Friday, 21 November 2014

Too many channels

The purpose of a Knowledge Management framework within an organisation is to give people access to the knowledge they need, to make effective decisions and take effective action. 

 Knowledge must flow from the supplier to the user, through Push (publishing, telling) or through Pull (searching, asking).  To flow, it needs a channel.

This is where the Internet, and specifically social media on the Internet, is such a bad model for organisations, as online there can be so many channels, without causing too much of a problem.

How many social media channels can you name? The conversation prism lists over 200.

How many social media channels do you follow regularly? I follow about 5 or 6, you may follow more.  That means I am tapped in to just a few percent of the channels, which is not a big problem on the world wide web as there are so many people out there,  I am bound to find something of interest, or even get my questions answered. There are a lot of people that share the same channels, and I can access a lot of knowledge.

However inside the small world of an organisation, you need to maximise the chance that the knowledge supplier and knowledge user are on the same channel. You cannot afford knowledge to go missing because user and supplier are using different media.

Schlumberger's approach to this issue is very clear - for every knowledge management purpose within their organisation, there should be one channel, and only one channel.

  • Connecting people with technical information? One channel
  • Finding people with expertise? One channel
  • Asking a question of a Community of Practice? One channel
  • Publishing video? One channel
and so on.

Avoid the temptation to add multiple channels which fulfil the same purpose; this introduces confusion and duplication, and increases the chance that critical knowledge will get lost somewhere between the supplier and the user. 

Thursday, 20 November 2014

3 cases where KM doesn't need dialogue

This blog has often argued that dialogue is at the heart of effective knowledge transfer, and that without dialogue it is difficult both to access the deep unconscious learning, and also to check whether the knowledge customer properly understands the knowledge that has been offered. 

However many companies operate knowledge transfer systems, such as lessons databases or knowledge bases, which involve no dialogue at all.

Do these work? Under what circumstances can they work? Here are 3 cases

 1. Dialogue-free knowledge transfer is perfectly acceptable when the context of the knowledge is very clear.

Take the example of cookery books; these are a very effective means of transferring the knowledge of how to cook certain dishes. The context of cooking a meal is a clear context, shared between the author and the reader. However if you move outside that context, for example moving to another country where the ingredients and measures are different, or opening your house as a pop-up restaurant, the results may be disappointing. If you want to move to a more creative context, you will probably take cooking classes and discuss what you are learning with a professional chef. 

2. Dialogue-free knowledge transfer is perfectly acceptable when the nature of the knowledge is limited. 

 Take the example of road maps; these are a very effective way of transferring the knowledge of how to navigate from one place to another. Most motorists have a road map in their car, or a sat-nav. But for more complex knowledge, like the details of finding a specific house down country roads, you need the advice of people with local knowledge (see my blog post on Charts and Pilots; charts are fine on the open sea, but every large vessel entering port uses a pilot to travel the last mile or so).

2. Dialogue-free knowledge transfer is perfectly acceptable when the knowledge is very mature at user-level. 

When a topic is mature, everything is known. We know all the questions that can be asked about the topic, and all the answers.  All of this can be fully documented, for example in an online FAQ or knowledge asset.  Even then, there will be advanced-level nuances which experts may still need to discuss, but for the average user, this knowledge can safely be codified.  However if a topic is not fully mature and is still evolving, then the answers in the FAQ may change, and new questions may arise. There will be knowledge that is needed that is not yet "in the manual" and will need to be exchanged through dialogue.
As I pointed out here, any Knowledge Management framework needs to focus on Conversation (through dialogue-based processes) as well as on Content, other than in the three cases described above.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

4 ways to increase your "KM clock speed"

According to Erick Thompson, assistant VP for knowledge exchange, the St Paul companies, "KM initiatives should also focus on the speed factor. Companies have to learn how to learn faster". 

The world is increasingly a competitive learning field. In the past, when progress was slower and the rate of change was lower, an organisation could compete on its products, its patents, its reputation and on its people. However the rate of change is increasing, and companies need to adapt.

Markets are changing, customers are changing, expectations are changing, regulations are changing, the world is changing, and it is changing faster and faster. If companies are to adapt, they need to unlearn old habits and learn new ones. And in a competitive world, the fastest learner wins.

The British Army takes a similar view: you have to try to get inside the enemy's OODA (observe, orientate, decide, act) loop. If you generate faster tempo (rate of learning relative to that of the enemy), you will win.

So how do you hack the clock speed on your internal Knowledge Management cycle? Here are 4 steps.

1. Set targets
How long should it take to be able to find basic knowledge on your Intranet? How long should it take to receive an answer from a CoP? How long should it take before a new lesson is embedded into business process? Set some aggressive targets, like the senior manager at McKinsey who declared that all CoP questions should find an answer within a day.

2. You build the knowledge bases that cover routine activity
Any knowledge that is sufficiently mature, simple, and context-independent should be documented online in an easily findable location. All of your process documentation, manuals, training material should be put onto a wiki or similar knowledge base.

3. You build your Communities of Practice
Any knowledge that is less mature, more complex or more context-dependent may not be documented. Ensure you create the networks of people through which this knowledge can be transferred. Focus the CoP on problem solving and on answering questions if you want it to perform rapidly. Focus on Pull, not Push. 

4. You increase your lesson-learning speed through active lessons management
This blog post describes two lessons learned systems - one which takes 2 years to make changes based on new lessons, and one which takes a couple of weeks. You cannot afford to wait years for lessons to be embedded. Each unembedded lesson is a lesson currently unlearned, and an unlearned lesson carries the risk of reinvented wheels and repeat mistakes. Ensure you have an effective Lessons Management system, with a person or team in charge of making sure it is working well and quickly.

5. Measure against the targets you set.
Collect, and report, "speed of learning" metrics. Your dashboard should include online search time, the time to reply to CoP questions, and the time it takes to a) document and b) embed lessons. These are measures of your learning clock-speed. Seek to keep these times as low as possible, and continuously decreasing.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Learning from Failure, learning from Success

Trial and error, or trial and success? Which is the better learning mechanism? 

A thought provoking piece here, makes the argument that people learn much better from their mistakes, as a result of the emotional charge and the emotional scars that failure brings.

On the other hand, a well-argued article in  Business Insider suggests that success is a better teacher, because a fail mode only tells you one option not to try; it does not tell you how to succeed.

Which is correct, and what is the implication for Knowledge Management?

Personally I tend slightly more towards the "learn from success" argument.

I believe that on a corporate level, or as a society, we collectively make the biggest learning steps when we finally succeed. Think of Edison and his light filament; when did he do the most learning? When he tried each of the 99 options that didn’t work, or when he found the one that did?

Now you can argue that he learned from both, but now let’s look at transferring that knowledge. If you were a light bulb maker, which of these two statements would be of most value to you?

  1. You can’t make a light bulb filament out of cat hair 
  2. You can make a light bulb filament out of tungsten 

The implication for Knowledge Management

The implication for Knowledge Management is this:

You need to learn from both success and failure, but you need to learn much more carefully from success, because success is what you want others to replicate.

It is learning from the successes that are most valuable for others, so that is where the most KM effort needs to be applied.

As an example, let's look at the typical systems set up to learn from safety incidents. Most of these systems have detailed root cause analysis when there is a near miss or an incident, and the lessons from these are sent around the organisation so others can learn from this safety failure.

However it is far more important to learn from the factory or plant that never has an accident, and never has a near miss. That is the factory everyone needs to emulate, which means they need to carefully understand WHY they are so safe, and then learn from this.

We know that it is human nature to learn best from mistakes, but we don’t want to be at the mercy of human nature. We don’t want people to have to screw up in order to learn. We don’t want failures and screw ups if we can possibly avoid it, because mistakes and screwups can cost money, they can cost lives (in certain cases), and they can cost careers if they are big enough.

Learning in a KM Framework

The ideal situation, in any mature KM or lesson-learning framework, is that you learn as a matter of course, whether you deliver failure, success or a mixture of both (and it usually is a mixture).

Learning, as in lesson identification meetings such as After Action reviews and Retrospects, should be a routine exercise, regardless of success or failure. Address both, learn from both, and give particular attention to understanding the causes of success.

Fail fast and fail often is a good mantra, so long as it leads to success, and it is the success that is the greatest learning opportunity.

Monday, 17 November 2014

The KM tool is not the KM system

When you say the word "system" to a group of people, a good proportion of them will interpret the word as meaning an IT system. But a knowledge management system is far more than an IT solution. It is about a way of working; a way of working systematically, to deliver the value tied up in the knowledge of your staff, your teams, your suppliers and your customers. 

This "System = Technology" was very clear in a client request I have been working with recently. "We want to introduce a learning culture" they said, "and we want a system for knowledge management", but when we started to interrogate what they wanted, they could not move beyond seeing the need for a technology tool.

For them, the tool was the system.

To take a different approach to understand the concept of "system", let's take an analogy for working systematically to deliver value.  Lets look at the financial management system.

Now I know money is not a strong analogy for knowledge. It is a lot more tangible for a start, and a lot more measurable, and everyone relates to it. But let's ignore for a moment the differences between the two, and instead compare the management systems that businesses apply to the management of money.

An analogy - a Financial management System

The systematic management of money requires a combination of people, processes, technology and culture. Nobody sees the words "Financial Management System" and think's it's an IT system - they know it has at least 4 components.

  • You will need people such as accountants, financial planners, commercial managers. 
  • You have a whole range of business processes like budgeting, financial tracking, auditing of accounts. 
  • No doubt you have software technology you use; from base-level spreadsheets to more elaborate enterprise-wide accounting solutions. You may be moving into ecommerce, and investing in technology to move money electronically. 
  • Finally you have governance, to drive a financially aware system. You have clear financial management policies and expectations. Your people understand that "money counts", they "watch the bottom line", they look for "bang for the buck". And every so often, you audit the management of money, to make sure it is being done systematically and well.
Your money management system works, because it is a holistic integration of people, process, technology and governance. These things have been about for so long we sometimes don’t recognise them as being components in the money system.

What about your knowledge management system? 

Does your knowledge management system have the same systemic and systematic elements?

  • Do you have the people? Do you have knowledge accountants, knowledge planners, knowledge managers? 
  • Do you have processes for knowledge tracking, or knowledge auditing? Do you budget for knowledge at the start of a project, in the same way you budget for money? 
  • Do you have the technologies you need at a local and enterprise-wide scale? 
  • What about your governance? Do people pay as much attention to knowledge as they do on money? They may know what they earn, but do they know what they learn? Are the company expectations for KM clear? And are they ever audited?

 Analogies can be pushed too far, but I think in this case a comparison of the two shows that a Knowledge Management system, if it is to succeed, needs to look at the holistic integration of people, process, technology and governance.

A Knowledge Management System is far more than just technology, and the Tool is not the System.

Friday, 14 November 2014

The two axes of KM space - in-project and cross-project

In a project-based organisation, we can look at Knowledge Management on two orthogonal axes which together map out the space within which knowledge flows. These are the in-project axis and the cross-project axis.

Imagine a large project-based organisation, with multi-disciplinary projects operating in many different regions or divisions. 

The in-project KM axis represents those knowledge elements that occur within a project, involving the project team. These elements can include

The cross-project KM axis represents those knowledge elements that link the projects, and that "breach the silo walls" that can separate projects and divisions. These elements can include
The in-project KM elements are focused on knowledge creation and knowledge application.
The cross-project elements are focused on knowledge seeking, knowledge sharing and knowledge synthesis.

Together, the two axes of in-project KM and cross-project KM allow knowledge to be created, shared, sought and re-used, and to flow across and between the silos, as shown in the picture above. Both these axes need to be included in any effective Knowledge Management Framework.

Contact us to discuss how these two axes can work in your own organisation.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

KM in the National Qualification Framework

We have often wondered why there is such an interest in Knowledge management in South Africa. Here's why.

The National Qualifications Framework is a training and development framework operated by the South African Qualifications Authority, to that South Africans have access to quality education and skills development to improve their lives.

If we look at the course on Business, Commerce and Management studies, we find the following module as part of the Strategic Management section
  • ID 264406: Manage the information and institutional knowledge within a function, 

And as a core unit standard

  • 252044 Apply the principles of knowledge management

You can see the detail within this module here, with the learning objectives summarised as follows


  • Theory and principles of knowledge management.
  • Intellectual property.
  • Intellectual capital.
  • Knowledge economy.
  • Organisational learning.
  • Learning organisation.
  • Creation, sharing and storage on knowledge. 

  • Well done to South Africa - to see KM as a core standard (and a Strategic one at that) within national Business, Commerce and Management education!

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