October 3, 2008

The Art of Creating Possibilities

The whole point of KM is Innovation. We aren't putting people in conversation with each other, soliciting their stories or helping them exchange their learning just because it makes for a nicer workplace. We're also doing this because it's precisely that cross-pollination of ideas and experience that helps birth new ideas and new ways of doing things. Knowledge management done right helps create an environment that fosters healthy change.

The "science" of knowledge management pushes us to find better, less intrusive, more effective and efficient ways to ensure that the essential information is exchanged, and exchanged in a manner that permits easy and accurate understanding. This isn't about knowledge extraction and capture or centralized control. It's about KM getting out of the way so that just in time exchanges of information can occur in context. Unless you've been living off the grid for the last few years, you probably have already realized that this approach to KM undercuts the old KM 1.0 drive towards creating and maintaining repositories and databases. KM 1.0 is based on an outdated notion of knowledge manager as archivist.

The "art" of knowledge management is by its nature a little harder to get your hands around. It's about an orientation, an approach to work and life. Good KM is closely attuned to and respectful of organizational culture. Good and effective KM ultimately helps shift that organizational culture toward more openness, more collaboration, more innovation. This view of KM is based on a notion of knowledge manager as facilitator.

If we are true to the demands of the "art" of knowledge management, we knowledge managers have to embody and demonstrate that orientation toward collaboration and innovation. This means finding new ways to engage in productive conversations that expand understanding and don't reduce every interaction to a zero-sum game. This isn't necessarily how we've been taught to behave in the corporate world, so it can be a significant challenge for a lot of us. Further, it's an approach that assumes a certain level of personal maturity and goodwill.

Innovation rarely results from the occasional brainstorming sessions. It comes from applying what you're learning to what you know, taking information from one domain and mixing it with experience in another domain to see what results. It's life as a lab. It's indulging your sense of curiosity, tempered only by the constant question: how does this make things better?

Since far too many of us push through life with our heads down, shoulders forward -- simply trying to get things done -- we often don't remember to take the time required to be open to possibility. A bent to innovation requires some under-used muscles. Chandni Kapur at Anecdote, provides a humorous reminder of one way to find and exercise those muscles in her post Practising the art of creating possibilities:

People respond so differently to new ideas. While some people jump with excitement at the thought of new possibilities and irrational ideas, unfamiliarity can [make] others uncomfortable, give up, or find it safe to be a skeptic. This is so well illustrated in this conversation between Alice and the queen in Through the Looking Glass.

"I can't believe that!" said Alice.

"Can't you?" the queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things."

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Being able to rise above the restrictions of what is, to imagine what might be, and then to create the map that moves your organization to that potential requires vision and leadership, a marriage of both the art and science of knowledge management. A little bit more queen and a little less of Alice.


Samuel Driessen said...

Wow, very inspiring post! Love the excerpt from 'Through the looking glass'. I was wondering: do 'KM people' think more in possibilities than many of their coworkers?

Mary Abraham said...

Thanks, Samuel.

I'd suggest that an important part of a knowledge manager's role is to "think more in possibilities" than their coworkers. We bring a different training and sensibility to the issues, but we need to be sure that we don't lose sight of the possible while dealing with the mundane.

- Mary