Saturday, 28 March 2015

Holiday Hiatus

There will be a two-week hiatus while this blog takes a holiday.
Normal service will be resumed later in April

(mouseover photo for attribution)

Friday, 27 March 2015

How big is a typical KM budget?

As a Knowledge Manager you probably have an annual budget for KM, but do you know how this budget stacks up against other companies? There are no reliable benchmark figures for KM budget, so as part of our 2014 global survey of Knowledge Management, we decided to research this issue. 

The survey participants were asked to specify the scale of their annual KM budget by selecting the nearest figure from a list of figures (in US dollars).

63 participants (20%) did not know the budget, and 33 preferred not to quote a figure. The distribution of budgets for the remaining participants is shown in the picture to the right.

The mean annual budget figure is $950,000 and the median is $100,000.

However the survey was answered by people from a wide range of organisational sizes - from 5-person companies to major multinationals. We need to allow for organisational size before we can really be helpful.

To the right we can see the average KM budget in $US millions for companies of different sizes. As we might expect, the bigger the company the bigger the annual KM budget.

However this is not a linear relationship. Increasing the company size by ten does not increase the budget by ten. There is an economy of scale in KM, plus KM implementation takes longer in larger companies so more annual budgets are spent.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

How to learn like an ant

Social and organisational learning is so easy that even ants can do it, and we can learn from the principles they apply.

If you look at an ant trail from the nest to a source of food, it is pretty direct. The food may have been found by a random foraging ant, but pretty soon the whole colony has been alerted to the food, and developed a path that approximates to the quickest route between the food and the nest.

So how do ants collaborate to build the "best route"? Do they design it, or do they evolve it through continuous improvement? And if the latter, exactly how are these continuous improvements made? How do ants LEARN to make a straight path?

  1. When ants move, they leave a scent trail behind. It's a fading trail - immediately after depositing, it starts to fade. Initially their trail is pretty random, and may zigzag all over the place. Other ants follow the trail, following the strongest scent, but not 100% faithfully. There's a little bit of variation built in.
  2. Because of that variation, ants will sometimes find a shortcut, and cut out one of the zigzags. Wherever they cut the corner and get there faster, their scent is stronger, and becomes the dominant trail. Other ants follow them. If their new way takes longer (a longcut), their scent has faded, and others don't follow. For the ants - faster is better as it is more efficient.
  3. So the improvements in the trail are reinforced, and the trail gets progressively better and straighter. Over time, the trail becomes straight.

For ants, the organisational memory lies in the trail itself, embedded in the scent. For organisations, the organisational memory lies in the processes. We can follow the principles of Ant-learning, if we replace the scent-trail with the operational procedures.

  1. We record our knowledge in operational procedures, which represent our current best approach to doing a particular task. Initially the procedures may not be particularly effective, and people are allowed to vary from the procedures if they find a better way.
  2. The variations are recorded as process improvements or lessons learned and embedded in improved procedures, like the new scent trail along the shortcut.  There needs to be some way to know whether the new variations are better. Perhaps they improve efficiency, or quality, or cost, or customer satisfaction. You need to be able to tell what "better" looks like.
  3. Other teams follow the new better procedures (like the ants following the stronger scent) so that these become the dominant procedures - until the next improved variation is found. Over time the procedure becomes optimal. 
You can see this learning process at work in any continuous improvement process, whether it is a drilling crew improving their rig procedures, a lean manufacturing team improving their manufacturing procedures, or an Army improving their doctrine. They all learn like an ant - recording and embedding the improvements until the trail is straight.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The five benefits of reflective team learning

I have just returned from a four-day lessons capture exercise from a major multi-million dollar project, running several group Retrospects. Listening to the team members as they discussed the value of this capture exercise, it struck me that there are actually 5 areas of benefit from this sort of team reflection.
Image from pixabay

  1. Firstly, the team members learn themselves. By listening to the reflections and analysis of their colleagues, they gain new learning and new insight which will help them improve their personal repertoire of skills and understanding.
  2. Secondly the teams identify improvements they can make to their own team process. By reflecting on the past, they can improve their own ways of working together. 
  3. The conversations and analysis can be recorded, and turned into valuable learning material for other teams.
  4. This documented learning material is not only an asset in its own, right, it also allows other teams to know what lessons have been learned, and who to contact to learn more. Documented lessons are often of most value when they are the catalyst for conversations (and we know that conversations are approximately 14 times more effective than written material in transferring knowledge). 
  5. Finally the lessons and experiences of the team can drive improvements in the way the whole organisation operates. In this most recent exercise we identified 30 major learning points, and about half of these were associated with requests of recommendations for Headquarters, to embed the lessons into new process or new structures. 

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

A haystack is no place to store your needles (findability in KM)

If you want people to find your needle, don't put it in a haystack. And if you want people to reuse your knowledge, but it somewhere where it can easily be found.

One of the companies we work with collects knowledge as "case studies". Currently there are over 20,000 case studies in their case study library, and finding a relevant study has been described as like finding a needle in a haystack.

My point, however, is that the needle should not have been put in the haystack in the first place.

One of the key issues in KM is findability.  People will not use knowledge if they cannot find it, and re-use is the end-game and the primary goal for KM.

A massive monolithic database of 20,000 cases is a haystack, and knowledge within it is very hard to find. So where would you put your knowledge, if you want it to be found?

To answer this, think about where you would put a needle, if you want others to find it.

For home use, you would put your needles into a sewing kit.

The sewing kit is a collection of tools to do a job. The kit is where you will find needles, pins, thread, safety pins, buttons and scissors. It provides you with the resources to do repair jobs on garments, all collected in one place.  The domestic sewing kit is a shared resource for all the needle-workers in the household. My wife uses it, as do her daughters, as do I when I need to sew on a button.

That's how we need to package our knowledge.

We need to package our knowledge around the jobs that need to be done. Knowledge should be stored based on activity, rather than the type of knowledge. So knowledge on preventative maintenance - to take an example at random - needs to be stored in one place; case studies, lessons, guidance and standards should all be co-located, not hidden away in individual haystacks.  We call these collections of knowledge "knowledge assets" - a collection of the knowledge tools needed to do a job.

We need our knowledge to be a shared resource for the relevant community of practice - the maintenance community, in my example above. The knowledge asset is owned by the community, managed by the community, updated as a result of community discussion and knowledge sharing, and re-used by the community.

Keep your valuable knowledge in shared knowledge resources, whether you call them knowledge kits or knowledge assets.

Never hide knowledge in a haystack.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Helping people FEEL the value of KM

If you want someone to buy something, they need to be convinced that it is worth the investment. If your product is a good one, then you can convince people by letting them try before they buy.

That's why Apple allows you to play with all its products in the Apple store. That's why cheese-stalls in the market give away free samples. That's why car salesmen let you take a test-drive in that new Mercedes.
KM, Before and After

But how can you test-drive knowledge management?

For the past 10 years, we have been running a knowledge Management exercise called Bird Island which acts as a KM test-drive. The purpose of the exercise is to allow people to experience personally the value of Knowledge Management by seeing (and feeling) the impact it has on their performance.

The exercise is a simple one - the delegates are divided into teams, given a small set of materials, and asked to build as tall a tower as possible (with some environmental constraints). Then knowledge is brought into the equation, first through an after action review within the team, secondly through a peer assist with another team, and finally through presentation of a best practice knowledge asset showing the secrets of building the tallest towers from previous courses.

Armed with a full set of knowledge, they build the tower again, and frequently treble or quadruple their previous performance. 

Behind the exercise is a very simple KM system;

  • Every time a team makes a new modification and improvement to the tower design, I photograph it 
  • I update the Best Practice knowledge asset to include the new modification 
  • I present the updated knowledge asset in the next training course 
  • People use this as the basis for their own design, and often innovate even further (and the innovations feed the next improvement cycle). 

It is the emotional impact in the exercise that sells KM.

This impact comes at three points:

  1. When a team with a small tower, who have defined what they think is the limit of possibility for tower height,  holds a peer assist with a team which has already exceeded that limit. You can almost hear the minds opening at this point.
  2. When the teams are shown a picture of the current world record tower, which is FAR beyond their perceived limits. You can definitely hear minds opening here, and at this point I tell them that the only thing the winning team had which the current teams don't yet have, is knowledge. Everything else is equal - knowledge is the only difference.
  3. When the teams look in wonder and pride at their second towers, built with a full set of knowledge, which are usually close to the world record, and sometimes set a new record.
This is the KM test drive; it's an emotionally engaging mind-opener for the participants, and never fails to convert people to the value of KM. 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Old school vs new school KM? Or the resurgence of technology-led approaches?

APQC, probably the leading US player in KM space, have presented on their blog a very interesting infographic where they contrast what they call "Old school" KM vs what they call "Cutting edge" KM.  This powerful and well-presented infographic raises a major point. 

The infographic is based on a recent APQC survey, where they looked at what people are currently doing in KM and what they planned to do, and they found that there are two contrasting approaches to KM which they call old-school and new-school.

The old-school approach includes
The new-school approach includes
  • Mobile apps (second most popular, but 30% plan to retire this approach)
  • Enterprise wikis (37% plan to retire this approach)
  • Enterprise social media
  • Enterprise video

Does anyone else see what I see here?

All the old-school approaches are functions, all the new-school approaches are technology!

Communities of practice, lessons learning, best practice creation, knowledge capture and transfer, are all functions of KM, functions such as connecting people, collecting practice, continuously improving knowledge through lessons, and empowering new staff using the learning of the experienced staff. Each of these functions will be supported by a framework of roles, processes, technologies and governance, but they are four of the six primary facets of KM (joined by innovation, and by better access to documents). 

Mobile apps, wikis, ESM and enterprise video are all technology solutions. 

This observation has two corollaries.

Firstly, if new-school KM is only about technology, or is technology led, then it will surely fail.

Technology-led KM has been failing for two decades, and the solution to this failure is not to bring in better technology, but to integrate technology into a framework, and to use it for a purpose as part of a KM function.  

Wikis will succeed when they are used by an existing community of practice as a better way to collate their combined knowledge and experience. They will not succeed when rolled out in isolation in the hope that an internal wikipedia will spontaneously emerge.

Mobile apps will deliver value if they form part of the KM supply chain, and provide vital knowledge and "best practice" to a mobile workforce, such as field engineers of sales people. However unless they form part of a vital KM function then they will add no value and will be retired.

And so on.

Secondly It's not about old versus new, its about technology supporting function.

We can see from the previous paragraphs, "old-school v new-school" is a false dichotomy. If we want KM to survive and thrive, then we need to retain the core functions of KM and empower them through bringing in better technology (this is the technology approach taken by Schlumberger, a long-term leader in successful KM).

Retain communities of practice and empower them further through the use of technologies to enable them to ask questions and receive answers, share insights, and co-create new knowledge. Retain lesson-learning and strengthen this by allowing lessons to be accompanied by video, where appropriate.  Retain best practice, and ensure mobile staff can access the practices they need on the move.

In reality, there is no old-school and new-school.

There is a set of core functions for Knowledge Management, and there is a set of technologies which support (or do not support) the functions.  The only problems will come if we lose sight of this, and think that technologies alone will replace the core functions, and the APQC infographic shows this, through the larger retirement rates for the technology-only approaches.

Blog Archive