A knowledge management primer (3): JKLMNO

The KM alphabet primer continues (Credits: Le web pedagogique)

The KM alphabet primer continues (Credits: Le web pedagogique)

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 in the world of KM. 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 the ABC of KM and the next six letters (DEFGHI), I’m pursuing the alphabet discovery with JKLMNO.


J for Journey

Any and every KM initiative is a journey unto itself and because it is a learning journey with no fully guaranteed results, the journey matters as much as the destination. It brings up lots of ideas, feedback, insights and more.

J could also have been…

Journaling – A great practice for documentation, journaling (as blogging is) has the potential of revealing deeper patterns that explain a lot of things. For KM, journaling on the KM initiative, documenting the process, and even impressions of individuals involved can be the difference between success and failure, between quick and slow, between good quality and sloppy.

Knowledge (Credits: Iqbal Osman)

Knowledge (Credits: Iqbal Osman)

K for Knowledge

Of course, what else? Knowledge is the capacity to turn information to action, and if it’s the sum of insights we have, but not a commodity that can be transferred. There are many (also visual) understandings of knowledge. I’m just offering my definition here. But knowledge is certainly what puts KM in a mystical world, as it relates to how our brains work and how we connect with each other to form a collective intelligence.

K could also have been…

Know-how – Next to what we know there are also many processes set know that help us to do things. Practical knowledge, hands-on, instructional stuff to move from theory to practice, including practice smarts.

L for learning

I wouldn’t leave the last part of my definition of KM as it is the most important one to justify the existence of knowledge management. And whether it’s about learning how to retain institutional memory or how to innovate, learning is the driving force to make us every better equipped to deal with challenges and to increase our capacity to adapt and anticipate, to be resilient etc.

L could also have been…

Management versus Leadership (Credits: David Sanabria)

Management versus Leadership (Credits: David Sanabria)

Leadership – leadership is the vision that drives initiatives, shows the way  and rallies support all along. No KM endeavour survives without strong leadership and leading by example – and innovating. And this is true at all levels, not just about top management. The KM project leader, management and personnel alike must demonstrate that sort of leadership – but they can only do so if they have all been properly involved and empowered to do so of course.

Library – Libraries used to be the crude epitome of knowledge management in the times of old. The vast quantity of information that codified the knowledge of the ancients was so great that it’s no wonder the first era of KM wanted to mimic this in the digital world. But that was not enough. Online brochures’ advocates learned that at a high cost.

M for Management

Leadership is key in KM. But management is also very important. Managing change, managing assets, managing processes, managing tools and managing people to make sure all these elements work in synergy and support each other.

M could also have been…

Monitoring – Part of the management of KM is monitoring how it is going, collecting metrics that give indications of visibility, use, appreciation and gains in produce of any kind. Monitoring is at the heart of learning and thus of KM too – even though it is usually the reason why people give up on KM because it is so difficult to go beyond the use of information platforms and learning processes to point to what people are doing with it.

Meta tags – An essential element of curation are the meta tags that allow to describe a resource and make it easier to retrieve later through search.

N for Network

From networkshops to communities of practice and assessing networked value, from personal learning networks to engaging in social networks, networks are ubiquitous. The world of KM in 2016 cannot avoid this fact, and it explains why so much emphasis goes nowadays on distributed learning, on massive open online courses, on cultivating personal learning networks etc. Knowledge management always was a network thing in itself. It now hast just become utterly obvious.

Networks, interconnection (Credits: Rob/FlickR)

Networks, interconnection (Credits: Rob/FlickR)

N could also have been…

Your suggestions?

O for Open 

If the ultimate goal of knowledge management is to connect and convert everyone to cultivating our collective intelligence, then a general state of Open-ness is central to it. Open knowledge, open source, open access, working out loud and all the rest of it.

The reality is still a bit more subtle than this: in certain areas where the mindset is not all that open, agile KM has to create safe closed spaces where progressively people can taste the power of Open, little by little, in smaller groups first. But open KM is almost a tautology.

Open Knowledge


Me? A lurker? How ignorant of you! I am an empowered listener!

In our networked world, we hear a lot about ‘lurkers’. The 1% rule  (or 90-9-1 principle) reminds us that in any network or community of practice/interest or just discussion group, 1% of the people actively facilitate, organise and manage the space, 10% actively contribute to it and 90% are ‘lurkers’.

Is active, empowered listening like lurking? Certainly not (Credits: Ängsbacka / FlickR)

Is active, empowered listening like lurking? Certainly not (Credits: Ängsbacka / FlickR)

It’s time to nail this one down too, because the term lurker sounds ugly and is arguably as far away from the truth as possibly imaginable.

First off though, let’s see what is the definition of a lurker?

Lurk: to lie in wait in a place of concealment especially for an evil purpose (Merriam-Webster dictionary).

Wow! I already felt uncomfortable with the sound of the word, now I get the creeps thinking about its meaning!

No one gives ‘lurkers’ such ill intentions in networks (let’s use ‘networks’ here to refer to any grouping of people with a common interest or purpose, even though it’s more complicated than that) but let’s say that they are generally seen as people doing nothing much for that network. In fact, Wikipedia clarifies their (lack of) activity:

In Internet culture, a lurker is a person who reads discussions on a message board, newsgroup, chatroom, file sharing, social networking site, listening to people in VOIP calls such as Skype and Ventrilo or other interactive system, but rarely or never participates actively.

In reality, what do ‘lurkers’ really do?
We need to think about this in dynamic terms: What do they do in the network and what do they outside of it? What do they do at the time of action and what do they do afterwards?

We can imagine different types of ‘not-so-active’ network participants:

  • People who are indeed not even listening or checking any of the network interactions, at any time – they probably lost interest a while ago and were just too busy or lazy to quit that network. They’re not even ‘lurkers’, they should be called ‘deserters’ and it’s totally ok. We have our own commitments and are best placed to know where we can provide and/or get value, it’s fair enough to leave a network (even though a good digital practice is to close one’s online commitments properly by unsubscribing or closing one’s account);
  • People who are not acting or reacting on the spot, but are following interactions, with a little delay. This is also the simple effect of our asynchronous networked world: we can connect with people that are far apart, but also apart in time, which leads to this a-synchronicity. And many people travel a lot for their work so they may not be able to react on the spot. Does that make them lurkers? I don’t think so, they are just not there at the time, they’re ‘travelers’. And perhaps when they come back they will show that they are one of the following…
  • People who are following interactions on the spot but not intervening. This is the group targeted by the Wikipedia definition of  lurkers. Wikipedia adds: “Lack of trust represents one of the reasons explaining lurking behavior (Ridings, Gefen & Arinze 2006)”. Perhaps that is true, perhaps they don’t know other members of the network enough and don’t feel like talking to a giant crowd of strangers. Perhaps they feel they don’t have anything valuable to share. Perhaps they are just not interested in that particular conversation in the network. There is a range of reasons for their behaviour. But at any rate, if they’re not deserters, they are listening. At least at the beginning of the conversation to see if that particular bit is relevant to them. And they have the power to intervene any time. They are ‘active listeners’ and they might be learning profoundly through that active listening, which is another type of change that any community might wish for.
  • People who are following interactions on the spot, who are not intervening but actually influence other spaces and groups. Many of us are part of different networks and, depending on our level of confidence, connectedness and interest we play a different role in each. These are perhaps the online equivalent to Open Space Technology’s ‘bumblebees’, who cross-pollinate from a place to the next by sharing insights, ideas and perhaps even taking action, only in another space. They listened, they liked, they adopted elsewhere.
  • People who are following interactions and make it a point to not intervene, so as to leave space for others to build their confidence, mutual trust and conversations. They do so because they want to invite a richer diversity of participants, to achieve cognitive diversity and perhaps because they are so influential that they might impress others and curb discussions (when a genuine expert talks, everyone listens). These are what a KM4Dev group from 2008 described in their conversation about words for change as ‘power-lurkers’ – the “unseen but highly influential champions of online communities”. I would call them the ‘silent wise’, because they know all too well that ‘speech is silver, silence is gold’.

Does anyone up there deserve to be called a lurker? I don’t think so. So let’s stop using this terrible word and let’s appreciate the rich and varied contributions of these empowered listeners. We all are empowered listeners.

Related blog posts:

Except in KM, accepting KM

Last Friday I gave a spontaneous (read: non annually planned, unofficial) KM/Learning and identity workshop for the amazing networked organisation Except (Integrated Sustainability consultancy) founded by my mate Tom Bosschaert. Except is one of those few very modern coming-of-age-like companies with a core staff of 7-8 people and 50 associates satelliting and scintillating around, getting involved in Except projects as and when. The company’s bustling and buzzing and shows incredible dynamism.

The Except Kru gettings its hand dirty

The Except Kru gettings its hand dirty

The whole experience was great for many personal reasons (1) and it struck me also what the process was for a medium networked company like Except to embrace KM (2).

  • The networked organisation – certainly Except – is incredibly likely to respond to shifting knowledge challenges and it keeps attracting amazing talent and enthusiasm that finds energy in the multi-disciplinarity aligned around a like-minded perspective on the purpose and operating mode of the company;
  • The company’s decentralised structure has implications on the (wide) team’s ability to follow ‘organisational’ developments: not everyone is around and working on the organisation permanently. A lot of knowledge initiatives have been tried out at Except, but the people involved were not often the same. People discover changes by layers, with possible information asymmetries;
  • It also seems to trigger a slight chasm around the use of information systems: not everyone knows where to find what information. That is luckily compensated for by the enthusiasm of the associates and their willingness to catch up, explore and try things out. The fact that not everyone is around when participatory consultation processes and training sessions are taking place challenges the uptake and use of these systems across the board;
  • The documentation of work processes is also more difficult to encourage and ensure, although it is that type of process work that makes it easier for such organisations to keep thriving and build upon past efforts;
  • The organisation rests upon a balance between making effective use of the expertise, potential and aspirations of each staff member and associate on the one hand, and the collective vision and mission of Except. In this sense it is crucial for Except to channel the personal development of its people and to organise regular moments of creative navel-gazing, to keep the balance and conditions to improve over time. The monthly 1-on-1 talks that Except management has with staff and associates and the type of workshops like this one (not the first of its type) seem to cover this very well now
  • The central element of the KM/learning puzzle for this organisation and I suspect for other networked organisations is to stimulate healthy and relevant conversations that challenge the boundaries of Except’s work and at the same time anchor these conversations towards the very purpose of the organisation. And these conversations also mean rubbing where it hurts, in spite of all the undeniably great achievements, as well as repeating some conversations over and over again until the critical mass is on board. Patience, the (seemingly) ungrateful of change processes…

I think Except is doing remarkably well on many of the aspects mentioned above. But communication can never be crystalclear enough, and cooperation can never be seamless enough, so we keep ‘polishing the Ferrari’ as Tom would colourfully say. And I reckon, as we speak, there’s a whole polish team at work, embracing KM in its slow and dirty implications. Make it glow team!

For that workshop I gave the following presentation. It’s not perfect, far from it, but I hope it gives some directions on the importance and opportunities of KM and learning for a modern company like Except.

The KM & Learning presentation for Except

Now the pictures are up, the list of references mentioned in the presentation has been passed and I just have to write a report about this workshop – documenting the process, a sadly necessary evil!


(1) It was one of the very few workshops I organised in Europe, with mostly ‘Northern’ participants, around the central topic of identity (something I never do) and without much understanding of the nature of the organisation and its working mode – other than what Tom and his co-director Eva would tell me in the preparation sessions. And it was a workshop for Tom and Eva which makes it easier and more difficult as mixing friendship with work is like playing on a double-edged sword.

(2) Though of course Except had indeed done a lot of ‘KM work’ without calling it that way, from organising brainstorming meetings and regular personal development interviews, developing a wiki for procedures and information etc.