stories connect knowledge

“Perhaps the most central thrust in KM [knowledge management] is to capture and make available, so it can be used by others in the organization, the information and knowledge that is in people’s heads as it were, and that has never been explicitly set down.” —KM World

Knowledge management is a mixture of explicit and implicit knowledge sharing. It can be as explicit as an organizational knowledge base, or as implicit as the work culture. A lot depends on what the organization wants to preserve. Is it how-to knowledge, like a trade secret formula, or is it certain practices and norms that define the culture? Or is it both? Every organization has to define this for itself.

To be effective, knowledge management has to be part of the workflow. The people doing the work and making decisions how to do it must be involved. This starts with the discipline of personal knowledge mastery (PKM): a set of processes, individually constructed, to help each of us make sense of our world and work more effectively. PKM is an ongoing process of filtering information from our networks, creating knowledge individually and with our teams, and then discerning with whom and when to share the artifacts of our knowledge. PKM helps to put our personal knowledge maps out there for others to see.

Knowledge management framework connected through stories

Knowledge management can be strengthened with a firm foundation of PKM (Seek > Sense > Share). While seeking and sense-making are mostly individual activities and people should be allowed to use what’s best for them, the organization can overtly support knowledge sharing and enterprise curation. One suggestion is to create more opportunities for ‘people to have coffee together’. It’s not the coffee that’s important, but the act of gathering, combined with an environment that encourages capturing and sharing knowledge artifacts. Group activities like this can connect self-directed learning and enterprise curation, as shown in the figure above.

Recording and sharing our knowledge (working out loud) helps groups learn as they work. Examples include content curation, engaging in communities of practice, and a structured mentoring framework. For complex work, this is critical, as most of the knowledge required is implicit, and not easy to codify. Groups working in the complex domain have to undertake safe-to-fail experiments on a regular basis in order to test and understand the changing external environment. It then becomes essential to develop ways to capture and share what has been learned with each test.

Stories

We know that implicit knowledge cannot easily be codified. However, it’s often what gives institutions sustainability and even competitive advantage. Finding ways to collect and share both types of knowledge is important for organizational learning. Stories can be an effective medium for these exchanges. The Ritz-Carlton provides an excellent example with Stories that Stay with You. Stories do not have to be exceptional to be effective, and simple anecdotes may be better on a large scale rather than sweeping epics, as the former are easier to remember.

Knowledge management is nothing without people engaged in the process. Information is a weak form of transmitting knowledge. Stories can provide the contextual glue, holding information together in some semblance of order for our brains to process into knowledge. For example, decision memories have a certain importance for organizations to understand why decisions were, or were not, taken. These can be shared as stories.

Explaining why other decisions were not made should be a normal practice. For example, I was working with an organization that made decisions on which chemical compound to develop out of a possibility of thousands. There was a cost to initially create any compound, so not all possibilities could be attempted. Decisions were made by a committee on which compound to pursue. However, the decisions on why the other compounds were not developed were never recorded. Several years later, the situation had changed due to improvements in technology and new research findings, and now some of the rejected compounds may have had potential for development. Unfortunately, no records were available to search the rejected compound database and find ones that met the new criteria. Sometimes our decisions not to do something are just as important as our selected course of action, from the perspective of the future. But we never know this in advance.

Institutional decision memories can describe how and why we, as an organization, chose one course of action over another. Organizational knowledge management can leverage the power of enterprise software platforms to store decision, process, and event memories. Process and event memories, like project outputs, are relatively easy to capture and codify. But decision memories are often hampered by our tendency to justify decisions after they have been made, and even create elaborate, and often fictional, stories around them. For this reason, it is important to capture decisions as they are being made, at the group level, not after the fact.

Our memories get worse over time, but our stories, as we remember them, become much clearer. We have a propensity for self-delusion, due to cognitive bias, something every jury member should always keep in mind. Fiction (story) is much more powerful than non-fiction. We should use this to our advantage.

“When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.” –Jonathan Gottschall

Would it not be more effective if our learning, and the knowledge gained from it, is shared as a story? Stories could be quite effective for new hire training. Given the complexity of modern work and the need to share implicit knowledge, perhaps we should focus less on instructional design or knowledge repositories. Instead, organizations can engage and promote good story tellers. We know the importance of sharing knowledge and curating information in the digital workplace today. For knowledge management in a complex world, the best curators are the story tellers.

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