Big pictures start with small parts. At last week's KMWorld conference in Washington, DC, we were given a taste of both.

Lee Rainie, director of Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, explored a utopian vision of knowledge sharing in the future during his Thursday keynote.

A day earlier, Dion Hinchcliffe, Chief Strategy Officer at Adjuvi, shared success stories: examples of how knowledge management works in businesses that have successfully implemented and integrated social collaboration, both internally and externally.

The lessons became more granular in individual sessions: How contextual awareness in the workplace can help deliver relevant information to employees. Individual storytelling as a pathway to organizational narrative. The importance of the url for a successful search in SharePoint.

Decision Paralysis

Organizations face pressure: to innovate, to adopt social tools and practices, to rethink and reinvent well-established business operations. The customer comes first. Do you have a social media strategy. Have you considered the consumerization of IT? And what about the millennials!

Sheena Inyegar, a professor of business management at Columbia University, gave a TED Talk in 2011 about the decision paralysis of people confronted with too many choices -- in this case, 348 kinds of fruit jam. By narrowing down the options, people were able to take action.

While running a company might be a bit more complicated than deciding what jelly to buy for your toast, several speakers at KMWorld made similar suggestions: break the actions down into smaller chunks in order to move forward. 

From Stories, Micro-Moments and Fine Grained Objects... 

Storytelling is the first step to making sense of complex situations, according to Madelyn Blair, president of Pelerei. Organizations can use the narratives that emerge from individual stories to identify problems, build engagement and unearth knowledge. 

It comes down to context: you can't tell a story without the context. The who, what, when, where and why of the context creates the connections from which the narratives emerge. And by identifying the "why," businesses can identify the point of tension and see what can be done to solve that.    

Not too long ago, knowledge management related to the small percentage of codified knowledge in a workplace. Rainie shared the following quote from Stanford historian Carla Hesse:

Knowledge is no longer that which is contained in space, but that which passes through it, like a series of vectors, each having direction and duration yet without precise location or limit ... In the future, it seems, there will be no fixed canons of texts and no fixed epistemological boundaries between disciplines, only paths of inquiry, modes of integration, and moments of encounter.”

This more fluid approach to knowledge was reaffirmed in Hinchcliffe's presentation. He pointed to the micro-moments shared on social channels as a key point for capturing untapped knowledge as it happens. Working out loud adds to the knowledge flow, by getting knowledge out of employee's brains and into the workplace. An added bonus? Working out loud increases the sense of purpose, which in turn aids employee engagement -- the main hurtle Hinchliffe identified to making social collaboration and knowledge flows succeed.

Dave Snowden, founder and chief scientific officer, Cognitive Edge encouraged attendees to his workshop, to build on relatively small projects. As Ian Thorpe, chief of knowledge exchange at UNICEF who writes a blog, KM on a dollar a day, and attended Snowden's session, explained:

Snowden suggested using these 'fine-grained objects' to create a portfolio of small diverse projects ... from which, longer term, some patterns may emerge which could grow into more organization-wide approaches." 

Storytelling. Moments of encounter. Micro-moments. Fine-grained objects. All building blocks on which organizations can expand.  

The Big Picture Emerges

Now on to the big stuff. A number that came up during Hinchcliffe's presentation: $1.4 trillion, the estimated amount that businesses will lose by 2015 due to untapped productivity.

There are success stories out there -- Valve comes up often, as does Burberry. They are poster children for successful social businesses. But many companies are stuck. It could be due to budgetary constraints, lack of executive support or vision, poor workplace culture or just from trying to keep the wheels turning from day to day. As Simon Wardley wrote this week, The Enterprise is Slower Than You Think.

That organizations need to adapt to external changes isn't the question. It's an imperative. But maybe if companies removed a few jam jars from what they are trying to take on at once, it would allow them to take action and build from there.