Multinational corporations, the United States, large volunteer organizations and lost Jewish communities
My day job is in something called knowledge management. I think of that as the infrastructure we create in order to ensure that people in any system have a predictable and consistent way to share, find and access information. It is not enough to avoid reinventing wheels, even if we are not aware of what others in our own ecosystem have done, being able to know where to discover that ought to be intuitive and feel like second nature. So, yes, having a well-designed way to share, find and access information is important, but it is also vital that people are introduced to it and are motivated to desire using whatever system is put into place if you want it to work.
This is not only needed by huge multinational corporations, but by any kind of body that has a parent and children or an umbrella over a federation of some sort. When I look at the patchwork way the United States is rolling out Covid-19 tests, guidelines and vaccinations (or, for that matter, how it deals with online hate) — that is, where the federal government has no choice but to push off to states who push off to counties or other private or public groups – I see the same issues at hand. Citizens are left confused and scrambling. They lack information or don’t know where to find it while competing sources vie for attention. I think the same kind of issue is at hand. Decentralization and a plethora of sources mean wheels get reinvented and not always very well. I actually think for this particular problem there is a remedy and don’t understand why it is not being discussed: Federal lawmakers ought to amend the constitution to add those cross-border items not on our founders’ radar, like internet crime and pandemics, to make the federal and not state jurisdictional responsibility.
And what about the absence of coordination sometimes found in large nonprofits? A national office might take care of its own needs, e.g., marketing, membership, programming, fundraising, but it doesn’t always provide support to state and local chapters. Volunteers wind up spending time reinventing wheels completely on their own and it can get demoralizing. I think about how wonderful it would be if the national office were to share databases, train at all levels and create things like newsletter templates. Then the smallest chapter and the largest would not need to spend time creating their own. And imagine if there were mechanisms in place for these groups to interact and share best practices and templates as well. To be fair, it may very well be that somewhere someone created a shareable template or a trove of programs-in-a-box and parked it somewhere, but no one knows about it. Then what? The solution for this scenario is designing a thoughtful system, creating knowledge destined to be used by those “in the trenches” and ensuring that training and incentivization are part and parcel.
In How to prepare to do anything, something I wrote long ago on LinkedIn, I view the acquisition of knowledge from the perspective is of the person with a task to accomplish and is stuck in one of these decentralized systems. My advice boils down to four things: inventory first (look around), ask (lookup), evaluate (look sideways) and think ahead (look forward). And I still stand by this approach, but it is very time-consuming. What if we were each planted inside an ecosystem where we didn’t have to search for all kinds of information from all kinds of systems hidden under all kinds of taxonomies and under all kinds of different people’s or groups’ control?
In a world where the objectivity, reliability and validity of sources is often questioned if not questionable, and we are surrounded by terabytes of information floating everywhere, the task to find, access and effectively share knowledge becomes that much more difficult.
Now let’s look at lost Jewish communities. I pick this specific slice for a reason. Last week, I blogged about stolen Jewish vital and communal records being found in online auctions and how there are no real laws in place to address this. Soon after I read about Jewish cemeteries in post-WWII Poland being destroyed; ownerless and left unprotected by the government, they too added to this picture of lost and voiceless communities. Another article about historical synagogues in Europe being sold for a pittance further served witness to these lost Jewish communities. On the other hand, I am aware that there are books and websites devoted to individual shtetls and communities where Jewish life once flourished; they try to preserve memories. This juxtaposition made me think of the challenges inherent in knowledge management. Here, one-off stories and situations are not part of an ecosystem, but they ought to be.
Countries that once hosted now-decimated populations, I think, have an obligation to ensure that the history taught in their schools includes the peoples who once dwelled in their land. It is in each country’s interest to protect documents and cemeteries and to some extent, buildings like synagogues. The first two are especially important to survivors’ descendants trying to trace their past when so much of the past has been destroyed. At the same time, the communities themselves need a voice to speak up on their behalf.
In the late 1800s to early 1900s, Eastern European Jews fled in droves, often from the persecution of pogroms, and so many of those left behind as well as in the rest of Europe were murdered in the Holocaust. If organizations devoted to restitution serve only individuals (or their descendants) who need to be made whole, who serves lost communal bodies? Who is trying to make them whole? Where is the eco-system where people and countries can share, access and find knowledge about historical Jewish communal memories and about what is or should be done to prevent its erasure?
Look, I know our entire world is decentralized. There is no single authoritative owner of knowledge. As a professor of mine once said, there is no Big T Truth, but a plethora of little t truths, But that doesn’t preclude the need for better systems to corral what we do know and the need for people to want to know what else is out there.
So, what do multinational corporations, the United States, large volunteer organizations and lost Jewish communities have in common? Lost knowledge. Knowledge, sitting on shelves or intranet pages or in someone’s head or in auction houses, being lost to the rest of us.