Tuesday, 30 June 2015

An inspiring case study of Knowledge Harvesting

How can we provide the right people with the right knowledge at the right time? How can we support co-workers in transferring and implementing knowledge? And how can we cope with the challenges involved? It is these and similar questions that the international non-profit organisation SOS Children's Villages has been intensively exploring over the past decade.

At a time when many are questioning the health of Knowledge management, it is refreshing to find it alive and thriving over many years within an organisation.  This organisation is "SOS Children's Villages", and one of their long term approaches to KM is the annual Knowledge Harvesting event.

SOS Children's villages is a global organisation providing care, protection, education & health services to 2.2 million at-risk children & adults in 133 territories. They provide stable, loving families for orphaned and abandoned children, employing "SOS mothers" who give individual attention and guidance to each child until they become an independent adult. They also work In partnership with communities in developing programmes that aim to strengthen families and prevent the abandonment of children.

Knowledge Harvesting started in 2002 to answer the question, for the experienced field workers and SOS mothers, "Which aspects of my vast experience and the knowledge I have gained so far are of particular importance to my fellow colleagues"?  Every year a selection of the field workers meet to tell their stories and share their knowledge.

The process they use is summarised in the video above, and in the excellent book "When Knowledge Sparks a Flame". It is a combination of open-space meetings, world cafe, appreciative enquiry, and storytelling circles - all well-known KM approaches with a long history, applied in a respectful, open and structured way, for sharing and transferring knowledge, experiences and good practices of what is working, what is energizing and enlivening.

They take the discussions through the four appreciative-enquiry stages of Discovery, Dreaming, Design and Destiny, to ensure that the knowledge "discovered" from reflecting on the past is taken forward into future possibilities and future actions, thus ensuring that this is not just a talking shop, but a true KM event that takes knowledge through to action.

This process has been operating now at SOS Children's villages for over a decade, and is still going strong.  Seeing this in action, or viewing the video above, is to see Knowledge Management alive and well, and helping to care and protect the children of the world.

Monday, 29 June 2015

The big question in KM, according to Tom Stewart

"One flaw in knowledge management is that it often neglects to ask what knowledge to manage and toward what end.

"Knowledge management activities are all over the map: building databases, measuring intellectual capital, establishing corporate libraries, building intranets, sharing best practices, installing groupware, leading training programs, leading cultural change, fostering collaboration, creating virtual organizations - all of these are knowledge management, and every functional and staff leader can lay claim to it.

"But no one claims the big question: why

Tom Stewart in The Case Against Knowledge Management

See also the Knoco approach to KM strategy - where "Why" (Business driver)  and "What Knowledge" (Critical Knowledge Areas) are two of the core questions.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Davenport - "KM not dead but gasping for breath"

An excellent blog in the Wall Street Journal from one of the most respected voices in KM, Tom Davenport, claims that "knowledge management isn’t dead, but it’s gasping for breath"

In the blog post, also reposted in LinkedIn, Tom cites the following evidence for the "gasping for breath" diagnosis

  • "Google Trends suggests that “knowledge management” is a term rarely searched for anymore. 
  • "Bain’s Management Tools and Trends survey doesn’t list it in the top 25 tools for the 2015 or 2013 surveys; it was included before that. 
  • "More subjectively, although I am supposedly an expert on the topic, hardly anybody ever asks me to speak or consult about it".

I think we can discount the Google Trends argument. The decrease in searches for "knowledge management" mirrors the decrease in searches for "project management" and "risk management", as shown in the picture below, and nobody would claim that either of these disciplines are "gasping for breath".  This is something to do with changes in the use of Google, I suggest, rather than a global decline in all forms of management.

The Bain result is more interesting, and could show that KM has fallen off the Hype Hump, but I am not sure that even I (a professional KM practitioner) would put KM in the top 25 tools.

However Tom's declining KM consultancy business, and a few other trends such as the decline of KM conferences and flattening in the growth of readership of this blog, among others, suggest that KM is not yet mainstream.

So where is KM on the hype cycle, and why is it not in better health?

I would suggest we are perhaps at different stages depending on different approaches to KM. Maybe we are (rightly) in the trough of disillusionment with KM as a technology-only solution, but on the slope of enlightenment with KM as a holistic and strategic approach built on behaviour change.

Tom accounts for the perceived ill health of KM as due to the following factors -

  1. It was too hard to change behaviour. 
  2. Everything devolved to technology. 
  3. The technology that organizations wanted to employ was Microsoft’s SharePoint. 
  4. It was too time-consuming to search for and digest stored knowledge ...  the greater the amount of knowledge, the more difficult it was to find and use. 
  5. Google also helped kill KM. 
  6. KM never incorporated knowledge derived from data and analytics.

I would suggest that all these reasons other than the last are based on misapprehensions of KM - that it is a technology, that behaviour change can be ignored (or is easy), that the more knowledge you have the better, and that technology (Google or SharePoint) will solve everything.

These misapprehensions are the ones that drive the disillusionment, as they dispel the illusion that you can just buy technology (even SharePoint) and behaviours will change, and knowledge will be both plentiful and used.

Hopefully once we are beyond those illusions we can start up the hill of enlightenment, where we realise that KM is possible, is valuable, is hard work, and will take many years of behaviour and culture change to reach the productivity plateau.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The curse of prior knowledge (why bullet points don't work for knowledge transfer)

The Curse of Prior Knowledge is a real problem when it comes to knowledge sharing, or trying to transfer knowledge to the Unknown User. It's also one of the reasons why lesson management systems are full of mushy motherhoods and useless bullet points.

The curse of prior knowledge refers to the fact that when we know something, it seems obvious to us, so we assume its obvious to everyone else. Therefore we underestimate the difficulty of transferring that knowledge to someone else; to whom it is not obvious.

Chip and Dan Heath, in their book "Made to Stick", describe an experiment where one person taps the rhythm of a popular song, and another person has to guess the song (it might be Happy Birthday to You, or The Star Spangled Banner, or something equally familiar). This is actually very difficult to do, and the success rate turns out to be about 2.5% for a successful guess. However the tappers estimated that the success rate would be 50%. They had the knowledge - they knew what tune it was - and they underestimated the difficulty of transferring that knowledge to someone else.

They underestimated it by a factor of 20!

When people put lessons into databases, or write PowerPoints with bulleted "learnings", the curse of prio knowledge strikes again. They assume that the knowledge will be obvious to the reader, and write down little shorthand koans such as "get the right team in place from the start", "plan properly", or "do not underestimate the complexity of this task" (as if anyone ever sets out to put the wrong team in place, to plan improperly, or to underestimate the complexity). These bullet points are, to be frank, completely worthless.

They underestimate by at least a factor of 20 the difficulty of transferring to someone else what you have learned.

A lesson needs context, it needs explanation, and above all it needs concrete recommendations that others can follow, and can take action. To avoid the curse of knowledge, and get to a quality result, requires facilitation. A facilitator can challenge the curse, can ask "will that really be obvious to the reader, who has no prior context"?

Without facilitation, without quality control of the lessons, and without awareness of the difficulty of transferring learning, the curse of prior knowledge will strike, and you will be "foiled again"

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Siemens CEO on KM

"Between 60% and 80% of the value added we generate is linked directly to knowledge - and the percentage is growing. As a result, one of our company's first priorities is to network and manage our internal knowledge so that we will be even more efficient and provide even greater benefits to our customers.

"There aren't too many problems that one of our business segments hasn't already solved. Whether it is installing a complete metropolitan subway system, constructing a pharmaceutical plant on a turnkey basis or putting up an office tower with the latest building management and communications technology  you can bet that at least one of the 450,000 Siemens experts in at least one of the 190 countries where we are active has tacked the job before

"Our ultimate goal is to ensure that all of our people can access the company's enormous pool of knowledge"

Dr Heinrich von Pierer
President and CEO

In Davenport and Probst, 2002

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Quantifed success story #89 Lesson learning ensures early delivery at Airbus

One of the stand-out presentations for me at KMUK this year was by Rafi Oghoubian of CIMPA, Airbus. Rafi talked about the introduction of Lesson-learning in aircraft production, and the impact it had on delivery of the Airbus 350XWB.

One of the problems besetting the aircraft industry is delays in delivery, or (in the jargon) "entry into service".

As Daniel James, the MRO guest blogger, says - "rarely, if ever, do new aircraft types get delivered in time to the airlines that have been waiting in line for their shiny new combination of advanced composites and electrical wizardry."

This delay can cause tension between the airline and the aircraft supplier.

The entry into service issue was one of the targets for Airbus in their revamped Lesson Learning program. As Rafi described to us, Airbus had had a history of lesson learning, but there were many parallel initiatives, they were not coordinated, the learning loop was too often not being closed, and many people were becoming disinterested in Lessons Learning.

The KM team conducted a major Lesson learning overhaul, introducing

  • a template for Lessons 
  • processes for lessons capture, reuse and maintenance, with lessons capture through team workshops such as retrospects
  • quality control of lessons content
  • a Lessons Management technology
  • distribution of lessons to those who needed to know them, and
  • support from a central team.

Over 5000 lessons were captured from the Airbus 380, for example, of which over 1000 were  transferred and embedded in the design of the next series of aircraft.

The lesson learning helped support the entry into service of the Airbus 350XWB, described in this press report as being "certified ahead of schedule and in a record time of 15 months".

This was a big deal for the client, Qatar Airlines, who's CEO told CNN that "It's important to note that the aircraft has been delivered to us one week ahead of schedule, not late."

Lesson learning had a key role to play in that 1-week early delivery.

Monday, 22 June 2015

The link between KM and strategy - Oxfam example

Last week I blogged about Knowledge Management at Oxfam, and shared their Rights and Responsibilities table. In today's post I explore the link between their KM program and their strategy, as a case history of how Knowledge Management can directly and explicitly support the vision and strategy of an organisation.

I constructed the strategy map below to explain how this works. 
What a Strategy Map for Oxfam might look like

The Oxfam Strategic Plan 2013 to 2019 is entitled "The Power of People against Poverty". The vision of Oxfam is as follows

Oxfam’s vision is a just world without poverty: a world in which people can influence decisions that affect their lives, enjoy their rights, and assume their responsibilities as full citizens of a world in which all human beings are valued and treated equally.

To deliver this vision, Oxfam has set 12 strategic goals - six of them outcome goals and six of them operational (internal organisational development) goals.

These are as follows

  1. The Right to be Heard – People claiming their right to a better life
  2. Advancing gender justice
  3. Saving lives, now and in the future
  4. Sustainable food
  5. Fair sharing of natural resources
  6. Financing for development and universal essential services

  1. Creating a worldwide influencing network
  2. Program quality, monitoring, evaluation and learning
  3. Strengthening accountability
  4. Investing in people
  5. Cost effectiveness
  6. Income strategy

Knowledge management appears as a support to three of those OPERATIONAL GOALS

  • Operational Goal 2 Program quality, monitoring, evaluation and learning
    • Innovation, learning and knowledge management increase the quality and impact of our program work and that of our partners
      • Define a focused learning strategy based on the change goals
      • Share learning and good practice through networks of staff and create a reflective culture based on learning from frontline program experience
      • Translate learning into new program policy and guidelines and to influence external stakeholders

  • Operational Goal 4: Investing in people
    • Systems, processes and structure: Oxfam maximizes its effectiveness through increased use of shared services
      • Invest in systems and processes to enable people to collaborate, share knowledge and learn together

  • Operational Goal 5: Cost effectiveness
    • Efficiency: Oxfam will achieve optimum efficiency and convert the returns into delivery of programs 
      • Align ways of working across affiliates and rationalize structures;
      • After business process analysis and revision, move to one process for all support services;
      • introduce one policy and strategy across affiliates, for example, in communications;
      • invest in knowledge management across the confederation;

For one of the operational goals, KM is a direct objective, supported by a learning strategy, network-based learning and learning from experience. For the other two, KM is an enabler to operational effectiveness and operational efficiency.


The strategy map above is a good way to tie this together in a visual way, but we can see from the text that KM is being deployed at Oxfam in a very strategic way. Through the cascade of goals and objectives you can see how Knowledge Management directly supports Oxfams vision.

Through introducing KM, collaboration and organisational learning Oxfam will improve program quality, make people more effective and make the organisation more efficient in delivering the six goals needed to build a just world without poverty.

If only all organisations had such a clear model of how KM supports their vision!

Well done Oxfam.

Blog Archive