What we can learn from Van Gogh for KM and Innovation

On November 11, 2015 I participated in a #PKMChat called, “Van Gogh on Learning” http://kneaver.com/blog/2015/11/pkmchat-van-gogh-on-learning/ it intrigued me as both a knowledge management professional and an artist and definitely gave me something to reflect on over the last week.

(Note: the #PKMChat was based on work that Ger Driesen is doing, he facilitated the #PKMChat along with Bruno Winck, more about Ger’s work can be found by clicking on the link in #2 in the references listed below)

I have been investigating the linkages between/among creativity, innovation, and knowledge management for more than three years, picking up ideas along the way, and experimenting and talking to people. Informally, there seems to be an agreement that there is a connection among the three things, but it’s in the background, below the surface, not immediately obvious to a lot of people. The #PKMChat helped shed some light on these linkages for me, so I am sharing them with you.

There are three main ideas that we discussed in the #PKMChat,

  1. Thinking inside the box
  2. Practice
  3. Reflection

As well as some secondary topics, like qualities of an artist, and how to balance social vs. solo learning.

One of the first things I noticed about comments on the #PKMChat was the perception that artists have a different perspective, that they are more inclined to experiment, and that there is a natural curiosity in being creative. Certainly this echoes other articles and books I’ve come across and was one of the reasons for Xerox’s artist in residence program in the 1990’s.

Thinking inside the box, I found this a bit hard to take initially, because I like thinking outside the box. I think that’s one of the advantages/benefits of KM, on a macro level it advocates diversity of thought, and learning from other industries or sectors, so the idea of “thinking inside the box” seemed counter-intuitive to me. But what this was really getting at was the idea that constraints build creativity and that often “the answer is right in front of you.” “Right in front of you” in this case could mean that there is someone in your organization that could provide knowledge or expertise or perhaps the knowledge you seek is in that repository or lessons learned system.

One of the themes that came up throughout the #PKMChat was the idea to take time to reflect and be curious, to challenge assumptions, to think critically about a challenge that is being faced. This was true in the discussion around thinking inside the box, too. Taking the time to look around your box and see what you have that might provide insight or an answer.

Practice, is critical to learning, for it is in practicing that we find the best solution and refine our techniques, whether we are artists, programmers, building cars, oil wells, or solar panels. Van Gogh practiced drawing heads, hands, and working with colour in order to get his style refined to what is easily recognizable today. Here we consider the 70-20-10 rule for managerial learning. Morgan McCall, Robert Eichinger and Michael Lombardo in their 1996 book, “The Career Architect” assert that 70% of the learning a successful manager does comes from doing, 20% comes from others, and 10% comes from formal education (books and classes). Practice makes perfect, as they say, but the chat participants also recognized that there is a point where perfection stops forward momentum and “good enough” is good enough.

Reflection, as I mentioned a moment ago reflection came up throughout the chat, even when it wasn’t the main topic of discussion. The consensus when it was the topic was that it was key to learning; that it allowed informed improvements to be made in future iterations of an activity rather than doing the same thing repeatedly. There was recognition that it needed to be part of the flow of the project of process and that the activity wasn’t complete until the reflection had taken place.

Van Gogh and artists reflect on their paintings and processes, on what they like or don’t like, what can be improved to more adequately reflect what they are trying to convey in their works.

Finally, we discussed social versus solo learning. There is a benefit to discussing work with others, whether, as in Van Gogh’s case he was writing to his brother, and talking with other artists or we are struggling with a new project we’ve been assigned to and look for others who have worked on similar initiatives before or talk to our friends/family about how they might approach the situation. The consensus here was that it was important to balance solo and social, and that balance was up to the individual to determine. Discussing things with others helps facilitate the challenging of assumptions because the other person/people aren’t as close to the problem as the person working directly on it so they might see things that we are too close to see.

One of the things that got mentioned a couple of times during the chat was the book, “Steal Like an Artist.” The book talks about 10 items but the first one is most relevant at this point, “steal like an artist.” Everything an artist does is based on what’s come before, something someone else has done. While it’s true that an individual artist may combine processes, techniques, and materials in a way that hasn’t been done before, or have their own style, they are building on something they have learned by doing or by being taught.

The question for me after all of this is: where does this fit with the work that I have been doing?

It’s clear that there is a linkage; artists use some of the same processes and activities that organizations do to learn and make better use of knowledge and experience (e.g. reflection, lessons learned, communities). They do it on an individual basis, rather than a group/organizational basis, but that’s just a matter of scale and rigour around the activities.

What else? Does creativity and the processes it utilizes lead to innovation? Certainly the participants in the chat seemed to think so, there was agreement that being creative lead to asking more questions, and challenging the status quo and that this impact was felt regardless of the field people worked in, i.e., non-artists and artists alike believed that either being exposed to art or participating in an artistic practice made them more curious and open to experimentation.

Creativity leads to innovation, both are facilitated by knowledge management practices, and both contribute artefacts that build the knowledge base of an individual or an organization.



  1. Xerox case study about their artist in residence program, http://www.amazon.com/Art-Innovation-Artist-Residence-Leonardo/dp/0262082756
  2. Learning Solutions Magazine article on Van Gogh as a painter and learning coach http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/1560/emea-reporter-vincent-van-goghpainterand-learning-coach
  3. Jay Cross blog post on implementing 70-20-10 for learning, http://www.internettime.com/2013/02/50-suggestions-for-implementing-70-20-10/
  4. Steal Like an Artist book, http://austinkleon.com/steal/
  5. Steal like an Artist list http://www.austinkleon.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/poster-0.gif
  6. Steal Like an Artist workshop on Slideshare, http://www.slideshare.net/pederrudbeck/steal-like-an-artist-workshop-uxstoriesdk
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The Second KM Silver Bullet: One isn’t enough

As a friend of mine pointed out, it’s not enough to just create a strategy, it’s about the execution of that strategy.

And he’s right, strategies can sit on shelves, certainly I have had more than one client, that for various reasons did not implement the strategy we had developed together.

So what does it take to successfully implement a KM strategy?

A bunch of things, senior management buy-in and budget among them, but I would argue the most critical component, and the one that my friend posited, is Change Management.

There are many good books on Change Management by authors such as Peter Senge and John P. Kotter, to name two of my favourites. But what it all boils down to for me, is communication. Not just some manager decreeing, “thou shalt do knowledge management,” but a real conversation between the KM team and the rest of the organization. What do they need to be able to be effective in their jobs? How can the KM team help them? What do the users of the KM activities need to know about how to use the technology and the processes? What will aid them in their decision making and other things they are responsible for?

KM is there to serve the organization, to help it to be more efficient, effective, innovative, whatever the KM strategy identified as the business case for KM. It does that, in part, through the execution of the change management plan to support the transformational change that KM demands.

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The KM Silver Bullet

KM is a lot of things to a lot of people.

It seems everyone wants the silver bullet, the one “right” answer to the question of how to be successful in KM.

Or they want the one “right” answer to the question of what is KM and what’s included in KM.

Well let me save you a lot of time and heartache, there is no one right answer, the answer is, it depends.

It depends on your organization’s strategy, objectives, culture, industry, regulations, size, budget, risk profile, staffing profile, technology strategy.

Figure out what KM is to your organization and create a strategy that supports that definition, that’s the silver bullet.

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KM, Continuous Improvement, Process Re-engineering, and Six-Sigma

Last week (January 28-29, 2015) I was in Amsterdam for KM Legal Europe, I provided some thoughts on that in my previous blog. Also in that blog post I mentioned that the subject of where KM fits with Continuous Improvement, Process Re-engineering, and Six-Sigma came up. We had a discussion about it, but we ran out of time and I’m not sure that we really came to any conclusions.

First lets start off with some general definitions/explanations.

While Continuous Improvement, Process Re-engineering, and Six-Sigma are all different activities and initiatives, and there are books and courses on each of them separately for the purposes of this blog post I am going to group them all together because for the purposes of this discussion their touch-point with KM is the same. So what are they? They are activities that have the objective of aligning organizational processes with the needs and objectives of the organization. They seek to remove inefficiencies and streamline work processes; they aim for standardization and the reduction of variability.

Knowledge Management, on the other hand, is about learning and sharing, and making sure people have the knowledge they need to do their jobs.

On the face of it, it doesn’t seem that there is much in common, but as they say, “the devil is in the details.”

Let me ask you this, “why do we learn?” and “what are we hoping to accomplish by learning?” Some organizations will say to be more efficient and effective, provide better customer/client service, to be better at what we do, whether that is provide a product, service, economic development, or something else. Hmmm…don’t those sound similar to what Continuous Improvement, Process Re-engineering, and Six-Sigma are all about?

There are many ways to learn, Stan Garfield compiled a list of 80+ activities that can be considered KM activities. Where does learning overlap with Continuous Improvement, Process Re-engineering, and Six-Sigma? In my mind, it’s in the Lessons Learned processes and activities. In Lessons Learned we are trying to understand what worked, what didn’t work, what we should do differently next time and what we need to do to make sure “next time” is better than the last time. That sounds like Continuous Improvement, Process Re-engineering, and Six-Sigma to me.

Now in Continuous Improvement, Process Re-engineering, and Six-Sigma we may actually create the redesigned process. Whereas in Lessons Learned we may recognize that the process needs to be redesigned or a checklist created or some other such outcome and kick-off a sub-process that does the creation. But the Lessons Learned process does do a check and ensure that the outcome was completed and implemented, thus closing the loop on the whole cycle.

I know I have over simplified this, but I do believe the two sets of activities are very closely linked, and I wanted to get across that it’s just a change in perspective that’s needed.

KM isn’t something separate from everything else, it’s a key component of everything and recognizing that makes the implementation that much more complete.

Posted in Business-IT Alignment, Knowledge Management, Law Firm KM, Lessons Learned | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Notes from KM Legal Europe January 2015

I attended KM Legal Europe last week in Amsterdam; I enjoyed the conference very much. I got to talk with many of the speakers and attendees and learn more about what the law firms and corporate legal departments in Europe are doing in the KM space. I was impressed by their thoughtfulness and recognition of the fact that KM can bring them efficiencies and effectiveness as well as innovations and competitive advantage. They were a passionate group of practitioners.

While KM in law tends to focus on documented knowledge because of the nature of the sector and the need to track matters and precedents, there were discussions of lessons learned and sharing tacit knowledge too.

One of the things that (pleasantly) surprised me, was the discussion of automated document creation, when I have spoken with other organizations (not just law firms) about this technology they haven’t even known what it was, so to sit in a room where many were enthusiastic users was refreshing.

Other things that I found refreshing were the discussion of continuous improvement, six sigma, and process re-engineering. Again, all things that utilize an organization’s knowledge and especially, at least in my mind, the use of lessons learned processes and activities. This probably deserves its own blog post, as the participants were quite interested in this area and unfortunately we ran out of time.

One final thing that I found gratifying was the group’s willingness to not only share and learn from each other, but the interest in my experience working in other industries and sectors. They seemed to recognize that KM is KM and that they were behind many other sectors, so there were many things that they could learn from those who have gone before them.

All-in-all a wonderful few days with wonderful people, so glad I was able to take part.

Posted in Change Management, Collaboration, Information Management, Innovation, Knowledge Management, Law Firm KM, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

January 2015–KM Legal Europe

My latest blog post is actually over on the LawFirmKM webpage, check it out there http://lawfirmkm.com/km-legal-europe/

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Published: Designing a Successful KM Strategy

Advance copies of our book, Designing a Successful KM Strategy are now available from our publisher, Information Today, Inc.

It will officially be published in mid-January, so if you buy it before that, you get 40% of the regular price.


I did a workshop based on the book at KM World, on Nov 4th, that was well received, as well as a couple of book signings–it was great to talk to everyone about the book and how it can help them regardless of whether they are just starting with KM or at a point where they are re-evaluating their strategy after implementing KM for a few years.

Information Today has also made a chapter available for preview, you can access it here http://books.infotoday.com/books/Designing-a-Successful-KM-Strategy/Making-the-Case-for-a-Knowledge-Management-Strategy.pdf

Nick (my co-author) also has some helpful links up over on his blog at http://www.nickmilton.com/p/blog-page.html

I hope you enjoy it. Be sure to get in touch if you have any comments or questions.

(Left to right) Ian Thorpe, Stephanie Barnes, Patti Anklam, Connie Crosby at KM World book signing for, "Designing a Successful KM Strategy"

(Left to right) Ian Thorpe, Stephanie Barnes, Patti Anklam, Connie Crosby at KM World book signing for, “Designing a Successful KM Strategy”


Posted in Business-IT Alignment, Change Management, Collaboration, Community of Practice, Decision making, Knoco, knowledge by design, Knowledge Management, Organization models, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Designing a Successful KM Strategy

I guess I have been busy, it’s been 6 months since my last post. One of the things that I have been busy with is finishing the book that I have co-authored with my Knoco colleague, Nick Milton.


Nick and I have written and book called, “Designing a Successful KM Strategy,” it’s being published by Information Today, Inc. Advance copies will be available at KM World, where I will be doing a workshop based on the book (Workshop W4) and a book signing.

I’ll post a link to their website once it’s available for order.

Also, I’m doing a second workshop at KM World called, “W14: Sparking Innovation: Creative KM,” in case any of you are interested in that.

Posted in Business-IT Alignment, Change Management, Collaboration, Community of Practice, Creativity, Decision making, Knoco, Knowledge Management, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

KM Middle East Wrap-up

Thanks to John Girard, Success Steps, and my fellow speakers, KM Middle East was a great success.

You can read about it in John’s blog post here, http://www.johngirard.net/1371

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KM Standards vs. Principles

Wow, it’s been a long time since I posted a blog; I’ve been busy working with new clients and I just haven’t had any earth-shattering KM thoughts to share; no ba in my schedule lately.

[Aside: I wrote this for a side-project that I’m working on, so it may eventually appear somewhere in another format.]

There seems to be a lot of talk about KM standards lately, so here are some initial thoughts I had…

What does “standards” mean? According to Wikipedia, standards are “any norm, convention or requirement.”

What does “principles” mean? Again, according to Wikipedia, principles are “a law or rule that has to be, or usually is to be followed, or can be desirably followed, or is an inevitable consequence of something.”

How are they different? Principles are abstract, whereas standards provide something to be compared to/measured against; standards are more tangible.

How are they the same? They can both be used to provide direction, guidance, and/or insight into a situation.

As with everything we have to come to a common understanding, a common lexicon. We have to figure out what terms and ideas mean in our own context and in the context of the organization or group that we are working with.

Does KM need a common lexicon? Yes

Do we need a common understanding of what KM is? Yes

Do we need a common understanding of what isn’t KM? Yes

Should we be inclusive or exclusive? I believe inclusive, knowledge is a system, and it has many interconnected parts, excluding a part means we don’t have an accurate picture of what is happening. If one of the goals of knowledge management is to improve an organization’s efficiency and effectiveness with its knowledge, isn’t  it better to have an understanding of the whole system rather than one pillar of that system. Decision making will be that much better for understanding the system; innovation will be that much more successful for understanding the system. While having a more holistic view may be more challenging it will result in more comprehensive solution; a solution that is more workable and accepted.

Do we need hard and fast Knowledge Management rules to live by? No. Knowledge is a system, an organization is a system. In order to be successful we must be able to adapt to the needs and requirements of each system. There is no one “right” way to “do” KM. KM has to be adjusted to the culture and nature of the organization. There are similarities among KM implementations, but no two implementations are identical, because the needs of each organization are not identical.

KM has to be by design to be successful.

Design thinking is characterized by being purposive; human centered; a balance of analytical and creative; uses abductive reasoning, i.e. inference from best available explanation; and iterative, it uses prototyping and play testing to achieve success.

Here’s how these principles are applied in knowledge management:

Purposive: we look at the organization’s strategy, goals, and objectives and assess how knowledge management best supports those activities. The knowledge management strategy outlines how the organization’s goals and objectives are furthered through the application of knowledge management activities.

Human centered: the best knowledge management implementations consider the people of the organization, e.g. how they work, what makes their work-lives easier, what the culture of the organization is like and works with those requirements to make the organization more efficient and effective in its knowledge processes and activities.

A balance of analytical and creative: KM should be a balance of analytical and creative. It should capture knowledge and make it reusable, but it also needs to leave space, ba, to allow for knowledge creation. This space can look like lots of different things, e.g. giving employees 10% of their time for projects they want to work on/explore, foosball tables, basketball courts, gyms, art/creativity space, and communities of interest; activities that encourage different connections to be made.

Abductive reasoning: this sums up the belief in KM in general. It can be very difficult to prove a causal link between improved knowledge activities and improved organizational performance, metrics and ROI continue to be a significant hurdle for many organizations. However, anyone who has experience with implementing knowledge management successfully knows that efficiency and effectiveness in an organization are improved through the use of knowledge management activities.

Iterative: successful KM starts small and grows. It starts with an over-all strategy and plan, but then moves to pilots, which bring in small parts of the organization, so that lessons can be learned and adjustments made as the people, process, and supporting technology are implemented across the organization.

In conclusion, KM needs principles, a common lexicon, and a common understanding of what is and isn’t KM, but it does not need standards.

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