Knowledge Management… the fountain of resilience, adaptation, innovation and sustainability (and buzzwords!)


It goes back a long while that I’ve been asking myself what KM is and why it matters. This morning, while running, it struck me: it is just what makes us more resilient, adaptive and innovative, beyond the immediate challenge we are facing. Incidentally, KM is also dangerous with that ability to catch all buzzwords in its trail (resilient is the new adaptive, and innovation is the talk of E-town)…

Miracles of Evolution - Africa - Tihamer Gyarmathy, 1977 (Credits: WikiArt)

Miracles of Evolution – Africa – Tihamer Gyarmathy, 1977 (Credits: WikiArt)

What is KM trying to do? 

Of course KM supposedly helps organisations achieve their mission, be more effective in that endeavour, but KM focuses a lot (my expectation) on ever-learning, looking back to look forward, keeping track and avoiding to reinvent the wheel (though it’s sometimes ok), institutional memory curation, lessons learned, picking peoples’ brains and co-creating… so really KM is about developing a collective intelligence and finding ways to anticipate and prepare for what comes next, away from silver bullets, in the itchy corner of our brain where the next solution (trial) lies.

That is at the heart of being resilient, of adaptive thinking and working, of innovation.

Hmmm. Only given that some key things are in place. I am thinking about all these things right now when thinking about our local KM4Dev Addis Ababa/Ethiopia network, so I can progressively disengage myself from the coordination side to ensure that this network can continue on its own (without a non-Ethiopian to coordinate it). So what helps in strengthening resilience, adaptiveness etc.?

  • Thinking from the start about an exit strategy (and a good induction program) or some strategy to ensure that the initiative is embedded and owned by whoever is directly concerned, independently from the individuals involved in that initiative;
  • Developing capacity consciously, from the start and throughout, by questioning beyond the WHAT? and focusing on the knowledge, attitude and skills required to make the initiative successful;
  • Documenting the process throughout, so that all the generic context (simple or complicated, not complex) of an initiative, can be partly passed on to anyone else;
  • Making sure that there isn’t a single point of failure, that responsibilities are shared over teams so the success and transferability of good work does not depend on one person only (even though individuals matter a lot);
  • Mapping relations and expertise so anyone can find out where to go to find answers to their questions…
  • Organising conversations around these issues of resilience, adaptiveness, sustainability, long-term, roles and responsibilities, risks and how to mitigate them…
Diversity... also good for better outcomes (Credits: Steve Jurvetson / FlickR)

Diversity… also good for better outcomes (Credits: Steve Jurvetson / FlickR)

Now, away from that KM4Dev network and back into the reality of organisations…

The issue – and the problem of a lot of KM initiatives – is that the transition from ‘the team here and now’ to ‘the others out there, now and for the eternity’ often proves a real chasm and gets in the way of making use of all the good work by that team.

Scaling up, out, in space and time, that is the real challenge of resilient, adaptive KM.

And yet organisations are much better placed than individuals (and perhaps even networks) to make that leap. Because organisations (supposedly) have a coherent narrative to them, that all their employees can relate to, whether they like it or not. And crucially an organisation has some control over its employees. So it can probably enforce the transfer of skills, the curation of information and the sharing of knowledge to other teams and future employees (the latter is notoriously difficult still)…

Is it actually desirable to seen an organisation enforce this? And does it really happen? There are quite a few other questions to sharpen our critical thinking about the promised lands of resilience, innovation and sustainability (and yes indeed Nancy, critical thinking is subtle):

  • Is it better to go for KM below the radar (stealth mode) as I usually advocate, or to go for a slightly more ‘out in the open’ approach that perhaps has better chances of achieving that resilience and innovation at (a larger) scale?
  • Is there actually a point at encouraging organisations to be resilient, adaptive, innovative, if their finality is perhaps to disappear (I’m thinking about international, Northern hemisphere-based organisations working on global development). Isn’t there a risk of perpetuating structures when they may not be needed, or even helpful?
  • Related to the previous point: is it possible, over the long haul, to combine resilience/adaptiveness with sustainability? Isn’t that a contradiction in the terms?
  • Where does KM set the boundary in focusing on the organisation’s mandate or rather on the wider agenda that consider tradeoffs or compromises in space or time (more on that in another post)…, with the risk of going against the organisation?
  • What are the political options of KM to counter with the self-sustaining drivers of organisations (how can KM continue to promote the right ideas despite the organisation’s [hidden?] agenda to invest in its survival cost what cost)?

Perhaps these questions are some of the reasons why scaling up good KM (in space or time) does not easily take place… and why KM keeps focusing on the next buzzword to find another way to get at the same objective?

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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?

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