The Art of Context

This past weekend I saw an art exhibit, you can read more about it on my Stephanie Barnes Art blog, but what struck me about it was the value of context, or knowledge to the understanding of the paintings. The paintings are abstract blocks of colour, meant to elicit emotions and a reaction, to me they have a meditative quality to them. They have value in the colours that they use, the textures, and the shapes. Seeing the exhibit revived me.

I walked through the exhibit first on my own, but then joined a guided tour, where I learned more about the artists, and what was going on at the time, why they painted the paintings they way they did, what had come before, and what came after: context. Learning about the context added more meaning to the artworks my second time through the exhibit.

It strikes me that this is the same with knowledge management. We can look at the end result of a process or project or activity and know if it was successful or not, but we don’t necessarily know what worked and what didn’t until we start asking the questions: what worked? what didn’t work? why? what is worth repeating? what is not worth repeating? It’s the context that adds the value and the meaning to the outcome.

I think the same can be said of a discussion that I went to last night at the Royal Ontario Museum called, The Game Changer Series: Linking Art & Science. It asked the question “What do North American Black flies and visual culture of South Asia have in common?”. I went because of the work I have been doing on Creativity-Innovation-KM, but also because I was curious about what the links actually were.

The discussion was very interesting, I learned about South Asian photography and Black Flies in the Arctic. On the face of it I couldn’t see any linkages going into the evening, at least not without making my head hurt, a lot, and I am someone who likes to make connections. But there actually are quite a few connections, we went way over our allotted time in discussing the linkages and could have kept going, except for the threat of Security throwing us out.

There are common areas in research methods and documentation, technology, cultural impact of changes wrought by both things. One of the things that I found most striking was the documentary ability of photography in both cases. There are a lot of numbers in dealing with Black Flies (e.g. how many, where, temperatures, biting/non-biting), but the impact of the changes in Black Fly population becomes very obvious and real when a picture of a Snowy Owl savaged by Black Flies (on page 2 of the linked PDF) is shown, suddenly it’s not just numbers in a chart. Similarly, the documenting of culture through the use of photography, and what is communicated through how it was used to bring meaning to family, religion, geography, and other cultural changes.

Again, it was the context that added the value and illustrated the areas of overlap in what initially seemed like two disparate areas of study.

Context is what adds value and makes knowledge knowledge, that’s why we need to capture it either in documentation or databases, or through person to person connections in Communities of Practice, mentoring, or other tacit knowledge transfer activities.

Content isn’t king, context is!

Knowledge Management, Creativity, and Innovation: Part 2

Talking about design and balance and creativity and knowledge management makes me happy, joyful even. Bring on the joy.

In Part 1 I talked about how important TIME is knowledge creation and reuse, creativity practices that allow us to take knowledge and either transform or apply it in order to create something new. What does it mean to design time for this into our activities?


Design thinking is characterized by being purposive; human centered; a balance of analytical and creative; uses abductive reasoning, i.e. inference from best available explanation; and iterative, it uses prototyping and play testing to achieve success.

Here’s how these principles are applied in knowledge management:

Purposive: we look at the organization’s strategy, goals, and objectives and assess how knowledge management best supports those activities. The knowledge management strategy outlines how the organization’s goals and objectives are furthered through the application of knowledge management activities.

Human centered: the best knowledge management implementations consider the people of the organization, e.g. how they work, what makes their work-lives easier, what the culture of the organization is like and works with those requirements to make the organization more efficient and effective in its knowledge processes and activities.

A balance of analytical and creative: KM should be a balance of analytical and creative. It should capture knowledge and make it reusable, but it also needs to leave space, ba, to allow for knowledge creation. This space can look like lots of different things, e.g. giving employees 10% of their time for projects they want to work on/explore, foosball tables, basketball courts, gyms, art/creativity space, and communities of interest; activities that encourage different connections to be made.

Abductive reasoning: this sums up the belief in KM in general. It can be very difficult to prove a causal link between improved knowledge activities and improved organizational performance, metrics and ROI continue to be a significant hurdle for many organizations. However, anyone who has experience with implementing knowledge management successfully knows that efficiency and effectiveness in an organization are improved through the use of knowledge management activities.

Iterative: successful KM starts small and grows. It starts with an over-all strategy and plan, but then moves to pilots, which bring in small parts of the organization, so that lessons can be learned and adjustments made as the people, process, and supporting technology are implemented across the organization.

Make sense?

Now here’s another piece: We create knowledge through right-brain activities, which is then managed through knowledge management activities. Knowledge management activities can also help us put the pieces together in a different way (with new and existing knowledge) to create a new picture. We do this through:

  1. Leaving space for creativity and discovery and “rearranging the pieces” (right brain);
  2. Organizing and sharing our learnings so that they can be reused by the next person/team/group (left brain).

Have your worlds collided?

Do you see how this collision of the worlds of creativity, innovation, and knowledge management work together?

Do you see why I care and am positively joyful about this collision of worlds to make connections, meet new people, learn new things and share what I know with others?

Do you care?

Knowledge Management, Creativity, and Innovation: Part 1

“Knowledge Management, ho hum, who cares? I have more important things to worry about than some esoteric discussion about knowledge. I have a job to do.”

I know that’s what they’re thinking with the glazed-over look in their eyes as they search around the room to see who else is around that they can talk to.

I’m not going to tell you why you should care; I’m going to tell you why I care.

I like to make connections, meet new people, learn new things and I like to share what I know with others. I like to make my job as easy as possible, and I like to help others do the same thing. I like to learn from my mistakes and not make the same mistakes repeatedly.

So, you’re probably thinking, where is she going with this? This isn’t knowledge management; this isn’t creativity; this isn’t innovation.

And to that I say, “ah, but it is.”

One definition of creativity says:

  • It is the reorganization of experience into new configurations;
  • A function of knowledge, imagination, and evaluation.

In other words, the use of knowledge. Knowledge is about holding information learned through experience or study. Knowledge management wants you to do something with that knowledge.

Sometimes that “thing” is something routine, like an answer for someone who’s called a customer support desk. Sometimes it’s something non-routine, like solving a problem, completing a project, or creating a strategy. Sometimes it’s something brand new, like improving out-patient experiences at a hospital by the whole process. Or like the creation of the iPhone.

Knowledge management behaviours are actions that support these activities. They are the left-brained processes that enable these things to happen, whether they are routine, non-routine, or brand new. Knowledge management is not technology, it is not esoteric, it is practical and necessary to live our lives, and to do our jobs.

I am an accountant by training. This training (and subsequent experience) helped me develop my left brain — it’s a lot of process, and numbers, and guidelines. It also introduced me to the idea of knowledge management. We didn’t call it that at the time, but we were expected to re-use the previous year’s audit or tax file: we had checklists to follow to make sure we didn’t miss anything, and we were supposed to talk to whoever had worked on the file the year before, if possible. Another knowledge management activity was the need for time to learn and plan: learn from last year’s file and plan for the current year’s. The knowledge management strategies made us quicker completing the current year’s audit/tax than the year before, which meant the fee to the client stayed the same (client happy) and our earning power went up (boss happy). Efficiency and effectiveness.

So where do the creativity and innovation come in? TIME.

TIME is what is necessary to create new knowledge. The reorganization of experience into new configurations through the use of knowledge, imagination, and evaluation are right-brain activities: creativity and innovation practices. Designing time into our processes and activities to create new knowledge or finding existing knowledge is the key success factor.

And time is what we’re run out of, more on design in Part 2.