Education and museum knowledge management
It seems counter-intuitive to advise learning organizations about how to implement learning, but educational institutions and museums often find themselves locked into a matrix of intellectual intransigence hardened by politics, funding, and bias. To avoid this, they need to actively adopt ideas from knowledge management that help commercial organizations drive innovation, lubricate agility, and accelerate change.
The following suggestions aim at specific opportunities in education and museum curatorship. While they derive from general knowledge management practices and principles, they do not include an exhaustive list, only the most salient. Knowledge management practices used for aerospace maintenance records would, for instance, far overreach what is needed to encourage the creation of more adaptive curricula and exhibits. These suggestions focus primarily on cross-disciplinary engagement designed to encourage the assimilation of emergent knowledge in order to maintain the relevancy of learning experiences.
Nine Knowledge Management Ideas to Help Educational Institutions and Museums Adapt at the Speed of Change
1. Build maps. An organization’s knowledge is only as transparent as its representation. If all of an organization’s knowledge exists in lists and catalogs siloed and bucketed by departments then the corpus of an organization’s knowledge hides among those lists. Organizations should create maps that cross boundaries and expose duplicate work that can free funding to augment the organization’s knowledge. Maps also reveal synergies and opportunities for enhancing the overall learning outcome. Because knowledge can and does become obsolete, it is as important to prune maps as it is to build them.
2. Pay attention. Knowledge unfolds daily, and while the impact of incremental knowledge may seem inconsequential to established structures, consistently monitoring knowledge reveals uncertainties about assumptions. Paying attention requires pursuing a wide variety of inputs such as academic papers, science magazines, podcasts, social media, trade magazines, economics sources, and technology journals and magazines (just to highlight a few). Based on its mission and vision, each organization needs to decide what areas it needs to pay attention to. It then needs to stretch that list to include ancillary areas that may impact or expand the nature of a core concept, replace or displace a core concept, or suggest a new topic that should be adopted as a core concept.
3. Hire knowledge managers. Department heads and deans most would argue, act as the de facto knowledge managers within higher education and museums, but the political context for those roles often leans more toward protection than disruption. Knowledge managers should be hired for the purpose of making existing knowledge structures transparent, monitoring knowledge sources for discontinuities against the existing map components, and identifying new insights that extend the map.
Some organizations choose to create part-time knowledge manager roles for those already employed doing something else. While this is not ideal, it can be workable if a) the knowledge management work is explicitly stated in the role description b) performance metrics and incentives rely partly on knowledge management measures, and c) leadership regularly reinforces through prioritization that the knowledge management work is of equal value to the organization as other work being performed.
4. Improve knowledge processes. Building maps and paying attention may represent net new processes for many organizations. Existing distributed functional and discipline-based knowledge processes, from curriculum development and approvals to content reviews, assessments, and course evaluations, also need to integrate with the greater context of knowledge management. Formally asking questions about how a new idea fits into an existing course or theme, and its implications for learning and assessment embed knowledge management into the practices of the organization.
5. Commit to knowledge management. Knowledge management is not a one-time initiative with one-time funding to build a map, look for innovation, implement a few changes, and move on. Knowledge management requires a commitment to monitoring, sharing, assimilating, and adopting new knowledge. Commitment requires on-going funding and staffing.
6. Adopting a new employment deal. Organizations serious about knowledge management embed principals of learning and change into their hiring practices and their labor agreements for all employees. Employees need to embrace the model.
7. Make knowledge explorations social. Exploring new ideas has always been social, but the social circles of the past were often small and local. When they scaled up to international levels they did so periodically at conferences, or at a slow pace given the limitation of communications and distance. The Internet strips away any pretense for time or distance. Conversations about new ideas through the Internet arrive immediately and intimately. The ideas cross-discipline silos, opening them up to further synergy.
The work of learning organizations is the transfer and creation of knowledge. By adopting attributes of knowledge management, those organizations can do a better job of being part of the global dialog that tests, challenges, refines, and discovers knowledge. Even researchers who make discoveries in near isolation require social systems to assess and adopt their thinking.
By making knowledge management social, organizations also create an opportunity for cross-discipline collaborations and enhanced trust among their staff, faculty, researchers, and learners.
8. Don’t over structure. The adoption of knowledge management, even of knowledge managers, should not suggest overly regulated processes that shape knowledge exploration into something that might appear easily automated. Knowledge is emergent, messy, and self-organizing. That is why paying attention ranks so high on this list. Emergent knowledge can’t be searched for because almost no one knows to look for it. The best knowledge management for learning organizations involves casting wide nets, discovering and digging deeper, and then sensemaking: How does what we just discovered and validated as new, or as a challenge, fit into our map? Implementation does require structure, but not over structuring, discovery can lead to blind spots. Finding blind spots leads to more learning.
9. Measure the impact of knowledge. Measuring the impact of a knowledge management investment always proves the most difficult task for most organizations, but the movement toward transparency increases the likelihood of meaningful metrics. If, for instance, a course in physics explicitly communicates that it will explore the controversies of quantum mechanics and that course performs better (more signed-up, more complete) than previous basic quantum mechanics courses, then the knowledge management that infused that course would be considered successful. New pipelines inspired by emergent needs that result in improved hiring rates for graduates also measures the impact of discovery, action, and alignment. In a museum setting, engagement with exhibits, social media metrics, and customer feedback can be used to determine the success of a new experience.
Successful measurements should not be used to solidify something that should be ephemeral. Even if something is wildly popular, but is no longer relevant, investment should be made to update or retire the experience. Dinosaur exhibits, for instance, that still display many dinosaurs without feathers, no longer accurately reflect the best understanding of dinosaurs. External events, like the release of the latest Jurassic Park film, offer an opportunity to educate students and guests on how Hollywood depictions of dinosaurs reflect the difficulty in updating ideas. The institutions can then demonstrate their agility, and teach guests about learning and adapting themselves, with a mangy, static, feathered T-Rex that may prove more frightening than the smooth reptilian one roaring across an IMAX screen.
Marketing and strategy
It is imperative that organizations communicate effectively should they choose to adopt knowledge management as an approach to permeating their programs with the latest perspectives, data, and controversies. Effective use of technology may drive much of the marketing effort to word-of-mouth as people share their experiences.
Because many learning organizations may pivot slowly to more inclusive, transparent, and transformational processes, those that do so more quickly may find an opportunity more quickly for strategic differentiation.
The ability to rapidly identify and incorporate new knowledge is a key skill for next-generation workers. Institutions that help teach that discipline, and experiences that reinforce it will be valuable to future employees and employers. The adoption of these approaches may also create new funding and partnership opportunities with employers.
The realization of an adaptive learning organization depends on execution. It starts with marketing the idea internally to gain traction, managing consistently to the principles of discovery, adaptation, and innovation, and eventually to learning experiences that deliver on the promise by demonstrating relevance to learners.
Can libraries and bookstores help drive knowledge management?
The short answer is yes. Many organizations struggle with what their libraries should become in the future as physical research and collections transform into digital assets. One answer is to transform the library into the knowledge management hub, to empower the library to not just curate external knowledge, but to curate the internal knowledge of the organization. Librarians are better prepared than most for the rigor required to build and maintain knowledge maps. They may be less well-suited to exerting the political will required for sparking disruption and fueling change. Change management can be taught and hiring guidelines and rewards structures can be skewed toward more assertive candidates.
College stores may also evolve into content curators, working with educators to find the best, most relevant and most timely material, on a quarter-by-quarter basis, to represent current thinking and challenges to that thinking.
Intellectual organizations, not just those who work for them, need to plan and execute at the speed of change. This does not imply organizational or structural disruption as much as it does intellectual disruption: what to teach, how to teach, openness to uncertainty, and agility in the experience of learning.
Some may argue that new knowledge often proves itself wrong under increased intellectual scrutiny and deeper exposure to the scientific method. Given that, perhaps learning organizations should be cautious about what they expose their learners to and accept new ideas only when they seem stable and more proven.
That reasoning lies completely counter to this recommendation. The infusion of new knowledge hastens those reviews and increases the scrutiny. The process of exploration of new ideas is not about accepting the emergent knowledge as fact, but about recognizing it and making learners aware so they can engage with it in an intellectually honest manner.
Commercial organizations that employ knowledge bring new products to market quickly, accept feedback ravenously, and rapidly adapt to market needs by openly sharing what they have learned internally. They enable this rapid adaptation through systems and people hired and evaluated to perform in this way.
It is very difficult to overlay innovation atop rigid systems. Colleges, universities, and museums should look to knowledge management as a discipline that can help them unshackle from past practice and create a path toward a more agile and adaptive relationship with knowledge.
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