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)



Modern musings on a KM evergreen: institutional memory

Go on, try to Google ‘Institutional memory, KM’ and see what comes up

In the past generations of Knowledge Management, especially the first one, when all companies seemed to build the vastest database of lessons learnt and ‘best practices’ (double errrrr), ‘institutional memory’ was the holy grail.

Institutional memory, the Matroschka-like cascade of memories and assets...

Institutional memory, the Matroschka-like cascade of memories and assets…

The discourse of that KM era was all about learning organisations, as magically alive entities. Naturally, preserving the memory of those entities was just as understandable as making sure they would learn…

Let’s take a step back here : organisations themselves don’t learn. One doesn’t call organisations; and an organisation does not respond to challenges. Its people do. Similarly, organisations don’t have a memory, so much for institutional memory… But it is possible to keep traces of the past work involving members of that organisation to avoid reinventing the wheel… And that’s worth looking at more closely, something that a former KM4Dev conversation did in the past though not in a very user-friendly way for once.

Whenever a project ends, it leaves behind a certain legacy. Ditto with organisations: whether they die or not they have some assets, a legacy. What is that legacy made of?

  • Information and outputs produced
  • Expertise (knowledge and know-how)
  • A network of connections

…And of course some other resources (financial resources, physical assets etc.) which I’m not bothering about on this blog…

For each of these assets, institutional memory can be pursued by intentionally connecting personal asset bases (those of the staff) with the collective asset bases (those of the organisation).

So what makes us keep track of these resources for the benefit of all? And what are modern options re: institutional memory, given social media and other developments of the social age?

Regarding information and outputs produced:

An organisation keeps track of a rich and wide trail of information both for internal or external consumption, from legal statutes and strategies to annual reports, content publications etc. All this information ought to be well curated in a central repository, well tagged, well organised (with distributed ownership among various functions [not people], well described in internal processes and manuals, well explained at the induction or during job handover.

At ILRI we keep track of all finalised outputs using a D-Space repository for all final outputs. All internal documents are kept track of on the intranet if they are sensitive, or on the ILRI website if not. Certain teams entertain a wiki to keep track of their collective work, such as our ILRI comms and KM wiki.

At a meta level, the organisation should keep a clear description of the logic behind the information architecture and systems chosen (using open standards for easier sharing), but ultimately individuals should also play a key role in this, perhaps joining hands in mixing, where appropriate, their personal collections (e.g. of bookmarks using Del.icio.us or Diigo, of pictures using FlickR groups etc.).

Regarding expertise:

This is perhaps the most difficult of all to keep a link with in a way or another: information can be shared and stored easily; network connections can be developed jointly and expanded to other colleagues without too much trouble. But developing capacities, know-how, the business knowledge and savoir-faire of well-oiled relations and mastering the tricks of the trade don’t come by easily.

Some conventional methods remain extremely useful: Coaching and mentoring, on-the-job training and on-the-job rotation… Even simple after-action-reviews and exit interviews are great methods to build a collective track-record of ‘how things are done here’ or how they ought to be. Though as explained in my definition of KM, these conversations need to be documented and learning-focused in order for a collective memory to withstand.

Documenting work processes and tasks at hand is helpful to let new staff find their way through the maze of procedures, protocols, tools and other options available.

A personal learning network to keep our expertise sharp

A personal learning network to keep our expertise sharp

What is new here is the plethora of conversation-documentation methods where people learn and share expertise together, such as LinkedIn or Facebook groups, of wikis (see above) and even using Twitter as a personal learning network (PLN). The trick is to ensure that the organisation allows hosting connections with its staff’ PLNs.

Regarding networks:

Networks here are understood as the personal networks of the staff members and the institutional partnerships established, and they combine the above two, mingling information and expertise. Ensuring solid memory and legacy requires working on both scales:

  • From the personal network perspective, the new grail is to focus on trimming one’s personal learning network, on expanding that network and the practices that come with it via e.g. communities of practice to nurture a very solid network that is recognised for its different layers and circles of interests (hence the interesting ‘circles’ approach of Google+).
  • From the institutional network perspective, the challenge is to cross the institutional partnerships with a curiosity for PLNs and for possible linkages across the two, by means of institutionally recognised communities of practice, of institutional participation (i.e. participation that is done formally on behalf of the organisation) in more informal networks etc. Cultivating networks of former staff such as alumni networks for universities, is another way to ensure that some connections are maintained between previous and current staff.

This primarily and most deeply happens through joint work, long term interactions, multi-faceted conversations that slowly lead to building trust. When those processes are in place, institutional memory is built up naturally, provided that there is a conscious intention to developing relations and a sort of memory base at a higher scale than the individuals alone…

In summary, essentially…

Institutional memory feeds off:

  1. Strong personal knowledge management among individual staff members,
  2. Open and loose spaces of interaction in personal learning networks, where staff can easily connect their understanding and expand the knowledge fields that they are cultivating,
  3. Deep connections and capacity development experiences where staff work together and have time to transfer to each other key clues and
  4. A will, supported by the management and all staff (by the ‘culture’ of the organisation) to make this happen and to go beyond individual interest and selfishness, team pride and even projects’ arrogance.

Though of course, in a rapidly changing world, the most important is not necessarily to keep track of the past but to predict the future, and luckily PKM, PLN and all that also prove useful…

Related blog posts: