Monday, 20 September 2021

How remote working makes organisations more siloed

 A new study published in Nature shows that hybrid or remote working leads to a loss of collaboration across the organisational siloes, which is likely to inhibit the flow of knowledge.

The study is called "The effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers", with 9 authors, and was published on 9 Sept 2021. It looks at the working habits of over 60,000 US Microsoft employees before and after the pandemic, and looks at how work habits shifted as working became remote. 

There are several very interesting graphs in the article which show how working habits changed as Microsoft moved to remote working in early 2020.  The graph shown here (linked from the article) looks at how the number of "ties" changed as remote working was introduced - ties being an organisational connection which is either strong lots of (regular interaction), weak (occasional interaction) or bridging (someone in a different division or team). Bridging ties are one of the primary ways in which knowledge flows from group to group, division to division and project to project. 

You can see how time spent with weak, cross-group, new (added) or bridging ties dropped significantly as the workers moved to remote working. 

The study concludes the following (with my emphasis added as bold)

Our results suggest that shifting to firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network to become more heavily siloed—with fewer ties that cut across formal business units or bridge structural holes in Microsoft’s informal collaboration network—and that those silos became more densely connected. Furthermore, the network became more static, with fewer ties added and deleted per month. Previous research suggests that these changes in collaboration patterns may impede the transfer of knowledge and reduce the quality of workers’ output.

Our results also indicate that the shift to firm-wide remote work caused synchronous communication to decrease and asynchronous communication to increase. Not only were the communication media that workers used less synchronous, but they were also less ‘rich’ (for example, email and IM). These changes in communication media may have made it more difficult for workers to convey and process complex information.

Remote working, and by extension hybrid working, brings risks of more siloed teams, less knowledge sharing between weak ties, and less knowledge sharing across teams. It brings risks of more communication on tasks and actions, and less communication of knowledge. It brings risk to effective knowledge management.

How can KM mitigate this silo risk?

Firstly, let's acknowledge that silos have their place, and are a great place to "get the job done". The risk with silos is that their thinking is limited, as are their learning opportunities, and the job does not always "get done" in the most efficient or effective way. Silos can lead to group-think, to a lack of innovation and growth, and to a stagnation of effort and lack of agility.
We can assume that remote working is likely to be a significant component of the world of work for the short term, and possibly the medium and long term as well. We therefore need to have an approach to knowledge management which;
  • deliberately and actively promotes and supports cross-silo working;
  • strengthens weak ties;
  • increases interaction with bridging ties;
  • when working remotely or in a hybrid setting. 
Unfortunately there is no long history of knowledge sharing in remote and hybrid organisations, as this is a relatively recent development, at least on the scale that we see, and there is therefore no current best practice model for KM in such a context.

Possibly the most useful model we can look at is the multinationals, or organisations with many branch offices, where KM has had to deal with people working remotely from each other in a geographic sense. In many ways, with modern remote working, everyone is their own site office, so how do organisations with multiple site offices manage knowledge?

The management framework such organisations use for KM tends to work as follows:
  • To cross the silos, and to build the "bridging ties", a set of Communities of Practice (CoPs) is defined, each one covering an area of practice which cross-cuts the team/division structure;
  • These Communities act as mutual help groups, helping members find knowledge and experience to solve their problems (and therefore most of the traffic in the CoPs is driven by problems and questions);
  • These CoPs are recognised organisational entities, with specific roles;
  • There is a pervasive culture, supported, modelled and specifically expected by management, that people will use the knowledge of the CoP in solving any problem;
  • Work projects may start with a Knowledge Gap Analysis session, which prompts people to reach out to their CoPs and weak ties;
  • The CoPs work asynchronously as well as synchronously; through question-driven online forums backed up where needed by richer real-time conversations;
  • The CoPs take a major role in validating and stewarding the organisational knowledge base for their practice area;
  • Often there is an expertise locator in the organisation, where you can search for people by knowledge topic, and so staff can find others, outside their current circle of contacts (added ties) who can share knowledge to help solve problems;
  • Work projects include activities for discussion of knowledge, such as Retrospects, After Action Reviews, Peer Assist etc, which not only drive knowledge sharing within the project team, but also help people become conscious of that they have learned, and so able to respond to CoP requests on that topic. 

There is some evidence that the popularity of Communities of practice as a KM tool is waning. However now may be the time that we need them more then ever. The study cited here shows that a hybrid or remote-working organisation is heavily siloed organisation, and that a dual focus KM model, including project teams and CoPs, may be crucial in ensuring that innovation and work quality are sustained.

Let's work now to build a robust and effective KM framework to de-silo our hybrid ways of working.

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

KM in the US Army - video part 1 (including how KM helped with Covid response)

The US Army Training and Doctrine command, who run KM for the US Army, have released the first part of their KM documentary (I shared the introduction here).

There is some great stuff here. 

"All of the foundational thoughts about Mission Command, rely heavily on Knowledge Management"

"Those organisations who have been successful in Knowledge Management have this lesson to share  - senior leaders must actively participate in the Knowledge Management program if it is to be successful"

The video also explains the way KM has helped the Army during the pandemic. "Had we not been in that spot (with our KM system) when the pandemic hit, it would have been a mess"

Well worth watching!

S1. Episode 1 - Why KM Matters from U.S. Army TRADOC on Vimeo.

Monday, 13 September 2021

How to balance supply and demand in Knowledge Management

If we view the flow of knowledge within an organisation as a Market, then we need to address the issues of supply and demand of knowledge within that market.

One way to look at the flow of knowledge within an organisation is as a market connecting the suppliers of knowledge and users of knowledge. The knowledge suppliers are the experienced staff in whose minds the knowledge is buried, the users are the people and teams who need access to that knowledge, and the market is the means of connecting the two. 

This is not the only model for KM by any means, as it completely ignores the issue of co-creation of knowledge, but at times it can be a useful one.

Knowledge is created through experience and through the reflection on experience, in order to derive guidelines, rules, theories, heuristics and doctrines. Knowledge may be created by individuals, through reflecting on their own experience, or it may be created by teams reflecting on team experience. It may also be created by experts or communities of practice reflecting on the experience of many individuals and teams across an organisation. The individuals, teams and communities who do this reflecting can be considered (in the Market model) as ‘knowledge suppliers’. 

Knowledge is applied within organisational activity by individuals and teams. They can apply their own personal knowledge and experience, or they can look elsewhere for knowledge – to learn before they start. The more knowledgeable they are at the start of the activity or project, the more likely they are to avoid mistakes, repeat good practice, and avoid risk. These people are ‘knowledge users’.

Once we have knowledge suppliers and users, we have a marketplace for knowledge, where suppliers and users come together and exchange a "commodity" - knowledge. Knowledge is not like a normal commodity in that the supplier does not lose the knowledge, and both supplier and user get to keep the knowledge which has been exchanged.  However a marketplace analogy is a popular one in KM terms, and its an analogy I would like to use here to explore the issues of supply and demand.

Supply and Demand

A marketplace works when there is supply and demand - motivated suppliers with a commodity to offer, and motivated users with a desire for this commodity. Supply and demand is at the base of much economic theory, and the concept of an equilibrium market as applied to normal products is that supply and demand will match each other through the mechanism of price adjustment.  When supply and demand are out of synch, then prices adjust as follows:

  • When demand exceeds supply there is a shortage in the market, and prices rise until demand decreases
  • When supply exceeds demand, there is a glut in the market and prices fall until demand increases.
We see this very clearly in the housing market. When there is more demand for housing than supply, prices skyrocket. When demand drops, for example through government intervention through raising certain taxes, prices fall and there may be a "property crash".

This relationship works with established commodities, and any new product will create its own demand, at least for a while. There was no market for fitbits before they were invented, and no market for fidget spinners or Pokemon until it was stimulated by supply of these new playthings.  After a while this "fad effect" may wear off and prices fall, unless companies seek to stimulate continued demand through marketing and advertising in order to keep prices high. 

The Knowledge Market

In a Knowledge market there is no monetary price payable for knowledge, at least not within any one organisation. The price that a user pays for knowledge is the degree of effort they will exert to get it, and the amount of searching, filtering, asking and browsing they are prepared to do.

The diagram above shows four potential states for the Knowledge Market within an organisation.

  • Where there is low supply and low demand, there is no knowledge market at all. This is where most organisations start their KM journey. 
  • Where there high supply and high demand, there is an equilibrium knowledge market, and to reach this level should be the Knowledge Manager's goal.
  • Where there is high supply and low demand, we find the typical problem area of knowledge oversupply. Here we find the huge databases nobody ever reads, the massive lessons learned systems with no lessons re-use, the communities or social groups where announcements and notifications outweigh the questions. The effect of this oversupply is both to introduce waste into the system, and also to destroy value. Larry Prusak said that the best way to de-knowledge knowledge is through oversupply.  Oversupply would not be problem if the price/cost of the knowledge dropped to compensate, but in fact the opposite happens. The more you oversupply knowledge, the more time and effort it costs to search, sift and sort through until you find the knowledge you need. Oversupply increases cost and decreases demand even further. Avoid this trap!
  • Where there is low supply and high demand, we find the less typical problem area of knowledge undersupply. Here we find lots of people looking for knowledge, but little knowledge to find. The effect of this undersupply is to make people look harder, and to seek for knowledge even if it is not yet documented. They start asking people, talking to people, and eventually finding knowledge in its richest state - tacit knowledge. What documented knowledge exists becomes highly valued. This is a better state to be in, so long as you can increase the supply before people start to give up.

The route to equilibrium

The instinct for many Knowledge Managers is to create an equilibrium Knowledge Market by stimulating supply, for example by capturing knowledge, rewarding knowledge publishing, creating databases, promoting "knowledge sharing", or "working out loud". 

Unfortunately stimulating supply without stimulating demand leads straight into the trap of knowledge oversupply discussed above, and once this issue has arisen and knowledge has been devalued as a result, it can be very hard to escape. 

Better to take the green arrow in the diagram above, and start by stimulating demand for knowledge.  You do this by asking management to set the expectation that people and projects will learn before doing, and by promoting knowledge gap analysis, peer assists,  question-driven communities of practice, and "knowledge seeking".  Better to have the seekers outnumber the sharers, and to watch the value of knowledge rise as the seekers find what they need, apply it, and gain value as a result. 

Ideally you would try to aim for a diagonal arrow, balancing supply and demand but increasing the scope. This is one of the reasons why a piloting model for KM implementation can be appropriate as it allows you to build a series of sub-markets. It is however difficult to stay on this diagonal path, and if you fall off it, you are better falling to the side of higher demand. 

Erring on the side of stimulating demand avoids the common pitfall of the knowledge glut and a devaluation of knowledge. 

Monday, 6 September 2021

The Middle Management layer in KM - blockers? Or enablers?

Middle management can form an almost impenetrable layer to knowledge management in many organisations.

Image from wikimedia commons

The two main stakeholder groupings for KM are the senior managers and the knowledge workers. The value proposition for the senior managers is that KM will deliver greater efficiency, greater effectiveness, faster growth, bigger market share, faster time to market, and happier customers. The value proposition for the individual knowledge workers is that KM will provide then with easy access to reliable knowledge that will save them time, will reduce their risk of failure, and will make their results better.

However between these two groups lies a layer of middle management; the sales directors, the plant managers, the project managers etc.

These are the people who have tough choices to make. They are the resource allocators. They have demanding customers, tight budgets, and tighter deadlines. Every penny they spend on KM is a penny less to spend on operational issues. KM, for them, is two steps away from operations (the first step is that operations requires knowledge, the second is that knowledge requires management).

The result is that these are the people for whom KM is the toughest sell - the people who won't be swayed by high level arguments or appeals to emotion.

Here is what John Keeble, CKO at Enterprise Oil, had to say

"It is that bunch between (top management and the "coalface" that I think are almost the most important - the team leaders, the middle management. They are the people who are constantly trying to juggle this dilemma of too much to do and not enough people. So if you cant convince them of the value of knowledge management, its likely not to get the resources applied to it. So then you get the situation where in theory you have support from the top, and demand from the base, but that demand from the base is being frustrated by the fact that their managers aren't freeing them up to do it. And that can be a very negative cycle if you get trapped in it. Overall I think you have got to get support from all levels, but it is very easy to overlook that middle management level, and they are perhaps the most important"

Make sure your stakeholder management plan clearly addresses the middle managers as a core group, and that you have a well worked business case that addresses their concerns. Show them how KM is an investment in resource, how knowledge is a resource for them and their teams, and how currently its unmanaged, or mismanaged. Show that that KM is not a waste of resources, but an application of resources, which will benefit their results and streamline their activities.

If you can get them on board they are your greatest enablers. If not, they can be the toughest blockers.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

3 cases where human brains are the best store for knowledge

I have long argued that the human brain is a poor long term store for Knowledge. Here are the three cases where it's the best store there is.

Ebbinghaus' forgetting curve, from wikimedia commons

The poor human brain gets a bit of a bad press at times. The cognitive biases that plague us all are becoming well known and popularised in many books, and we recognise the cognitive illusions that get in the way of effective use of knowledge, such as

With such illusions as these, and with the way memory decays over time (see graph to the right), can we trust the "knowledge" we hold in our heads?

However this book by Daniel Schacter makes the point that the human brain works marvellously well in getting us through life, by selecting automatically what we remember and what we don't.  Our brain has limitations, and with those limitations come trade-offs. One of the trade-offs our brain makes is to prioritize which knowledge to hold on to, and which to let go of. It must do this — we’d be overloaded with information without this ability. 

The brain has evolved to prioritize knowledge which is: 
  1. Used frequently 
  2. Used recently 
  3. Likely to be needed
These are the three cases where Knowledge Management can harness the brain as the most reliable store of knowledge. 
  1. Knowledge of tasks used regularly and frequently - part of your daily or weekly routine. If you conduct the task annually, maybe your brain is not the best store. For example, packing for a holiday. We do this once a year, but still forget to pack things, so a packing checklist can be a very useful aide-memoire.
  2. When something has happened recently, the knowledge in the brain is reliable. However peoples' memories fade within a matter of hours or days (the forgetting curve) so if the knowledge is important, then it makes sense to either repeat it to someone, or record it.
  3. When the knowledge is something we know we will need (and need soon) then we make an effort to remember, for example through spaced repetition or rehearsal.
This current and frequently used knowledge is best left in human brains, connected into Communities of Practice, where the knowledge can be shared, improved, discussed and kept fresh.  The community of practice can act as a super-brain, holding collective memories. 

Note that for critical or complicated knowledge, or under times of stress or lack of sleep, even these three criteria may not be sufficient. Aviation pilots, for example, may fly frequently, have flown recently, and know they will need to fly again, but will still use a checklist to augment their memory, as they know that the consequences of forgetting one detail may be catastrophic.

Also note that muscle memory may not have the same "forgetting curve". once you know how to ride a bike, for example, you never forget. You may feel "rusty" but you remember the basics.

The converse of the three cases above is that knowledge which is used infrequently, was used some time ago, and which we did not realise was likely to be needed, gets forgotten. This is exactly the knowledge which needs to be documented, lest we forget.

The occasional and infrequent knowledge should not be left in the human memory without augmenting this somehow through collecting, recording and structuring it in Knowledge Assets, so that it is given a shelf-life which the human brain cannot give. Again the community can play a role in building and maintaining these assets, and keeping them fresh and up to date.

Our responsibility as knowledge managers is to work out which knowledge to deal with through connection, and which through collection.

Monday, 23 August 2021

KM would be less confusing if it were not for the English Language

Here's another post from the archives (corrected for some inaccuracy) which makes the case that much of the confusion around Knowledge Management may be due to an uncharacteristic deficiency in the English Language. 

Lost in TranslationKnowledge Management has always been in a state of confusion. There is no established understanding of the term; instead there are conflicting fields vying for the label. Library science, Artificial Intelligence, lesson-learning, Knowledge-centered support; on a good day, these can be seen as clusters within a distribution or characters within a crowd, while on a bad day they can be combatants in a turf war, with IT vendors on each side adding to the noise and smoke.

Why the confusion? Largely, I would suggest , because of a strange deficiency in the English language.

In English, unlike many other languages, we have only one verb for "Knowing" and only one noun for "Knowledge". 

Other languages have at least two words; one of which means "intimate knowledge, acquaintance, knowledge as capability, know-how", the other means "knowledge of facts, rote knowledge, know-what". Connaitre and Savoir in French, Kennen and Wissen in Germany (and also Können), Kunne and Vite in Norwegian, and so on. Vestiges remain in English dialect ("Do you ken?") but mostly the distinction between the two in English has gone.

Between these two words there is a world of difference. Someone might say  "I know Paris" ("Jeg er kjent med Paris"),  while another might say "I know the capital of France" ("Jeg vet hovedstaden i Frankrike"). The second person might be useful in a very easy pub quiz, but the first is the person you want as a guide to the best restaurants, hotels and sights.

It is the first type of knowledge that gives power and creates an economy. That is the Know-How knowledge, that deals with acquaintance and capability; that directs action and delivers business result. Knowledge Management focused on Know-How looks at improving the competence of the organisation by giving people access to the knowledge they need to make the correct decisions.

The second type of knowledge, the Know-What knowledge is close to Information, and managing "Know-What" gets very close to content management, to Information Management, or to Business Intelligence.  It is the marshalling of facts. In Dutch, Wetenskap refers to science and scholarship, while Kennis refers to acquaintance and acomplishment.

It is "Connaisance" and "Kennis" that gives Power, and Knowledge Management is often translated in a way that makes this clear (Gestion de Connaisance, Kennismanagement). We have no such distinction in English.

Two meanings in one word

English usually has so many words, reflecting subtle variations in meaning. With the word "Knowledge", however, we have two meanings hidden in the one word; and as an outworking, we have two views of Knowledge Management. We have on the one hand a meaning that carries connotations of power, economy and capability, and on the other a discipline that all too often focuses on organizing information.  One looks at know-how; knowledge as capability. The other looks at know-what; knowledge as facts. The differences between the two are lost in translation, as we struggle over how to manage one word, with two meanings.

If we could have KnowHow management and KnowWhat Management, Gestion de Connaisance and Gestion de Savoir, Kennenmanagement and Wissensmanagement, then the turf war would subside, with the Storytellers and the learners-from-experience working under one heading, and the content organisers, librarians and SharePoint technicians working under the other, and both sides working profitably together.

My own life in Knowledge Management has always been in the service of the first word - Know-How, as that is where I see the value, but I really wish we had the two words and therefore the two disciplines!

It would make life so much less confusing. 

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Introduction to KM in the US Army

"Knowledge management is a powerful force multiplier, that creates shared understanding, and informs and enhances the decision making process... It is not a function performed by a few people in HQ; it's part of everyone's job"

These are two of the messages from this introductory video from TRADOC, the Training and Doctrine command that handles and coordinates KM for the US Army. 

This video is one in a series; I am not sure when and if the rest will be available, but you should be able to find them here.

S1. Intro to KM Documentary from U.S. Army TRADOC on Vimeo.

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