Is context really everything?

Riff Fullan, 01 February 2016
Is context really everything?

What do horse racing on a frozen lake and a knowledge management workshop have in common? At first glance, not a lot. But over the past few days I was a curious observer of one and a facilitator of the other, and they both sparked similar thoughts as I was remembering the experiences.

The winter horse racing is held in the Swiss mountains, and it’s obvious that various kinds of specialised knowledge are required to organise and manage it. You have to be sure that it is at the right time for the ice to be thick enough to handle several tons of people and animals hurtling around the lake at great speed. There are other things to think about, such as the right amount of snow cover to have a proper race instead of a contest to see which horses can avoid slipping off the track, and I’m sure a host of other things that would not even occur to me because I have no experience with this kind of thing.

All in all then, you need a combination of general knowledge about horseracing and specific knowledge about the context of horseracing on an ice-covered lake.

This is where a KM workshop has its similarities. The way an organisational KM workshop is designed in terms of content and process depends on a number of factors, including the organisation’s areas of thematic focus, the kinds of contexts in which the work is carried out and the related level of importance of information versus skills and experience, as well as the types of knowledge that are most important, such as local culture, market conditions, prevailing wisdom in a given field, etc.

We can see that in both the horseracing and the KM workshop cases, knowledge of the context is a crucial element of effective KM. On the other hand, it is not necessary to completely rethink things every time a similar event is held. If that were true, we would have to go through complicated processes of planning and learning each time we organise one, starting from scratch and not be able to rely on past experience. We can build on past experience, and we can use the knowledge we’ve acquired in one situation to inform our work in other ones, but we always have to be aware of what adjustments need to be made to fit each context.

To sum up, it is a matter of weaving our past experience together with the most relevant characteristics that distinguish one context from another, so we can adapt what we focus on and the processes we design to each different situation we find ourselves in. In that way, the horses don’t fall through the ice and the KM workshops continue to add value to our work.

In other words, it’s somewhere in between a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and an approach that would require us to reinvent the wheel every time we try to do something new. It sounds relatively straightforward when you think of it this way, but as with anything involving relationships among humans and institutions (and in some cases animals), what is easy to describe is sometimes quite a challenge to realize. This is also where experience can really make a big difference. The more experience we have, the more likely we are to know what tends to work in different situations, and to be able to make the right kinds of adjustments when we confront new realities.

Riff Fullan

Riff Fullan

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