Benchmarking


Next month marks my tenth year as an independent consultant.  How time flies when you’re, well, learning to fly…

Favorite-things

As I look back over those years, and the privilege of working with 120 different organisations, there are many high spots (as well the odd moment I’d prefer to forget!).  One particular type of activity stands out as my favourite, running a knowledge-sharing and learning consortium.

Let me explain how they work, and why they are so effective.

They typically start with a conversation initiated by a client which goes something like this…

“We keep going to conferences and feel like we’re hearing from the usual suspects, and seeing the same glossy presentations, but not learning anything new.   Could you find us a number of peer organisations to learn from and with – and facilitate a number of high-intensity meetings for us?”

And in a nutshell, that’s what a knowledge-sharing consortium is: a limited series of meetings between different organisations at similar levels of maturity with a commitment to openly share and learn. You could say that it’s the perfect blend of a Community of Practice and a Peer Assist, with a brilliant mix of non-competing organisations.

I have co-facilitated my consortium programmes with my good friend and consultant colleague Elizabeth Lank. It takes the energy and abilities of two facilitators to help 25 participants get the maximum benefit from their investment. You need to give it everything you’ve got. I know that both Elizabeth and I end each event with that feeling of “positive-tiredness” that comes after the last member has departed happy and the celebratory G&T has been poured, to help with our After Action Review.

So thank you to Schlumberger, Shell, BT, Unilever, GSK, Freshfields, Oracle, ABN Amro, Syngenta,  Pfizer, PwC, Freshfields, NHS, Audit Commission, the International Olympic Committee and others – thank you for making those events so memorable and enjoyable.

Here are my reflections…

Lessons, recommendations and design principles for a knowledge-sharing consortium.

  • Forming a consortium works best when there is a founding organization – a client with a need and a curiosity and desire to learn. Recruiting and inviting other participating companies is so much easier when you can say, for example, “Schlumberger are looking to learn from some other great knowledge companies about maximising the value from Communities of Practice. Would you be interested in joining us?”
  • We found that 4-8 member organisations worked best. Any less than 4 and members feel that they are exhausting the possibilities for learning. If you go much higher then 8 and it becomes too difficult to sustain relationships or remember what was discussed – you end up with something more like a conference.
  • Ask for 2-4 participants per company. This enables them to provide members from complimentary functions in their own organisations, and gives a critical mass for company break-out moments when they create space and time to consider “what will we do with all the good practice ideas that we’re picking up?. It also enables them to share their own story from multiple perspectives.
  • The series of meetings (usually 3 or 4 over a 12 month period) is deliberately time-bound, with a clear end in mind. This gives a focus and a helpful sense of urgency to extract the maximum value from every hour of each event.
  • Invest in forming relationships right from the start. Ensure each event has an over-night stay in a pleasant venue, great food and drink, space for informal conversations. Ensure that people have bios or social media profiles available, and include early ice-breaker events which make use of this information and get the group laughing together.
  • Ensure that there are sessions where participating organisations tell their story (as creatively as they like – you might chose to ban PowerPoint from some sessions). Balance this time evenly between telling and asking questions. Do everything you can to make it unlike a conference!
  • Solve real problems brought by the participants, as early as the first meeting. This sets the tone not just for subsequent face-to-face meetings, but creates the expectation and openness to request and respond.
  • Have fun together! We’ve incorporated treasure hunts, photo-safaris, museum trips, role-play, board games, playlists and karaoke into the designs in order to create memories, bind the group together, and, well enjoy having fun!
  • Make full use of artifacts. If every picture tells a story, then physical objects can write a book. We’ve curated displays of awards, posters, t-shirts, stress balls, card games, mugs, books, calendars and quizzes and explored their effectiveness at length. It’s been brilliant to see some consensual stealing-with-pride going on between the members.
  • Stay flexible. The best-planned agenda needs to be sacrificed if the group collectively choose to go somewhere else. We’ve learned to build in flexibility and use methods like Openspace to keep the power of choice firmly in the hands of the participants.
  • Vary the methods, techniques and tools – and debrief their use with the participants. We have found that our participants have really valued the use of new techniques. We’ve introduced reverse brainstorming, appreciative inquiry, project retrospects, social reporting, knowledge asset creation, social network mapping, speed-consulting, peer assists – and some experimental techniques which evolve on the day. Every time we use a technique, we review the outcome and the process and encourage reflection in company teams on how they can be adapted for use.
  • Focus facilitation on the process rather than the content.  Elizabeth and I are both frequently called upon to speak as experts on knowledge management and collaboration, but in a room with 25 experienced practitioners, our focus is usually on helping them to learn from each other – and just interjecting with the occasional story or 10 minute context-setting session.
  • Keep the discussion going between events. We’ve successfully used Google Sites, teleconferences, vlogging, individual telephone calls and even good old email to keep the party going between face-to-face events, and to build anticipation for the next meeting.

kdp

Stop press!  We’ve had an approach from a large international company who want to participate in a consortium focusing on effective collaboration, virtual working and network/community building, and we have just started the search for suitable consortium members.

So if this an area that your organisation has experience with, and you’re particularly interest in joining with some peer organisations to learn more, then please contact me for details.  I can guarantee it’s even better than raindrops on roses…

Continuing from my top ten KM consulting highlights (in no particular order!) from 2014…

6. Sharing Knowledge in the Offshore Wind community

The UK is a world leader in the Offshore Wind Energy business, and with multiple companies involved in planning, developing and constructing wind farms, there is huge potential for reducing the cost (and increasing the size of renewable energy “pie”) by sharing knowledge between the industry players – who happen to be competitors! It’s a classic example of tragedy of the commons.

I have been working with all of the main stakeholders over the past year to develop a community of practice, a common language, and a series of sharing workshops to help this group of companies to trust, share, connect and learn whilst respecting the commercial limitations which exist. Where of you start? Where are the safe places to begin knowledge-sharing? It’s an unconventional community of practice – but a fascinating one to work with.

osw

 

7. Communities in Copenhagen 

After nearly ten years of independent consultancy in KM, I finally managed to combine a business trip with an extra family holiday. My wife and daughters accompanied me to Copenhagen for a brilliant weekend, whilst I stayed on to work with Maersk Oil and help shape their work on communities of practice.

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8. The African Evaluation Association conference in Cameroon.

I have to admit, I love visiting new countries, so when I was asked to speak and deliver workshops at the AfrEA 2014 conference in Yaounde, Cameroon, it didn’t take much to persuade me.

Being exposed to the sheer breadth and depth of M&E activity in the development sector – and the natural way in which Knowledge Management dovetails into this important work was an eye-opener. Meeting Rituu Nanda, who has worked so hard with the AIDS constellation, building on Geoff’s work with UNAIDS which we wrote up in Learning to Fly, was a real highlight for me.

Oh and the bread basket was certainly eye-catching!

croc

 

9. Board Gamification in Syngenta

MAKE award winners Syngenta have been one of my longest-running clients, and I’ve had the opportunity to support their KM Strategy, Communities of Practice, Lessons Learned and Operational Excellence programmes. Whether it’s cartoons, glass knowledge-sharing awards, pocket cards or toolkits, I’ve always enjoyed their love of embedding knowledge in artifacts and their courage to innovate. One of the best examples of this was the creation of a board game about the early stages of leading of a community of practice, based on Snakes and Ladders. Of course, we called it “Snakes and Leaders”.
The game was used as part of an internal training programme for Network Leaders, and incorporated the ups and downs, celebrations and pitfalls of the first 100 days of a typical network, with some additional randomised surprises and challenges.

Here it is being played by fellow participants in the Knowledge Driven Performance consortium.

Snakes and Leaders

10.  Tearfund

Tearfund is a charity which has been important to me for as long as I can remember.  Their approach to After Action Reviews made it into Learning to Fly, and I had the chance to visit them to work on their Organisational Learning Strategy a few years ago.  Towards the end of last year, I was asked to join their People and Learning committee as an non-executive external advisor; something I really look forward to contributing towards.  What makes this extra special is that my eldest daughter Martha is also working with Tearfund on their No Child Taken campaign against Human Trafficking as a public figure, following her appearance on the Great British Bake Off (aka PBS British Baking Show), so we will be able to share knowledge over her cake experiments!

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Looking forward to seeing what 2015 has in store…

Last week the Daily Telegraph published an article about the “truth behind British politeness” which revisited the phrases which we British often use, the real meaning, and what (as the Telegraph charmingly puts it) “foreigners” understand. I’ve seen it printed off and pinned on the walls of several offices over the years – usually within easy view of the telephone.  It’s a great (and humourous) way to help create understanding, enhance conversations and prevent people talking past each other.  I’d even to so far as to say that it’s not bad! Talking past each other

WHAT THE BRITISH SAY  WHAT THE BRITISH MEAN  WHAT FOREIGNERS UNDERSTAND
I hear what you say I disagree and do not want to discuss it further He accepts my point of view
With the greatest respect You are an idiot He is listening to me
That’s not bad That’s good That’s poor
That is a very brave proposal You are insane He thinks I have courage
Quite good A bit disappointing Quite good
I would suggest Do it or be prepared to justify yourself Think about the idea, but do what you like
Oh, incidentally/ by the way The primary purpose of our discussion is That is not very important
I was a bit disappointed that I am annoyed that It doesn’t really matter
Very interesting That is clearly nonsense They are impressed
I’ll bear it in mind I’ve forgotten it already They will probably do it
I’m sure it’s my fault It’s your fault Why do they think it was their fault?
You must come for dinner It’s not an invitation, I’m just being polite I will get an invitation soon
I almost agree I don’t agree at all He’s not far from agreement
I only have a few minor comments Please rewrite completely He has found a few typos
Could we consider some other options I don’t like your idea They have not yet decided

The idea of a common language – a frame of reference to support better understanding and more focused conversations is what lies at the heart of the creation and use of self-assessment models.  Whilst they are similar in concept to maturity models, the purpose is less to track and measure – and more to create a shared vocabulary to enable more targeted knowledge sharing.  I’ve seen them used to great effect in a wide range of organisations and topics:  Engineering, Energy, Operations Maintenance, Safety, Environmental Performance, Supply Chain Management, Collaboration and Health… There are some health-related examples here which grew out of  work with the UNAIDS programme, and has  been reapplied by the Constellation into self-assessments for Malaria and Diabetes as well as HIV. (please check the advice page for usage guidance)

I like to think of them as scaffolding for knowledge sharing.  It’s scaffolding which enables people to climb higher and faster to have richer conversations with deeper understanding.

  In each case the self-assessment tool was created by the group who would ultimately use it. That’s an important principle.  They can recognise their own words – and the results of their discussions – in the practices chosen and the  levels and language used to represent each practice. Creating a model together ia a tremendous way to have a group make explicit some of their  knowledge, stories, assumptions and unarticulated rules of thumb.  It gives a great sense of achievement – having rigourously discussed something they care about  and understand deeply – and created an artefact which they can then use. We talk a lot about Communities of Practice – but sometimes communities never work the detail together on what their practice really is, and what good might look like. What a missed opportunity!    Building a self-assessment model with members of a community forces a lot of helpful discussion, gives the group a product to be proud of  and provides a very easy way for members to self-assess and then share their relative strengths and weaknesses in a knowledge marketplace. it also gives them a framework against which they can store share artefacts and examples (see the AIDS Competence knowledge asset example). Tools like the River Diagram and Stairs Diagram and reciprocal sharing techiques like Offers and Requests help to map out the dimensions of the marketplace ready for knowledge exchange. All of this sounds a lot more purposeful than hoping that needs and responses will serendipitously collide whilst we’re talking past each other… So with the greatest of respect, do you hear what I say?

There was a helpful thread in the sikm-leaders forum last week when someone asked for ten responses to complete the statement “You know knowledge is being effectively managed when…”

I thought it was a really practical way to explore how it feels, and looks – how people behave, when KM is really working.   Here are my ten suggestions:

You know knowledge is being effectively managed when…


Leadership. Leaders in the organisation are role models, challenging people to ask for help, seek out, share and apply good practices this inspires curiosity and a commitment to improve.  The organisation is learning!

Learning. People instinctively seek to learn before doing.  Lessons from successes and failures are drawn out in an effective manner and shared openly with others who are genuinely eager to learn, apply and improve. Lessons lead to actions and improvement.

Networking. People are actively networking, seamlessly using formal communities and informal social networks to get help, share solutions, lessons and good practices. The boundaries between internal and external networks are blurred and all employees understand the benefits and take personal responsibility for managing the risks.

Navigation. There are no unnecessary barriers to information, which is shared by default and restricted only where necessary. Information management tools and protocols are intuitive, simple and well understood by everybody.  This results in a navigable, searchable, intelligently tagged and appropriately classified asset for the whole organisation, with secure access for trusted partners.

Collaboration. People have the desire and capability to use work collaboratively, using a variety of technology tools with confidence.  Collaboration is a natural act, whether spontaneous or scheduled.  People work with an awareness of their colleagues and use on-line tools as instinctively as the telephone to increase their productivity.

Consolidation. People know which knowledge is strategically important, and treat it as an asset.  Relevant lessons are drawn from the experience of many, and consolidated into guidelines. These are brought to life with stories and narrative, useful documents and templates and links to individuals with experience and expertise. These living “knowledge assets” are refreshed and updated regularly by a community of practitioners.

Social Media. Everybody understands how to get the best from the available tools and channels. Social media is just part of business as usual; people have stopped making a distinction. Serendipity, authenticity and customer intimacy are increasing.  People are no longer tentative and are encouraged to innovate and experiment. The old dogs are learning new tricks!  Policies are supportive and constantly evolving, keeping pace with innovation in the industry.

Storytelling. Stories are told, stories are listened to, stories are re-told and experience is shared. People know how to use the influencing power of storytelling.  Narrative is valued, captured, analysed and used to identify emergent patterns which inform future strategy.

Environment. The physical workplace reflects a culture of openness and collaboration.  Everyone feels part of what’s going on in the office.  Informal and formal meetings are easily arranged without space constraints and technology is always on hand to enhance productivity and involve participants who can be there in person.

Embedding. Knowledge management is fully embedded in people management and development, influencing recruitment and selection. Knowledge-sharing behaviours are built-into induction programmes and are evident in corporate values and individual competencies.  Knowledge transfer is part of the strategic agenda for HR. The risks of knowledge loss are addressed proactively. Knowledge salvage efforts during hurried exit interviews are a thing of the past!

Now your top ten will probably be different to mine (although you’re very welcome to borrow and adapt them).
This kind of approach encourages us to look well beyond the technology which often disproportionately demands our attention.

Taken from the Consulting Collison Column in an upcoming edition of Inside Knowledge

I’m often asked to explain what a “River Diagram” is, and how they can be used to shape knowledge management strategy, and as a way to help communities share and learn.  Geoff Parcell and I wrote a couple of chapters in “No More Consultants”, but some how it’s one of those topics always has me grabbing a sheet of paper, a whiteboard or a napkin to work through the steps in a more visual way.
I’m sure that the guys at Commoncraft will do a great job on it one day…

So for now, in the spirit of vlogging, and with thanks to Geoff for the use of his green screen, here’s a quick YouTube tutorial on “How to Create a River Diagram”.

I often tell this story (complete with the parrot and gold doubloons!) when engaging leaders in thinking about practical steps thay can take to demonstrate their commitment to learning from others.

To summarise – and for those of you for whom YouTube is still a corporate no-go area:

A business unit leader in Amoco recognized that insular “not-invented-here” behaviour was limiting the potential of his business, which existed within a group of around 100 business units in the newly-merged BP Amoco. He wanted to create a culture of curiosity, encouraging his staff to look beyond the boundaries of their own business unit. He decided to create a simple monthly recognition scheme, under the banner of “steal with pride”.
The award was given to a member of staff who could demonstrate that they had found a good practice from a different business unit, applied it, and created value. Each story would be celebrated on the intranet, and the winner received an award in the form of a cuddly parrot, which would sit on the desk of the winner for a month (prompting questions from passers-by), before moving onto the next winner, and leaving in its place, a solid gold “pirate” doubloon worth several hundred dollars – which was theirs to keep.

I think that the parrot worked particularly well as a recognition scheme because it was visible, lighthearted, symbolic (“steal with pride” – giving permission to look outside), frequently awarded, and both clearly supported – and initiated –  by that business unit leader.

Ironically, the “steal with pride” award scheme wasn’t replicated by the leaders of the other 99  business units. Perhaps they had their own personal struggles with “not invented here”….

Image by Nelson Pavlosky Urinals.  Do you spend much time looking at them?

This is just a guess, but for half of you, I’m assuming that the answer is “no”.  The other half of you are wondering where I’m going with this line of enquiry.

 If you have had the pleasure of using the urinals at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, you will have noticed that each one is embellished with a lifelike image of a fly, under the glaze – just near the drain.  Initially I dismissed this as merely an example of quirky humour from a Dutch sanitary-ware manufacturer, but I was too hasty. Apparently, since incorporating the fly into their urinals, airports and other public places have noticed a decrease in the amount of cleaning required. Some of these have improved to the extent that they have saved money by reducing the number of cleaning shifts.    If you haven’t figured out the link between the fly and the cost reduction, ask any small boy!

All of this got me thinking about how on-target we are in the way we exchange knowledge, good practices, worst practices and stories.  Despite our best efforts, do people sometimes miss the mark when it comes to knowledge exchange? 

As knowledge professionals, we work hard to use processes and social technologies to bring people together collaboratively.  On some precious occasions, we get to design and facilitate face-to-face knowledge-sharing events.  Occasionally, we even get to work on leadership behaviours and organisational design. 

In all of these worthy activities, we sometimes forget that knowledge management can also help groups of people to agree upon and describe their practices – and hence connect and share more efficiently because they have negotiated a common language.

Here’s an illustration.  In KM circles, we have talked for years about the value of nurturing communities of practice, and rightly so.  However, if we were to turn our “Community of Practice toolkits” out onto the table, the majority of our tools play into the notion of Community: role descriptions and training programmes for leaders and facilitators, templates for community charters, designs for launch events, no end of technology options for social collaboration and document management.

But what about the Practice bit?  Do we have anything in our toolkits to offer groups of professionals who want to agree upon “what’s important” and describe “what good looks like”?  Yes, we can provide wikis where people can discuss and build glossaries, definitions and reference material, but that’s a platform, rather than a process.

I’m advocating that as Knowledge Management professionals, we should be able to offer any group a simple process for describing their practices qualitatively, thereby enhancing their knowledge-sharing.   That could involve the creation of a self-assessment tool (maturity model) – or perhaps a knowledge asset which helps others to navigate through a distillation of past learning, current good practice, examples and key contacts. 

That’s more than installing a wiki, a Drupal community or a set of SharePoint libraries.  It requires  us to roll up our sleeves and engage with the subject  experts and practitioners.  It involves us in helping them to agree and describe their practice in an accessible way.  By helping them to produce a common model of the practices which make up their functional area, they will be able to target their knowledge-sharing far more precisely, and hence get more value from KM tools and techniques.

Or to put it another way – if our knowledge workers have something more clearly defined to aim at, then we’ll have to spend less time clearing up after them.

 First Published in the October Edition of Inside Knowledge

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