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

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

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

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

Over-ratedStocking and managing knowledge

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

Cultivating future leadership (Credits - Neighborhoodcentersinc)

Cultivating future leadership (Credits – Neighborhoodcentersinc)

Under the radarCultivating knowledge and leadership

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

Over-ratedIn the interest of the organisation only

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

Under the radarIn the interest of the organisation first

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

Over-ratedIn the organisation network only

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

Under the radarInterweaving networks 

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


Traditional intranets fail (Credits - Teale & Shapcott)

Traditional intranets fail (Credits – Teale & Shapcott)

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

Under the radarInternal services at your fingertips.

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

Over-ratedOne-stop shops

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

Under the radarConstellations of winners

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

Over-ratedThe Golden Folder structure

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

Under the radarThe big search

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

Over-ratedExpertise databases

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

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

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

Under the radar: Expert watercoolers

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

Over-ratedSocial media galore (be there)

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

Under the radarSocial media purpose

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

Over-ratedThe KM silver bullet big bang

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

Under the radarShadow KM warriors

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

Over-ratedBig data

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

Under the radarWide learning

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

Social learning strategy framework (Credits - Jay Cross)

Social learning strategy framework (Credits – Jay Cross)

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

Related blog posts:


Harvesting insights (4): Making knowledge travel?

Time to revisit a concept that’s key in the recent past of ILRI’s and some other CGIAR knowledge work architecture: making knowledge travel. This concept and approach was, among others, central to the Agricultural and rural knowledge Share Fair organised in Addis Ababa in October 2010.

This post written by organiser Nadia Manning right after the event summarises some perceptions about ‘making knowledge travel’ from the Fair.

Making agricultural knowledge travel (Credits - Nancy White / FlickR)

Making agricultural knowledge travel (Credits – Nancy White / FlickR)

What are we talking about and what are the implications of this concept and its meaning?

The idea, in the ILRI/CGIAR practice is quite simple: we are overwhelmed with knowledge and information but we also struggle to unlock useful information (and perhaps they would say knowledge) that remains stuck in silos, databases and private spheres. We should promote ways for that information and knowledge to travel further than those static ranches of safeguarded knowledge treasury. We have to make it travel.

An important distinction: let’s agree that for this post by ‘information’ we mean concrete/tangible data put together to be consumed readily (i.e. articles, videos etc.) and by ‘knowledge’ we mean peoples’ exchange about information.

So what does it mean in practice?

A lot of things:

  • We have to make information available, accessible and applicable (the Triple-A framework that the above-mentioned post highlighted) which means information should be developed (available), easy to find in full access (accessible) and developed in a way that makes its use possible (applicable). More on this in the implications.
  • It means we should make use of the information long tail to counter the tyranny of ‘pushing yesterday news out’ – some of that older information remains useful long after its first publication.
  • Finding, encouraging, stimulating, developing spaces for connection between information sources and consumers – whether these be multi-stakeholder processes or specialised channels between certain groups of people.

What it implies for our organisations and for ourselves?

There are lots of lessons to take upstream if we want to make knowledge travel downstream.

Indeed, information-wise we and our organisations need to:

  • Turn our work into information – not only the results but also the work processes – documenting the process to tease out important insights.
  • Share that information in various ways, using websites, social media (which have a very strong potential to redistribute that information more widely by the virtue of trust-based network affinities) and other media that are fit for that purpose.
  • Save that information in available, open access places where anyone can find it later – ideally properly (meta)tagged to help others and search engines assess the relevance of that information against a given query.
  • Develop that information in open standards so that it can more easily be (re-)used and adapted by others.
  • Format/version/package that information possibly in different formats and levels of language and technicity for different audiences.

And knowledge-wise:

  • Encourage contacts with wider networks, beyond our familiar networks, which can be amplified by social networks (following people that are at the edge or our own networks i.e. the people that are followed by the people we follow).
  • Organise effective events and conversations to weave information and knowledge in trust-based networks that are reinforced by face-to-face contact.
  • Indeed use multi-stakeholder processes – where applicable due to the complexity of the agenda at stake – to encourage knowledge sharing and further connect distant/remote parts of a given social network.

As you might have picked up, this involves once again a sound personal knowledge management practice of ‘working out loud’ but also other things. And then again, ‘making knowledge travel’ does not entirely unveil what is at stake.

What this approach perhaps doesn’t emphasise enough?

Perhaps the ‘knowledge’ aspect itself was not sufficiently emphasised – as the overall approach of making knowledge travel actually seems to relate mainly to information. What it thus doesn’t say enough is that not only should we make sure our information is available, accessible, applicable (and actually applied!) but that we should also organise processes – using specific tools, since despite their over-reliance tools are not so bad after all – to ensure that people connect and share knowledge to make it travel further.

Consequently, the most important aspect is to connect knowledge (thus people) rather than information because what matters is not information, not even knowledge, but learning from both and acting upon it. Learning out loud is instrumental, in this respect, to go one step further than making knowledge travel perhaps emphasises.

Maybe we should talk about making learners travel together, as a more accurate and more useful paradigm. Using other face-to-face methods of social learning would come in handy in this respect too: farmer field days, exchange visits, study tours, secondments, knowledge fairs, coaching and on-the-job training, job rotation, peer assists, action research and the likes are all ways to do this – and the more consistent, repeated, long-term these processes are, the more likely they are to build trust and to become useful for social learning and more effective action.

Finally, the very idea of making knowledge travel could be fallacious, if we believe a great few influential KM thinkers on the basis of this post by Harold Jarche and its comments. I tend to agree with them. I think we can share knowledge but we can’t transfer it (more on this in this post), so I doubt we can make knowledge travel, but information we certainly can. And stimulating more and more diverse ways to share knowledge should be amplified as part of this approach too.


At any rate, making knowledge travel is more helpful than making information rot in the cavern and knowledge stay quiet in our heads. So, thank you Nadia, Peter and others for inviting us to make knowledge travel about making knowledge travel… the journey is very exciting already!

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Harvesting insights (3): Agile KM, between stealth and big bang

A few days before summer holidays in ‘la douce France’, here’s a post that summarises a number of insights from working around knowledge management and my later interest in ‘agile KM’ – for the sake of simplicity I will just talk about KM but for myself care about agile KM. This post is about how to bring about KM in an environment where there is little to build around, at least at first sight.

The temptation of Big Bang is always great (Photo credits: Pranav / FlickR)

The temptation of Big Bang is always great (Photo credits: Pranav / FlickR)

This post is inspired by various conversations with colleagues who are struggling to get their communication work done for lack of recognition of the importance of communication, what that work entails and how it feeds off others’ inputs. The KM challenge is very similar to the communication challenge… And I recently started with a series of recommendations and ideas to improve this already. So in this post I just go one step further and try to package it neatly, focusing on (agile) KM.

Why stealth and big bang?
In an article (unfortunately not open access but ask me for copies), I wrote a while back now with Sarah Cummings, we looked at a number of KM strategies from various development organisations.
What we found out is that many of them had opted for ‘big bang’ approaches, i.e. with a strong ‘KM’ branding and promotion campaign about it to let everyone know that KM was going to be implemented in the company, usually around a formalised KM strategy (most often in the form of a written document).
Other organisations opted for a ‘stealth’ approach where they basically decided to ‘do KM’ without calling it this way and without any formalised strategy, just building on will and capacities available.

This is one of the first key questions in developing agile KM: do you want to go for a big bang or a stealth approach? This will affect how you will effectively implement KM.

Whatever approach you follow, various principles will get you further:

  • Walk your talk – shine as an example of the ideal behaviour you recommend;
  • Talk their talk – rise up to the challenge, challenge yourself to not use your jargon, but to use the jargon of the people that you want to influence;
  • Dim the dire, double the dope – Build upon existing good practices and address or mitigate bad practices. Show that it works early, and explain what it takes to work in the longer run;
  • Shine the light on darkness – In the process, explain what KM is really all about, show that it works and show that one of the keys behind that success is to steer away from the comfort of certainty and to embrace enthusiasm for confusion as an engine for learning and dynamic effectiveness;
  • Keep your edge sharp – keep questioning your work and your network to remain relevant.

Walk your talk – Start with yourself
“Be the change that you want to see” as Mahatma Gandhi would say. You need to lead by example. If you make a compelling case for KM, others might follow suit. Well, maybe not, but if you don’t shine by your own example, why would others bother? Develop simple learning and KM processes (after action review, exit interviews etc.) that bring early benefits, show how you use social media and why it might positively improve others’ work, facilitate meetings effectively and document them to show how useful it is… Your example is about the best example that you can give because it’s first hand experience. Whether you are the best qualified to share examples is another matter…

Talk their talk – Rise up and reach out to the challenge
The next step, aside from showing a great example, is to reach out to the people that you want to influence positively (or inspire to change). This means you need to get close to them, understand their perspective, their challenges, their questions, use their language etc. It also means that you should step out of your comfort zone (and out of your network of like-minded peers) and mingle with two different kinds of people:

  • Those that you know will be critical of your work – which arguably are the main people you want to influence to change;
  • Those that perhaps you don’t know so well but feel or see that they are sympathetic to your work and the changes it entails. They might become the champions you will need…
How to find the balance between what's a healthy practice and what's not (Photo credits: Neaton Jr. / FlickR)

How to find the balance between what’s a healthy practice and what’s not (Photo credits: Neaton Jr. / FlickR)

Of course keeping in touch with your kin helps you ‘keep the fire’ and energy and you should use that energy to convince others but manage your energy at the same time, to avoid ending up frustrated and tired.

Dim the dire, double the dope
Use existing safe spaces and action champions, don’t come up with new chores, empty ‘socialocations’ (ghost social media platforms and empty intranets) and inadequate advocates. Although the temptation is sometimes big to reinvent the wheel – and that can also be ok sometimes, in any organisation there is a lot happening, that can be related to KM. So you don’t start a KM initiative from scratch. The point is to build upon the good stuff and expand it if possible, and to deter, address or mitigate the bad stuff.

Find the conversations – of water coolers, effective meetings and online
The starting point, for agile KM, is conversations (at least that’s what I think KM is all about) – so you need to identify where conversations take place in the organisation. Perhaps at the water cooler, informally, perhaps in meetings (though most organisations don’t hold effective meetings, at least at the start), perhaps on line. Celebrate these spaces and branch onto them to feel the conversation that is going on, and expand good practices from those spaces. Champions are not always humans, they can also be venues, moments, opportunities such as a share fair… Show that you appreciate these spaces and think that perhaps they could go even further…

Find the learning curves and reflection spaces
Much like people discuss, whether they are invited to do so or not, people learn and reflect as well. Perhaps in the same spaces as they chat, perhaps elsewhere. Find those spaces, appreciate them, question them and if you can expand them.
Progressively, the idea is that you help people systematically reflect on what they do and on what their organisation does. This means questioning, questioning and questioning… It also means they should embrace chaos, uncertainty, doubt and safe-fail approaches to try things out. And this comes with trust.

Identify the effective naturals
There are people who are naturally good at what they do. They are naturally effective and effectively natural. Perhaps it’s the fruit of experience and expertise, but the result is that they don’t really pay attention to learning – they just do it. Find, in your company, who is naturally effective and find out from them what their secrets are (this is what I planned to do with the personal effectiveness survey). These people can be powerful role models for others, and if you manage to sell KM to them (e.g. as in working in smarter ways etc.) they could also be your champions who will influence others to adopt new processes, approaches and tools.

Pushing the KM agenda, one step at a time (Photo credits: Lachlan Hardy / FlickR)

Pushing the KM agenda, one step at a time (Photo credits: Lachlan Hardy / FlickR)

Bring about KM in a sensible and progressive way
Most people do KM without realising it: when they talk with others and question their work, when they document their meetings, when they publish a document, when they share it on the intranet or at a conference… The point is: the label (’KM’) doesn’t matter here, so long as the practices support this. So this point entails two important aspects:

  • Use the local language to avoid a ‘not invented here syndrom’ where people would reject your ideas as foreign;
  • Bring about, in conversations you have, the ideal/image of what agile KM is about, the importance of working out loud, of reflecting on your work, of sharing it, of working together and of titillating your comfort zone. People need to know what is an ideal behaviour for themselves, their teams, their organisation…

Once again, they will be all the more receptive that they trust you.

Stimulate structured learning
You have ‘action champions’ (the aforementioned naturals), you also have ‘learning champions’. You need a mix of both – ideally people that combine the two aptitudes – to champion your ideas for KM. Especially if those people have strong connections in different pockets of the organisation, they can help push the domino effect of (behaviour) change and model ideal KM behaviours. Without champions you find yourself easily sidelined, ignored, misunderstood, and exhausted. If the organisation is not ready for big change, some people inside it sure will be. Find them, work with them, understand what they tell you about the rest of the organisation too.
This point is also about questioning, personally and collectively. It’s about reflecting, listening, giving feedback (to yourself and others) in order to understand and expand what is going well and to mitigate what is not working out well.

But this point is also that it takes time to structure learning and you need to manage expectations about how KM works. This is where you need to show that KM (regardless of what you call it) works.

Shine the light on darkness: Co-create a compelling case for KM
Lots of people are wary of the time it takes to develop a KM approach and they also don’t easily see its benefits, as we know it’s diffuse, difficult to attribute etc. It’s perhaps unjustified and you will always come across x reasons not to change and not to learn. It might be irritating, but if you don’t address their fears and concerns, you will never win them over.
So think for yourself about ways to demonstrate that agile KM helps. I can think of four complementary approaches:

  • Provide some evidence that would be regarded as relevant by people who question agile KM. Quantitative indicators, statistics, downloads etc. that will keep them happy to start with;
  • Show the small successes and early wins that they don’t expect or count on: comments gathered, change in discourse, community of followers and interactions, appreciation after events and activities (through our after action reviews) etc. In fact you should focus on activities that will generate such early wins if you want to convince your crowd;
  • Involve your nay-sayers in your activities and let them experience the potential and limitations (and e.g. long lag time) of agile KM – co-create a case for KM with them;
  • In the process, work towards more complex ways to demonstrate success of agile KM: through increased success rate for some work processes, time saved, effective use of information shared, change of behaviour at institutional level etc.
Sharpen the saw - keep yourself and your network on the cutting edge (Photo credits: Jay Pettitt / FlickR)

Sharpen the saw – keep yourself and your network on the cutting edge (Photo credits: Jay Pettitt / FlickR)

Sharpen the saw – keep your edge and your network edge sharp
One of the seven principles of Stephen R. Covey’s infamous book ‘the seven habits of highly effective people’ is to sharpen the saw, that is to look critically at your progress and to keep wanting more. Well, with agile KM supposedly that should happen naturally, but it’s always better to take the time to reflect at yourself, your gaps, where you are keeping learning and KM at a sound level, and to what extent you are taking advantage of your network too. It’s about personal learning, personal knowledge management and it’s no longer contradictory with your organisation’s objectives and priorities, it potentially reinforces them through the sound ‘checks and balances’ that your personal external network brings…

Your external network, if well ‘gardened’, provides you with a sounding board that looks beyond your organisational glasses and biases. Your virtual gang provides a source of ‘fresh thinking’ available on tap. Make use of it and encourage other teams in your organisation to tap into those existing networks. There’s a good chance most employees already make use of their personal network, but perhaps in a hidden or unconscious way. Show that it is an engine for dynamic relevance (i.e. to remain relevant over time). At the same time, keep looking critically at your network to fine-tune it to your needs.

So, can you afford to go for big bang?
There is no right or wrong between big bang and stealth, but there are things to keep in mind:

  • Going for big bang means you will raise expectations from many employees and managers – this is perhaps one of the main reasons why KM has sometimes failed spectacularly;
  • If you are ready to raise expectations, make sure you have the following mechanisms in place:
    • A management that embraces your ideal and vision and is ready to show good behaviour too;
    • Some champions that will spread the message and are influential enough to speed up the knock-on domino effect;
    • Some ideas for how you are going to demonstrate success in early wins and longer term gains;
  • It probably makes a lot of sense to gradually develop your KM approach – if you have nothing in place, don’t try to fly too high straight away. You also wouldn’t enroll for the Olympics having driven a couple of amateur 100m races…
  • And as mentioned in another post of this series, ‘quick and dirty’ is a sure way to collect quick feedback about what works or what doesn’t, the ‘safe fail’ approach that will reveal what works and what is flawed in your approach.

If you have all of this in place, you can decide to go for a big bang approach and probably achieve something, although you won’t be spared the doubts, mockery and anxiety of those that do not believe in KM.

Good luck, keep the focus, gather your feedback and have some fun, you will need that energy: It’s a struggle ahead, but if it works out, it will liberate a lot of energy and results further down the line too…

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Harvesting insights (2): Beautiful KM

This week, me and a colleague of mine had a great opportunity to talk about knowledge management with the director of our organisation. It was good to see an open mind willing to know more about KM and to hear what our ‘corporate’ thinking about it is – if there is such a thing as corporate thinking. It also gave me a wonderful opportunity to write another post on harvesting insights about knowledge management.

In the previous ‘harvesting insights’ post, I looked at some of the simplest issues that concern KM. In this post I would like to share some insights from my practice as knowledge worker, some tricks of the trade which I hope might be useful to you too… And they’re about seeing the beauty in what may seem counter-intuitive at first. These are just some insights we touched upon with our director, not an exhaustive list in any way.

Broken is beautiful

Maybe the most important one: good knowledge work is not always straightforward. In fact it usually isn’t. Because it’s based on many failures. The potential of learning from failures is really much greater than that of learning from success. From the Mistake bank to AfriFail, the Dutch institute of brilliant failures or the many writings by a.o. Mary Abraham, Dave Snowden or Nancy Dixon about learning from failures… there is a wealth that demonstrates that success is not straightforward and that there is genuine value in looking at what’s broken. A word of caution here: broken alone doesn’t get you anywhere; it needs to be questioned. Simple initiatives fail often enough. Complex initiatives such as those involving knowledge transactions between various people are all the more likely to be failing, messy and fuzzy – quite something else than the beautiful polished process one would dream of. Good knowledge work gets dirty. So don’t go for bling bling, don’t (just) stick to the plan, go with the flow, fail, reflect, and try again!

Broken is beautiful

Quick and dirty is beautiful

They’re close cousins to broken, those twins quick & dirty. But their message is that we should focus on writing and documenting work in short cycles, not striving for perfection. Why? a) because we need to fail, that’s the lesson above but b) also because there’s a lot of value in what’s just being unearthed, it’s fresh and should be shared in a fresh state still. Let’s agree that it makes sense to capture in writing (or in other forms) some conversations and insights so that others can enjoy them too. What matters then? To come up with a beautifully polished product or to get the information out asap? I think you know my answer. I’m not demeaning the importance of publishing attractive materials, it certainly makes the reading easier and sometimes captures the context better. But the point is to keep the momentum of fresh news and hot insights. One of the reasons behind the success of Twitter and to a lesser extent Tumblr is that they allow sharing information in a few seconds. They pass on the essential stuff – and others pick it up all the more quickly. So in your KM work, don’t linger on brush and polish, pass on the nuggets – they will be polished soon enough, by yourself or others!

Up and down – not just forward – is beautiful

What I certainly notice in the water and sanitation sector, is that there is a tendency to go increasingly beyond organisational learning and KM. A majority of organisations still focus on that level, but increasingly they tend to look both up and down: up to other institutions, organising conversations beyond own little navel, cooperating with(in) networks and coordinating their actions with other akin institutions. This is the time of multi-stakeholder processes and of larger initiatives such as the Change Alliance.

At the same time, we have much to gain by looking down from organisations to individuals. It makes sense: people, not institutions, are sharing knowledge. As the focus of KM also shifts towards individuals, a whole strand of the knowledge management field is concerned with personal knowledge management (PKM), particularly since social media are becoming so important in our life and work. A couple of links there: The old (2001) article about the 7 skills of personal knowledge management and the more recent (2010) KMers discussion about PKM.

What this reveals is that more and more institutions are recognising that we are working at a high level of complexity and interdependence. Individuals and other groups of institutions are being recognised as other parts of one same network we are all connected to. The point here is thus: stop navel gazing as the employee of a self-indulging and supposedly cutting edge institution – be yourself as an empowered and valuable individual, and connect to wider causes and groups of institutions – it’s efficient, effective and fulfilling!

Stealth is beautiful

In the May 2009 issue of the KM4Dev Journal, Sarah Cummings and I wrote an article about the role of organisational KM strategies and we looked among others at the type of strategy followed by various organisations regarding KM: on the one hand, a ‘big bang’ approach where the KM strategy would be heavily promoted and heralded by the unit in charge and more often than not imposed on its workers for insufficiently involving them in the process; on the other hand, a stealth approach that builds upon what an organisation does well and expands these good practices. The key message here is that rather than thinking ‘tabula rasa – starting from scratch again’, there is much to gain from looking at what is already going on, what good practices can be amplified and what not so useful practices can be dimmed. In this sense, stealth is beautiful. There is nothing worse than even talking about KM suggesting that it is a special activity. We all talk, we all work together, we all write, we all learn, we all DO KM – we just don’t call it that way. Remember: keep it simple stupid. Oh yes, simple is beautiful.

Time, the great ennemy of creativity... (Photo credits: http://mohamedbhimji.com)

Time management is (or can be) ugly

Finally I come to one ugly aspect: what kills the capacity and ambition of people to become dedicated, empowered knowledge workers is to watch their every move and try to link everything that they do with a particular output. A very effective way to kill people’s creativity and motivation is a bad use of time management. Tracking time sheets could be actually useful to understand how long a task really takes (serving a learning agenda, to plan more realistically next time around). In many cases though, it is used as a way to scrutinise how efficient one really is – no gap allowed, no time wasted. No time for chats, no time for reading, no time for just thinking – THOU SHALL DELIVER…

Knowledge feeds on social interactions, on reading and on reflecting. Good KM should go beyond just time; it should settle for quality. And quality is fuzzy, dirty, nosy (going up and down) and sometimes even hidden. Spotless plans will not help us there.

So let’s fail again and reveal all the beautiful things that we went to pick up in the mud. Let good KM shine through!




Related blog posts:

Harvesting insights (1): back to (KM) basics

As mentioned in my previous blog post, I have set out to distil some of the key insights that are in my view at the crux of the success (or failure) of many KM and learning initiatives. What are the most essential insights I have gathered over the last few years working on knowledge and learning? This is a modest attempt at making some of my experience available to others but also to synthesise those years of work into insights that are easier to absorb.

Summer harvesting works also for insights (Photo credits: ToniVC)

Many of these insights or messages seem trivial, yet overlooking them results in no trivial consequence. And the reality offers contradictions which are as just as trivial as my insights. As anything on this blog, this is a try-out and if you think there is a point in working on this ‘harvesting insights’ series, I will work on a handful of posts – there will surely be a sequel to this one anyway. If I’m totally missing the point, please be kind enough to tell me too!


For this initial post, let’s zoom in on some insights about the basics of knowledge management and learning:

  • Managing knowledge is impossible. The very term of knowledge management emphasises the possibility to manage knowledge but knowledge is not manageable because it is not explicit and will never be concrete like a newspaper. It is in my view more of a capacity to turn information into insights and ideas, sometimes leading to new initiatives or actions. It is possible to stimulate the conditions in which knowledge emerges – by e.g. helping people meet and discuss. Managing what comes out of those interactions between a person and another one (conversations) or a reading (reflection) is simply a dangerous fallacy. Ditto with transferring knowledge, an even scarier concept: since when can one’s experience be passed on in one block to another person, in the fashion of The Matrix training courses? Dave Snowden’s ‘knowledge can only be volunteered, it cannot be conscripted’ principle is a reference in case here.
  • KM as a discipline is most effective when tailored to specific issues. The orchard of KM initiatives that try to make information (called knowledge) available and usable for anyone anywhere is immense. But it’s an orchard of wilting trees and rotting fruits, and those trees and fruits are the KM strategies, best practice lists and lessons learnt databases that focused on the ‘just in case’ and ‘just in time’. They focus on general examples. But KM and learning is useful only tailored to specific issues. Understanding and addressing the context behind the issue is what makes or breaks KM initiatives. Hence the importance of developing many ‘points of conversation’ in KM initiatives to allow that context to surface and become visible, And that context is difficult to create with just written documents. From information we’ve moved on to sharing knowledge and ultimately paying attention to the context: KM ‘just in use’, echoing the history of three KM generations (see IKM-Emergent’s meta-review and scoping study about this).

  • KM and learning require time and dedicated effort, its rewards should be clear and within grasp. Making time for structured reflection, for talking with others, for collecting information and packaging it in different versions can be a daunting challenge, and it definitely takes time. Whether individuals wish to improve their work practices or organisations set out to develop wider KM initiatives, there is no hope to see learning thrive and KM work in the long run if the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) is absent in the proposition. We – lone workers and employees – are ready to dedicate time and sweat to KM and learning, but that dedication comes only if our knowledge work creates energy in return (see this post on channelling energy). The effort we invest has to connect to our personal aspirations. Are you sure that what you are proposing is of value to me, or even to yourself? Already by tomorrow or in a year? Many KMers’ chat events refer to the power of WIIFM and the rewards that should stimulate individual dedication.

  • KM is all about questions and pointers that come from meaningful engagement (and useful information resources). The loop between conversations and information is the playground where KM finds its value. If we want to learn and use our knowledge to improve what we are doing, if we want to develop our energy, we have to connect to others who have faced similar questions or may (should?) face them in the future. These questions arise with meaningful engagement – preferably conversations based on trust or constructive criticism. In the absence of a physical counterpart, information that stimulates these questions and points to paradoxes can be a great alternative. And here are the two arms of KM: knowledge sharing and information management. The application (tailoring) of knowledge to a specific issue delivers the full value to improve what we are doing – which is about posing even greater questions in our endless quest for improvement. This great document about the art of powerful questions (PDF) offers useful avenues here.

  • Knowledge is latent and innovation craves connections of all kinds. Not everything we talk or read about is directly put to use. A lot of latent associations are formed by the information we absorb. The use of this latent ‘knowledge’ happens when connections are made with a particular context or question. The more bridges we establish between all the latent knowledge zones we develop in our brain (what could seem like disconnected zones), the more chances we create to use this knowledge and reinvent it in ever different shapes and flavours. This is what lateral thinking is about and why bringing barriers between professional and personal life down probably makes sense to realise our full potential. Thinking in our own mental silos wilts our creativity and our potential to develop solutions. The more diverse experiences we go through and relate to other experiences, the more likely we are to always find a way up and out. On this topic, the work of Paul Sloane on innovation and lateral thinking, and the work on multiple knowledges by Valerie Brown (PPT) come to mind.

Does this reflect your experience and insights? Where am I missing the point?

Related blog posts:

Cycles, circles and ripples of learning

Last Monday, I gave a one-day workshop [1] on knowledge management, learning and cooperation to help an organisation (and wannabe network) to harness opportunities and to address existing gaps, while focusing on a long term vision that inspires them.

It was a very valuable and useful experience at many levels, not least because it gave me a chance to review my own KM basics and to consider the big picture of learning again… a luxury I don’t often have, being involved in many different projects and activities (and I’m not even emphasising the constant attention spam that Twitter and other means provide).

Perhaps a specifically interesting point for me was the particular combination of learning cycles, circles and ripples (even though I didn’t mention this as such during the workshop) which may be strong drivers to successful learning initiatives and environments:

The learning cycles refer to the sense of continually engaging in iterative cycles of learning where doing is connected to observing to reflecting to reforming (taking on board new insights, ideas) and to planning again to doing again etc. (entering a new cycle).

This is simple ABC of learning and there are plenty of different learning cycles out there – just google a simple image search on learning cycle and you end up with quite a few hits.

One of the many learning cycles one can find on Google

One of the many learning cycles one can find on Google

The circles are perhaps better referred to as learning loops: single, double and triple. There was a recent discussion about these loops on the Pelican initiative mailing list and Irene Guijt mentioned a very nice example of these three learning loops in an article by Marleen Marleveld and Constant Dangbégnon [2] – freakingly dated from as far as 1998!!!

It is useful to use…

  1. Single loop learning: to analyse if we have achieved the goals we set out to achieve and potentially revise our approach to do the same better. This, to me is about being efficient.
  2. Double loop learning: to analyse the assumptions that led us to define a particular goal (and potentially revise the basis of our activities, in other words to do different things to have a better effect. This, to me, is about being effective – but perhaps as a point in time.

    Single / double / triple loop learning

    Single / double / triple loop learning

  3. Triple loop learning: to analyse how we can continually be effective by learning to learn. This concept is only half-baked I think but what seems important is that it is the precondition to being dynamically relevant, i.e. relevant all the time, by reinventing ourselves regularly to come up with the most appropriate way (possible to us) to respond to or anticipate on our environment. The interesting aspect of triple loop learning is the emphasis on transforming oneself and on the importance of questioning oneself deeply to assess what may prevent us from learning more deeply (hence from being yet more relevant).

Finally, the ripples are the different levels at which we are learning, and using the fruit of learning, since there is not much point in learning if not applying its fruits: by ourselves as individuals, with internal teams we’re working directly with, the wider organisation within which we are operating and finally the wider ripples of outsiders we work or interact with. Of course this is a simple picture and we can imagine a much more complex series of learning interactions with various groups in various activities. But the point is: learning happens at different junctions and the interaction of our ripples sharpens it.

How wide are your learning ripples?

How wide are your learning ripples?

With all these elements in hand, we get the following picture:

Cycles are concerned with the direct actions around us; circles are stretching us internally while ripples are stretching our surroundings. Therefore it is in the combination of these learning cycles, circles and ripples that learning reaches out to all its dimensions and it is in that combination that learning becomes indeed a vast and deep sea we all dive in.

On the sideline, after looking at these pictures it is difficult to think of learning as a square matter. Of the importance of circles in human societies… that would be an interesting blog post to track or write.

In the meantime, the next week will be all about circles and it sounds promising: I will be attending a meeting of the IKM-Emergent programme where we’ll be discussing progress so far and planning exciting activities for the next phase. More to come on this very soon – perhaps directly from Maastricht where we’ll be holding the workshop. For now, I’ll call this a day and use my (bi)cycle to get back home…

Additional notes

[1] Although I’m not proud of the design of my presentations (I don’t like Powerpoint, even if I recognise its usefulness and the fact that it’s possible to create amazing presentations with it), but still find hereby the main presentation I gave in a quick and dirty way.

[2] Check section 2.2.2 in http://www.iwe.wur.nl/NR/rdonlyres/9B516255-D70C-4A86-855B-40E57BDBAC59/49433/Maarleveld.pdf.

Related blog posts:

Overlapping ripples: learning together

Overlapping ripples: learning together

G(r)o(w)ing organically and the future of monitoring

In the past three weeks I have been working quite a lot on monitoring again, as one of my focus areas (together with knowledge management/learning and communications): processing and analysing the results of RiPPLE monitoring for the first time, developing the WASHCost monitoring and learning framework and generally thinking about how to improve monitoring, in line with recent interest in impact assessment (IRC is about to launch a thematic overview paper about this), complexity theory and even the general networks/ learning alliance angle etc.

Monitoring growing organically

I think monitoring is going and growing the right way – following an organic development curve – and for me it is one of the avenues that can really improve in the future, which perhaps explains the current enthusiasm for impact assessments etc. As mentioned in a previous blog post, I think the work we carry out with process documentation will be integrated as part of monitoring later, an intelligent way to monitor, which makes sense for donors, implementers (of a given initiative) and beneficiaries.

So what would/could be characteristics of good monitoring, in the future? I can come up with the following:

Integrated: in many cases, monitoring is a separate activity from the rest of the intervention, giving an impression of additional work and no added value. But if monitoring was indeed linked with intervention activities and particularly planning and reporting, it would help a lot and make it seem more useful. In the work on the WASHCost monitoring and learning framework, the key trick was to focus M&L on the ongoing reporting exercise and it did a wonderful trick. In addition to this, monitoring should also be linked with (mid-term and final) evaluations so that the evaluation team – usually external to the project – can come up with a more consistent methodology while keeping distance and a certain degree of objectivity. Evaluations are a different aspect and I’m not explicitly dealing with them here, even though they share a number of points with monitoring.

Informed: If monitoring is integrated with planning, before the project intervention there should be an analysis about the issue at hand and the potential best area of intervention. In line with this, a baseline should be established for what processes and outputs will be monitored. This helps prepare monitoring activities that make sense and interventions that are really focusing on how to improve what doesn’t work (but could help tremendously if it would);

Conscious: about what is at stake and therefore what should be monitored. The intervention should be guided by a certain vision of development, a certain ‘hypothesis of change’ that probably includes a focus on behaviour changes by certain actors, on some systems, processes and products/services and more generally on the system as a whole in which the development intervention is taking place. This conscious approach would therefore be well informed not to focus exclusively on hardware aspects (how many systems were built) nor exclusively on software issues (how much the municipality and private contractors love each other now);

Transparent and as objective as possible: Now that’s a tricky one. But a rule of thumb is that good monitoring should be carried out with the intention to report to donors (upward accountability) and to intended beneficiaries (downward accountability) – this guarantees some degree of transparency – and should be partly carried out by external parties to ensure a more objective take on monitoring (with no bias towards only positive changes). Current attempts to involve journalists to monitor development projects are a sound way forward and many more options prevail.

Versatile: Because monitoring should focus on a number of specific areas, it shouldn’t just use quantitative or qualitative approaches and tools but a mixture of them. This would help make monitoring more acceptable (with the accountability vs. learning discussion for instance) and would provide a good way to triangulate monitoring results, to ensure more objectivity in turn.

Inclusive: If monitoring includes external parties, it should focus on establishing a common understanding, a common vision of what is required to monitor the intervention, and it should also involve training activities for those that will be monitoring the intervention. So monitoring should include activities for communities as for donors, it should bring them together and persuade them that they all have a role to play in proving the value of the intervention and especially improving it.

Flexible: A project intervention rarely follows the course it primarily intended to follow… equally, monitoring should remain flexible to adapt to the evolution of the intervention. It should remain flexible in its design, in the areas that are monitored and in the methods that help monitor those specific areas. That is the value of process documentation and e.g. the Most Significant Change approach: revealing deeper patterns that have a bearing on the intervention but were not identified or recognised as important.

Long-term: Assuming that development is among others about behaviour and social changes, these changes are long-term, they don’t happen overnight; Subsequently monitoring should also have a long term perspective and indeed build ex-post evaluations to revisit intervention sites and see what are the later outcomes of a given intervention.

Finally, and with all else said before, monitoring would gain in being more simple, planned according to what is necessary to monitor and what is good to monitor, in line with existing resources and perhaps following a certain donor’s perspective: to monitor only what is necessary.

Hopefully that kind of monitoring will not feel as an intrusion by external parties in the way people are carrying out their job, and/or it will not feel like just an additional burden to carry without expecting anything from it. Hopefully that kind of monitoring will put the emphasis on learning, on getting value for the action, and on connecting people to improve the way development work is going on.

Related posts:

Key reflections on KM

Today I read the great article by Margaret Wheatley about ‘The real work of Knowledge Management’ (http://www.margaretwheatley.com/articles/management.html). It was very inspiring reading touching upon a number of ideas that are also central to my conception of KM – to start with a human conception of KM, not a technological one.

Some other thoughts I particularly liked:

  • Only quantifiable information makes it into our considerations – certainly at work. Without figures, we don’t deem a certain information relevant. What a wrong idea indeed. But how to make everybody understand the value of the the fuzzy unquantifiable?
  • KM and change do not (should not) start from changing people’s habits but looking at peoples’ needs and changing their practices to better address these needs. And yet very accurately Margaret pointed out that we often blame staff for their resistance to change, simply when their situation is not well understood by designers of change.
  • People must trust their leaders to change, manage their knowledge and share it. Managers are still a crucial element that is not well addressed in KM strategies, when they are part and parcel of the solution. And all the while it should indeed be just sooo easy to sell KM to them, as they need their organisations to adapt to change quickly.
  • One final point and a new epiphany for me: knowledge management is an oxymoron. If, as I think, knowledge is never a contained but the result of a process in interaction with a person, a message, a fact, it means that knowledge is about managing data or information, and in that respect knowledge management is an oxymoron, knowledge is management.

This leads me to think that

  1. Although I hate this discussion, we still need to come to a satisfactory common understanding of what knowledge is, what information and data and wisdom and all other elements usually associated with these definition discussions entail.
  2. We need to stop discussing KM among ourselves, converts of learning and adaptive change, and find the strings that will create the tipping point to convince managers of the importance of KM – and as Margaret once again rightly points out, of the importance of reflection, sharing, writing/documenting, even if this appears as unproductive time.
  3. One of the major issues in KM is still to start from the point of view of the end-beneficiary. However obvious that seems, we are still guilty of keeping in our comfort zone (looking from our perspective), trying to adapt others to our ideas, systems and processes, instead of turning those to the needs of the people we claim to help.
  4. When it comes to KM for development, the latter point stresses our failure in letting people in developing countries design their own KM vision, world and tools. We are still in the phase of dropping systems, smart tools, fuzzy concepts on our partners in Africa and other areas, but should their understanding of their situation, their needs, their problems, not define the way we design our actions? Where is our willingness to share the design of our interventions? Knowledge comes in a framework. We are ready to share the knowledge, but not the framework. How can this be our standard?

I am also victim of these shortcomings, but I do hope that we are increasingly aware of this and progressively improving our approach, in projects like IKM emergent (http://ikmemergent.wordpress.com/) and in our ongoing projects. In the meantime, it will take more Margaret Wheatleys to spread the good word.