[This article appears in Inside Learning Technologies January 2014]
Simple standards facilitated with a light touch, enables knowledge workers to capture, interpret and share their knowledge.
Personal knowledge management is a set of processes, individually constructed, to help each of us make sense of our world and work more effectively. But what we loosely call knowledge, using terms like knowledge-sharing or knowledge capture, is just an approximation. We are not very good at articulating our knowledge, says knowledge management expert Dave Snowden: “We always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down.”
Becoming knowledgeable can be thought of as bits of knowledge partially shared and experienced over time. It is laborious, hence the reason masters through the ages could only have a limited number of apprentices. But when writing, and later books, came along, we had a new technology that could more widely distribute information created by the wise, and the not so wise. Whether being mentored by a master or reading a book, knowledge does not actually get transferred, but shared observations and information can be helpful to those who have a desire to learn.
Merely being well-read is not enough to be knowledgeable, as possibly first noted by Socrates. Plato wrote in Phaedrus that Socrates felt the written language would result in ‘men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, who will be a burden to their fellows’. Socrates saw a core truth in learning from artefacts like books. We cannot become complacent with knowledge and just store it away. It has a shelf life and needs to be used, tested, and experienced. It should be shared amongst people who understand that they are only seeing a fragment of each others’ knowledge. Because it is so difficult to represent our knowledge to others, we have to make every effort to continuously share it. Once is not enough, as most parents know. Knowledge shared in flows over time can help us create better mental pictures than a single piece of knowledge stock, like a book.
The Seek, Sense, Share Framework
Capturing knowledge, as crudely as we do, is just a first step. Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) is a framework for individuals to take control of their professional development through a continuous process of seeking, sensing-making, and sharing.
Seeking is finding things out and keeping up to date. Building a network of colleagues is helpful in this regard. It not only allows us to “pull” information, but also have it “pushed” to us by trusted sources. Good curators are valued members of knowledge networks.
Sensing is how we personalize information and use it. Sensing includes reflection and putting into practice what we have learned. Often it requires experimentation, as we learn best by doing.
Sharing includes exchanging resources, ideas, and experiences with our networks as well as collaborating with our colleagues.
The multiple pieces of information that we capture and share can increase the frequency of serendipitous connections, especially across organizations and disciplines where real innovation happens. As Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From says; “chance favors the connected mind”.
Work is learning and learning is the work
PKM may be an individual activity but it is social as well. It is the process by which we can connect what we learn outside the organization with what need to do inside. Research shows that work teams that need to share complex knowledge need tighter social bonds. Work teams often share a unique language or vocabulary. However, they can become myopic and may lack a diversity of opinions. Social networks, on the other hand, encourage diversity and can sow the seeds of innovation. But it is almost impossible to get work done in social networks due to their lack of structure. PKM is the active process of connecting the innovative ideas that can arise in our social networks with the deadline-driven work inside organizations.
In addition to seeking, sensing and sharing, we need to become adept at filtering information as well as discerning when and with whom to share. Like any skill, these require practice and feedback. Much of this can be provided in communities of practice, a half-way space between work teams and social networks, where trusted relationships can form that enable people to share more openly.
Connecting social networks, communities of practice and work teams, is an important framework for integrating learning and working in the network era. We seek new ideas from our social networks and then filter them through more focused conversations with our communities of practice, where we have trusted relationships. We make sense of these embryonic ideas by doing new things, either ourselves, or with our work teams. We later share our creations, first with our teams and perhaps later with our communities of practice or even our networks. We use our understanding of our communities and networks to discern with whom and when to share our knowledge.
Working Out Loud
Narrating one’s work does not get knowledge transferred, but it provides a better medium to gain more understanding. Working out loud is a concept that is very easy to understand, but not quite so easy to do. Most people are too busy managing in their information age workplaces and have little spare time to try to learn how to work in the network age. The most important step in learning a new skill is the first one. This same step has to be repeated many times before it becomes a habit. I have learned that the first step of starting to work out loud, as part of personal knowledge management, has to be as simple as possible.
For example, being able to share is usually not a prime reason why people start using web information capture tools like social bookmarks but it becomes more important over time. Coupled with feed readers (e.g. feedly.com) aggregation makes information flows much easier to deal with. Then you have to connect with people.
So how do you get started micro-blogging on a platform like Twitter? I suggest beginning with an aim in mind, such as professional development or staying current in a specific field. The search function can help find people who post about a specific topics. To start, you should follow between 20 and 30 interesting people. Once set up, beginners should dip into their stream once or twice a day and read through any posts of interest. Over time, as they follow links, they may add or delete feeds. Within a week or two, anyone should be able to sense some patterns and then modify their streams to provide more signal and less noise.
Sometimes we get all caught up in the latest social media tools. Getting started working out loud is not complicated and should not involve a steep learning curve on a complicated system. It is best to start with simple tools and frameworks.
Small pieces, loosely joined
The mainstream application of knowledge management and learning management over the past few decades is mostly wrong; we over-managed information, knowledge and learning because it was easy. Our organizations remain enamoured with the next wave of enterprise software systems. But the ubiquity of information outside the organization is showing the weakness of centralized enterprise systems. As organizations begin to understand the Web, the principle of ‘small pieces loosely joined’ is permeating some thick industrial age walls. More workers have their own sources of information and knowledge, often on mobile devices, but they often lack the means or internal support to connect their knowledge with others to actually get work done. Supporting PKM, especially internal sharing, can help information flow more freely.
Personal knowledge management frameworks help knowledge workers capture and make sense of their knowledge. Simple standards can facilitate this sharing. Knowledge bases and traditional KM systems should focus on essential information, and what is necessary for inexperienced workers. Experienced workers should not be constrained by too much structure, but be given the flexibility to contribute how and where they think best helps the organization.
We know that formal instruction accounts for less than 10% of workplace learning. The same rule of thumb should apply to knowledge management. Capture and codify the 10% that is essential, especially for new employees. Now use the same principle to get work done. Structure the essential 10% and leave the rest unstructured, but networked, so that workers can group as needed to get work done. Many organizations are too slow and hierarchical to be useful for knowledge-sharing the network era. Organizations structured around looser hierarchies and stronger networks are much more effective for increasingly complex work.