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Positive Knowledge Management approach

1 June 2010
A hand holding a graph

A Knowledge Management project (setting up an organizational portal, a community of practice, lessons knowledgebase, etc.) usually begins with mapping the state of the organization, identifying its needs and characterizing a knowledge solution that suits these needs and settings best. The point of this stage is to identify the existing knowledge gaps and where the knowledge flow is insufficient.

There are some techniques for performing this stage, from conducting interviews and passing out questionnaires to observing and documenting the various work stages. The element common to most of these techniques is focusing and searching for what we don't have: what are we missing? What can we improve?

This article wishes to suggest an alternative approach, namely focusing on what we do have: what do we have? What are our strengths? How can we enhance these strengths?

This approach is referred to as the AI (Appreciative Inquiry) approach that is part of a broader psychological approach titled "Positive Psychology" which has been gaining speed in recent years. Positive Psychology focuses on human strengths and health as preventive medicine (as opposed to traditional psychology which deals with treating and solving problems). This field deals with understanding the essence of human happiness and the conditions that lead to optimal function of individuals and organizations. In an organizational context, Organizational Positive Psychology focuses on the unique ways in which organizations and organization members flourish and thrive. As a school of thought, it assumes that individual excellence in organizations releases great potential in individuals and organizations, generates happiness and promotes positive flowing in the organizational life's quality, effectiveness and impressive organizational performances. This approach offers an alternative for classic organizational intervention processes in general and specifically the Knowledge Management Project.

The AI approach's principles 'In a nutshell'

  1. The structuring principle: Multiple realities coexist in every organization. These realities are comprised from shared approaches and insights. Organizations are molded through relationships, language and etiquette that receive an agreed meaning and in turn structure the identity and order that are the organization. Therefore, the organizational reality to be studied is a matter of choice; which reality and which relationships, experiences, and language should be studied.

  2. The simultaneity principle: since reality is a social construct which constantly in the making, inquiries can affect the reality the organization creates for itself. Most organizational development approaches tend to refer to organizational development as a long and gradual process of examination, feedback, planning and implementation. The AI approach, on the other hand, supposes that learning and change are simultaneous processes performed through dialogue and interviews about designations, dreams and organizational discoveries and sees change as a constant reality in organizations. The subjects being studied and learned change the organizational agenda and allow the positive behavior and thought patterns to rise. Therefore, the nature of the inquiry and the questions asked during it are critical for the manner in which organization members learn and discover themselves and the way in which they design their future collectively.

  3. The priming principle: according to this principle, the organization's present and future are intertwined. The image an organization has of its future directs and molds its behavior in the present. Therefore, a positive image of the organization's future can lead to positive results in the organizational reality.

  4. The positivity principle: according to this principle, organizations can thrive and attain stability by focusing on the positive and stimulating aspects of our organization. Studies on AI intervention processes have found a correlation between the positivity of the inquiry questions and the involvement and enthusiasm of its participants, which directly affects the success and long-term effect of an organizational change. The explanation suggested for these findings is that people and organizations tend to adopt and accept a positive image of themselves, become more hopeful and are energized by it.

When Knowledge Management meets the positive approach

A few months ago, in the e-convention organized by the Israeli Knowledge Management Forum, we met a newly appointed knowledge manager. He told us of the chaos in his organization and his dilemmas regarding the classic question: "where do I even start organizing this knowledge?". The answers he received from his more experienced colleagues was to focus on two or maybe three processes that require improvement that if handled will yield fruit quickly and start the organizational knowledge management from them. Prima Facie, this answer makes sense: you cannot operate in too many channels; therefore, we must channel the resources and focus on a limited number of objectives. Furthermore, KM as a distinct discipline still needs to justify its existence in the organization. Therefore, it is better to focus on short-term processes that will yield quick results and raise the need for Knowledge Management.

The point on which the positive approach and the traditional approach differ is their answer to the basic questions: which processes do we choose? The colleagues recommended focusing on processes that require improvement; why not begin with the processes we wish to enhance?

Focusing on processes that require improvement "signals" management that there is something problematic about their management (because everyone understands that there aren't only three processes that require improvement… this is just the beginning). However, focusing on enhancing processes that require retaining sends management "positive feedback" and opens a positive communication channel between the knowledge manager and management. Don’t worry! Even if there are no "perfect processes" we naturally wish to enhance, we will choose the most positive and this inquiry (according to the simultaneity principle) will lead to changes and improvements in the processes' weak links without harming the positive approach to the entire process.

In order to understand how the AI approach can be applied in Knowledge management projects, we will briefly describe the approach's central model, the 4 D's Model.

The 4 D's Model

  1. Discovery- valuing what provides life: the "Discovery" stage is a journey for exposing positive stories. The objective is to overcome the tendency to concentrate on problem analysis, difficulties and obstacles and move the focus to positive aspects. This requires a rediscovering process that is performed through conversations between organization members participating in the process. The process's central questions are:

    - What is the thing you appreciate the most about yourself, your work and your organization?

    Describe a peak in your organizational experience, a time in which you were the most involved and enthusiastic.

    What do you think are the four variables that give the organization life, those elements that without them the organization will cease to exist?

    Make three wishes related to enhancing your organization's health and vitality.

    After discovering the positive stories, comes the stage of spreading them throughout the organization. The participants shar, in bigger groups, their personal stories. Together, they identify the central subjects. Then, based on the central subjects that rose in discussion, the participants embark on another inquiry journey via a questionnaire they are handed.

  2. Dreaming- imagining what will be: The dreaming stage is a time in which groups spend their time thinking and try to define their aspiration and dreams regarding their organization, regarding their relationships in the organization and regarding themselves. At this stage, based on the information collected from interviews. The participants imagine themselves and their organization operating in their most optimal form.

  3. Design- defining what will be: the Design stage offers a great number of organization members to participate in their organization's joint design. This stage deals with choices and making decisions for the organization and its members. Based on the dreams and stories that rose in the previous stages, participants suggest processes and strategies, make decisions and form collaborations that will lead to a positive change and promote reaching the future they imagined together. Their involvement in the design process enables organization members to re-orientate in the organization and adapt themselves more easily.

  4. Destiny- planning the future: as mentioned above, change takes place in each of the AI's stages since it provides a space in which workers can contribute and offer their services to the organization. The Destiny stage focuses on planning steps and actions towards implementing the imagined future on both a personal and organizational level. Through shared meetings, commitment is born; this commitment ensures that the organization will strive to implement the decisions and collaboration formed in the previous stage.

The model can thus be implemented in an organizational portal (either setting up a new portal or upgrading an existing one):

  1. Discover- valuing what life provides: at this stage we will attempt to find Winner Applications, those elements in the portal to which users are attracted. If it's an organizational portal upgrading project, there probably are some Winner Applications in it and the wheel doesn't to be reinvented; it is best to simply identify the elements to which users are currently attracted and examine them. In case of setting up a new portal we will focus on typical portal components (content, data, operational systems, work processes and knowledge sharing) that are expressed in various ways in the organization and are meaningful to users.

Through interviews and/or focus groups with edge users we will ask the user:

What is the thing you most value about your job and organization?

What are the three things most important to you in your workplace?

What tools assist you in performing your job?

Describe a peak in your organizational experience, a time in which you were the most involved and enthusiastic.

What, in your opinion, are the four elements which without users won't enter the portal?

What are the things you like about the current portal/any other website you tend to use?

Make three wishes regarding enhancing your organization's health and vitality.

Some of these questions relate directly to the organizational portal, yet some relate to the worker's world and their perception of the organization. If we understand part of the worker's world (what's important to them, what they value, etc.) we may be able to translate them to portal elements and implement them in the organizational portal so that they suit the users' needs and are compatible with the organization's business goals.

  1. Dream-Imagining what can be: at this stage users will imagine how an organizational portal popular among users may look and how the organizational portal may serve them and the organization as a utility for optimal functioning and basing their relationship in the organization.

  2. Design- determining what will be: At this stage the professional team that analyzes the portal needs produces is a series of interviews, questionnaires, and focus groups, distills the insights from them and translates them into designing the portal in terms of content and processes and in terms of user interface (navigation and display).

  3. Destiny- planning the future: at this stage the analysis written previously is implemented by following a content management program (collecting content, writing, editing and validating) and technologically setting up the portal (infrastructure and development).

In conclusion, hereby are some more facts about the positive approaches:

  • People like to learn from successes

  • People like to use their strengths; using them enhances their sense of happiness

  • Happy management makes better and more efficient executive decisions

  • Happy workers are more loyal to the organization, more creative and more effective

  • Happy people are more mentally resilient when faced with difficulties

The approach can be incorporated in any Knowledge Management project, from general Knowledge Management through organizational portals and information directories and especially retiree knowledge retention, lessons learned and setting up an insight database. The main challenge in implementing the approach lies on starting out with a positive attitude, deciding to adopt the positive approach instead of following the traditional approach- the ability to focus on what we have instead of searching for what we lack.

We might succeed if we realize that in order to search for what's missing, you have to know what you have.

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