Towards a ‘natural’ knowledge management (part 2, nature of knowledge)

Knowledge is almost by default inaccurate, incomplete, unreliable, partially outdated, and changing… The reason it’s all of these things is because it’s personal. What does this mean for knowledge management (KM)?

Knowledge Management Needs a Plan

KM takes a bit of planning… great image by HikingArtist.com

If you’re a knowledge manager you’re basically faced with the task of managing people. Unfortunately their manager is already managing them.

Let’s assume you convince a team to get a handle on their knowledge. What, out of all their knowledge, do you want to document in some system? And what can you document anyway? I’ve talked about these questions in my earlier post Why knowledge management is like herding cats. Things I’ll mention here are best practices, process-related content, and knowledge about your clients.

The nature of knowledge versus knowledge management initiatives

One of the (old?) ways organizations have tried to manage knowledge is by making employees enter stuff they know in a system. But knowledge tends to disintegrate into information inside a system.

  • It’s no longer knowledge transferred from one person to the other. There’s a non-intelligent medium involved which takes away the non-verbal feedback, the adjustments one makes during a conversation.
  • You need to describe your knowledge outside the context where you actually need it.
  • Often there is no real recognition for the effort you put into it.
  • If you show some hesitation, you may well hear convincing arguments like “look, the bottom line is, you have to”.

Just because your company’s interest is in squeezing the last drop of precious knowledge out of your brain before they let you go doesn’t mean it’s got to hurt. The process of entering your most precious asset into an indifferent system on pain of ‘pain’ is not exactly motivating, is it?

The nature of knowledge: learning and expertise

The learning process you’ve undergone in the course of many projects has resulted in your professional expertise. You have learned, re-learned, and even un-learned (check part 1 for more about un-learning). The ‘meta’ level of your knowledge is the veteran professional’s treasure and its the bit that tends to be missed the most when you retire.

To make knowledge sharing more personal, dynamic, and fun, your alternative is to put professionals together and have them talk about their projects, clients, and the like. My impression is that most organizations start doing that kind of thing after they notice:

  • that knowledge can actually walk out the door
  • that having a beautiful system to capture knowledge doesn’t make their problems go away.

In short, they don’t start moving until they notice what’s happening on their watch – and what that could mean for the organization. Last time they noticed some KM guy suggested a system. This time it’s clear that either the system doesn’t work or there’s more to KM than a bit of software. At this point, it’s really important to snap out of the “sh*t-we-need-knowledge-management-NOW” reflex!

One way to make knowledge management ‘work’ (I hope)

What if we tell everyone to spend 5% of their time sharing what they know with others? It could work, but it’s still something “you just have to” do.

Would a culture in which anyone can achieve the position of ‘mentor’ work? In order to avoid it turning into a punishment, I think there are three aspects which may support each other.

  1. Becoming a mentor should be a natural step in one’s career. (Let HR figure out how to make it happen.)
  2. Give ‘mentors’ the resources to document their knowledge. Which means you give them the time they need, away from their other duties. And it means arranging things so they can share their knowledge in a format that suits them.
    1. Writing (blog, article, web page, data in a system)
    2. Talking. One way to get around the ‘stupid (KM) medium’ is being interviewed and capturing the conversation on video.
    3. Training colleagues in a workshop
    4. Making a presentation
    5. Drawing cartoons (here’s a nice one on Mark W. Schaefer’s {grow} blog)
  3. Mentors need to take part in projects with others. Their sole aim is that of identifying areas where expertise is still lacking (to a degree). They either share the necessary knowledge themselves or help find the right people and learning materials to remedy any knowledge issues. Plus they will log what they found and how they resolved it. This way you form an understanding of what people in your organization need to know, but don’t.

Some people have a knack for teaching/mentoring. You don’t need to make it to senior manager before you start sharing what you know! How will you share your knowledge today?

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