Entering a brave new (knowledge) world

Took part in my first Twitter chat in class yesterday, and what an experience!

For those who are not too familiar, people started out using Twitter to post (“tweet”) short messages (140 characters). Then they responded to other people’s tweets. A Twitter chat is when people use Twitter to chat with one another – last night we had 50 participants tweeting at the same time on 4 posted knowledge management topics.

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 9.39.10 PM

I’m not discussing the topics, because I myself had a tough time keeping up with what was said. But I would like to share some thoughts about the whole experience.

For a newbie, it was a chaotic and painful experience! Picture going to a (conventional) networking event with 50 other people. Instead of talking to one or two persons or within a small group, you can somehow hear what all 50 people are saying. Or maybe you don’t, it’s 50 sets of murmurings. At times, a keyword or phrase catches your attention and draws you into a new conversation. You step into it, and find that the people have strayed to other conversations. Or maybe one or two of them will come back, to talk to you about something you said 10 minutes ago. It’s… totally disorderly!


On reflection, I realize I had a tough time because I was used to certain mental models about engagement and interaction that I refused to let go. For years, we have been trained to honor “one conversation” in a group, to exercise active listening (even then, it was not easy keeping up). Or, when we correspond by email, we see our past messages stitched together nicely to show the flow in one continuous thread. On the other hand, Twitter chat is like a different world where things happen differently. There are too many conversations, often disjointed, often broken, coming together at different points of time from different people.

After struggling for a while, I realized that the problem was not with the Twitter chat or the people in it. The problem was me, my mental models and my expectations! Until I learn and understand the ways of this new world, I will always struggle in it. So I did what many classmates were doing. We “lurked” and observed what the natives in this different world was doing. This is the “socializing” stage of the knowledge creation model I was talking about in a previous post. After a while, as we made some sense of the ways of this new world some of us took a bold step to get into the water.

dog jumping water

We did not drown! Nor were we ridiculed. The worst that could happen was for people to just ignore you. And I do appreciated this fact in this new world – that the rules of engagement allow us to lurk, watch and feel comfortable before diving in.

But it still begs the question, why should anyone step into such a world? To answer this question, it helps to look at the interactions beyond the people level, to the knowledge level. Yes, it is often useful to know who said what, but in a way it is not that important in this new world because the knowledge in the space is shared. Something “A” says can be challenged by “C”, picked up by “P”, converted into a new form by “J”, combined with what “H” says, and finally summarized by “Q”. At the same time, 8 to 10 or more other knowledge threads may be spinning at the same time, some will fizzle out, some will be reinforced or consolidated, some will combine with other knowledge.


This rich weaving to produce new knowledge, is what some people call “emergence”. Where in the past knowledge came from a few experts, here knowledge comes from multiple parties interacting and creating together. In fact, the greater the number of participants the greater the possibility that chance encounters can take place to create and share knowledge – an effect known as Metcalfe’s Law. The knowledge passing around may not always be correct, but because it is screened through so many minds, after a while it is clear which knowledge resonates with most people. The paradox of this space is that through chaos emerges order and value. One might argue that there is order and value precisely because of chaos! I can feel myself starting to appreciate this space, and I’m sure it will be my first of more such chats.

As a final thought, a lot of these “non-conventions” lie at the heart of what we often perceive as generational gap or conflict. Much as some of us disdain the “distracted, multi-track attention span” of the Twitter generation, so did many in our parent generation cringe at the way we engaged in an almost hierarchy-less way. It occurred to me that while we often see things as wrong or right, these things that are today perceived as “unorthodox” may in time become the norm while the so-called “defenders of the standards” may in time become dinosaurs. Perhaps the best way to remain relevant in the rapidly changing world of knowledge is to be willing to be flexible in our ways and mental models.

P.S. – Kept dreaming of Twitter in my sleep last night! @_@

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Francesco Minciotti via photopin cc

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Andy Lamb via photopin cc

The “What”, “How” and “Why” of KM in nonprofits

I’m on the knowledge management (KM) track again :)

If you work in nonprofit and are looking at KM in your organization, something I read this past weekend may be useful. These are journal articles, so I will only outline a few broad points and add the sources at the end for those who are interested to read more.

Previously, I introduced KM and how knowledge is created and shared. After this, the next possible questions could be: how can I assess the state of KM in my organization to know what I might need to do. Perhaps importantly too, how can I get others to support it? I see these questions as broadly the “what”, “how” and “why” of KM in nonprofits.

To address the “what” and “how”, some frameworks may be useful. Three researchers (Emmanuele Lettieri, Francesca Borga, Alberto Savoldelli) studied Italian nonprofits and wrote an excellent article (“knowledge management in non-profit organizations”) about the role of KM in achieving excellence in nonprofits. In summary, they did the following

  • First, identify the unique characteristics of nonprofits
  • Next, identify the role and benefits of KM in nonprofits along five areas
    • Meeting community needs
    • Creating social value
    • Implementing vision and strategy
    • Using resources well
    • While ensuring economic survivability and sustainability
  • Then, look at where knowledge resides (in individuals or among groups) and whether it is in tacit or explicit form
  • Then, looking at the life cycle of knowledge, how it evolves within the organization and the community, and the extent to which it occurs

This is an excellent frameworks article that I would recommend for KM folks (even if your interests are not in nonprofits).

Article 1

Suppose at the end of this assessment, you identify some things you need to do, for example, develop an IT system to support KM. How do you get others to support and use it? This is the “why” question.

A different trio of researchers (Natalia Cruz, Victor Perez, Celina Cantero), this time looking at a Spanish nonprofit, studied the effects of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation on knowledge transfer among nonprofit employees (“the influence of employee motivation on knowledge transfer”). They found that intrinsic motivation was most important for knowledge sharing within the organization. This is in line with other studies that have shown the benefits of intrinsic motivation, for example, on teamwork and performance.

Interestingly, the study found that extrinsic motivation was not necessary. This runs somewhat counter to common perception. Coming back to the example of the IT system, common solutions to get people to use IT systems are to have incentives (e.g. track contributions and reward people) and penalties (e.g. mandate employees to input information into the system). Perhaps these work well in for-profits. But they may not work well in nonprofits, who also tend to be more constrained in their ability to reward (as they have fewer resources) or punish (as volunteers join and leave on their own free will).

Figure 4

Instead, we must figure out what intrinsically motivates or inspires people in nonprofits to see value in an IT system and embrace it. Since intrinsic means different things to different people, the IT system should not be developed as a top-down solution. Rather, it should be approached from the bottom-up, starting from the mission, social value and people’s intrinsic motivation. In many ways, I think this is characteristic of nonprofits and perhaps even a strength. For nonprofits, while the endpoints are important, so too are the starting points, the premises and the paths towards them. If we simply take business concepts from for-profits and apply it to nonprofits, we may miss something fundamental.

And I may try to give an illustration of this in a subsequent post.

For those who are interested the citations for the articles are:Lettieri, E., Borga, F., & Savoldelli, A. (2004). Knowledge management in non-profit organizations. Journal of Knowledge Management, 8(6), 16-30.Cruz, N. M., Pérez, V. M., & Cantero, C. T. (2009). The influence of employee motivation on knowledge transfer. Journal of Knowledge Management, 13(6), 478-490.Photo credits:Lisa Randall via photopin cc

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Knowledge – concrete or fluid, and why that matters?

In an earlier post, I talked about two types of knowledge:

  • One type can be captured in systems, for example, manuals, guidelines and databases. It is objective, rational, and can be expressed in words and concepts. This is known as “explicit knowledge”.
  • The other type cannot be fully captured in systems because it is in people, for example, intuition and discretion. It is subjective and experience based, and difficult to express in words and concepts. This is known as “tacit knowledge”.

Given their differences, I ended the last post by noting the importance for organizations to understand: (a) the nature of the knowledge that drives their missions and work, (b) how the knowledge is best created and shared, and hence (c) what knowledge management approach is best suited whether a systems approach or people approach or a combination.

Lest I have left people thinking that knowledge exists in either one form or another (e.g. explicit vs. tacit), there is more! Consider the following story:

In one of our classes, we learned how conflicts often emerge not because of disagreement in ideas but because of different communication styles. (This is a fascinating topic for another day!)

As part of our homework for this class, we had to prepare a presentation on our personal communication style and deliver it in the communication style of another classmate.

Let’s see what is going on in terms of knowledge:

1. To do our assignment, we need to develop new awareness and knowledge about ourselves (i.e. unique to ourselves). We also need to reference what we have observed and experienced about our classmates. For example, I may notice that some of them are quiet and reserved, so I tailor my presentation to them. In doing so, I make assumptions about them (and likewise they make assumptions about me). Some of it may be false, but some of it will likely be true because we interact often and know another well. At this point, all the knowledge I have created is personal to me and it is tacit.

2. In creating and delivering the presentation, I convert some of the tacit knowledge into an explicit form. This includes the text, concepts and diagrams in my slides, and the words I use to present my ideas. Is the conversion from tacit to explicit knowledge 100%? Probably not, because I am not good with words and I may not explain my thoughts clearly. I am also given five minutes only, enough to convey some ideas but not all of them.

3. Following my presentation, I receive feedback from others. Some of them say, this part is spot on! Others say, that part is wrong (and why). Based on the feedback, I may revise my knowledge. Or, I may challenge and convince others, and they may revise their knowledge. As we do so, the knowledge that is out there in the open evolves. We may create new insights as a class (i.e. new knowledge).

4. Each of us will take away different things from the session (those who sleep in class take away nothing except maybe a more refreshed mind). As we internalize this, we convert the explicit knowledge back into tacit knowledge. Is the conversion 100%? Unlikely, because even though we go through the same experience, our interpretation and takeaways are different. Just as how we may attend the same meeting, but we draw different conclusions from it – sounds familiar? ;)

What I have just described is known as the Nonaka model of knowledge creation, and the numbers above correspond to the numbered steps in the diagram below.

Nonaka's Model

Why is this significant?

  • We can see that the issue is not whether knowledge is tacit or explicit, or which form is better. Rather, knowledge is both tacit and explicit, and there is arguably no better or worse form.
  • We see that knowledge is “fluid”, switching forms as it is created and shared.
  • Without this “fluidity” it becomes difficult to create and share knowledge effectively.
  • The effectiveness of knowledge creation and sharing depends on all four processes (#1, #2, #3, #4).

Some people may argue that this is just one version of knowledge creation. For example, in their organization people do not come together to discuss issues and create knowledge. Instead, they wait for the boss to issue new instructions.

This is not uncommon. It may exist in some top-down or command systems. In such systems, creating knowledge tends to be seen as the responsibility of the boss (after all, he is smarter and is paid more right?). So, people may keep doing things the way they have always done (until they are told to change it). Even if they notice the old ways of working are no longer relevant, they may not think about trying something different, nor do they see it as their role to do so. On the other hand, the boss may sit in his room and create the new knowledge based on his perception of things (step #1), and convert that into a new directive (step #2). He issues the directive, which others internalize and apply (step #4). Step #3 may be weak or lacking, and effectiveness of the organization depends on the capability of the boss in correctly identifying and creating the new knowledge.

Now, compare this to another organization where knowledge creation is seen as the responsibility of more people (or everyone). Such systems can feel chaotic, especially when everyone makes their tacit knowledge more explicit, and engage in protracted debate.

Toys meeting

Perhaps this is what scares bosses – the need to spend time and effort to make sense of many streams of knowledge. At the same time, if we can manage the process in an orderly way, so that the knowledge is subject to scrutiny and discussion, there are many ways the knowledge can be combined to create new knowledge.

This brings us to another point – the importance of the externalization (#2) and combination (#3) steps in knowledge creation. Whether at the individual, team or organization level, the more we make our knowledge explicit and allow it to interact and combine with the knowledge of other people, teams or organizations, the more likely we create new and better knowledge. This is the rationale behind brainstorming, where in the early stages the focus is often on the quantity rather than quality of ideas – in fact no idea is ever too silly! This is because the more (and diverse) ideas mixing together, the better chance of creating something useful.

Chaos fireworksHowever, it also means we must be prepared to allow our knowledge to switch in its form, and combine with other knowledge. If we hold our cards close to ourselves and refuse to share our thoughts with others, or if we refuse to consider the ideas of others, we can do lots of brainstorming but essentially remain fixated in our minds. We would fail to create knowledge.

In conclusion, building on the last post, we can be in a better position to apply knowledge management in organizations when:

  • We appreciate the dynamic nature of knowledge, how it can switch from tacit to explicit form, and vice versa.
  • We are conscious how the switching of knowledge between forms can facilitate the creation of new forms of knowledge
  • And we support this rather than resist it.

Now that we know this, how does knowledge creation and sharing occur in your organization, and how do you think it could be enhanced?

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Rangga Chandra via photopin cc

When focusing on what we don’t have may not be a bad thing

Work in Progress

We are brought up to feel thankful for what we have, and not dwell on what we don’t have. This is a very important and wise advice for a happier life.

In a different context though, focusing on what we don’t have may not always be a bad thing. Consider the following that happened in the past week:

1.   In one class, we were given a case to analyze and come to a decision. I’m generally quite bad at such things, as I take a long time to read and orientate myself to the facts of the case. Given my background in engineering, I pay attention to the various details and construct a mental picture of the situation in my head. Our group had some concerns, but after discussion we arrived at a decision we felt quite comfortable with. To our surprise, after we turned in our decision we were given a sheet of paper containing details that would have answered our concerns. On hindsight, we could have asked for those details, but it did not strike us to do so. With the new details, we reversed our decision.

2.   In another class, we were given a case to read before we did a role play with the instructor (*sweat moment*). As we prepared, we noted various details such as the information on the character the instructor would role-play, and discussed a strategy for going into the exercise. The exercise was tough, but at the end of it we felt we had achieved most of our goals. At that point, we were given a sheet of paper (again!) containing more information about the case we didn’t know. What a difference! It painted a very different picture and completely changed our idea of what had just happened in the role-play! As with the earlier story, we could have teased out the additional information from the instructor through the role-play, but we did not.


Some critics may argue that instructors always design their class exercises to trigger teaching moments, so we should not feel too bad when we walk into their “trap”. Even if this were true, falling into the same “trap” in such quick succession within a week is a sign that I must pay attention.

From the two encounters, I experienced how we (or at least I) have a tendency to make sense of things based on what we know and based on our own perspectives. Often, we hold strongly to what we have in our hands (in both encounters, they were the initial write-ups we were given), accepting that to be the fact. This is not surprising. When we know very little, every piece of information in our hands seems to take on a great significance.  But often, what we have in our hands is just a fraction of what is out there (and waiting to be uncovered).

elephant wood

We all know the story of the three blind men who felt different parts of the elephant and came to their own conclusions about what an elephant looked like. Some of us may even think that this is a story meant only for kids. Yet, it is sobering how we all know the lesson but we continue to make the same mistake! For example, I have seen senior leaders get mad at their staff when a meeting did not turn out the way they had expected because the information in the brief was inaccurate or incomplete. Indeed, perhaps the staff could have done better, but so too could the leaders!

It takes a habit of the mind to constantly challenge ourselves about the realities we see. It is not easy to overcome our tendencies, especially when we think we have “concrete data” in our hands. Learning from the lessons of the past week, it may help to pose ourselves the question: Could there be a “sheet of paper” that we don’t know about, and what could be on it?

This has some relation to the issue I was discussing last week about two types of knowledge: one of which can be captured in physical or electronic form and the other type which cannot be captured because it is embedded in people and practices.

In some way, I think the former type of knowledge, which exists in more tangible forms, feeds our desire for certainty. After all, if the knowledge can exist in an official guidebook or a database how can it be wrong? In fact, organizations that invest in knowledge management systems to collect, store, process or even create knowledge, sometimes risk being lulled into a false sense of security that a comprehensive system is all that matters. When that happens, we may miss the other type of knowledge that we cannot capture or have yet to capture in tangible form.

Contrary to perception, we make mistakes not by the instructor’s design, but by our very own construct.  Focusing on what we don’t have in such situations can help to overcome some of these tendencies.

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jDevaun via photopin cc

Knowledge management and nonprofits, what’s the link?

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!



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