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Video and summary from KM4Dev Knowledge Cafè 24 – Different Thinking in Knowledge Management

What I've learnt about knowledge management for development approaches in China, and how they can benefit the west

Many thanks to the KM4Dev Knowledge Café Working Group for their invitation to present in KM4Dev Knowledge Café 24: Different Thinking in KM on 9 June 2022. It was a great pleasure to participate in what facilitator Gladys Kemboi has described as one of the most impactful knowledge cafés.

The knowledge café began with an introduction from Gladys, followed by my presentation, then breakout groups which discussed two questions, and then in conclusion, a plenary where the breakout group responses were put forward and further discussed. Throughout the knowledge café, questions and comments were also put forward in the participant chat.

The knowledge café video, which includes my presentation and the plenary discussion, can be viewed above. A summary of my presentation with reference resources can be found below, as well as the two questions I posed to the breakout groups, a selection of participant chat and breakout group perspectives, and information on how you can join the continuing conversation.

Presentation summary and reference resources

During my eight years of living in China (so far – I very much hope to return), I introduced two new knowledge management (KM) subjects while teaching at Shanxi University. One subject was on KM for undergraduate Library and Information Science (LIS) students, and the other on KM and innovation for PhD students in the School of Management.

While teaching the PhD subject, I came to the realisation that the western KM approaches I was teaching weren’t resonating, and one of my students introduced me to Xiaomi’s different rapid and direct KM learning approach.

Reflecting on this, I also realised that I had observed and experienced this same direct rapid KM learning approach in my friends’ village in southern Shanxi. I regularly visited 马堡村 (MaBuCun) during my four years in Shanxi, staying for weeks at a time during the university summer and winter breaks.

The village is located within the Loess Plateau area, where the Chinese Government has implemented major recovery projects with the support of the World Bank. These projects have been highly successful, lifting 2.5 million people out of poverty and protecting the natural resources of the fragile Loess landform.

In the village, I saw how the success of the Loess recovery projects had been made possible by processes that enable community knowledge to rapidly and directly flow into village, county, and province level decision-making. I provide insights into my village learnings in the following article in Beijing Review:

The approach used by both Xiaomi and the Chinese Government in the Loess recovery projects spans Chinese society generally, and is clearly evident in China’s sustainable development work. My colleague Tom Wolters documents further case studies in the “From the Soil” series he has produced for China Global Television Network (CGTN), for example as shown in the following episodes. A full list of episodes can be found on Tom’s LinkedIn profile.

Key aspects of China’s knowledge approach are rapid knowledge engagement and lesson learning, and the direct engagement of everyone’s knowledge from the grassroots level. There’s much that the west could learn from this approach, as I have discussed in previous articles in RealKM Magazine looking at the knowledge failures of Boeing, Takata and Toyota and what can be learnt from Shenzhen’s fascinating urban villages. An important aspect to consider is the using the most appropriate approach for the decision-making level.

The successful Loess Plateau recovery projects in China (and my own successful multiple knowledges and multi-stakeholder work in Australia, for example in the Helidon Hills) contrast directly with the failed mainstream approaches I have observed in Australia, where community knowledge is often ignored, leading to a backlash against environmental policies. Indeed, the KM community itself doesn’t always effectively engage community knowledge.

Breakout group questions

Following on from my presentation, the two questions I posed to the breakout groups were:

  1. Do you know of other different KM approaches from other cultures, including First Nations cultures?
  2. How can knowledge managers become more aware of, and responsive to, the limitations of their own cultural assumptions in regard to KM?

“First Nations” is the term that Australia’s First Peoples prefer to use to describe themselves, and it is also increasingly being used elsewhere in the world.

Participant perspectives

The questions and comments put forward in the participant chat and by the breakout groups include:

  • I love the knowledge Innovations in the village. From Gladys Kemboi.
  • How did they get all those people in the villages to communicate feedback? Through an app or did they actually meet face to face? If it was through an app, did they first do an email blast to the general public? Just curious how they got people’s attention? thanks! From Ninez Piezas-Jerbi.
  • Even in grassroots engagement you will have different distribution of power, men/women, richer/poorer, different ethnic groups maybe, with different needs and aspirations which might be in conflict with one another. There will never be total consensus. So in these village set ups, what did you observe in terms of addressing differences in views to accommodate as many people as possible? From Arwen Bailey.
  • Is there a recognition of and specific ways to avoid the power dynamics that gathering community inputs can be associated with, to ensure the voices of the unheard are included – women, girls, poor, LGBTI, etc.? From Margaret Jack.
  • Do you feel that KM is an intervention to make wise energy choices be equalized for development? From Daksha Vaja.
  • Actually, I was curious about Sarah’s question. Is this a good example of “decolonization” of knowledge, i.e. the Western world isn’t necessarily having the best practice in KM, and more practices from other regions like in Asia should be given more visibility and published more as also good practice? From Ninez Piezas-Jerbi.
  • I like the fact that your student was able to pull out an example of how KM was being used in her own setting. From Sylvia Matovu.
  • Responding to Bruce’s comment: many of us have worked with Valerie Brown of the Fenner School of the Australian National University and her work on multiple knowledge to solve ‘wicked problems’ at a community and local level. From Sarah Cummings.
  • I think “decolonization of knowledge” is important now more than ever if we are to help solve current problems in our generation – mental health, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, having a better quality of life, not to mention being more respectful to the earth and not depleting its resources. From Ninez Piezas-Jerbi.
  • I think that if our aim to get as many perceptions/views of knowledge/versions of knowledge in the room – we try to get all the parts of the elephant in the room… but depending on whether we start from the current state of knowledge (the known) or whether we scan the room, we have to work back to the other end of the spectrum to ensure there is a shared knowledge (whether it is emergent or not). My challenge is when do we know when to stop this process? Is that what we define as the boundary? From Krishan Bheenick.
  • Knowledge is contextual but to make it inclusive is the key to a better KM. From Zacharia Moseti.
  • Good KM very much depends on the dynamics of the local communities. From Christiane Kuhn.
  • After having shown the diagram of the elephant and the blindfolded people, ask ourselves: “Have we got all the parts of the elephant in the room?” From Krishan Bheenick.
  • A good example is the Brown Bag session – which is based on the habit of people in the USA having lunch sandwiches in brown paper bags. From Krishan Bheenick.

Join the KM4Dev discussion forum and continue the conversation!

I have replied to some of these questions and comments in the Knowledge Café 24 discussion thread in the KM4Dev discussion forum (registration required).

For example, in regard to the question “How did they get all those people in the villages to communicate feedback?” I have replied that:

The feedback is facilitated by National People’s Congress (NPC) delegates in the villages (and in urban communities). As the white paper that can be downloaded from http://english.scio.gov.cn/whitepapers/2021-12/04/content_77908921.htm advises:

“At the end of 2020, 2.62 million people were serving as deputies to people’s congresses at all levels nationwide. Among them, those at county and township levels accounted for 94.5 percent of the total. Making full use of their close connections with the people, these deputies diligently fulfill their duties by soliciting and submitting the people’s suggestions and advice through various forms and channels.”

As I discuss in the Beijing Review article [above] … I was able to directly experience how well this approach works.

There have since been further replies to my replies, and you are encouraged to join the forum and continue the conversation!

Future KM4Dev knowledge cafés will also be further exploring these topics, so make sure to  regularly check the KM4Dev website and KM4Dev discussion forum for updates.

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Also published on Medium.

Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes (www.bruceboyes.info) is editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (www.realkm.com), and a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and project management professional. He is a PhD candidate in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research, and holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction. His expertise and experience includes knowledge management (KM), environmental management, project management, stakeholder engagement, teaching and training, communications, research, and writing and editing. With a demonstrated ability to identify and implement innovative solutions to social and ecological complexity, Bruce's many career highlights include establishing RealKM Magazine as an award-winning resource, using agile and knowledge management approaches to oversee an award-winning $77.4 million western Sydney river recovery program, leading a knowledge strategy process for Australia's 56 natural resource management (NRM) regional organisations, pioneering collaborative learning and governance approaches to support the sustainable management of landscapes and catchments, and initiating and teaching two new knowledge management subjects at Shanxi University in China.

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