February 22, 2008

Bolivian Farmers: A KM Case Study

What can a Wall Street law firm learn from Bolivian farmers practicing semi-subsistence farming methods? A lot with respect to using knowledge management to foster innovation and make lasting changes.

In the case of these farmers, innovation was enhanced greatly when (i) knowledge management was the joint effort of multiple actors, including development agencies that provide knowledge and technology, farmers, financial institutions, and government, and (ii) the farmers were embedded in productive social networks.

A 2007 study of Bolivian farmers (Hartwich, F., M. Monge PĂ©rez, L. Ampuero Ramos and J.L Soto, 2007, "Knowledge management for agricultural innovation: Lessons from networking efforts in the Bolivian Agricultural Technology System." Knowledge Management for Development Journal 3(2): 21-37) compared the impact on the innovation behavior of farmers of two different methods of transmitting knowledge: either by a direct one-to-one transfer of technical assistance or via a combination of multiple sources of knowledge supported by a network of technology providers, farmers and a variety of public and private sector agents. Looking at four different agricultural innovation programs in Bolivia that used different methods of knowledge management, they found that the acquisition and adoption of knowledge is not a linear process. Consequently, the programs that relied on the linear, direct knowledge transfer were less successful in fostering change. Therefore, to promote innovation and lasting change, knowledge managers need to follow an approach that combines multiple non-competing sources of knowledge with active social networks.

The usefulness of the social networks was critical. The networks allowed the farmers to take the knowledge and technology provided and then test it against the experiences of other trusted individuals. In the words of the study's authors, the farmers in these networks do not merely adopt the new knowledge, but they also "practice, process, improve the knowledge and adapt it to their needs and local conditions."

Coming back to my organization (a law firm) and yours, what does this study suggest? That merely making information and tools available via the knowledge management system may be a reasonable first step but is ultimately insufficient. This effort needs to be supported by fostering active social networks within your organization that help the individual knowledge worker take that new knowledge, test it, adapt it and ultimately improve it.

In the context of a law firm, having great content and a slick content delivery mechanism (e.g., a Portal) is a good start. However, until that content is absorbed by the lawyers, tested in the company of trusted colleagues, and adapted to client needs, it isn't really useful knowledge. And if we don't have really useful knowledge to manage, what are we doing?

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