Monday, 3 October 2022

Should selection of communities of practice be managed, or unmanaged?

Is the best approach to setting up and selecting Communities of Practice a managed one, or an unmanaged one?

There has always been a polarity of views between those who see Communities of Practice as something that should be allowed to flourish naturally and unmanaged, springing up as a bottom-up initiative in response to user demand, and those who see communities as more powerful when they are aligned with the business strategy, and managed from the top down to provide a valuable resource to their members.

In this top down selection , the company decides on strategic knowledge areas, and deliberately selects communities to support these, assigning leadership and core members and securing resources. This allows resources to be spent supporting the communities which will have most value to the company, but sometimes these top down communities may not align with the interests of the workers.

In contrast, in the bottom-up selection, the company enables the organizations with community tools, and watches for communities that form spontaneously around an area of business need. These CoPs are often high energy, but may not coincide with areas of knowledge which are strategic for the business. Also it is all too common to find multiple CoPs starting up which cover the same topic as each other, and communities that initially flourish then wither and die.

Given that we have two stakeholder groupings in KM (management and knowledge workers) and both need to be satisfied, and given that satisfying one without the other can lead to instability in your KM program, how do we choose which way to support our CoPs?

We are not talking here about the management of communities that have already been set up.
I think it is pretty well established that communities, once in place, need management, so long as it is self-management. A community without self-management may deteriorate into rancour or fandom (see  "a group is its own worst enemy") or fade away (see "what happens when the facilitator is removed"). A community with too much management from above may also die (see "how over-management can kill a community"). The ideal is a light management from within - from a community leader and core group, and a self-determined community charter. 

I think it is also well-established that there are two stakeholder groupings for Communities of Practice - the community members who work in the practice area, and the management team responsible for the practice area. Therefore whether the selection of CoPs is managed or unmanaged, any CoP should ideally meet a need from the membership, and a need from the management. (see Siemens experience on the "customer trap" for KM).

That still leaves us with the question of the balance between managed and unmanaged selection of the portfolio of communities. 

Shell's experience

Let's look at some real experience. As part of a 2007 Linked-In discussion on "Communities of practice, limited or unlimited" (now no longer available), we have a useful story from Arjan van Unnik, who was head of Knowledge Management at Shell.

"In my experience the decision about "limited"or "unlimited" turned out to be an underestimated parameter ... I managed a portfolio with some 35,000 users (no pre-registration - everybody personally requested membership for 1 or more communities).  ....Initially we carefully managed the CoP's, based on skillpools. Than the step was made where everybody via the IT department could request a community. The fragmentation resulted in roughly 35% reduced activity in the communities. I had to implement corrective actions and increase the management of the portfolio." 
 "One of the biggest breakthroughs was when we combined this unmanaged set of 100+ CoP's into a managed set (15+ years ago, and violating all theories about CoP's). Other companies that are successful in CoP's (Fluor, Schlumberger) also manage their portfolio. I've heard about a company that did not manage their portfolio, ending up in more CoP's than number of staff... Not managing the portfolio indeed implies the risk of ending up in a situation that again staff do not know which communities to join - we had that as well back in 1997, before we started to manage the portfolio".

So Shell tried both approaches - managed and unmanaged. The switch from managed to unmanaged led to a reduction in activity, leading Shell to switch back again.

Monday, 26 September 2022

How "Best Practice" works - the story of High Jump techniques

Best Practices are part of Knowledge Management, but sometimes misused. Here (from the archives) is an example of how they work in practice.

Picture originally from here
There is a lot of pushback in the KM world about the term "best practice". In the discussion groups, we hear people saying "we don't believe in best practice". Respected KM gurus say that "best practice harms effectiveness". There is a school of thought that says the concept is flawed, or even dangerous.

Certainly if best practice is used the wrong way - for example as a reason to avoid innovation and improvement ("we are already following best practice - no need to change") - then it can be a danger.

But let's look at Best Practice in the context of sport, let's look at the value the concept brings, and lets see how it develops over time. This will allow us to draw some conclusions for the world of KM.

Let's look at the high jump.

There was a time when there was no established technique for the high jump. People approached the bar front-on, often from a standing start. However as the high jump became an international field event, techniques and practices began to be developed.

One of the early successful practices was the Western Roll, introduced in 1912, leading to the world record of that time, and a step change in performance. This new practice rapidly became "best practice" of the time, and was predominant through the Berlin Olympics of 1936. You can see the introduction of best practice in the graph above, as an abrupt improvement in performance (labelled Western Roll), followed by a long flat period, as the new best practice becomes established.

The Western Roll was superseded by the Straddle technique in 1937. You can see on the graph how this new practice led to another step-change in performance, with record height rapidly increasing over a period of years as the technique was perfected and adopted around the world, and then a flat section where the new best practice becomes common practice.

Then in 1968, Dick Fosbury introduced a new technique, the "Fosbury flop", to win a gold method in Mexico City (a similar backwards style was being developed at the same time by Debbie Brill). As Wikipedia says, "After he used this Fosbury flop to win the 1968 Olympic gold medal, the technique began to spread around the world, and soon floppers were dominating international high jump competitions". The new practice had become Best Practice, and then became standard practice. Over the years since 1968 the details of the Flop have been perfected, but it still remains the basis of Best Practice in high jump techniques, until a new technique is discovered.

So what has all this got to do with Knowledge Management?

Basically, this is a metricated historical look at a single practice under controlled conditions, and allows us to draw the following conclusions.

1) Best Practice is what delivers Best Performance for a given context. In world competitive high jumping, this is easily defined - it's the technique allows you to jump higher, over standard Olympic apparatus, than any other technique. In the office, it is whatever approach gets your work done better, or faster, or cheaper, or best satisfies the customer (you need to define the metric before you can identify which practice is best).

2) People will follow Best Practice whenever they are highly incentivised to deliver the best performance. In an Olympic Games, people will adopt a new Best Practice when it allows them to jump higher than their old practice did, and when they have not yet found an even better practice (see number 1 above). Nobody would go back to the practice of the Western Roll nowadays. 

3) Best Practice is not static. Best is "Best for now, until something better is found". The existence of "current best" doesn't stop you looking for Better. In the history of the High Jump, Best Practice has changed three times - from no defined practice, to Western Roll, to Straddle Jump, to Fosbury Flop.

4) Best Practice is easiest to develop and copy in a relatively repeatable situation, where the parameters remain fairly constant, and where the metrics are clear (such as jumping over as high a bar as possible, on a flat field, with no springboard, no pole and no jetpack).

5) Under such circumstances, changes in Best Practice drive step changes in performance - the steps seen in the attached graph. Adoption of each new Best Practice gives a step change in performance, followed by a flatter performance graph where the new Best Practice is refined and perfected.

6) There will be personal variants of Best Practice, but the core of the practice - the fundamentals of the technique which differentiate it from other techniques -  remains the same. Tinker with the core, and the practice fails to deliver. Enhance the core, and you can still improve. High jump records are still being broken even though everyone uses a 

7) Changes in Best Practice are often driven by changes in context. The Fosbury Flop, which drove the biggest leap forward in high Jump achievement, was made possible by the change from sawdust landing pits to deep foam matting. Basically, you could land on your neck without killing yourself. So the new Best Practice - the flop -  was born.

Best Practice has a place in KM, so long as you see it as linked to performance, applying to a single context, and evolving over time.

Tuesday, 20 September 2022

How organisational demographics affect Knowledge Management

The demographics of your organisation determine the distribution of knowledge, and therefore the details of the Knowledge Management Framework you need to deploy

Here's another factor that can affect the way you address KM in an organisation; the demographics of the workforce. 

Because the demographics are is linked to the distribution of knowledge across the staff, it determines how many sources of knowledge you have, how many net users, and the balance between the two.

For example:

  • A company with very many experienced staff will have many knowledge suppliers, each of whom is also a knowledge user, and will therefore have to find an efficient and effective way to allow these people to compare, combine and continuously improve the knowledge they have.
  • A company with very many junior staff and few experienced staff will have few knowledge suppliers and many knowledge users, and will therefore have to find an efficient and effective way to provide the knowledge of the few, to the many.
 Lets look at two examples. 

An organisation with many experienced staff. 

This is a profile you see in many Western engineering organisations. Here the economy is static, and the population growth is stable. Engineering is not a "sexy topic". The workforce is largely made up of baby boomers. A large proportion of the workforce is over 40, with many staff approaching retirement - the blue line in the graph above.

Experience is widespread in the organisation - this is an experienced company, and knowledge is dispersed. Communities of Practice are important, where people can ask each other for advice, and that advice is spread round the organisation. Experienced staff collaborate to create new knowledge out of their shared expertise. Knowledge can easily be kept largely tacit. The engineers know the basics, and a short call to their colleagues fills in any gaps. The biggest risk is knowledge loss, as so many of the workforce will retire soon, and a Knowledge Retention strategy would be a good investment.

An organisation with many inexperienced staff 

In many parts of the world, such as the BRIC countries, the economy is growing, the population is growing, there is a hunger for prosperity, and engineering (in contrast to the West) may be a growth area. The workforce in a growing organisation may be predominantly very young - many of them fewer than 2 years in post. There are only a handful of real experts, and a host of inexperienced staff - the red line in the chart above.

Experience is a rare commodity, and is centralised within the company, retained within the Centres of Excellence, and the small Expert groups. Here the issue is not Collaboration, but rapid onboarding and upskilling. The risk is not so much Retention of knowledge (although of course the knowledge of the few experts is vital and must be protected), but is more about deployment of knowledge. The reliance on a few experts means that they must be given a Knowledge Ownership role, rather than using them on projects.  Rather than keeping knowledge tacit, it makes sense to at least document the basics in explicit form (the experts will be too busy to answer basic questions), though there is of course a need to keep this documentation updated as the organisation learns.

The KM framework  

These two demographic profiles would lead you to take two different approaches to developing a KM framework. The first (experienced) company would introduce communities of practice, and use the dispersed knowledge to collaborate on building continuously improving practices, processes and products. Wikis could be used to harness the dispersed expertise. There would be huge potential for innovation, as people re-use and build on ideas from each other. Crowd sourcing, and "asking the audience" are excellent strategies for finding knowledge.

The second (largely inexperienced) company would focus on the development and deployment of standard practices and procedures, and on developing and deploying capability among the young workforce. The experts would build top-class training and educational material, and the focus would be on Communities of Learning rather than Communities of Practice. Innovation would be discouraged, until the staff had built enough experience to know which rules can be bent, and which must be adhered to. Crowdsourcing is not a good strategy, and the "wisdom of the experts" trumps the "wisdom of the crowd".

It would be a mistake for an organisation in the second category to copy a KM framework from an organisation in the first category, and vice versa.

This is one of the factors that KM must address, namely the amount of expertise in the company, and how widely it is dispersed.

Monday, 12 September 2022

9 arguments for a Knowledge Management strategy

You need a strategy if your KM implementation is to be successful. Here are 8 reasons why.

StrategyImplementing Knowledge Management without a strategy is a risky endeavour. As Sun Tzu is reputed to have said said, in "the art of war",

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before the defeat.” 

Lots of books and articles on strategy come from a military point of view or from game theory, and are strategies for competing and winning. Should we think in terms of winning and competing, when implementing Knowledge Management? Surely Knowledge Management is a Good Thing to do - it's a win-win for everyone?

But as leader of the KM program, you are in competition. Specifically knowledge management is in competition for
  • internal resources (investment, dedicated staff)
  • the attention of management (who have competing priorities), and
  • the attention of staff (who have a million other things to do).
If you do not have a good strategy, then good tactics are not going to save you in the war for investment and attention.

 We are constantly hearing of yet another KM program closed, and yet another KM leader looking for a job, as the company sought to cut back on expenditure, and found KM to be too far from the front-line delivery - too non-strategic - and thus an easy target. The investment and resources were therefore diverted to a competing internal endeavour.

So what can a good KM strategy do for you?

  1. Your strategy will help you define where you heading, and what the end point should be.  It will define the vision and the desired outcomes for knowledge management within your organisation, and allow these to be discussed and agreed up front, before you start on tactical planning.
  2. Your strategy will provide a set of principles or ground-rules to guide your actions, and guide your decision making during knowledge management implementation, in order to deliver the greatest chance of success. Don't forget that 80% of knowledge management programs fail (depending on what you mean by “knowledge management program” and what you mean by “fail”). The reasons for KM failure are well known, and a good strategy will be designed to avoid these reasons.
  3. Your KM strategy will be closely linked to business objectives, business strategy, and business results,  if it follows the principles mentioned above. This protects you from being seen as peripheral to the business, and an easy target for downsizing. 
  4. Your strategy will define the interested parties you need to work with. It will define those stakeholders who will use the KM framework (the knowledge workers), those who are interested in the business outcomes (the internal and external customers), and requirements of each of these parties. It may also rank these, to allow you to focus on the most important stakeholders first.
  5. Your strategy will form the framework of constraints for planning purposes. It will define the scope, the areas of focus, the risks to be addressed, the allies to work with, and the stakeholders.
  6. Your strategy will guide you in deciding what not to do. If a piece of work is outside the constraints, or in opposition with the principles, then it is not strategic, and is a waste of resource.
  7. The strategy also looks at implementation priorities and issues. It’s not just a vision; it’s a high level approach for how the vision will be realized. 
  8. Your strategy is a public agreement with your leadership. It represents agreed ground rules for knowledge management implementation, and should have leadership blessing and support. If over time that support does not materialise, then you should be able to go back to the strategy, remind them that it was agreed, and claim their support (or else renegotiate the strategy). The strategy is therefore a key decision point for the organisation.
  9. Your strategy allows managed flexibility. As your business context changes, your organisational priorities, or the competitive or technological landscape, so your knowledge management strategy should also evolve over time, but will need to be renegotiated with your steering group. This is your "Management of Change" process for the KM implementation.
The most important thing for you, therefore, is to get a good strategy in place from the start. 

  Contact us at Knoco if you want a copy of our guide to KM strategy.

Monday, 5 September 2022

What the C in the SECI model really refers to

Most of us are familiar with the SECI model from Nonaka and Takeuchi, but sometimes forget that C stands for Combination, not Collection.

Image from wikimedia commons
The Nonaka and Takeuchi SECI model for knowledge development is well known in the KM world, with its 4 components of  Socialisation, Externalisation, Combination and Internalisation.  

Nowadays many people assume that Externalisation means Documentation (which is not strictly true - it is more likely to represent the articulation of knowledge which was previously unspoken), but what about the C box? What do we assume this means?

According to the Wikipedia site linked above. the C box involves

Explicit to explicit by Combination (organizing and integrating knowledge), combining different types of explicit knowledge, for example building prototypes. The creative use of computerized communication networks and large-scale databases can support this mode of knowledge conversion. Explicit knowledge is collected from inside or outside the organisation and then combined, edited or processed to form new knowledge. The new explicit knowledge is then disseminated among the members of the organization

The key word here is Combination. Explicit knowledge gets combined with other explicit knowledge, seeking out links and resolving contradiction, and culminating in better knowledge or even new knowledge.

According to Nonaka, the combination mode of knowledge conversion is ‘a process of assembling new and existing explicit knowledge held by individuals into a knowledge system’ - a systemic approach to new knowledge development involving the combination of what is known by individuals.

The C box does not stand for "collection".

Collecting databases of documents is not part of the SECI development model (although collection is often a precursor to combination). It actually involves synthesis - connecting, combining and synthesising knowledge into something new, integrated and better.

Combination might be the Wiki article that summarises and synthesises a whole series of reports, or it might be the improved procedure that comes from combining new Lessons Learned, or it might be the checklist created by a Community of Practice discussion.

If all you are doing is collecting documents, then your knowledge flow and knowledge development has got stuck at this stage. A realisation of the importance of Combination and Synthesis often develops late in the KM journey, but it doesn't have to. Combination should be part of your KM framework from the start. 

The Combination of knowledge is a powerful part of the model, and is often overlooked when an organisation focuses only on collecting and tagging documents into a repository.

Monday, 22 August 2022

A story of how a CoP lost trust

 It is possible for the members of a Community of Practice to lose trust in the community as an effective support mechanism. Here's one story of how that happened.

Knowledge sharing requires trust, and this is as true in communities of practice as in face to face meetings, or one to one conversations. In face, people can trust a community of practice, even if they don't know the other members personally.

They can trust the community as being a safe place to be vulnerable and to ask and answer questions,  they can trust the community as adding value to themselves and to the organisation, and they can trust it as being a reliable place to find knowledge and to get their questions answered. 

However communities can lose the trust of their membership, and can die as a result. Here is a story of this loss of trust, from one large organisation. 
  • This community started well, with 4 or 5 questions per week from community members. 
  • The community facilitator forwarded these questions to community experts to answer, rather than sending them to the whole community and making use of the long tail of knowledge.  This may well have been a cultural issue, as her culture reveres experts, and perhaps this seemed the best approach. 
  • Often the questions themselves were broad questions, asked with very little context or explanation, making it really difficult to provide good answers. The community facilitator never "questioned the question" to find out what the real issue was - she just passed it on to the experts.
  • When the experts did answer on the community discussion forum, this lack of context meant that the answer was often vague and high-level. In a culture where experts are not questioned, nobody interrogated these vague answers to get more detail. 
  • Although sometimes the expert would answer on the forum, most of the time they answered by telephone or through a personal visit. Therefore the other community members did not see the answer, and were not even aware the question had been answered
  • Where there was a discussion around the question, it very quickly went off-topic. Again the facilitator did not play an active role in conversation management.
  • When the facilitator followed up to see if the questioner was satisfied by the answer, the answer was usually No.
  • A year later, the questions had dropped to 1 or 2 a month.

As far as the community members were aware through observing interactions on the forum, the questions seemed either to receive no answer (as the real discussion happened offline), or to receive worthless vague answers.  The users therefore lost trust in the community as a value-add mechanism, and as a way to get questions answered effectively. 

So they stopped using it.

One way to revitalise this community would be to set up a series of face to face meetings, so that the members regain trust in each other as knowledgeable individuals, then ask the members to help design ground rules for an effective online interaction. These rules would almost certainly involve 
  • asking questions of the community and not just the experts, 
  • making much more use of the facilitator to get the questions clarified, 
  • making sure the answers are posted online, 
  • probing into the details of vague answers, and 
  • keeping the discussions on topic.

Ways to build trust in CoPs are pretty well known, and this sort of discussion would ideally be held at community kick-off, so the community can be set up from the start as an effective problem-solving body, and so that the members trust that their questions will receive timely and valuable answers, at no personal risk. The facilitator is key to this. 

People need to trust communities of practice as safe places to get valuable timely answers to their questions. If this doesn't happen, trust may well be lost. 

Monday, 15 August 2022

What's the best reporting line for KM?

Where is the best place for Knowledge Management in an organisation?

This is a common question in the early stages of a Knowledge Management implementation program.

It also sometimes arises later on in the journey, for example; if you start KM with a temporary task force reporting at a high level, then when KM becomes operational you need to find an organisational home for the ongoing KM support team.

The answer to the question is, there is no generic "best place".  KM can report anywhere.

First let's look at where KM actually does report. The figures below are from 795 responses to our global KM surveys

reporting line number percent
Separate reporting line to senior management 157 20%
Operations 82 10%
Information Technology 81 10%
Strategy 69 9%
Learning and development 52 7%
Human Resources 46 6%
R&D 35 4%
Business improvement 314%
Innovation 253%
Projects 24 3%
Quality 16 2%
Sales and Marketing 15 2%
Engineering 15 2%
Internal communications 11 1%
Legal 9 1%
Other (please specify) 127 16%

The most common reporting line is a separate line to senior management, which is typical in the early stages of KM. The second biggest category is the "Other" category, which includes categories such as these:

Science Group; volunteers and strategy; Fire & Incident Management ; Finance; Planning and evaluation ; Innovation and academic development; Standards and studies; Dirección de Estudios; Knowledge and Information Services; Education Research; Business Systems; Strategy, innovation and risk management; Policy analysis & Research; Corporate Services; Management Development Department; Quality and Operation department; HR and Engineering dept/division; Client Experience; Supply Chain; Customer Support; Corporate; Health and Wellbeing Division; Central Services - Information Management; Customer operations director;  Corporate Services; I answer to the Service Line Leader; Future Business; Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning; Corporate University; Distributed model - embedded within organizations; Sport Science and Medicine Director; Education and quality; HSE....; Consumer Market Insights and Business Intelligence teams ;  Directly to the Portfolio Management, KM and strategic projects team; Services; Information Technology + Business transformation program, "Data, Analytics, Planning and Monitoring" Section; Administration composed of HR, Procurement, Travel; Architecture; Business Analytics & Insights; Chief of Staff; Chief of Staff; Chief Operating Officer; Chief Technology Office; Combinations of IT (CIO), Business Improvement, and Operations; COO; Corporate Services and Strategy; Customer Experience; Development & Delivery; Digital; Digital technologies (IT, digital ventures and automation); Engagement and Insight; Finance; Gerencia Corporativa de Seguridad y Salud en el Trabajo; Global Business Services; hay equipos de gestion del conocimiento por sector ... en HR hay gente que hace GC para learning, otros para HR services pero no son mas de 2 personas por equipo para toda una region; In house University; Innovation Research & Knowledge Executive Directorate; Operational Support Services; Organización; organization development; Planificación; Policy and Planning; Programming: the department that is in charge of how the organization does its programs, the core work; Project management office; Reporting to Information Systems & Knowledge Management; Risk; Safety and Mission Assurance; Shared Services Organization; Socios Gerencia; Strategic Planning and Evaluation Department; System, Technology & Research; Technical Experts; Technology and Performance; transformation division; VP of Economics

So based on common practice, KM can report anywhere, and it probably should report in the place where it makes most sense - 
  1. where the knowledge issues will deliver the largest value, 
  2. where the business demand is greatest, and 
  3. where you have the most powerful advocacy.  
These three criteria are of course linked. When the knowledge issues are of high value, then business demand is greatest, and you will find the keenest advocates, both at senior level and at knowledge-worker level.

However here are some things to look out for in the various scenarios shown below.

Issues and risks

A separate reporting line directly to senior management is ideal in the early stages, but KM support will eventually need to be embedded somewhere, in a part of the organisation you know is going to survive in the long term. Being a separate item makes you vulnerable, even though it may initially give you high level access.

Reporting to strategy is an excellent option, as it keeps KM strategic. Maybe some of the tactical issues of KM might suffer, but I would rather lose the tactical aspects than the strategic aspects.

Reporting to operations is a very good option (or to Projects, in the case of a project-based organisation), as it avoids KM being seen as a support function, and keeps KM grounded in the operational needs of the firm. However remember the four legs on the KM table - People, Process, Technology and Governance? An operational focus may emphasise process over People and Technology. You will need to interface closely with HR and IT.

Reporting to IT is possible, but you have to take EXTREME care that KM does not become seen as a technology exercise, and that people, process and governance are equally well developed. You will need to interface closely with HR and Operations, but overall this is a risky choice. Also IT is a support function rather than an operational function, and for KM to report to IT moves it one step away from operations.

Reporting to HR or L&D is possible, but you have to take EXTREME care that KM does not become seen as a people issue, or another branch of training. Make sure that the technology, process and governance sides receive equal attention. You will need to interface closely with IT and Operations. Also HR is a support function rather than an operational function, and for KM to report to HR moves it one step away from operations.

KM can report almost anywhere, depending on operational need. You need to find the place in the organisation where it delivers most value, and has greatest advocacy. 

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