Monday, 19 January 2015

The Knowledge Manager as Gardener - an organic metaphor

People often think of Knowledge as being Organic, or being an Ecosystem. But what does this imply for Knowledge Management and for the Knowledge Manager? 

The ecosystem or the garden is a pretty good metaphor for the world of Knowledge in an organisation. Knowledge is something that grows and develops; that can be replicated and seeded. It is not something immutable like a car or a factory or a pound coin that can be physically managed. Instead it needs to be nurtured and tended.

The Knowledge Manager, in this metaphor, is the gardener.  And anyone with a garden will know that if you want to produce flowers or vegetables, the life of a gardener is hard work, and gardens require a lot of management.

Let's assume you are tending the Knowledge Garden for your organisation. Let's assume that you are doing this to create value for the key stakeholders - the knowledge workers, the management, and your external customers.  If you want to create value from a garden, you don't just "create the conditions so anything can grow", because all you get is nettles, brambles and other weeds.

Instead you have several tasks.

  • Tilling and fertilising the ground. For gardening and for Knowledge Management, you need to get the conditions right for growth. This is the culture change element of your role - the communication strategy, the hearts and minds campaign. Also you need to provide the supporting infrastructure. Just as a gardener needs to put in place the canes, cloches and trellises to support the new seedlings, so you need to ensure there is sufficient technology to support emergent KM activities (recognising, of course, that technology alone will not create KM, any more than trellises alone will not create a garden).
  • Planting the seeds. These are the proof of concept events, the KM pilot projects, the early Knowledge Assets and the trial Communities of Practice which you might set up in the places of greatest demand and greatest knowledge value. 
  • Watering and fertilising the growing seeds. As a Knowledge Manager, the early seeds in your KM garden will need your oversight and your support. You will need to work with the CoP leaders, the knowledge owners and the project staff to ensure the early KM work does not wither and die through lack of care.
  • Propagating the growth. Some of the plants in your KM garden will thrive. Learn from these, find out the secrets of their success, and seek to reproduce these elsewhere. Just as a gardener will  take cuttings, runners and seeds from their prize-winning plants, you too can propagate success from the best performers. 
  • Removing the weeds and pests.  If there are any things that hamper the growth in your Knowledge Management garden - be these incentives that backfire, loud sceptics, or misbehaviour in Community of Practice discussions - then you need to address them, and see if you can remove them before they start to spread. Internal competition incentives, for example, need removal before they stunt the growth of KM or kill your tender plants. 
This is all very hard work, but the rewards for successful Knowledge Management are the same as those for a successful gardener - a thriving ecosystem and a mountain of produce.

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