Monday, 20 May 2019

The Synthesis step in KM

Individual bits of learned knowledge need to be synthesised into a common understanding.



Synthesis [critical thinking skills] by Enokson, on Flickr
Knowledge is incremental - it arrives as discrete learnings from experience.

These increments of knowledge may be documented as lessons identified, best practices, blog posts, wiki pages and answers in forums, some of which contain knowledge which could be of value if re-used by staff. Or else the knowledge may remain undocumented, and be individual tacit learnings within a community of practice.

However keeping these increments of knowledge separate, as new ideas in individual heads, in individual documents or as individual lessons, leads to a whole series of inefficiencies:
  • Good practices may be documented many times 
  • Individual documents may contradict each other 
  • Individual people's experiences may be contradictory;
  • It is very difficult to find the knowledge you need among the many tens of thousands of documents, and hundreds of people;
  • Each individual user (and the ones who need the knowledge are often the more junior staff) is required to figure out their own answer, and make their own sense, from this mass of evidence. 
This is what Larry Prusak called "deknowledging through oversupply". To be really useful, this mass of raw knowledge needs to be synthesised into something useful and usable.

Knowledge Synthesis is the summary, collation, sense-making and integration of multiple sources of knowledge into a common view and (i many cases) a single set of guidance material, which people can use to help guide their business decisions and business activity.

Many or most of the best practice companies in Knowledge Management employ a step of Knowledge Synthesis within their Knowledge Management Framework. For example
  • Shell collate their Best Practices (“Practices Worth Replicating”), their lessons learned, and the results of discussions in Communities of Practice, into synthesised guidance within the Shell Wiki.
  • ConocoPhillips take the same approach with their Community Wiki sites.
  • Many organisations hold community discussions areound key topics, to develop a common understanding;
  • The US and UK Militaries collate all lessons and observations from the field into guidance documents on all military processes. These are called “Doctrine”, which represents synthesised knowledge on these processes. 
  • BP collates all its technical guidance into a set of Technical Practices and Guidance Documents
  • Samsung create Knowledge Assets - validated knowledge on value-adding Business processes, including practice guides, methodologies, business frameworks, examples, checklists, case studies, templates, architectures ;
  • Similar stores of validated, synthesised knowledge are provided by many other organisations such as the Pfizerpedia at Pfizer, the Capability Intranet at Rolls Royce, Knowledge Online at Fluor and the In-Touch system at Schlumberger.
Synthesis can be done collectively, through the use of self-organising systems like wikis, it can be done by experts working on behalf of communities of practice, or it can be done by task forces or working groups. Synthesis is not a one-off process - synthesis is the way that each increment of new knowledge is integrated into the body of existing knowledge. Synthesis requires time, resource, skill and training, but adds massive value to your Knowledge Management framework.

Knowledge synthesis will ensure that
  • The business staff know where to go to find most of the knowledge they need (though they will need to look more widely to find the most recent emergent knowledge which has not yet been synthesised)
  • They know that any documented knowledge they find within the synthesised collection will have been validated by a community of practitioners, that there will be no duplication, and that any contradictions will have already been resolved. 
  • They know that, apart from the most recent lessons, best practices and discussions, this knowledge will be up to date, and 
  • The knowledge will have been presented in the most useful and helpful way. 
When synthesis is working well, new knowledge is not buried within overloaded databases or online forums, but is proactively and systematically reviewed and integrated into the synthesised knowledge base.

The business result should be a faster learning organisation, with better decisions made on the basis of new knowledge, and an enhanced corporate memory through the rapid and frequent update and improvement of processes. This in turn leads to enhanced performance, with fewer repeat errors.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Why "knowledge management" is not an oxymoron

One of the arguments against the term "Knowledge Management" is that knowledge is an intangible and cannot be managed, therefore "Knowledge Management" is an oxymoron


Some thoughts about ROI tangible and intangible benefits
Photo from Flickr
It wasn't Einstein that said this quote, it was
William Bruce Cameron in 1963, but its still a good quote
The argument is that knowledge is personal and context specific, and is not an object in it’s own right - not something that can be weighed and measured and counted - so how can it be managed? According to this argument, "Knowledge Management" is said to be an oxymoron because knowledge is an "intangible object".

However the management of intangibles is common practice in the business world.
For example

  • Risk management
  • Safety Management
  • Customer Relationship management
  • Brand management
  • Reputation management
  • Environmental management; 

All of these are established disciplines which make up part of good management practice in many businesses, and are concerned with intangibles. Safety, Relationships - these are personal and not objects in their own right. You can't touch or weigh a reputation or a risk.

Is Knowledge Management any different? Why is Safety Management a valid term for example, while Knowledge Management is an oxymoron? Surely an accident is not an object you can manage?

I think part of the problem is that we tend to look at the management term in the wrong way.

Risk Management does not mean that a risk is an object that can be managed -- many risks are completely unmanageable. Instead it means putting in place a framework where decisions are made, and actions are taken, so the impact of risk is minimised. It means "Managing with attention to risk". It means changing the way people work and think so that they treat Risk as something important which needs to be addressed and not ignored.

Similarly, Safety Management means putting in place a framework where actions are taken, and behaviours put in place, so that the workplace becomes safer.  It means "Managing with attention to safety".

Similarly Knowledge Management does not mean "the management of knowledge". Instead, it means putting in place a framework where expectations are set, actions are taken, and behaviours are put in place and sustained, to maximise the value of the know-how of the organisation. It means changing the way people work and think so that they treat Risk as something important which needs to be addressed and not ignored. It means "Management with attention to knowledge".

If we see Knowledge Management as one more "Intangible Management System", then it allows us to learn from the other systems; to see how they are introduced and sustained. And if we look at risk management, safety management, quality management etc. it quickly becomes clear that implementing these disciplines is, more than anything, about attention, mindfulness and prioritisation.

The companies that have made breakthroughs in safety management know that it is about paying attention to safety, being mindful of safety, and prioritising safety throughout daily work. Similarly quality management is about paying attention to quality, being mindful of quality, and prioritising quality throughout daily work.

The same is true of Knowledge Management.

Like other intangibles, Knowledge Management is about attention and priority. It's how you manage, when you realise the importance of Knowledge.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Management by Talking About

Part of the way you manage issues such as risk, safety and knowledge, is by creating times and processes for talking about them.


Steven Denning, at the Ottowa Knowledge Management summit a few years ago, said that the learning capacity of an organisation is directly related to it's ability to hold conversations, and I truly believe he was right.

When dealing with the management of intangibles such as knowledge, much of the process of management will be through conversation (conversation leading to action).

For example, Safety Management is driven by conversations about safety, in order to drive awareness of safety issues and identify mitigating actions. Similarly Risk Management is driven by conversations about risk, in order to drive awareness of risks to projects and to identify mitigating actions.

Similarly knowledge management is driven by conversations about knowledge.

All of the most powerful knowledge management processes are driven by conversation - especially dialogue.

  • Knowledge management planning is a dialogue about "what knowledge do we need", in order to identify learning actions. 
  • Peer Assist is a dialogue to exchange and acquire knowledge at the start of a project, in order to identify improvement actions for the project. 
  • After Action Review is a ongoing, regular learning-based dialogue within a working team, to identify improvement actions for the team. 
  • Retrospect is a detailed dialogue at the end of the project to identify and clarify the team learnings, and the improvement actions for the organisation. 
  • Knowledge exchange is a multi-person dialogue within a community or between two teams, in order to collectively make sense of experience, identify the learnings, and determine the process improvement actions.
  • Communities of practice are systems for dialogue amongst practitioners of a topic or domain.

As Steve Denning might have said, the learning capacity of an organisation is directly related to it's ability to hold conversations about learning.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Learning from the enemy

When seeking analogues for KM, learn from the organisations which are best at KM, not just from the organisations you like

Image from wikimedia commons
I delivered a training course a couple of months ago for a development organisation, using a whole set of example and case studies to show how leading organisations do knowledge management. Part of the feedback I received was "we don't want to see examples from the Oil and Gas sector. We believe in sustainability and alternative energy, and don't like to see fossil fuel examples".

I saw something similar over a decade ago, when talking to someone from the charity sector.  "I don't want to see examples from industry" he said. "We are different  - we don't care about profit and we don't like industry"

In some ways, I appreciate this view, but in other ways i think its short sighted. Just because you don't like the work an organisation does, doesn't mean you cant learn from the way they do that work. The Oil and Gas sector is the second or third most mature sector in KM terms, after the legal sector (which has its own unique view on KM). Organisations such as Shell, to take an example,  have a 20-year history of KM, and their continual improvement of their KM framework over the decades has led to one of the most robust developments of KM that I know. This gives a model for anyone to learn from, of they work in a project framework, and want to deliver those projects more effectively and efficiently through KM.

Not to learn from KM at Shell, just because you don't like the Oil sector on environmental grounds, would be a mistake.

When you are looking at KM examples, my advice would be to learn from the best and the most experienced organisations, whatever their business sector and whatever their business aims.


Friday, 10 May 2019

Why don't our governments learn?

A reprised post from the archives, which seems even more apposite in this time of governmental disarray.

Image from amazon
As part of my holiday reading, I read a book entitled "The Blunders of our Governments", by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe.

Initially I feared this might be heavy going, but quickly I became enthralled and appalled by the scale, cost and consequences of the recent mistakes of the British Government, and equally fascinated by the analysis of why these blunders happen.  I suspect other governments are not immune to blunder either, and that the conclusions of the book may be generic.

There are also some issues here of knowledge management, a learnign organisation, and a learning culture, as I explain later.

Here are just a few of the blunders analysed in the book.
  • The decision to raise a "per capita" local tax to replace a local property tax. This was known as the "Poll Tax" - deeply unpopular and totally impractical, it caused riots in the streets, and precipitated the fall of the Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher. It was abandoned after three years as being totally unworkable.
  • The introduction of a personal pension scheme without proper consumer protection, which resulted in widespread sim-selling and "hard selling" of pension schemes to people without the knowledge to be selective buyers. This has since become a major public scandal, with potentially more than a million people adversely affected; many of them old, poor and/or ill.
  • The creation of an exhibition to mark the Millennium. It's purpose was to impress, entertain and educate, and it failed on all counts. Costing £828 million in government spending, it received only £189 million in income from visitors and investors during the millennium year.
  • The ill-fated and hugely complex Metronet contracts to upgrade the London Underground, which led to a direct loss to the taxpayer of between £170 million and £410 million.
  • An agency, supposed to be self funding, for impounding the assets of criminals. The agency cost £65 million to recover £23 million of assets (with a success rate of 23 out of 700 cases)
  • The creation of several overambitious IT systems abandoned after massive investment. These include a system to handle asylum and refugee cases abandoned at a cost of £77 million, a system to handle prisoners and other offenders which trebled in cost, and a centralised system for health records that was eventually abandoned after estimated costs of many billions of pounds. To this we can add the E-borders scheme.
To these we can add the calamitous mishandling of the Brexit saga, Universal Credit, and many more. Other governments are not immune to such blunders.

So why does the government make such big mess-ups, wasting such huge sums of money and creating massive schemes that never work? The authors conclude that most of the causes are structural and systemic issues.
  • The people who make the policy are culturally disconnected from the people who will be affected. The idea of a per-capita tax made perfect sense to a government minister, but no sense at all to a low-income resident in rented housing. This is exacerbated by the lack of piloting of many of these schemes.
  • The pervasive phenomenon of Group-think or "Information bubbles" means that ministers making decisions inhabit a bubble, receiving information and knowledge only from a few like-minded sources.
  • "Intellectual Prejudice" - the unchallenged assumptions that some solutions are better than others 
  • "Operational disconnect", where the people making policy decisions are disconnected from the people who have to put them into operation
  • The short-term pressure from the media to be "seen to be doing something"
  • Governmental silos, with only a limited central group to reconcile and coordinate them
  • Rapid movement of ministers from one job to another, giving them little time to fully understand the complexities of their department
  • A desire from new ministers to be seen to be active - making decisions, introducing new schemes
  • A lack of accountability for ministers. Few of the major blunders mentioned in the book resulted in the responsible minister resigning or losing their job. Minister's mistakes, however serious, almost never catch up with them
  • What the authors call "asymmetries of expertise". In other words, ministers are not project managers nor IT experts, and cannot act as "intelligent customers". Instead they rely on external legal and consultant support, which may result in conflict of interest, as well as increasing price tags. The biggest governmental knowledge gaps, according to the National Audit Office (NAO), are in contract management, commissioning and management of advisors and consultants, risk identification and management, and business acumen. The NAO also recognised a "limited ability to embed skills and experience" (linked to the rapid movement mentioned above).
  • An imbalance of decision-making over deliberation (of doing rather than thinking and learning).

That's why governments screw up - but why don't they learn from these screw-ups? Why keep repeating the same mistakes?

Looking at this in Organisational Learning terms, and checking against the ten dimensions of a Learning Culture there are several cultural barriers to Governmental Learning which the book identifies.  These are as follows;
  • Short termism. This is perhaps the biggest issue - that most or all governmental incentives are short term; the next election, the next parliamentary meeting, the next news cycle. A week is a long time in politics, so who bothers to think 5 years ahead? The incentives are all in favour of being decisive and not deliberative, of acting and being seen to have acted, and then moving on. The long term incentives for learning and for deliberating are just not there, as shown by the lack of accountability mentioned above.
  • A "knower" culture rather than a "learner" culture. There are massive skills and knowledge gaps in the Government, and yet there does not seem to be a burning desire to fill these gaps. Decision makers seem to rely on what they Know that they Know, even when that knowledge is culturally disconnected and intellectually prejudiced. When knowledge gaps are identified, these seem slow to be filled.
  • A lack of honesty and "telling truth to power." The powerful, decisive and ambitious nature of ministers makes it difficult to say "this will never work". The book mentions how difficult is can be to tell a powerful politician what they don't want to hear, or why their pet project is doomed to fail.
  • A lack of challenge to the "accepted wisdom." Without this challenge, the problem of GroupThink never goes away. Where were the focus groups, the pilots, the "devils advocates? Where was the willingness to ask "are we missing something? Do our assumptions stand up to challenge"?  With no challenge, mistakes perpetuate.
To change the culture of an entire government would be a massive job, being so closely linked to historical structures, ministerial incentives, and to the entire culture of the country. Many of the pressures that drive governmental behaviour are externally imposed, for example by the media "blame game".

 However no industrial organisational structure would be allowed to survive unchanged after such a string of massive blunders, so why should the governmental organisation?

Most of these blunders have been analysed by the National Audit Office, who produce about 60 reports a year analysing how government projects, programmes and initiatives have been implemented and how services can be improved.  There must surely be an excellent case for a thorough lessons analysis, to find out and fix the problems at the heart of governmental blunders.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Why Dialogue is at the heart of Knowledge Management

Dialogue is the engine behind Knowledge Management - it is the primary means by which Knowledge is shared and absorbed.

We often assume that connecting people together will lead to better knowledge exchange, but connecting wires doesn't necessarily make a circuit. You need a way of ensuring conductivity as well as connectivity, and dialogue provides that conductivity for knowledge.

Dialogue is different from other forms of conversation. In a Dialogue, the participants are trying to reach mutual understanding. It is a process of exchange of views and of knowledge, of both sides asking questions and of listening to the answers. It is a combination of listening, advocacy, reasoning and consensus-seeking. It is hard to imagine effective knowledge exchange without some form of dialogue.
  • Dialogue differs from argument, which is all about presentation and advocacy of views. There are no winners or losers in dialogue; you can't say "I lost the dialogue with Peter”.
  • Dialogue differs from debate, which is all about testing the validity of a proposition rather than testing whether it is understood.
  • Dialogue differs from interrogation, where all the questions are one-way, and only one person stands to profit from the exchange.
  • Dialogue differs from discussion, which is often about analysis of detail rather than searching for common understanding.
  • Dialogue differs from reporting, which is the presentation of facts rather than the search for common understanding.
We need dialogue because of the  unknown knowns, the deep knowledge of which people are unaware.  The person who has the knowledge (the "knowledge supplier") may only be partially conscious of how much they do know. The person who needs the knowledge (the "knowledge customer") may only be partially conscious of what they need to learn. The unknown knows and unknown unknowns are only uncovered only through two-way questioning; in other words through dialogue.

Dialogue is needed, in order to
  • Help the knowledge supplier understand and express what they know (moving from superficial knowledge to deep knowledge)
  • Help the knowledge customer understand what they need to learn
  • Transfer the knowledge from supplier to customer
  • Check for understanding, and
  • Collectively make sense of the knowledge
The knowledge customer can ask the knowledge supplier for details, and this questioning will often lead them to analyse what they know and make it conscious. The knowledge supplier can tell the customer all the things they need to know, so helping them to become conscious of their lack of knowledge. As pieces of knowledge are identified, the customer and supplier question each other until they are sure that transfer has taken place.

Almost all of the effective Knowledge Management processes are based on dialogue. 


AARsPeer AssistsKnowledge HandoversretrospectsHarvesting interviews, Learning Histories, Knowledge exchange - all are dialogue based. All of these processes are facilitated, and part of the role of the facilitator is to ensure dialogue rather than argument or monologue.

Some of the elements of dialogue can be done remotely through Web 2.0 tools, though this needs to be done deliberately. We can't assume that dialogue "just happens" over social media, any more than we can assume that a conversation will be a dialogue.
  • Blogs are 95% monologue, and although some dialogue can be sparked through blog comments, it's more often debate than dialogue. However examples such as the Polymath project suggest that a structured approach of Blogs and Wikis can lead to problem-solving through dialogue
  • Community discussion forums can occasionally engender dialogue, but again, debate and argument are often found in there as well. 
  • Social media promote conversation, but not necessarily dialogue. The conversations in LinkedIn, for example, are mostly serial monologues, where people post their own views while seldom seeing to understand the views of others
  • Wikis allow co-creation, but not through a dialogue format, which makes them difficult for really contentious or emergent topics. 
So how do we promote dialogue as part of our knowledge management programs?

  1. We deliberately promote, even to the extent of educating people in, the behaviours of listening and questioning, as part of a Knowledge Management and Organisational Learning Culture.
  2. We introduce the facilitated processes mentioned above
  3. We ensure our Online communities of practice are also guided and facilitated, to promote dialogue instead of argument
  4. We train the facilitators well.

We move beyond just "connecting people", and look at the nature of that connection, and the nature of the conversations that result. Good facilitation is key to helping this happen.



Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Find out how much difference Knowledge makes to performance

Do you want to know how much difference knowledge makes to performance? Here are some experimental data.


Based on the controlled experiment that we call "Bird Island", we can tell you that
  • Collecting, discussing and re-using your own team knowledge can make a 40% difference to performance
  • Using knowledge of your current CoP can make an 80% difference to performance
  • Using all available knowledge, including historical knowledge, can make a 220% difference to performance
Let me explain how this works, and where these numbers come from.

In the Bird Island exercise we ask the teams to build a tower, then we measure the height of their tower. We then hold an after action review (AAR) to discuss what they have learned about tower building, and after the AAR we ask them to estimate how much taller they can build, now they have knowledge and experience.

The graph below shows a histogram, or frequency plot, of the percentage increase they recognise. This is somewhere between 0% and 120%, with a mode of 40%. This represents the performance increase a team thinks they could gain, by learning only from themselves.




Then we hold peer assists, where the teams exchange knowledge with the other teams, rather like sharing in a Community of Practice. Now they are sharing knowledge with other teams, instead of just looking at their own learning. Then after the peer assist, we ask them to estimate how tall they could build the tower.

This next graph shows the percentage increase between the first tower and the post-peer assist estimate. Although the mode is still a 40% increase, the mean is now closer to an 80% increase. (The reason why the mode does not shift from 40%, is that the team with the highest tower rarely believes they gain any knowledge from the peer assist. So one team almost always does not improve their estimate. That's why the frequency distribution in this graph has more than one peak).


Finally we show the teams the current best practice, built from the experience of hundreds of teams over 20 years, and ask them to build the tower again. This gives them access to the current full state of knowledge about tower building, and really gives their performance a boost.

We measure the first tower, built with no knowledge, and we measure the final tower, built with full access to all prior knowledge. The final graph shows the percentage increase between the first and second towers - between a state of no knowledge, and a state of full knowledge. The mean and modal increase they achieve is now in the order of 220% - representing an average trebling of height from the first tower to the second, solely due to the addition of knowledge. They have nothing extra the second time, other than knowledge.


Bird Island is a test of the link between knowledge and performance in a controlled experimental environment, with a simple repeatable task, and with teams that come to the task with no knowledge.

Whether the same performance increases could be made at work, in a more complex environment, I don't know, and it is sometimes very difficult to measure. However we can certainly see a 67% increase in the speed to drill oil wells, and a 55% increase in the speed to build drilling platforms, so where performance improvements through controlled learning are measurable, they are large.

Therefore the answer has to be - Why not? Why would similar figures not apply at work?

If KM materially impacts performance in the experimental setting why should it not do so in the real world?


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