I have just completed another academic quarter teaching a course (Northwestern University – Master’s Program in Learning and Organizational Change) that introduces graduate students to a way of seeing knowledge at work within organizational settings. On the Themes page I’ve posted a list of the key concepts and themes that guide the course, but have also included them here.
What this represents is my own mental model for unpacking knowledge sharing and creation challenges faced by an organization. And in teaching it, I’ve found it to be effective in shifting people’s mindsets away from seeing knowledge management as a narrow, tactical, technology-infused specialty. Which is important because the graduate students in my classes include executives and emerging leaders from both the business and not-for-profit worlds. These leaders need to be engaged in thinking about how organizational knowledge impacts performance — and not just delegate it as an issue to be addressed by the IT organization.
The themes below create a lens through which to see organizational knowledge sharing and creation as a system that involves elements incorporating individuals, groups/networks and organizations. I’ve left out one additional theme I use in the course (which I’ll add to the Themes page shortly) regarding “design.” A good design process — observe, visualize, prototype, implement, and then repeat the cycle — is necessary to test out whether your hypothesis of how to address some organizational knowledge issue actually works.
But here are the key themes that provide the starting point:
Experts and expertise (individual perspective). In looking at knowledge sharing and creation, we cannot shortchange the focus on people and the impact of knowledge (know-how, know-what, know-when, know-why) on an individual person’s way of thinking and doing. This may seem like a blinding glimpse of the obvious but shortchanging the focus on people is a trap into which it is easy to fall (e.g., “knowledge management = technology”). We also need to go beyond thinking about the “people” side of knowledge sharing as just getting the right piece of knowledge to an individual at the right time. That’s an important piece, but it puts people in the role of actors in a system, rather than experts who think and do.
Experts develop a personal way-of-thinking based on learning, doing (lots of it) and reflecting. And if we view expertise as something that exists on a relative scale — there are novices and there are experts and all sorts of points in-between — then we begin to see that a key outcome of any knowledge sharing activity is how it contributes to the development of expertise in individuals.
Practice and activities (groups/networks). “Practice” in the sense used here is intended to define how work or organizational activities are actually performed (e.g., “the practice of teaching.”) And in a more subtle way, the concept of practice is also intended to capture the unique nuances of how work or organizational activities are performed in the messy, social, ambiguous, time-constrained context of the real world. Ask anyone you know to tell you how they actually get things done in their job and you’ll begin to hear stories about people they rely on (or don’t); tricks of the trade; tools they use and don’t use; rules they follow and ones they are supposed to but don’t follow; etc.
“Activities” is simply a way of defining some goal-oriented actions taken by a group of people. A social service not-for-profit organization engages in the activity of providing programs to its target consumers, but also in fundraising, in collaborating with other organizations, in advocating, and more. Paired with the concept of “practice,” activities are useful when they are time-bound and outcome-focused. A not-for-profit organization may have some formal fundraising structure and process — but if you begin to look at the “actual practice” of how fundraising is performed by all the people involved in the activity of this year’s annual campaign drive, you begin to see things in the organization as it is “lived” and not just how it is designed.
Policy, structure and process (organization). Practice and activities help us see the “lived organization.” Policy, structure and process make up the “designed organization.” Think about the difference between an organizational chart — titles, roles, reporting structure — and the “hidden organization” underneath the formal structure that can be revealed by social network analysis. The social network analysis reveals who relies on whom as trusted sources of knowledge, with often surprising insights into which individuals have influence well beyond what their formal roles or titles may suggest.
It is understanding the interplay between these elements — the formal policy, structure, process and the informal practice and activities — that is important in improving capabilities in knowledge sharing and creation. Only by continually prototyping or tweaking the formal elements can you learn how they either enable or constrain effective practice; and only by understanding actual practice can you effectively inform the design of new prototypes or tweaks to the “designed” system.
Value (organization). Value is the “why” behind an organization’s existence and provides the strategic rationale for looking at knowledge sharing and creation practices. And in any organization that is focused on creating a positive social impact — whether not-for-profit, for-profit, or social enterprise — we should be able to express “value” as a hypothesis of how the organization’s activities meet that desired goal. Microlending empowers women and improves family well-being. Urban farms improve access to healthy foods. In each of these two statements we begin to understand the hypothesis for generating social value. Knowledge sharing and creation strategy, then, should be tied to improving performance in delivering on these hypotheses.