KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Write it down!

with 8 comments


(Image: “Sumerian School Days [Text and Object],” in Children and Youth in History, Item #408, (accessed December 5, 2011).

There’s a very interesting discussion going on right now on KM4Dev on ways of documenting and sharing lessons learned. One issue that often comes up in this type of discussion is whether there is any benefit of writing down and sharing lessons learned at all.

On the one hand many of our organizational masters seem to believe that if you could compile a master database of “Best Practices” then everyone would know most of what they need to do a good job. I’m not convinced (see this past post on why I’m not a fan of “best practices”).

On the other hand I’m increasingly seeing KM practitioners state that there is little to no merit in documenting lessons and practices, instead advocating for a flow of knowledge shared person to person as and when needed through participatory face to face events or online through social media type tools. Good reasons cited for this are that application of knowledge is contextual and that a lot of the real knowledge about what happened in a situation is tacit and cannot be captured easily, if at all in a written document. In addition, it’s usually much more convincing to get information from another person, one you trust, and one to whom you can ask follow up questions than to get it in a sanitized lessons learned publication.

Others might not dismiss writing but sometimes say that it’s best not to impose a structure so as not to constrain the thinking or try to fit ever y experience into the same box.

Perhaps you will not be surprised that I’m not yet ready to dismiss writing down the lessons you learn according to some pre-defined format as a valuable way to share knowledge. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Writing down your experience in a structured way is a very useful way to trigger self reflection about your experience, what happened and what was “important” about it. Keeping it short, and using a few key questions or headers is a good way to help you think more clearly about your experience and how to explain it to others. It might also help surface some aspects that you might otherwise overlook if you just told it or wrote it as a freeform story.
  • A written lesson or practice helps others locate relevant experiences for further consideration – in other words, the documented piece might be a conversation starter for more in depth follow up and contact between individuals rather than the end of the contact. Here the documented summary helps a seeker of knowledge /ideas to sift through different experiences to find those which might have most relevance to their own situation.
  • A written piece, if it includes attribution, gives recognition to those who had the experience and those who documented it. Recognition is an important and often overlooked motivator for knowledge sharing so having a physical product externally shared with someone’s name on it can be a good motivator for people to share their experience and build their networks.
  • It’s a record which can be drawn upon later. The problem with real time knowledge sharing in events and online communities is that only those present can share their experience. Having something documented from other experiences can help bring in ideas that are not “in the room” or help identify people and organizations who can be encouraged to join the current conversation.
  • Having a simple template makes it easier to store and organize practices, but it also makes it easier for people to sift through them to find those which are most relevant. It also ensures that certain key questions (such as what was the problem being addressed, what was the context, what steps were taken and what actually happened including whatever evidence is available to support the conclusions). Without a template it can be easy to miss key questions that help others to validate or contextualize what is being shared.
  • Lessons learned documents can be relatively easily repurposed for communication and fundraising purposes. They tell a nice simple story that shows how ideas turn into results, yet if written well acknowledge both strengths and weaknesses and what can be done to improve in the future which can be a more compelling (and honest) message than a simple unqualified success story.

In summary, there are still reasons for writing something down in a structured way which are not replaced by more interactive and tacit methods. The key is to use them both together for what they are good for with the writing down of a lesson not being the end of the knowledge sharing – but rather just the starting point for the conversations around an experience and how it might help inform practice in the future.

(Aside: the image above is an interesting record of an apprentice Sumerian scribe who is frequently beaten by his teacher for not doing his (wrote) work accurately enough. That is, until the boy’s parent’s invite the teacher to their home and ply him with food, drink and gifts after which the teacher’s impression of the student’s potential markedly improves – a lesson for the ages!)

Update: For those of you interested in the KM4Dev discussion  on documenting and sharing lessons learned which sparked this blog post Davide Piga, the originator of the query, has posted a nice summary here.


Written by Ian Thorpe

December 5, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Excellent post Ian, fully agree. As always, the answer is not a clear-cut yes/no. In reality, I think it is crucial that we pursue several avenues of knowledge acquisition and dissemination concurrently in order to create a successful knowledge sharing environment. So yes, I think peer-to-peer knowledge sharing is the right way to go, and yes also, we should keep writing down whenever we can 🙂


    December 5, 2011 at 2:10 pm

  2. What’s in the name, documenting a process or an approach with positive or even bad impacts, should be systematically recorded for the reasons mentioned above in your blog. More emphasize should however be put on ‘impacts’ what were the objectives of the project or programme and what really materialized? Often this can not be done at the end of a project or programme but one or even two or more years later. It would be good though to read the assessment reports on evaluations of the major development banks.You can read whether an intervention was (un)successful, sustainable, why and wether the intended benefits were accomplished.

    In addition in new project design a writer or designer should pay more attention on previous experiences and that should be reflected in the project or program design. Ideally this should be part of the business process. Most project designs do not cover previous experiences or not sufficiently. Documenting good practices is important, regardless how we label it, but if it’s just a record or a presentation, we still don’t learn.

    Daan Boom

    December 5, 2011 at 9:58 pm

  3. Ditto for above – thanks for articulating in the blog. Can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater… as they say 🙂

    Michelle Laurie

    December 6, 2011 at 12:13 am

  4. I’m also in the “both-and” camp. In addition, I think there is real benefit in paying close attention to the way “good practices” are documented. I’m a fan of the “bullet point” template that includes SHORT answers to questions like:

    1) One sentence summary of the practice (if you’re not interested do not read any more)
    2) What is the context? (BRIEF description of the organization and situation)
    3) What is the specific issue/problem/challenge addressed by the practice?
    4) What was done to address the issue? (the good practice)
    5) What were the results? (intended and unintended, good and bad)
    6) CONTACT INFORMATION (name, e-mail, phone, Skype, etc. — as many ways to reach the contributor as possible)

    The assumption underlying this approach is that any practice will need to be adapted rather than adopted. If good practices can be scanned or searched quickly, the written document serves the purpose of allowing the reader to determine if this is worth the time to learn more about.

    Larry Solow

    December 6, 2011 at 8:45 am

  5. I think you hit 2 key points there: recognition and accessibility.

    Recognition so that people actually take the time to do it, and accessibility so that people take the time to look it up. Although I agree that circumstances change, I also believe that currently we are reinventing the wheel on a regular basis, which is frankly inefficient and plain dumb. I think we need to find something really easy that works something like google, where you just type in what you are looking for and a few options pop up, with access to the basic details so that you can quickly locate what is useful and what is not. Even if the circumstances are very different, the lessons learned might still apply.

    Easier said than done I know…


    December 6, 2011 at 11:00 am

  6. and without “writing it down” in some ways, any follow up conversation and evolution of the ideas in social networks would not be possible.


    December 6, 2011 at 11:05 am

  7. […] Write it down « KM on a dollar a day […]

  8. […] lastly blogging is itself a form of journal keeping – directly if you literally write down what you are working on (“living out loud”), but also of your thinking and its evolution if you […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: