Friday 29 July 2016

2 ways of collecting knowledge - black boxes and checklists

Lets look at two elements of the learning system in aircraft - the black box recorder, and the pre-flight checklist - as analogues for elements of Knowledge management. 

Image from wikimedia commons
Both the black box recorder and the pre-flight checklist are knowledge tools in the aviation industry and both represent aspects of knowledge capture.  The black box recorder is a raw data-capture tool, that captures data within flight. The pre-flight checklist is a distillation of data from millions of successful flights and thousands of accidents, designed to give pilots the knowledge of successful flight procedures. Both have their part to play.

The black box recorder records flight data, such as airspeed, altitude, heading, conversations in the cockpit, so that if anything goes wrong in flight there is a better chance of working out what went wrong, and why, and therefore how this can be avoided in future.

The pre-flight checklist on  the other hand gives the pilot a structured way to ensure nothing goes wrong, by running through a series of checks before the plane takes off.

The pre-flight checklist is linked to, and is an outcome of, results from black box recorders. However there is a complex process between the two of data review, root cause analysis, solution-finding and validation, derivation of new process, and distillation into a checklist. Very few black box recordings are ever reviewed - only those from extraordinary events, because it is the extraordinary events that create the new knowledge.

Capturing knowledge in the office

It can be tempting to approach project knowledge capture through black-box-recorder-like techniques. Live meeting capture, for example. Or live capture of project decisions. Or ensuring all project records are filed and passed on.  I heard a Microsoft representative the otehr day say that "our aim is to capture knowledge through capturing all work products as work progresses, because nobody ever takes the time for post-project review".  Microsoft (or at least this representaive) sees KM as a black box recorder.

These approaches create a lot of data, but create little knowledge, and would be massively labour-intensive to interrogate. The simplify to the point of non-existance the process of knowledge recording, but massively increase the work of the learner trying to gain knowledge. Expecting future projects to learn from this material is a bit like expecting pilots to learn directly from black box recorders.

Better to invest in the project project learning review, and ensure people DO take the time to review, to do the root cause analysis, solution-finding and validation, and the derivation of new process, and distillation into guidance for future projects.

The next project will benefit far more from a pre-project checklist that it will from a black box crammed full of project records.

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