The common ground of learning, KM and change

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to share some thoughts about KM, learning and change with members of KM Chicago.

I love these events. I learn more than people might imagine. And what I learned last night (or was reminded of) is just how deeply KM practitioners understand the (seemingly) small things about technology adoption that really are big things in the long run.

Let me set some context. I came to the meeting to share some of the insights I’ve gained in the past several years teaching a course called Creating and Sharing Knowledge, part of the Master’s Program in Learning & Organizational Change at Northwestern University. Insights I shared are summarized at the end of this post. But among the insights I shared, the bits that attracted the most attention were reflections related to successfully nudging people into playing with technology. The kind of play that leads you to learn a new way of doing things.

Three lessons we share from our experience using technology for learning at MSLOC drew attention:

Make emotional connections. This is part technology design and part mindset. The mindset bit is related (in our case) to the instructors of courses, but I think it plays just as well for those people in KM or learning roles in organizations. We characterize it as one element of a “stewardship” mindset in which the instructor consciously shifts from a position focused on controlling the flow of content to one that is concerned with stewarding a path of learning. Key to starting the whole process is establishing a community of learners who feel safe and trust one another. That’s an art, since every class (group) is different from the next. But what you pay attention to is how well that feeling of trust and safety is developing in the very early stages of the course.

The technology design piece of this is something that I have yet to fully understand but seems to hinge on some key elements. Photos is one. We seem to have more success using community/blogging platforms that incorporate member photographs with their posts. And spaces where community members can post photos and videos that may or may not be related to the topic of discussion in the class. The impact, I think, is that people display some real personality. And that sets an environment for members to make emotional connections with each other. Combine that with an instructor who writes/posts in a manner that says “it’s ok to have a personality!” and you’re starting to set an environment where people feel it’s safe to explore and learn.

Gather with purpose. This is one of our stewardship design tenets that always seems to draw the most attention. I suspect it’s because (thank you Keeley Sorokti for the phrase) it captures a positive way to look at a negative thing everyone experiences: Virtual and live meetings tend to suck. What’s the purpose of us being here?

In a technology adoption sense, this tenet really helps to drive a critical behavior among instructors and others who control the design and use of virtual meeting sessions. Can we achieve the same goals asynchronously? Can we push content – somehow – into video, text, etc. so we can use our person-to-person time most effectively? And when we do get together, how best can we really interact with each other in ways that make the experience energizing and useful? We’ve had interesting successes with using Google docs as group white-boards during live sessions. Imagine a scenario where learners gather together, do some “offline” thinking, and then come back together and co-create a single document that captures the entire group’s insights into a topic. You cannot do that in a live face-to-face classroom. But do it well in a virtual session and you get people to look at vanilla technology — Google docs — in a whole new light.

Never leave Beta. I am not the first or only one to bang this drum (see Harold Jarche, who consistently is a great read). But the point I’ve come to is to just never stop experimenting. Ever. If you approach things with that mindset you tend to keep your focus on the right thing: How are we moving forward, overall? And not: Have we reach our adoption goal? Really – who cares? That’s a milestone. Not a mission.

So. Other key themes from the talk. The following summarize the way I might phrase the key insights I hope my students come to appreciate about knowledge in organizational settings. The intent is not to make everyone a knowledge management practitioner, but to develop an true appreciation for knowledge management as a discipline required for organizations to perform well. And in the context of learning and organizational change, I see at least three areas where KM in tightly integrated:

  • Strategic change. We know where we want to go. But do we have the know-how to get there?
  • The pace of change. Things move so fast that “training” is simply irrelevant. The best approach may be to teach people how to learn; but then we need to provide an environment where they can exercise that new capability (that capability being something like connecting, consuming, creating and contributing – a great framework to describe the process of “collective learning” as proposed by Allison Littlejohn).
  • Culture and collaboration. Many organizations see and understand the need to inspire more collaboration – to be more innovative, to solve complex challenges, etc. But do you work on the culture — to architect one that generates natural collaboration — or do you use technology to nudge the organization toward a more collaborative culture? I agree with Jim McGee, who answers that choice with: “Yes.”

The themes we focus on getting to in my class are:

  • Knowledge is more than the stuff you can document. It’s stocks and flows. And it’s tacit.
  • Expertise has a prerequisite. It’s called experience. (And there are no real shortcuts to developing true expertise).
  • Collaboration comes in flavors. Networks, communities, and lots of combo’s.
  • “Knowledge runs on the rails of practice.” My favorite line from the work of John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid.
  • Technology changes things. But those things also change technology.
  • Never leave Beta. Think prototype. Let the design process guide you.


  1. Jeff – I’ve been thinking more about why the Gather with Purpose phrase is resonating with people. For me, it is a reminder to slow down and be intentional about designing and planning virtual, face-to-face and hybrid gatherings/meetings/class sessions. The phrase makes me slow down and be more present during both the planning phase and the actual gathering. It also allows me as a participant to be more present because it acknowledges that all of our voices are needed when we gather. Our lives are all so busy and it is easy to just quickly slap together a ppt deck rather than take time to ask ourselves why we are gathering. What is it that we can do together that we cannot achieve alone? How can we make emotional connections and be energized by our gathering? How can we design gatherings that hold people’s attention and perhaps even allow participants to go deep and stop multitasking?


  2. I like the quistion: do we know how to get there? and do we need to?
    I agree with you, that instead of formal teaching we have to consider how to teach the students how to learn. I think that a huge part of this is teaching the hos to be web-literacies 🙂


    1. Thanks for the comment, Lone. I certainly agree with you that we need to teach students (and working adults for that matter) how to learn – and a huge part is web literacies (exactly as you note in your blog post of Nov. 4.). I think we are on the same path, using the #change11 MOOC to do some of our own self-discovery about being web literate. I know I am certainly conscious of that.


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