Discussion Forums as Stealth Knowledge Management

The blogs are alive with Knowledge Management talk this week. Apparently, June is KM conference time.

As a professional who has spent most of my career developing technical tools to facilitate communities of practice and training, I think I can reasonably refer to my work as facilitating the management of knowledge. Mostly, I’ve been all about figuring out ways to disseminate knowledge effectively within an organization of people who are charged with collaborating to develop some sort of product which will have value to others.

I’m a curious person, and I love that I have at my fingertips these days the ability to learn about any little thing which tickles my fancy.  I’m the product of a liberal arts education, one who believes that casting a wide net not only makes a person more interesting, but also sharpens their thinking and makes them more valuable to themselves and others.

But, in general, it’s pretty easy to judge whether something I’m learning about is likely to be of greater or lesser value to my employer and my clients.  As a matter of personal integrity, I try to focus the learning I do during work hours on subjects which will make me a more valuable employee.

The question is, at what point do the things I learn become valuable to the people who are paying me to learn?

I would argue that my learning is of no use to my employer until I either apply it to my work or share it with others who can do so.

The corporate culture around knowledge sharing is what determines whether people share at all, and also, if they do share, whether that sharing is in a form which is useful to others.

At Q2, we’re a pretty high-trust, transparent, high-information environment. We really try to keep each other apprised of what’s going on, because we’re often pulled into projects which have been started by others.  So everything, including emails exchanged by people who don’t have access to the discussion space, that has to do with a given project is generally posted to the discussion items set aside for that project. Because this makes it much easier for new folks pulled in to come quickly up to speed, we generally encourage our clients to join us in the project-planning space, and tend to have the vast majority of communications in the joint space, with only the bare minimum in “our team only” private space.  This makes for a vibrant community of practice which powers our organization.

What this means is that when any of us come across some tidbit of information which might inform a project, we know we’ll engender positive regard for sharing, and more importantly, we know exactly where to share it so that it gets maximum exposure among the folks who would find it valuable.

Yes, we have wikis, and resource libraries full of relevant documents we can turn to for reference. I’d hate to have to get by without these helpful resources. And of course, we have face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations, too.  But it’s the discussion space I turn to first, to get the context of the project, so I can make sense of the documents.  It’s there I get a sense of who is in which role, and how they have been acting in that role over time.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve remembered that somebody shared something important with a particularly colorful turn of phrase—and how being able to search on the remembered phrase took me right to the information I was seeking. Sometimes, I find that the information isn’t quite what I need, but at least now I know who said it, and I can follow up with them.

Several bloggers have remarked recently on how blogging has supercharged their learning—how reflecting on what their colleagues are saying and constructing well-thought-out written responses clarifies the issues for them.

Discussion space facilitates exactly this same process, but opens it to those who are not comfortable standing on the platform which writing a blog implies.

Cultivating a culture in which people discuss issues in shared online space, in a format which captures it in searchable form, is stealth Knowledge Management.  Instead of depending upon people to dutifully catalogue information, discussion space encourages sharing in the form of spontaneous social constructivism…people riffing off each other’s ideas to move towards an innovative solution to the challenge before them.  Given the choice between talking to somebody about something they know about and I need to learn, and searching through a database when I’m not even sure just which terms to search on, I’ll take the personal contact every time.

How might the people in your organization respond to this kind of opportunity?