Sharing Knowledge about Knowledge Sharing
On a recent business trip to Malawi, I stayed at a small lodge in Lilongwe. The lodge provided dinner upon request, and with only seven guests, there was a friendly atmosphere in the dining room and we would chat across the little tables and get to know each other. The guests worked for a variety of organizations, from global health to microfinance to agriculture.
During one conversation, an elegant British gentleman asked about my work, and I tried to explain what I do for a living. Our chat apparently piqued his interest, because I later received this e-mail:
I definitely need you to explain more about how knowledge management works. I would really like to know how your approach would work in a bank to avoid the sort of muddles that can occur where people act out of ignorance as much as through misinformation about what the business is trying to do
Here was an opportunity to share knowledge about knowledge sharing in a way that would be meaningful outside of my own business. So, by way of example, I shared with him a project I’m working on: the development of a new Intranet at my office:
As part of the work, I have been conducting focus groups with members of each department -- program operations, finance, human resources, etc. I ask questions such as, ‘What is a typical day like for you? Where do you get the information you need to do your job? Who do you talk to? What challenges do you face?’”
Asking these kinds of questions, you often find out that people turn to other colleagues to find out how to do things -- for example, who do I see to get an independent contractor on board? That's an example of people informally trying to tap into "know how." While information is organized data, knowledge is "know-how" -- the product of experience and lessons learned -- that makes information actionable so that good decisions can be made and high quality performance achieved.
In knowledge management, we try to capture that know-how and make it available for more than just one other colleague. But we don't boil down all know-how to workflows and documentation. The extent of formal documentation is in part determined by the organization's culture and how people prefer to learn -- documentation versus personal interaction, for example. A highly structured, hierarchical organization may want many extensively documented procedures -- financial and accounting organizations, for example.
By contrast, one of the organizations in which I’ve worked placed a high value on personal relationships -- People often sent e-mail to selected colleagues asking for information, rather than search the corporate e-library.
With this kind of corporate culture, it is important to provide many opportunities for informal learning and sharing of knowledge: e-mail groups for communities of practice; personal profiles on the Intranet; knowledge fairs for staff members to present their knowledge to each other; regional conferences; and noontime seminars.
While my answer to the banker was by no means a comprehensive analysis of knowledge management, it shows what’s important to me: always keep in mind the human element involved in effective knowledge management and knowledge sharing. To paraphrase a quote: Don’t treat others (including your target audiences) as you want to be treated, but rather as they want to be treated (or served).
As for the banker and his knowledge management challenge? The last I heard he was mired in procedures and documentation, with encouraging knowledge sharing taking a lower priority. I suspect that for many organizations achieving a balanced knowledge management approach—including the human element—will take quite some time.