Friday, 22 March 2019

The human bias behind group-think

There is a real human bias that drives us to agree with each other, which can drive group think and false consensus 



The power of social proof climbs rapidly
with the number of people involved.
From the Solomon Asch study
Why are "canned laughter" tracks so common on TV comedies?  We all hate them, we know they are false, and yet they keep putting them on the soundtrack.  The reason is that canned laughter is a form of Social Proof, and social proof is a massive factor in the way we think and behave.

Social Proof is the name for the assumption that "if everyone else thinks so, it must be correct". Canned Laughter is a subtle form of social proof; and it works - people judge comedy shows as funnier if there is canned laughter. Even though we know its false, we instinctively think "they are all laughing, so it's funny". The TV executives know we think this way, which is why canned laughter is so endemic.

The Solomon Asch study shows an even more radical form of social proof - how up to 74% of people (as part of a secret experiment) would say something they know is wrong, just to agree with everyone else. Asch concluded that it is difficult to maintain that you know something when everyone else knows the opposite. The group pressure ("Social Proof") implied by the expressed opinion of other people can lead to modification and distortion, effectively making you agree with almost anything.

The risk in Knowledge Management is very clear.

Consensus in a group may mean that everyone agrees because they all independently think the answer is correct, or it may mean that they all agree because everyone else agrees. This is particularly the case when the first person to speak is very confident; everyone else is likely to follow, and so social proof builds up (I talk about this in my blog post on the illusion of confidence, and point out that confidence is often an function of ignorance, especially ignorance in small groups. Real experts are rarely dogmatic).

I saw this for myself in a meeting in Sweden (a country where consensus is particularly valued). I asked everyone to judge the success of a project from their own perspective, to mark the level of success out of 10, and to write that number down in front of them. I was looking for outliers, and I could see that the person next to me had written a 6. We went round the table, the first person said "8 out of 10", and the marks followed - 8,8,8,8. We got to the person who had written down 6, and she said "8" as well.

Social proof is such a well known phenomenon now that it is widely used by marketers to convince us to buy things, and it can be a powerful took when marketing KM in an organisation. However when we are identifying knowledge, discussing knowledge, or trying to determine from a group what actually happened and why, then social proof can drive group-think and distort the truth.

In knowledge management we are not interested in consensus, we are not interested in knowledge as something to sell to others, and we are interested in truth, or as close to the truth as we can get. Social proof is not real proof, and just because everyone agrees with a statement, does not mean they all believe it to be correct.

So how do we avoid conformance and groupthink driven by social proof in KM?

1) When looking for individual objective input, we must avoid "speaking out around the table." In Sweden I could have collected votes on post-it notes, or I could have said clearly "read out what you have written, even if its not what everyone else said".

2) As facilitators of KM processes, we must always ask for the dissenting voice. "Does anyone disagree with this interpretation? Might there be other views here? What are the alternatives? Susan, you are looking concerned, do you have another view?"

3) As online facilitators, we must make dissent safe. I recall one community of practice where, in the first year, social proof was very strong. If anyone disagreed with the first post on a conversation they would not disagree online, but would reply privately. It took a lot of work from the facilitator to reverse this trend, and to develop a community where dissent was welcomed as being part of the search for the truth.

4) We must be careful to avoid using social responses as a form of crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing works either with an expert crowd willing to share dissenting voices, or with a knowledgeable crowd able to contribute independently. It doesn't work with a small uncertain crowd building on each other's opinions, as that way you can end up with false agreement through social proof.

Social proof is real, groupthink is powerful, and it is one of the many human biases we need to beware of in KM. 

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Why definitions of knowledge and Km should avoid using the word "information"

This blog post is a reprise and a rewrite of one I have posted before, and which always drives comment and discussion, but is worth revisiting for a newer audience. 


Definition of definition by dustin.askins
It covers the difference between Knowledge and Information - that perennial topic of debate - and therefore the difference between KM and IM.  This debate is often driven by assumptions, those assumptions can influence definitions if you are not careful, and definitions can set the scope of your KM work.

It is an open debate how closely knowledge is linked to information, and therefore how valid constructs such as the DIK pyramid are.

 If you define Knowledge as something based on Information ("knowledge is information plus context", "Knowledge is information that allows us to take action", "knowledge is information plus processing") then you are already making an assumption about the link between the two.  This assumption of a link leads to a second assumption that you manage knowledge in the same way as information - through libraries, databases, information bases, knowledge bases, or repositories.

Personally I think there is an equally valid set of assumptions;
  1. that knowledge is something you APPLY to information in order to be able to interpret information (see also Drucker's point that information only becomes knowledge in the heads of knowledgeable people, and Ackoff's original explanation that Knowledge is what makes possible the transformation of information into instructions); 
  2. that knowledge is more closely related to understanding and to insight than to information. 
  3. that knowledge is a function of experience more than it is a function of information, and it is that experience that allows you to handle and interpret information, and to make information actionable (see picture below); 


The three assumptions above lead you to a view that the majority of knowledge is carried by people, and lives in heads and in networks, rather than in libraries, databases, information bases, knowledge bases, or repositories.

The fact that the relationship between information and knowledge is fuzzy and open to alternative views and assumptions suggests that definitions of knowledge should not be based on information, but should stand alone. That is why (or partly why) the ISO 30401:2018 definition of knowledge is "a human or organizational asset enabling effective decisions and action in context". No use of the term Information here. 

If we separate out knowledge from information, then we can also separate Knowledge Management from Information Management. 

Management of knowledge therefore becomes as much or more about the management of people and their interaction, than it becomes about the management of files and documents.  People can interact through documents, and (arguably) documents can carry knowledge, but (as suggested here) Knowledge Management is about the content of the documents - the knowledge held within the documents - and Information Management is about management of the documents themselves (the containers of the knowledge).

Unless you assume that knowledge and information are synonymous, then definitions of KM that refer primarily to information are not definitions of knowledge management.

As an example, the current default definition that pops up on my Google results for knowledge management is "efficient handling of information and resources within a commercial organization". This to me is a definition of commercial information (and resource) management, not KM. Similarly the Wikpedia definition "the process of creating, sharing, using and managing the knowledge and information of an organisation" is a definition of "Knowledge and Information Management" (a hybrid discipline some organisations apply).

ISO 30401:2018 takes a different approach, defining KM as "Management with regard to knowledge" (where knowledge is defined as above). This neatly focuses the topic, and reminds us that KM is not "the management of knowledge" but "knowledge-focused management" - a crucial difference.

In all of this we must remember that the English Language is deficient in this regard, and uses one word for Knowledge while other languages have two.  This lack of nuance is at the root of much of the confusion.

So if you want to avoid putting assumptions into your definition (always a good thing to avoid!), then my suggestion is to avoid any definitions of Knowledge which include the word Information.  To mix the two is to blur the boundaries between KM and IM, to ignore the 5 main differences between the two, and to risk ending up looking only at the management of documents and online content.

Be clear, in order to avoid confusing the disciplines. 

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

10 tasks for the KM team when KM implementation is complete

When KM implementation is over, the KM team still has a job of work to do


Implementing Knowledge Management is a long project of culture change, and the introduction of a new management framework (roles, processes, technologies, governance).  The Knowledge Management team's initial role is to design and introduce the framework, delivering the required changes in behaviour and culture.

Once that job is done, what role does the KM team have?

Some people say that once this job is done and Knowledge Management is fully embedded into the business, you can disband the team, but that isn't the case.

Once Safety Management is embedded do you disband the Safety team? Once Quality Management is embedded, do you disband the Quality team? No; you retain them, because they still have a key role to play and without them playing that role, Quality performance or Safety performance would revert to pre-change levels. The same would happen to KM.

Here are 10 key elements of that continuing role for the KM team.
  1. They need to support usage of the framework. This includes training people in its use, coaching the KM professionals, running the KM CoP, launching other CoPs, building the knowledge asset about Knowledge Management.
  2. They need to monitor and report on the application of the framework. This includes checking compliance with the KM policy and expectations, measuring the application of lesson learning, tracking value added through communities , auditing the management level of key knowledge assets, measuring the maturity of key CoPs, collecting results of any KM Dashboards or scorecards. Then reporting a summary of these metrics to senior management.
  3. They need to coordinate any KM recognition activity. This includes running annual awards schemes, for example, or finding other ways to recognise the star performers, as well as finding ways to deal with the people who refuse to engage with KM.
  4. They need to continue to keep the profile of Km high, through communications campaigns or KM focus weeks.
  5. They need to continuously improve the KM framework. This may include improving the company KM policy, bringing in or improving the existing, technology, or adapting the processes and roles;
  6. They will be in charge of testing the KM Framework against international standards such as ISO 30401:2018;
  7. If new KM technology is needed, the KM team will manage the process of technology requirements definition, and managing a vendor tendering process
  8. They may take on specialist roles themselves, such as lessons management, or major lessons capture, development of KM plans for major projects, and big Retention exercises.
  9. Indeed, if your Knowledge Management strategy is a Retention strategy, the KM team may run the Retention process (planning, prioritising, interviewing etc)
  10. The KM team will act as client for any outsourced KM services.

The KM team has a job of work still to do - to manage, maintain and continuously improve the KM Framework - and these 10 tasks form the core of their work.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

If you outsource knowledge work to contractors, make sure they have KM in place

If you outsource knowledge work, make sure the contract requires the contractor to have KM in place. 


A few years ago I was running a multi-day lessons capture event with a company that had recently commissioned construction of a large production plant.

 Here's a story that the client project manager told at the event.
"This plant was based on a similar plant built by the same contractor, and on that previous plant they had made a big construction error - in one of the emergency release lines, they had put a non-return valve in backwards. Had there been an emergency, this could have been a disaster. We spotted the error, fixed the valve, and we discussed it, together with other lessons, with the contractor at the end-of-project lessons capture session.  
So this time, when I was walking the lines, I thought 'shall I bother to check that valve? Surely they would not have put it in the wrong way round again? But I thought - better safe than sorry - and blow me down, it was the wrong way round again!"
Disaster averted for a second time, but what's the moral of the story?

The moral is that when we outsource work (to a contractor, or to an outsource provider) we are also outsourcing the knowledge of how to do the work. We  expect the contractor or the provider to bring the knowledge needed to deliver the work properly.

And when we outsource the knowledge, we outsource the management of the knowledge as well. We expect the contractor or provider to learn - to constantly improve their knowledge - to never repeat mistakes.

So what went wrong on this case? Who was to fault?

Obviously the contractor was at fault; they should have had a proper KM system in place, with closed-loop lesson-learning, which eliminated repeat mistakes. And there is nothing worse for a contractor than having a client with a better KM system than you - who knows your repeat mistakes before you do!

However the client was equally at fault. They assumed that "Surely they would not have put it in the wrong way round again? Surely they would have learned?".

But this was an assumption. There was nothing in the contract that stipulated a KM system, and no audit of the contractors learning ability. The client just assumed, and we all know what Assume makes!

The moral of this tale is that if you outsource major work, you also outsource the knowledge needed to do the work, and you need to outsource the management of that knowledge as well. Therefore make sure that your contractor has a top-notch, independently audited and verified, KM and learning system, with the sort of closed-loop learning that eliminates repeat mistakes.

Make sure this "effective KM" is stipulated in the contract.  require your contractor to demonstrate an effective KM approach, compliant with ISO 30401:2018.

And its still worth walking the lines and checking as well - just in case!

Monday, 18 March 2019

The "Designing Buildings" wiki

The "Designing Buildings" wiki is a nice example of managed industry knowledge



The Designing Buildings Wiki, pictured below and explained above, is a wiki for the construction industry.

It is active - with 5 million users, 14 million page views per year, and plenty of new edits and content added in the last few days. It's 7500 articles cover topics such as project planning, project activities, legislation and standards and industry context, It also contains overviews of iconic buildings such as Number 10 Downing Street, the White House, the Palm Atlantis and the Bank of China Tower.


It looks like it uses MediaWiki technology, and is edited by Designing Buildings limited.  It has useful features such as a "related articles" box, and a "featured articles" section. It even contains a section on Knowledge Management in construction.

This is a really good showcase for the power of wikis


Friday, 15 March 2019

CKO appointment - internal or external?

A common question when implementing Knowledge Management  - should your KM team leader, or CKO, be an internal appointment, or should you look externally to fill the role?



There are advantages and disadvantages to both options, as I explain below.

Internal appointment

As we have often said, Knowledge Management is a simple idea, but very difficult to do in practice.
The idea - that people should share knowledge with each other and learn from each other - is not a complicated idea. The complicated thing is getting it to actually happen. Implementing KM is about culture change, and culture change is both difficult and highly politically charged.

The primary value in having an internal appointment (and not just an internal appointment, but an internal change agent), is that they know the politics. They know how to get things done in the organisation; they know how to drive change. And that, as we know, is the difficult part of KM implementation.

The internal appointment has existing networks they can use, they know the business priorities, and the way the organisation works.  They may also know the real reasons why previous KM attempts failed.

The disadvantage is that they might not know much about KM, and will need external mentoring and coaching in the details of KM and its implementation.  There also might be a relatively small pool of change agents available within the organisation. And in addition, if the organisation has already tried KM with little success, an internal appointment may be too tied to, and influenced by, the approaches of the past.

There may feel like a lack of urgency of the appointment is internal, and the internal appointee may already have rivals at the firm, and can also find themselves transferred out of the role as quickly as they transferred in as priorities shift.

External appointment

It will be easier to find an external person with a history of KM success in other organisations, and very often a new appointee, with a clear view on KM and a wealth of experience of what "good KM looks like," can be a breath of fresh air. It may be difficult to find such strong and passionate change agents within the organisation.

They will have experience in KM, a repertoire of interventions, and some good success stories to share.  An external appointment might be on a fixed term contract of a few years, which gives KM an urgency, a project-like structure and a clear cost-benefit equation.

The disadvantage is that the zeal with which an external appointee will bring to KM may be met in equal measure by internal resistance. Organisation often reject "foreign bodies", and the best change comes from within. The external appointee will not know the "language" of the firm, or the key players, or the unwritten rules and assumptions. They will need strong support from the CEO, and to surround themselves with mentors and coaches with decades of tenure at the organisation, to help steer the CKO through the political maze.

There may be a higher threshold to get started for an external appointee, and if they are on a fixed contract, they will still need to find an internal person to whom to transfer the accountability for KM at the contract end.

What most people do
As the diagram shows,  85% of the respondents to our KM surveys said their KM team leader, or CKOs, was an internal appointments, and 13% said it was external, with 2% "don't know"s. That doesn't mean an internal appointment is better; it just means its more common.

Our recommendation is as follows:

If you can find a good, experienced change agent within the firm who "gets" the vision and the opportunity KM can bring, then give them the CKO role but with coaching and mentoring from external experts. Their knowledge of how to change the organisation is more important that their lack of knowledge of KM.

If you cannot find such a person, or if KM exists but needs a shake-up, then look to hire someone external, and give them a wise "chief of staff" who knows the organisation inside out and can help navigate the politics associated with change. And if you are hiring your CKO externally, follow this piece of advice from a Knowledge Manager I interviewed:
If I was recruiting somebody external and I had an interview and I asked "do you think you were successful (in your last KM implementation)" and they said "yes we were absolutely successful" I would instantly be suspicious, because knowledge management is not straightforward. I want practical evidence that it was painful. I want to see the blood and the guts".

Thursday, 14 March 2019

The KM "proof of concept"

In the early stages of Knowledge Management - even when you are still drafting the Strategy - you may need to deliver a "Proof of Concept" exercise.

Proof of? by katmeresin
Proof of?, a photo by katmeresin on Flickr.

This is a small intervention with a Knowledge Management tool or process, just so that people can see it in action, and to show that "Yes, it can work here. No, it's not all smoke and mirrors".

This is not the same as a full-scale pilot, nor is it part of implementation - it's a "Look at this" exercise.

Suitable proofs of concept might include the following;

A retrospect on a tricky (or successful) project. For one of the companies we have worked with this was a project that had gone disastrously wrong, and they effectively said to us "if you can get learning from this project, then we will believe what you say about Knowledge Management. We did, and they did.  
A Peer Assist for a high profile project. This  has been the proof of concept for many companies - a straightforward demonstration that valuable knowledge can be shared between projects teams, and can make a positive impact to project plans.  
A Knowledge Exchange on a key topic. For another organisation, the proof of concept was getting experts together from all over the world to build company Best Practice on bidding and winning PFI contracts. 
A Knowledge Asset on a key topic. For a third company, who was going through a series of mergers, this was a Knowledge Asset to summarise "what we have learned about mergers." 
A Community of Practice launch. One organisation was seeking to develop knowledge sharing behaviours, and a successful community launch gave them the evidence they needed to move forward 
A retention interview from a departing expert. This has been the proof of concept for many a Retention strategy. Management want to see what is possible, and they want to see the output, in order to prove that retention can generate valuable output.
In each case, you should seek to create two things from the Proof of Concept.

The first is some valuable knowledge, either exchanged between people, or captured as lessons, guidance, tips and hints, or FAQs

The second is stories, or feedback from the people involved, saying "Hey, we tried this knowledge management thing, it was great, it was not difficult, and it created real value".

It is through these stories that the concept is "proven"

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