Monday 30 January 2012

The importance of terminology

Words Cloud 16/01- 22/02 2009 We are hemmed in by terminology. There are terms for almost everything in business, and when we introduce a set of new roles, new processes and new technologies, then we need to introduce new terms as well.

This is true for when introducing Knowledge Management roles, processes and techanologies, and can easily be a minefield. Let me give you some examples.

In one company, we were introducing the role of the "process owner" - the subject matter expert who is accountable for knowledge of a particular organisational process. "Oh no", the company said; "our processes are defined as very high level things, the sort of business activities that needs ownership is at much lower levels". They use the term Process in a very specific way, and we ended up with the term "practice owner" instead.

In another company, we were introducing communities of practice. "But we already have communities" they replied. When we checked, we found that they use the term for anyone who does a particular job, regardless of whether they have any interaction, any community feeling, anything at all, in fact, which binds them together other than their job title. So they could talk about "the engineering community" even though there was no sense of community. We used the term "leanring networks" instead, because otherwise we were proposing something (communities of practice) which they thought they already had.

In another example, we were introducing the Retrospect process - a post-project meeting to identify and record lessons. "We already hold Retrospects" they told us. When we checked, their Retrospects were a review of project activity and delivery, but no discussion of learning, and no identification of new knowledge. These were not a KM process, so rather than redefine Retrospect, we called them "Project Learning Reviews" instead.

In many ways it seems that every company needs to invent their own terminology for the elements of the knowledge management framework - the processes, the roles, the structures, the governance. They need to distinguish these elements, through terminology, from other business elements which are already in place, or from terms which they currently use for other things.

Unfortunately that means that different companies end up using different words for the same thing, and the same words for different things. After Action reviews, for example - one company uses the term for short stand-up meetings, the other for 2-day conferences.

So we need to introduce new elements to our KM implementation, terminology agreement meetings, glossaries, definitions. And when exchanging KM experiences between companies, we need to start by defining our terms.

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