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)

 

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Interview with Krishan Bheenick (CTA) – KM, systems thinking and the backlash of knowledge sharing


Following the global consultation of CIARD (Coherence in Information about Agricultural Research for Development) in May 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting Krishan Bheenick, Senior programme coordinator knowledge management at CTA (Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation) on his take about KM and where it’s headed.

Here is the transcript of that interview.

Krishan Bheenick, Senior programme coordinator knowledge management at CTA (Credits - FARA)

Krishan Bheenick, Senior programme coordinator knowledge management at CTA (Credits – FARA)

What is your personal story with KM?

I am not an expert in KM. My background is in agricultural science and in simulation / modeling. I used to teach at the University of Mauritius. These experiences helped me, forced me to have a holistic approach. I left the world of academia and wanted to get closer to policy-makers to have more influence.

I landed in the field of conceptualizing information systems – following the systems approach which I’m now transposing to information science – at national level. I developed a proposal for a national information system in Mauritius, vetted by FAO’s Investment Centre, but which was never financed. After that I ended up working at SADC (the Southern African Development Community) where I was asked to facilitate capacity strengthening in information management at regional level. What is required at national and at regional level brings up this systems approach: What works at regional level can be adapted at national level. Technology itself is just a way to implement information flows across the scale.

That’s the baggage I came with at CTA. The focus of CTA is to build capacity in information, communication and knowledge management (ICKM). I feel comfortable with that but my position mentions ‘knowledge management’ while I have a lot of questions about KM. I don’t mind this challenge because it forces me to go beyond what I’ve worked with the last years and to differentiate what is KM as opposed to what we used to do in information and communication management.

How is KM conceptualized and implemented in CTA?

KM at CTA is about how ICKM is interrelated. We started using ‘ICKM’ in the SADC region when thinking about developing regional info systems. During one of our regional workshops, we compared what is a communication strategy, an information management (IM) strategy and a knowledge management strategy. We realized that they’re all interrelated and intertwined and there are different entry points to ICKM.

I try and help people define that entry point to the process – even if they don’t know much about it – and to ensure they have some components to help improve the implementation of the communication strategy, strengthen information systems through an information management strategy and ultimately aim at developing a KM strategy focusing on these two elements.

At the same time, it’s important to get policy-makers to realize that even though they don’t call some procedures, processes, policies as KM they are practicing it. One of the motivating factors (and selling points to drive the process) is to get them to realize that they’re already putting KM into practice. That is currently more or less the CTA perspective.

In terms of interventions, our approach at CTA has been to tackle interventions in ICKM at whatever level the request is coming from e.g. groups of policy-makers who would like to have a web space for discussion, developing a simple website including some collaborative networking functions and forums (e.g. as simple as Dgroups). Whatever the request, we respond to it as it’s been put to us, in order to get engagement in the process. Then we follow up with sensitization to the whole spectrum of ICKM.

Some organisations would like to recognize the need to develop a strategy (whether on communication, information or knowledge management). CTA can help. We are running some pilots in ICM strategy development.

My colleague in KM at CTA, Chris Addison, has been working with farmer organisations who wanted platforms for collaboration. We’ve been working with communication officers to help communicate among sub-regional farmer organisations under the umbrella of one regional block.

Chris and I are addressing the needs for KM applying two different approaches, one from a mechanistic perspective back up and the other from the strategic perspective all the way down to technical. In the end we hope to come up with a framework that links strategic with technical aspects of KM. That’s the process we’re interested in and also discovering what KM is all about.

I don’t know enough about KM to say I’m an expert. I’m a learner, I understand some principles and I apply these principles in my job to respond to requests.

Where are your current interests and next steps with KM at CTA?

There’s a lot of talk about knowledge sharing (KS) and when people talk about KM a lot of illustrations come from KS. But is KS by itself sufficient to represent KM? I feel that the community is talking less and less about IM because we’ve started getting interested by the process. Has KS replaced IM?

Are we, while focusing on KS, distracting ourselves away from KM perspectives – where KM is left to a very intra-organisational approach? The very active promotion of KS approaches makes people think that it’s the same as KM.

It’s time to remind ourselves how KM is applied at a larger perspective than organizational e.g. community-wide. It’s my wish to explore that with colleagues in the KM field.

It’s my wish to explore that with colleagues in the KM field.

Where do you think the field of KM is headed and how do you look at it?

My wish would be to see that KM takes a step back for a better overview, revisits what’s been done in the field of KS where a lot of people are equating KS with KM. We should not lose the red thread. It’s important to show how KS is effective for KM but it’s not necessarily addressing management aspects. We’re not able to capture the essence of how KS is operating in KM.

What is the feedback that you get from KS: is that the whole of KM or KS in duplex? How is the duplex KS ending up becoming KM?

The principle of KM about documentation, reflection and sharing reflection and building upon previous reflection is to me a good KM practice. We can’t all keep sharing our thoughts and  we need sometimes to stop, take stock, learn and acknowledge what we’ve learnt and put those out as resources, which is where I appreciate what the KM4Dev community does with the KM4Dev wiki (although if I looked closely at that I might offer a critique of it).

Now that we have a KM scan ready to be applied. We’ll test it at small scale and if it works at that scale we’d like to share it with more people so that we get an instrument that is robust enough to take our snapshots of KM in the organization.

What networks, publications, resources would you recommend discovering to know more about what matters (to you) in KM?

Ark KM published a very expensive book last year ‘KM in organisations’. The Table of Contents was available and when I read that I realized that our thoughts about the state of KM in Agricultural & Rural Development, during a consultation last year, were very well reflected in that book. I would love to see whether CTA could approach publishing houses to come up with a book on KM in development that we could launch as part of their own series, maybe with the KM4Dev community or the agricultural and rural development community. If they see this as corporate social responsibility we’d be fine with it.

There was also an IDRC / SAGE publication (in India) about ‘transforming knowledge’ (2011). It’s a good reader in terms of how all the components fit together, from the perspective of how results of research are being translated out there. I would’ve liked to see something similar but looking at KM more broadly.

Finally, ‘Here comes everybody: the power of organising without organisations’ (by Clay Shirky): I like his analysis and with this you wonder how KM fits in the innovation systems. Personally I’ve followed systems thinking since I have been exposed to it and I’m applying it in my life.

Related blog posts:

Use PACMAN to beat information overload and fix filter failures!


Dealing with information overload (Credits - Joy of Tech)

Dealing with information overload (Credits – Joy of Tech)

So much information out there! How to keep up with it?

Such filter failures (Clay Shirky would -allegedly- say) in the way we process information bubbles! How can we fix these?

So little time to do so much! Where lies our salvation from the digital flood?

People around me are constantly grappling with this: my researcher colleagues say they wouldn’t use new platforms and channels (they’re struggling with existing ones as is), my family wonders how I manage to engage on social media (beyond the obvious Friend&Family-focused Facebook), my friends mostly don’t really know about my info-flow-survival tricks…  All of this led me recently to wonder if only dedicated knowledge workers are able to strike a balance with information flow, between fast pace and slow space.

My mantra to keep the head above the info water is: PACMAN. Or rather PACMan: Plan-Act-Capture-Manage. PACMan helps you eat information nuggets all along the way and keep going happily, while fixing filter failures letting phantoms through. It has a lot to do with personal knowledge management (PKM) so perhaps it should be called PaKMan 😉

What does PACMan entail?

Plan

One of the main reasons why we don’t manage to find the time to read all the relevant information there is, is that we don’t plan for it properly. Typically our (lack of) planning is lousy because:

Plan openly, adapt relentlessly (credits: BlogWestinteractive / FlickR)

Plan openly, adapt relentlessly (credits: BlogWestinteractive / FlickR)

  • We usually don’t plan! We don’t set goals, which would give us direction and, very importantly, give us energy when we complete them;
  • As a result we don’t manage to channel energy and time to activities that fall off our crisis-mode (like Alice’s eternally late rabbit), such as reading interesting stuff;
  • When we DO plan, we over-plan. We put too much on our fork. And by the same token we ignore what we unconsciously sense (and know from experience): reality -usually- does NOT follow the plan. We need to keep our plans flexible. I’d say keep 20-25% of your plans open to allow spontaneity and serendipity (remember pinballs and bulldozers);
  • We’re usually lousy at saying ‘no‘ to more work; perhaps because it’s interesting but it still means we’re constantly pushing our multitasking limits (when some say multitasking doesn’t actually work), reinforcing this crisis dynamics… We just have to say no to too much work! It’s the only way to maintain focus, quality, energy and inspiration…
  • Oh, and we typically forget to plan holidays. Fatal mistake, as no one else will do that for you 😉

Turn these planning mistakes on their head, forget about perpetual fire-fighting and enjoy the luxury of quality time, for reading and otherwise.

What I do (among others): I plan on a weekly basis, keep one day entirely free, maintain manageable daily objectives and accommodate the unknown by pushing things back to when I have free time available. My reading time is early and late in the day, at the edges of a working day, when I have a break and if I need to read a specific document, I include that in my plan. Ticking off my to-do’s gives me joy and a sense of achievement, while I can still open any unknown along the way – ideal! Ha – and saying no and planning holidays were the two surviving skills I learnt with my previous employer IRC – just try it!

Act

…on the spot! I already covered dealing with email overflow – a lot of that advice applies to other information sources. Act is about avoiding future problems. It’s about finding heuristics that work for you (e.g. do, delegate or dump), but doing it in the moment, as it happens. Act according to your plans, act on capturing (see next point) when the opportunity presents itself, act on what you observe and feel, act rather than just think. Seize the moment to read, use your ‘dead time’ and combine opportunities to do reading (to serve another purpose) if that makes your life easier.

Try and stick to the plans when it makes sense, don’t dilute your focus. Keep zen habits… Though when a good opportunity presents itself to absorb that information in a slow, qualitative kind of way, just seize it, it might be your best chance in a while. It’s about being in the moment and honing the wisdom of insecurity.

What I do: I execute my plans, I regularly read stuff and when I see something valuable I share and/or save it on the spot. And a whole lot more which I guess I should unpack in a future post… 

Capture

Managing information flow is also about deferring / staging the time to absorb that information – and indeed fixing filter failures.

Staging the consumption of information means that you not only plan time to that kind of quality reading, but you can also save information for later consumption (and easy sharing). Like recording a program you don’t have the time to watch at the moment. Social bookmarking helps you do just that (see this video about social bookmarking).

RSS feeds are also a great way to differ your information consumption. What are RSS feeds? See the video below. What’s great about it is that they capture information for you – ready to be read any time – in one convenient place, like your personal, customised newspaper.

Fixing filter failures is itself about leveraging the combined filtering power of your personal learning network (PLN). Invest in your PLN, on all social media/networks you’re using; prune those networks, remove the people that you don’t really engage with or benefit from, act as the constant knowledge gardener. If well maintained, your PLN will help you find the cream of the content crop, by retweeting/saving/blogging about/referring to/sharing these great resources – something that Twitter does particularly well but other platforms too.

What I do: I’ve been using Del.icio.us for a while to bookmark resources that I have found interesting – or that look interesting. Sometimes I don’t come back to those. Most of the time I do, at some point, use these resources. Favourites in specific collections such as FlickRSlideshare etc. also provide similar features. I use those two, Pinterest for graphs and funny pictures (that are not mine), Instagram to store touched up pix taken with my phone, TumblR to keep track of fragments of conversations and blogging ideas etc. – I collect stuff on the spot. And I check RSS feeds (via Feed.ly) on my phone or over the weekend + a very quick check some mornings, possibly reading whatever incredible stuff appeared in my stream.

Manage

At some point it really helps to manage and curate your content: organise your tags/keywords to make sure you collect your resources around consistent references, bundle important references on specific channels, analyse your resources and blog about it. Robin Good recently shared this excellent resource on good (and new) curation tools and practices which will give you a lot of great ideas to curate relevant content.

What is content curation? (Credits - Webbythoughts)

What is content curation? (Credits – Webbythoughts)

Managing also covers learning – analysing the content and reflecting on your planning, acting, collection and curation practices. It can be part of planning, it can be done on a daily or weekly basis but it needs to be done regularly to adjust. The bad news: it will take you a while to get on top of your content collections and information flows. But once you do and you have properly managed and are regularly curating them, your practice becomes an unconscious competence: you just do it without noticing, so it doesn’t (feel like it may) take time.

What I do: I recently reviewed all my Del.icio.us, tags removed all duplicates etc. it took me half a day but it is now so easy to save a new resource (without wondering which tag I should be using) and to retrieve any of them later… I regularly save pictures aside and put them on Pinterest and FlickR to keep them in sets/collections. I also analyse my own (and other) content I ‘take stock‘ of important topics on this blog. I use my blog for many different purposes, including reflecting on my information management practices, it’s a powerful way to surface deeper issues and structure solutions for me. When I have more time I review how I use my collections such as Pinterest, RSS feeds. However I don’t reflect enough – every day – about what I could improve or why things didn’t go as intended.

So what now?

With PACMan you should now be able to stay on top of your information flows and progressively handle more and more of it – if you so wish – or balance the time you absorb information with other personal priorities of yours. Oh sure it will take some time but you no longer will be part of the people who feel constantly overwhelmed with information…

And that’s agile PKM for you 😉

Related blog posts:

We need more / better communication! But not from me…


When it comes to communication, everyone points the finger elsewhere (credits: Evalottchen/FlickR)

When it comes to communication, everyone points the finger elsewhere (credits: Evalottchen/FlickR)

I hear that a lot, in many organisations: communication is not good enough or there isn’t enough of it.

What does it really mean though? We are quick at pointing the finger to the problem, but not so keen on explaining what we really mean and what this implies.

Unfortunately also, too often we assume that the communication officer or team will solve all these problems, because ‘communication is their field, not mine’.

The reality is once again less black-and-white than it seems.

What they (might) mean What is really happening (and what we can do about it)
They don’t know enough about other people and departments’ work  Not enough is documented about: ongoing projects, movements (calendaring), meetings and events, outputs published.♣ Contribute to these records: share your travel plans, schedule your meetings publicly, channel your outputs to the official repository. 

Crucially, use a public (working out loud) channel to share information about what they’re doing, their questions, finds and ideas – be it on Yammer, a corporate Facebook group, Sharepoint or the organisation’s Intranet.

♣ Do this individually and in your teams. And stimulate others to do just the same. 

♣ If the above is impossible (e.g. because channels don’t exist), contact the communication team to help make it happen.

They don’t find relevant information through the formal communication channels and experience little connection and relation between the informal (bilateral chats) and formal channels They may not know how to look for information and where, there might not be any information for lack of content ‘fuel’; they receive little information as compared with corridor talks and chatting with people at events♣ Look for an overview of communication channels and procedures. 

♣ Contribute to these channels to enrich them – otherwise there will always be a disbalance between formal and informal channels.

They experience lack of coordination The different relevant entities of the organisation have few structural channels and processes to share relevant knowledge and information among themselves and rely on ad-hoc encounters to share strategic information♣ Use conversation channels and wikis that help people get in touch with each other despite distances, leaves documentation traces for themselves and others, and allow collaboration on joint projects.

♣ Use meta tags to ensure all relevant resources are tagged according to the taxonomy or folksonomy in use.

They feel they are reinventing the wheel There isn’t enough documentation going on during and after projects to share useful insights. Perhaps not enough attention is paid to the process of conducting projects and the specific approaches followed, as opposed to just carrying out stated objectives♣ Very similar to the previous point, this relates to the lack of records or their disorganisation (e.g. for lack of metadata). The agile organisation will ensure resources are easily findable and the persons related to these resources easy to locate. A social network analysis/mapping of sorts might be helpful here. 
They feel the organisation is not well equipped to face up and coming challenges that require more complex cooperation They feel the limitations of the above in doing their job and know they need to connect to other sources of knowledge but are perhaps not so sure as to how to proceed♣ This is where an engagement-focused communication team could really provide high added value support by helping design, facilitate and manage engagement processes with other parties and stakeholders, inside and outside. 

♣ What could also help is to organise more conversations (brown bag seminars, conferences, discussions) that bring together different parts of the organisation and external parties, to shape up a big picture that matters to the organisation’s agenda.

They don’t enjoy enough communication support They may have some genuine capacity needs in terms of communication and knowledge management/sharing but may not be aware of these, and perhaps there isn’t any (adequate) offering to fill these gap or perhaps these are not well known♣ See below. The task of the communication team is to connect the dots and to ensure that people use existing channels and processes to their advantage, without burdening them.
They hear “we ought to do more about communication” There is just external pressure (from donors, partners etc.) to communicate, reach out to and engage with other parties… Either way there is a problem of externally felt need, not a self-recognised weakness♣ This is not an ideal situation, but better realise it than remain ignorant. In this case, all the above applies, and perhaps it would be good to connect with other people, networks, communities of practice and organisations that seem better prepared to 21st century engagement, to get some ideas about what could work or not in this organisation. 

Of course the communication officer or team does have a role to play, that is to:

  • Set up the channels (public calendaring system, output repository, chat/knowledge sharing platform to share simple updates)
  • Set up recommended processes to use these systems
  • Provide training initially to help staff members make use of these systems and processes/procedures, at various levels (from simple users to power users and administrators), with particular emphasis on meta-standards which help organise information more systematically and retrieve it more easily
  • Coach staff and answer their question (seek their feedback on what works or not) to adjust the work
  • Monitor how these channels and processes are performing over time and contributing to accomplishing the organisation’s objectives
  • Over time, contribute to stimulating a culture of knowledge sharing and open enquiry that is conducive to adaptive management and proactive leadership cultivation

So, next time you wonder why communication in your (team, organisation, network) is so bad, ask yourself what you can do to improve it, and how your communication team can help you help yourself 😉

Related blog posts:

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’.

Related blog posts:

Revisiting the links between communication and knowledge management


At the fifth informal get-together of the Ethiopia/Addis Ababa KM4Dev network, one of the focused conversations we held was about the relations between communication and knowledge management. I wrote this year about how KM can power communication. I also blogged about the different families of engagement in which comms and KM can be found.

KM and comms overlap a lot - with the exception of learning?

KM and comms overlap a lot – with the exception of learning?

The KM4Dev Ethiopia discussion we had focused on the following two questions:

  1. Where do KM and comms sit in your organisation / project and are they formally or informally connected? How?
  2. Where do you see comms and KM work together and possibly integrate?

The conversation highlighted a few points which I think are worth looking into here.

KM and comms are defined very differently in different organisations or projects; they encompass each other (KM is part of comms, comms is part of KM) or they are totally separate depending on the concepts that form the foundations of that organisation and the politics of different departments… What is sure: There has to be a real purpose in bringing comms and KM together to encourage formal and/or informal cooperation among these approaches.

As many other things, definitions don’t matter so much (we’ve been working on comms and KM all along without labeling these ways) so long as your organisation/project feels comfortable knowing what it does with it. That intention matters, particularly if as I have advocated KM (and comms) includes a strong emphasis on learning. Purpose is essential to accelerating learning.

One of the main differences between KM and comms has been the idea of messaging (highlighted in the definitions in one of the resources mentioned below) which has characterised much comms work in the past: In organisations and projects, comms – understood here as a department rather than a function or skill set – has been traditionally focusing on unilaterally sending messages to target groups. There has been very little said about multi-lateral relations in comms work and also very little about (face-to-face and online) engagement from the start. This is changing, however, with more and more communication strategies and activities paying attention to nurturing the network (or ecosystem) as part of which the organisation or project is part. This change of approach is perhaps the main reason why there is such a blur between communication and knowledge management: comms is evolving; and so is KM, moving away from being understood as just information management (more about the difference between the two on the KM4Dev wiki). Adding to the blur, is that knowledge sharing is essential in KM and might be understood – wrongly – as communication.

Comms and KM retain nonetheless deeply distinctive features. As mentioned in the engagement families analogy, the marketing and PR branches of the communication family are very different from what KM does or intend to do. The learning aspect is also usually not a very prominent aspect of comms, while it is adamant to good, agile KM. And information management is only thought of as distantly supporting comms, while it is part and parcel of KM.

Perhaps another key difference is that comms is recognised and mainstreamed a lot more in business and has been traditionally used as a strong corporate arm, i.e. a controlled field which organisations pay attention to regarding what they are communicating and how they are engaging with clients, partners, beneficiaries etc. With the advent of social media, the corporate comms side has continued to extend its influence, while the KM arm is perhaps moving increasingly towards personal knowledge management and the role of social networks to influence the conversations, documentation efforts and learning issues of people – and their organisations if they are employees. 

Ultimately both comms and KM wish to change the behaviour of a number of internal and/or external audiences… But communication tends to still have that ‘corporate’ feel to it, while KM and its inherent recognition of learning – and of the power of social learning – recognises much more explicitly the importance of external signals and of co-creating knowledge to get to smarter conversations that solve current problems and pre-empt future issues. This is introduced in this recent explanation by TheKnowledgeCore. The method to achieve change is not the same – much more controlled in comms and  arguably much more open to social learning for social change in agile KM.

Coming back to the initial point here, if there is a real will to make communication and KM work together, it really happens. KM then informs ‘smarter’ communication while KM also benefits from the expertise of comms to approach different internal and external groups more effectively, offline and online. And such a comms-fuelled smarter KM connects strong information management (having information well organised, available, accessible and indeed accessed) with strong communication, to ensure that communication and knowledge sharing are based on existing and pertinent information.

So, this definition and distinction game is a fuzzy affair, but there is certainly much to gain in stimulating interactions between proponents of workers of the comms field and those of the KM field. That’s what agile KM is also about. I am a knowledge sharing and communication specialist, so it makes perfect sense to me that both fields are related, perhaps this post gives you some ideas to consider it too?

And while at that, here are some possibly interesting resources around similar discussions in the past:

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Power your communication with ‘KM inside’


Where to nestle knowledge management in the work place?

Is it a field or discipline that deserves a unit in its own right – with its own breed of specialists (the knowledge manager) – or is it a mainstream support function that shoulders every other process? The answer differs in every organisation. In many cases, knowledge management (KM), or knowledge sharing (KS), is hosted within communication (for instance my own function title at ILRI is ‘knowledge sharing and communication specialist’). What are the relations between communication and KM?

How does KM/KS really support communication or even power it?

How knowledge management powers communications

How knowledge management powers both primary (top tier) and secondary (bottom tier) communication functions

The graph here depicts some of the basic outbound or primary functions of communication (on the top half), that is, the front-end activities where communication serves its own purpose and some of the key inbound or secondary support functions of communication, i.e. the activities that make primary communication possible).

Primary communication functions might typically include:

  • Announcing and raising (public) awareness – the typical PR gig,
  • Disseminating information (in various ways and for various audiences, from sending freebies, publications or newsletters to partners and clients to sending press releases to the media),
  • Sharing it both physically (at events) and online or virtually through engaging sporadically with other people around a specific information,
  • Engaging with audiences as a longer term structured process to develop trust and share information more effectively – either as part of an action research programme, a multi-stakeholder process or something else,
  • And ultimately collaborating (assuming that a clear protocol of cooperation and coordination is in place to allow that collaboration to flourish).
These functions are increasingly focused on engagement and co-creation (from announcing where there is no real focus and no or little interaction to collaborating where everything is about collective sense-making and co-creation of content).

Secondary communication functions include:

  • Writing outputs (of all kinds),
  • Documenting (either processes, conversations, work, protocols etc.) which prepares the way for the writing,
  • Publishing and design, which is about getting the written outputs to the next level (design, peer review etc.) and out,
  • Training on a number of communication channels and processes,
  • And finally supporting in any other way (coaching, informing, guaranteeing a helpdesk function etc.).

At the centre of it all, I deliberately put ‘internal communication’ because it is the ‘glue and grease’ that allows all these primary and secondary functions to work in an integrated manner and to create a team spirit and dynamics. It is also what allows information to flow and be used for all these purposes. It is perhaps where KM might operate from.

So how does KM power these functions?
KM is basically a strong enabler of communication for a number of these functions.

First off, though, we need to agree on a working definition of what KM is and does. Without going into very lengthy and cumbersome discussions, let us say that KM encompasses knowledge sharing (interactions between people to use information and making sense together), information management (processes geared at managing, storing, rendering information findable and usable) and critical thinking (where learning helps to keep sharpening knowledge sharing and information management and the wider purpose of achieving one’s set agenda).

Working with this definition, KM supports communication in the following ways:

  • The knowledge sharing element stimulates all interactions in a more effective way – ensuring frequency and good “quality of conversations that get your job done” (borrowed from the definition of knowledge management that Euan Semple and others have provided in the past), which leads to more effective sharing, engagement and collaboration – the top right tier of the graph.
  • The information management element ensures that information a) is there in the first place (generated through writing) but particularly that it b) can be traced and found at all times c) is easily and accessibly organised to raise awareness, be disseminated and/or shared, and d) is systematically channelled back from knowledge sharing, engagement and collaboration activities. It supports directly the left hand side of the graph and indirectly the knowledge sharing processes (offering information that can be used for knowledge sharing, engagement and coordination).
  • The critical thinking / learning element particularly strengthens the documentation (of processes) but also enables all other functions by ensuring stronger questions, stronger ideas, stronger ownership (thinking makes people more involved), stronger content altogether, stronger engagement by grappling together with ideas, chances for survival of the work and stronger embedding in a given context (because the very process of embedding is supposedly questioned then). Subsequently it supports the full spectrum of communication.

Communication, without knowledge management, might fall back to a series of messages that do not inform learning and adaptation, may end up as a series of sporadic and disconnected activities and does not link information with personal interactions and learning strongly enough, leaving a ‘back office’ messy and useless, like a ghost ship adrift.

Does that resonate with your experience?

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The birth of a thought and the life-times of a concept


I love thoughts, always have: How they come about, what lineage they follow etc.

The birth of a thought? (image credits: unclear)

The birth of a thought? (image credits: unclear)

Something as simple as a thought is somehow as thorny as impact and as untraceable as a travelling lighter:

Who came up with a thought first? The person that first talked about it? The person that promoted it? The person that applied it?

Can we actually come up with genuinely original ideas?

Are we not the product of a constant to-and-froing of ideas with others as shown on the illustration on the right?

Isn’t there also something to say about how we use our tacit knowledge (in Michael Polanyi’s sense, e.g. the insights we have but do not think about it any more because they are part of us, they have almost become  reflexes) to include streams of thoughts from the past too?

Are we not just the fruit of a long history of mingling with others’ minds?

We may have just made ours what others said and did in the past. We are “resting upon the shoulders of giants” – whether we like to recognise it or not.

So we might want to remember at all times that thoughts and ideas are: collective, iterative, multi-faceted, ever improvable (like a diamond asking to be ever more polished); that they benefit from slow simmering and from confrontation and combination with other ideas – whether from reading or talking with others. At any rate, time is an essential element in the creation of (good) ideas.

Steven Johnson’s video illustrates this very well.

There is some kind of a parallel here with the lifetime of concepts – the glorified generic thoughts that illustrate a category of things

I also love talking about concepts. And yet, that’s where problems start: we all have a different perspective, different glasses on, and every concept means something slightly different to each new person. When it means anything at all.

Sometimes, the concepts that matter to us are totally useless to others… and sometimes, we just don’t know that we don’t know something, like a concept. That’s the blind spot or the unknown of the Johari window.

This is really important for our use of concepts: It’s all in the timing. A concept is only really useful when people are aware of their need to get their head around that concept or – more likely – its practical application. A) Before that time, the concept is theoretical fluff – because people don’t know that they don’t know (or they don’t know that they might need this concept). If you invest a lot of efforts, you might convince them about that blind spot they have and about doing something to tackle it, but it’s a long way. B) Past that time of emerging or felt need, they might have embraced the concept and its practice so totally that it has become tacit knowledge (hello Michael Polanyi again!). It could also mean that the concept has gone mainstream to the extent that it’s old news that does not interest anyone any longer – as has been the case with storytelling for a long while for instance. It could also mean that the concept was not used at all and it was a missed opportunity – but there’s no point running after it.

The lifetime of a concept does not limit itself to one time and one space though: it goes through several of these stages of before-during-after. It gets discovered, applied, integrated, forgotten by different people at different times. It has different lifetimes, different iterations in which other people rediscover the power or relevance of that concept again and need to apply it in a different context. With a slightly different focus this time.

When we work on or with concepts, we might want to find out at what stage of discovery the concept is, at what iteration in its lifetime. This requires a bit of research. It might be annoying to look back and dig through the archives, but paying attention to history guarantees a better embedding of concepts in peoples’ practice.

An example? Knowledge management: yesterday it actually meant information management and it was a rage; then as KM initiatives promising the right information to the right people at the right time started to falter it became a plague and was abandoned by much of the corporate sector. Now it’s just yesterday’s news, a slightly embarrassing term. It is progressively upgraded to the much sexier and fresher ‘innovation’ – the new buzz in town – with the danger of getting rid of all the good lessons of the golden age of KM. The reality behind a certain conception of KM (the idea of connecting people and their knowledge) has never been more topical. And talking about KM is both highly desirable (in the knowledge age) and potentially very hazardous (because knowledge cannot be managed). How will these ideas unfold in the golden age of innovation?

At what iteration in its lifetime is KM in your context? Is it worth pursuing it or focusing on innovation like everyone else? How to avoid the ‘baby-out-with-the-bathwater’ syndrome? It might be difficult to tell, but it has perhaps never been more relevant to question this…

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Communication, KM, monitoring, learning – The happy families of engagement


Many people seem to be struggling to understand the differences between communication, knowledge management, monitoring, learning etc.

Finding the happy families (Photo: 1st art gallery)

Finding the happy families (Photo: 1st art gallery)

Let’s consider that all of them are part of a vast family – the ‘engagement’ family. Oh, let’s be clear, engagement can happen in many other ways but for the  sake of simplicity, let’s focus on these four and say that all of these family members have in common the desire – or necessity – to engage people with one another, to socialise, for a reason or another. And let’s try to unpack this complex family tree, to discover the happy families of engagement.

The engagement family is big, it contains different branches and various members in each of these. The main branches are roughly the Communication (Comms), Knowledge management (KM) and Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E).

Communicating

Communi-cating

The comms branch is large and old. Among the many siblings, the most prominent ones are perhaps Public Relations and Marketing. They used to be the only ones around in that branch, for a time that seems endless. All members of this branch like to talk about messages, though their horizon has been expanding to other concepts and approaches, of late.

  • Public relations has always made the point that it’s all about how you come across to other folks and enjoys very much the sheen and the idea of looking smart. But some accuse him of being quite superficial and a little too self-centred.
  • His old sibling marketing has adopted a more subtle approach. Marketing loves to drag people in a friendly conversation, make them feel at ease and get them to do things that perhaps they didn’t want in the first place. Marketing impresses everyone in the family by its results, but he has also upset quite some people in the past. He doesn’t always care for all that, as he thinks he can always find new friends, or victims.
  • Another of their sibling has been around for a while too: Advocacy is very vocal and always comes up with a serious message. Some of his family members would like him to adopt a less aggressive approach. Advocacy’s not silly though, so he’s been observing how his brother marketing operates and he’s getting increasingly subtle, but his image is very much attached to that of an ‘angry and hungry revolutionary loudmouth’.
  • Their sister communication is just as chatty but she is a bit behind the scene. Communication doesn’t care about promoting her family, selling its treasures or claiming a message, she just wants people to engage with one another, in and out of the family. She is everywhere. In a way she might be the mother of this branch.
  • Their youngest sister, internal communication, has been increasingly present over the past few years and she really cares for what happens among all members of her family. She wants people to know about each other and to work together better. She has been getting closer and closer to the second main branch of the engagement family tree: knowledge management, but she differs from that branch in focusing on the internal side of things only.
Knowledge management

Knowledge management

The Knowledge management branch also comprises many different members and in some way is very heterogeneous. This branch doesn’t care so much for messages as for (strategic) information and conversations. For them it’s all about how you can use information and communication to improve your approach.

  • The old uncle is information management. He has been around for a while and he still is a pillar of the family. He collects and organises all kinds of documents, publications, reports and puts them neatly on shelves and online in ways that help people find information. His brothers and sisters mock up his focus on information. Without people engaging with it, information does little.
  • His younger sister knowledge sharing was long overshadowed in the KM branch but she’s been sticking her head out a lot more, taking credit for the more human face of the KM branch. She wants people to share, share and share, engage and engage. She’s very close to her cousin Communication from the Comms branch, but what she really wants is to get people to get their knowledge out and about, to mingle with one another. She has close ties with her colourful cousins facilitation, storytelling and a few more.
  • They have another brother called ‘organisational learning’, who was very active for a while. He wanted everyone to follow him and his principles but he has lost a lot of visibility and momentum over the years when many people found out that the way he showed was not so straightforward as he claimed;
  • The little brother PKM (personal knowledge management) was not taken seriously for a long time but he is really a whiz kid and has given a lot of people confidence that perhaps his branch of the family is better off betting on him, at least partly. He says that everyone of us can do much to improve the way we keep our expertise sharp and connect with akin spirits. To persuade his peeps, PKM often calls upon on his friends from social media and social networks (though these fellas are in demand by most family members mentioned above).
  • A very smart cousin of the KM branch, innovation, is marching up to the limelight. She’s drop-dead gorgeous and keeps changing, never settling with one facet of her identity. Her beauty, class and obvious commonsense strike everyone when they see her, but she disappears quickly if she’s not entertained. In fact, many in the KM family would like to get her on their side but she’s alluding. Perhaps if many family members got together they would manage to keep her at their side.
Monitoring

Monitoring

The M&E branch has always been the odd group out. They are collectors and reporters. Through their history they have mostly focused on indicators, reportspromises made, results and lessons learnt. Other family members consider this branch to be little fun and very procedural, even though of late they have bended their approach – but not everyone around seems to have realised that.

  • Planning is not the oldest but perhaps the most responsible one of this branch. He tries to coordinate his family in a concerted manner. But he is also quite idealistic and sometimes he tends to ignore his siblings and stick to his own ideas, for better (or usually for worse). Still, he should be praised for his efforts to give some direction and he does so very well when he brings people to work with him;
  • Reporting, the formal oldest brother, is perhaps the least likely to change soon. He takes his job very seriously and indeed he talks to all kinds of important people. He really expects everyone to work with him, as requested by those important contacts of his. He doesn’t always realise that pretty much everyone consider him rather stuffy and old-fashioned, but he knows – and they sometimes forget – that he does matter a lot as a connector between this whole funky family and the wider world.
  • Data collection is the next sister who tends to wander everywhere; she lacks the sense of prioritisation, which is why planning really has to keep an eye on her. She’s very good at collecting indeed a lot of stuff but she doesn’t always help her siblings make sense of it. Everyone in the family agrees she has an important role to play but they don’t quite know how.
  • Therefore her other sister reflection is always behind to absorb what data collection brought forward and make sense of it. She is supposedly very astute but occasionally she does her job too quickly and misses crucial lessons or patterns. Or perhaps she’s overwhelmed by what data collection brought to her and she settles for comfort. But she usually has great ideas.
  • They have a young sister called process documentation. She’s a bit obscure to her own kin but she seems to have built a nice rapport with the other branches of the wider family and seems more agile than her own brothers and sisters. She goes around and observes what’s going on, picking up the bizarre and unexpected, the details of how people do things and how it helps for their wider work.
Learning is patient

Learning is patient

The wise godmother (1) of them all is learning. Learning generously brings her good advices to all her family, for them to improve over time. She wants her Comms branch offspring to engage in ways that benefit everyone; she encourages their KM siblings to nurture more genuine and deeper conversations that lead to some more profound insights and more effective activities; she invites the sidetracked M&E branch to find their place, not be obtuse and use their sharp wits to bring common benefits and help understand what is going well or not and why. More than anything, she encourages all her godchildren to get along with one another because she sees a lot of potential for them to join hands and play together.

Learning could do it all on her own but she prefers to socialise, she loves socialising in fact, and that’s how she keeps on top of the game, and keeps bringing the light over to other parts of the family. It’s not an easy game for her to bring all her flock to play together. There’s a lot of strong egos in there, but she is patient and versatile, and she knows that eventually people will come to seek her wisdom…

Do you recognise your work in those happy families? Who am I missing and where in the tree should they fit?

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A simple KM and communication strategy… with double focus on the context


A lot of KM strategies end up in the dustbin. Or in the cemetery of good ideas that never took off. There are many reasons for that, explored and explained ad infinitum in the KM world.

I’d like to zoom in on two of them though:

West Africa Water Initiative

The West Africa Water Initiative

  1. From the inside, the KM strategy may be disconnected from the organisational context, either because it does not follow the overall objectives of the organisation/initiative or because it is formulated in a complex technical jargon, making it sound like an (unjustified) import. There’s nothing worse for employees than to feel someone that doesn’t understand them is trying to shove a strategy, a procedure or a system down their throat.
  2. From the outside it may be disconnected from the local context in which the initiative or organisation is operating. In this case, the initiative may be well thought-through but it will slide on the surface and fall as quickly as someone wearing normal trainers on an indoors soccer field.

This is why, for an assignment on behalf of the West Africa Water Initiative (WAWI) supported by USAid, a colleague and I proposed a KM and communication strategy that is rather practical and really takes into account the context of the initiative itself and crucially the local context and practices at play in that environment.

The strategy we propose basically looks into two main sets of activities and support activities: the main activities are information management (generating, managing and versioning information) and knowledge sharing (face-to-face and virtually, process documenting dialogues, aggregating content). Support activities include: raising visibility for the initiative; working on improving internal KM and communication; developing capacities for all of these activities; linking meaningfully with monitoring and evaluation.

Have a look at this strategy there and let me/us know what you think: http://www.community-of-knowledge.de/beitrag/knowledge-management-and-communication-strategy/ (this is the link to the strategy as it will be published in a journal soon. You can also find the strategy on IRC’s website: http://www.irc.nl/page/62673).

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