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Knowledge Management in Public Health: Exploring Culture, Content, Process and Technology

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I Introduction

I recently had the pleasure of attending a two-day conference on Knowledge Management in Public Health: Exploring Culture, Content, Process and Technology, November 3 - 4, 2008 in Hamilton. Presented by the National Collaborating Centre for Methods, the conference was attended by managers, policy makers and people in knowledge management or translation roles in public health at the local, provincial and federal levels.

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II Background

The objectives of the conference were to:

  • Explore current issues and practices in knowledge management and their implications for public health in Canada.
  • Examine the fundamentals: culture, content, processes and technology.
  • Network with leaders and change agents in knowledge management and public health.

Themes and Definitions

The four themes of the conference were defined thus:

Culture comprises the often unspoken but shared assumptions that guide the daily behaviour of people in organizations. It is the "why" that underlies what is done; the beliefs, traditions, habits, and values influencing the behaviour of the majority of the people in a social ethnic group.

Content is the knowledge to be managed. Knowledge can be described in two categories - "explicit knowledge" (things we can write down, share with others and put into a database) and "tacit knowledge" (know how, experience, insights and intuition.) Managing content ensures that users receive quality information that is relevant, up to date, accurate, easily accessible, and well organized.

Process addresses "how" knowledge is passed from one person to another - created, shared and transferred. Processes to manage data and information exist in all organizations in a variety of forms ranging from formal to informal. Collaborative networks or "Communities of Practice" are an emerging process of interest.

Technology helps transform data to information, knowledge and wisdom. Technology to manage knowledge, especially explicit knowledge, is an essential part of a successful knowledge management strategy; it responds to the knowledge needs of staff, partners and clients by using appropriate technology to offer easy access to information when and where it's needed.

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III Gleanings

The opening night reception was elegant, at the Hamilton Art Gallery. This opportunity to schmooze is of course a key part of knowledge transfer as one renews old acquaintances, puts "faces to names" of countless email and teleconference colleagues whom you have never met. Donna Ciliska, Scientific Director of the National Collaborating Centre on Methods and Tools and others made gracious opening remarks even while the podium was next to a modern art installation that literally consisted of two horses' assess!

For what it is worth, here are a few of my gleanings (which of course, you can check out for yourselves):

Sir Muir Gray, is Director of the National Knowledge Service and Chief Knowledge Officer for the NHS in the UK, and closely involved in the provision of knowledge to clinicians, patients and those who manage health care. He used the analogy of a society's right to clean, clear water to declare that provision and management of clean, clear knowledge a "public health responsibility." Like many analogies, I found this very compelling, but as the day went on, I found the image of a water tower with distribution pipes to all citizens reminding me more of Sarah Palin than Barack Obama (I hope readers will forgive the US reference - the conference was on November 4th!)

I really enjoyed the presentation by Robert Hayward on technology. Dr. Hayward is Assistant Dean, Health Informatics, in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Alberta, and Director of the Centre for Health Evidence. He emphasized the importance of integrated electronic environments - with relevant tools and applications all together seamless (and something The Health Communication Unit is currently building in our online program planner - stay tuned!) His presentation had tons of useful lists and templates (all in groups of five, the world is getting more complex as I thought all rules had to be in groups of three!) - including ways to assess the readiness of your organization to embrace technology.

Rejean Landry, CHSRF / CIHR Chair on Knowledge Transfer and Innovation, and professor in the Department of Management of the Faculty of Business at Laval University provided a very practical four-stage roadmap outlining how organizations can add value from using knowledge. So many fine knowledge management tools come out of Laval University - check out his slideshow, or better yet go to the Knowledge Utilization / Utilisation des Connaissances (KUUK) website, subscribe to the bulletin, and trove the treasures in their database at

Jason Bonander, Director of the Division of Knowledge Management, Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Public Health Informatics, shared an interesting survey of CDC professionals, which made explicit our implicit fears about the many barriers and challenges long and deeply entrenched in corporate cultures, structuring of incentives, and funding practices that constrain collaboration. If we are in fact unable to copy important neural pathways from Don Tapscott (of Wikinomics fame!) then we will have to work very hard on organizational development.

Finally, I really enjoyed the closing comments by Kirby Wright who operates an applied research and consulting firm. He drew a lot from Dave Snowden of CognitiveEdge, another favourite of mine. He reminded us that countless studies have shown that actual decision-making is far from a rational weighing of alternatives with explicit criteria, and relies a lot more on quick sense making, pattern recognition, and latching on to the first acceptable solution. Another basic principle is distinguishing between simple, complicated and complex problems. Kirby's third principle was about the social nature of learning and work, work and learning.

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IV Call to action

So there is pretty good content in what I saw already and lots more to look at in the presentations online at the National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools website. The Health Communication Unit culture supports learning, change, and sharing, in part through this contribution to the Ontario Health Promotion Email Bulletin. If you are reading this, you have pretty good access to technology or friends/colleagues who do, as there are thousands of us doing just that. Can we find processes to act upon what we have learned? Together - and sooner rather than later?