PRA), participatory plant breeding (PPB), multi-stakeholder processes (MSPs), participatory impact pathway analysis (PIPA) can all legitimately subscribe to a long tradition of social learning. A very rich tradition of participatory work that has been explored extensively by a consultant to take stock specifically of CGIAR experiences in this domain. Yet there is are differences between all that (excellent) work and what might be called contemporary social learning work:

Social learning is...

Social learning is…

Social learning is instrumental, respectful of various perspectives, conversational, a long term commitment, adaptive, reflective, trust-based, visionary, open-minded, context-specific, participatory, dynamic, improvising, flexible, action-oriented, it’s about learning, it’s social and most importantly it is transformative.

It is not just participatory, because participatory approaches could actually just involve specific groups for specific activities but not really keep these groups front and centre involved from the get-go and throughout the initiative.

It is not just action (even though the transformation feeds off the action) because it is about generating new insights for more effective action, learning in effect, but not just any learning.

It is not just learning because it involves more than one party and happens mostly through sustained social interactions. It is a rich kind of learning, the kind that comes with disputing  views, telling each other our truths and complacencies, muddling through hopes and disappointments and finding common ground and mutual respect from the respect that is earned in challenging situations, whether as partners or opponents.

It is thus potentially more than action research, although it’s very similar in the sense that it starts with assumptions and verifies these assumptions along the way, thanks to feedback mechanisms. But social learning puts the emphasis on the social nature of learning and action throughout the process, whereas in action learning there is a risk that the learning itself is limited to the research process itself.

It is not just about bringing diverse views to the mix, even though this is an important step forward. A forum brings together lots of different stakeholders, but it doesn’t necessarily transform them. Social learning happens through sustained interactions that lead to that transformation.

It is not just tossing a few token conceptual ingredients in the stir-fry of jargon-coated fancy fluff. It’s about careful attention to a structured process of opening a space for collective reflection that goes beyond any one entity or group that is part of it. 

Social learning is not controlled, it is operating as a complex adaptive system, it is bound to be richer, deeper and more transformative the longer it takes and the wider it goes (as it harnesses more and deeper perspectives). For that reason, it’s not necessarily easy to instil because it takes a vision; it takes capacities (not least to facilitate such processes – something which incidentally will be partly covered by the December 2013 issue of the knowledge management for development journal about ‘facilitating multi-stakeholder processes’); it takes resources to bring about the critical mass of insights in the quantity and the quality of the actors involved; it also takes patience, determination and the belief that chaos might lead to insights and that an apparent mess can hide an uncanny order; it takes time to build the relations and to let the feedback loops provide their beneficial effect; and it takes balls to decide to go for it or to stop it in the face of justified adversity.

And social learning helps us tackle complex issues and and work around wicked problems like ‘climate change’:

It’s not the easiest way, but it’s surely a useful way to address distant goals. Remember:

If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together (Xhosa proverb)

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How do I describe my ‘work in KM’?

Might it be another phoenix of the knowledge management world next to assessing KM: the description of our job as knowledge worker?

There are lots of variation to the job of ‘knowledge management specialist’ and lots of related functions. In a recent fragment about knowledge work identities which I collected on my TumblR from a conversation happening in the knowledge brokers’ forum, nearly 50 job titles were offered for knowledge brokers.

Clearly, knowledge work begs for simple explanations that unveil a complex function.

Ewen Le Borgne (ILRI/KMIS) facilitating the CCAFS workshop on climate-smart crop breeding

What do I tell people who inquire what my work is?

I tell them different things: That I hold a mirror to help us all realise what we do, why and how. That I work on making sure that we become more effective in our work dynamically (i.e. continually, over time, not just for a given task or project) through learning, managing the information that matters to us and managing access to and curation from knowledge sources (conversations and the people behind), and that we do this more effectively as collectives rather than alone – hence the need to become social learning heroes.

I tell them that my work in KM is about avoiding reinventing the wheel, getting more perspectives on the same issue to find better, more sustainable solutions, ensuring that our conversations increase in number and improve in quality and help us get better.

Depending on who I’m talking to, I also tell people that I work in communication but not the message-based ‘military’ type of communication (with bullet-like messages targeted at people with hopes for impact), that I work rather on making communication engaging, collective and reflective. I tell people that I work on all of this from the perspective of knowledge management, communication and monitoring/evaluation/learning.

But is this really good enough?

Nick Milton rightly prompts us all to be able to “sell” our knowledge work in a compelling, powerful and short ‘sales pitch’. So here’s a revised elevator pitch that speaks to the three points that seem imperative to address in conveying our KM message:

  • What’s my point – what do I do for a job? I help people think critically about the information and expertise they need (by themselves or through others) to develop better and more sustainable solutions for the problems they face and connect with or trigger the conversations they need to do that; in the process I make them more likely to proactively seek these solutions in the future, both online through social media and offline through engaging meetings and events.
  • What’s in it for you? I can help you use the potential of knowledge work and social learning to be more effective now and continually, more connected to your field(s) of interest and expertise, more innovative and happier by helping and being helped by others.
  • What do I want you to do? I hope you can point me to the areas you would like to improve to become more effective and better connected and to see how social media and other means can get you there, “standing on the shoulders of giants“.

Of course this pitch needs to be adapted to the very people I engage with, but as a global pitch, tell me if you think that sells it enough and what you would change otherwise 🙂

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Harvesting insights (6): A checklist of comms/KM functions in any development (research) organisation or initiative

Just a post to gather my thoughts on this once and for all on this topic.

Together with some colleagues from WorldFish and the Inernational Water Management Institute (IWMI), we have been pondering about the profile of comms/KM profiles and positions in any organisation and/or project, since ILRI and IWMI held a really interesting workshop on knowledge management and communication in the CGIAR research programs.

The reflection on KM positions has been helpful to think about the profile of the people that might have to take care of comms and KS/KM/learning. Now, at a higher level, what are the organisational functions that take care of communication and/or knowledge sharing and management and learning? This is treading suspiciously close to the happy families of engagement, but here I want to think about the functional departments or units of work that any organisation might want to consider useful, rather than look at the fields of expertise as mentioned in the families of engagement.

Every organisation or project has its way of looking at these functions – rightly so – but what could a generic checklist of these functions look like?

I would think this works around different tiers of organizational importance (how this is perhaps currently assessed, not how it should be assessed) and relative recognition of those functions.

  • First tier
    • Public awareness and media engagement (i.e. communicating the organisation/initiative)
    • Dissemination of information (communicating the results -against stated objectives- of the initiative)
    • Marketing (for commercial companies or initiatives that promote a particular product or service)
    • Network engagement (and management) with critical stakeholders and partners
    • Policy engagement and support, advocacy
  • Second tier:
    • Internal communication
    • Data and information management
    • Knowledge management
  • Third tier:
    • Capacity development (around communication and knowledge work),
    • Monitoring and evaluation (of knowledge work and communication)
    • Process documentation (informal monitoring)

For projects and time-bound initiatives, these different functions follow a different lifespan which my colleague Peter Ballantyne drafted here. Let’s examine these functions one level down in granularity:

Public awareness and media engagement: promoting the intervention/organisation, getting public attention through the media and conveying it through more mainstream (and increasingly social) media. This is all about communicating about the project/organisation/team etc. and is usually the most recognised set of communication activities because it might be a requirement from donors but also a good way to get some visibility for the initiative (the quest for immortality shows its nose again).

Dissemination of information and results

Communicating agri-water research over time (credit: ILRI/Ballantyne)

Communicating agri-water research over time (credits: ILRI/Ballantyne)

Second in line, usually, after talking about the intervention or organisation itself is: talking about what comes out of information dissemination. In this other graph by Peter Ballantyne, this would be typically the second peak of communication activities in an otherwise ‘communication-empty’ initiative: PA at the project launch, and dissemination at the end when results are ready. The problem is: it’s not enough. But dissemination remains a crucial function of communication – even though we are increasingly moving towards an engagement-rich communication approach.


The projects and organisations that have some products and services to offer to the public – pay-for or not – have an additional communication imperative around the marketing of these products and services. The approach changes a bit between pay-for and free/public products and services but the idea of attracting attention, creating a desire, informing the desiring customers and leading them to action (the AIDA model which is increasingly questioned and reexamined from a socialisation perspective – see graph) or the

AIDA socialisation (credits - CoffeeMarketing)

AIDA socialisation (credits – CoffeeMarketing)

4Ps (price, promotion, product, place) can come in handy to make sure products and services find their customers and users. But again there might be little engagement there. Hence…

(Practice-oriented) Network engagement and management with critical stakeholders and partners

As pure dissemination-based approacheds are finding their limits, network engagement and management (or rather facilitation) is becoming increasingly crucial. Communication is no longer about crafting documents in isolation and sending them to intended target audiences but more and more so about bringing those audiences in the (co-)creation process. Trust becomes an important currency in communication work and partner / stakeholder management. We analyse our social networks, map stakeholders, identify who are the key nodes in the network and work with them from the start.

Whether by means of visits, exchanges, workshops, training courses, brown bag seminars, informal and formal lunches, bilateral discussions, network engagement is becoming a central bone in the communication spine. The practice aspect of this function is to ensure that the engagement effectively leads to transforming and adapting discourses, ways of thinking, behaviours i.e. the formal and informal practices of these actors we are working with and for. It is the alter-ego of the next function…

Policy engagement and support, advocacy

A related field is that of policy engagement / support and advocacy. The objective here is to ensure that research and other activities inform and influence policies, support them, and advocate issues that might have been blind spots until now. Increasingly, policy engagement is moving away from conventional advocacy (the one that is following a PR approach of unilaterally targeting messages for audiences) to embrace a much higher degree of interactions with these policy-makers and political actors that should be influenced. In multi-stakeholder processes, these political actors are part of the co-creation process and that is a new way of engaging with policies.

The next three areas are less obvious functions of comms/KM but people talk about them and recognise their importance. They simply don’t act upon it systematically.

Internal communication and knowledge sharing

Perhaps this ought to just be part of regular communication but it has often been overlooked in the past, because internal teams were not a key ‘target audience’. As we are in the network era, the importance of communication, cooperation and coordination dawns on project managers, and as teams are increasingly decentralised and scattered across various countries and locations, internal communication and knowledge sharing are also increasingly recognised as an important area of comms/KM.

Data and information management:

Data and information management are typically an area whose importance is recognised. Lip service is frequently paid for it, but following through with elaborate and robust systems for data and information management are a mile further which many are not ready to run. Still this is an area of concern for communication because the documentation part of the work collects a lot of information and the platforms and channels are usually set up by the communication (or KM) team. In research organisations, this function is sometimes nested directly in the research teams – but the challenge remains intact: someone needs to ensure data are collected, tagged and meta-tagged properly, cleaned, archived and sorted. Information outputs and records should also follow this logic, at a higher level of processing.

Knowledge management

Maybe this also ought to be lumped up with its sub-components of knowledge sharing, dissemination and information management, but knowledge management ought to be a function (if not a formalised position) to ensure the integration of conversations with documentation and learning. It becomes the life and blood of reflexive communication in and outside the organisation or initiative.

Now we enter the obscure areas in comms/KM, those functions that are usually not accounted for, not paid lip service for nor even thought about much, if at all.

Capacity development

One of these obscure areas is capacity development for comms and KM. In any organisation or initiative, there are people writing, presenting, engaging, reflecting, questioning… but they’re not part of the comms/KM team. They are sometimes very strong in all these areas that are perhaps not typically in their portfolio of activities. But sometimes they are not and they should be trained, coached, sharing their perspective with peers to improve their own practice. And sadly, there isn’t much in store for them to do so. Organisations and initiatives of the future should include a capacity development aspect to their activities to make sure that everyone involved is strong at conversing, documenting and learning individually and collectively…

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of knowledge work and communication

Of course M&E is recognised in most development/research organisations but formally including the monitoring and evaluation of knowledge work, much less so. Yet a formal assessment of communication and KS/KM activities would help all parties get more effective at what they are doing. Simple reporting on outputs is far from reaching this goal and understanding dynamic relationships, use of knowledge, effects of learning, transformative consequences of engagement are subtle but critical areas of importance for all of us if we are to remain relevant over time and strong on adaptive/proactive management.

Process documentation (informal monitoring)

I’ve already blogged in the past about process documentation and its Latin and Francophone variants in the past. It seems to me (and to my former organisation IRC) a crucial area to learn by doing and to improve the way an initiative is unfolding against its theory of change. Alas too often people recognise the importance of processes but fail to monitor them, not even informally – documenting discussions, reflections, insights, questions is not the cup of tea of most people, but I do think it is absolutely essential to instil a learning culture and to support various other areas of work: communication, KM/KS, M&E. See this publication for more information on this topic.

Morphing these categories?

Communication is evolving. Social learning is blurring the boundaries as it tends to bring together a lot of these activities together. And every organisation is mixing these functions in its own ways, so there isn’t a fixed menu but rather a set of options that can be combined and recombined in any comms or KM strategy. The functions themselves are however relevant to think about.

What changes do you see happen in this field? What is missing among these organisational functions?

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What is common knowledge about knowledge? A visual tour…

The brain of a knowledge worker - and that is just the beginning (Credits: unclear)

Knowledge from a KM perspective? (Credits: unclear)

Knowledge is the all elusive complex concept. And visuals help represent complex concepts.

So for a change I thought I’d give a commented visit on a number of images about knowledge, found on the net. I don’t necessarily agree with what these images convey, but I have chosen to comment these ones because they seem to be popular on the web and generally in common knowledge.

This first one (the KM phrenology) is one picture that I used in the past – an interesting image because it depicts a lot of issues related to knowledge in the field of knowledge management. But of course it’s not meant to really represent knowledge and the picture is dated (over emphasis on ‘best practices’, looking at portals etc.).

Knowledge coffee (not cafe mind you)

Knowledge coffee (not cafe mind you)

This second picture is much more related to knowledge itself and represents the diversity of attributes associated (the coffee cup) with knowledge, with a higher emphasis on know-how/what/who/why and the definition of knowledge as ‘justified true belief’. It’s a useful image to remember all the angles that people associate knowledge with. A mine field indeed, or a rather spicy cup of coffee.

A KM mindmap of knowledge

A KM mindmap of knowledge

This third picture is a mini mind map of knowledge from a KM perspective again. It brings together four concepts typically associated with knowledge: tacit knowledge, knowledge conversion, explicit knowledge and information. I have my doubts about a few of these nodes – information and explicit knowledge are the same for me, and the graph itself seems to have been around for a while.

Is the world knowledge tree really growing?  (credits - unclear)

Is the world knowledge tree really growing? (credits – unclear)

But this graph again puts knowledge at the centre of KM attention and is useful to understand what are some of the key KM concepts associated with it.

The next one (the tree on the world) I quite like, as it represents the proverbial knowledge tree while also resting on the entire world. Somehow the idea that our knowledge is growing as a tree on the basis of global and local interactions is compelling. Let’s just hope that the branches (the results of knowledge) are not outpacing the roots of that knowledge tree (the sources that lead to develop knowledge results).

Knowledge in the DIKW nonsense (Credits - David McCandless)

Knowledge in the DIKW nonsense (Credits – David McCandless)

The next one is the unavoidable depictions of knowledge: knowledge as part of the DIKW pyramid.

It is no less wrong at that though – and I already blogged about this. But here you go: old established fallacies die at long last.

The next selected image (Superman) is another very commonplace portrayal of knowledge and its associations: knowledge is power.

Knowledge is power (Credits - Tiffany and Lupus)

Knowledge is power (Credits – Tiffany and Lupus)

I think this image does true justice to question (by stupidity) this saying which deserves additional caution. Sharing knowledge is more powerful in the age of networks…

Next (the blue face) is one new entry for knowledge which mirrors the first of these images but really focuses on all the insights that lay inside our head and are ready to be called and acted upon.

Knowledge as the collection of insights ready for sense-making

Knowledge as the collection of insights ready for sense-making

To me this is perhaps the closest depiction of what knowledge is – insights that can be invoked and used as and when. The image still  misses the dimension of the capacity that knowledge brings to use these insights, as I blogged about it earlier, but it’s getting there in my eyes.

And finally, building upon the previous image, what – really – is knowledge without action? A former boss of mine used to always ask ‘knowledge to do what?’ and that’s a bang on question. For that matter, knowledge management has been useless in many cases for failing to answer this simple question. So from this gallery of images, perhaps the most important to retain is that without using knowledge we are not better off with it.

What is knowledge without action (credits - Hiking artist)

What is knowledge without action (credits – Hiking artist)

If you have other personal ‘knowledge visualisation favourites’, please share them with me and I will feature them here with due credits!

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