Organizational learning


In the last few posts we’ve been exploring what’s wrong with the way we position “lessons learned”.  In part one, we looked at the passive problem of people’s tendency to focus on the lessons rather than the activity of learning.  In part two, we looked at the negative associations of the term ‘lessons’, and the impact that this can have.

In part three, I want to look at the problem of ambiguity.

The label “lessons learned” trips off the tongue easily, but that doesn’t mean that everybody hears it in the same way. Learning appears in more than one place on an learning loop, so there is plenty of room here for confusion. It can be an output, an input, or an agent of change.
Here is one, very simple question you can ask to check whats going on in your lessons learned process.

Who is learning?

Here are potential three recipients of the learning – let’s imagine we give a badge of recognition in each case:


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It could be person or team who had the experience, who completed the activity and then reflected upon it.

In this case, learning is an output.


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It could be a function or department who learn from a team’s experience and make a change to a process, policy, standard or working practice –  thereby reducing the risk or improving the prospects for everyone who follows. In this case, learning is an agent of change to the structural capital of the organisation. It becomes an embedded inheritance for all who follow.


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It could be another team about to commence a new activity who are learning from the experience of a previous team. In this case, learning is an input. This input could proactively pushed to another team, or pulled by the new team, through a peer assist, for example.


It’s important to recognise that all of of these are valid and desirable outcomes , or there’s a danger that we allow learning from lessons to be a slightly self-indulgent team huddle.  Worse still, we focus on building the library of lessons rather than actioning the change that the learning should produce, see my earlier shaggy dog story about selling a BMW.

MAKE award winners ConocoPhillips and Syngenta both recognise the need to lubricate all parts of the learning and sharing cycle with appropriate senior recognition.

ConocoPhillips have their 4G awards:  Give (sharing knowledge), Grab (applying someone else’s knowledge), Gather (consolidating knowledge), Guts (sharing learning from failure).

Agri-business Syngenta loved this, and created their own TREE awards along very similar lines:  Transfer, Re-use, Embed and [share a difficult] Experience.

In each case, senior leaders are involved in judging and celebrating the best examples of these essential behaviours, and the teams or individuals concerned receive a physical recognition award.  It’s very clear who is learning, who is sharing, what is improving and where the value is – all of which is the best antidote for ambiguity.

Syngenta TREE award

Syngenta TREE award

I’m not sure how many parts this series of posts is going to have, but let’s make a start with this one…

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 1. Lessons learned is a noun.  Learning is a verb.

Somewhere along the way, the idea of learning from experience so that we improve our own performance, and the future performance of others  has lost its oomph, its focus and its impact.  Instead, we hear people talking in abstract terms about “doing their lessons learned”. What on earth does that mean?

When it becomes the object of a sentence rather than the active verb, then it becomes another item on a tick-list – a necessary chore– the organisational equivalent of flossing our teeth. We focus on the lesson (which is usually a couple of sentences in a document, or a bullet point on a flipchart), rather than what we can learn from the lesson, and what we will change as a result.

It’s an odd thing.  My children don’t learn lessons from school – they learn from lessons, and they learn in lessons.  The lesson is the beneficial environment created by their teacher to help them to gain new insights and know how to apply them to problems.  There’s plenty of room for improvement in the way we design and portray our organisational lessons, just ask a teacher.

So rather than brandishing our flipcharts or reports and saying “here are our lessons learned!” – we should be saying.

“Here is a summary of some lessons. Now, what will we learn from them?”

This leads us away from “lessons learned” as a tick-list item, and leads us nicely to the million-dollar question:

“What will we do differently and what actions do we need to take – for ourselves or for the organisation?”

The next questions are:

“Could these lessons be relevant to anyone else, now or in the future?  How can we ensure that they make sense and provide context and contacts for the next project or team?

These questions move us into action, rather than focusing on writing down a lesson as the end-game.

Or to put it another way:

Bullet points kill knowledge.  Questions resurrect it.

Earlier this month I took my family to visit Highclere Castle in Berkshire.  It is beautiful Victorian Castle set in 1000 acres of parkland, and is home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. It is best known though, for its role in the TV period drama Downton Abbey which has gripped not just the British viewing audience, but audiences around the world, and particularly in the US.  It’s become quite a phenomenon, nominated for four Golden Globes.

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As we took the tour of the inside of Highclere Castle, we were expecting to see merchandise and references to the TV series wherever we looked, given the worldwide acclaim for Downton Abbey. “This is the room where Mr Pamuk died…”  “This is the spot where Lord Grantham kissed Jane…”
We couldn’t have been more wrong!   It would be quite possible to tour the entire castle and completely miss its starring role in the TV series!  Surely a missed opportunity by the owners, the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon?

What they did have on display in the huge basement was a large Egyptology exhibition which told the story of their great grandfather, Lord Carnarvon who, together with Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.  That momentous discovery in the Valley of the Kings is the real story of Highclere Castle, and we got the feeling that the current Earl and Countess of Carnarvon were a little indignant that the vast majority of visitors to Highclere Castle are only there because of a piece of engaging TV fiction!

It’s a perfect illustration of the difference between “what you know” and “what you are known for”.

Throughout our organisations, there are hundreds and thousands of people who have real stories to tell from their past knowledge, experiences and roles – yet they are only known for their current job title.  How do we enable this past experience and know-how, which often lies as buried as Tutankhamun’s tomb, to be rediscovered?

As knowledge professionals, this should be one of our priorities.

  • One way is to enable the creation of internal profiles which encourage employees to describe the interests and past experiences as well as their current position – and to embed their use in the habits of the workforce. Many organisations do this very well, notably MAKE award winners BG Group and Schlumberger.
  • Another approach, often complimentary, is to draw out the experience of others through a collective response to a business issue for example via a “jam” session.  I was speaking with Deloitte in the UK last week, and they described the success of their “Yamjam” sessions which often surface knowledge from surprising locations.
  • The creation of open networks, and the provision of easy mechanisms for staff to join networks of their interest also makes it easy to mobilise knowledge and experience from wherever it lies.
  • Finally, the use of knowledge cafes, world cafes and other free-flowing conversational processes will set the stage for connections and contributions which might otherwise never surface.

These approaches all enable knowledge and experience from the present (what you are known for) and the past (what you know)  to be shared and reused.

Not only would the fictitious butler Carson approve, but also the very real Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.

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There are a lot of KM-related words beginning with the letter C.

Connection, Collection, Collaboration, Curation, Conversation, Communities, Culture…

There’s one which you might not have thought of, but which I think is pretty important.

Here’s a clue.

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Image from City A.M.Number 20, Fenchurch Street, London has always been a controversial building.  It has become better known as the “Walkie Talkie”, and was rechristened this week as the “Walkie Scorchie”, because the combination of the curved design, mirrored windows and some bright sunlight created a focus of solar energy which was sufficient to melt parts of an expensive Jaguar XJ parked nearby, and in a non-scientific experiment, to fry an egg!

Unwittingly, the architect had designed a building which worked as a scaled-down version of the solar furnace in Odeillo, France. I remember visiting this whilst on a childhood holiday, and was blown away by the lumps of melted rock on display.  I applied my sunscreen more carefully for the rest of my vacation.

Anyway, I say the architect unwittingly designed a building, but perhaps that’s being generous, because the same Architect (Rafeel Vinoly) designed the Vdara Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, 3 years earlier.  The tall, sleek, curved Vdara Hotel, according to the  Las Vegas Review,

 

…is a thing of beauty.

But the south-facing tower is also a collector and bouncer of sun rays, which — if you’re at the hotel’s swimming pool at the wrong time of day and season — can singe your hair and melt your plastic drink cups and shopping bags.

Hotel pool employees call the phenomenon the “Vdara death ray.”

A spokesman for MGM Resorts International, which owns Vdara, said he prefers the term “hot spot” or “solar convergence” to describe it. He went on to say that designers are already working with resort staff to come up with solutions.”

So the same architect has designed two tall, curved, mirrored buildings which have both manifested the same unwelcome side-effect.

Not only that, but the Disney Concert Hall (not designed by Rafael Vinoly) had similar issues back in 2003.

You have to ask yourself, surely lessons learned from the Vdara Hotel should have been applied by the same firm as they designed the Walkie Talkie?  Surely the Death Ray experience would have burned itself into the memory of the firm concerned?

And would it be unreasonable to expect the Architectural profession to be aware of the Disney Concert Hall case, and consequently have prevented the flawed Vdara design sizzling tourists like ants under a magnifying glass?

Is it easier to learn from the failures and flaws of others, of from our own internal failures?  Well, it depends on whether the power of “Not Invented here”, disguised as “It’ll never happen here”, is greater than the professional defensive reasoning and displacement of failure Chris Argyris described in his brilliant HBR paper, “Teaching Smart People How to Learn.”
If you haven’t read it, and you work in the field of knowledge management, organizational learning, improvement or in any medium-large consultancy, then please do.  It’s 22 years old but it could have been written yesterday.

Here’s a taster to wet your appetite:

 “Any company that aspires to succeed in the tougher business environment of [today] must first resolve a basic dilemma: success in the marketplace increasingly depends on learning, yet most people don’t know how to learn. What’s more, those members of the organization that many assume to be the best at learning are, in fact, not very good at it. I am talking about the well-educated, high-powered, high-commitment professionals who occupy key leadership positions in the modern corporation.

Most companies not only have tremendous difficulty addressing this learning dilemma; they aren’t even aware that it exists. The reason: they misunderstand what learning is and how to bring it about.”

Argyris goes on to distinguish between the single loop learning approach of problem-solving and error correction, and the double-loop learning which addresses how organisations identify, discuss and enact change, and the dynamics, performance measurement systems and behavioural filters which can prevent even the most brilliant (often the most brilliant!) professional from seeing their role in something less than brilliant.

The case of the non-learning professional is not reserved for architects, of course – it’s just that their oversights can be so tangible.  The financial sector, energy sector and public sector have all had their own versions of the “walkie scorchie”.  It’s just that you can’t fry eggs on them.

Egg

As knowledge and learning professionals, we need to make sure that we’re visible, helpful  and active for these fried egg moments.

They are the moments when mistakes are too visible to be missed, and when even defensive reasoning is no defence.   We can help our organisations not just to learn from the specifics of one design error (we can certainly start there, and get our foot in the door), but we also need to have the courage and the influence (and partnership with OD and other functions) to look beneath to the structural and organisational factors which will ultimately determine how many times the organisation gets its fingers burnt.

Oh, and on a related matter, and if you’re thinking of buying one of these – be careful which wall you put it on!

One of my current clients needs to conduct a learning review from a 2-year IT project which, by her own admission, has had its fair share of ups and downs. The project is at its mid-point, so the main customer for the learning is the team itself. They don’t have much time to conduct the review (sadly just 90 minutes), so she asked me for some ideas for pre-work  for the team.

Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of a full day to conduct an exhaustive review, so you have to work with what you have and help the team to quickly connect their hearts and minds to the review process.  It’s the heart bit which interests me here.

When we’re under time pressure, we tend to focus on the facts, the timeline, the plan, the process, contract, technology, scope and the deviations. Intellectual recall. In fact, most project review documents contain little more than this kind of intellectual recall. It usually takes a bit longer to get a team to talk about how they felt, and to draw out some the more people-oriented learning – let’s call that a kind of “emotional recall”.

I combined some ideas from Retrospects, After Action Reviews, Baton-passing and Future Backwards (Heaven and Hell) exercises into this approach. Enjoy the ride!

With thanks to Navcon

Part 1 – the pre-work:

Before the meeting, ask each member of the team to think back over the project timeline and to focus on their emotions at each stage. You can provide them with a template like this, with key dates or milestones marked to give a sense of orientation.

1. Ask them to sketch out their own “emotional rollercoaster”, paying attention to the highs and lows.

2. For the high spots, write down what went well, and why you think it went well.

3. Do the same for the low spots. What was difficult, and why do you think that was?

4. How do you think the rollercoaster is most likely to continue?  Draw the continuing journey.  Bring this to the meeting with your notes on the reasons for the highs and lows.

Part 2 – during the meeting.

Sharing the Past and Present.

  • Collectively, in the meeting, create a large version of the rollercoaster timeline on the wall.
  • Each participant draws their journey up to the present day, pausing to describe the lows and highs, and the reasons for these.   A facilitator should probe these reasons using the “5-whys”  technique to get to the underlying reason.
  • For each high and low, ask the group to express the reason as a recommendation – something that someone else should do to repeat the delight, or avoid the despair – or an action which should be taken in order to change a process such that the good practice becomes embedded.
  • Capture these recommendations on post-its and place on the rollercoaster.
  • Repeat for each member of the project team (towards the end, they can “pass” if someone has already identified a high or low. )
  • This should create a shared view of the past, and “how we got to where we are today”, with some useful recommendations captured. Consider who you might share these with beyond the team.

Creating the Future together.

  • Now ask each member to sketch how they think the project will go from now to the end date. You will probably get a range of options!
  • Focus on the best projected outcome and ask “based on all we’ve learned to date, what actions could we take to make this happen, rather than the less positive options?”. You can take feedback from the entire group, or get them to discuss in pairs or sub-groups first.
  • Capture these actions (with names!).

Thank you ladies and gentlemen, this is the end of the ride.
Please be sure to collect your belongings as you leave and don’t forget to check your photo on the way out.

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Last week I had the pleasure of providing my final virtual webinar for the first of the UN’s KM Online blended learning programme.  Geoff Parcell and I have taken turns over the past 6 weeks.  Last week the focus was on KM Strategy and Implementation, and we had an excellent interactive discussion about different options for implementation.
Here’s a shot of our discussion in action…

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So with particular thanks to Eric, Harald, Svetlana and Miguel who added some great ideas  – here are ten different options for KM Strategy implementation.

1. Top Down, Big Bang.

ImageThis is the traditional “someone at the top has said this needs to happen” approach, usually accompanied by a cascade, a change initiative, communications and engagement plan, brown-bag presentations, training programmes, mugs and mouse mats. We’ve all seen these initiatives in action – and in some organisations they can be the only way to get people’s attention.  The challenge, of course is to find ways to keep people’s attention –  particularly when the board or senior sponsors have moved onto their next big bang.  You might consider setting up a programme board with some of the senior players, which will keep them collectively on-the-hook for your programme.  It’s much more difficult for the whole group to shift their energy away than it is for a single sponsor to become distracted by the next big idea.

So it’s the challenge of sustainability, which leads us neatly to the second approach – Top Down, Bottom Up.

2. Top Down, Bottom Up

ImageThis approach is a sophistication of the Big Bang approach, using the same level of visible senior support to send a clear message across the organisation. The critical difference is that there is a deliberate effort to harness the energy and passion of workers at the front line, and to involve them in the programme, perhaps as group of advisors or a community of practice. These people are key in helping to translate the messages from the top and set them in the right context locally.  BP had a two-year programme with a team of 10 with a brief to define and demonstrate the value of KM.  But it was KM Community of practice – around 200 enthusiasts who recognised the value that it brought to their day-to-day roles – this was the group who helped KM to be more sustainable.  They were also an excellent source of anecdotes and credible stories of where KM had made a difference at the sharp-end.

3. Slipstream.

ImageIn most organisations, you can guarantee that there will be a number of organisational initiatives in flight at any one time.  Rather than wait for a gap in the traffic which will never come, or to launch a competing campaign to capture the attention of an already saturated workforce, there is a third way!  Slipstreaming is about working in partnership with other initiatives or “transformation projects” (don’t you just love that phrase?), looking for ways in which you can feed of each others’ momentum.
The beauty of KM is that it’s such a broad discipline that it is easy to find ways to complement and support other programmes and functions.  I have seen KM effectively slipstream behind business improvement and Six Sigma projects; operational excellence, new project management methodologies, SharePoint deployments, acquisition integration activities, customer management and asset management initiatives, culture change movements and the roll-out of new corporate values. [You might question whether you can change culture with an initiative, or roll-out values - we'll leave that for a future post - but you get the idea...]

One thing to be wary of, which affects competitive cyclists and athletes who slipstream – is the danger of getting “boxed in”.  If you’re slipstreaming the roll-out of SharePoint with a view to sharing a broader set of knowledge-sharing behaviours and methods, then watch out that the technology doesn’t grab all the headlines and rob you of impact.  It’s always best to agree these things up-front as part of the partnership, rather than “pop out” unexpectedly and assume that you can push KM to the forefront!

4. Outside In.

ImageThis approach is a little higher risk, but does come with its own in-built parachute.
Sometimes things just sound better when they are heard from the outside.   People who would treat an internal newsletter or intranet article with a degree of scepticism will pay attention to  the same story when it appears in a journal or arrives via their RSS feed – or when a friend of customer mentions that it just arrived in their RSS feed.  It’s the power of outside-in.  Geoff Parcell and I found that when we published the first edition of Learning to Fly in 2001, it gave reach, awareness and credibility to the KM programme way beyond anything we could have achieved ourselves.  Rio Tinto experienced a similar unexpected impact when they published their video on Communities of Practice on YouTube.  It just works, and it creates momentum inside the company to fill in any gaps between what is said externally and what happens internally.

And if you do over-reach?  Well, all that publicity should help you to find a soft landing somewhere else!

5. Viral

ImageThis is a variant of the pilot approach and usually involves technology.  BT experienced it with the  launch of their BTPedia internal wiki back in 2007, Russian financial services giant Sberbank encountered it with the launch of their ideas management system in 2011, and the roll-out of many micro-blogging environments  like Deloitte’s Yammer have taken on a life of their own this year.
With a viral approach, you need to be prepared for it to be messy – it’s a case of let a thousand flowers bloom, pick the best ones and do the weeding and gardening later.   However, it’s hard to imagine “lessons learned”, “knowledge retention” or the creation of knowledge products spreading like wildfire.  You’ll need to make the most of the extra momentum and have a plan up your sleeve to connect the parts of KM which spread virally with the other techniques and methods which require more effort to adopt.

6. Stealth

ImageSometimes labels get in the way.

Sometimes  you have to find ways to build  up  your organization’s capability to manage and share knowledge without them realising what your master plan actually is.  You get smart at making small adjustments to processes, spotting political opportunities and allies, tweaking the configuration of information-sharing platforms and the wording of competency frameworks and values;  encouraging networks and facilitating conversations which improve performance and learning.  After a few years, you’ll be able to look back and say to yourself  “you know what, we’re pretty good at managing and sharing knowledge. - but you probably won’t get a plaudit or bonus – just the satisfaction of having helped to build a knowledge-friendly environment which is probably more sustainable than any managed programme would have achieved.

If you like the sound of that, and can live with the lack of recognition, then perhaps a career as an independent KM consultant awaits you!  

7. Copycat

ImageThis is more of a tactic than an implementation strategy per se – but it’s often successful to point to examples of successful KM from other organisations (competitors and customers are particular impactful) to create some “me too” or “me better” demand.  Find a good example and invite them in to tell their story.  Check whether your board members have non-executive directorships or recent prior experience of other companies.  They might be good ones to pursue!
Copycat can work well internally too, encouraging business units to out-do each other in successful knowledge sharing, but make sure that the measures you use to compare and celebrate don’t create a new set of competing silos.   ConocoPhillips’ ‘4G’ awards (Give, Grab, Gather, Guts) and Syngenta’s TREE awards (Transfer, Reuse, Embed, Experience) both focus on giving and receiving – hence they compete to out-share each other – which has to be a good thing!

8. Pilot

ImageA Pilot approach will often take a subset of KM methods and apply them locally – in contrast to the big bang, which usually takes KM as a whole and attempts to apply it globally.  It’s all about lighting a number of fires to see what spreads.  A pilot enables you to try the aspects of KM most likely to make a difference quickly, to build credibility locally, and to learn from each implementation.  That could mean launching a community of practice for one part of the organisation whilst closing the learning loop on major projects and working on knowledge retention for retiring experts.
Criteria for a successful pilot?

  • capable of showing results (measurable value would be good) within 6 months;
  • strategic;
  • repeatable elsewhere;
  • close to the heart of any key sponsor or stakeholder, and
  • ideally a recognisable part of the organisation (not too esoteric) which will make their story easy to understand.

9. The Buffet Menu

ImageThe success of a buffet approach depends on a high level of demand for knowledge. Rather than investing effort in creating an appetite, or a willingness to experiment – this approach works with the demand already present, and provides an array of tools and techniques which the organisation chooses from at will, once their “palate” is sufficiently educated.

The International Olympic Committee is a great example of this.  They set out a veritable smorgasbord of learning processes, observation visits, secondments, extranet platforms, access to experts, databases, distilled recommendations and lessons learned.  A knowledge feast for a future organising committee, who enter the 7-year process with a tremendous appetite for knowledge.
On a smaller scale (and let’s face it, everything looks small compared to the Olympics!), management consultancies operate their KM programmes using the demand for knowledge which accompanies each new assignment.

Demand-led programmes are more likely to be sustainable – no need to persuade people to change their behaviour – adrenaline drives them to it!

10. Phoenix from the ashes

ImageFor a lot of organisations, KM is not a new idea.  For many of them, there have been several historical big bangs, pilots and copycat initiatives.
Talk with people about what has happened in the past and learn from it.  Corporate KM started in the mid ’90s, so you’ll be looking for people with grey hair (working in KM does that to people). Sometimes just having these conversations can rekindle enthusiasm, tinged with nostalgia.  Why didn’t we make more of that?  What did we lose momentum then?  Perhaps now the timing is better?  Perhaps now, with a new sponsor, or now that we’ve addressed that particular barrier?
It is quite possible for KM to rise, phoenix-like from the ashes and fly higher than it did before.

So whether you’re a viral copycat or a phoenix stealthily approaching a buffet from the outside in, here’s ten options to consider, with a little help from the inaugural UN KMOL class of 2013.

Every so often, it’s good to revisit some of the fundamentals of knowledge management and reflect on their continuing importance to the field.   I’ve been working with several different groups on Communities of Practice and Networks this month, and have taken each group back to Etienne Wenger’s definition from Cultivating Communities of Practice:Monument by Frans Persoon

“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

Looking more deeply at this definition, I think there are four “pillars” of successful communities.

1. A shared concern or passion.

Whilst the 90:9:1 role (or whatever variant of that ratio your community has equilibriated to) will always be relevant, the level of concern or passion will have a huge impact on the way in which people give discretionary time to the group.  I see this particularly in communities which relate to the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – e.g. Communities focused on safety, security, humanitarian issues. It’s also strong in communities which have a focus on hobbies and sports – Several organisations I know have a Photographers’ community who exchange, critique and celebrate  each other’s work, using company systems, and on company time (because it’s worth it to the company to show what a vibrant community can  be like).  Similarly with Cyclists’ communities and other sport-related groups.

Take a look around you colleagues’ office or workspace or electronic desktop – you’ll see what their passions and concerns are.

Thomas Freidman’s equation PQ + CQ > IQ where PQ is Passion Quotient and CQ is Curiosity Quotient is true of communities – Passion and Curiosity will carry the group further than raw IQ – but a combination of all three will get the ball over the line every time!

2. A shared practice.

We often talk more about the “community” behaviours than we do clarifying the “practice”, and its boundaries.   It’s always time well spent.  I advocate that groups consider creating  and regularly updating a self-assessment or maturity model which describes their particular practice.  This helps them to agree upon the important topics, agree upon what good looks like and identify where they can share and learn from and with each other.

Without that common language, it’s easy for community members to talk past each other, or to miss opportunities to give and receive.

3. A commitment to learning.

Again, nobody questions the value of learning, bus what are the learning activities which your community will commit to?  What is the relationship between “lessons learned” and you community?  Is there any ownership of this process, and agreement to maintain a knowledge asset or product which represents the community’s most current thinking and understanding?

What about informal learning, formal transfer, learning together or learning from each other?  And learning from fresh insights outside the organisation?  How will that happen?

I’ve always liked this model from Wenger, White and Smith’s book, “Digital Habitats”, which sets out a landscape for these important dimensions and clusters relevant activities.  It’s a great model for communities to use as a menu of potential learning stimuli.

Wenger, White and Smith - Learning Activities from "Digital Habitats"

4. A commitment to interact regularly.

Of course!  And what does the ideal blend and frequency of interaction for your community look like?  What is the ideal mix of face-to-face, regional, peer-to-peer, virtual, discussion-based, spontaneous, scheduled, ad-hoc, funded, led, emergent, social, business… social business?

No shortage of choices and options, and it’s good to agree upon how you plan to interact and to regularly review how effective the blend is.

So how do your communities shape up to the four pillars? Perhaps it’s a good opportunity to discuss and learn through some  passionate interaction!

Here’s a quote from a BBC news article yesterday:

Keep Calm and Stiff Upper Lip

The UK’s “stiff upper lip” culture may explain why it lags behind other countries when it comes to beating cancer, say experts.

Researchers, who surveyed nearly 20,000 adults in six high-income countries, said they found embarrassment often stopped Britons visiting the doctor. Respondents in the UK were as aware of cancer symptoms as those in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, but more reluctant to seek help, they said.

When you drill down to the underlying reason behind “embarrassment” or “reluctance to ask for help”, you usually end up with “pride”.

This reminds me of one of my “seven deadly syndromes of knowledge-sharing”.   I called it “Real men don’t ask directions”, or “TomTom syndrome”

Imagine the scene: You’re on your way to a dinner party at a friend’s house; you left home a little late, so now you’re in a hurry and the quality of your driving is deteriorating.  Your partner is unsettled and tells you that “she’d prefer to get there in one piece than not at all”.  Now, just to add to the tension, you have a nagging thought that you might have taken a wrong turn. You carry on though, hoping that you’ll happen upon a road-sign or a landmark, but none appear. Finally, your partner breaks the silence and tells you what you already know.  You’re lost!    “No problem”, she says triumphantly pronouncing the solution; “pull over by that man over there and we’ll ask for directions”.

Of course, it’s not exclusively a male problem, but it does seem to be the case that men suffer from this syndrome more than women.  It’s hard to ask for help.

We have all had times when we have that nagging sense that “there might be a better way to do this”, or “perhaps someone else has already figured this one out”.  What stops us from asking around for solutions and ideas for improvement?  Sometimes it’s a sense that we’re supposed to know the answers.

Why would I want to show everyone else that I’m incompetent?
That doesn’t seem like a route to promotion.  However, once I’ve solved my problem, I’ll be happy to share my solution.

The truth is, the biggest challenge to organisations who want to get more from what they know, isn’t that they have a knowledge sharing problem.  It’s that they have an asking problem.

It’s also true to say that we often turn to technology for help when a conversation would be more timely, more accurate and more helpful – whether that’s with a doctor, a local resident or a knowledgeable colleague who would be only too willing to help.

alfiecar

Our BMW is nearly 8 years old now.  It’s been brilliant, and it’s had to put up with a lot from a growing family, and now a dog with an affinity for mud and water.

It’s about this age when cars generally – regardless of the manufacturer –  begin to reveal some of the longer-term glitches to owners and manufacturers send letters to notify people like me that “there is an extremely small chance that you may experience a problem with the battery wiring in the luggage compartment, and please would I contact my local dealer at my earlier convenience where they will be glad to examine and fix any potential problems without charge…”

If I wanted to sell my car (probably to someone who doesn’t read this blog!), then I have a choice:

  • Sell them the car, and give the new owner the keys and a small pile of vehicle recall notices.  These represent all of the lessons about the 535D Touring that BMW and their customers have learned over the past 8 years, so they are, of course, invaluable to the new owner…
  • Take the car to the dealer, get the problems fixed for free and the vehicle record updated on their systems.  Throw away the recall letters which now have no purpose. Give the new owner the keys.

It’s clear which is the better option.  Now let’s park the BMW analogy and think about knowledge management (which, coincidentally, BMW are also very good at).

In my experience, many organisations sometimes treat lessons learned like they are an end in themselves – as though the value has to remain in the document – rather than where possible leading to actions which embody the learning.  These actions might include updating a process, policy, standard or system has been updated to incorporate the learning, which  removes the need to promote the lessons or recommendations to future teams.

So why do some organisations settle for a pile of lessons rather than a set of improvements?

Some possibilities:

  • It’s much easier to write a document than see a change through to completion.
  • It’s too difficult to find the owner of the process which needs changing.
  • I’m measured on how many lessons our project captures.
  • We have invested in customizing SharePoint to capture lessons learned documents, and need to show that we’re using it.
  • Although I wrote the recommendation, I’m not 100% confident that we should change the process for everyone.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not decrying any kind of activity to capture lessons learned.
Sometimes the learning is such that there is no obvious process or standard which can be changed, and there is no immediate customer for the knowledge.  In those cases we need to preserve it in such a way that our learning is expressed as a recommendation for the next team, and is supported with the reason, the narrative, any relevant artifacts and the contact details of the person behind the recommendation.  These things all add context to what would otherwise be a recommendation in isolation.  The next team then have more background to assess whether this particular recommendation is relevant in their world.  I wrote about this on my February posting on dead butterfly collections.

However, I do think it’s worth looking at the barriers which prevent people from from translating their personal or team learning into an improvement for everyone.   Perhaps we’re not selling the idea of lesson-learning in the best way?  Hearts and minds, or just minds?   Commitment or compliance?  Value or box-ticking?

Let’s not let the tail wag the dog!

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