Technology, Organization, Humans

Humans, Organisation and Technology are considered the three cornerstones of KM.

Technology is the easy one. Design and implementation of information and communication infrastructures and tools. Progress in technology has lead to a development of KM, and although there was a period (or maybe there still is this period) when technology was taking over KM, being the central focus and alleged solution for all problems, technology is a very important aspect and enabler of KM. The main task here may be to identify the right tool to be implemented at the right time and the right place. Ideally, the used tools seamlessly integrate in the normal workflow of the people– which often asks for less than tech-lovers would like to see.

Organisation is more complicated. Because it does not deal with tools and technique, but with hierarchies, culture, environment, frameworks. In order to implement a successful KM strategy, there needs to be a knowledge- and learning friendly atmosphere, a social component smoothing the way for effective exchange. Creating such an environment often requires structural and mental changes within an organization, which in turn asks for open minds and participation- if not even courage to leave old paths and structures. An open minded leadership that not only supports those changes but also exemplifies them is essential for success. But even when this support is available- considering the many factors that form an organisations culture, one can truly ask if it is even possible as an „outsider“ (which consultants normally are) to grasp them, to disassemble them and even more to change some of them. In any way, a close interaction with key members of the organisation and a serious effort include the organisation aspect in the KM strategy is inevitable.

And then there are humans. Humans, as the carriers of most of the relevant knowledge within an organization, are naturally the core of every KM strategy. But unlike a database, humans need to be willing to share this knowledge and to acquire new knowledge, they need to see a sense in what they are doing, a profit in participating. They need to be social and interactive to exchange knowledge. People share because they want to, people participate because they are motivated. Both, sharing and motivation can never be enforced. Therefore it is the key of every strategy to consider peoples needs, wishes, goals, constraints, feelings, fears, skills, social competencies, expectations. Sounds like one first has to do a master in psychology, but asking the right questions, listening well, taking people and their feelings seriously, and being transparent may already be a good start. And engaging people already in the design process and asking regularly for feedback further improves acceptance and motivation. Which is clearly inevitable for every KM strategy to be successful.

Picture taken from Course script „CAS Knowledge Management“ by IKF, copyright A. Bellinger

Enabling the human factor in knowledge management: Web 2.0 and Social Media

While for a long time KM was very technology-driven, and while this happened in a period technology just started to evolve and mainly delivered tools like databases or first platforms, KM got to something that resembled more information management and was focused on how to transfer this information from one to the other. This approach neglected the fact that knowledge is human bound. Knowledge is a sum of information, context, human experience, and personal views and is always connected to a person, the expert knowledge worker.

Therefore, KM has to do a shift from the know-what to the know-who-knows. It gets less important to know something than to know who to contact, who to ask, who to connect to. Based on those interactions, one is then enabled to develop one’s own skills, to implement others experiences and knowledge into one’s own setting or context, and thereby to develop new knowledge that can be given to others.

In this approach, people are central. Knowledge is shifting from information to human mind. Management has to change focus from designing environments to enabling human interaction and networks. And the new tools of Web 2.0 and Social Media are very important enablers of this new approach, maybe even the one stimulus it needs for the shift.

Over the last years, people from all ages and with diverse backgrounds started to use social media- Facebook for personal use, a blog they follow, or forums to search for information on very specific topics or problems. They discovered that the world is full of experts, of people sharing their experiences and giving advices. Googling a solution for a problem got more common than asking people around you. Concomitantly, people started to share their own knowledge, to contribute to discussions, to give insights. Communities formed, and social media got an important place in peoples everyday life.

Now this new form of interaction and sharing is coming to business life. Slowly, people start to adapt what they experience in private to their business environment. They connect to each other inside and outside an organization, they seek, they sense, and they share what they know, using the tools or practices they know from private life. This is totally changing the way information was distributed within organizations so far. Now information is beginning to be really shared, and it’s done bottom-up, agile, and participatory.

Still, it is way too early to celebrate a new area of knowledge management. Although a participatory and de-centralized approach is very likely to be way more accepted by users, there are many hurdles to overcome. Even when management supports knowledge sharing within a company, they may be suspicious to implement “leisure tools” into their business environment- maybe their employees are more chatting about sports results than business projects? Employees may be hesitant too. Not everybody is using social media in private life, not everybody likes technology-based tools, not everybody is open to try something new. There may be disagreement about the tools used: Is microblogging or a blog with comment function better for us? The preferences may be very personal. And last but not least: Can we really benefit from social media if in the business settings, contributions are similar than outside: 1% of regular contributors, 10% of from-time-to-time contributors, and the rest is just reading?

So it’s not time to open this bottle of champagne yet. But it’s definitively time to put it into the fridge and get the glasses ready!

Picture from pixabay

Can we use the secret of Open Source Software for Knowledge Management?

Right now, sitting in your chair at your desk, you are reading a post of a blog based on WordPress. Pretty sure, you heard about WordPress before. It is one of the most widely used software to generate a blog or a webpage, and it’s completely free and has tons of extensions to fit all of your needs.

The development of WordPress started when 2001 somebody needed a tool to create a blog and published the code. 2 years later, somebody else picked it up, started to improve and extend it, and published it again. More and more people followed, contributed a piece of code or an extension, and published them. Since then, WordPress got several „Open Source Software“ awards and was downloaded more than 20 million times.

So what’s the secret behind people working voluntarily and for no money on a high quality product, which is then freely distributed to and can be changed and extended by anyone? And- can we use this secret to get people engaged in knowledge management projects?

Looking at the key motivators for programmers to engage in a open source software project, we can identify several ones. First it’s personal interest. People contribute because they can use the product for their own needs. On the same ground, they have a high interest to get a solution of good quality and usability. Looking at WordPress, there are so many extensions programmed because they were needed by somebody familiar with coding who just did it. Second it’s ambition and reputation. People contribute at their best to get reputation and respect by their peers. For many workers, reputation has bypassed monetary awards and got one of the most motivating factors. Third, it’s the organisational structure of open source projects. People contribute if they can do it independent of their expert level. In an open source project, a small core group of experts coordinates the project on a regular basis. Around the core is a large group of peripheral contributors. They work as they can, with variable work loads, in many different areas, and on many different expert levels. They may write a new module, improve an existing one, eliminate a mistake, or collect ideas of improvement. Around that layer there is a third, huge group of users. They may not even be able to code, but they use the product, give valuable feedback and inputs, and do quality control, somehow like „co-developers“. This three-level-structure enables everyone to contribute, independent of his expertise. An last, it’s the constant improvement of the product due to the inputs of the users. People contribute if they see the product growing and improving. In an open source project, the product is permanently evaluated and advanced.

So can we transfer these insights to a knowledge management setting? First, there is one major difference difficult to overcome: In an open source project, the number of contributors is huge, while in many companies and organisations it will not be possible to engage a large number of employees or members. Therefore, the dynamics will never be the same. Still, there are options and factors that can be considered:

  • Personal Interest: The knowledge strategy or tool has to be designed in a way members have a personal benefit or interest to contribute and develop. Time invested by a member has to be in a positive relationship to the profit.
  • Reputation: A culture of reputation has to be implemented in the organisation. This may happen in imitation of already established incentive patterns, like not only being recognized as an author of a scientific paper but also as an author of an in-house article.
  • Three-level-structure: Knowledge management projects need to be organized independent of hierarchical structures, solely based on levels of expertise. The core group has to form itself by inviting other experts. Other members contribute based on their interests- developers may join as peripheral contributors, practitioners may want to apply and give feedback in the user group. Everybody is invited to be a part of the project.
  • Evolutionary development: Projects should be designed small and flexible in order to constantly and immediately implement inputs from the users and to improve in an evolutionary manner. Instantaneous development values the contributions of the members, initiates further improvement, and enables flexibility for future needs.

Knowledge management can indeed learn from the open source movement. While it will be difficult to mimic the group dynamics of an open source project, evolutionary development and the culture of „contribution by everyone“ can be very valuable to enhance acceptance and interest of knowledge management within an organization.

Inspired by „Was Wissensmanagement von Open-Source-Software lernen kann“ by T. Böhmann et al