Designing for Knowledge Exchange: Gardens, not Stained-Glass Windows

Ongoing change is a fact, not a failure.

Theresie Kabarenzi (left), and her husband Germain Habyawmana (right), in the kitchen garden near their house in Huye, Rwanda. © 2017 Riccardo Gangale, Courtesy of Photoshare

Small programs and working groups in the nonprofit sector (and global health in particular) have interesting knowledge exchange challenges. They need to get their work noticed, share up-to-date information with each other, and make accessible collections of key publications and resources. Over the past several years, I have been a knowledge management and exchange (KM&E) advisor for dozens of such groups — and often their first question is “Can’t we just build a website?”

A problem arises at this point: Many people have the impression that once something is built, it “stays built.” This idea works well for tangible products and edifices. Widgets and machines and pieces of architecture are made to endure — for months, or for centuries. They need to be perfect in some ways; they have to fit in a specific space, or other things will go badly wrong.

But “Just build a website!” is not the answer to most knowledge exchange challenges. A web presence can certainly be a major facet of a sound KM&E approach — but it can’t stand on its own. Knowledge management efforts take ongoing resources and support. Web servers and code need to be updated and patched. Collected resources need to be curated, pruned, refreshed. It’s not the kind of work that is ever “finished” or “perfect.” Knowledge work needs to change with the flow of information and new knowledge — new discoveries, new studies, new ideas.

Finding a way to explain this idea — that building the thing is not enough, and that we need to plan for ongoing effort — was a struggle for me. I understood it viscerally but had trouble putting it into words that other people found convincing. Then the metaphor came to me: These are gardens, not stained-glass windows.

A garden is never “finished.” You plan, and you plant, and you tend. Dig up weeds, or leave them be. Carry water, or wait for rain. Enlist helpful insects to eat the pests. Some things grow better than you expected (make a bigger bed for them, next year). Some things don’t grow well; your soil has an invisible pathogen, and all the cantaloupe plants turn to rot. A tree next door dies, or your neighbor builds a new fence, and the light in your garden changes. The people you are feeding suddenly become allergic to eggplant, or decide they don’t want to see another turnip until next year. You adjust. Recognizing a need to change things doesn’t mean you failed in the first place.

Here’s a small practical example: Imagine you are writing a user manual for a photocopier. You learned a great deal about the machine; you got specs and capabilities from the designers and the people who built it. You took every function into account and organized the manual in a way that made sense to you and to the people you showed it to. It’s 300 beautifully crafted pages of meticulous instructions. But your work is not done — the knowledge is not exchanged — until a person walks up to the copier and finds that the paper is jammed. Does the person open the manual? If not, why not? If so, can they find the answer? What questions do they still ask? There are so many ways to refine a manual to make it work better: Are your sentences too complicated? Do you use words your audience doesn’t recognize? Do they need a “Paper Jams Tip Sheet” instead of a chapter called “Clearing Mishandled Documents”?

Another: You made a website to store and deliver a collection of useful documents. People used to come to the homepage and click through the navigation to find what they are looking for. More often, now, they come to a specific page from Google or Facebook. They look at one thing, and they leave. Do you try to force them through the homepage — make them come through the garden gate, walk past the things they don’t want, dig for the things they do? No. You change your page aliasing, check your metadata, submit a sitemap for crawling, make sure your site search works well. Or you push content highlights straight to social media. This delivers your goods to the people who want them — sometimes before they are even inside the gate — wherever they are coming from.

Your audience changes, or they want something different. The environment changes. Information changes. You can — and must — adjust to those changes. That’s how we tend the garden of human knowledge. That is the process that creates culture. It’s what knowledge management, writ large, is for. It’s how we survive, thrive, and build a better world.

This is a re-working of a post first published on the author’s personal blog.