This quarter, I’m taking a class on knowledge management. As part of the class work, I’ll be sharing some thoughts on this blog (rather than start a new one). In line with my interests I’ll be discussing this in the context of nonprofits; and in line with the spirit of this blog I will try to keep the ideas simple (or at least, simpler!).
In our organizations (and lives), we encounter a great deal of knowledge. It comes in many forms, and there are different ways to look at it. Take the following story, which was first told by my friend Whit (and adapted with his permission):
“You go to Starbucks and order a drink: grande non-fat caramel mocha with whipped cream. The barista is new and to help him make the drink, we can create an instruction card stating how many pumps of syrup, ounces of milk, the temperature to which the milk should be steamed, and how much whipped cream and caramel to put on top. The knowledge of preparing such a drink can be broken down into clear steps, and transferred to any new barista through an instruction card or reference guide. This frees the senior baristas to attend to other customers rather than coach the novice barista on how to create a different drink each time.
Suppose the barista got your drink wrong, and you express your frustration at him. How should he respond? Is there a reference guide that offers clear instructions on how to address your specific unhappiness? But there are so many variations to such situations. So, imagine the barista pulls out a 2,000-page book, looks up “frustrated customer comments”, searches for the exact one (page 486, paragraph 2, protocol 953) and respond? Many of us may laugh at such a suggestion. More likely, the barista quickly recalls any similar past encounters and adapts his response, or if he is really clueless, he observes how his supervisor resolves the issue.”
This story illustrates two types of knowledge:
- There is a type of knowledge that can be captured in systems, whether in physical or electronic form. For example, things like instruction cards (as in the fictitious Starbucks story), manuals, guidelines and databases.
- There is another type of knowledge that cannot be (fully) captured in a system because it is embedded within people and practices. For example, things like intuition, discretion and consensus.
Having a clear understanding of how knowledge exists and is used in our organizations is important, because it allows us to figure out appropriate ways to create and share it. This can vary widely from one organization to another.
For nonprofits, given their social missions the work often involves a great deal of social interaction where context and relationships are important. For example, if the nonprofit works to strengthen vulnerable families, the social worker needs to build trust and rapport with the family. He (or she) needs to understand the family’s history, background, circumstances and challenges, strengths and weaknesses, goals and aspirations, before tailoring a plan to help the family. It can be a complex and dynamic process.
Some of the knowledge may be codified and captured in systems, for example, data on the help resources for such families. However, a larger part of the knowledge is accumulated through multiple experiences, or even newly created in response to new situations. The nature of most nonprofits tends to lend itself to the latter type of knowledge. (Although, some nonprofits can function quite effectively through highly established systems that may not vary much, for example, food ration distribution.)
Interestingly, there is a growing trend of nonprofits trying to codify more and more of their knowledge. For example, a nonprofit I know that works with vulnerable families has tried to define parameters (such as family income levels, type of housing, number of children etc.) and prescribe step-by-step guidelines for how its staff should help (or not help) those families. Another nonprofit has developed computer software that its social workers can plug in the variables for a family and the software will generate the “model solution”.
There are different reasons why some nonprofits do this. Some of them think that the knowledge they work with can be codified. Some may feel that this is a good way to ensure objectivity, consistency and fairness in how they carry out their work, so as to minimize ambiguity and contention. Some see IT as a silver bullet for all their issues, for example, in training and propping new staff when there is high staff turnover. Some don’t really understand why they do so (or even realize they are dealing with knowledge), but only because their board or consultant has directed them to follow the technology bandwagon.
It is hard to tell how well a highly systemized or codified approach actually serves people’s needs and the nonprofits’ missions. In all fairness, we may not be in a position to judge either. What will be useful though, is greater consciousness among nonprofits as to: the nature of the knowledge they need to drive their missions and work; how that knowledge is best created and shared, and therefore; what knowledge management approach is best suited for them – be it a more systems approach, a more people approach, or a careful (and deliberate) combination of both.
This may all sound simple and straightforward, but often we may not think about knowledge in this way. Sometimes, we may not even notice that there is knowledge involved. But it pays to be deliberate about it. If we pick an inappropriate approach, we may one day experience the equivalent of the barista reaching for the 2,000-page manual!