Tuesday 22 October 2013

Finding the Unknown Knowns

Unknown People There is a lot of knowledge out there in the organisation that we Don't Know That We Know, and one of the truths of Knowledge Management is that we don't know what we know until we need it, or until someone asks us really deep and probing questions.

That's why an effective Knowledge Management program cannot be based in individual volunteering, or Push, as this only find the Known Knowns.

Sometimes you find organisations who have set up a system whereby people are required to identify lessons themselves and to add them into a lessons management system, or to identify "knowledge objects" and add them to a database, or to identify new ideas and improvement suggestions and add them to a Suggestions Scheme.

I am not as huge fan of volunteer systems like this.

I think you capture only a small proportion of the knowledge or ideas this way, because you miss the Unknown Knowns.  People are not aware that they have knowledge and ideas, and if they are aware, they often discount the knowledge as "not important".

Instead, don't wait for knowledge, ideas or lessons to be volunteered - go seek them out. Go and do some proactive knowledge identification.

There are two main approaches for doing this; reactive, and scheduled.

The reactive approach requires someone to identify particular successes and failures from which to learn. The failures can be obvious, such as safety incidents or significant project overruns, and many companies have mandatory processes for reviewing these failures. But how do you spot the successes? Maybe you can use your company benchmark metrics, and seek to learn from those departments with the best results that year. Perhaps you could work with the knowledge from the manufacturing plant that never had an accident, as well as from the one with frequent accidents. Maybe you can look for the best sales team, and look to learn the secrets of their success.

Or maybe you can do both successes and failures - I did a very interesting study not long ago for an organisation that measures staff engagement using the Gallup survey. We picked the ten top scoring sales teams, the ten bottom scoring teams and the ten teams which had shown the most improvement over the previous year, and interviewed the team leader and a team member of each one, to pick out the secrets of successful staff engagement.

An alternative approach, common within project-based organisations, is to schedule learning reviews and knowledge exchange within the activity framework. These could be

  • After Action Reviews on a daily basis during high-intensity learning, or after each significant task 
  • Peer Assists early in each project stage, or during project set-up
  • Retrospects (or some other form of Post Project review) at the end of each project stage, or at each project review gate
  • A Knowledge Handover meeting at the end of a project, to discuss new knowledge with other projects
  • A Retrospect (or some other form of review) at the end of a bid process, when the company knows if the bid has been successful or unsuccessful.

There are many advantages to the scheduled approach. Firstly, success and failure are components of every project, and if every project is reviewed, lessons may be identified which can avoid the big mistakes later on.

Secondly, if lessons identification is scheduled, it becomes a clear expectation, and the company can monitor if the expectation is being met. This expectation is common in many organisations, thought the rigour with which the expectation is met seems to vary.

Finally, by scheduling and facilitating the learning dialogue, you can uncover the knowledge that nobody knows they know, until they start to discuss it. You find the Unknown Knowns.

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