What is common knowledge about knowledge? A visual tour…

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

Knowledge from a KM perspective? (Credits: unclear)

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

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

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

Knowledge coffee (not cafe mind you)

Knowledge coffee (not cafe mind you)

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

A KM mindmap of knowledge

A KM mindmap of knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

Knowledge in the DIKW nonsense (Credits - David McCandless)

Knowledge in the DIKW nonsense (Credits – David McCandless)

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

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

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

Knowledge is power (Credits - Tiffany and Lupus)

Knowledge is power (Credits – Tiffany and Lupus)

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

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

Knowledge as the collection of insights ready for sense-making

Knowledge as the collection of insights ready for sense-making

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

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

What is knowledge without action (credits - Hiking artist)

What is knowledge without action (credits – Hiking artist)

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

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:

The path to wisdom is paved with effectiveness, focus, humility and empathy

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

― Confucius.

Wisdom features highly in the world of knowledge management. One of the biggest heresies it has produced, the erroneous DIKW pyramid (which I also questioned here and here), is putting wisdom at the pinnacle of a pyramidal meaning structure starting with data.

Seeking wisdom is like exploring Terra Incognita

Seeking wisdom is like exploring Terra Incognita

I want to find out what wisdom really might mean in (agile) KM. Much has been told about wisdom. Yet it is a very elusive definition.

My going in position? Wisdom is accumulated experience and expertise which allows us to activate our knowledge in a more effective way, both in terms of the intervention (the content of it) and of the process to bring it about (the process of that intervention). It is a reflection of an ingrained practice of triple loop learning which helps find a more appropriate response to a challenge we’re facing, an issue we’re grappling with or an idea we’re battling with.

In some ways, if we consider that in a field we accumulate some experience (some knowledge – as the sum of insights we have about that field), it looks as though we are exploring that field as if we were unraveling the map of that field, bit by bit, with some recognized borders and ‘unknown lands’. In the process, we are unraveling the complexity of all the interactions in that field – the horizontal connections between different items, actors and factors of that field as well as the vertical connections, the deeper understanding of the structure of things and how they work in and of themselves – and across, with adjacent fields.

Moving from unknown unknown to unconscious known... on the quest to wisdom?

Moving from unknown unknown to unconscious known… on the quest to wisdom?

As we explore that field, we progressively understand its arcane principles, its ‘buttons and levers’ which when activated produce the best results, the political economy of that field, the chain of consequences that might be set off by an initiative, or for lack of causal relations the bigger picture of that complex and fine mess. We also keep on making the ‘known unknown’ known and to turn the ‘unknown unknown’ as a ‘known unknown’ (see the graph).

This is perhaps where I think wisdom might be nested, or easier to perceive: wisdom gives us both a) shortcuts to relate to the greater over-arching principles, the sources of power and the ways to activate a field b) a finer perception of how difficult that is and what consequences are and perhaps more importantly c) another reality call to understand that really what we have to put up with is a whole lot more complex than we first thought it was and d) an appreciation of the inputs from others and interdependencies that matter in the field (we get more socially connected or at least warmer to others’ efforts).

Wisdom thus helps us get more effective, more thoughtful, more humble and more empathetic. And as Confucius says there are various ways to sharpen our wisdom. But in the end perhaps Socrates got down to the essence of it all:

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
― Socrates.

As such, this teaches us that wisdom management is a complete aberration and that what matters is to carry on trying and reflecting. Learning has no end indeed.

Related blog posts:

And while at that, here’s a selection of supposedly wise quotes from supposedly wise men.

Harvesting insights (4): Making knowledge travel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does it mean in practice?

A lot of things:

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

What it implies for our organisations and for ourselves?

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

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

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

And knowledge-wise:

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

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

What this approach perhaps doesn’t emphasise enough?

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

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

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

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


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

Related blog posts:

Portrait of the modern knowledge worker

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

The brain of a knowledge worker – and that is just the beginning

The concept of ‘knowledge worker’ which Peter Drucker coined in 1959, is perhaps not so clear (as shown again in a recent LinkedIn discussion – access potentially limited) and can be understood at least in two different ways: dedicated and other knowledge workers.

Dedicated knowledge workers are the persons whose job it is to organise ‘knowledge work’, in relation with the processes that their colleagues are working on – a sort of knowledge work maestro, as is the case with a knowledge manager.

Other knowledge workers are people who ‘do’ knowledge work: their job strongly involves using information and engaging in knowledge interactions (identifying knowledge needs, sharing knowledge, applying it, evaluating it etc.).

Our entrance to the knowledge era means that nowadays most people in a service-providing company are knowledge workers. Now, let’s forget about the dedicated knowledge workers and ponder: what is the portrait of a modern day knowledge worker? We’re talking about pretty much us all here in the blogosphere…

Let’s really focus on the specific know-how (not the specific knowledge) that s/he should possess and the attitude that supports their work. Let’s also assume that for us knowledge workers, the main objectives of combining those characteristics are a) to become ever more relevant and effective in our field of expertise, by deepening it or expanding it on its edges (i.e. making new connections with related fields to create a bigger picture and to be more likely to follow ever innovative approaches) and b) to help others become ever more relevant and effective in their own field through our interactions with them.

What is the profile of a balanced knowledge worker anno 2012? (Credits: fr.123rf.com)

What is the profile of a balanced knowledge worker anno 2012? (Credits: fr.123rf.com)

I can think of a few traits and characteristics that relate to the desired gifts, skills and attitudes of such a modern day knowledge worker.

Gifts and skills:

  • A synthetic mind that can ingest a lot of information and summarise it in clear and concise ways, perhaps using mnemonics.
  • A pair of intently listening ears and eagerly observing eyes to pick up the signals around (and question them);
  • Outstanding interpersonal communication skills helping to get in touch with a variety of people (in the same field of expertise and beyond);
  • An open heart giving the emotional capacity to connect with others at a deeper level and build trust authentically;
  • Good speaking and writing skills allowing to express oneself articulately so as to share knowledge more effectively – both with other people verbally and in writing;
  • The capacity to read quickly and to remember things well;
  • Typing blindly to write more quickly;
  • Ideally, good facilitation skills to be able to tease out knowledge and information from other people and apply/combine them – but that is just an extra.


  • An open, curious, humble mind that keeps inquiring about everything, and does not settle for finished, definitive answers – the way a child would do rather than a self-engrossed expert – to keep on learning;
  • A true curiosity to try new things out and add them to an array of experiences;
  • A vision of one’s own development pathway and next priorities;
  • Reflecting continually: every day, week or after every significant event, taking the time to ponder what just happened and what could have been done better, perhaps following the after action review principles;
  • Reflecting in single, double and triple-loop learning, in practice;
  • An attitude of ‘documenting on the spot’ (typing as people speak, live blogging, taking pictures and videos as things happen etc.);
  • A strong self-discipline to systematically act upon all the above and reflect to improve again.
Good all-round knowledge of information tools and information management processes also helps keep track of one’s own field of expertise, sharpen reflection and engage in more extensive social learning with others than just face-to-face.

This is an ideal picture, not easy to find in any one real person of flesh… But it sums up a number of characteristics many of us knowledge workers have to focus and improve on to remain relevant and adapt as we cruise through ever more complex paths in the knowledge era.

Related blog posts:

What the heck is knowledge anyway: from commodity to capacity and insights

Ten years into KM and this is perhaps the most frequent question I’ve heard or come across to date in the knowledge management field: What is knowledge? Time to shoot at it, or better: time to plant a shoot…
Currently again, there is a KM4Dev discussion about ‘knowledge banks’ (see word cloud below) and on the side, the ‘what is knowledge’ phoenix (1) is reappearing. At the bottom of this question lies another crucial question: do you see knowledge as a thing, i.e. a commodity, or not? This has a profound implication on the KM language you use, the assumptions around KM that you nurture and the KM activities that you might wish to undertake.
The 'Knowledge bank' discussion wordle

The ‘Knowledge bank’ discussion wordle which inspired this post

For me, it’s quite simple: knowledge is not tangible and is certainly not a commodity. And the noun ‘knowledge’ itself sometimes leads to delusional assumptions about what knowledge is. I find it more fruitful to think of knowledge as two different things:

  • Knowledge is a latent capacity that we call upon to combine information available with various insights we have from past experiences, and use it in a given context.
  • Knowledge is also the collection of insights that we have in ourselves, based on information, emotions and intuitions we have. It is in that collection of insights that we tap to use our ‘knowledge capacity’ or our ‘capacity to know’.
At any point, we can tap into the knowledge we have, but we can never give it as is to anyone else. Because it is our very own unique combination and our very own unique capacity, the fruit of our personal development path. So, when we say ‘what do we know about xyz’, we are referring to the combined (abstract) mass of fuzzy insights that we collectively possess about xyz and the potential use we might make from that combined, collective, capacity.
Now, for the sake of stretching our minds a bit, let’s compare a typical (and voluntarily caricaturing) perspective of knowledge as a commodity and one of knowledge as a capacity. It might reveal some of the assumptions and expectations we have about knowledge.
Knowledge as a commodity Knowledge as a capacity
Knowledge is the embodied result of ‘knowing’ (possessing the knowledge) Knowledge is the emerging property of learning (developing new insights / knowledge)
Knowledge is universal – it has generic properties, it is ‘self contained’; it exists as is Knowledge is personal – it is the result of a combination of personal factors. It becomes itself when mixed with insights from experience.
Knowledge is rather static – it represents the ‘knowledge’ we have and changes only every so often, when it is ‘updated’ by some people, experts (e.g. peer-reviewed academic publications) or not (as on Wikipedia) Knowledge is dynamic – it keeps changing whenever it is invoked by anyone, anywhere – it is multi-faceted and ubiquitous
Knowledge can be transferred (one on one) Knowledge can be shared (but it gets necessarily recombined – it is not shared one on one either)
Knowledge can be stored (in a knowledge bank or base?) Knowledge cannot be stored – but insights shared can be codified, turned into information and stored (in an information bank, database or else)
Knowledge can be developed in writing Knowledge can be developed, stimulated / augmented (the capacity of using information can be increased) through social learning, thus not in writing. Information, however, can be put in writing, based on available knowledge (expertise)
Knowledge can be assessed – e.g. by theoretical ‘knowledge’ tests (how much do you know about x, y, z) – in a rather clear, straightforward 1/0 way Knowledge can be assessed by practical knowledge and know-how tests (how can you respond to challenge x, y, z) but it remains a fuzzy process
Knowledge can be managed Knowledge cannot be managed but its development and sharing can be stimulated and elicited – the environment that stimulates knowledge, however, can be managed (working on processes, tools, cultural values etc. to enable the development and sharing of knowledge)
Knowledge management is essentially information management: collecting knowledge and getting it to the right person at the right time to deal with challenges at hand Knowledge management is essentially knowledge sharing and it is about learning conversations that stimulate everyone’s ability to respond better to their own challenges
Of course the table suggests that the dynamic conception of knowledge, as a capacity, is more relevant, and in my eyes to a large extent it really is. I have made this starkly contrasted comparison to emphasise this point. But, for instance, information management is also a very important part of a sound and more complete conception of knowledge management.
This is all about emphasising the dynamic nature of knowledge, rather than the skewed commodity perspective and the dangerous expectations it sometimes generates.
That said, there must be major blind spots in this comparison, I put my knowledge to the learning test here – so what would you say?
(1) The phoenix is a mythological animal that ignites, disappears into ashes and arises in its new avatar. I like this as a metaphor for discussions that keep reappearing. In the KM world, typically the ‘what is knowledge’ question is a phoenix. Monitoring/assessing KM is another one.
Related blog posts:

Walking my talk: “quick and dirty”… on the edge of knowledge

I have been an advocate of producing “quick and dirty” information for a while (see this post and that post). Offering that info, insight, experience out for the public scrutiny seems to me the best way to get good feedback from others and from the reality to refine it and come up with answers or better questions – it’s aligned with the idea that Dave Snowden has about building resilience.

Speedy Gonzales - an iconic messenger?

Speedy Gonzales - an iconic messenger? (Photo Credits Jeremy Brooks, FlickR)

In this respect, now seems like a good moment to also follow suit on this blog by trying and blogging on a more regular basis, for shorter posts. I’m still intending to write longer posts every now and then, particularly from the stock-taking and harvesting insights series. But all in all it may be a better idea for me to get my ideas out and about and to engage with you about them on a more regular basis. And at the moment there is ample matter to draw inspiration from with the couple of IKM-Emergent papers on M&E of KM which should be coming out any day now (the summaries are already available on the IKM website, under ‘what’s new’), the article I’m co-writing on learning alliances in Ethiopia, the study we are conducting about information and knowledge management practices in the water and sanitation sector in Burkina Faso, the personal effectiveness survey which I introduced here and will be discussed shortly (and hopefully approved) by the management of my organisation…

But a first quick and dirty insight for now, though, is a reflection from the series of dialogues about knowledge management that a colleague of mine and I have been having with our Director. When reflecting together upon the added value of our organisation, it struck me that our value actually lied in the combination of the subject matter expertise we have in the WASH sector, combined with the network we possess (in the sector and at its edges, to combine various perspectives) but more crucially even perhaps, is the last aspect of the triangle: the expertise we have in facilitating social learning processes, online and offline. This is an essential way to collectively leverage other peoples’ knowledge, combine it, innovate, learn and learn to learn and ultimately to achieve change on a wider scale and on a longer time span…

If we are living in the age of knowledge, we are also living on the edge of what we know, and increasingly, I think, we will draw from other sources of inspiration than knowledge: feelings and emotions, intuition. Facilitating the expression and combination of these sources will be a critical skill for people and organisations to redefine themselves, their place and value in society. That, and quick and dirty reflection… You reckon?

Related posts:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Related blog posts:

IKM-convergent? Annual programme meeting, Wageningen, day 1

A while back I blogged about the IKM-Emergent programme and its tendency to dispersion.

The programme has evolved since then and a number of things are coalescing on this first day of the all-peeps IKM-Emergent  workshop (which brings together the three working groups, but also a number of new guests that are working on issues related to IKM-E and/or that will be working for the programme from now on).

IKM participants getting their heads around common issues

IKM participants getting their heads around common issues

A lot of very interesting ideas and insights came out from the wide variety of participants but what stroke me as key converging points are the following:

  • Dynamics of change: A lot of us were wondering how to bring about change? Should we have a very upfront / head-on approach to change or should we rather follow more subversive ways of tilting the development system?
  • Related to this, we seem to agree on the concept of intention as the driving force behind a lot of development work. In a change process, our words (i.e. lip service or love declarations to change) matter much less than our real intention to stimulate change.
  • A lot of IKM-Emergent work seems to be concerned with raising awareness about development dynamics and biases at large and about specific lenses or approaches in particular: multiple knowledges, traducture (more on this later but I would describe this as the socio-cultural translation of concepts and approaches, not just the loss of meaning that is usually part of the linguistic transaction of translation), emergence etc.
  • As in the launch event of the Change Alliance (read this blog post about it), the key difference between agency-driven and civic-driven movements. We need to support civic-driven movements – going beyond the faddism of just supporting them as part of the latest craze. Instead, what do we do to implicitly or explicitly to support these movements?
  • The importance of critical analysis and questioning which can be the only focus area we provide as ‘agency’: we need to move from setting up water pumps and delivering food onto helping all development actors equip themselves with critical reflexivity as part of the survival toolkit that stimulates self-empowerment and (less biased) development. It is this reflexivity that helps us challenge ourselves, our discourse, our practices, our being.
  • Accountability as a central practice that goes way beyond upward accountability towards donors. We need to be aware that we are (or should be) accountable to one another in all our development transactions and it is that accountability that generates the trust necessary to engage in development relationships and to open up a space for joint critical inquiry.

There was actually a lot more content in the discussion but these items stick out as pointers that came back time and again in the presentations and conversations.

This was day one of the workshop and the rest of the workshop sounds very promising! On the menu on day 2: looking back at the legacy of IKM-Emergent, limitations of the programme and the possible foundations of an IKM-Emergent 2. Keep watching this space!

Peter and Justin: when and how does information make sense?

Last week when I was over in Ethiopia I had a wonderful dinner at a great Belgian Restaurant in Addis together with Peter Ballantyne of ILRI and some of his friends; A great bunch of people, some of who like Peter are working on knowledge sharing (and knowledge management although Peter hates the contradictory term knowledge management just as much as I do).

Peter Ballantyne

Peter shared his current considerations about the Justin idea, as a way of defining when information makes sense to someone and becomes useful as you share it. The Justin idea is the following (as much as I understood it and I invite you Peter to chip in on this):

  • Just in case is the lot of information that is saved and stored just in case someone may need it. It’s the typical case of many 1st KM generation initiatives: collecting and storing without paying too much attention to the actual needs for this information by various audiences. A rather useless approach even though for the public good it does make sense to have large repositories of information (like vast public libraries). But is it justified for all organisations to favour this approach? I’m not sure…

Justin... time

  • Just in time is information that is shared by two people in a timely manner. Examples of it would be a Q&A helpdesk request handled, information found by searching through the internet or other means. This is obviously a very useful Justin approach and one that I think should be encouraged more (at a personal level through effective means of searching information and at an institutional level through helpdesk and match-making services). However the interface that is required to match demand and supply may limit its applications.
  • Just in space is the point that Peter is working on, to find out if there is a way to make information useful in a particular context. It is probably a mixed case of just in time but perhaps with the added benefit of local relevance that may not be considered in a heldesk request handled, simply because there hasn’t been enough time to share the contextual needs between the requester and the broker. Another example of just in space could be information that is shared by two people in the same place without having the chance to express their contextual needs: e.g. a new worker receiving lots of information from the departing colleague without being able to place this information in a way that makes it useful / actionable, an emergency situation where agents have to quickly move on and may not be able to explain how this information makes sense.

I would add two other Justin approaches:

  • Just in need: Perhaps a combination of time and space, just in need would favour sharing knowledge on the spot and applied to a specific context. Typical examples may include coaching advices provided on the spot, working together and sharing knowledge while working. To me this is probably the most important of all Justin approaches and in my eyes should be the focus of most KM initiatives by connecting appropriate sources of information with receiving ends in a shared contextual environment. This can happen by means of encouraging coaching, joint work, local matchmaking knowledge centres, communities of practice about a fairly common practice indeed, ideally with a certain cultural focus (one may not apply KM in a similar way between two countries or event two distinct groups within a same community).
  • Just in transition: Finally, we do receive a lot of information by various means and we cannot always make sense of it on the spot. But sometimes later we make other associations which turn that stored information (in a transitional knowledge state in our heads) into useful knowledge that we can then apply in different ways. Even a piece of advice that has helped in one way at one occasion could be reinterpreted in different useful ways later. This is the typical case of books that we read and re-read with a different lens, picking up messages that would not or could not resonate with us before. This transitional information collection happens anyway and it is useful in encouraging serendipity. If we would receive only the information that we really need all the time we may not be able to see a bigger picture and to get out of our active ‘scoping’ mode (looking for specific information). This is also probably why a community of practice with a diverse group of members is so relevant because it helps you address the issue at stake but also make associations with other bits of information that can help.

While we are probably moving on from just in case to just in time and space with our KM initiatives, let us focus more on ‘just in need’ and encourage or remain open to ‘just in transition’ to keep innovating and making sense in the longer run…