Harvesting knowledge from text conversations

Km4Dev wiki screenshotThis is the second in my latest series of online facilitation method tips and mini-podcasts. John Smith asked me to write up the practice some of us have been nurturing on the KM4DevWiki to encourage summarizing and harvesting of learnings from key community conversations in our email list on to a wiki. The podcast can be found here.

There are often amazing threads on email lists and web based discussions. Often they get lost due to the tyranny of recency over relevancy. We remember what we last read. How many times have you heard people say “hey, we discussed that before… where IS that conversation?” Some tools make it easy to search within message, but then you have to reconstruct a thread. There may have had subject line changes, interruptions, etc. It is hard work. That’s why it is useful think about practices to pull out useful stuff so it can provide wider and easier benefit.

One practice of harvesting learnings from text based discussions (in email or web forums) started as a small FAQ (frequently asked questions) project a small group of use did a couple of years ago as part of the KM4Dev community. KM4Dev is a global community of practice interested in knowledge management and knowledge sharing in international development.

We initially intended to create FAQ’s out of key discussions to answer what we thought were some of the “big questions” that often came up in the community. You can read about the project at the following links.

What we discovered was that often something wasn’t simply a response to a question, so the FAQ format started to limit us. We moved into harvesting what we called “Community Knowledge.” This is the basis of the technique I know use regularly.

Now, on the the technique. (Did I say these were going to be short? I guess I goofed on that!)

  1. Role model the harvesting behavior. Our initial FAQs gave people the chance to experience discussion summaries. But the next step was to role model it around current discussions. At first we would notice a “hot thread,” summarize it then post the wiki url back to the email list.
    • Templates can make it easier/more comfortable for people new to summarization and/or wikis.
    • Cross promote the wiki on the list to keep it in the community “line of sight.”
  2. Ask others to try the behavior. Next we started asking people to create and post their own summaries of discussion threads that they started.
    • asking in a private email is friendlier, but sometimes the public request can add some useful “pressure.”
  3. Time the request well. Usually we made the request for summarization after we saw a thread really get going — and hopefully near the end of the thread.
    • I have made the mistake of suggesting that the thread be summarized too soon and people took that as a “stop talking” signal.
  4. Expect resistance. (And I’m tempted to say “resistance is futile, but that’s not really true!) Initially people did not summarize. So I would set up a wiki page for them, send them the url and another small request. (I think I started signing my emails from “wikipest.”) Some people would then summarize and post to the wiki, and some would send me the summary to post. That was fine.
    • Reminders are often useful. I do wonder if I annoyed some times…
  5. Encourage those who adopt the practice. After about a year, others started recommending a summaries to starters of hot threads. So the initial part of the practice was being picked up by others. More people were creating pages, but it was still a very limited group.
    • Don’t expect miracles
    • Do thank those wonderful souls who will do this important community work.
  6. Make the value visible. Last year we had the need to review our technical platforms and lo and behold, the wiki was getting more page views that the community’s older, established content management based site. This validated that people were finding and in some way, interested in what we had harvested. I believe this external validation helped motivate and maintain the practice.
    • Share stories of use
    • Make pageview data available
    • If the wiki has been useful beyond the community, get the other users to send a thank you as well.
  7. Reduce barriers and support from the side. Some of us still have to go in and link pages to the index page.
    • We have had to require registration for the wiki due to wiki-spam, which creates some friction and overhead – it is not as easy as I wish it were.
    • The wiki still needs a lot of overall attention to make things easier to find. (That is on my to do list – and has been for a long time. )

All in all, the practice is valued. We are making our knowledge visible and available to the wider world and inviting them to help improve it. There are 76 entries. The entries on knowledge sharing tools and methods have been spread and reused by members’ parent organizations. Value has been amplified. I think it was worth it!

For more on harvesting:

Social Network Analysis – KM4DevWiki

I love the KM4Dev community – it is one of my “homes.” Over the last 10 days there was a great thread on the email list about social network analysis tools. The community came up with great suggestions and one of our members, Nynke Kruiderink, created a summary on our community wiki. Social Network Analysis – KM4DevWiki. Nynke noted in her email to the list about the new page that she has found it helpful to have past summaries on the wiki, so she created this one as a gift back.

Latest KM4D Journal – KM in Latin America

The latest KM4Development Journal is live on the web, this time with a focus on knowledge work in Latin America. I am a little surprised, because somehow I thought it would be in Spanish. I’m not sure why I thought that, but I did. In any case, I’m personally grateful they are in English for my reading pleasure, but I sure think it would be great to translate this edition (part 1 of 2) into Spanish. What do you think?

Here is the table of contents and links…

Vol 3, No 2 (2007)Knowledge sharing and knowledge management in Latin America and the Caribbean (Part I)

Table of Contents


Editorial: Knowledge sharing and knowledge management in Latin America and the Caribbean (Part I)


Margarita Salas, Kemly Camacho, Simone Staiger-Rivas, Camilo Villa, Julie Ferguson, Sarah Cummings2-4


Institutionalizing learning in rural poverty alleviation initiatives


Irene Guijt, Julio Berdegué, German Escobar, Eduardo Ramírez5-20
Resource centres set the tone for learning in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector


Ewen Le Borgne, Carlos Talavera, Aleida Martinez, Gerardo Martinez, Gustavo Heredía, Erma Uytewaal21-37
Knowledge management for agricultural innovation within the Bolivian Agricultural Technology System: insights from the analysis of rural knowledge networks


Frank Hartwich, Mario Monge Pérez, Luis Ampuero Ramos, José Luis Soto38-51
Building small-scale farmers learning networks: Pachamama Raymi as an innovative knowledge management system


Javier Cabero, Willem van Immerzeel52-63

Case Studies

Knowledge sharing for good in a Europe-Latin American perspective: the VIT@LIS experience



Fabio Nascimbeni64-73
Investing in knowledge for evidence-based social policies for children: two case-studies of knowledge dissemination initiatives in the Eastern Caribbean


Koen Rossel-Cambier, Tom Olsen, Niloufar Pourzand74-78
Knowledge management to connect and strengthen people’s capacities in Latin America


Arthur van Leeuwen, Annemieke Beekmans, Reintje van Haeringen85-94
Knowledge management: a key factor for productive chain evolution in the department of Cauca, Colombia. A case study of the fishing chain network


Paola Andrea Victoria, Luz Stella Pemberthy, Natalia Maya95-104

Next Generation Knowledge Sharing & Learning Online Conference

These peppers aren't hotI have to admit, I don’t usually spend a lot of time thinking about “knowledge management” (KM). I know my work is often classified under that domain, but I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the idea that knowledge can be managed. Processes? Tools? Resources? Sure. But knowledge is created, shared, transferred and transformed the same way water flows downstream. It finds its way, it gets trapped, it dries up and it can move mountains.

Then in the span of the last few weeks, KM keeps coming up. Last week there was the panel on the Future of KM at GK3. Yesterday my online colleague Luis Suarez twittered a question about the future of KM and Chief Tech suggested the idea of a Next Generation Knowledge Sharing & Learning Online Conference Event. It didn’t take long until a bunch of us were chiming in…

while trying to wrap up everything at work since tomorrow is my last working day for the remaining of the year, earlier on today in Twitter a crazy thought came up from James Dellow after I mentioned in one of my twitterings how one of my abstracts for a conference event, taking place next year, on the state of social computing, was rejected. From there onwards, Dennis McDonald also jumped in, along with Steve Collins, Kelly Drahzal (a.k.a. Kellypuffs), Mark Masterson, Nancy White, LittleLaura, Ryan Boyles, Thomas van der Wal, Ryan Lanham and Jasmin Tragas so far. And before we knew it we had a whole bunch of folks in Twitter interested in the overall event (Plus those who contacted me already offline!).

That is knowledge sharing. Maybe even a little creation. So what next? Chief Tech is pondering on what he’d like to present. I’m still wrapping my head about what “it” is. Again, quotes from Twitter that Luis saved…

Nancy White came up with some really good comments on a potential direction: “I have been struggling with “what it is” And it is not just personal. It is organizational. KS, knowledge creation and application. And yes, some management” and so did LittleLaura: “like the idea of KM and IM and info architecture, importance often gets forgotten with all the hype of modern media these days!“, along with Kapil Gupta with some really good suggestions: “I only saw part of your conversation about nextgen KM conf, but sounds like you need is something like a barcamp for KM -in SL maybe?

My starting point is to ask myself, what can we do together that advances our knowledge? Is it presentations? Conversations? Working projects that demonstrate key ideas and projects? Thinking and writing together (a la “writeshops”)?

How can we walk our talk about knowledge creation, sharing and transformation? How do we embed the ideas of complexity, connection and even love into our thinking together? Form matters as much as function here. How do we live our ideas about knowledge and its role in our work and lives?