Knowledge Management: Learning in Civil Society Organizations

Published: November 27, 2020

Before starting to coordinate the KNOW-HOW3000 programme in Central America, I had never put that much thought into what knowledge management actually meant. Thus I started to research and read that knowledge management experienced a peak moment in the 80s in the scope of the business world. In order for the employees to be more competitive, business owners were looking to make the most out of the human resources available in their companies. They started to optimize the use of their employees’ knowledge so that they’d create better products for lower costs and higher earnings.

Mostly people’s knowledge is invisible, stored in their heads (tacit knowledge). So the question is: What can we do to make it visible, tangible (explicit knowledge) so that we can share it with our colleagues within the company or organization and learn from others’ knowledge to think products, services and methods in a new way.

But first let’s talk about:

What is Knowledge?

looking for an answer I have found many different concepts:

In the Dictionary of the Lengua de la Real Academia Española the meaning of the word knowledge is on the one hand connected to understanding, wisdom and intelligence, all of them related to the intellectual sphere of the individual. On the other hand it is associated with the term conscience that is defined as the capacity of the human being to acknowledge the surrounding reality and relate to it – a meaning that rather refers to what we perceive through our senses.

Another concept was developed by Davenport and Prusak (1998). They state that knowledge is a mixture of structured experiences, values and non contextual information. All together they establish a scope in which we evaluate new experiences and information.

Weggeman (2000) describes knowledge as the sum of information, experience and attitude.

There is one definition that I really like, although I can’t remember the source: Knowledge is not actual perception or rational, but it is a total – an intimate union of the body and mind, of experiences, perception and reason. 

That means that knowledge is related to our personality and to the way how we perceive the world, how we learn and communicate. It also affects our history, education, values and life goals.

Knowledge is the product of learning: It is an active, collaborative process subject to permanent modifications and sometimes unpredictable. It is a combination of recent and past experiences, of reading, conversations, thoughts, emotions, fantasy and creativity. We reap knowledge, we adapt it and we change it according to our thoughts and interests in order to solve problems and change our routines in new situations. Learning is not a goal on its own, but the need is the actual focus. Learning has to go hand in hand with our practice. We learn so that we can get better in what we do and that way get closer and closer to the changes we want to reach.

What is Knowledge Management?

As I have already mentioned, knowledge has a rational and an emotional dimension. So how can we manage knowledge?

Daphne Depassé, a Dutch author writes a lot about what she calls in Dutch Kenniswerk. The term is difficult to translate, but it can be described as the idea of what to do so that knowledge serves us. Depassé claims: “Knowledge Management does not exist. Knowledge can’t be managed. What can be managed though are the communication channels, the information and skill transfers from one person to another through different methods that foster learning. Information and skills are converted into knowledge when they are practically applied and when the acquired knowledge allows us to improve our actions. But knowledge itself is intangible.”

Whether the communication and transfer works or not depends strongly on the organizational culture. The organization is supposed to facilitate meeting platforms – in real life and/or virtual ones – to enable interaction, reflection, teamwork and an atmosphere that promotes creativity and innovation. These spaces are required to be attractive so that people feel involved and motivated to actively participate with an open mind and a positive attitude towards learning. We need spaces that allow for questions, opinions and mistakes.

They actually don’t have to be set up in structured and organized meetings. Maybe the informal contacts are even more important, meaning the conversations while taking a coffee break with a colleague about yesterday’s activity; about how it went, what was reached and what could have gone better. Or a chat with a peasant during a field visit to learn about how she fights a plague. Or simply sharing an article or news report that might be interesting to your colleagues as well.

Sharing what we have seen, heard, experienced in practice has to become a habit. But also sharing our doubts, opinions, asking questions and giving feedback has to become part of our daily working routine. We need to be more aware of those moments. That’s why all of the KNOW-HOW3000 activities intend to foster those practices on different levels. The real learning occurs during interaction, social relations, mutual confidence and in an environment where doubts and taking a vulnerable position are possible.

The culture of an organization is crucial in order to foster collective learning. The foundation, however, is formed by the people and their actions on a personal level. We have to pay more attention to individual competencies related to the capacity of managing knowledge and I would like to mention some of them here:

  • Being a curious person.
  • Knowing how to identify interest and needs: What is my objective? What do I want to achieve (needs, problems, challenges etc.)? What knowledge do I have and what knowledge do I still need?
  • Knowing how to find information sources: Not only in terms of literature and the internet, but also regarding people inside the organization. Besides, identifying and acknowledging the knowledge in the communities, the collectives and groups that we work with.
  • Having the capacity of observing with an open mind.
  • Knowing how to ask the right questions: Connecting the dots between what one wants to share and what the other one wants to know. Albert Einstein said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
  • Being able to have a conversation that implies listening without prejudice, paying attention and expressing your thoughts with informed arguments.
  • Knowing how to create and innovate; allowing your mind to move in a creative way. Dare to leave your comfort zone. Creativity is the capacity to change and it’s fundamental when it comes to progress and to changes in our society. Creativity allows us to better understand problematic situations, change our perspectives on them and find new solutions to overcome challenges that we face on a daily basis.
  • Being able to reflect on certain issues: Valuing experiences, drawing lessons learned and being aware of one’s own role in this process on a personal as well as on a professional level.
  • Being able to analyze in terms of logic, systematic thinking and the creation of mental models.
  • Being able to work in teams and networks in order to collaborate and share information and experiences.
  • Knowing how to sustainably store and document experiences and knowledge.

Finally and certainly not less important, is the fact that we are facilitating organizations that offer technical and financial services. The activities related to knowledge management can’t focus exclusively on our own organization. We have to take into account how we can contribute to the learning processes of the women and men in the communities, the protagonists in developing processes.

We constantly have to question ourselves about our relationship with them: Are the women and men actually the owners of their learning process? Did we consider the local idiosyncrasy and the social cohesion in the community? Do we know the people’s perception of what development means and are we familiar with ancestral knowledge, their means of communication, gender relations, religious influences and their intergenerational relationships? Did we ask them what they would like to learn, how they usually learn, when and where they do it and how they would share what they’ve learned with others from their communities?

Do we know how they understand the different concepts that we – in the NGO world – so often use, the professional jargon: concepts like leadership, cooperation, information, results, impacts, follow-ups, monitoring etc.

Knowledge itself does not give you power. What actually does is what you do and how you act with the knowledge you have. 

Marja van Deurse

Marja Van Deurse

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