What we can learn from Van Gogh for KM and Innovation

On November 11, 2015 I participated in a #PKMChat called, “Van Gogh on Learning” https://kneaver.com/blog/2015/11/pkmchat-van-gogh-on-learning/ it intrigued me as both a knowledge management professional and an artist and definitely gave me something to reflect on over the last week.

(Note: the #PKMChat was based on work that Ger Driesen is doing, he facilitated the #PKMChat along with Bruno Winck, more about Ger’s work can be found by clicking on the link in #2 in the references listed below)

I have been investigating the linkages between/among creativity, innovation, and knowledge management for more than three years, picking up ideas along the way, and experimenting and talking to people. Informally, there seems to be an agreement that there is a connection among the three things, but it’s in the background, below the surface, not immediately obvious to a lot of people. The #PKMChat helped shed some light on these linkages for me, so I am sharing them with you.

There are three main ideas that we discussed in the #PKMChat,

  1. Thinking inside the box
  2. Practice
  3. Reflection

As well as some secondary topics, like qualities of an artist, and how to balance social vs. solo learning.

One of the first things I noticed about comments on the #PKMChat was the perception that artists have a different perspective, that they are more inclined to experiment, and that there is a natural curiosity in being creative. Certainly this echoes other articles and books I’ve come across and was one of the reasons for Xerox’s artist in residence program in the 1990’s.

Thinking inside the box, I found this a bit hard to take initially, because I like thinking outside the box. I think that’s one of the advantages/benefits of KM, on a macro level it advocates diversity of thought, and learning from other industries or sectors, so the idea of “thinking inside the box” seemed counter-intuitive to me. But what this was really getting at was the idea that constraints build creativity and that often “the answer is right in front of you.” “Right in front of you” in this case could mean that there is someone in your organization that could provide knowledge or expertise or perhaps the knowledge you seek is in that repository or lessons learned system.

One of the themes that came up throughout the #PKMChat was the idea to take time to reflect and be curious, to challenge assumptions, to think critically about a challenge that is being faced. This was true in the discussion around thinking inside the box, too. Taking the time to look around your box and see what you have that might provide insight or an answer.

Practice, is critical to learning, for it is in practicing that we find the best solution and refine our techniques, whether we are artists, programmers, building cars, oil wells, or solar panels. Van Gogh practiced drawing heads, hands, and working with colour in order to get his style refined to what is easily recognizable today. Here we consider the 70-20-10 rule for managerial learning. Morgan McCall, Robert Eichinger and Michael Lombardo in their 1996 book, “The Career Architect” assert that 70% of the learning a successful manager does comes from doing, 20% comes from others, and 10% comes from formal education (books and classes). Practice makes perfect, as they say, but the chat participants also recognized that there is a point where perfection stops forward momentum and “good enough” is good enough.

Reflection, as I mentioned a moment ago reflection came up throughout the chat, even when it wasn’t the main topic of discussion. The consensus when it was the topic was that it was key to learning; that it allowed informed improvements to be made in future iterations of an activity rather than doing the same thing repeatedly. There was recognition that it needed to be part of the flow of the project of process and that the activity wasn’t complete until the reflection had taken place.

Van Gogh and artists reflect on their paintings and processes, on what they like or don’t like, what can be improved to more adequately reflect what they are trying to convey in their works.

Finally, we discussed social versus solo learning. There is a benefit to discussing work with others, whether, as in Van Gogh’s case he was writing to his brother, and talking with other artists or we are struggling with a new project we’ve been assigned to and look for others who have worked on similar initiatives before or talk to our friends/family about how they might approach the situation. The consensus here was that it was important to balance solo and social, and that balance was up to the individual to determine. Discussing things with others helps facilitate the challenging of assumptions because the other person/people aren’t as close to the problem as the person working directly on it so they might see things that we are too close to see.

One of the things that got mentioned a couple of times during the chat was the book, “Steal Like an Artist.” The book talks about 10 items but the first one is most relevant at this point, “steal like an artist.” Everything an artist does is based on what’s come before, something someone else has done. While it’s true that an individual artist may combine processes, techniques, and materials in a way that hasn’t been done before, or have their own style, they are building on something they have learned by doing or by being taught.

The question for me after all of this is: where does this fit with the work that I have been doing?

It’s clear that there is a linkage; artists use some of the same processes and activities that organizations do to learn and make better use of knowledge and experience (e.g. reflection, lessons learned, communities). They do it on an individual basis, rather than a group/organizational basis, but that’s just a matter of scale and rigour around the activities.

What else? Does creativity and the processes it utilizes lead to innovation? Certainly the participants in the chat seemed to think so, there was agreement that being creative lead to asking more questions, and challenging the status quo and that this impact was felt regardless of the field people worked in, i.e., non-artists and artists alike believed that either being exposed to art or participating in an artistic practice made them more curious and open to experimentation.

Creativity leads to innovation, both are facilitated by knowledge management practices, and both contribute artefacts that build the knowledge base of an individual or an organization.



  1. Xerox case study about their artist in residence program, https://www.amazon.com/Art-Innovation-Artist-Residence-Leonardo/dp/0262082756
  2. Learning Solutions Magazine article on Van Gogh as a painter and learning coach https://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/1560/emea-reporter-vincent-van-goghpainterand-learning-coach
  3. Jay Cross blog post on implementing 70-20-10 for learning, https://www.internettime.com/2013/02/50-suggestions-for-implementing-70-20-10/
  4. Steal Like an Artist book, https://austinkleon.com/steal/
  5. Steal like an Artist list https://www.austinkleon.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/poster-0.gif
  6. Steal Like an Artist workshop on Slideshare, https://www.slideshare.net/pederrudbeck/steal-like-an-artist-workshop-uxstoriesdk

Published: Designing a Successful KM Strategy

Advance copies of our book, Designing a Successful KM Strategy are now available from our publisher, Information Today, Inc.

It will officially be published in mid-January, so if you buy it before that, you get 40% of the regular price.


I did a workshop based on the book at KM World, on Nov 4th, that was well received, as well as a couple of book signings–it was great to talk to everyone about the book and how it can help them regardless of whether they are just starting with KM or at a point where they are re-evaluating their strategy after implementing KM for a few years.

Information Today has also made a chapter available for preview, you can access it here https://books.infotoday.com/books/Designing-a-Successful-KM-Strategy/Making-the-Case-for-a-Knowledge-Management-Strategy.pdf

Nick (my co-author) also has some helpful links up over on his blog at https://www.nickmilton.com/p/blog-page.html

I hope you enjoy it. Be sure to get in touch if you have any comments or questions.

(Left to right) Ian Thorpe, Stephanie Barnes, Patti Anklam, Connie Crosby at KM World book signing for, "Designing a Successful KM Strategy"
(Left to right) Ian Thorpe, Stephanie Barnes, Patti Anklam, Connie Crosby at KM World book signing for, “Designing a Successful KM Strategy”


Designing a Successful KM Strategy

I guess I have been busy, it’s been 6 months since my last post. One of the things that I have been busy with is finishing the book that I have co-authored with my Knoco colleague, Nick Milton.


Nick and I have written and book called, “Designing a Successful KM Strategy,” it’s being published by Information Today, Inc. Advance copies will be available at KM World, where I will be doing a workshop based on the book (Workshop W4) and a book signing.

I’ll post a link to their website once it’s available for order.

Also, I’m doing a second workshop at KM World called, “W14: Sparking Innovation: Creative KM,” in case any of you are interested in that.

Knowledge by Design

I have been doing some more research, reading, and thinking about this creativity-innovation-knowledge management area and am coming to the realization that to a certain extent KM by design is what I’ve been doing all along, I’m just becoming more aware of it and kicking it up a notch.

Let me explain…

What I have been doing is knowledge (management) by design, and I say that because, I’ve always believed in looking at what knowledge activities were need to meet the needs of the organization  I’ve never said, “you need xyz technology, or you need a lessons learned process,” without understanding what the organization was trying to achieve with knowledge. I’ve always focused on the left-brain activities, the process, the activities, the technology, the information architecture, etc.

What I’m incorporating now is more right-brain thinking, which takes me and my knowledge management consulting into the innovation and creativity arena and making space for knowledge creation–ba, to use the term made familiar in Nonaka’s knowledge management work and writing.

How am I going to do that? Through having people do right-brain activities in the workshops that I run, but also by working with organizations to include more of these kinds of activities in their daily activities.

Opening up space for knowledge creation and innovation leads to enhanced productivity, collaboration, employee engagement, thought leadership, and sense of community.

This isn’t to the exclusion of lessons learned, and information architecture, etc. it’s a balancing out of both sides of the brain: the detailed, tactical with the strategic, problem solving.

Knowledge by Design.

Knowledge is the network

One of the themes at KM World in October 2012 was that the value of knowledge management is in the network, i.e. the value comes from the connections and the collective whole, rather than individual people, activities, processes, or technology. This was a shift from previous years where there was more focus on technology.

That the value of knowledge is in the network, is something we have known for a long, long, time. There has long been acknowledgement that “it’s who you know,” in business and in life. What has changed in the last 10 years is the ability to stay connected to people and to connect with people in geographically diverse locations through the use of technology, but it’s still about, “who you know.”

Our networks provide access to opportunities that we might not have been able to discover on our own. They pass along interesting articles, books, and other pieces of knowledge and information. Someone says something and that makes us think of something else or ask a question that’s not been asked before. Someone else builds on our ideas, it becomes an iterative process and suddenly we have created something new, some innovation that didn’t exist before.

When someone in our work network moves to another company or role, we all-of-a-sudden have to fill the void left in our knowledge network: who else knows what that person knew, how long will it take their replacement to learn the things we need them to know, what do we do until the gap is filled?

Organizations that go through down-sizing/right-sizing/lay-offs/retirements all have to figure out what to do about the impact on the knowledge networks of their organizations. Those that don’t take the loss of knowledge and the disruption to the network into consideration are negatively impacted by the loss/turn-over.

So what can organizations do to try to keep some of that knowledge when people leave the organization or create opportunities for innovation? Knowledge management activities like communities of practice, mentoring programs, lessons learned processes, after action reviews, expertise location activities, to name a few, and the technology that supports them all help to capture and share knowledge as well as make connections that might not happen otherwise. Knowledge management activities also give the knowledge longevity that it might not have otherwise.

Once the knowledge management practices are in place there is a need to make sure that it remains relevant through regular review and updating processes. This relevancy check could be as simple as reviewing documents and knowledge bases, or sending staff to conferences and training courses. It all becomes part of the learning and continuous improvement that the organization desired by implementing knowledge management in the first place.

This was also published in the Knoco January 2013 newsletter, which can be accessed here https://www.knoco.com/Knoco%20newsletter%20Jan%2013.pdf

Topics and Trends from KM World 2012

I attended KM World 2012 in Washington, DC last month, for the first time since 2006 (when it was still in San Jose, California). Let me first just say that I enjoyed the new location very much, not just because it’s a much shorter flight for me, but it seemed more intimate–easier to meet and talk to people and find my way around. I did miss being able to visit all my friends in the Bay Area, but I will get out there again.

Okay, so on to what I learned and observed at KM World 2012…

I think one of the big things I observed was a shift away from all the talk of technology, don’t get me wrong, people still talked tech, but I found less of an emphasis on it this year and much more emphasis on the value of the network, i.e. the people-to-people connections. Certainly any of us who have been doing KM for a while know that this is the case, that technology just enables and supports the activities of the network, but for most of the last 15-20 years we have had to fight against the idea that technology was the silver bullet in KM, that if an organization implemented the right technology they would find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Other themes:

  • Mobility and Internal Social Media
  • Internal Communications (consistent and repetitive communications via multimedia channels)
  • Strategic Alignment (km must always align with the business strategy of the organization to be successful)
  • Measurement and Value (everyone is measuring trying to determine value, but everyone is also still measuring things differently, but that’s OK.)
  • The importance of
    • Governance
    • Serendipity
    • Complexity/interconnectedness of KM
  • The DIKW pyramid is dead. Or is it?
  • Don’t fall prey to echo chambers in your organization
  • People’s knowledge goes beyond their job description which is untapped capital
  • The power of influence by friendship through peer networks is real
  • Seek forgiveness, instead of permission
  • Ask yourself daily what your km clients would answer to the question, “What’s in it for me?”

Some of the presentations and keynotes are posted on the KM World website, https://kmworld.com/Conference/2012/ and Dave Snowden’s closing keynote is on his website, https://cognitive-edge.com/library/more/podcasts/km-world-2012-washington-dc-closing-keynote/

Finally, I have to thank Daniel Lee for his notes/thoughts on KM World, which I have incorporated in this post as well as in a presentation I did for Knowledge Workers Toronto and is posted on Slideshare.


Creativity and Knowledge Management, part 2

Okay, so back for part 2 of Creativity and Knowledge Management, picking up where we left off.

We were talking about left-brain and right-brain and the different KM activities that fit in each area, and that’s fine, but what about right-brain activities that aren’t knowledge management activities that use knowledge management activities in their creation?

For example, one of the experiential exercises we did at the conference was recreating  stylized watercolours of a frog and a spider. We each got a piece of the picture, which had been cut up into squares and we had to reproduce our square onto a bigger, rectangular piece of watercolour paper. Both the squares and the rectangles were numbered on the back, which made putting them together again easy. This was collaborative, it used meta-data (the numbers on the back) and we had the opportunity to go back and add additional detail to any of the pieces after we’d seen them all put together–all KM activities, but with art as the content matter.

Are there other KM activities that could be demonstrated through art? Lessons Learned? Peer Assists? Content and Document Management? Communities of Practice? Innovation?

So art becomes a metaphor for knowledge management.

Next post…Creativity and Knowledge Management, part 3

Creativity and Knowledge Management, part 1

I went to MindCamp last week (August 23-26, 2012). MindCamp is a creativity and innovation un-conference organized by a dedicated team of volunteers; this was its 10th incarnation and it was fabulous!

I went to investigate the intersection of knowledge management and creativity/innovation and I was not disappointed. Certainly, innovation comes up in KM, and is an outcome of sharing knowledge, whether that knowledge is shared in a documented form or in a community of practice (I have even done presentations on KM and innovation), but where does creativity and art fit in? Creativity isn’t necessarily the same as innovation.

As some of you know, I am an aspiring artist in my non-KM time so have been toying with how to incorporate my art into KM–The Art of Knowledge Management, and I came away from MindCamp with some ways I could do that.

The starting point for me was how to reconcile the left-brain (logical, sequential, rational, analytical) with the right-brain (random, intuitive, holistic, synthesizing). It’s funny looking at these descriptions now, it doesn’t seem that hard to reconcile the two halves to make a whole.

The left-brain of KM focuses on the processes, workflows, and information architecture of KM. The right-brain of KM focuses on search activities, and the sharing that happens in communities of practice and mentoring, not-to-mention the creation of an over-all strategy for KM.

I think I will leave this post here for now, and do part 2 in a few days, after we’ve all had time to think this through a little more.