Friday 7 January 2011

KM culture change and "thin threads"

2-9 Infantry
Back in the 90's, when we were starting Knowledge Management at BP, we asked Colonel Ed Guthrie to come in and share with us his learnings from KM in the US Army. One of the things he discussed at length was culture change.

He was very clear that the culture change associated with Knowledge Management is a step change, not a gradual change. It's almost like a phase transition. And with a phase transition, you can't change everyone all at once.

Colonel Ed explained it as if it were an Army crossing a river. The Army is your organisation, the river is the step change, the far bank is "KM culture".

To cross the river, the first thing you do is fire a gun-line across - a thin thread fired across the river, which you make secure to a tree or boulder.

Once the thin thread is across, you use it to haul a thicker line, then a hawser, then another hawser, until you have a firm support. Then you use these hawsers to anchor pontoons, lay a roadway on the top, and pretty soon you can march the Army over the bridge.

(Disclaimer - I probably have the details of this this entirely wrong, and I know there are other ways to build bridges, but this was the story Colonel Ed gave us).
Crossing the KM culture gap is similar. The first thing you do it take one small part of the organisation across that culture gap. This is your thin thread - your gun-line - your KM pilot projects. These are vital. They prove that the culture gap can be crossed. They allow the rest of the organisation to see that KM can be "made secure" on the other side of the gap. They provide a foundation for bringing the rest of the organisation across. They prove the concept, and its applicability, and give people a glimpse, or a model, of "the far side of the gap".

However one thin thread is not enough. Next you need some larger scale trials, some first followers. Once these are complete, and you can begin to anchor KM in company structures and company expectations, then you can build the bridge over which the rest of the company can march.

That bridge is the KM framework, and marching people over the bridge is a process of rolling out the framework, and engaging people, team by team or person by person, in what it means for them. The framework obviously has to be secure! It must be embedded in the governing processes of the company, or else your "culture change bridge" is not secure, and might just dump everyone in the water.

So remember, to cross the KM culture gap, you will need to start with some thin threads.


Suresh Nair said...

True Nick, but initiative also need to start at the top in order for knowledge workers to have confidence in the system and they are able to cross the cultural gap between a knowledge-hoarding and a knowledge-sharing environment.

Nick Milton said...

Yes, that's true, but the point I was trying to make is not where the initiative starts, but how it's structured.

Suresh Nair said...

Yes, I understand ...
But you are doing a wonderful work. Great task.

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