Thursday 15 October 2009

A polarity of KM ideologies

Boston Squares are great. They are a way of taking apart a complex topic; pulling it on two separate axes to see if the consequent subdivision yields any insight. They are the management analyst’s exploration tool.

Here's one I put together while working on my new book, as a result of a conversation with Peter Kemper of Shell. Here we are looking at systems for Knowledge Management along two dimensions – Connect and Collect, and Formal and Informal. And by systems, I don’t just mean technology, I mean the processes, the roles and accountabilities, the technology, and the governance (if any).

I think the interesting thing about this set of quadrants is that the choices between connect and collect, and formal and informal, are often made more through emotion and assumption than through logic. After all - KM is all about connecting people, isn't it? We all know it's got to be informal and bottom up, don’t we? By definition, KM is about content and collection, surely? If knowledge management is to deliver value to an organisation, surely it has to be formalized?

The choice between formal and informal is an important one. We can take a formal system as being one with defined roles, defined expectations, defined technology and defined workflows. The system operates within a defined framework, or set of rules. An informal system, on the other hand, has few if any defined roles or expectations, and operates in an adhoc, unmanaged and bottom-up manner. This is perhaps the more emotive axis of the diagram – people tend to like formality or informality for ideological reasons, rather than because that's what the situation requires.

The KM system can also be driven through Connect, or through Collect; in other words, knowledge and lessons can stay tacit (Connect), or we can try to transfer knowledge through the use of recorded or written material (Collect). In a Connect system, we look at building networks of people who seek and share knowledge through dialogue and conversation. In a Connect system, the transfer of learning and knowledge involves externalisation, combination and internalisation. It involves the creation of artefacts from which others can learn.

As the Figure shows, the interplay of connect/collect and formal/informal gives four quadrants, which can represent four end-member choices for a lesson learning system.

Formal Collect
The formal collection quadrant is where a company has an organized and managed system for the collection of new knowledge. This quadrant is the home of learning systems such as lessons databases. Perhaps the type examples of these come from the military sector and from aerospace, where databases such as the NASA lessons database form the technology hub for a rigorous and formal system of lessons identification, action assignment, and lesson tracking and reporting. Formal databases have the great advantage that it is easy to track, find, sort and group lessons and new knowledge. Each lesson is a single learning opportunity, and can be tracked through to implementation of the learning into new training or improved processes. The issues of “follow-through” can be effectively addressed with a formal collection system. Also the ability to track lessons, and to report statistics such as the total value of lessons, makes it easy to apply good governance. The Ford BPR system, for example, was a formal collection system, with kept a running total of the value delivered through Best Practice Replication. The disadvantages with such a system are that people find it frustrating or difficult to fill in forms. In conversation with Peter Kemper of Shell, he provided some strong arguments about the challenge of allowing for creativity while still allowing consistency in lessons capture. These lessons databases can be challenging to enter content, taking time and effort to add metadata, but are easier for retrieving and tracking content. Their natural home will be in organisations, such as the military, where the consequences of failing to learn can mean lost lives as well as massive lost financial value. Here learning is too important to remain informal. Also they may be necessary in organisations which need to be able to prove learning. Industrial private sector companies may open to prosecution on grounds of negligence if accidents recur due to a lack of learning systems, and so may need a system formal enough to ensure the ability to prove that safety lessons have been distributed to all who need to see them.

Informal Collection

At the other end of the formality scale are the voluntary, ad-hoc and self-organising community approaches such as Wikipedia. The Wikipedia model has sometimes been suggested as a model for sharing knowledge in a large organization, allowing wisdom to spontaneously emerge from crowds. The great advantage of wiki technology is that it is extremely easy to enter basic content, and a little experience allows you to add a richness of multimedia content as well. If you are motivated to publish, open Wikis such as Wikipedia offer very little barrier, and the crowd can be expected to edit as well as source material. However there are drawbacks with the informal Wikipedia model. The 90:9:1 rule tells us that voluntary wikis draw on only about 2% -3% of available knowledge, and all submissions in the Wikipedia model are voluntary and adhoc. So unless there is a huge user base and massive redundancy or overlap in knowledge, there is a real risk that crucial knowledge may never enter the system. Also there is no guarantee that lessons and knowledge, even if they do enter the system, will find their way to the user who needs them. With ad hoc entry and ad hoc retrieval, learning becomes a matter of chance. A wikipedia approach may be ideal where learning is complex and tacit and needs creative expression, while the risk and cost associated with not learning is low enough that closing the learning loop can be left ad-hoc.

Formal Connect
Formal connect-based systems are the formal networks, expert locators and virtual teams, which allow members use each other as a resource and repository of unwritten knowledge. Here knowledge exchange is through dialogue, accomplished within a formal network of people or during formal meetings such as Peer Assists. Anglo American, the global mining organisation, has run a system called Ask Anglo, where queries and requests for knowledge can be submitted online, and are then routed (based on topic) to the relevant company expert. In BP, formal networks are developed to steward knowledge on topics of strategic important to the company, each network having a budget, a leader, a sponsor, and a defined core team. Formal Connect systems are ideal for sharing knowledge and lessons in areas of complex or context-sepcific need, for one-off requests, and for topics which are rapidly changing, and where new problems are being regularly identified. They are less appropriate where processes are becoming better defined and more standardized, and where knowledge exchange is more routine.

Informal Connect
The fourth quadrant represents the informal Connect-based systems. Examples here can be found in the social networks found on the Internet, such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Here is the extreme of informality, where discussion groups emerge from bottom-up interest, allowing questions to be asked and answers to be given. The appeal of these systems is their extreme informality and ease of use, and the introduction of systems such as these can help to develop a more open discussion-oriented culture in an organisation. The disadvantage is the great difficulty in ensuring the right questions are asked in the first place, and then in making sure they are answered by someone with valid lessons and experience to offer. Many online discussions can end up as an exchange of opinions among a random grouping, rather than an effective trawl for experience; more gossip than knowledge exchange. Such informal Connect-based systems are ideal for beginning a culture change, but do not support a systematic approach to knowledge sharing.

A blended approach
As far as Connect and Collect are concerned, I firmly believe that the answer is “Both/And” rather than either/or. Any complete Knowledge Management or Lessons Learned system needs a blend of Connect and Collect, running both approaches in parallel. They need to be cross-linked of course, and the communities or networks can take accountability for some of the Collection, as well as the Connection.
As far as informal/formal is concerned, the answer is to find the right balance. Not a blend, but a balance. In any one company, for any one topic, to run formal and informal systems in parallel would be to confuse the user, and often to undermine one or other of the two - “I know that’s what it says in the official process, but what is the word on the street?” There is no value to anyone if the word on the street and the official line diverge; which would you believe?

The formal/informal balance on the Connect side is found in the communities of practice, where a community will develop (or be given) a level of formality which suits their need and purpose. On the Collect side, Shell have arrived at a semi-formal Wiki-based approach with an informal structure, but entry drawn from formal reports, and with the use of dedicated back-office support. This currently runs in parallel with their formal database, and plans are in place to investigate merging the two, to deliver the best of both. Similarly the US Army, a long time user of formal push systems, is now experimenting with wikis as a way to build process documents, or “Doctrine”.

So what do we learn from all this? Is there a conclusion to draw? Maybe the conclusion is to recognize that some of the polarity we seem to see (such as the KM/social media tension referred to by Luis Suarez) is more about where you start from, and what your ideologies are, then about the nature of KM. Social Networking views of KM are on the opposite side of the diagram from the Formal Content view, and neither is representative of the whole. Both need to recognize that they are part of a spectrum rather than the Whole of the Topic.

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