So my friend Jase has a problem. His little baby’s cradle swing is draining batteries…he seems to constantly be replacing them. In addition to this the motor seems to be dodgy; sometimes it doesn’t kick in…he has to swing it to get the motor to kick into action…but then sometimes it will stop again. It’s something he has put up with for a long time, and finally he decided to do something about it.
After tinkering a bit he decides to look online to buy a second hand one…but it’s nagging him he has to dish out more money…and besides the one he really wants doesn’t ship to Australia.
He decides to do the natural thing, Google his problem.
Searching, scanning, reading, searching scanning, reading…BINGO!
He comes across a forum post where someone has posted about the same issue…he anticipates what the comments have in store.
And then he strikes gold! He reads that his FisherPrice cradle swing has the same motor as an Airwick Freshmatic air freshener.
Bingo Bango…the cradle swing works better than ever!!
OK I bent the truth a little…it wasn’t posted as a question and someone didn’t deliver the solution as a comment; instead someone decided to share their experience in a forum thread. And then the Instructables site did a typical thing you would see in a Community of Practice; they gardened the gems from the stream (otherwise all this value just rolls off into the archives); and put it in a perhaps more official and findable place as a Wiki Help Guide entry…this behaviour is generally referred to as the "practice" part of a Community of Practice.
People in your organisation encounter problems like Jase had everyday; and I bet the first thing they do is turn to people for answers (face to face or email). The problem is the people you know, may not have the answers…enter online networks.
So we have, Jase (the seeker, the guy with the problem), the expert (the person on the forums who has the answer), and the curator (the site that made this scenario into a help guide). Now ask any of these people what they think about KM; and they’ll say "ha, what??"
That’s right, we label this behaviour (seeking, searching, connecting, curating) a KM approach to problem solving. These people would say "if that’s what we are doing so be it, but we didn’t intentionally try to behave that way, or know we approach things in a KM way"…and they don’t really do they, they are just doing what’s natural; connecting to people.
Organisations attempt to do this KM thing and spend lots of money and frustrate people, and so on. Whereas my friend Jase just did what was natural. The people who posted the solution also did something natural in an online group space where you have a feeling of belonging, ownership, and social connection.
Dave Snowden’s principles of KM just keep popping in my mind again and again, why, because they are naturalistic, they are based on how we cognitively and socially behave. If economics thinks people are rational, then organisations think people are robotic/servants.
Here’s a few of Dave’s principles that in relation to what I have posted about so far:
We only know what we know when we need to know it. Human knowledge is deeply contextual and requires stimulus for recall. Unlike computers we do not have a list-all function. Small verbal or nonverbal clues can provide those ah-ha moments when a memory or series of memories are suddenly recalled, in context to enable us to act. When we sleep on things we are engaged in a complex organic form of knowledge recall and creation; in contrast a computer would need to be rebooted.
In the context of real need few people will withhold their knowledge. A genuine request for help is not often refused unless there is literally no time or a previous history of distrust. On the other hand ask people to codify all that they know in advance of a contextual enquiry and it will be refused (in practice its impossible anyway). Linking and connecting people is more important than storing their artifacts.
Organisations try to push a thing or behaviour on people, whereas from our example, what they should be doing is creating conditions for natural behaviours to flourish. Set up technology where people can search for stuff that employee’s have shared. Make sure this system is engaging and serves the essential human need of social connection; for none of Maslow’s needs can be met without social connection (a prerequisite for survival). And by engaging I mean appeals to intrinsic motivations (challenge, autonomy, purpose), and stimulates happiness (the oxytocin/dopamine induced grooming, respect, exploring, sharing, belonging, helping, connecting). And by the way the by-product is that your KM goal has been served, and personal goals are also being served. By that I mean people are practicing KM without even knowing it as you are simply facilitating them to service their needs and pain points. That’s right, focus on the behavioural goal, rather than the business goal. And as for personal goals, this part is the "What’s in it for me factor?"; which I have talked about in my post, An observation of employee engagement. Here’s an excerpt:
Sense-making (re-use, find, ask)
- people helping each other to get through their tasks and issues
Build your reputation/recognition
- have influence by reputation, rather than having to wait years till you are rightly positioned in the hierarchy
Having the right audience and context motivates us
Sense of belonging, ownership, and having impact
- people feel good when they know their thinking and contributions are welcomed and have impact
We are social creatures
- learning and connecting with others and finding like people to collaborate with is an innate driver
DIY Career, personal development, exploring your passion
- participating online, as a by product, displays a person’s expertise…this creates an attractor mechanism, where you are noticed by the right people and are offered meaningful work
I guess a theme here is that you cannot create a knowledge sharing culture; it’s impossible to create culture, culture is emergent (you can only attack the interplay that surface’s that emergence). Same goes for developing initiatives and then pushing them on people…you don’t need to go to management school to do this, it’s dead basic to create something and then push it on people, but it ain’t gonna be effective; infact this type of leadership is a cop-out; it involves not much talent at all. Management school needs to train the managers of tomorrow to understand complexity, design thinking, user experience…and most importantly respect people and understand how they behave. It’s much harder and challenging to co-create, to understand frontline pain points…why don’t people leading initiatives co-create, why don’t they observe people using their prototype, services, process before releasing it…focus groups and surveys are not enough, people don’t precisely know themselves what they need or want till it emerges from them interacting with it (all the while you are taking this in via observation and conversation).
But then again Management school needs more fundamental subjects on transparency, trust, openness, co-creation, coaching…social business is the new lean; don’t you know;)
The whats and hows
Now I always refer to tacit knowledge as know-how ie. a skill in doing something eg. how to win a bid on chinese mining projects.
Then we have explicit knowledge which is know-what…this really isn’t knowledge it’s information. Some of it is common information that lots of people know of, and a lot of it is informal information based on experience eg. tips and tricks, how things are done around here. This informal stuff is often referred to as tacit knowledge, and I guess that’s OK. All this informal information paints a picture of the organisational culture; the more you know the more you can navigate and understand, this kind of heightened awareness leads you to be more productive and effective.
Formal information (processes, procedures) are not enough. When people practice work many contexts bring up different colors, all these interactions (informal information) can supplement and complement the formal information. I explained this in a past post:
A manual can only know so much up front, it’s not clairvoyant. The more we experience using these tools in various contexts, situations, purposes and by various people, the more we discover good practices, workarounds, lessons, etc…
Blogs and forums allow us to do this. Perhaps some of this content can be fed back into the manual, but a lot of it will exist complementary to the manual…a wiki is a good way to point to all the gems.
In essence community tools are our coping mechanism. Without it I could not sense-make.
So back to our story.
The answer wasn’t high-level tacit knowledge (know-how) ie. Jase did not need to do an apprenticeship and overtime face many contexts and situations where he has developed expanse fundamental understanding and is highly skilled to apply himself to any scenario…this is real knowledge ie. you face a situation you may have never faced before and the nuggets in your head assemble into a new formation where you solve the problem; and now this solution is filed in your head (you never have to work it out again). If we can get people in organisations to connect as often as they can with each other (eg. CoPs, etc…) then overtime we become more competent people…we become chefs as much as we can, rather than recipe followers.
In our story Jase came across some knowledge in someone’s head in the form of a forum post where they shared some informal information (a tip or trick). Again, the more organisations have these types of ecosystem’s the better; life is 24 hour learning, and online networks amplify this.
This is knowledge flow; people connecting to each other in the context of need, conversing, and from what we learn (and then action), becomes personal knowledge (when we action, we experience, and it imprints in our mind). When we do this online we leave behind the whole history of our interactions (observable work), this history thread becomes new information. One day someone will come across that information, and have a conversation, and so on. Information perpetually being remixed for new contexts, and people acquiring personal knowledge. It’s not just the nugget you find that’s gold, it’s that the nugget continuously transforms, it’s in a flux. Information is both a wave and a particle.
Anyway, the story of Jase and the cradle swing is in my mind what KM is; it’s what ideal sense-making is, it’s what engagement is, and what agile organisations are.
The key point is don’t try and do KM, because you can’t, as KM is emergent…stimulate the conditions for behaviours, motivations, desires…enable an environment where people can sense-make (do their work by connecting with others), and the competencies that people develop as a result and what they leave behind for everyone else is KM.
Walking on the email platform and traditionally run organisations is not the emergence that you want; it’s poor man’s KM, it’s poor man’s sense-making; it’s not engaging, it’s not agile…online networks and social business is the type of emergence that employee’s and the business want…I hope.
Maybe I should have titled this post "KM is emergent" or "You can’t do knowledge management without knowledge flow".
Come to think of it my post "Don’t control, curate" has foreshadowed this post.
What’s important for an organistion is creating conditions for employee wellness and engagement, solving problems and decision-making, and innovation.
We achieve this by allowing people to connect; knowledge flow.
Once we have this then we can do knowledge management. By that I mean we can do the "manage" part by gardening, curating. ie. using links in documentation (processes, procedures, guides, etc.) that point to the threads from the knowledge flow. Our documentation is perpetually evolving; which is what KM is.
That makes KM seem like not a deep exercise; well it’s not really (but it’s not shallow at all, it’s very effective as it’s about awareness). It’s more a curators job of managing what’s spilt out of people’s heads in the knowledge flow and taking that dripping wet information out of the stream and linking it in places that matter like our documentation. And also creating new documentation like topic pages. Yep, part of KM is making playlists. It’s taking information and organising it and combining it so it drives further value.
I know information management is about organising information; so I’ll say knowledge management is about curating information.
But remember the KM practitioner is not only doing knowledge management; they are also facilitating knowledge flow, this is where the deep talent and skills come into action.
I don’t have a name that encompasses both facilitating knowledge flow and doing knowledge management. I think the term KM is meant to encompass both these activities, but I’m afraid KM managers often skip the knowledge flow part; which means traditional organisational design, doing things to people, all that top-down stuff, and failed KM.
When you think about a Community of Practice; the Community Manager/Facilitator does both the flow and the managing content aspect…so perhaps we need to look at these professionals for what KM really is (when I say KM I mean the combination of knowledge flow and knowledge management…let me know if you have a better word)
At work they having been talking for years about lessons learned
…there have been attempts at plans, strategies and whitepapers. You have to get everyone involved and to agree, and then you have to release it, and then you have to enforce it, etc…The whole deal is it’s starting with a top-down approach…it’s artificial and it’s slow.
I mentioned that projects can just start using a blog right now. For there is no knowledge management without knowledge flow. Start blogging the captains log (ala Star Trek)…narrate your work, work observably. All people on the project can use the, or a, blog to share daily experiences and tag their entries. And if you have read this far in this post we don’t need to go over again the benefits to knowledge flow in relation to meaning, connection, purpose, sense-making, engagement and agility.
Then the knowledge management can start - where we view tag clouds from the experience blogs; all these raw anecdotes, stories, observations will form high-level patterns. And from this we may detect weak signals and opportunties, we may see strengths and weaknesses.
And then we can write our lessons learned documents and give talks based on what we have learned, plan new strategies based on our new insights.
Knowledge Management needs stuff to manage, as you can’t manage what’s in people’s heads. Instead if we first facilitate knowledge flow, a lot of what people know (ie. stuff) naturally spills out in conversation (mostly based in the context of need, or even proactively via totally engaged people who narrate their work)…and if this is done online, well then we have stuff to manage.
Knowledge management starts after there is knowledge flow. What if you try to do knowledge management based on a lack of knowledge flow? Well that perfectly describes the top-down way organisations usually approach programs like lessons learned. What happens is that there is a compliance to do lessons learned in project close out, and everyone reluctantly gets together (if they are available as most don’t have time as they have started on other projects). Then they go through the motions, it’s something we have to do I suppose, ok so what did you learn on the project, what worked, what didn’t…
The other thing is that without knowledge flow we forgo learning as it happens; rather than just learning at the end of a project.
I’m not saying to not do lessons learned sessions; but I’m saying without knowledge flow we leave it up to people to try and remember stuff; and the problem with this is that your memory fades, you don’t care as much as the time has past, things seem more linear in hindsight, you need context to trigger what you know. This last one is exactly why a blog is great at capturing experience as it happens. You are in a particular context in a project or someone asks you something, and you may answer it based on your expertise. Done, captured! At the lessons learned review the facilitator can now use these blog fragments to start conversations.
Let’s revisit some of Snowden’s KM principles; the first one I already shared earlier in this post
Human knowledge is deeply contextual and requires stimulus for recall. Unlike computers we do not have a list-all function
The way we know things is not the way we report we know things. There is an increasing body of research data which indicates that in the practice of knowledge people use heuristics, past pattern matching and extrapolation to make decisions, coupled with complex blending of ideas and experiences that takes place in nanoseconds. Asked to describe how they made a decision after the event they will tend to provide a more structured process oriented approach which does not match reality. This has major consequences for knowledge management practice
NOTE: I have spoken a lot about online connection as knowledge flow. But the same type of connection and valuable conversation of course happens face to face. Chris Collison shares the value of Peer Assist, Anecdote circles, open space, knowledge cafe’s, etc…). More accurately he shares the value of conversation (which is what we are all about):
As Knowledge Professionals, I believe that one of our most important tasks is to discover, surface, and give voice to experience.
People tell stories about their experience. If they presented or wrote them down, they inevitably filter, over-summarize, and post-rationalise with opinion and analysis – and it’s in that process when the waters get muddied, the purity of experience is lost – along with messages embedded in the tone of voice and body language.
So what’s the purpose of all this? Improving decision-making and innovation.
Stephen Bounds add to this:
Knowledge Management is practised through activities that support better decision-making. IM is practised by improving the systems that store, capture, transmit etc information.
In this sense, a librarian neatly captures both sides of the coin. The act of building and making a library catalogue available is covered by IM. But the transaction by which a person can approach a librarian and leave with a relevant set of data to make a better decision is covered by KM.
I imagine that’s all I have to say about KM.
Here’s what Steven is suggesting:
An idea for a debate: Making tacit knowledge explicit with collaborative technologies?
Hi All- I want to open this up to the group. We want to have a debate for next years KM Australia and we were looking at the above topic - any other idea’s or suggestions on the topic?
Here’s what James said in Steven’s post:
I think that would be an excellent idea. Some suggestions around some similar themes:
* Is the Data, Information, Knowledge pyramid a failed concept?
* Does KM need technology or is it the other way around?
* With the rise of social software, is KM finally dead?
* Was KM only really just a fad? or Is KM just nonsense, created by consulting firms and software companies?
* If we can’t measure, touch or see ‘knowledge’, what exactly are we managing?
* Has KM been held back because of short sighted and reductionist management thinking or does KM just need to pay its way like the rest of the organisation?
* Are some people holding back the progress of KM, but making it sound harder and more complex than it is?
What ever you pick, it needs to be provocative!
OK, signing off