Almost a decade ago I had the pleasure of meeting and first working with Olivier Serrat from the Asian Development Bank. We worked together on a range of initiatives for ADB including developing a series of courses on learning in organisations. During that time Olivier wrote nearly 100 short and readable papers on issues related to organisational learning, knowledge management and leadership. In 2010 he brought these together in a single volume and it has been a constant and valued companion to me in my work. More recently, Olivier has added to the already comprehensive list of topics he had covered in his original publication and has now published a new collection of 126 of his articles in e-book form. Knowledge Solutions comprises an encyclopaedic resource on learning in organisations and is a significant contribution to the field. In an extremely welcome gesture of generosity his publisher – Springer – has made all of this content available Open Access which means we can download all the chapters free. You can browse through this cornucopia of materials here.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
TS Eliot ‘The Rock’
Truly managing knowledge is a big challenge. So perhaps it is not surprising that many organisations which invest in knowledge management systems end up managing what they can, rather than what they intended to. This is why most knowledge management systems are actually information management systems. Does this matter?
There is a somewhat unfashionable idea in the field of knowledge management called the knowledge hierarchy. It may be unfashionable – some say it is too simplistic – but the knowledge hierarchy concept can be very helpful because it shows what needs to happen to raw data in order to make it really useful.
Data, information, knowledge, wisdom – these are the levels of the knowledge hierarchy. Data comprises facts, figures and observations. Information is data with added interpretation (categorisation, collation, comparison, and so on). When we internalise information and make connections with other things we know in order to help us answer our questions and make sense of the world we generate knowledge. And finally when we combine our knowledge with our experience and values so that we understand underlying principles and can apply these in different contexts we achieve wisdom. The effort involved in moving from one level to the next become more demanding with each step we take up the knowledge hierarchy. This helps to explain why, when we aim to manage knowledge, more often we end up managing information.
So I believe the often-quoted words from poet TS Eliot’s ‘The Rock’ at the beginning of this post carry a very important message. If we try to convince ourselves – or genuinely believe – that we are managing knowledge when in fact we are managing information, we run the risk of devaluing the very nature of knowledge. Perhaps without intending to, we strip from our understanding of knowledge the deeper meaning and connections that provide its real value. And likewise if we believe we have developed wisdom when we have not spent the necessary time and effort to test and modify our knowledge in the light of practice – the very essence of wisdom – we may believe our knowledge to be applicable irrespective of context.
Managing information is important. Our organisations need the systems that enable us to access and use interpreted data. But it’s important to make sure that our ambitions to create knowledge management systems don’t lead us to overlook what gives knowledge its true value.
Some organisations invest heavily in knowledge management systems that aim to codify knowledge in the hope that colleagues can readily find answers to the challenges they face in their work. In my experience this can run the risk of creating expensive to set up and maintain database systems that provide answers to questions that no-one is asking. When resources are tight (and when is that not the case?) an organisation is likely to get a better return on its investment if it focuses on facilitating connections between colleagues, and less on trying to ‘capture’ knowledge – especially in written form. There are a number of reasons why an investment in connecting people gives good returns. Firstly, it is through dialogue that the nuanced exchange necessary to address the challenge of context is more likely to occur. Secondly, connecting people doesn’t just help one person to find an answer to their question it encourages the emergence of ideas that may be new to both colleagues. Thirdly, engaging in dialogue builds relationships that strengthen the organisation as a whole and help to create a culture of openness, exchange and mutual support.
There is, of course, value in codifying knowledge and making it available in a recorded (written, audio, video) form that can be accessed widely. But in reality codifying knowledge is very difficult, so what tends to get recorded and managed is not knowledge but information. Codifying information is important – especially if it provides a springboard to making connections. For example, colleagues need to know who to look to for the kind of expertise they seek, and their search can be accelerated by creating something as simple as a staff directory – or what is often called an ‘organisational yellow pages’. But information has limitations. Information doesn’t carry with it the richness of analysis that knowledge implies. A staff directory can point us in the right direction, but it is the conversations we have, the often unique questions we ask, the considered answers we receive, and the experiences we share through person-to-person connections that provide the most valuable return on investment when it comes to learning in organisations.
The illustration in this post is by Tamsin Haggis. You can find more of her wonderful work at http://tamsinhaggis.blogspot.co.uk
In January I visited the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila where I worked with Olivier Serrat, ADB’s knowledge management specialist. I’m more used to working with NGOs so it was an enlightening challenge for me to experience first-hand the internal workings of a very large donor organisation.
Olivier has done some great work in ADB including the production of a series of short ‘Knowledge Solutions‘ leaflets that introduce a range of tools and methods for knowledge management and learning.
Before I arrived in Manila, Olivier and I had been in regular contact concerning a strategic document that he was writing on ‘Learning for Change in ADB’. My remit was to get up to speed on organisational learning and knowledge management in ADB so that I could contribute to and help finalise the document and also help develop potential ‘learning and development’ programs for knowledge management and learning in ADB.
As is often the case when working with an organisation for the first time, it was a pretty steep learning curve developing my understanding of how ADB encourages individual and collective learning and makes use of the knowledge they create. In-depth discussions with a range of staff members helped me move up the curve and gave me valuable insights into the organisation’s challenges and achievements.
During my week at ADB, I was fortunate enough to attend a presentation given by the renowned economist Dr Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University on ‘Achieving Global Cooperation on Economic Recovery and Long-Term Sustainable Development‘ and for the first time felt I had gained an (albeit short-lived!) understanding of the causes of the current economic recession.
On the second last day of my busy five-day schedule I made a presentation of my findings and suggestions in the ADB atrium – an enclosed space of light, flowers, trees, books, magazines, an enormous Google Earth touch display, cyber cafe and a Starbucks – that combines relaxation with stimulation in a way that is familiar in a Borders bookstore but unusual in a Bank! The atrium is part of ADB’s Knowledge Solutions area and provides a great place for informal presentations. I particularly enjoyed using the inspiring space bounded by four pillars which represent information, data, knowledge and wisdom – the classic hierarchy of value-add in knowledge management. The atrium is a valuable reminder that the getting of wisdom relies as much on social interaction as it does on intellectual effort.
I was very fortunate to be asked to speak at Oxfam Novib’s ‘Learning Day’ at their head office in The Hague, The Netherlands on 12th June 2008. Oxfam Novib are an organisation that has really embraced the ideas of organisational learning and knowledge management at a strategic level and in their day-to-day work. One of the initiatives they have established is an annual ‘Learning Day’ that involves all head office staff in a ‘festival’ of learning and sharing – and when I say ‘festival’ I really mean it! From the moment I arrived at their office I knew something special was going on. There was a vibrant atmosphere of expectation that was obvious as soon as I stepped through the door. The importance attached to the day was underlined by the Chief Executive who opened the day by emphasising the crucial importance of learning in helping Oxfam Novib achieve its challenging strategic aims.
Throughout the day there were workshops, presentations, discussion groups and other activities involving Oxfam Novib staff as presenters and facilitators but also involving outside speakers like myself. Lunch was provided in the form of ‘brown bag’ packed lunches including Fair Trade and organic ingredients. The attention to detail was incredible and the day ran incredibly smoothly. If sound level is an indicator of people’s engagement and enthusiasm then the lunch demonstrated just how successful the day was!
I was asked to make a presentation and I chose the theme ‘Investigating the Crime of Learning in Organisations’ – hanging the presentation around the approach to learning discussed in an earlier post. However, I really was preaching to the converted and whilst participants found the presentation entertaining (using theme music from CSI and pre-recorded interviews with a learning ‘criminal’ and her manager to stimulate discussion) I suspect some of the underlying messages were not new to many of the participants. The organisers were keen for everyone to attend my presentation so I was asked to present it twice – in all, over 150 participants were involved.
At the end of the day the party began! The organisers had arranged a salsa band to provide live music and whilst some danced into the evening, others nibbled on snacks provided by a mobile food stall serving up a range of delicious tapas.
What were the messages that I took away from the day? That learning is crucially important for organisational success; that a ‘learning day’ can be a really fantastic way of bringing people together and celebrating achievements and that a well-organised event that focuses on learning can be energising and great fun! Many thanks to Arelys de Yanez and her colleagues for inviting me.