Posts Tagged ‘Knowledge Management’

From time to time it’s instructive (and fun) to explore other systems and theories, as a way of learning and coping with problems in our projects, company or wider business environment. Take, for instance complexity theory and life in the Kruger National Park.

Broadly speaking, complexity theory suggests there is an underlying natural order to the behaviour and evolution of complex systems – be they ecosystems, financial systems, business operations or herds of buffalo. The following clip illustrates how herds and prides comprise sub-systems in the greater (Savannah) system. Each buffalo (or lion) operating with its fellow herd (or pride) member to form a unit, seeking to achieve a common goal, without anyone of them managing the operation! Each unit in the clip responded to the action of the other (and a third party intervention – in this case that of the crocodiles) – and together effected a pattern of self-organising behaviour, where the group was responsible for dividing and attacking the target. Something that each individual could not have achieved alone.

In other words, the disparate elements worked together in a self-directed manner to achieve coherence in the overall outcome. With each actor having some freedom to attack or kick from a certain angle or at a given target, allowing them to spontaneously adapt to the situation – all elements of ‘survival learning’.

So what are the implications for our work with people, information and technology?

Many organisations, in particular legal and professional services firms, are eternally challenged with ‘managing’ knowledge (and associated spin-offs for innovation). Until recently, they have been trying to do this through standardised inflexible top-down controlled systems, which require ‘knowledge’ to be distilled, refined and polished (all as separate time consuming activities to people’s daily work load), and then ‘filed’ in pre-determined siloed categories with associated taxonomies. Not much room in there for self-directed action!

That has led some to implement more flexible solutions and processes – including the use of social tools. Complexity theory suggests that, given enough latitude, people will self-organise and bring about their own natural order by using tools such as wikis, blogs, tagging, etc, to suit their information and process needs. (Social tools having the innate flexibility to support that type of behaviour.) That has direct implications, amongst other things, in respect of any top-down structuring of content, and managerial support and direction in the use of the tools.

It follows that people should be allowed and encouraged to use the tools to create their own view of the information, by tagging, linking and bookmarking content which is useful to them – i.e. bottom-up activity. Not only will that help the individual later find and use the content, but when each individual’s activity in the wiki is aggregated with that of others, it creates a collective intelligence and signals about the information people find most useful and the way they are categorising/labeling it to promote its future findability (because people use terms and content which are relevant and useful – rather than ‘miscellaneous’). As people use the tools, and reflect on and update the information/knowledge therein, they learn how to adapt their behaviour and what works best in their circumstances.

In other words, this behaviour is self-directed and emergent because it is dependent on the current issues and opportunities people have to deal with. Those issues and opportunities in turn impact on the value of yesterday’s information, which usually needs constant attention and updating to ensure it is current and relevant, so as to be able to help in solving today’s problems. So, as people query, discuss, update and re-categorise information, they leave crucial footprints and create new information – all of which can be captured (as part of the participation process) within the social tools, and collated to form new information which is fed into the stream of current awareness people use to make decisions about the issues they face. As such, trying to plan for and create wholly top-down structures (like categories and taxonomies) for information, and responsibilities for its capture and upkeep, is somewhat futile. That approach cannot reflect real-time changes and learning derived from people’s experience with the system.

And the take-away point here is: Allow people to self-organise in their use of social tools, and the creation, updating and maintenance of information/knowledge therein.

As I outlined in my last post, that will require businesses to take a different tact regarding control – i.e. stepping back and letting people develop their own patterns rather than trying to predict and standardise the structure of information and its use from the outset.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean a wholesale departure from top-down categorisation since the system may, to a certain extent, still depend on the interactions with certain pre-defined/categorised elements. Nor does it mean that the use of social tools, and the management of information therein, should be devoid of strategic planning for their development, enhancement and future growth. Planned emergence can play a key role here in helping to ensure we develop our ideas, knowledge and expertise, and systems in support thereof, in a way that helps us best deal with our everyday problems and ambuguities. As the lions demonstrated, it’s just not enough to catch your prey, you’ve got to be able to follow through in uncertain rapidy changing circumstances.


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Having survey 102 companies, and interviewed 10 companies and 9 consultants, I compiled the following recommendations regarding the management of wikis in business:

1. For new implementations, consider the needs to be addressed/capabilities to be developed, how people currently work and changes that maybe necessary to routines/behaviours, as well as the nature of the culture, structure and other organisational subsystems, which initially will have to be worked within whilst gradual change is encouraged. For existing implementations, evaluate their impact (if any) on the foregoing factors, and who is (and is not) using wikis and why (including issues users have in respect of wikis and their work processes).

2. View the implementation as a change process and allow for planned emergence during adoption and growth/maintenance, and encourage evaluation throughout.

3. Involve a broad cross-section of people in the definition of flexible (collaboration) goals, and the consideration of how the wiki should be designed and people’s behaviour altered to (better) meet identified needs. Use those goals to guide and evaluate how well the needs are being met.

4. Consider the tasks being undertaken and the level of user competence when deciding whether some flexible structures/templates would help to avoid the wiki appearing chaotic and content being hard-to-find, as people learn how to create their own structure/maintain content.

5. Identify key ‘technical’ users (with needs corresponding to those identified) who can form pilot groups, or who can expand wiki usage to other areas/projects. Encourage experimentation to discover how the wiki can be used to best suit their needs and uncover issues with its design, integration with existing tools and/or impact on other subsystems.

6. Don’t rely solely on the self-motivation of the initial adopter groups. Develop and support good practices from the outset by supplementing self-learning with targeted training and best practice guidelines to help users understand the goals and wiki practices necessary to facilitate more effective/efficient work.

7. Recognise that later adopters may need greater support helping them understand how to use the wiki and work more collaboratively. Engage existing users in this process to grow the wiki organically. Focus on and demonstrate the uses/benefits of wikis’ use for everyday work (with knowledge collection being a by-product of wiki usage rather than an end in itself).

8. Allow people time to develop their skills with the wiki and gradually move them away from use of inefficient tools by constantly and subtly promoting its use (e.g. through moving tasks/information onto the wiki, sending people links/referring people to wiki pages and involving people in projects using wikis). However, support different communication styles and recognise that using a wiki may not be suitable in certain circumstances.

9. Encourage user delegation, and rotation of, a wiki gardening role to people within their respective communities of practice, whilst developing more dispersed habitual gardening practices amongst users.

10. Be alert to how people are using the wiki and seek feedback continuously to learn how people can best be supported in their work. Ensure that any measures used during the evaluation process are aligned with the needs which are driving the implementation. Assess/refine the implementation goals, process and wiki itself even if that means relying on soft data.


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Increasingly, wikis are being implemented in businesses to address concerns with knowledge management, collaboration practices and limitations of existing systems, and to:

  • Reduce email traffic;
  • Provide a common platform (rather than a private channel) for collecting, organising and sharing knowledge and experience of all stakeholders;
  • Provide a flexible tool adaptable to a range of uses including knowledge repository, project/action tracking and intranet;
  • Facilitate swifter more widespread and effective communication.

However, their use in the workplace maybe inhibited for a variety of reasons including:

  • Potential lack of clear purpose since wikis may not replace existing systems or processes;
  • Lack of content or too much unmanageable content if not refactored (i.e. editing/organising pages);
  • Bureaucratic command-and-control organizational (sub-) culture(s) and structure which stifle knowledge sharing, openness and trust;
  • Risk of abandonment if users do not perceive a clear need for, or benefit from using, wikis or other barriers to their use are not overcome.

Those difficulties raise specific issues about wikis’ management and use, the effect of organisational context (i.e. structure and culture) on wiki uptake, and more generic issues about adoption of innovations. Similarly, a business’s ability to collaborate effectively reflects issues at the heart of technology management, namely improving the effectiveness of an organisation and its people through the application of concepts and techniques for operating, improving and integrating an organisation’s systems, and introducing innovatory systems.

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