Monday, 4 July 2011

Chefs and recipe followers

ChefsPeople often use the analogy of chefs and recipe users within Knowledge Management, frequently arguing that chefs are liberated by knowledge, and recipe-followers are straight-jacketed by "best practice". Being a chef, in KM terms, is seen as "good". Being a recipe-follower, or a user of best practice, is seen as "bad" (and you will find many KM sites that use the term "best practice" as a boo-word).

True to form, I challenge this prevailing view.
There are places in KM for "chefs", and places for "recipe followers", and the KM practitioner need to know which approach to use when.

Firstly, for mature knowledge, especially with a high turnover of new staff, you primarily need people to follow recipes. You don't need to be a chef to make a white sauce, or to boil an egg. But even for basic stuff, the complete beginner may need a beginners guide to follow (see Delia Smith's recipe "How to boil an egg").  The newest people joining your company will need a recipe book for mature knowledge, just to get them started on the basic things. Following a recipe is a far more effective strategy than calling in a chef. And for some companies, the primary KM problem is educating the new people, because either of massive growth or of massive churn. The combination of rapid onboarding, rapid networking, and very good explicit guidance, needs to be part of the KM strategy  (for example in the Chinese car industry, where the average age of the engineers is 23, or in telecom businesses where the annual churn rate may approach 40%). So to bring these new people up to speed with mature knowledge, they need a recipe (as well as access to chefs when things go "off-recipe").

Secondly, creativity may be crucial, but so is productisation. A chef may have a brilliant idea, but the most successful industries are not always those with the best ideas, but the ones that bring those ideas rapidly to market. once the chef has the new recipe, the recipe followers can rapidly spread it through the marte and capture the market share. And there can be good business in following a recipe - McDonalds, Taco Bell, Pizza hut, to name but a few, make a global business out of it. For purely financial reasons, a share in McDonalds is probably a better bet than a share in Gordon Ramsay inc (though these might be outweighed by other reasons). A commercial business needs creative poeple to come up with the new ideas and new products, and then needs an army of people following them, to get these ideas to market.
Thirdly, for the most critical knowledge, even a chef follows a recipe. Think of an experienced airline pilot taking off from heathrow. He or she goes through the pre-flight checklist step by step, "following the recipe". If I were on a plane, and the pilot came on the intercom and said "Ladies and gentlemen, I am a highly knowledgeable pilot, I have decided not to bother with the preflight checklists today" then I would expect there to be an instant mad rush for the exits. Or a surgeon, with the pre-operational checklists described in Atul Gwande's book, which I covered in this blog post on checklists. As I say in the post, most jobs nowadays are incredibly complex. The human brain can only remember so much at one time, and suffers easily from overload. Most mistakes are made, not because we don’t know what to do, but because we forget (or skip) a crucial step, especially in emergency situations. We need to be reminded of what we know, and what we need to remember. Checklists (recipes) force us to stop and review, remind us of what needs to be done, take us through the critical steps, ensure we remember the right things, ensure we ask the right questions, and ensure we have the right conversations. And updates in checklists as a result of new knowledge, can remind us to do new things.

Fourthly, too many chefs spoil the broth. Every kitchen needs a chef, then they need some sous-chefs, then they need a whole stack of people to follow recipes and follow orders. SImilarly every organisation will contain a whole spectrum of knowledge workers, and on each stage of their knowledge journey, they need their knowledge delviered or developed in a differrent way. We all start off as recipe followers, some of us end up as chefs, but we are all knowledge workers and KM needs to address all our needs.

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