The story here is taken from the book "Performance through Learning", and tells of a crucial "proof of concept" exercise at De Beers, the global diamond company, which was instrumental in demonstrating the value of Knowledge Management to senior management, and gaining their support and buy-in.
One of the earliest stages of the De Beers Knowledge Management strategy would be to try some simple KM processes on some of the key activities or projects within the organization; to see if they worked, to see if they generated value, to come up with some early wins, and to create some success stories which could be used for marketing.
Ian (Ian Corbett, the De Beers Knowledge Management lead) had already identified one or two possibilities, and more had come up during the (strategy) workshop. There was one very interesting and challenging possibility though, which would be a real test of the power of Knowledge Management; the !Gariep project.
!Gariep had been a blue-sky technology project for De Beers Marine. The De Beers Marine team had planned to build a piece of mining technology beyond anything that currently existed. The project had been an ambitious challenge, and many many learnings had been generated; so many learnings that the organisation had been unsure how to harvest them for reuse. Some of the key players were still in the organisation, others had left.
Ian saw the possibility of using the Retrospect process as a powerful and non-confrontational way of harnessing some of that knowledge.
The !Gariep retrospect took place over two days in Cape Town, involving 25 members of the project team, with up to four years history with the project. We divided the project into four stages, and spent half a day on each stage. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that we invited too many managers and not enough "workers" to the retrospect, because many of the most valuable insights came from some of the more junior members of the project team.
However some very interesting and powerful lessons were captured, and we took the opportunity to record some video advice from the participants, as well as some feedback on the retrospect process itself. Although the lessons from !Gariep were extremely valuable, and have already been carried forward to future projects to great effect, those video clips were an even more powerful demonstration of the value of Knowledge Management.
Shortly after the retrospect had been completed, Ian attended a meeting of the senior management team of the De Beers group to talk to them about KM. He had recorded one of the engineers at the retrospect, a young credible and eloquent contributor with some excellent knowledge and advice to offer, and he embedded the video in his presentations.
This was the turning point for some of the senior managers; it transformed the whole presentation and got them on the edge of their seats. It was a real-life, highly relevant demonstration of what KM within the De Beers context, and from a complex and high-profile project as well. And then, when the senior managers asked "and how did the participants feel about the Retrospect process?" Ian was able to show them a second video clip of enthusiastic feedback.
Turning the "proof of concept" in to high level support
Ian later reported the following;
"The embedded video is the best way to market how powerful this approach is. I recorded one of the engineers talking. He is young, credible and eloquent, and I put his video in a presentation for the senior management team. I gave the talks, and I showed Steve, and it transformed the presentation and got people on the edge of their seat. This was the turning point for the Director of operations, who became the high-level sponsor for Knowledge Management in De Beers”
This approach for engaging key leaders can be replicated by any courageous knowledge manager.
- Find a big business issues
- Apply Knowledge Management as a "proof of concept" exercise to solve, address, or learn from that issue
- Ask the people involved in the KM exercise to tell the story, in their own words, on video
- Use that video to engage your senior managers