Thursday, 24 March 2016

Cutting the Knowledge Management jargon

Humans have a habit of combining concepts into "chunks". It helps us remember things more easily, but the jargon associated with "chunks" confuses people when we try to communicate, if they don't have the same set of combined concepts. I am going to attempt to de-chunk KM in this blog post.

TechJargon from wikimedia commons
It's very hard communicating with people about technical things, especially in writing. We have to explain concepts, and if we start from first principle every time, then it takes a long time. When you are talking with, or writing for, other experts you can take short cuts through the use of jargon, using your own technical terms (aka Jargon) to describe concepts, combined concepts, and even concepts about combined concepts.

A community of practice, for example, is a group united by jargon, with a shared conceptual model, and a terminology of their own which can be impenetrable to outsiders, and althrough experienced community members communicate easily through jargon, new members can rapidly become confused.  Indeed the term "community of practice" is already a piece of jargon which needs explanation to people outside the Knowledge Management industry. 

Conceptual chunks

I am currently reading a book by Stephen Pinker, the cognitive scientist and Harvard professor of psychology, called "The Sense of Style, The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century". In this book, Pinker looks at good communication through writing, and examines the psychological barriers to writing well.  He talks about jargon, and gives this tremendous example of how people use conceptual "chunks" to described increasing levels of abstraction about a topic.

As children we see one person hand a cookie to another, and we remember it as an act of giving. One person gives another one a cookie in exchange for a banana; we chunk the two acts of giving together and think of the sequence as trading. Person 1 trades a banana to Person 2 for a shiny piece of metal, because he knows he can trade it to Person 3 for a cookie; we think of it as selling. Lots of people buying and selling make up a market. Activity aggregated over many markets get chunked into the economy. The economy can now be thought of as an entity which responds to action by central banks; we call that monetary policy. One kind of monetary policy, which involves the central bank buying private assets, is chunked as quantitative easing
As we read and learn, we master a vast number of these abstractions, and each becomes a mental unit which we can bring to mind in an instant and share with others by uttering its name.
Without explanation, these conceptual chunks become impenetrable jargon. Do we do the same chunking with Knowledge Management?  Sure we do! We have our own jargon, very useful among our KM community, but not so useful for outsiders.

Can we de-chunk KM in the same way as Pinker did with quantitative easing?

Here is my attempt.

De-chunked KM

The mental resources we have, that we draw upon to make decisions and take actions, are knowledge. When we gain knowledge, this is known as learning. We can learn from our own experience, or from experience and knowledge shared by others. Sometimes this sharing is done through the medium of records such as books, videos and so on. Such records, from which people can learn, are sometimes called codified knowledge.

When one person helps another to learn, either by teaching or coaching them, or by creating records from which others learn, this is called knowledge transfer. Knowledge transfer is sometimes divided into the behaviours of offering knowledge to others (knowledge sharing) and looking for knowledge from others (knowledge seeking). Formal knowledge transfer in a classroom setting is known as teaching or training, while a broader approach to routine and systematic knowledge transfer within an organisation is known as knowledge management. 

When knowledge transfer is scheduled and structured as one or more discrete activities, these structured activities are known as a knowledge management processes. There are many such possible processes, each with their own name and their own structure. People have developed these processes and structures to make knowledge transfer more effective in a particular context.

Where knowledge transfer is helped through the use of specific technology, this is referred to  knowledge management technology. There are many such possible technologies, each with their specific function.  Some help you share knowledge, some allow you to seek for and find knowledge

Where there are people with a defined role to play in making sure that knowledge management works properly, these people are said to have knowledge management roles. There are many such possible roles, each with their specific accountabilities.  Some ensure the KM processes happen, or work well, some support the technology, some take care of the codified knowledge.

There are many things that the leaders of an organisation can to to promote, support and sustain knowledge management, and these things are collectively known as knowledge management governance. 

Perhaps the most important role for leaders is to promote and support a feeling or attitude among the organisation's members that knowledge, and knowledge management, are important, and thereby to promote and support the behaviours of knowledge seeking and knowledge sharing, using the KM processes, technologies and roles. These attitudes and behaviours are referred to as a knowledge management culture.

Where an organisation has a set of KM roles, processes, technology and governance, where the parts are linked and work together, this is known as a knowledge management framework.

Designing and introducing a KM framework to an organisation is called knowledge management implementation.  And that, dear reader, if you are a knowledge manager, is your job.

1 comment:

Amy - Knowledge Capital SA said...

I can relate to this. In our communications and newsletters that go out to both internal and external subscribers, we have to make a conscious effort to explain KM concepts and ideas in a way that readers will understand. I find that such explanations, often involving metaphors or related business / learning concepts, can actually enrich the content - not to mention reach more people. Thank you for this insight into how to simplify KM terms.

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