It is interesting to reflect how over my career the organisations I work with have gone from trying to gather additional information from beyond the organisation to trying to make sense of all the information around them. Actually, some people I know are actively disengaging from reading newsletters, books, blog sites or other channels because they are feeling overwhelmed.
My career started in the ICT sector in the early days of connecting companies to the internet. In those days, people wanted to connect to the internet because they wanted to access some additional data, information and communications from far away. They sometimes wanted this internet connection, even if the real benefits of connectivity were fluffy and took years to realise. I shifted to the development sector in the 2000s. By then, many organisations had already started to benefit from this new connection to the information highway. The shift towards web sites, online databases, capturing learning and networks had already begun. In many of the projects I worked on, there were attempts to establish web-based knowledge portals, communities of practice, and online knowledge repositories around a vast assortment of topics. No longer was technical knowledge only available to geeks that could navigate obscure corners of bulletin boards.
Now it seems like organisations and individuals* are drowning in information. (I wonder if one could even argue that information is being reduced to data?). Folders are cluttered with documents – of which some are valuable and others not. Some documents are duplicated several times over on local hard drives, cloud drives and in inboxes. Decision-makers have more information at their disposal than they need, and they often have no idea how to figure out what is relevant or more valuable. Everything seems important, and too much content is collected and never used.
I often talk at events about how information and knowledge are critical for innovation. A culture must be fostered where what is known can be leveraged, thus supporting both continuous knowledge development and innovation. At these events, I am often told by participants that their organisations don’t have all the knowledge they need to innovate. What they need is not at their fingertips. Some express that it is crazy to propose that they start with becoming more sensitive about what they know and how they organise themselves around the knowledge they create and depend on daily. Some even claim they are not working in knowledge-intensive workplaces because people are not willing to write up what they are thinking or doing! I don’t think it is so much about documenting everything anymore. I still make for the exit when I am told that I must write up “best practices” or “lessons learnt”!
However, making better sense of what is known, and what is not understood, are critical — both for individuals and collectives. The search for complementary or necessary knowledge takes place both internally and externally. Internally, knowledge management is about continuously reflecting on what is already known by the organisation or team. It is about figuring out what to document, or what to keep in mind, or what to consider next time. Or it is about figuring out how to use what is already discovered to improve, products, services, processes and structures. Knowledge management is increasingly about being more sensitive to weak signals, responsive to new patterns and alert to odd findings. Over time, knowledge management is becoming a more distributed function as organisations become more knowledge-intensive. More and more people are somehow collecting, processing, adapting and synthesising knowledge.
The external focus of knowledge management is about tracking emerging knowledge or discovering new patterns or supplementary knowledge beyond the organisation or team. It is mainly about exploring what others already know and had the time and energy to document, or to track important developments in other domains and bringing the relevant ideas to the attention of the organisation.
To fill in the internal knowledge gaps from the outside, your team must become better at knowing what you know. This is of course only useful if you can turn what you know into value for others. If you are enabling knowledge development, you must be sensitive to what the organisation needs in the short and long term, so that information can be sourced timesously and over a time period. Teams must also understand how what they know is valuable and usable within the organisation and by its clients.
What is much harder is to get better at sensing where there are areas where more knowledge is needed, where things are not yet clearly understood or mastered. Many people I know spend a lot of time rediscovering what they already knew, or what their teams already sorted, stored or processed. This (re)discovery wastes a lot of valuable time and mental bandwidth. It often just adds more noise in the form of documents that are easily collected but rarely used or synthesised effectively.
It is easy to test how knowledge-intensive a organisation is. Ask your team where they start when they need to gain access to information they know should be captured somewhere. Do they begin internally, or do they open their browsers and start externally?
In knowledge-intensive organisations, the knowledge search starts internally. That is due to knowledge synthesising taking place and adding value to everything the organisation does. The internal search could begin with looking at data already collected, or with information captured in reports, files, photos or physical documents. Or it can start in more informal spaces, like in Slack, MS Teams or even Whatsapp or asking around in the corridors.
In knowledge-starved environments, the search for new or supplementary knowledge almost always starts on the outside. It begins in a browser or at an online resource. In these organisations, the value of improving how information is collected, organised, synthesised, evaluated is low. The pressure to use what is known, or sensed in innovative ways is also low. Improving how information is organised is simply simply not worth it. Lazy or ill-disciplined team members can undermine knowledge-intensification, because organisations have to keep legacy systems running in parallel to newer systems. For instance, some organisations communicate internally via e-mail, slack and other messaging systems. Documents are both stored in shared systems and are emailed about. This is clumsy and it reduces to ability of teams to build a coherent picture of what is going on, what is important, what needs to be maintained, expanded or deleted.
While permanent connectivity makes it much easier to search externally quickly, the habit of failing to collect, synthesise and create a more customised combination of knowledge also comes with other risks. The person doing the searching is at the mercy of tags developed by others, search rankings influenced by advertising spend, and increasingly a lot of fake news, reports, statistics. We all know that what is captured in the form of explicit knowledge is almost always far behind the curve of context-specific tacit knowledge that is hard to capture. This strategy of external search could work if your clients are less informed than you are. Besides, using search engines to find knowledge is also an art. There is also a lot of luck involved.
However, if clients want synthesised knowledge that fits their context, then organisations have to become better at enabling their own knowledge culture. Is your organisation the go-to place for certain kinds of knowledge? In a knowledge culture, it is not just about the technicalities of the search internally and externally. It is also about evaluating, refining and maintaining what is retained (and how) and how what is kept is organised or retrieved. Making it clear why something is kept or how a module can be used in combination with others is also valuable. If along the way documents are found that are no longer relevant, they are marked as unimportant and moved aside or deleted/archived.
Organisations (and individuals) also need to find a balance between documenting what is known for sure and exploring what is tacit, but not yet ready to be captured in an explicit form. This is where applications like Slack and Microsoft Teams, Trello and others are really valuable.
A knowledge culture values collecting, combining and synthesising information. It thrives on sharing hunches, talking about fears and opportunities. It is not just about proven content and technicalities. It is about:
- constantly reflecting on what information is valuable,
- collectively or individually thinking about which ideas, concepts or knowledge modules are used often to support decisions,
- It is about talking about which concepts are drawn on frequently, and;
- Exploring where explicitly captured or better-organised knowledge could be valuable for the organisation to draw on in future.
From this base, it is then easy to combine internal knowledge with different external knowledge. For me, starting the search outside is like searching for second-hand knowledge, while the raw material of ideas and insights of the internal organisation are overlooked or undervalued.
When an organisation becomes conscious of the value of their collective wisdom, far more care is taken to identify frequently used materials, modules, processes, tools, patterns, labels, thoughts and proven concepts. It is not just about the habit of collecting, sorting, storing and retrieving. It is also about reflecting on what works, what can be used better, and what kind of conversation or effort is missing. Then it becomes straightforward to combine internal knowledge with external ideas to innovate. If organisations reflect more about what knowledge is valuable and how this knowledge can best be kept alive for future refinement or use, then they will already be on their way to becoming more knowledge-intensive cultures.
*For those that are interested to know more about personal knowledge mastery, I recommend you take a look at the PKM course offered by Harold Jarche.