Metaknowledge Part IV: Process
The Metaknowledge Guide offers a concise, practical guide to knowledge management for both newcomers and experienced practitioners.
Part IV goes into greater depth on the processes and practices related to each of the four KM activities, and provides examples for each.
Below you will find a list of different practices and methods for each of the four core activities that knowledge management (KM) seeks to facilitate, support, and improve. You can read the entire page for inspiration, or skip to the KM activity that most applies to your specific problem or opportunity.
1. Connecting People and Direct Knowledge Sharing
Within this activity, KM helps knowledge seekers connect to knowledge providers, and raise the value of discussions. Direct knowledge sharing refers to the purposeful conversations that take place in your organisation. Specific practices aside, optimizing direct knowledge sharing requires those in the organisation develop their skill at dialogue – asking questions without prejudice and assumptions, to seek perspective, and the ‘aha’ moment that marks true knowledge sharing.
In process KM, the emphasis of this activity lies on connecting people with the same role (e.g. project managers) or that work towards the same business goals (e.g. sales and marketing). The aim here is to help those people find each other, and facilitate the sharing of useful insights that contribute to their common goals. In knowledge service management (KSM), the target of this activity are people working “upstream” and “downstream” from the information flow within the organisation. This usually means connecting more senior (or higher-level) employees to more junior (or customer-facing) employees. Note that this could also involve connecting employees to customers, with the aim of gathering better feedback and improving the quality of services.In research KM, there is little that distinguishes this activity from the other two kinds of KM. Depending on the needs of the organisation, it will draw on the same practices and methods.
There are two kinds of direct knowledge sharing:
- Ad-hoc knowledge sharing refers to those conversations that emerge spontaneously. The “water cooler” or “coffee machine” moments, or simply one colleague asking another for help. Don’t try to manage these conversations. Their value comes from their spontaneity in response to a very in-the-moment need. Trying to implement some sort of process or template for these is not only counter-productive – it’s awkward. However, some people may appreciate coaching to develop their social confidence, and make it easier to approach others with questions. If you work in a company or sector with many introverted people, there could be a valuable opportunity in facilitating access to communication coaching by dedicated professionals or organisations such as Toastmasters.
While you shouldn’t try to improve the conversations themselves, you can optimize the environment to bring people together, and encourage the start of those conversations. Look at the spaces where people in your company naturally gather, such as coffee machines and lounges. What can you do to make these areas more accessible, to bring such spaces closer to the people, and incentive people gathering there? One engineering company improved their knowledge sharing by distributing coffee machines across every floor of the building, rather than concentrating them in a single room. That means people were more inclined to get coffee, which means they were more likely to bump into each other. Of course, the inverse can also work should you want to encourage more cross-department collaboration. One financial service company concentrated their “coffee infrastructure” at the top and bottom levels of their building, in comfortable lounges with a nice view of the city. These lounges became hubs for spontaneous gatherings and discussions between employees of very different teams.
- Structured knowledge sharing happens during events specifically created for that purpose. For example: communities of practice, mentorship programs, and project handovers. Unlike ad-hoc communication, this knowledge sharing does benefit from defined procedures and templates, to keep things focused and efficient. As such, an official knowledge management project will be more valuable (and is more likely to be accepted) in this context.
Structured knowledge sharing events
Each of the following events fall into one of four categories, depending on the number of parties involved. Note that these are not open-ended chats; they are purposeful learning activities that require preparation and structure to be effective. It is the responsibility of the KM team to ensure these events achieve the goals they are meant to.
These include baton-passing and mentoring. Both events can happen between individual employees, as well as two different teams. They usually take place in the context of a handover of responsibilities, or when developing competences through the sharing of very context-specific experience and insights. For these activities, KM leaders can provide procedures and templates to help both parties prepare for the knowledge sharing session, and make them as time-efficient as possible. Batton-passing has three steps:
- The knowledge provider draws the process or mind-map of the work they have just completed, and marks points where they learned valuable lessons or insights they believe may benefit the other. It is important that these points are captured and documented. This allows the discussion to proceed in a structured way, but also covers the possibility they may serve other people beyond the baton-passing exercise.
- The knowledge receiver marks the areas they want to learn about.
- Both sides discuss the learning points, and discuss their takeaways. The second team then creates an action list of what they will do with the knowledge gained.
To refer to one side of the discussion as the "knowledge provider" or "contributor" and the other as the "knowledge receiver" or "learner" is something of a misnomer - and only used here to clarify the process. It implies that experience will only flow one way. But most often, the "providers" gain valuable new insights from the questions of the "learner". In this way, structured knowledge sharing events are mutually beneficial.
In these activities, a single employee or team shares their knowledge with a group of others. A knowledge handover is a common (and recommended) activity when finishing a project to share useful learnings with the rest of the organisation. The process of a knowledge handover is largely similar to that of baton-passing, but the third step takes special care. With there being different receivers of the lessons and insights, there may be different perspectives. It’s important that each of the receiving individuals or teams explicitly describes their takeaways, so that any mistaken interpretations can be corrected.
Also known as a peer assist, these activities are useful when an individual or team is preparing for a project or activity, and wants to learn from those who have experience with it. To start, the learners outline the challenges they believe they need to learn about, and what they may already have considered. The knowledge contributors list the issues they believe the learning team should know about. All issues are then discussed. To finish the peer assist, the learning team summarizes their takeaways, and the actions they will take based on the knowledge they have gained.
Known as a knowledge exchange or forum, these events usually bring together all manner of stakeholders around a common goal or topic relevant to the organisation. These can be both continuous (as with communities of practice and online Q&A) or one-time events, with different teams presenting their work and 'walking the floor' to find answers, solutions, and opportunities. During these events, KM practitioners should usually focus on their role as facilitators – bringing knowledge seekers and knowledge providers together.
You can find much information on how to organize these events on the Internet, but always remember: practice what you preach. As a KM leader your mission is to support organisational learning; discuss with KM team members, capture learnings, and ensure they are applied next time. Through focused iteration and evaluation, you will find what works and doesn't work for your specific organisation.
2. Capturing Scalable Knowledge
Direct knowledge sharing is effective but limited to those who are present for it.There are likely to be insights, experience, or practical advice that would be relevant for others as well, both today and in the future. If we want knowledge to be stored, copied, and be available for others even when the original person is not available, we need to capture it as information. This will usually mean written documentation and graphics, but audio and video have their own merits. To decide which format is best suited, you should consider the following:
- Is the information “evergreen”? Do you expect the information will always remain relevant and accurate, or do you think it will need to be updated at some point? Changing a video or audio recording is often difficult. If you do expect the information may need to be changed in the future, it may be better to stick with text and images.
- How much of the information is story? Does the information revolve around events and their context that should be considered as a whole? In that case, video and audio tend to be more engaging (and informative) than text. However, you should still provide a written transcript for those who quickly want to browse the content or are looking for specific references.
- When will someone need this information? If the information is intended to provide context, then the receiver might take the time to watch a video or listen to a recording. If the information is intended to provide immediate how-to or reference material, it may be better to capture these in text and images. These are generally better suited for providing quick answers, while audio and video are better at providing details and context.
The examples of knowledge capture below focus on the creation of written information, as it is the format most commonly used. Also, the creation of good audio and video is an art in itself, which lies outside the scope of this guide.
Aside from making it transferable beyond single conversations, there is another reason to make knowledge explicit: it creates clarity. We often base our understanding and decisions on knowledge we are not aware of, or have difficulty sharing through conversation. Remember the four knows:
- That which we know we know.
- That which we know we don't know.
- That which we don't know we know.
- That which we don't know we don't know.
By making our knowledge explicit, we bring to light not only false assumptions and gaps of understanding, but also deeply ingrained memories and how-to that we are not aware of but shape our decisions and actions. It's especially helpful in revealing the underlying (but often forgotten) reasons for why things are done the way they are.
Beyond our own knowledge, the four knows also apply to our communication with others:
- That which we know they know
- That which we know they don't know.
- That which we don't know they know.
- That which we don't know they don't know.
Once we know something, it’s difficult to imagine not knowing it. In fact, one can argue that you can never truly know what someone does or doesn’t know. In this way, making knowledge explicit helps both sides gain new insights they might not have been aware of.
Generally, knowledge capture is done in two circumstances:
- Reactive: in response to a notable event (an outstanding success, failure, or mistake) where there may be important learnings to identify and capitalize on.
- Scheduled or Routine: integrated into existing processes, and most common in projects, research, and service teams. To build a KM culture, you should implement Scheduled knowledge capture as much as possible. If your company does not yet have the required mindset, start with Reactive knowledge capture, build up success stories, and gradually integrate these events until they become Scheduled.
Following are common Capture practices. They are organized per KM kind, but as always there are useful principles to apply cross different kinds.
Capture in Process KM
Interviews are a straightforward and effective way of knowledge capture. They are common for capturing the knowledge of departing employees, or when a valuable learning experience has taken place that needs to be analysed and documented. However, an interview is not a casual chat. It needs proper preparation and structure to deliver proper results.
- Before the interview, identify the topics that need to be covered. Ideally these are specific situations and challenges the interviewee faced that could yield valuable insights.
- Examine the success or failure factors of each topic, and try to identify the root cause of each. Explore other ways the situation may have unfolded – this may reveal elements or assumptions the interviewee themselves were not aware of. Finally, you should close each topic by asking the interviewee what they would advise or recommend regarding that topic or situation for the future. Look for specific, practical recommendations, not vague intentions, and look for any documents or other materials that could be useful. When the topic has been fully explored, summarize and move on to the next one.
- At the conclusion of the interview, ask the interviewee to summarize the main takeaways.
An AAR is a learning technique that should be conducted immediately after a single team action e.g. when ending a shift at a factory, after completing a sales meeting, or having dealt with a production incident. Usually, an AAR can be completed in 10-20 minutes. If it is expected to take longer, it is better to use a Retrospect (see below). An AAR is a powerful tool for developing and practicing a continuous learning mindset, and can easily be taught to leaders seeking to optimize the performance of their team. To conduct an AAR, the relevant team members are called together and the following four questions are asked.
- What was supposed to happen?
- What actually happened?
- Why was there a difference (can be positive or negative)? Use the Five Whys technique to get to the root cause.
- What will we do to sustain the positive outcome, or avoid the negative outcome from now on?
A retrospect is in essence very similar to an AAR, but the difference lies in their scope. While an AAR reviews a single event, action, or short period, in a retrospect an entire project or project phase is reviewed. In especially large projects, this means a retrospect could involve many stakeholders, and it may pay to split up the retrospect event into different groups that each focus on a particular topic. The role of the facilitator is also more pronounced within a retrospect – collecting learning points for discussion beforehand, and ensuring the retrospect stays focused on producing actionable insights.
Capture in Knowledge Service Management
The Knowledge Service Management practices described here are drawn from (and further detailed in) the Knowledge-Centered Service (KCS®) framework, developed by the Consortium for Service Innovation. It is a powerful and scalable framework designed entirely to support Knowledge Service Management, and can be fully integrated with common service management frameworks like ITIL. The KCS® methodology is available for free at https://www.serviceinnovation.org/kcs/
Capture In The Moment
Many teams provide knowledge-as-a-service to others. In the case of legal teams, customer support, consultants, or academic professionals, this service is explicit. With others (e.g. IT and HR teams) that service is implicit. They may receive and answer a lot of questions, but usually don’t consider it the focus of their job. Ironically, they’d often save a lot of time if they did.
In either case, finding and providing the answer to questions takes time. If the answer is not captured, it will inevitably be forgotten and will need to be searched for again next time the question comes. For this reason, it pays dividends to record the question and answer in the moment they come, and to make this information available to whoever else might face the same question. In this way, the team saves valuable “research time” when the question comes again. Plus, because the information was created in response to an actual question, no time was wasted creating information that may or may not be relevant. And there is a third reason why it is important to do the knowledge capture in the moment. The context of a question is key to the value of an answer – and that context is quickly lost if not explicitly captured. It cannot be recreated afterwards, because “once we know the answer, it is hard to ask the question in a way that reflects not knowing the answer. Context is as important as content.”
A variety of tools exist to support in the moment knowledge capture, which are covered in the Technology part of the Metaknowledge Guide.
Capture The Seeker’s Context
As said above, recording the context of the question is as important as recording the answer. This means you should capture the particular words and phrases the knowledge seeker uses to describe their question or issue. Even if the words they use are technically incorrect, they make it much easier to find the relevant information again next time the question comes up. This is especially true when the information is directly provided to these knowledge seekers, through a knowledge portal or other information system.
Capture in Research KM
In the context of Research KM, the practices outlined above (especially those of KSM) are also used. There are specialized research methodologies by which to gather, compile, and format information but these lie outside the scope of the MetaKnowledge Guide.
3. Ensuring the Quality and Accuracy of Information
While the Capture Scalable Knowledge activity revolves around the creation of new information, the Ensuring the Quality and Accuracy of Information is all about improving existing information. Naturally, the two go hand-in-hand and often overlap. On the whole, the aim of this third activity is to create and maintain a single, structured source of reliable, accurate, and useful information for a specific group of knowledge seekers. That specific group is important to remember, as it is the best way to ensure the information remains relevant for the people it’s meant to serve. Making this group too broad - the purpose of the repository too vague - will see an ever growing amount of low-value information confusing search results and causing frustration with the intended users.
The more information there is, the harder it is to manage and ensure information seekers find what they need. In information management, this is known as the Availability vs Accuracy dilemma. Availability is the % chance you will find a piece of information. Accuracy is the % chance that you will find information that solves your information need. When there is more information, the Availability increases but the Accuracy decreases – you have a higher chance of finding something, but a lower change of that information being exactly right for your needs. Conversely, when there is less information, Availability decreases but Accuracy increases – you have a lower chance of finding something, but what you do find has a higher chance of suiting your needs.
Following are a few practices for ensuring accurate and relevant information:
Flag It or Fix It
A KCS® principle that is useful in all forms of KM. When those using the information find inaccuracies, they are expected to notify a knowledge owner (flag it) or to make the change themselves (fix it). This practice of collective ownership should be enforced with a matching policy; that having access to the useful information comes with the responsibility of making it so.
First pioneered by Wikipedia, a wikithon is an event (usually a day or more) where a group of people collaborate intensely to create and update information in the knowledgebase, usually around a specific topic. Despite the name, a wikithon can be done for any kind of knowledgebase. It is especially valuable for bringing a knowledgebase back up to accuracy and completeness in a short amount of time, or when doing so requires more dedicated time than can be mustered in day-to-day work.
Information Lifecycle Management (ILM)
ILM is a sub-field of information management for managing which information should be created and when, where and how it should be stored, when it should be updated, when it should be archived or removed, and who is responsible for each step. Having such an explicit process helps ensure a knowledgebase is not cluttered with irrelevant or inaccurate information. Examples of the information lifecycle will be discussed in the Governance part of the Metaknowledge Guide.
4. Making Information Findable & Reusable
Even the best information is useless if it cannot be found, and when it is not used. There are many reasons why this could happen. People might be pressed for time that they rather do something than search for existing knowledge – even when it is likely going to lead to preventable mistakes or inefficiency which ironically only costs more time. There might be too little (or too much) information to yield anything of value. Or perhaps the existence of the information was not even known.
Overall, you can’t force people to search for information, let alone to use it. But you can incentive this behavior. In fact, it has proven to be more effective to incentive knowledge seeking rather than knowledge sharing when trying to build a KM culture. Without a clear demand (and the recognition that comes with it), few people will consistently volunteer to contribute their knowledge. Moreover, building a repository full of unused information will inevitably make KM seem like waste of time.
Following are a few practices to ensure information is found and reused. These go hand-in-hand with the practices of the other three activities.
Complete Thoughts Not Complete Sentences
A KCS® principle to improve the usefulness and findability of practical documentation, especially in combination with the Capture In The Moment principle. It suggests that content creators focus on capturing thoughts or short phrases while working on an information request, rather than writing continuous text. This improves the readability of the information, especially for those with a different native language.
A BAR is the inverse of an AAR or retrospect. Rather than analyzing an event or project to generate useful insights, we gather and analyze insights from previous events or projects as input for the one we are about to undertake. In this way we build on our organisation’s experience. In this way, the combination of AAR's, retrospects and BAR's creates a continuous improvement spiral.
A BAR should be organized around four questions:
- What is our goal? What do we want to achieve?
- What have we already done like this before, and what can we learn from it?
- What will help us succeed?
- What actions will we take to avoid problems and apply good practices?
Knowledge Gap Analysis (KGA)
A KGA is a simple but powerful tool for identifying opportunities for knowledge sharing between people and teams with similar goals and core competences in different parts or locations of the organisation. This could mean different factories or functional teams, but could also mean managers or experts with comparable goals. A KGA also helps decide where to invest in internal learning (generally more cost-effective) and where to invest in external expertise. The KGA involves the following steps, that should be done through workshops with the relevant people.
- Identify the common goals or competences of the different people or teams. These should be actionable, such as “minimizing workplace accidents” or “maximizing customer satisfaction”, and related to the organisation’s strategic goals. These will make up the X-axis of our diagram.
- Set five competence levels, with level 1 signifying marginal competence and level 5 meaning world-class expertise and experience in that particular competence or goal. Define for each level what it practically means for each competence or goal, in the context of these particular people or teams. These will make up the Y-axis of our diagram.
- Ask each person or team to rate themselves on the 1-5 scale for each competence or goal. Don’t worry about the accuracy of this self-appraisal – the point here is for the participants to identify their strengths and weaknesses.
- Map out the results on a graph, with lines connecting the rating of each team. Here’s an example of what the result might look like:
In this example, team 1 (blue) claims to be world-class (5) in reducing CO2 emissions, while team 3 (grey) claims to have little competence in doing so (1). Conversely, team 3 claims to be very capable in improving customer satisfaction (4), while team 1 believes it could be doing better (2). This indicates two strategic learning opportunities. And because both sides stand to gain, it will be much easier to set up the necessary knowledge sharing events.
If we reduce our diagram to only the maximums and minimums, we get a "river diagram":
The “width” of the river indicates internal learning potential. Where it is broad, the organisation would see a high return on internal knowledge sharing initiatives (gold arrows). Narrow points indicate areas where the organisation may have already achieved its internal learning potential. The “northern shore” of the river indicates areas that could benefit from external expertise. Any points in the river that are both narrow, and where the northern shore is low, indicate a potentially high return of attracting external expertise (grey arrows).
Note: the diagram may be the output of the KGA, but to deliver value the analysis must be followed by action. Participants should pick 1-3 goals/competences that they will raise to a higher level within the next months by drawing on the experience of their peers. After this period, the KGA should be performed again to check progress and set new goals. It's entirely possible that participants will assess themselves differently aside from the results of any knowledge sharing. Perhaps they originally rated themselves high for a certain competence, only to have that rating challenged when confronted with the questions of knowledge-seeking peers. Or perhaps they originally rated themselves low, only to find their competence to be greater than expected.
Metaknowledge Part V : Roles
A deep dive into the different roles involved in each of the knowledge management activities.
Metaknowledge Part III: The 4X4KM knowledge management framework
This part of the Metaknowledge Guide provides the 4X4KM framework, based on the four core KM activities. This framework is an invaluable tool in organizing your KM, and keeping your efforts focused and productive.
Metaknowledge Part II: The three kinds of knowledge management
This part of the Metaknowledge Guide outlines the the three kinds of knowledge management, and how knowledge management relates to learning & development.
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