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  • Writer's pictureMatt Arnold

Avoid Disruption: Improve The Way You Generate Insights

A version of this post first appeared on the HandrailUX blog.

The successful companies of today and tomorrow are the ones that can continuously integrate customer insights and understanding into the product and service portfolios. As organizations look to harness the power of customer insights, it’s critical that teams:

  1. Have a framework to organize and synthesize seemingly overwhelming and chaotic information

  2. Understand how knowledge and sensemaking occurs in organizations

Insights are the key to a company’s sustainability. Insights can help cut through the noise and clutter, providing organizations and teams a clear path forward while inoculating against competitive threats. In a disrupt or be disrupted world, insights can serve a north star to guide and assist you.

So, what’s an insight?

Based on 25 years of research and practice in knowledge management, research, and human-centered design initiatives, I believe insights have two critical components:

  • New information, that

  • Changes behavior

If it’s not new information, it can’t be considered an insight. Also, if that new information does not create a change in behavior, then it is not an insight. Insights are knowledge management gold. Many organizations have an incomplete approach to knowledge creation and cultivation in their organization. In turn, it is difficult to reliably generate insights for the organization. This difficulty makes facing the future seem daunting and tends to drive companies to double down on folklore.

As US organizations have eliminated middle management positions, they also eliminated a lot of domain and institutional knowledge. Many good managers knew the why that sits behind organizational activities. These “whys” help separate good guiding principles from dangerous folklore. Organizations need to compensate on being more intentional and purposeful in cultivating knowledge and building insights.

Moving from Chaos to Order

“A chaotic present robs us of clear vision.”, Nick Scappaticci, CEO at Tellart

The search for insights, and making sense of the future can seem daunting. “A chaotic present robs us of clear vision” (Nick Scappaticci, CEO at Tellart). Simply put, we can reduce chaos by leveraging frameworks. But we know there is no one framework to rule them all. Two recommendations drive for clarity are:

  • Embrace a goal-based design mindset

  • Utilize a knowledge management framework

Goal-Based Design

My definition of goal-based design is rooted in the pioneering work Alan Cooper and Kim Goodwin. While at Cooper (the UX design firm founded by Alan Cooper), Cooper and Goodwin encouraged designers to zoom out beyond a task, and understand what a user/customer is trying to accomplish. I define goal-based design as understanding a user’s goal and/or need in a particular context.

  • What are they trying to accomplish?

  • Why is that important to them?

  • What does accomplishing that goal do for them?

  • What is the context in which they are trying to achieve that goal?

  • What is preventing them from reaching that goal?

A goal-based understanding provides stable design targets in a world of rapidly accelerating customer expectations. For more on Cooper and Goodwin’s approaches, you can read these classics:

A Knowledge Framework

The “Five C’s” presented here is what I like to use with my teams and constitutes a general knowledge management (KM) framework. It addresses five areas to help teams cultivate knowledge and get to insights:

  • Collection – the gathering of information and knowledge.

  • Context – the interrelated conditions and environment in which knowledge exists.

  • Culture – the values and norms that impact the currency of knowledge and the process of knowledge creation and knowledge sharing.

  • Curation – assembling, managing, and presenting knowledge in a meaningful way.

  • Collaboration – working and learning together throughout the KM process, mixing ideas and perspectives.


Commit to data collection. Without data collection effective analysis and synthesis is impossible. Address ways that team members collect and categorize potential knowledge objects. Unfortunately, most knowledge management initiatives are framed as a collection problem. Collecting is necessary but not sufficient for an effective knowledge management program.


  • Content collection practice – make it easy enough to use, so that team members will capture the knowledge, and provide a structure that will facilitate easy retrieval.

  • Focus on what you need to know as you set out on research and discovery projects - what are you trying to learn, why is that important, how will the data be used, how will the data be collected, etc. Like good design, good research is intentional.

  • Understand the types of knowledge you are looking to create (internal task based, market, customer, etc.), so that you focus and refine your collection efforts.


Context is an increasingly complex consideration in modern experience design and innovation. Central to understanding context is a thorough understanding of physical, semantic, and digital affordances – both from where the knowledge was procured and where it will be presented. By thinking through each of these dimensions we can considerably improve our understanding of user needs and business goals, so that we can improve our chances of developing meaningful insights for our organization.


  • Be intentional and work to help apply contextual cues to data objects and artifacts – label things and use meta data.

  • Track and be aware of the context in which research was conducted.

  • Provide context when presenting findings and telling the story of your research.Provide explanations of the phenomena you’ve research.

  • Embrace the power of explanation over recommendations at this phase.


“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” – Peter Drucker

Drucker was right. Culture still eats strategy for breakfast. Be aware of your organization’s culture (beliefs, values, and assumptions) to understand what types of information and insights will be valued and work to cultivate a culture of knowledge sharing. If your processes for knowledge management and insights go against the grain of your organizational culture, your KM processes is likely to frustrate and disappoint internal stakeholders.


  • Develop culturally aligned incentives to participate in capturing, storing, and sharing knowledge.

  • We get the behavior we incent.

  • Create an open environment to share and explore ideas.

  • Reduce your individual bias.Look for ways to reward teams for sharing knowledge.

  • Organizations tend to talk teams, but reward individuals. This will make individual actors over-protective of their data/information/knowledge/wisdom.


It is not enough to capture, store, and share knowledge objects. To increase and extend the value of knowledge, you must have a process of curation. In the context of KM, curation should account for the organization, presentation, and interpretation of knowledge. Organizing and sharing relevant information on specific issues will provide shared understanding.

The curation helps with explanation. Will Myddleton on explanation -

This whole idea of finding the explanations leads me on to this. The Beginning of Infinity is a book by David Deutsch, a theoretical physicist. "He's got this theory that human knowledge doesn't advance by data and facts and evidence and what he would call empiricism. Instead, human knowledge advances through us coming up with better explanations to make sense of the data, the facts and knowledge."

Kim Irwin, author of “Communicating the New: Methods to Shape and Accelerate Innovation,” emphasizes the need to share results that are

  • interesting,

  • relevant, and

  • actionable.

The transfer of knowledge is assisted in the form of stories. Curate and frame knowledge in stories to help team members understand and remember the content.


  • Curate and present information so that it is interesting, relevant, and actionable.

  • Embrace a content lifecycle and archive old information.

  • Tell a good (accurate) story that focuses on explanation


Many KM initiatives failed because they did not account for collaboration. Your KM efforts should embrace and support collaboration and team work. Specifically applied to KM, ensure a diversity of ideas and perspectives are utilized throughout the KM lifecycle to improve the overall quality of your efforts.

Be clear and explicit regarding roles and expectations of who is responsible for capturing, organizing, curating, and analyzing information to cultivate knowledge and insights. Without clear roles, expectations, and goals, you’re simply wishing for good KM outcomes.


  • Support and cultivate communities of practice.

  • Start small with one or two teams as you pilot new KM and insight initiatives.

  • Iterate, learn, improve.Understand and communicate roles and expectations of team members to capture and build the organizational knowledge base.

  • Celebrate diverse ideas and perspectives for richer insights.

Wrap Up

Many knowledge management initiatives fail to realize the promise and potential of a “knowing” organization. This failure translates into few, if any insights, for the organization. Many KM initiatives fall short because they worked to solve a knowledge capture problem and did not holistically address the critical learning and wayfinding aspects of of the organization which include culture, context, and collaboration.

If you’re looking for help in improving organizational alignment and understanding, contact Spark Consulting Group — let’s talk.


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