My journey in the field of Knowledge Management has been an interesting one. Like many great things in life, it started by accident. Back in 2002, I was looking for an internship as part of completing my MSc in Human-Computer Interaction with Ergonomics. I had a couple of different opportunities almost secured (i.e., a heart surgery virtual training and a defence airplane virtual training system optimisation). As it happens, none of these worked out, out of circumstances outside of my control. And so, for a few weeks, I was left with no internship option, which was causing me no little distress considering I was not sure what I wanted to do with my degree and how to build a career on it.
Then, one day, an independent consultant (Malcolm Ballantine) – later to become one of my greatest mentors, for which I will always be utterly grateful – came along with an – at the time – vague need for input by a local intergovernmental agency. He was working with the agency on defining and streamlining a concept called ‘Learning Networks’, that is geographically distributed communities of practice driven by the passion to share and learn on a topic of shared interest. These communities had all been given a virtual collaboration tool to use for communication and information sharing, to ease the learning and minimise the need to travel across the country.
Problem was, not all of these communities were using the tools they had been given, or if they were, the exchanges were shallow and non-substantial. It was not clear why that was. To make matters more confusing, some of these tools were highly functional and allowed for many different things to be done online. Others were much more basic. Users however seemed to prefer the more basic tools, and did not care much about the very functional ones. The agency wanted a student to look into this, and dissolve the mystery, both from an academic and practical perspective. This student fortunately ended up being me and this internship marked the beginning of my fascinating knowledge management work.
More than 10 years later, I realise what held true at the time of my internship still holds true today, despite the great advances in social media and collaboration tools we have seen in last years. And that is, the enthusiasm and commitment of the people, the extent and quality of trust among them, both led and enabled by appropriate facilitation, is what makes such communities – or Learning Networks – work. While sophisticated tools are always welcome, they can do very little to stimulate exchanges and learning within a group of people unless there is shared passion, common dream, commitment to a strong purpose and trust in fellow community members they will stand by you and get the job done.
More than 10 years later, however, I also realise some things have changed in how I see Knowledge Management as a discipline. Having worked across different organisations, globally, and different teams, one maxima seems to hold true more and more, that is: Knowledge Management approaches and methodologies are not separate from the actual work, and should be brought to help more ‘core’ management disciplines. In other words, let’s not separate Knowledge Management from Project Management, Communications, Change Management and Strategy Development. These are all closely intertwined areas. In absolutely all of these people come first, and are key. They are our driving agents, our force for change. How to motivate and engage them in the work, in ways more and/or less structured, is all it takes to have a change management, a stakeholder engagement, or any other initiative rolled out successfully.
Because the more we try to keep Knowledge Management separate, the more it will die. Let’s rather integrate knowledge sharing, community facilitation/participation, use of innovative tools and methods to engage and stimulate learning, and capturing and reflecting on good practices, into the full project/programme cycle. Otherwise I fear we are separating the heart from the head, and taking the life out of any bigger or smaller undertaking we do in and across our organisations, in our work, and differences we try to bring onto the balance sheet.
Let’s start with people and end with people. Let communities of practice be created as part of change programmes, good practices be captured and reflected upon as part of defining and executing strategic roadmaps, and virtual and face-to-face dialogue tools and communities be used as part of asking – and exchanging with – our stakeholders about what they think. Let it all be a process with different – constantly evolving – milestones in it, leading us forward, rather than a means to an end.
That is not only the one way for Knowledge Management to survive. It could also be the one way for other related disciplines, like Change Management, Planning, Project Management, and Communications, to survive as well.