Great and poor metaphors for knowledge, learning and change


Metaphor (Credits: Daniel Hoherd / FlickR)

Metaphor (Credits: Daniel Hoherd / FlickR)

Metaphors are great.

They reach out to the artist in us.

They tell us stories – not just plain facts.

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

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

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

The knowledge garden(ing) – works

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

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

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

I share because I care!

This is one of my favourite metaphors.

The organisation as a family – doesn’t work

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

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

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

 

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

Knowledge as water – works… to some extent

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

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

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

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

Knowledge as love – works… to some extent

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

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

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

Organisations are not machines… (Credits: Stuart McMillen)

Organisations and people as machines – doesn’t work

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

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

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

Military metaphors – don’t work

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related blog posts:

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)

 

The constant knowledge gardener


If we live in a true knowledge ecology (and the idea is not new as you can see here and there), nature lets its children grow naturally. Yet gardening can help boost some results – without going into the ins and outs of a possible knowledge conservation agriculture.

Knowledge is not just a tree but a whole orchard - it can blossom and give, or rot and doom us

Knowledge is not just a tree but a whole orchard – it can blossom and give, or rot and doom us

Time to revisit the gardening metaphor perhaps and to think about cultivating knowledge? This is the job of the constant knowledge gardener, a job whose demand is in constant progression.

Gardening knowledge means cherishing certain varieties or ‘cultivars, that is the general strands of knowledge and specific themes that matter to us (as individuals, groups or initiatives such as projects). What are the areas we want to see blossom? These varieties and cultivars may become tall trees under which we rest, smaller and fluffier bushes that bring about a diverse biodiversity or beautiful flowers that come and go.

Planting knowledge seeds means actively labeling the themes we want to keep abreast of by thinking about it, conceptualising it (by means of describing that field and why it matters to us), referring to it with keywords and meta-tags and inviting others to visit those knowledge cultivars. And as much as seeds require careful attention as they are too fragile to be left on their own, these new cultivars need to be attended to carefully or they may never see the light.

It further requires trimming and weeding. To keep the cultivars blossoming throughout the years, we need to keep the stems strong and to manicure our knowledge flowers, bushes and trees and get rid of dead leaves: data management, information management, personal knowledge management are all manifestations of that. We need to keep the information that is out there clean and easy to process – for us and for others – and to remove the ‘noise’ that we have created (dead links, bugs, out-of-date information, untagged products, uncontextualised information). This allows us to keep focusing on the gems of the garden rather than lose focus in the clutter of an organic mess.

For the more innovative knowledge gardeners it means to take cuttings and cross breed cultivars. Replicating the themes that matter in other areas of an organisation can be a useful way to create clout for those themes and to ensure more people are on board. Bringing the edge of our themes close to one another allows new connections and is the basis for innovation.

For even more effective results, we can try and fertilise the varieties and cultivars. This can be done by pouring in some fertiliser (additional expertise from a recognised source – though which source will really strengthen our knowledge plants might be difficult to assess). It can also be done very effectively by mixing and mingling cultivars. Some plants grow better when brought closer to certain trees. There are natural ways to fortify our garden. Mixing fields of expertise and themes together is a great way to innovate too and to re-instill vigour in a specific theme and in the conversations that go around it.

If we want to keep our garden beautiful for a long time, we probably need more than one gardener to do all of the above and contribute to a year-round show of nature. In our knowledge garden, this means working in teams and with networks, keeping our edge sharp and expanding the base of people who care about that knowledge garden.

However, and perhaps most importantly, a knowledge garden – whether humanly manicured or otherwise – requires a soil that is appropriate for it. The graft of knowledge seeds does not always work out. And the reason is that certain knowledge plants are not appropriate for a given soil. Certain themes are not adequate for some areas, certain conversations are not ripe yet for a certain crowd, certain contexts are not ready to work around new ideas. The knowledge garden soil needs careful preparation and has to work symbiotically with the themes that are put onto it. This will make or break the planting of knowledge seeds. We may plant these seeds anyhow but they may never bloom – or they might but then wilt and vanish only a tad later. The context of knowledge interactions is key and should be prepared with extreme precaution. This is the essence of successful development interventions too.

As we experience different gardening seasons, we also need to remain critical and focused on what we are learning from our interventions with the garden. It is what will allow us to make the right dosing, cutting, weeding and breeding. A strong learning focus is essential for knowledge gardeners to remain good, and that usually happens more easily in combination with other knowledge gardeners.

If our constant knowledge gardeners bring love (the passion and energy for the field or theme) and expertise in paying attention to the above, then our knowledge garden is likely to remain strong and giving, with the capacity to renew itself continually and to reveal the full potential of knowledge ecology, combined with the beauty of dedication.

Shame though it is for a frog like me, I have to confess I am more inclined towards English gardens and their careful mimicking of nature’s organised chaos, rather than the pompous vanity of ‘jardins à la française‘. And my observation of those French knowledge gardens confirms what sounds true in my own heart of constant knowledge gardener: our garden needs a sensible dose of ‘let it be’.

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