Thursday 27 September 2012

Recording the Know-Why as part of Knowledge Assets

Why? We are working with a client at the moment, who has a good system for documenting Standard Operating Procedures, and updating them with new Lessons Learned as appropriate. This is their way of continually improving their processes, and of institutionalising (one form of) corporate memory.

However there is a risk here. The risk is that they are recording "how to do it" and not "why to do it this way" - the "Know-How" and not the "Know-Why". And if the context changes, and the procedures need to be adapted, then without an understanding of the "why", people won;t know how to change. Once you get outside the standard operating envelope, then standard operating procedures don't work.

This is an operational version of "thinking fast and slow". The Fast thinking is to follow the SoP, when all you need to know is "what to do" or "how to react". The Slow thinking is to go back to the principles, go back to the Why, and derive the new operating procedure.

So how do you record the Know-Why?

You have a couple of options.

  • Record enough commentary in the SoP so that you can see what it is based on. For example, one legal company we worked with used to keep standard contracts, but each contract clause had extensive commentary describing why the clause was there, and why it was written the way it was. The contract could then be amended if needed (together with amended commentary) and the commentary stripped out when the contract was printed. That way they preserved the Know-Why.
  • Create a secondary document, such as a Basis of Design document. This document takes each element of a project design, a product design or a software design, and described the basis and the assumption son which it was designed. You can create a BoD before the project, and revise it during and after the project to capture changes to the design, and the rationale behind those changes. The BoD then helps future teams working on the same product to make intelligent changes, rather than blind changes. It also helps transfer knowledge to subcontractors working on the project, and protects against loss of knowledge. I recall someone saying to me, about Basis of Design, "I could look at the BoD and put out a quality project design in 2 weeks, and there hasn't been any work done in this area for 2 years".

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