Knowledge Asset

I’ve been working this week with an organisation who  are looking at knowledge retention from some major programmes with a significant gap (several years) between the closure of their current programmes and the start of the next phase of projects, when today’s lessons will be most relevant.

Now let’s be clear here –  knowledge transfer is always a better starting point than knowledge capture, I think that’s a given for KM.  However, in this case, some kind of strategic knowledge capture is going to be necessary , as there is no guarantee that  the staff with experience will be available in the future.  I’m  putting a brief together for them which will help them to involve the workforce in prioritising topics, conduct some media-rich interviews and create a set of knowledge assets with the needs of future projects in mind.

The default position is just to let nature take its course and see what survives. Let’s call this the fossilisation option.  Hope that in the rough-and-tumble of organisational change, that there will be enough fragments of knowledge and experience preserved that it will be possible to reconstruct the “soft parts” (the context for decisions made at the time).

Next up is the time capsule approach.  Take an eclectic set of artefacts, bury them somewhere safe, and erect a memorial plaque or signpost (SharePoint folder anyone?) to remind people where  things have been buried.  Then hope that the person who exhumes them can make sense of the way in which each of the artefacts (documents) would have been used, and extrapolate to cover the gaps. Better than the fossil record, but still pretty unreliable.

Museum image (thanks to up the scale of effort and thoroughness, we have the Museum collection. Painstakingly assembled and expensively detailed, this represents a high-resolution snapshot of the past in terms of the documents and outputs, but will still say little about the underlying reasons for decisions taken at the time.  And as Ian E Wilson, Canada’s chief librarian and archivist once said:

“No amount of sophistication is going to allay the fact that all your knowledge is about the past and all your decisions are about the future.” 

So where do we find a suitable metaphor which places the emphasis on recommendations for future re-use, rather than yesterday’s lessons?

I found it at

What’s you might ask?  As they say on their website: is based on the principle that memories are less accurate than e-mails. And we strive for accuracy.  See, usually, it’s the future that will reflect back on the present. We here at FutureMe think it’s fun to flip that all around.
So send your future self some words of inspiration. Or maybe give ’em swift kick in the pants. Or just share some thoughts on where you’ll or what you’ll be up to in a year, three years…more? And then we’ll do some time travel magic and deliver the letter to you. FutureYou, that is.

You can browse anonymous real examples on futureme – some thoughtful, some hilarious, some prophetic and some poignant.  I think the idea of sending yourself, or someone else,  a message for the future is an excellent way of focusing on the capture of recommendations and thoughtful advice. It makes is personal and actionable (characteristics so often missing in lessons learned reports) – and it so much cheaper than building a museum!

So we’re planning to use a creative twist on with this particular client to draw out the advice. As they say at Futureme – it’s the future that will reflect back on the present, so it’s fun to flip that all around.

Every so often, it’s good to revisit some of the fundamentals of knowledge management and reflect on their continuing importance to the field.   I’ve been working with several different groups on Communities of Practice and Networks this month, and have taken each group back to Etienne Wenger’s definition from Cultivating Communities of Practice:Monument by Frans Persoon

“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

Looking more deeply at this definition, I think there are four “pillars” of successful communities.

1. A shared concern or passion.

Whilst the 90:9:1 role (or whatever variant of that ratio your community has equilibriated to) will always be relevant, the level of concern or passion will have a huge impact on the way in which people give discretionary time to the group.  I see this particularly in communities which relate to the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – e.g. Communities focused on safety, security, humanitarian issues. It’s also strong in communities which have a focus on hobbies and sports – Several organisations I know have a Photographers’ community who exchange, critique and celebrate  each other’s work, using company systems, and on company time (because it’s worth it to the company to show what a vibrant community can  be like).  Similarly with Cyclists’ communities and other sport-related groups.

Take a look around you colleagues’ office or workspace or electronic desktop – you’ll see what their passions and concerns are.

Thomas Freidman’s equation PQ + CQ > IQ where PQ is Passion Quotient and CQ is Curiosity Quotient is true of communities – Passion and Curiosity will carry the group further than raw IQ – but a combination of all three will get the ball over the line every time!

2. A shared practice.

We often talk more about the “community” behaviours than we do clarifying the “practice”, and its boundaries.   It’s always time well spent.  I advocate that groups consider creating  and regularly updating a self-assessment or maturity model which describes their particular practice.  This helps them to agree upon the important topics, agree upon what good looks like and identify where they can share and learn from and with each other.

Without that common language, it’s easy for community members to talk past each other, or to miss opportunities to give and receive.

3. A commitment to learning.

Again, nobody questions the value of learning, bus what are the learning activities which your community will commit to?  What is the relationship between “lessons learned” and you community?  Is there any ownership of this process, and agreement to maintain a knowledge asset or product which represents the community’s most current thinking and understanding?

What about informal learning, formal transfer, learning together or learning from each other?  And learning from fresh insights outside the organisation?  How will that happen?

I’ve always liked this model from Wenger, White and Smith’s book, “Digital Habitats”, which sets out a landscape for these important dimensions and clusters relevant activities.  It’s a great model for communities to use as a menu of potential learning stimuli.

Wenger, White and Smith - Learning Activities from "Digital Habitats"

4. A commitment to interact regularly.

Of course!  And what does the ideal blend and frequency of interaction for your community look like?  What is the ideal mix of face-to-face, regional, peer-to-peer, virtual, discussion-based, spontaneous, scheduled, ad-hoc, funded, led, emergent, social, business… social business?

No shortage of choices and options, and it’s good to agree upon how you plan to interact and to regularly review how effective the blend is.

So how do your communities shape up to the four pillars? Perhaps it’s a good opportunity to discuss and learn through some  passionate interaction!


Our BMW is nearly 8 years old now.  It’s been brilliant, and it’s had to put up with a lot from a growing family, and now a dog with an affinity for mud and water.

It’s about this age when cars generally – regardless of the manufacturer –  begin to reveal some of the longer-term glitches to owners and manufacturers send letters to notify people like me that “there is an extremely small chance that you may experience a problem with the battery wiring in the luggage compartment, and please would I contact my local dealer at my earlier convenience where they will be glad to examine and fix any potential problems without charge…”

If I wanted to sell my car (probably to someone who doesn’t read this blog!), then I have a choice:

  • Sell them the car, and give the new owner the keys and a small pile of vehicle recall notices.  These represent all of the lessons about the 535D Touring that BMW and their customers have learned over the past 8 years, so they are, of course, invaluable to the new owner…
  • Take the car to the dealer, get the problems fixed for free and the vehicle record updated on their systems.  Throw away the recall letters which now have no purpose. Give the new owner the keys.

It’s clear which is the better option.  Now let’s park the BMW analogy and think about knowledge management (which, coincidentally, BMW are also very good at).

In my experience, many organisations sometimes treat lessons learned like they are an end in themselves – as though the value has to remain in the document – rather than where possible leading to actions which embody the learning.  These actions might include updating a process, policy, standard or system has been updated to incorporate the learning, which  removes the need to promote the lessons or recommendations to future teams.

So why do some organisations settle for a pile of lessons rather than a set of improvements?

Some possibilities:

  • It’s much easier to write a document than see a change through to completion.
  • It’s too difficult to find the owner of the process which needs changing.
  • I’m measured on how many lessons our project captures.
  • We have invested in customizing SharePoint to capture lessons learned documents, and need to show that we’re using it.
  • Although I wrote the recommendation, I’m not 100% confident that we should change the process for everyone.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not decrying any kind of activity to capture lessons learned.
Sometimes the learning is such that there is no obvious process or standard which can be changed, and there is no immediate customer for the knowledge.  In those cases we need to preserve it in such a way that our learning is expressed as a recommendation for the next team, and is supported with the reason, the narrative, any relevant artifacts and the contact details of the person behind the recommendation.  These things all add context to what would otherwise be a recommendation in isolation.  The next team then have more background to assess whether this particular recommendation is relevant in their world.  I wrote about this on my February posting on dead butterfly collections.

However, I do think it’s worth looking at the barriers which prevent people from from translating their personal or team learning into an improvement for everyone.   Perhaps we’re not selling the idea of lesson-learning in the best way?  Hearts and minds, or just minds?   Commitment or compliance?  Value or box-ticking?

Let’s not let the tail wag the dog!

Earlier this year I presented at Henley Business School’s annual KM Forum event, on the subject of “Lessons Earned”. They kindly recorded the event, and I have finally got around to editing and posting a ten minute excerpt on YouTube.

Watch it to discover:

  • How Lessons Learned are like the Higgs Boson particle…
  • How project lessons are like a leaky bucket…
  • Why frequently asked questions aren’t frequently right…
  • Why captured knowledge is like a dead butterfly collection…
  • How ‘not hiding’ is different to sharing…
  • And why curiosity is good for business, even if it is bad for cats!

Thank you to @susanfrost for sending this my way.

Some great food for thought – literally – from JP Rangaswami, using Food as a metaphor for our relationship with information. It’s an interesting and stimulating comparison, and you have to chuckle when he extends the metaphor to Fox News to McDonalds at the end!

There have been a few threads on LinkedIn KM groups on the topic of “knowledge assets” recently.

It’s one of those words which gets thrown around by KM people without any agreed definition.  For many people, they are interchangeable with the term “information assets”, but sound sexier.  (Much like databases became “knowledgebases” a few years ago.)

Now I’m not going to assert definitions here – rather to give my view on the different perspectives, and share the way I distinguish between knowledge assets and information assets, building on the descriptions that Geoff and I wrote in “Learning to Fly”.

Speaking of flight, there’s something about butterfly collections which always leaves me feeling slightly saddened.   The colours and fragility are still there, but of course the life has gone.

Image courtesy of hoyasmeg on Flickr

I think we do well to remind ourselves that when we capture knowledge and write it down as information, we kill it.
That’s not to say that the information is not immensely valuable, and may even have a long shelf life.

But it is dead.

Knowledge is information with the life still in it!

For me, the role of a knowledge asset is to consolidate the learning from a number of activities, and produce a distilled set of guidelines or recommendations, with (importantly) a clear and well-linked signpost to contact the source, to drill down into more detail and examples, and to contribute further stories to build the asset further.  Oh, and there’s some kind of mechanism for validating the input – ideally via a community of practice.  They keep it alive.

I’ve seen a lot of examples which start out as “knowledge assets”, but quickly become “knowledge graveyards” because there is no community to own and refresh the content, and the links between the information and the authors/sources are not clear or maintained. Once you lose the connection between knowledge and the person who provided it, it’s a bit like switching off its life support machine…

  • There is an “extractionist” school of thought out there which focuses on separating knowledge from an individual, then combining, distilling and packaging in into a convenient and accessible products.
  • And there’s a “connectivist” school of thought which seeks to turn information into an advertisement for a conversation with the source.

I think the best knowledge assets combine these perspectives.   Too much extractionism (is that a real word?), and you can end up a logical but inflexible, self-reinforcing summary of the views of the editor-in-chief.  Too much connectivism, and you can get endless repeating, diverging threads and snippets which can be frustrating to draw insight from, and require too many phone calls to answer the all questions they elicit.

There are some topics which lend themselves to something approaching a “single version of the truth” (we call that known area “best practice” don’t we?), and for them, the logic of an extractionist-oriented knowledge asset will work.

Then there are topics which are more complicated, and benefit from the constant iteration and interaction of a connection-rich asset. (That’s knowable “good practice” in the Cynefin framework).

Simplified Cynefin framework, from

I suspect it’s in these two quadrants where knowledge assets add value. Shifting further to the left takes us on a journey into emergence and chaos where pre-packaged knowledge is unlikely to fit the bill, although the fragments and stories they contain may well be informative.

One of the LinkedIn discussions asked: “Is a cookbook was an example of a knowledge asset?”

My answer was:

… a cookbook isn’t really a very good example of a knowledge asset because it represents a snapshot in time of a particular recipe, and doesn’t usually provide me with an easy way to ask questions of the chef, or other cooks who are learning/experimenting/adapting… I would say it’s really an Information Asset.  That’s not a bad thing – I have a kitchen full of them!

However, a recipe *blog*, which has all the benefit of the book, but which is socially constructed, grows and develops, commented-on added to by other cooks and enthusiasts who ask and answer questions…  Now that feels more like a *knowledge* asset to me.

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