In the know
Wright, N. (2004) ‘In the Know: Lessons in Knowledge Management’, Training Technology & Human Resources, Institute of Training & Occupational Learning, March-April, pp14-15.
You could be forgiven for believing that knowledge management (KM) is an urban myth, an expression of contemporary folklore that exists as story but never quite earths itself in organisational reality. I once attended a CIPD seminar, for instance, during which all participants signalled enthusiastically their belief that KM is a critical component of organisational development. There were red faces all round, however, when asked what had been done to implement KM in their own organisations.
I have, nevertheless, worked with one organisation for five years that has doggedly persevered with its vision to convert KM rhetoric into vibrant organisational practice. Its name is Tearfund, a Christian international development and relief organisation involved in 80 countries around the world. My own reflections as Learning & Development (L&D) Manager on the principal lessons learned en route are reproduced below as a basis for shared learning – the foundational principle of KM philosophy itself.
Tearfund encountered an initial problem distinguishing between knowledge and information. Attempts to describe knowledge as ‘that which resides in your head’ vs information as ‘that which is recorded’ proved awkward. Further reflection has convinced me that ‘information as organised data’ and ‘knowledge as distilled wisdom’ (or, in other words, ‘interpreted information’) is preferable because it recognises social-constructive (e.g. cultural) aspects of knowledge and allows the incorporation of spiritual, psychological and emotional dimensions too.
This latter distinction is consistent with that described by Libby Ralph in Knowledge Management & Training, Training Journal, June 2003. Interestingly, some recent writers (e.g. Tom Lambert, Key Management Questions, 2003) suggest a wider, general drift from knowledge- to ‘wisdom management’, too, which may indicate an emerging trend in this direction. The important practice recommendation is to define terms clearly in order to avoid linguistic confusion.
KM is often publicised in technical terms and championed by IT enthusiasts, excited by the potential of new technologies (e.g. intranets, extranets, internet). This may, at times, convey the impression that KM is driven by technology rather than the learning needs of the organisation itself; a view that may be reinforced if KM is owned and managed corporately by the IT function rather than, say, HR or Corporate Directorate as part of a wider organisational development strategy.
If organisational culture is principally relationship-oriented, as in Tearfund, a KM approach perceived as primarily technology-oriented may be viewed with some degree of caution or even scepticism. An important recommendation is, therefore, to ensure that KM concept and communiqués reflect sensitively the organisation’s culture and, as a general rule of thumb, that technology is portrayed as supporting KM rather than vice versa.
Organisational culture has other implications, too. KM presupposes, for instance, that learners will be willing and committed to share learning with other parts of the organisation. In a charitable organisation like Tearfund, committed overtly to Christian values, the notion of shared learning fits easily with its cultural ethos. In other types of organisation, however, where internal competition is inherent or actively encouraged (e.g. with competitive, performance-related bonus schemes), shared learning can represent real loss of knowledge-as-power and corresponding erosion of advantage.
An important practice implication is, therefore, to ensure that KM strategy identifies and takes into account specific cultural practices that will encourage or inhibit shared learning. A way of managing the dilemma in internally-competitive environments is to specify in job descriptions which categories of learning should be shared and to reward performance accordingly.
The primary mechanism that Tearfund has used to develop its knowledge bank is the ‘learning review’ (LR), a retrospective process by which participants involved in an event or project meet afterwards to review the experience and record key learning outcomes (cf Jeff Brooks, Knowledge Management in TT&HR, May/June 2003). The results of such reviews (usually expressed as specific actionable recommendations) are stored on a central computer drive, accessible to all staff via the organisation’s intranet and used, in principle, to inform future planning and practice.
The degree to which staff retrieve and reapply learning from others’ experience is, however, an area for further development, except between teams involved in similar work where learning is already easily and directly transferable. The limiting factor is that results are sometimes recorded using jargon or too much context-specific information. The key practice implication is, therefore, to ensure that learning is recorded clearly, in generic terms and with other reader-audiences in mind.
Tearfund staff report that the review process itself, when well-facilitated, has resulted in (a) tacit knowledge surfacing to a conscious level and (b) reinforcement of important learning points. Participants involved in such human-interactive processes can act as valuable knowledge conduits by, for instance, advertising on the intranet who to talk to about specific types of projects rather than relying on written notes as sole means of dissemination.
Tearfund developed an internal LR register populated by ‘volunteers’ with some prior experience of facilitating groups. Participants on the register were provided with basic training but it became quickly apparent that only the most experienced facilitators were being called upon to conduct reviews, hence creating difficult time pressures for them. Tearfund may consider whether to extend its internal pool or contract dedicated specialists for this role.
Return on investment
The direct and indirect costs of KM (e.g. opportunity costs resulting from time spent in reviews) dictate that the process needs to be well-managed in order to add value. Tearfund has learned to resist the temptation to review absolutely everything and, instead, to consider prospectively what learning is likely to be most beneficial for the organisation and prioritise reviews accordingly. Serendipitous, innovative learning emerges by this means too but within the context of a focused learning framework.
Tearfund is also learning how to ‘double-loop’ knowledge derived from an event, experience or process to help inform corporate strategy and policy. It is tackling this issue by ensuring that every team’s annual plan includes a section on reflective learning, the results of which can be (a) reapplied to enhance its own practice and (b) collated by a KM Manager for subsequent planning by the corporate leadership team. The leadership team, too, produces an annual Impact Report which incorporates evidence of learning as a key indicator of corporate performance.
Finally, Tearfund is working to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of KM on the organisation’s strategic capabilities. An effective L&D and KM interface is critical, with integration helping to ensure a holistic and efficient approach to organisational development. Operational overlap can occur, for instance, in such areas as action learning and communities of practice and so clear role differentiation is needed.
Evaluation is concerned with overall benefit relative to cost. However, the positive results of investment in KM, like those of L&D, can prove difficult to substantiate in strictly cause-and-effect terms. Tearfund is experimenting with a new L&D/KM model with shared key performance indicators; mapping new learning, shared learning and applied learning on a grid against strategy, policy and practice on one axis and individual, team and organisation on the other. It’s too early to predict at this stage how well this model will work in practice but initial signs are positive.