Next Gen KM

Knowledge management is something that really interests me, and it’s something that I think governmental organisations at all levels in the UK need to start seriously addressing. Of course, being a social media fanboy too means that I like to see where web technology can help with this stuff: to make it easier, more effective or just more fun.

So, I thought it might be useful to run through a few of the more popular KM tools and techniques and see where web 2.0 can improve things. I have linked to Nancy White‘s great resource on KM tools for each one for background material.

1. Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice are groups of people with common interests or goals, who come together to share best practice, information and experience – fundamentally, knowledge. They can exist on and offline, but when brought online you need to be careful that your provide the right interfaces for people to be able to connect with one another in an organic fashion – in other words to replicate real life interactions as accurately as possible online.

Why would you want to do this? Well, while I would agree that face to face meetings are always the best ways of building trust and getting things off the ground, they do have their weaknesses. For a start, there is a limit on the number of people that can attend at any one time, and geographical issues means there is always someone that will miss out. By providing an online alternative, these people can still engage with the community. Another consideration is the fact that not a lot goes on between meetings generally, and the online community provides the glue that sticks people together in between these get togethers.

For example, mailing lists cannot be used to create a community of practice – the conversation is too one-dimensional and there is no way of discvoering people with common experiences or problems. Web forums are better, but they are still organised in a top-down fashion, with people completing limited profiles and having limited means of sharing information: the threaded conversation.

Social networks, however, provide the right level of interaction, with personal profiles with wider scope and a range of different discussion and collaboration means. The great example of this, of course, is the IDeA’s Communities of Practice platform which provides a social network backed up with blogs, wikis, forums and document libraries to enable knowledge to be shared in whatever way the user feels is appropriate.

2. Knowledge Cafes

Knowledge Cafes are informal discussions, usually in small groups on a common theme, with plenty of coffee on tap. It’s an opportunity to explore ideas as part of the group, a mixture of brainstorming and discussion. Some structure tends to make knowledge cafes more effective, and one way is to have a facilitator not to lead, but rather shape the discussion to draw the best out of all the participants. At the end it’s usually nice to have a rap-up, where each group feds back their thoughts on the topic, and for them to be captured, perhaps onto paper or a word processed document.

One of the best things abut knowledge cafes is the fact that the small group allow everyone o have their say, but with everything being drawn together at the end, and this intimacy is difficult to replicate online. An additional difficulty is in whether you choose to make the online Knowledge Cafe synchronous or not – does each group need to be online at the same time, or can they log in and add to the discussion when they want, maybe during the course of a week?

One way of running a (for want of a better term) synchronous online knowledge cafe would be to make use of instant messaging technology. For example, Meebo is a browser based instant messaging platform which allows anyone to log in using their preferred IM protocol, whether it be MSN, AIM, Jabber, Yahoo! or Google. Further to that, Meebo allows you to create rooms where several people can participate in a discussion. It could work really well, with a Meebo room for each sub-group within the cafe. Another option is to use Campfire from 37 Signals. However, to have more than one room, and more than four people involved in a conversation, they you will need to pay for an upgrade to the standard service.

If you prefer to run an online knowledge cafe that people can dip in and out of, and don’t all have to be online at the same time, then the obvious solution is a forum, where the threaded conversations can accurately represent a conversation online. However, forums (which you can probably start to tell I am not awfully keen on…) can’t really mirror the organic nature of human conversation. The linear representation of the discussion means that tangents can’t easily be developed – and often that is where the real value lies. Wikis aren’t much use either, because while they are really easy to use and to get content online to share, they aren’t so hot at replicating structured conversations. Perhaps the best way of doing this therefore is to use a mind mapping service like Bubbl.us, which allows mind maps to be edited by members of a group, who are invited via email. This way, thoughts can be added, with responses added as nodes coming off the originating ones. Tangents can be followed up, while still keeping the whole conversation trackable and in one place.

3. Peer Assists

A peer assist is a pretty simple idea: someone has a problem, and they ask their friends to help out. In reality, it’s a bit different from a simple chat, as someone leads the discussion and helps to keep things on track, to ensure the conversation achieves, as much as is possible, the objectives of the session which are clearly defined at the outset. The objectives of a peer assist are going to be more specific than the more general discussion of a knowledge cafe, for example, and it is important to regularly check that the ideas being offered are suitable for the problem being discussed.

One of the key elements of running a successful peer assist is that you have people involved with the knowledge and experience to make useful contributions. Finding such people can be a difficult task, and social networks provide a great way of discovering people based on their interests, whether through the subject they write about on their blogs, or what they list on their LinkedIn or Facebook profiles as stuff they are good at. The chances are that you will already be ‘friends’ with these people and so they are entering the exercise as an already trusted source.

In terms of actually running the peer assist using the web, I think this is where the wiki really comes into its own. You can put the original problem at the top of a wiki page and invited contributions from those taking part to appear underneath. Those that the orginator thinks are potential solutions can be developed further, those that are unsuitable can be archived to elsewhere on the wiki. In terms of a good wiki system to use, my favourite is WikiSpaces, which allows for the easy integration of a range of content types and is really simple to get started with.

Another option might be to write the problem up as a blog post, with suggestions coming in through the comments, though this might end up being a little linear.

4. After Action Review

An after action review is a simple enough idea: a team takes a look at a recently completed piece of work, and collaboratively works on what went well, and what not so well. Key questions are: what could be done better next time; and what can we do better elsewhere as a result of good stuff done in this project. They don’t have to be held at the end of a project though, and can be used at various stages so that continuous improvement is possible.

In the real world, an after action review would be run with everyone around a table, so that all the necessary views and experiences can be aired. This can be replicated like the knowledge cafe with instant messaging, forums or online mind mapping. If you are really stuck then even email will do it.

However, a more interesting method might be to combine collaborative authoring with discussion, using a system like WriteWith. This allows you to jointly edit some text, in a Google Docs or Zoho stylee, but also has a threaded discussion running alongside it. So the facilitator of the review could post a document detailing some of the aims of the project, with actual performance results and outcomes. These could then be discussed alongside the text, which can then be updated and turned into the after action review report. What’s great about WriteWith is that it will then let you export to PDF, Word or OpenOffice format – or even send the text straight to a blog!

5. Knowledge Market Place

A knowledge market place, or fair, is an opportunity to learn what it is that folk know, and what they would like to know. The ideal end result would be a big grid with a list of people with their skills and their needs on, with some contact details so that folk can easily get in touch with those they can help. Face to face methods of running a knowledge market place can include getting people to team up and ‘interview’ each other, writing down the wants and offers on post-its, which can then be stuck on the wall for viewing later as well as being typed up.

An online version of this would suit any kind of site which allows details profiles, so people with certain skills can be tracked down easily. Another way would be to have a wiki page, laid out as a grid which people can add to as they see fit. It might be possible for a blog to be created, with a post per person. These could be completed by the person concerned themselves or (more fun) someone they have just been speaking to. Tags could be added to outline the wants and needs, so that groups of people with similar interests could be identified with one click.

Any more? 

There’s five from me, then. Anyone got any more ways that web 2.0 can be used to develop KM in new and interesting ways?

Published by

Dave Briggs

Digital oddbod.