Wednesday, 21 March 2012

'Jarring Jargon and Squirrel Initiatives': Making sense of KM language

This is the first in a series of blog postings which I hope will explore knowledge management (KM) from a practical no nonsense point of view. I begin with the language barrier.

Library and information professionals have been doing the ‘information thing’ for years but frankly not making enough noise about our skills. So when your organisation demands implementation of a knowledge management strategy based on information they obtained from conferences, journal articles, consultants, and because ‘everyone else is doing it’, we must take the lead and become the link between theory and practice.

We may not be KM theory experts but our practical skills, knowledge of the organisation and accompanying culture/values and mental flexibility means we are ideally placed to help them make sense of the information world. As it has been said, ‘the only thing that matters in the workplace is how it works in practice’.[1]

‘If you don’t understand, it’s probable no one else does’

The first obstacle to making sense of KM is vocabulary. As with any business language there is a world of increasingly jargonistic prose to work through. Buzz words, meaningless expressions, ‘abstractionitis’ are simple obfuscation.[2] It is true to say that you need to know the concepts behind the words but as soon as the words become the concepts, you are already mired in irrelevancies.

A recent blog posting from Harvard Business Review states the problem clearly and concludes with the sensible advice, to increase your credibility, challenge the speaker on their meaning.[3] So when someone starts to use jargonistic phrases that they’ve seen or heard, ask them to clarify. This will keep the conversation focused, relevant and meaningful.

Make Sense

David Shrigley 'Nutless' (2002)
It is important to explain to partners/managers exactly what these words or phrases mean. For instance Hélène Russell of the Knowledge Bank defines Knowledge Cafes asDavid Gurteen’s idea – open creative conversations/mini-workshops on a topic, where people discuss a thought in small groups, rather than the usual “chalk & talk”’.[4]  

I have a couple of issues with both the original phrase and the definition. Firstly ‘Knowledge Cafés’ or ‘K-Cafés’; this is jargon for an example of good knowledge swapping practice. Explain to your organisation that existing departmental talks, technical update meetings, brief presentations on new areas of law etc are all examples of Knowledge Cafés and you have an instant KM connection. This is an easy win (or perhaps an example of a ‘squirrel initiative’*).

More important is how the information from these meetings is captured. Secondly as for the term “chalk & talk”, say what you mean. It’s a traditional lecture - with little or no audience participation.


Although KM Institute is responsible for some of the most offending uses of jargon, my favourite tweet from them reads, ‘when you sell KM to top management, to get their commitment don’t use KM jargon to do it, speak in business terms familiar to their ear. Create a KM plan with a realistic and competitive return on investment’.[5] This is sensible advice.

Go to your managers with a short preliminary KM discussion paper which conveys a clear idea of what you mean by KM. Include real life examples of good practice from your own organisation to demonstrate your point if you’ve had to use jargon. Managers can then see that you’re alert to the possibilities and reassuring they’ve probably already got something like it in place. This gives you a good foundation on which to build other aspects of KM.


Language can be both a barrier and a means of effective communication. Most ideas underpinning KM are already in place within organisations so it just takes the confidence of staff to use the various communications channels and get the knowledge flowing and make a real difference.

* From KM Institute 'Let’s talk KM Squirrels or “Quick Wins.” All Squirrels should be branded as examples of “new ways of doing business in the Knowledge Age.” [...] Squirrels are more about change mgmt than just KM. Starting a Squirrel initiative can be the most cost-effective and results-driven exercise you can do.'

[1] Sue Doe, ‘Knowledge management’, in BIALL Handbook of Legal Information Management ed., Loyita Worley, (Ashgate; Aldershot, 2006) p197
[2] Dan Pallotta, ‘I Don't Understand What Anyone Is Saying Anymore’, 5 Dec 2011 accessed 24 Feb 2012
[3] As above
[4] Hélène Russell, ‘At a glance jargon-buster’ accessed 24 Feb 2012


  1. I've learned that the letters "KM" are harbingers of pompous drivel. I've still no idea what that twaddle about squirrels meant. Thanks for the warning.

  2. Thank you Patrick. You're my first ever comment on my blog. Was I helpful and blunt enough? The squirrel thing I must confess had me giggling helplessly. C