February 25, 2014

New Perspectives on Knowledge Management In Organisations

Some time ago I agreed to speak at the EDO International Congress “Learning Organisations and Organisational Knowledge Creation” to be held in Barcelona, Spain during 14 – 16 May 2014.  They asked me to present a paper on “New Perspectives on Knowledge Management in Organisations” and I was happy to agree especially as one of my colleagues at Knoco Chile, Javier had presented at this congress in past years and found it to be well attended and simulating.

As I was starting to gather my thoughts on what to include in the paper I found myself remembering and example of ‘what not to do’.

A very well known company had tendered to design, procure, build and commission a project on behalf of a client.  Included in the very substantial proposal document were words similar to “we will review our lessons learned database and ensure our learning is applied to this project”. 

In due course they were informed that they had won the contract and a planning meeting was arranged with the client.  At the end of the meeting the client asked if they could now view the lessons learned database mentioned in the tender document.  As I am sure you can imagine ‘no’ would not have been an acceptable response so a laptop was set up in the meeting room and the database displayed on the large screen.

Very quickly they started to become embarrassed.  Nobody ‘owned’ the database so the quality of the content of the lessons was highly variable; in some cases it was nothing more than a bland statement saying something didn’t work, no advice given on how to avoid the same error, just a statement.  Some blamed things on sub contractors, some contradicted previous entries.  Things had just been thrown into the database and with over 4,000 entries trying to sort the useful, quality lessons with specific actionable advice from the rubbish was very difficult.

The client wanted to make a point and drew their attention to the words in the proposal “we will review our lessons learned database and ensure our learning is applied to this project” and asked them to allocate senior staff to go through each entry, one at a time and explain to them how that would potentially impact their project.  It took a lot of time and cost a lot of money but they had no other choice than to do what the client had asked for.

I am going to write the paper for the Congress on how the management of experience has moved on from databases to lessons management systems and how the assigning of actions based on that experience is a vital way to ensure that the learning is embedded in the organisation.

And what happened to the company mentioned above; well they contacted a very well known and respected knowledge management consultancy and sought their advice on how to systematically manage their experience.

February 17, 2014

Don’t Learn Before And See What Happens

I know that we should learn before we do things but sometimes, like others, I forget and just jump right into action.

It’s not unusual at this time of year in Scotland to get several days in a row where we don’t see the sun.  It’s just wall to wall, day by day grey so when the sun shone on Sunday, like many others I headed outdoors.

It was cool, around 5 deg C but it was bright with beautiful clear blue skies.

On the way home I stopped and bought some chestnuts to roast.  Got home, popped them on a baking tray while I prepared the coffee.  Not long afterwards there was a ‘boom’ sound from the kitchen followed by another, then another then another.  I dashed into the kitchen and immediately realised that the noise was coming from the oven.  By now it was like a machine gun; boom, boom, boom.

What I did next was stupid.  Not silly, but stupid.

I opened the oven, fortunately I didn’t look inside.  In the few seconds that I had the oven door open, shrapnel (bits of chestnut shell) came hurtling out of the over and across the kitchen.  Luckily my brain kicked in at that point, so I shut the oven door, turned the heat off and waited.

Some time later when everything had cooled down I opened the over door again and surveyed the scene; it was one of utter devastation.  There was pits of shell and chestnut everywhere, what a mess and that was just inside the oven, the floor and wall of the kitchen wasn’t much better.
Why had it gone so wrong?  Well I had assumed that the shell or skin of the chestnut would split gently as the heat increased and it cooked.  Instead what happened was that the pressure built up inside the chestnut until it reached a point where it burst out of the shell with explosive force.

The upside was that nobody was hurt and there was no permanent damage done to the oven or the kitchen, the downside was that I had to clean the mess inside of enjoying roast chestnuts and coffee!

We learn best by experiential learning but I would not recommend the above as a way of reminding people to ‘learning before’ they do something.  Much better to use Bird Island, possibly the world’s leading KM experiential exercise.
Oh, just in case you want to roast your chestnuts, you can find a recipe here

February 4, 2014

Three More Lessons From A 10 Year KM Journey

I will probably make this the last of the lessons from our 10 year journey supporting a client as they evolved in knowledge management.  There are lots more lessons but this is  probably sufficient for just now.

In this post I would like to share insights on;
  • Leverage
  • Capacity and capability

Leverage.  One of the most successful things that the knowledge management team did was to review the existing processes and activities within the organisation and try to identify how they could leverage these things to market the benefit of KM.  The thought process was quite simple; these things are already happening, they have been accepted, they are part of the fabric of the organisation, and how can we use them to our advantage.  One of the things that they discovered was that it was routine for people to write post visit or post conference reports, so how could they build on that ‘norm’.  What they did was to refine the process so that the person coming back from the visit would prepare a presentation and then deliver it to their peer group.  Part of the revised process was to ‘focus on what others could learn from this rather than what did you learn from this’, the focus became knowledge re-use.  Over time they refined the process yet more to include ‘voice over’ to support the slides and hence the beginnings of e-learning was introduced.

This activity was further embedded in the organisation by including it in the annual assessment for staff.  It was positioned as an indication of the person’s worth to the organisation, rather than a chore to be done after a visit.

Capacity and capability.  Like most knowledge management teams they were required to produce a set of objectives or deliverables for the forthcoming year.  The approach that they took initially was to speak with the business and ask what they would like the KM team to help and support them in achieving.  On the surface this was a very good approach as it reinforced the alignment between the work of the KM team and the business.  However, at least in the early days, it was missing one vital component, an understanding of the capacity (do they have sufficient resources) and capability (skills and competencies) of the KM team to deliver.

Let me try to explain this with a very simple example.  We listed all of the objectives they had agreed with the Steering Team and then “who on the team can deliver this”; this immediately highlighted gaps between what they wanted to deliver and what could be delivered.  It also highlighted assumptions that hadn’t been openly discussed.  The next thing was to say “how much time will they spend on this activity”.  Again this highlighted gaps in that some of the team were totally overloaded and others were only being partly utilised.

In the subsequent years they learned to plot objectives against capacity and capability to ensure that they objectives could be delivered.

Framework.  In any organisation there will be components of process or technology that will work better than others; there will be some that are more popular than others.  To ensure that you don’t focus on things that are easy or popular, you need a framework that explains to everyone what to do and when.  It should explain as a minimum;

  • the processes to use and when
  • the roles that are required
  • the technology to support those activities
  • the governance and assurance process that will be used to monitor things

The framework is the thing that converts the strategy into something tangible and deliverable.  It is the thing that ensures that all the KM elements are in place and most importantly, they are interconnected.  This may seem very obvious but this KM team found themselves increasingly focusing on communities of practice.  They had attended a number of conferences and read a number of articles that seemed to suggest that communities of practice were the most important component in a successful knowledge management program.  Yes, communities of practice are important but so are other components such as governance and accountabilities.

Having a framework ensures that a balanced approach is taken to implementing knowledge management in the organisation.