knowledge retention: a story collectors guide

At the back end of May 2012 I was in Bogota and met a team from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) to discuss the timetable for completing the story collectors guide first conceived during the second half of 2011 during Victoria Ward’s trip to Colombia.

CIAT’s mission:

To reduce hunger and poverty, and improve human health in the tropics through research aimed at increasing the eco-efficiency of agriculture

is one Sparknow fully supports so it is a great pleasure for us to be able to help them bring this guide to fruition.

Soon, researchers jetting from country to country will have guidance and ideas on how they might go about noticing and collecting the stories and anecdotes that bring data, events and topics to life at their finger tips to complement traditional field data and observations. The field guide will challenge researchers to use sounds, photos, stories and other materials in order to share experiences and engage others.

Check out CIAT’s blog for an account of the Bogota meeting and plans for the guide’s publication.

Keep watching for further updates.

a knowledge retention technique: recognising contributions

Knowledge retention is a big issue for many organisations. This blog first published in 2011 talks about how Sparknow planned for and marked the retirement (his second) of its Financial Controller Roger Doughty. I’ve republished it here since it addresses a key challenge namely that of recognition of the contribution made by an outgoing knowledge worker.

Roger was there in 1997 when Spark began. Through 14 years he has guided us through a maze of fiscal legislation, keeping a watchful eye on our finances and helping us become a limited liability partnership. That Sparknow has been able to develop the stellar list of client names bears testimony to the strength of our backroom support nearly all of which has been done on a virtual basis by Roger.

Our challenge is similar to that we’ve seen with clients when experienced people depart.

  • How to pass on the knowledge he’s gained much of which has been tacit.
  • How to ensure the same level of service is provided. And finally
  • How to recognise his contribution in a manner befitting of our style and values.

Tacit knowledge transfer has been/is being covered by a period of parallel running with his successor Mark Barrett who is also a Welshman with an accounting background. Mark has been shadowing Roger for the last couple of months and now that is reversed and Roger is shadowing Mark. I then hold monthly review sessions with the pair of them to see what issues have arisen and fine tune our processes. Our intention is ensure a smooth seamless transition which thus far it has been.

To recognise his contribution we asked a number of associates, friends, collaboration partners and clients to think of an image that best described Roger and then to write a brief anecdote.

The material was assembled; should we print off a set of postcards, produce a virtual card or make a set of recordings? Webster’s Pictorial provided the inspiration and with the help of Curtis James, a Brighton based ‘letter presser/purveyor of collections…’, Roger’s ‘book of memories’ was born.

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A very suprised and delighted Roger was presented with his gift at a garden party held in Lewes.

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Many struggle to find a way that recognises the contribution of key people in a business so that when they depart their legacy lives on. Roger reading his ‘book of memories’ shows how much pleasure can be gleaned from a simple gesture.

Knowledge retention: questions that say a lot

One technique Sparknow uses when trying to understand how information and knowledge flows in and around an organization is to ask a set of short simple ‘vox pop’ questions. They are short questions, the answers to which are usually very insightful.

While I am in Bogota, Colombia this week speaking at the 5th Knowledge Management & Organizational Learning Summit I am going to be continuing our ongoing enquiry into the evolving role of the ‘knowledge manager’ by asking the delegates to think about these simple questions:

  • How do you describe what you do to others?
  • Is there an image, an object or a sound that sums up your experience of working in this field?
  • What tool or technique do you find you use more than any other?
  • What is the biggest issue you have had to face in getting people to support what you are doing?
  • What aspect of your work are you most proud of?
  • Knowing what you now know what advice would you pass onto someone looking to follow in your footsteps?

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‘…it can be quite lonely at times’ I reflections from Henley KM’ers

‘Dear John, I never imagined 10 years ago the true impact of knowledge. The bureaucracies of the paper world are gone and communities are what deliver value at a local and a global level.  All my knowledge of technology was of only passing value. The networking skills are what are helping me thrive.’

Just one of the many postcards sent back from the future (2020) to today by the delegates at Henley Business School’s 12th meeting of their KM Forum. Putting learning at the heart of the organisation was the theme of the annual two day retreat and I was there running a Sparknow timeline exhibit that featured highlights of the evolving role of the ‘knowledge manager’ research we’ve carried out.  More of that in a future post.

This post is about the exhibit and how postcards were used as a technique to develop a delegate view on the changing environment and role of a ‘knowledge manager’.

why a postcard?

In many ways the postcard serves a powerful metaphoric role for key dimensions of knowledge management and of time:

  • It is personal/private but at the same time both shareable and publishable via a noticeboard.
  • It maintains its quality of having been individually authored, so the link to the originator stays explicit.
  • It is light, compact, and highly portable.
  • It is asynchronous, but interactive and annotatable
  • It is an ideal vehicle for messaging
  • It is time saving for the author.
  • It is an early form of multimedia, allowing an almost infinite range of attached images

Sparknow’s research into the use of postcards goes back over a decade. Victoria Ward and Professor Clive Holtham of Cass Business School and others from Sparknow wrote about the uses of the postcard in re-forming organisational time, place and meaning” for the ‘In search of time’ conference, held in Palermo in 2003. A copy of that paper and one presented in 2010 on slow knowledge can be found here.

why a timeline?

Our experience suggests people respond best when they are asked to situate comments against a time and place (and often an object or event) as a backdrop.

postcards and time lines as a combination.

The visual impact of a series of postcards on a timeline is visually compelling.

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materials for the timeline

By putting up background material for the three focus points on the timeline (2002 > 2012 > 2020) we were able to provide context for the postcards people were writing; to get them thinking back from 2020 to today and then from today to 2002. We were particularly grateful to Andrew Curry and The Futures Company for letting us reference their work. Andrew wrote an interesting and thought provoking blog to accompany The World in 2020 publication we drew on to design the exhibit.

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looking back from 2020

the questions posed were:

Imagine you are writing back to someone in 2012 from 2020 (or to 2002 from 2012). Tell them:

  • about your daily life
  • what’s changed about your job as a ‘knowledge manager’ and the environment in which you work
  • what kit and tools are different now from then.

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looking back to 2002

and the outcomes

More than 25% of the delegates completed a postcard.  Each revealed something about the writer and their vision of the world.

A couple of revealing postcards from today back to 2002

You’re still in KM.  And for a while it’s even in your job title.  You do a lot of technology.  You spend a lot of time in “programmes” and service development, development in general, is project-based rather than continuous.  The KIM profession is government recognised, but frequently struggles to find direction and leadership.

Hello, we’ve almost forgotten how to pick up the phone or walk over to speak to people.  We spend a lot of time sending “texts” from our phones and reading about our friends’ activities from their “electronic” Facebook page.  It can be quite lonely at times.

Many felt strongly that being networked will be one of the key differentiators in 2020; that technological advances will continue to enhance our ability to work wherever and whenever we want to but that time savings (to enjoy more leisure) is a forlorn aspiration.

Few saw the ‘knowledge manager’ title as being around in 2020, it being best illustrated by this:

The Knowledge Manager is extinct. Culture and behaviors of the knowledge manager are embedded into all employees as the modus operandi.

though another said in 2020:

I am working as an advisor, consultant, advocate, counselor, co-creator. I work to Board level leadership but I roam The Organization, working to improve colleagues’ personal and group knowledge management.

Technology has simply become the channel, its just the ‘thing’.

a great piece of advice:

Try to write letters as much as possible because otherwise your handwriting will get even worse.

what would I do differently next time?

Actually not too much though I’d probably have more people versed in the material, able to explain the significance of the dates to ‘visitors’ to the exhibit. And I’d make sure I had enough people around to help put up an 18 foot poster when I arrived at the venue.

using postcards for post event evaluation

In January as avid readers of the Sparknow blog might recall, Sparknow attended the inaugural knowledge management capacity development in Africa event in Khartoum.  As part of the follow up to that event the conference chair and organiser Dr Gada Kadoda decided to use a postcard as a way of capturing some of the delegates perceptions. It showed a picture of some of the delegates on the steps of Freedom Hall Khartoum and an invitation on the reverse to submit comments and reflections.

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What follows is her candid account of how the exercise went and the postcards used as prompts throughout the evaluation session which was held in Khartoum on February 25th.

In due course I will publish something on how Sparknow used postcards at last week’s Henley KM Forum and invite Victoria Ward who pioneered the use of this technique in Sparknow to post her reflections.

Evaluation of KMCA2012 Using Post Cards

By Dr Gada Kadoda

For conferences and workshops, a survey is traditionally used to measure satisfaction rates of delegates with the programme content, event organisation, etc. against set criteria and predefined scales, as well as allow for narrative comments for respondents to elaborate or make a suggestion. The results of these surveys are usually published as numeric percentages reflecting satisfaction levels along the various parameters considered in the survey. In as much as many of us are more comfortable with scales and their apparent clarity, one could argue that they avert expressiveness rendering them inaccurate to map a memory or a feeling of the past.

The speed by which we fill these surveys can bear witness to how much we engage our memory while filling the evaluation form for an eager organiser. However, a creative or participatory evaluation method like using post cards can not only measure the same parameters, but it will also empower participants by involving them into defining their own parameters and bring out their vivid memories, good or bad, of the event.

We recently used this method to collect memories about the Workshop on Knowledge Management Capacity in Africa that was held from 4 to 7 January, 2012 in Khartoum, Sudan. We distributed a send-a-postcard-to-KMCA call to our mailing list to write back to the organisers and as with post cards, senders are free to choose what they write. There was a low response rate (5%) which is in part due to delay from our side in sending out the call, a month after the end of the workshop!

Notwithstanding this unimpressive rate, in this article I will explore the parameters that came out from our use of post cards that correspond to some of those commonly used in after-event-evaluation questionnaires. Ratings can only be felt as you read through the selection of post cards quotes.

General event assessment (e.g. relevance of content, personal benefits or difficulties):

Thanks for the great job you did and KMCA2012 was very successful …” Walaa Mahdi (Graduate)

Thanks t all those behind that great event and I hope to continue and organise more helpful and full of knowledge events.” Abdelrahman Idris (Participant)

Good things about the workshop were the exchange of international students and the collaboration between professor, students and even business people, trust and joy moments between people, we open our minds to philosophy, anthropology and indigenous knowledge systems…” Tybian Zaroug (Undergraduate Student)

Now after attending this conference, I can talk about knowledge management to my friends and colleagues. In fact I realised that KM is very important to any scientist…” Samah Makawi (Undergraduate Student)

Actually I learnt a lot of things from this workshop in leadership and research and I am ready now to take bigger responsibilities, and as Mr. Paul said why not Sudan lead the world in KM, I totally support this and in our group on facebook KM friendship, we asked for ideas to be active and to establish a team work to achieve something in this country.” Iram Oshari (Paper Presenter)

The only problem that faced me all the time, it was a lot of interesting paper and presentations and we couldn’t reach them all.” Islam Elhadi (Graduate)

Programme rating (e.g. quality of content and activities, schedule and time keeping):

Thank you! It was a pleasure of mind to participate… I remember almost all the new ideas, the multidisciplinary yet united tribe of knowledge guards. What was most fascinating for me was the ideas on indigenous knowledge. What was striking, well, an anthropologist, a chemist, a philosopher and a political scientist … all using the same language … KM.” Omayma Gutbi (Participant)

I remember since we moved from Kassala and we entered the hall of friendship, the movement of the people inside the hall from session to session and the ongoing debate about the topics presented in the various sessions … I hope these efforts translate to reality to develop health, education, environment, government and business in Sudan and Africa.” Alzubair Hassan (Postgraduate Student)

Event organisation (e.g. information to delegates, quality of facilities):

Thanks for the great leadership and all your hard work, being at the airport for everyone, taking care of visas and all the other little things that made this such a success.” John Trimble (Keynote speaker)

I would like to thank you all for the well organised workshop. All activities were impressive.” Awadia Awad (Participant)

I found strange being asked to opine on subjects at a moment notice and without any briefing and the sanguine acceptance of Africa time.” Paul Corney (Invited Speaker)

 “Please make sure to document every single second during the workshop on video. As time goes, few things could be remembered, so documentation is a very crucial part for the future.” Anwar Dafalla (Invited Speaker)

Notable quotes from frequent conference goers …

A true international Conference …

My time Sudan was one of the most enriching experiences that i have had the pleasure and honor to partake of. Despite some late starts(!), the little hiccups and the waits, there was tremendous energy in the air and the people, all, including and especially the students, the faculty and the practitioners, many who were all three! The diversity of participants and thematic areas addressed in the “workshop” transformed and elevated this workshop into a true International Conference on Knowledge Transfer and Management. I learnt a lot, met many engaged and enthusiastic individuals, and was privy to participating in much intense and engaged discourse on empowering people and building Africa’s capacity.” John Tharakan (International Participant)

Exhilarating and free …

In so many ways, it was one of the most exhilarating workshops I have attended.  This was for many reasons:  the range and diversity of topics contained within a KM framework; the diversity of the participants—in age, nationality, gender, institutional affiliation and field, etc.; and the free nature of the environment.  This is in addition to some very stimulating papers.  As a Sudan Studies scholar of many years, I found I still had a lot to learn and was able to find myself in an area of study outside my field.  I was especially impressed with the presence of so many students and with their presentations the first day of the conference.  Including art and crafts was a tour de force and tied in very well with the goal of the organizer of considering all forms of knowledge and knowledge production.” Sondra Hale (International Participant)

There was even some post card poetry:

You set stone in stagnant water

You lead us in calm weather

You carried the truck and set road map for our thinking

Km is set as part our future mission and state vision” Elfatih Wadidi (Paper presenter)

Lastly …

What was “exhilarating” about using post cards is the freedom of expression it brings to the evaluation. These were personal benefit, good or bad things with event organisation, hopes for the future, etc. The post card writings space compel respondents to focus upon and articulate their main points which results in a meaningful rating. For example, a rating of high to a survey question on how well the event offered opportunities to meet people and exchange information, would miss opening minds to new interesting topics and perspectives, or a rating of low to programme scheduling would miss the “late starts, the little hiccups and the waits”.

In my view, post cards complement and do not replace the survey method and performance evaluations especially for regular events.  On the other hand, post cards are insightful and delightful. Remembering the workshop trip on the last day with as “I marvelled at crossing the desert without breaking an axle, the fun bus and singing Bob Marley” or “I will never forget Albajarawia sand under the moonlight”, bring vivid memories in all of us who were on that trip.

Thanks to Paul Corney for introducing us to this fun-to-use tool and many thanks to our delegates who sent us a post card. Thanks for your fine personal memories and articulate descriptions that we can tag to our evaluation report and own memories, it was better late than never!

Best wishes to all.

Gada Kadoda