Defining KM through Team Conversations

ikms_website_logoHere is my recent article from GLOBE: a publication of iKMS

About ten years ago I stopped showing a definition for knowledge management in the KM workshops I facilitated. My reasoning was twofold. First, I naively believed that most people attending a session with KM in the title probably knew what the term meant. After all, at the time, KM had been around for more than a decade. There had been many books penned on the subject, each of which offered a good definition, so surely those who wanted to know what KM was already did. Second, it seemed whenever I would provide a definition, the workshop would be hijacked by a lone participant who believed his or her definition was better than the one I provided.   Invariably, I found we would waste time arguing about which definition was best, never coming to any sort of agreement. At the time I thought this was time that could be better spent focusing on more important issues.

Recently I made a change and I now dedicate a good amount of time to defining KM in the sessions. Why the change? I learned, very slowly, that spending some time defining the term offers an excellent opportunity for engagement. Rather than showing a PowerPoint slide with my favorite definition, which will almost certainly offend some people, I now do an exercise during which teams come up with a definition. After a decade of false assumptions, I now recognize this is time very well invested.

I break the group into tables of six or seven. I have tried larger and smaller groups but six or seven seems to work best. Next, I give each team a package of playing cards that contains 50 different definitions for knowledge management. One person is selected to be the dealer, he or she shuffles the cards, and then deals out nine cards to each person at the table. The remainder of the cards are placed in a pile in the center of the table. For the next ten minutes, people individually review their hand and select one or two definitions that they like. In the off chance they do not like any of the definitions, they are free to select new cards from the pile or even to use the definition from their organization. Interestingly, very few people opt to do the latter.


Once everyone has selected their favorite definitions, the team task is to distill the many definitions into a single one that the entire team supports. This starts with each person describing what they liked about the definition(s) they selected. In particular we are looking for key terms, relationships, or ideas that resonated with them. Teams are free to simply select one the definitions as written on the cards, to cherry pick ideas from multiple cards, or to craft their own bespoke definition. I have witnessed some very interesting team decision-making tactics as they work through the process of deciding which definition is best. They have 30 minutes to complete the task and to write their single definition on a large piece of paper. All of the definitions are hung on the wall for easy viewing. I generally try to schedule this part of the exercise to coincide with a break. It is fascinating to watch the interaction, discussion, and lobbying that happens during the break.

Next, we reconvene as an entire group and one by one each team delivers their definition, briefly explaining why they decided on the definition. Following the team recitals, each person is given three “yellow stickies” that they use to vote for the definition they like the most. Participants are free to put all three stickies on a single definition (usually their own) or distribute the stickies on two or three definitions. Once all the stickies have been stuck to the various definitions, the votes are tallied and I announce the winner. We use this definition for the remainder of the workshop.

km def

Here is an example of what is produced; this definition comes from a workshop in Singapore sponsored by iKMS: Knowledge Management is a systematic effort of creating knowledge flow to enhance shared understanding, learning, and creating value for decision making. I particularly like this example as the team merged key concepts from several definitions to create a unique description that met their needs.

The resultant definition might not be perfect; however, it always has group consensus and more often than not is a very good definition. Much more important than the actual result, is the rich conversation that leads to the definition. I never cease to be amazed with the high fidelity dialogs in which the teams engage. Invariably there is some friction as people defend their definition, but soon they are working in harmony and end up with a definition the entire group supports.

Defining Knowledge Management Exercise

  1. Form into groups
  2. Deal nine KM definition cards to each person
  3. Individually review the definitions in your hand and highlight key attributes you think should be present in a definition of Knowledge Management
  4. Select one or two “best” definitions
  5. Reconvene as a group and discuss the individually selected definitions
  6. As a group, select the “best” definition or create a team definition
  7. Post each group’s definition on a large poster
  8. Nominate a group member to read and then defend the group’s selection
  9. Individuals cast three votes for the definition(s) that they like
  10. Tally the votes to determine the preferred definition

If you are interested in trying this exercise, feel free to see a list of the definitions here: 

The cards are available for sale here.