For the past 14 years, we have been running a Knowledge Management exercise called Bird Island, as part of our training programs. The purpose of the exercise is to demonstrate the value of Knowledge Management by linking it clearly to performance.The exercise is a simple one - the delegates are divided into teams, given a small set of materials, and asked to build as tall a tower as possible (with some environmental constraints). Then knowledge is brought into the equation, first through an after action review within the team, secondly through a peer assist with another team, and finally through presentation of a best practice knowledge asset showing the secrets of building the tallest towers from previous courses.
Armed with a full set of knowledge, they build the tower again, and frequently treble or quadruple their previous performance (see statistics here)/
The build-up of knowledge over timeOne of the interesting byproducts of this game is that it allows us to look at the development of the knowledge over the 14 year period. Even with a very simple exercise, we have seen a whole series of design innovations, which have been progressively incorporated into the knowledge asset. As the knowledge grows, so the performance of the teams grows as the knowledge is carried forward into the design of the second towers. Over 14 years, progressive learning and innovation, captured in a knowledge asset through a bare-bones KM process, has resulted in a progressive increase in the height of the second towers.
This is shown in the graph above, which shows the second tower heights from teams over the life of the exercise. Initially tower heights rose relatively rapidly to over 4m. At this stage, we reduced the materials for the towers and so introduced a half scale game (represented on the plot as the abrupt fall in height). This was followed by a slower, but still steady, rate of height increase, and the towers are now regularly reaching over 3m.
To me, this is a clear demonstration of the power of KM. The increased performance is not driven by new materials, as every team has exactly the same components. It is driven only by an increase in knowledge. The only added ingredient that teams have today, that they did not have in 2000, is knowledge.
The KM system behind the results
That knowledge has been accumulated by progressive and systematic learning through operation of a very simple knowledge management system.
The Km system involves the following steps
- Every time a team makes a new modification and improvement to the tower design, we photograph it
- We update the Best Practice knowledge asset to include the new modification
- We present the updated knowledge asset in the next training course
- People use this as the basis for their own design, and often innovate even further.
The results of this simple knowledge management system of capture, update and re-use are seen in the continuous improvement graph shown above, as well as the dramatic improvement experienced in the classes by the teams themselves.
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