Knowledge management: formal or informal? Connect or Collect?

People are often instinctively drawn towards one component of Knowledge Management. Here’s a way of looking at those components.

Choices about the approach to KM are often made implicitly, emotionally, or through assumption, so it’s worth taking time out to analyse these approaches intellectually, before starting work on your Knowledge Management Strategy or Framework.

 I am going to look at some of these philosophical choices under two headings;

  • Whether we will choose a formal system or an informal system;
  • Whether we will focus on connecting people, or on collecting documented knowledge.

Together these two choices form a Boston Square, shown here.

 Formal v informal

The choice between formal and informal is an important one. We can take a formal system as being one with defined roles, defined expectations, defined technology and defined workflows. The system operates within a defined framework, or set of rules. An informal system, on the other hand, has few if any defined roles or expectations, and operates in an adhoc manner.

The choice between formal and informal is often an ideological choice. Either we feel that learning and knowledge are organic processes that will be killed by any degree of formality, or whether we feel that learning is far too important to be left to adhoc informality and chance.

Connect v Collect

The system can also be driven through Connect, or through Collect. In other words, knowledge and lessons can stay largely undocumented in the heads of people, or we can try to transfer knowledge through the use of recorded or written material. In a Connect system, we look at building networks of people who seek and share knowledge through dialogue and conversation. In a Connect system, the transfer of knowledge requires it to be written down and stored, so others can find it and learn from it.

Again, this is often an ideological or philosophical choice. People feel that knowledge is inherently a human property that can only be transferred through human interaction. Or people feel that there needs to be a centrally accessible knowledge base that people can refer to and rely on.

As this picture shows, the interplay of connect/collect and formal/informal gives four quadrants, which can represent four end-member choices for a lesson learning system.

Formal Collection 

The formal collection quadrant is where a company has an organized and managed system for building a collection of documented knowledge. This quadrant is the home of lessons databases, knowledge bases, best practice collections etc.  Formal knowledge bases have the great advantage that it is easy to track, find, sort and group knowledge. The disadvantages with such a system are that often crucial knowledge is not documented, or that people can find it frustrating or difficult to update the knowledge base as knowledge changes.  The more formal the system, often the more challenging it becomes to enter content, though equally it becomes easier for retrieving and tracking content.

Informal Collection 

At the other end of the formality scale are the voluntary, ad-hoc and self-organising community tools such as wikis (although of course a degree of formality can be built around a wiki). The Wikipedia model has sometimes been suggested as a model for informal knowledge collecting in a large organization, allowing documented knowledge to “spontaneously emerge from crowds”. The great advantage of wiki technology is that it is extremely easy to enter basic content, and a little bit of technical skill allows you to add a richness of multimedia content as well. If you are motivated to publish, Wikis such as Wikipedia offer an simple route, and the crowd can be expected to edit as well as to source material.

 However there are drawbacks with the informal Wikipedia model. The 90:9:1 rule tells us that voluntary wikis draw on only about 2% -3% of available knowledge, and all submissions in the Wikipedia model are voluntary and adhoc. So unless there is a huge user base and massive redundancy or overlap in knowledge, there is a real risk that crucial knowledge may never enter the system.

Formal Connect 

Formal connect-based systems are the formal networks, expert locators and the top-down Communities of Practice, which allow members use each other as a resource and repository of unwritten knowledge. Here knowledge exchange is through dialogue, accomplished within a formal network of people or at a formal meeting. Formal Connect systems are ideal for sharing lessons in areas of complex or context-specific need and for topics which are rapidly changing, and where new problems are being regularly identified. They are less appropriate where processes are becoming better defined and more standardized, and where lessons can be collected and incorporated into standards and guidelines.

Informal connect 

The fourth quadrant represents the informal Connect-based systems. Examples here can be found in self-organising social networks. Here is the extreme of informality, where discussion groups emerge from bottom-up interest, allowing questions to be asked, answers to be given and lessons to be exchanged in a loose and mobile network of contacts. The appeal of these systems is their extreme informality and ease of use, and the introduction of systems such as these can help to develop a more open discussion-oriented culture in an organisation. They also allow for serendipity; chance meetings with unusual sources of learning. The disadvantage is the great difficulty in ensuring the right questions are asked in the first place, and then in making sure they are answered by someone with valid lessons and experience to offer. Many online discussions can end up as an exchange of opinions among a random grouping, rather than an effective trawl for experience; more gossip than an exchange of lessons. Also the lack of rules can lead to a proliferation of networks covering the same content (see for example the 11,000 groups you find on Linked-In if you look for a Knowledge Management group. Ideally there should be just one! Or at the most, a couple of dozen to cover key sub-areas)

The blended and balanced approach 

As far as Connect and Collect are concerned, I firmly believe that the answer is “Both/And” rather than Either/Or. They are not alternatives, but complementary approaches. Any complete Knowledge Management Framework needs a blend of Connect and Collect, running both approaches in parallel. They need to be cross-linked of course, and the communities or networks can take accountability for some of the Collection, as well as the Connection.

As far as informal/formal is concerned, the answer is to find the right balance. Not a blend, but a balance. In any one company, for any one topic, to run formal and informal systems in parallel would be to confuse the user, and often to undermine one or other of the two – “I know that’s what it says in the official process, but what is the word on the street?”

There is no value to anyone if the word on the street and the official line diverge. Which lessons will you follow in that case? The formal/informal balance on the Connect side is found in the communities of practice, where a community will develop (or be given) a level of formality which suits their need and purpose.

The answer is to recognise these four end members, and to see them not as options to choose between, but as components of a complete, blended and balanced system. 

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Shared by: Nick Milton