Thursday 2 July 2009

We only learn when we don’t know what to do

Nobody will look for knowledge from others, if they think they already know what to do.

Instead they will just rely on their own knowledge (after all – they know its provenance, and they trust it more than they trust anyone else’s knowledge.
This means that the best way to promote learning and re-application of knowledge across an organisation, is to give people challenges they don't know how to meet. To push them out of the comfort zone of “I know how to do this”, into a zone of “this is tough – I’d better see what knowledge is out there that can help me”. Then they will look for knowledge from others, to help them solve the problem.

It's a question of receptivity. You can't transfer knowledge unless the recipient is receptive. To be receptive, they need to have feel a need to learn learning. They need to feel that they need to know. If they feel they don't need to know, they won't be receptive. (There's an ancient greek quote that expresses this better than I can, but I can't locate it at the moment).

John Browne (the BP CEO in the 90s and early 00s) did just this in BP. He expected every project to deliver better than the previous project (often radically better), and his budget allocations and performance targets reflected this. He forced continuous improvement in delivery and cost, and the only way to continuously improve was to continuously learn. For the project manager, these "stretch goals" were seriously uncomfortable ("How the h*** does he expect me to cut the budget by another 20%?”) and it pushed them to seek advice, look for the best of the best, and build upon the entire knowledge base of the organisation. As a result, these stretch targets were drivers of innovation, knowledge management and continuous improvement.

Ford did this as well, in the days of the Ford Best practice Replication System. Through applying continuously decreasing operating budgets, they forced their plants into a situation where they had to learn in order to deliver.

In both cases, they strong delivery push from management was coupled with the systems, processes, accountabilities and technologies that made knowledge management possible. Just increasing the pressure without providing systems for learning would not have worked – it would have added stress to the organisation. Increasing the pressure while also providing the learning systems, on the other hand, provided the incentives for knowledge to flow around the system to where it was needed (driven by “demand Pull”), and fuelled continuous performance increase over a number of years.

So remember, if you want to promote a knowledge seeking culture in your company (and a knowledge seeking culture is a far better driver of KM than a knowledge sharing culture), then you and your senior managers need to push people out of the comfort zone where they can rely on what they already know.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very interesting and valuable ( wow ) article on the motivations ( economic and personal tensions - the "push" out of the comfort zone ) and conditions ( personal receptivity, correct attitudes and support systems ) that promote a knowledge-seeking culture in organisations.

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