Communties of Practice


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It shouldn’t surprise me after all this time, but it does.

I’ve conducted around 30 interviews in two different organisations in the last couple of months, as part of some KM strategy work.  The answers to the question: “what does knowledge management mean to you?” are often so varied, and usually include just one or two components or approaches . People have such different perspectives on what knowledge management is – and it’s rare for anyone to connect the different components together in any kind of holistic framework. “It’s about how we  get the right knowledge to the right person at the right time.  Oh and it’s to do with networks and conversations too.”

To be fair, knowledge management has been poorly defined and communicated in the external world, so it’s little wonder that people in organisations often approach it like the blind men and the elephant – each sensing a part, but not the whole, and drawing their own conclusions.

Here’s a holistic model for knowledge management. It isn’t new (it’s based on the model from BP in Learning to Fly)- but it’s still relevant and current today and does a good job of plotting a route through the KM landscape. Let me build it up for you.

Start with the day-to-day matter of performance management and project management, where people and teams agree to goals and targets in order to deliver value which generally takes the form of profits for shareholders – or value for stakeholders.

How do they do this? By using and developing knowledge – their own expertise, knowledge from the team, elsewhere in the organisation, from professional advisors or others outside the organisation.

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It’s a given that KM needs to connect directly to the goals and objectives of the organisation. So how does knowledge management improve, or accelerate the way in which they are achieved?

Firstly, through the application of learning.  Learning before, during and after activities.
Without learning, we end up recycling old knowledge and documents – trapped between “connect and collect”, but not creating anything new.

  • Learning before: how do we know that we’ve tapped into what the organisation already knows, and can we make sense of what it is knowing today?
  • Learning after: how good are we at really learning and applying lessons from stories of personal experience?
  • Learning during: do we have a culture of continuous learning, reviewing and improving?

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With processes for learning before and after in place, it’s important to manage the outputs of those processes – and to continue to refine, collate and curate a living, evolving, media-rich “knowledge bank”, from which withdrawals and deposits can be made.

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…but of course, the capture knowledge is just a shadow of the knowledge which will always remain in the heads of individual experts, and within networks of people with questions, answers, experience and ideas. The reserves in this human knowledge bank are far greater.
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These networks and experts play a vital role in collating and curating knowledge on behalf of the organisation.  They have the current awareness and they understand the most pressing business issues. Who better to steward the knowledge than an emergent community of subject matter experts and practitioners?

Slide5So now we’ve connected performance and project management with learning, learning with codification, and codification with networks, experience and expertise.  The final part of the model recognises the role that culture and leadership behaviours and actions play to sustain an environment where these processes can thrive and interconnect.

What motivates people to make the time to learn, connect and collate knowledge such that the value and efficiencies have a chance to flow through and create the stories to inspire others?  How can leaders reinforce and role-model this?

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It can take a little time to give birth to this kind of a supportive culture – but then again, elephants to have the longest gestation period of any mammal, so we shouldn’t be surprised.

I’m always embarrassed by my inability to speak another language, having never really progressed beyond my schoolboy French and Spanish. I’m frequently humbled by clients and friends around the world whose command of English and desire to learn more puts me to shame. I guess it’s one of the disadvantages of being a native speaker of the world’s accepted business language; it has led to linguistic laziness.

When we think about the field of knowledge and knowledge management, the English language has particular limitations. The verb “to know” has to be stretched in a number of directions, and masks some important distinctions that other languages make.

Whilst the English know things, know facts, know people, know what just happened and know their onions – our neighbours in France and Spain separate knowing into two areas:

Connaitre/Conocer: These are used ot express knowledge about something or someone where we have some experience with the thing (or person). You can know, or be acquainted with, a book, a movie, a place, or a person.

Savoir/Saber: These are used to talk about learned skills. You can know how to swim, draw, speak a language, etc. It is also used to ask about knowing about something, or knowing something by memory.

Think about it for a moment – who would you rather get travel advice from: someone who knows about Madrid, or someone who is acquainted with Madrid?

The conversations would be so different wouldn’t they? One is more transactional – almost a Google search. The other feels more like it would be a dialogue – a relational conversation.

It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s a powerful one and one which needs to be embedded in our approach to managing knowledge holistically. We need to address conocer and caber, and find ways to bring them together.

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Interestingly, in my research for this post, I discovered that in Spanish, there are cases where conocer and saber are used interchangeably:

When you are expressing the fact of having knowledge or ideas about a subject or science, either saber or conocer is acceptable. It is also acceptable to use either saber or conocer to express the finding out of new information or news

Where is the best place to bring together knowledge, ideas, new information and news about a subject? Well, a community of practice or a network seems like a good place to start.
If this sounds familiar, and you’re a reader of “Learning to Fly” with a good memory, then it should do!

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So I guess we knew about this all along – we just weren’t fully acquainted with it.

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?

I’ve been looking back on the highlights of the past year, and previous years, and it’s got me reflecting on the power of making KM engaging, fun and tangible in some way.

Back in 2010, I wrote about KM Top Trumps, and how I used them with a group of business improvement professionals to help them get to grips with the breadth of KM tools and techniques available.  I still use these today with groups.

Two happy memories from the past year:

Social Network Mapping with the UN in Ethiopia. 

For several years now I have worked with the United Nations System Staff College on a KM leadership programme.  This year saw me out in Ethiopia working with representatives from across the continent.  Communities, Networks and Networking featured heavily in one particular module, and having contrasted the sharing and networking habits of birds, bees and sheep, we engaged in a practical Network Analysis exercise which brought the room to its feet, and put smile on every face.

Each participant was given 5 coloured ribbons and asked to give one end to another colleague – the different colours indicated different relationships:  for example: – Who have you known the longest?  Who would you ask for technical advice? Who would you share an innovative idea with first?

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Energy levels rose instantly, accompanied by smiles and laughter.

Once each ribbon had been shared, the group carefully lowered them to the floor and stepped out of the web, replacing themselves with their placenames from the tables.

As a group, we could then stand around the pattern and discuss what it told us about the relationships, collaboration and knowledge flow.

Snakes and Leaders – a creative way to explore the first 100 days of a community of practice.

Syngenta have been a client for a number of years now, and have been looking for new ways to up-skill the core teams of their networks, especially in the early stages of growth.

We worked together to document the ups and downs of network development during the first critical 100 days, and created a familiar-yet-different board game which embedded these critical moments, with one or two additional twists and turns. Creating the game together, and tailoring the rules for different parts of the business caused us to think critically about the non-negotiables and key principles of networks; probably one of the most enjoyable codification exercises I’ve been involved with. Thank you Syngenta!

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I’m looking forward to hearing how the game has gone down (or up!) this year.

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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I’m a big fan of organizational network analysis.  I think it’s one of knowledge management’s unsung heroes.
I don’t know of any other KM or OD tools which can be as informative, revealing and engaging for clients, from a small amount of research input.
I’m in the middle of an assignment now with a business who are looking at how one of their business functions really works when it comes to understanding how expertise is distributed, how technical advice is requested and how it flows, and how new ideas surface and are nurtured.  This particular  client is an agri-chemicals business, and has led to some interesting discussions as we have worked together to understand clusters of connections and outliers.  One of the more humourous moments for me was when one of the members of the team loudly exclaimed “look at that isolated cluster over there – they must be the vegetables!”   Needless to say, he was referring to people in the vegetable-related business stream…

Coincidentally, later that day my daughter, who is a big fan of food science, showed me a fascinating Ahn Yong-Yeol article from nature.com which used network analysis to illustrate the connections between different ingredients used across thousands of recipes, based on their chemical similarities.  “This looks like those pictures you create, Dad” she said to me.

Isn’t this cool? (Click to enlarge)

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A more interactive infographic based on this data is provided in Scientific American here (snapshot below). The data is sorted to show the foods who share the most chemical compounds with others towards the top. Roast beef proves to be the food that does this the most, with strong chemical overlaps with coffee, soya-bean, peanut, beer, wheat bread and butter. In a way, it’s the grand-daddy of flavour.   So next time you go into a pub, have some peanuts with your beer, some bread to start, with a tasty steak followed by a coffee – then chemically speaking, you’ve had a whole less flavour variety than you might think!

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The social-food-analysis research gets more interesting when they look at the data through a regional lens.  It turns out that the North American palate prefers foods with strong flavour overlaps (steak with a coffee rub anyone?), whereas the East Asian palate prefers food with lower overlaps (mmmm, prawns with lemon…)

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So where am I going with this?

Well, I see parallels with assumptions we make when we bring people together to share knowledge. Whether formally through structured networks and  communities, or informally as people cluster around content, discussion and other attractors – my suspicion is that by default, we tend to align and gather with people with similar experience rather than different experience.  In the metaphorical world of food chemistry, that means our knowledge-sharing is built on the assumption of a North American palate, rather than an East Asian one.

This is why a well-planned peer assist will include sufficient diversity to avoid group-think, and why the design of communities of practice should thoroughly explore their purpose before they start recruiting members.  A community focused on continuous improvement and giving and receiving technical help will benefit from being built from members with the same field of expertise – their shared practice.

I often use this simple model when helping organizations characterise their networks:

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Communities often move along the axis at the bottom, shifting their mode from ad-hoc help and continuous improvement, to phases when the group is engaged in delivering something together (a policy, a white-paper, a set of recommendations, a good practice guide). This requires a temporary shift in leadership style, from social facilitation towards project management, but the membership is broadly unchanged.
If the purpose of the community is re-defined as innovation or the generation of ideas, then you will probably want to extend the ingredients of the group to include people with a greater range of experience and different perspectives.

So if we see ourselves as trusted organisational chefs (I quite like that analogy), then there are times when we need to satisfy the established tastes of our customers, and there will times when we need to educate their palates with new fusion dishes too.

Steve Ballmer waves goodbye

So Steve Ballmer leaves Microsoft within the next year, and his epitaphs are already being cooked-up by many commentators.

Most are lukewarm at best.

I had the privilege to share a platform with Steve at a conference in the late 90’s. He was presenting Microsoft’s collaboration technologies at a groupware (remember that term?) event.

Unfortunately, whoever prepared the laptop for their CEO’s presentation forgot to plug in the power supply.  10 minutes from the end of the presentation, there was an awkward moment when the “5% power remaining” message rudely appeared on the screen and a frantic Microsoft employee materialised  at the foot of the podium asking to plug in the cable.   He was waved  dismissively away by Steve, who declared to the audience that it would be a good test of the battery life.   The audience stopped paying attention to the content of the presentation, and started wondering with increasingly bated breath whether the battery would make it to the end.

Happily, it lasted the distance.

I’m not so sure what happened to that Microsoft employee though.

Steve kindly provided a written endorsement for “Learning to Fly” which, at the time, was a bit of a coup for Geoff and me.  However,  reading the more recent articles about the culture of competition in Microsoft, I’m wondering whether he made it as far as the chapter on creating the right cultural environment for knowledge-sharing.

This week, the  Washington Post  carries an interesting article describing how Microsoft’s stack-ranking damaged collaboration:

while forced rankings can boost employee performance immediately after the system is introduced, the gains fall over time, with people more focused on competing with each other than collaborating.

Slate.com revisited the fable of the two men running away from a bear.  One stops to put on running shoes; the other says, don’t be crazy – you can’t run faster than a bear.  He retorts, I don’t need to – I just need to run faster than you.

So while Google was encouraging its employees to spend 20 percent of their time developing ideas that excited them personally, Ballmer was inadvertently encouraging his to spend a good chunk of their time playing office politics. Why try to outrun the bear when you can just tie your co-workers’ shoelaces?

There were even cases of the most able engineers not wanting to be placed on projects with other high-calibre staff because they knew that they would be force-ranked against them at the year end.

Google’s “grouplets” aren’t the only knowledge-sharing contrast to Microsoft.  BP’s T-shaped Management approach (80% of your time should be spent on your objectives, 20% collaborating and sharing to support someone else’s objectives) was well documented in a much-read HBR article “T-Shaped Managers, Knowledge Management’s Next Generation.”

My favourite current example is Schlumberger’s approach to professional development which requires technical  staff pursuing recognition as principals or fellows (the two highest positions on the technical career ladder) to have led a community of practice, to which they are democratically elected by members of that community.  As a result, knowledge-sharing and collaborative behaviours directly influence technical promotion.  You can’t be individually brilliant and make it to the top – you have to also be socially and behaviourally mature.

All of this feels like a thousand miles from forced ranking bell curves, and it reminds me of the importance of KM partnering with and influencing HR and Talent Management – something which is still relatively unusual.

Let’s hope that Steve Ballmer’s successor sees the connection between performance management and knowledge management, and executes a stack (ranking) dump!

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