Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

Archive for December, 2009

KM Certification

Art Schlussel posted his views on knowledge management (KM) certification in a LinkedIn conversation here:

This was my reply:
It’s interesting how some KM questions–including certification–keep cycling around year after year.

Statements such as “rigorous standards to be considered true ‘certification’ programs” frequently come up. We might make some progress by digging into these statements more.

We all know that KM work is highly contextual and wrapped up in the complexities of human and social systems. Yet we either cling to the hope of a 2+2=4 kind of approach in education, or we elevate ourselves to the bleeding edges of new sciences where we hope for some version of a scalable Theory of Everything. Neither works for a typical practitioner.

In 2000, when we were planning the graduate degree in KM at Royal Roads, the advisory board members wanted (rightfully in my view) to emphasize human and social elements of the field. There were technically focused elements, but they were positioned as flexible, responsive and driven by context. Fortunately at that time, the university had a list of institutional abilities, which ideally permeated all programs and courses to guide instructors and the evaluation process. These included themes such as critical thinking, the ability to work in diverse groups and communication skills. All courses bridged theory and practice; several assignments were learner-designed to fit with their professional contexts.

We did not hit the $/# goals (which were better suited to more mainstream programs such as leadership) and the program was dropped (one more person will probably graduate). However, there was some amazing learning, growth and exciting progress with projects in the real world.

Initially, the approval body that oversaw university degrees gave permission for an “MKM” professional degree, but we asked this be changed to an MA in KM because several learners wanted to move into related doctoral work.

This may sound like the kind of thing you are working towards or encouraging. But at the same time, I saw it as very different than certification. We spent much more time on “why” and a range of “how”s than on checklists of processes with reasonable predictable results. When I hear the word “rigor” I always wonder if the speaker or author is thinking of rigor in a quantitative, positivist kind of way (objectivity, scientific method, transferability to other contexts…), or whether qualitative measures of rigor (such as trustworthiness, reflexivity and prolonged work with clients/participants) are being considered instead or as well.

Perhaps we avoid these conversations because they can create a sort of hierarchy of practitioners (reflexive better than efficient; technical better than social; organic better than mechanical…or vice versa)?

Food for thought: how do we think about ambiguity?

Chris Jones recently posted On Semantics: Ambiguity is the Enemy and Steve Barth responded with insights about the benefits of ambiguity.

If I worked as a bench scientist, production line supervisor, warehouse manager or project manager wearing blinders, I would probably be fully supportive of Chris’ perspectives and puzzled by Steve’s. However, in most of my career as an internal or external consultant, my work has navigated considerable ambiguity. I’ve found that by letting go, I am regularly rewarded with surprises that might never have manifested with efficient implementation of pre-determined agendas. I have also seen ambiguity   nurture diversity: an important attribute of complex systems. Is it a bad thing–for example–if the CEO of a company or the Deputy Minister in government thinks of sustainability in a holistic way and encourages such thinking, but some employees use different definitions (draw different boundaries) and innovate in areas of financial, social OR ecological sustainability?

I like a lot of what Chris has written (and have tried for years to employ some of the practices he encourages) but I also raise some questions.

1) Can the idea of “carefully choosing our words” put too much emphasis on presentation and not enough on questioning and working to deeply understand? Surely if we become experts at choosing the best words, others should “get it?”

2) Might the description of knowledge management as “identification and capture of the critical insights” be an example of #1?

3) Does the assumption that one can “lock in” definitions put too much emphasis on objective, external truths and too little on internally contructed ones? Will people ever share the same feelings and truths with locked in definitions of “poverty,” “progress,” “ethics,” “knowledge,” or even “leadership”?

4) Might an attempt to lock in the definition of ontology in Chris’ post be an interesting experiment in the effectiveness of locking in? (“Ontology. This is the workhorse of describing relationships among abstract words, ideas, objects or topics. Requires more rigor, but it’s often worth it. Useful in framing complex domains or topics. Similar constructs sit at the core of conventional design methods.”)

5) Chris writes about setting boundaries right up front. I’ve written (drawing on Churchman’s and Midgley’s work) about the ethics of boundary choices: that these choices are fundamentally about power. Could up-front boundary-setting reinforce current power dynamics at the expense of important alternatives?

6) Chris emphasizes the importance of asking “What’s “in scope” vs. “out of scope” to your discussion?” This is standard project management practice, but–again–does it reduce ambiguity at a cost? All people working with knowledge management have seen executives rush into big-budget IT projects, which may come in within scope, on time and on budget, but not beginning to address the challenge that launched the work.