Friday, 8 June 2012

Reaching the deep knowledge

woman, thinking A foreman leaves his job. The company arranges a hand-over meeting, and the foreman talks through the processes and procedures with his successor, but the real knowledge - the tips of the trade, the workarounds, the instinctive feel for the tasks - leaves with the man.

 An engineer opens his email, and reads a request for advice from a colleague on another continent. The engineer drafts a quick reply, describing a solution he has applied in the past. However he fails to think through the reasoning and insights underlying the solution, and his reply is superficial and of little value to his colleague. The colleague gets no help from the suggestions, and next time she won’t even bother to ask.

 A project manager finishes her project. She sits down for a couple of days and writes a close-out report, where she details the history of the project, and the successes this project has achieved. But she never gets to the secrets behind the success; these are hidden in the undocumented interactions in her team. As a result, the successes are unrepeated.

 In each of these examples, an opportunity to exchange valuable knowledge has been lost - in some cases forever. The crucial knowledge stays in the head of the foreman, the project manager, the engineer, because none of them are conscious of what they know. Without being conscious of what they know, they have no way to pass that knowledge on. Any knowledge management system that fails to find the things that people don’t know they know (the unknown knowns), that fails to mine the deep knowledge, will fail to deliver it’s full potential.

One of the key tenets of Knowledge Management is that we know more than we realise, and more than we can record. The individual, working alone and with a blank sheet of paper, seldom accesses the deep knowledge, and you end up recording the superficial. The only way to dig a bit deeper (while still realising we won't get everything) is to start probing with questions.

A good questioner, or a good questioning process, can help the individual dig deeper than they can manage unaided. That's why so many Knowledge Management processes are based on questioning and dialogue.

On a short-term small scale, the After Action Review is a questioning process; getting at the ground truth behind the results of an exercise or activity. The team’s expectation of an event is compared with the actuality, and the facilitator goes through a questioning process to find the reasons for the difference between the two. Where there is a difference, there is learning, but it may take some probing questioning to get to the knowledge. Oil companies use After Action Reviews in situations where a small team conducts a brief action, such as a maintenance team working a shift at a refinery, or a negotiation team conducting a difficult meeting with a host government. In every case we found that the quality of the questioning determined the value of the knowledge. Superficial questioning gives shallow knowledge of limited use. Harder questioning, maybe using the technique of ‘the five whys’, gets at the deep knowledge, where the real value lies.

On a larger scale, the Learning History uses the same sort of questioning techniques. A skilled facilitator, informed but detached, not a member of the team, will take a project team through a structured questioning and discussion process, where the history of the project is reviewed and the knowledge brought out and captured. For example, I was once part of a joint interview team, charged with capturing and packaging the knowledge from a major industrial merger. We targeted 40 of the top decision-makers, and sent them an interview guide with some high-level questions. We then followed this up with hour-long interviews, where we applied some of these questioning techniques. It was pretty obvious when we started to tap into the unconscious knowledge - the pace of the interview slowed as the interviewees started to really think deeply about what had happened, and started to ask themselves ‘what really happened there, and what did we really learn?’.

You know, as an interviewer, when you are tapping into the deep knowledge. The interviewee stops, thinks, leans back in their chair, and their gaze rises as they look upwards and inwards.

That's the sign that you are digging deep - the sign that you are hitting Knowledge Paydirt!

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