Thursday, 3 September 2015

knowledge mismanagement

There is a school of thought that every organisation does knowledge management. This is not correct - many organisations practice knowledge mismanagement.

I think the idea that "every organisation does knowledge management - they just don't recognise it/call it something different/haven't formalised it" comes from the recognition that all organisations work with knowledge.

Knowledge is certainly a resource, or a potential resource, for all organisations, but that it not to say that they manage the resource. Common symptoms of knowledge mismanagement are as follows:

  • Crucial knowledge left in the heads of people, and lost when the people retire
  • Critical knowledge stored in databases to which the rest of the organisation has no access
  • No time spent to capture knowledge gained on projects
  • No time spent to seek knowledge to help inform plans and decisions
  • No maintenance of exiting knowledge assets or knowledge stores
  • No consistent taxonomy for stored knowledge
  • No effective search technology
  • Incentives for internal competition, which hinders or blocks knowledge sharing
  • Incentives (formal or otherwise) for knowledge reinvention
  • Rewards for "personal knowing" - promotion and job security for the experts who hoard knowledge
  • No messages from senior management about the importance of knowledge
  • Inappropriate rules on internal information security

If you managed any other resource in this way, it would be termed mismanagement, and a breach of good company practice. 

Financial mismanagement is defined by Wikipedia as

"management that, deliberately or not, is handled in a way that can be characterized as wrong, bad, careless, inefficient or incompetent and that will reflect negatively upon the financial standing of a business or individual".

We could similarly define Knowledge mismanagement as

"management that, deliberately or not, is handled in a way that can be characterized as wrong, bad, careless, inefficient or incompetent and that will reflect negatively upon the knowledge-related performance of a business or individual".
Note that the mismanagement does not have to be deliberate - just careless or inefficient

Instead, lets take care of knowledge, in an efficient and competent way. 

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Who are the knowledge workers?

The knowledge workers represent one of your two main stakeholder groupings for Knowledge Management implementation. But who exactly are they?

Firstly we can eliminate from the group "knowledge worker" anyone who is purely a manual worker - someone who follows orders or preassigned inflexible procedures. Labourers on a construction site, individuals on an assembly line and so on.  These are not the customers for KM.

However they could become knowledge workers.

Toyota led the way in showing that assembly line workers could become knowledge workers, if you involve them in analysing the work they do. Kaizen-style meetings provide a format where the manual workers can become knowledge workers, accountable not just for doing the work, but improving the way the work is done.

If we eliminate any manual workers that remain, we are left with a group we can call the decision makers.  These are people who need to use knowledge and judgement in order to do their work.  The better the knowledge we can supply them with, the better the judgements they will make.

This definition of knowledge worker includes people such as;

  • Engineers making design decisions
  • Sales staff deciding how to sell to a customer
  • Lawyers trying to decide the best legal solution
  • R&D scientists trying to develop new technology
  • Government staff determining policies
  • Aid and development staff trying to design and apply interventions
  • Medical staff making decisions about patients
  • Soldiers making decisions on the battlefield
  • Maintenance engineers trying to decide how to maximise the utility of equipment
and so on.

Don't forget the managers

Then there is a group which is often neglected in KM initiatives - the middle and upper managers. 

Management also make decisions, and often very big decisions, with costly implications. They also need access to the best knowledge they can find, and if your KM program cannot help them they will need to hire in expensive external consultants. 

So the following are also knowledge workers;

  • Project managers making decisions on major (and minor) projects
  • Divisional managers making decisions about market penetration
  • Sales managers deciding how to enter new markets
  • Plant managers deciding how to optimise their plant
  • Senior managers deciding how to set up new business
  • Senior managers making decisions about acquisitions and divestment
  • Technical managers, making decisions about developing organisational capability
and so on

One of our clients focused their KM applications at senior level, and likened this to "KM removing the thorn from the lion's paw". If you solve the lion's problems, the lion will always be on your side!

The biggest decisions are made at the highest level, and there the need for knowledge may be greatest and the application of knowledge can yield the best return. That's where some of the thorniest issues can be resolved through the application of Knowledge.  That's where some of your most influential knowledge workers reside.

How to address the knowledge workers in your KM program

Early in your KM implementation program, identify your customer base, and determine how best to support them.

  1. Conduct a stakeholder analysis
  2. Clarify who the knowledge workers are, at all levels
  3. Get to know their knowledge needs
  4. Ask how they would like KM to support them in their work
  5. Find out their high-value knowledge
  6. Determine the places where KM will add greatest value
  7. Don't forget the middle and senior managers- solving their KM problems will often add more value than solving lower level problems, and what is more will gain you that much-needed senior support. 

Contact us if you need help in analysing your stakeholders - at all levels in the organisation.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Why less is better in KM

Last week I had a conversation with a knowledge manager, who explained to me the incentive system they use. My heart sank.

In this particular organisation, people are incentivised to share knowledge. For each article they publish they are awarded "points". If they accumulate enough points, then they can trade them in for a reward.

"Is there any quality control on the publishing" I asked? No, was the answer.
"Do you give any points for re-using knowledge?". "No"
The result was an ever-expanding supply of poor quality material, with no demand.

This reminded me of another client, which required each person to publish ten items every year.  In an organisation of 100,000 people, that was a million items per year, with no quality control, no filtering, no re-use, no guidance on what to publish; no strategy other than to flood the knowledge base with documents.

Both of these organisations were falling into a common dual-aspect trap;

  • incentivising Push (supply of knowledge) and paying no attention to Pull (demand for knowledge), and
  • incentivising publishing quantity at the expense of quality.

More knowledge is not necessarily better. 

There are many cases where too much knowledge, especially where this knowledge is poor quality, is counter-productive. 

  • A situation where a user is already bombarded by a "Knowledge firehose" will not be made better by turning up the flow
  • As I found in another client recently, a lessons data base which is overly full of poor quality lessons is a frustrating experience for the user. "We cant find what we need, and when we do, its not helpful" was common feedback, and users seldom visited the database a second time. 
  • Another client, again rewarding publishing, but with no structure and guidance, was proud to see wikis popping up all over the place, not seeming to see the problem in having 5 competing wikis on the subject of Knowledge Management, for example. 

Davenport and Prusak, in their seminal "Working Knowledge" point out that over-volumed knowledge bases do not work. 

"Volume may be the friend of data management" they wrote - "but it is the enemy of knowledge management"
Too much knowledge requires the user - and each user in turn - to  filter the volume of material to find the relevant and timely knowledge, and as the volume increases, the task gets harder and harder, and people just give up. It's easier to reinvent the wheel, than to find the correct wheel in a junkyard.

Go for "less and better"

The lessons from these observations are relatively simple, though perhaps counter-intuitive in the early stages of KM.

  • Incentivise quality (usefulness and utility) of published knowledge, not quantity
  • Introduce a synthesis step, so new knowledge does not accumulate like a snowdrift, but is used to refine what is already known
Aim for less and better. 

Friday, 28 August 2015

"Knowledge transfer" - the wrong metaphor?

Knowledge transfer, when illustrated graphically, often looks like the picture below - knowledge leaving one head and entering another. 

image from wikimedia commons

This model is wrong.

Firstly when knowledge is shared, it doesn't leave the first head - it stays there. You do not lose anything when transmitting knowledge to someone else.

Secondly, in many or most acts of "knowledge transfer" the giver also learns and gains.  A Peer Assist is a prime example - the people who come to share their knowledge often some away with more knowledge than they started.

Knowledge is more often co-created than it is transferred in a one-way direction.

Think of the following examples;

  • A Peer Assist, where peers from all over the organisation pool their knowledge to create new solutions and insights for a project team
  • A meeting within a Community of Practice where SMEs come together to create best practice, pooling their knowledge to create something new
  • A Knowledge Retention meeting between a senior and a junior - theoretically for the junior to learn, but where skilful questioning means the senior develops new insights into the practice
  • An After Action Review where the team comes to a collective understanding of the lessons from an activity
  • People collaborating on a wiki find that the wiki contains knowledge supplied from many people, and combined into something none of them knew individually.

In each case this is not the transfer of something from one head to another, but co-creation of knowledge, or co-learning.

Perhaps Peter Senge said it best, in the following quote

"Sharing knowledge is not about giving people something,or getting something from them. That is only valid for information sharing. Sharing knowledge occurs when people are genuinely interested in helping one another develop new capacities for action; it is about creating learning processes."

The process therefore looks more like the picture below

Thursday, 27 August 2015

"Smart push, warrior pull" to avoid information overload

I came across this phrase - "Smart push, warrior pull" recently, and looked it up online (for example here). It's a very useful military approach to maximising knowledge bandwidth. 

The US Department of Defence operates a global broadcast system (GBS) which acts as a knowledge and information transfer system to troops. Like any such communication system it suffers from bandwidth issues, so the transfer of knowledge and innovation must be strictly prioritised. 

"Smart push, warrior pull", inevitably shortened to SP/WP, is a widely-applied principle to do this prioritisation. It represents the two following components;

  • Intelligent transfer from central command to the troops on the ground, of the information and knowledge they need at that moment, and nothing more.
  • The option for further requests for additional information and knowledge from the troops to the centre.
This is an excellent principle for a lean knowledge supply chain

It ensures that people get the right knowledge at the right time, with no waste.

The armed forces and intelligence units operate this way because of the bandwidth limitations of the GBS, but there is no reason why a similar principle cannot be used within organisations: "Smart Push, Front-line Pull" for example, where the customer facing staff, or staff conducting operations or projects, are provided centrally (or automatically) with the knowledge they need for that customer, or that operation, or that project, with the option to ask/search for more if needed. 

Although organisations are less likely to have infrastructure bandwidth limitations, there is definitely an attention bandwidth issue, also known as "information overload". A principle such as SP/FLP would improve the efficiency of the KM system by reducing "knowledge waste" and minimising information overload.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

How After Action Review added value to a negotiation team

Sometimes the simplest KM tools add the most benefit. 

Here’s a really good example of After Action Reviews being used by a negotiation team as part of a bare-bones KM framework. The source has to remain anonymous, but what’s great about this example is that the application of KM was totally business-led, and the simplest tool gave the greatest benefit. The story is written by the team knowledge manager

“For the first 5 months of this year I co-ordinated a real-life, application of KM in Country X. The situation was one of intensive commercial negotiations, on multiple fronts across senior levels. Negotiations are difficult being the first deal of this type and size for the country. Things were tough and decisions difficult to achieve despite daily contact with a large team with many different players meeting many different people. 
"The stand-off and complexity, led to a reasonably forthcoming environment for KM in the team, and almost a desire to try anything, including Knowledge Management. However, the main KM tool that achieved instant buy-in was the After Action Review process, which we applied rigorously to all external interactions. 

"Key success factors
• Heavy facilitation in the early days
• Keep it short (around 15 minutes)
• Do not let it substitute the minutes of the meeting
• Output less than one page, big font, based on proforma, 3 or 4 points per question
• Ensure everyone gets the opportunity to speak, best run and owned by one of the team, not the team leader ... who should always add his views last
• Concentrate on How and Why, not What
What it gave us in return
• Effective fast, broad communication throughout the team of what happened and what was learnt at each meeting
• Lateral communication across all teams and into management, within 24 hours of each interaction occurring
• Consolidated weekly summary of all AAR's, linked together into the bigger picture, and pushing all lessons that can be learnt laterally across the organisation ... prepared by me in my KM role”

A few things to note;

  • KM was introduced as a solution to a business problem, and it was a knowledge based problem - they did not know the best way to negotiate, they did not even know what was going on at times.
  • The KM solution was very simple, and tailored to the working style and culture
  • Facilitation was heavy in the early days
  • KM was kept distinctive, not just "another way to write minutes"
  • Knowledge turnaround was very rapid - everyone know the learning from each interaction within 24 hours
  • The KM solution was coordinated. There was a KM role; coordinating, consolidating, pushing knowledge laterally

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

How to apply micro-KM to a dispersed team

We are used to thinking of processes such as knowledge exchange and peer assist as large-scale specific events, held for members of a Community of Practice to exchange knowledge about a topic. However knowledge transfer can also take place at a much smaller micro-scale, and with much less formality, during normal meetings. 

The context here is a dispersed team such as a regional sales team, working individually most of the time, but getting together for team meetings on an occasional basis. This is a good opportunity for them to share knowledge with each other, ask for help and advice, and share best practice.

The manager of such a team needs to not only set the culture that allows such exchange of knowledge, but also to set the expectation and provide a structure that ensures exchange of knowledge.  They can ask questions and provide prompts such as these -

  • “Susie, you've had a very successful month, can you share with us what you did, what you learned, and what you can recommend to others?” 
  • “John has some big challenges on his account, can anybody think of things that he could do to turn the situation around?” 
  • “Guys, it looks like we are all facing a challenge on this particular brand, can we put our heads together and pool what we know to decide the best way to tackle it?

The following quotes are from a survey we ran of sales managers and sales reps. The quotes not only show the value of micro-knowledge exchange in team meetings and team conference calls, but also show the influence of the manager in driving this behaviour.

 “We are each other’s only resource. Somebody will figure something out when they’re doing their work, and then, whenever it comes up as a question for somebody else, we all just have to work together and share our learnings and pass it on, to speed things along on the learning curve. Our boss doesn’t know our system as well as we do, and we can teach each other. Whenever we have questions, we usually go to each other before we take it anywhere else”.  
“There's a lot of sharing that goes on within the team, and before that we were pretty much just silos. There's probably something that comes out of every meeting where someone is saying, "Does anybody know how I can get past this roadblock?" or, "Is there something that I could do to help facilitate this?" And there's been a lot of times where someone else on the team said, "Here's how I've been able to accomplish that." Or, "Have you thought about talking to this person in this department?" Most of the time somebody within the team can propose a solution”. 
“You need to take all of these opportunities and make them learning opportunities to try to make the team better. Really look for Best Practices. It’s not just “Look at that (sales) number, you’re down, you’re here, you’re whatever”. It’s “Hey Jim, it looks as though you were at 125 a year ago, what do you attribute to your success? Why do you think you’re doing so well”? And do that in a group conversation. And then if somebody’s down, “What are the issues that you are facing right now? Is there anything that we can help you with”?”. 
 “(Our sales manager) is always looking for successes that one person that has and trying to find ways that those successes can be transferred to other accounts. He doesn't just go into one area and say, "Well, so and so did this, and I want you to try it," instead, he's really good at facilitating the communication between the various field managers so that they're sharing the successes and working on solutions together for each other's accounts” 
“Don’t be afraid to ask your peers questions (in these meetings). “I’m a new account manager, new to the channel or new to the business.” Pick the brains of the sales reps that are currently on the team”. 
“When you identify some of the key learnings someone else from on the team will say, “Hey, you know what, I had that same experience, this is what I did which was better and different, and you should try that approach”. Or, “Hey, have you tried to ask so-and-so in the national office for resources to help get that project completed?” So you review it as a team, you talk about the key learnings, you talk about some shortfalls, or the misses, then you know other people can share experiences and it will help that person or will help the entire team”. 
Finally here is a quote from a sales team member who is new to this sharing culture, and recognises the value it brings.

“I think it’s great because I worked previously in a world basically where I was out on my own in a very unique group, and so did not have a lot of that sharing that took place amongst my fellow peers. And coming to this new group, it is quite the opposite. We have this information and it flows freely and I just think it’s great because you can feel comfortable saying, “I have to work on a presentation coming up; I’m getting ready for this certain project, does anybody have anything that may help me here?” And people send information; I think that’s a very positive thing about our team”.

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