Bridge the gaps: how knowledge management helps you learn

How are learning and innovation connected to something as outwardly dull as knowledge management? In this post I’ll explore the question how managing your personal knowledge allows you to focus your learning efforts.

Do You Know Where You Need To Go?

Do You Know Where You Need To Go? Bridge your knowledge gaps
Photo posted on Flickr by Halil Gökdal; Vimeo video byEugenia Loli-Queru.

Learning and humor

In my previous post I compared knowledge management to herding cats. Using metaphors can help explain a topic while adding a dash of fun to dry facts (or severely dehydrated opinions). It helps the learning process along. A post I read some time ago was about “comparing apples to oranges“. I enjoyed the post, which was actually about innovative ideas.

Innovative approaches are often the result of looking at familiar topics from a different angle. In that respect, innovation has a lot in common with humor: take two seemingly completely different topics, crash them into one another, and see what happens. If you want a slightly more predictable result, you try to control the process that leads to innovation (or humor).

Using proverbs, metaphors, and other ‘language tools’ in learning is not without hazards. Reading in a non-native language makes it even trickier. For example, I’ve always thought of “comparing apples to pears” (from Dutch) as measuring two completely different things by the same criteria. In that case a perfect orange would make a lousy apple (or Apple). On the other hand, in innovative thinking, borrowing criteria from one context and applying them in a different context may yield unexpected insights.

Connecting knowledge management to learning – and innovation

You could view personal knowledge management as a controlled way of assessing what you know. ‘Knowing what you know’ gives you a basis for deciding what you else you need to know but don’t. You can then focus on bridging the gaps by either learning about those topics yourself, or by contacting someone who has the necessary knowledge and asking them for help. Both actions have their pros and cons.

  1. By taking control of your learning process, you will gain new expertise which may serve you well in the future. On the other hand, you need to judge what level of knowledge you need. If it’s knowledge on a specialist level which you need urgently, learning may take too much time. If speed doesn’t matter quite so much you can focus on learning the basics and figuring out the rest as you go along. This tends to happen on blogs a lot 😉
  2. By contacting an expert, you ‘risk’ two different world views crashing into each other. If you communicate what you need (and don’t need) from the exchange, and facilitate an honest and open dialogue, you may discover more in less time than if you try to master a new topic by yourself. Moreover, if you bring in a person with a different background, opinion, and expertise, you won’t be able to self-censor anything which doesn’t fit into your view of the topic. This way you open up new possibilities. It’s up to you to then select the things that might actually work for you. This kind of confrontation is useful for innovative thinking, but it’s also a great way to get unstuck if you’re stuck trying out #1.

(I’ve actually done #1 on this blog, and I’ve helped someone out being their ‘nearest WordPress.com expert’ so that’s my #2 for now.)

Using knowledge management (KM) to learn

Harold Jarche, in a post on his KM blog, mentions David Williamson Shaffer’s book How computer games can help children learn. After explaining the word epistomology (the study of knowledge, page 10), Shaffer goes on to say:

“…here I argue that computers create both the means and the necessity to fundamentally rethink what it means to know something – and thus what is worth learning and how we teach it.”

I don’t think it’s specifically a computer thing, but I do think computers have made it painfully clear what happens when technology changes and we don’t accept that change means we need to adjust – to learn. Nowadays it’s worth reviewing our assumptions on a regular basis. The problem for many people is that it usually doesn’t seem worth the effort. You can use your time to do either of these things:

  • sit around thinking about what you know, or
  • get your job done and bring food to the table.

If you lose your job, your first inclination won’t be to sit and think carefully but to put the turbo on to get a job. If that doesn’t work you may spend some time panicking before you sit down and (hopefully) think things through. Most of us only sit and think either when we can afford to take the time, or when we have exhausted all other options – when we have to.

Check up on your assumptions (or ‘knowledge’) at regular intervals

What if you take the proverbial ‘step back’ from your canvas every few weeks to check where you’re going, where you want to go, what you need to do next, and what other options you see? Options which you’ll leave largely unexplored for now, but keep in a treasure chest until you want them.

Read more:

How do you view your (personal) knowledge and its management – how do you decide what to learn next?

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Stuck like glue: how knowledge powers business relationships

How does knowledge affect business relationships? It’s a matter Ross Dawson has written a whole book about. In this post I’d like to share my thoughts on knowledge in business relationships and related matters like advising (internal) clients, or even friends for that matter.

What do you bring to the table in your (business) relationships?

Knowledge needs food to grow

Tree of knowledge? Image HikingArtist.com

  • Knowledge. By this I mean your personal set of experiences. Not just your education, because your peers share much the same background.
  • Time – which may seem in short supply so you’d rather spend it on activities that add value than on stuff that really isn’t that important but “management say they want it so go do it”.
  • Social skills (if I’m being presumptuous please let me know).

It makes sense to invest your time in building a good relationship with your (potential) clients and allies. Apart from your subject matter expertise (SME), focus on extending the knowledge you have about your client:

  1. Listen carefully to what’s being said.
  2. Listen even more carefully to what’s not being said.
  3. Ask away.
  4. Keep asking.
  5. Be open about the way you work (from the start), and
  6. ask for structural feedback to help finetune your actions. When you plan your activities for a client, include a continuous feedback loop from and to your client. If that’s not possible, plan regular feedback moments.

Focusing on the interaction, on the knowledge you and your client need from each other and produce as a result of your conversations, steers you away from ‘just’ delivering your service or product.

What does this advisory role demand from you?

The interaction with your clients demands that you take the conscious decision and then muster the patience to get genuinely involved. Getting involved also means sharing knowledge, and that may lead to the following situation:

  • If you’re a veteran in your branche, you may have grown used to skipping steps. It’s been so long since you wondered why you do what you do in this specific way. But to the non-expert there is no “obviously”. There is no obvious reason for doing anything. Or for doing it in this way. So add all the steps your client needs.
  • Having someone ask you questions and giving you feedback may well point you toward things you had overseen! Listening to your clients’ questions may well teach you a lot about yourself as well as about your client. Once you’ve learned anything you need to review what you thought you knew. Improve, tweak. Review. Learn, and unlearn! Knowledge building will guide you and your client by showing you should stop doing one thing and start doing the other.

How does knowledge power your business relationships?

By getting involved and being open about your methods you will:

  1. learn a lot about your client. You’ll understand better than anyone else what makes them tick. What worries them. What stumps them.
  2. build trust. Your client gets a genuine sense of what you know, how you think, who you are as a professional and as a person.
  3. get feedback from your client about details in their particular situation that might affect the results of your efforts.
  4. have a chance to review your own business
  5. improve your own skills as an advisor
  6. accumulate heaps of richly detailed cases you can use as examples with other clients.

There’s just one thing to watch out for. And that is getting too comfortable knowing what you know about your clients. Knowledge needs to be fed regularly if you’re to reap its fruits. Neglect your knowledge and it will lose its connection with reality. Your reality. And your clients’ reality. If you find that your attitude stands in the way of really listening to your clients – if it prevents you from being a good advisor, tell yourself to stop being a [fill in appropriate noun here].

And two (this point occurred to me thanks to this picture): remember to harvest the fruits of your labor. The point of knowledge is not having it – but using it.

Read more:

How would you describe the relationship you have with your (business) connections? Leave your thoughts about knowledge, business, clients and relationships (and possibly about glue and apples) in a comment – I will reply to anything non-spammy 😉

New knowledge: how to breathe creativity into your business

How do you instill creativity in places where it seems to be lacking big time? In an earlier post I mentioned that an investor’s mindset seems to chase away innovation. But what invites creative thinking? What sets us off on the hunt for new knowledge?

Why knowledge acquisition and the creative process grind to a halt

Firstly let’s add a bit of detail to my earlier thoughts about why inventors leave a company (after an IPO). Money seems to have an oddly familiar impact if you’re a business owner: it burns in your pockets, leading to buying decisions based on affluence. You have the money. This fact severely reduces your need to employ creative brains. If you choose your resources based on their availability, you can either put in creative thinking and the time you need to realize your ideas, or you can chuck in a bag of money at any given moment to buy the results of other people’s efforts.

When and how does creativity leave your business?

San Matteo by Caravaggio

San Matteo by Caravaggio [Fragment
of image on Wikimedia Commons]

  • Following my instincts I’d say the first awkward moments arise when you find that your best ideas no longer lead to reactions like “that sounds great – go do it and let me know when you’ve got something”. Instead you get “that sounds interesting – is there anything out there we could use?” or “okay, draft some requirements we can use for our vendors”.
  • The absolute get-out-of-here-right-now trigger is when decisions for further development are made without consulting the company’s innovative minds. It makes sense to leave when no one cares enough about your opinion to ask for it before taking a major decision. The best (or most independently thinking) inventors will leave at this point.
  • The other inventors may choose to deliver what’s being asked for. However their ‘inventions’ are probably the products of ideas born from the minds of investors, market researchers, and the like. No wonder they don’t match the level of the ‘breakthrough inventions’ done by pioneering innovators!

What does this tell us about factors that’ll get innovation and general creative thinking into a team or company? It’s not just “leave them alone and great things’ll happen”.

Apple or IBM: two methods to bring creativity into your business

1. The survival method: be creative or else

To draw upon my own education, one of my teachers in art history argued that Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio) would not have reached the peak of his own ingenuity if his patron had accepted some of the paintings he made. As an inventor you may well need someone who will warn you not to become complacent – push you out of your comfort zone – tell you they know you can “do better than that” and will not settle for anything but the best.

To me this is a part of the Steve Jobs approach – if engineers come up with new adaptations of old inventions you demand they think of something better. I can imagine this method does not go down well with people who are either independent thinkers themselves, or who aim for ‘okay’ solutions that lack a ‘wow’ factor. It’s a method that smells of survival basics (and can inspire real terror for that reason): either you come up with a solution that works, or you starve because all the animals run away. How’s that for a creative spark?

2. The cocreation method: the benefit of having different points of view

Another part of innovation at Apple which Jobs was probably good at, is the ‘naive outsider’ approach (I’m borrowing from a Forbes article on creativity in marketing here) – taking a fresh look at familiar things and asking the questions that experts overlook. But there’s a definite downside to having one person doing ‘creative quality control or CQC (I just made that up for the occasion).

If you’re into social or ‘open’ business like IBM you can get input from people outside your company and even your industry. If you have your creative process in full operation, this should give you plenty of alien points of view – forcing you to rethink what would otherwise pass for ‘obvious’ arguments.

Creative quality control: which method suits you?

In view of the possibilities offered by social media and the like, and the psychological effects of each individual method, my vote goes to the ‘many voices’ option of social business. But depending on the type of company your in and the goals you’ve set, another method may be more viable.

More reading:

How do you foster innovation in your organization? Let’s talk about new knowledge, “CQC”, creativity, business, and social media in the comments!

Closer to you: moving from content marketing to co-creation

Anyone who has blogged for a while will have noticed that some topics are more popular than others. And that it really matters whether you have succeeded in making your content relevant and even useful to your readers.

Content marketing really equals content + marketing…

As far as I can see the point of content marketing is:

Measure the results of everything you do, and adjust your content accordingly.

This sounds like common sense marketing tactics – so much so that I find myself wondering whether any other kind of content marketing deserves the ‘marketing’ tag.

Content marketing for a lone blogger

For a blogger there are limits to what you can do with the results you measure. You may have tried a different topic as a one-off for the festive season and found it really popular – but that doesn’t mean you feel comfortable or passionate enough to scratch the things that didn’t work in favor of your ‘most popular’ topic.

What you can do is:

  • find out if it really was the topic that sparked the sudden rise in interest,
  • or whether you added a different kind of title, style, way of addressing your readers, or even a different kind of image.
  • If no-one bothered to comment you’ll have to go through your popular post(s) and try to find out what makes them ‘ring’.
  • Then, list your results and experiment with them in your new posts.

Moving from content marketing to co-creation could make sense – for some

Rather than painstakingly follow a trial-and-error method to zoom in on what works for your audience as well as yourself, you could (simply put) ask your readers what they would be interested to read/hear about. But this doesn’t always work:

Worst practice co-creation

Worst practice co-creation

  • The average one-time two-minute visitor doesn’t know you. So the chance that anyone is inclined to reply is remote, and if they do their input may well lead you off the track altogether. General tips, yes – co-creation, I don’t think so.
  • “Just ask” isn’t really half enough. You might end up alienating your fans if you ask them for ideas every time you’re stumped for inspiration. Writing a post about a requested topic is nice, but unless it’s a topic on which you can really deliver big time you’re bound to disappoint some readers.

Co-creation is not about getting others to do most of your work, or about squeezing casual remarks from readers for quotes.

I feel that commitment from both sides should balance out. This means bloggers like me, who spend a limited amount of time on their blogs, should not expect a level of commitment from our readers/fans that we can’t match. If you’re a professional blogger things may be different.

What steps could help you on your way to co-creation?

What you can do:

  1. Building up a community around your blog/brand. This takes time, especially if you’re just starting out. If you have a company, your customers and suppliers are stakeholders – you may expect them to have an interest in what you do.
  2. Find your fans. Fans are only a (small) part of all the people in your community. If you don’t have the time or resources to build up a big, open community of your own, you’ll need to access existing communities and hand-pick potential fans yourself. The alternative is to wait for them to find you, or to buy a list of people in your segment (marketing again).
  3. Next you need to ask your fans to get involved. This means getting them onto a platform of your own (like a Disqus community for the readers of your blog, or a secure wiki).
  4. Wait: before you do anything, you need to be clear on what you expect from your fans – and what they may expect from you. Because there can be no hiding on your part in a small community with your name on it.

Co-creation: are we there yet?

If you’re a blogger these steps may be the bigger part of what you need to do: getting structural input from people in a certain business will help you get your facts straight.

The moment co-creation needs to lead to complex products you’re looking at involving your fans and colleagues in long-term, in-depth matters. That takes commitment from both sides and a lot more work from you.

I’m indebted to Steven van Belleghem for the subject of this post. Reading “The Conversation Company” unavoidably influenced my thoughts.

If you’re still here… thanks for reading my post 🙂 If you’re not exhausted yet, please leave your thoughts on content marketing, co-creation and blogging in a comment!