Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The case of “Need to know” vs. "Need to protect" - How widely should we share information?

When discussing knowledge sharing and exchange of material and documents with professionals in charge of information classification policies and standards, the question is often what the "default mode" for an organization should be. Should unclassified information such as documents, articles etc, be treated as “for internal use only” or as “public” information?

I want to use this post to affirm my strong conviction that any international development organization has an overwhelming interest in making unclassified information by default public unless it is specifically designated as internal to a specified group of people only (a small group within an organization, or members of the organization as a whole). And here is why:

Being an actor in the knowledge business calls for an information policy that fosters the distribution of knowledge, not prevents it. The paradigm of “need to know” is right for an organization whose main concern is the preservation of what it has. But development organizations are not in the business of heritage preservation or patent protection. Our business is innovation for development results. Innovation, however, only happens in an environment that is open, transparent and conducive for vibrant interaction and exchange on all levels. We must understand that the development community will only be able to achieve the our common vision of development and make a tangible contribution to reaching the MDGs by changing the paradigm of “need to know” into a paradigm of “need to protect”.

This is understood by the World Bank Chief who, in a groundbreaking speech in September, announced a fundamental paradigm shift in the way the bank plans to deal with its previously internal information in the future. This initiative called “Open Data, Open Knowledge, Open Solutions” intends to “open the treasure chest of the World Bank’s data and knowledge to every village health care worker, every researcher, everyone”.

As part of the “push for greater accountability and openness”, on July 1, 2010, the World Bank launched a new Access to Information policy which “sets a new standard of disclosure for international organizations. This enhanced transparency and accountability will allow for [...] enabling better development results; making information more accessible to the general public; and providing an opportunity to better track the use of public funds” (see source attached).

Of course at this point this is still not much more than pledge yet, but even as such it is a signal that knowledge workers in development have been waiting for a long time. If we are looking for good practices and leadership regarding information policy in our partner organizations, it is this approach we have to look at.

Yes, we have an interest to protect our organizations from reputational harm and legal liabilities, and we have to do what is necessary to ensure this protection. But we have to carefully weigh this internal interest against the overarching interest to fulfil our mandate and serve our clients and partners. If our policies at the end of the day prevent us from doing our job as best we can, then something went wrong.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The Significance of Online Social Networking for Knowledge Management

In the middle of all the enthusiasm about the use of Social Networking and Web 2.0 in knowledge management (in particular in UN organizations), it is of course important to keep in mind that Online Social Networking applications are not the final panacea to all our KM or other problems. Nothing really is. However, it is important to note that Online Social Networking has certainly gone beyond the experimentation stage of IT geeks. And it has proven to do one thing extraordinary well: Connecting people which otherwise would not be connected, and facilitating sharing of exchange which otherwise would not occur.

I’m stressing this, because if the KM community learned one thing during the last decade, then it was the insight that Knowledge Management is most of all about people. We learned that knowledge sharing in an organization (whether working development or other things) doesn’t happen when a paper is written or a file is stored in a database, but most of all when people talk to each other. That is why Knowledge Cafes, Knowledge Fairs, Peer Assists, After Action Reviews and even brownbag lunches are awesome non-technical KM tools, and why email and phone are still the greatest electronic KM tools ever. Facebook & Co. fit the same purpose. It facilitates people talking to each other (both in terms of non-substantive chatter, but often enough in terms of substantive knowledge exchange) in ways and across boundaries we’ve never seen before, which is at the core of what we want to achieve when we do KM. Personal Social Networks have always been the basis of knowledge exchange. That is why in an internet-penetrated organizational environment, I believe we cannot think KM anymore without online social networking. I’m even willing to go as far as to say that it will be together with traditional email the “operating system” on which we will do most of our virtual knowledge sharing beyond face-to-face interactions in the time to come.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

It's not about Technology, but about a Culture Change - But which one is driving the other?

In a recent discussion with KM colleagues on KM4Dev whether Facebook could be a useful tool for a professional context, a good friend of mine stated that “we tend focus too much on technology” (even though he happily agrees that he is always fascinated by new technology and trying to find ways to use it, just because he likes it). His view was however that “the primary question is: What is it that we want to achieve and how do we acquire the skills needed to achieve that? Only then the question of the tool arises.”

This made me thinking quite a bit. On one hand I agree that tools should never dominate the discussion about KM, and that they should be seen as a means to an end rather than a purpose in itself. However, I’m also skeptic about the absolutistic dogma that we always have to identify the need first before talking about tools. Yes, in general and from an organizational development point of view I believe this is often true. But at the same time we’re losing sight of the fact that we only realize most of the possible applications of a new technology once it is in place and we start using it. Here an example. When I started my studies in 1994, I didn’t feel any need and didn’t see any value for myself when a friend of mine tried to convince me that I should get an email address. “Why would I need that? Typing a message into a keyboard instead of talking or writing a letter? When I want to communicate with you I just take the phone”. Well, he insisted, I finally signed up for an account with my university – and it changed the way I studied, worked, learned, advocated, networked and maintained relationships for the coming 16 years. And so did it for all of us. It was not me identifying a need and choosing the tool. The sheer existence of tool was reaching out and offering its not-asked-for benefits to me, and it transformed my world, my culture, my life.

We are often stressing (and rightly so) that KM is not at first about process and technology, but most of all about culture change and people, about the way people interact and share. But at the same time we often forget that technological innovation itself is so often the original cause for societal transformation. This is true for the printing press, the steam engine, electricity, the computer, the world wide web. Clearly not all technology is a blessing per se, and I’d rather wish we never discovered nuclear fission, to give just one example. My point is that we cannot look down at technology and reduce it to just its role as tool when useful. Technology is an expression of who we are as human society, so is arts, music, architecture, politics, science and religion. It is changing us as much as we are producing and shaping it. That is why I don’t think one needs to cut back on experimenting with new technology just because we haven't made a business case yet. Because this is who we are, and this is as much part of our mandate as KM pioneers as is the careful evaluation which of tools and methods and processes might be best for a specific business scenario. And if we see that Facebook, Twitter & Co. are changing the social sphere into a more open, sharing, transparent and collaborative environment across institutional and geographic boundaries, we are as KM people (who are spending our time on promoting exactly this) not mistaken if we explore what this approach could do for us in our organizations.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Facilitation overkill: Give me my classroom back!

I’m back from another workshop and I have enough. I’m through with it. Seriously. When did we reach this point where our fancy facilitation techniques turned adult learning into kindergarten settings and our obsession with participation, combined with a wild proliferation of Web 2.0 tools, made workshops the most stressful things ever? When did we lose sight of the simple, yet wonderful purpose of learning: Learning something useful that I didn’t know before?

Instead, I’m finding myself again sitting with scissors and pens around the table with people I don’t know, cutting shapes out of colorful sheets of paper and pinning them onto flipcharts. A facilitator is soaring around with a Tibetan singing bowl in his hand encouraging people to be creative and have fun. But it’s not fun. It’s a noisy room full of strangers with whom I have to share thoughts and ideas and interact as if they were long-year colleagues, even though I just met them 30 min ago. I am told to work on some artificial make-do exercise around an artificial generic question which of course touches my field of interest, but which has no direct relation to the very real and specific questions I have in my head about my everyday work.

After that the room turns into a Tunisian cloth market where we look at each others’ humble pieces of colorful art, trying to figure out what important message the many bubbles and arrows and pins and tree leaves and stars are supposed to deliver. Luckily there is always someone standing next to the chart who reveals him or herself responsible, and you try to chip in and listen to what he is right now explaining to another colleague. But because you were coming by the stand two minutes too late you have trouble following the conversation, you soon get bored and go on to the next chart just to face the same dilemma again. At the end the Tibetan singing bowl is activated by an enthused facilitator who shines like a happy child in awe of all the vibrant creativity and knowledge exchange in the room.

If the workshop is really ambitious, we also have participants who were following us online. There are laptops with people connected via Skype or WebX and people are holding them like babies (a delivery which cost us about 1/4 of the workshop’s time when we tried to establish all the audio and video connections) to show them what’s going on in the room and make them feel included. For further interaction we also prepared ourselves with a PBwiki set up, a Yammer and/or Twitter account, a Flickr tag, a YouTube channel and a workshop blog, tools we are supposed to use to document our outputs of this morning. This results in me not having a single break during the entire morning as I find myself busy either running around with a video camera or uploading pictures or writing a blog post or updating an online colleague via Twitter on what’s going on in the room. Considering that the photos are always showing people in conversation around flipcharts which were hard to understand in the first place, and the videos are mostly featuring fragments of conversation out of any context, I’m wondering who the heck gets any value out of these in, let’s say, one month from now? Or at all? At least the facilitator is happy that our knowledge gets documented so well and we all look so engaged.

But I’m just standing there realizing that I spent the last 4 hours not learning a single thing of lasting value, yet am more exhausted than after 4 days of straight work in my regular job.

And a sweet thought comes to my mind. I picture myself, in a classroom, with a bunch of students. And there, in front, is someone who knows something, because he is working in that field on a daily basis, and he prepared himself for a few hours for this lesson. And he is just talking to us. Maybe with scribbling something on a chalkboard, or – oh my God, what heretic thought – even clicking through a few well-dosed PowerPoint slides. And he is explaining something to me which I didn’t know or didn’t understand before. And I am listening, focused and concentrated. And after 90 min a bell rings and I go home, satisfied because I learned something new today. And I am not exhausted.

But that is a distant past. Today we all know that learning without peer-to-peer interaction and participative engagement is evil. So I will never see my old classroom again, but will instead prepare many colorful collaborative flipcharts in the future. Sigh. Can somebody hand me the scissors?