I am becoming more convinced that this question has real value in focusing the attention of small nonprofits on how best to think about knowledge management. And frankly, probably any organization. But the context in which this insight came to light for me is in working with small nonprofits.
Small, growing nonprofits are intriguing to me because many are truly mission-driven, innovative, entrepreneurial and intent on making an impact by changing some system. To survive financially, make an impact on their mission and find their place among all of the other organizations doing good work is a significant challenge. My first hand experience in understanding just how signifcant is in the work I do as a board member of The Talking Farm, a Chicago-area nonprofit focused on facilitating sustainable production and appreciation of locally grown foods in area urban and suburban communities. But through my role teaching a graduate course in knowledge management at Northwestern University, I have also had the opportunity to engage in discussion about knowledge management with a wide range of small or mid-size growing nonprofits.
Often the conversation begins because of a felt need to improve generally how things are shared across the organization, or more specifically about sharing “best practices.” The focus on best practices is particularly interesting to me: How can an organization inventing new ways of doing things in a complex environment even have best practices? (One of my pet peeves, clearly. Let’s first focus on discovering practices that seem to work, and understanding why they do…)
But what the people I speak with often discount is the huge value that comes from dialogue and sense-making — and the fact that they are likely already engaged in very effective practices that help them make sense of their work and the environment in which they operate. They have built tremendous social and professional networks. They meet and share stories routinely. They reach outside of their own arena of practice to learn and discover.
So yes, there are lots of things a KM practitioner might recommend to these nonprofits to help improve their knowledge sharing capabilities. But I think the starting point needs to be establishing a clear understanding of what practices — recognized or not — help them currently make sense of their environment. And then carefully add things to the mix by asking first: How does THIS [new activity or technology] help us make sense of our work?
[For more on this topic of sense-making and KM, and the recent inspiration for my thinking here, see Jack Vinson’s Make sense personally and with the group, and the work of Harold Jarche and Luis Suarez as referenced in Luis’ recent post on personal knowledge management.]