Communties of Practice


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…

Image

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.

I came across this post via the Knowledge Flow (thank you Susan Frost!), and was struck by the idea, and its parallels in the world of networks and communities of practice.

It’s the “Little Free Library”.

littlefreelibrary01

Little Free Library is a creative idea, thought up by Todd Bol and Rick Brooks, that aims to promote literacy and bring communities together by putting up mini libraries in neighborhoods around the world. Started in 2009, it’s a nonprofit that seeks to place these small, accessible book exchange boxes right in front of a house or on a street corner. (Take a book, return a book.)  What makes the idea so special?

Their website states: “Little Free Libraries have a unique, personal touch and there is an understanding that real people are sharing their favorite books with their community. These aren’t just any old books, this is a carefully curated collection and the Library itself is a piece of neighborhood art!

It’s great to see the principles and practices  of reciprocity, trust, curation, individuality, creativity, altruism, generosity, adaptation and growth all working together, building a sense of community.

What if you were to ask each member of your community of practice to curate a small library of their favourite resources, links, documents, sources and experts – to make that visible (virtually) and then to borrow connections from each other?

If you get the same result as Todd Bol and Rick Brooks, then it’s just what a successful community thrives on:

“It’s started a neighborhood exchange. It gets people talking and more comfortable with their neighbors,” he said. “This leads to them helping each other.”

That sounds like  a pretty effective knowledge management tool to me.

freelibrary

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!

I’ve been reflecting on the dangers of “staying with the herd” when it comes to knowledge sharing.  It’s easy for our organisations to reinforce this mentality, and lead to people feeling exposed as “tall poppies” is they step out and share a good practice – or professionally incompetent if they are seen to be asking for help.  I think this leads people to cluster in the middle ground of mediocrity, or to put it more kindly, a place where good is the enemy of great.

This leads me to the words of AA Milne, in his poem, “Halfway down the stairs”.

Halfway down the stairs
is a stair
where I sit.
there isn’t any
other stair
quite like
it.
I’m not at the bottom,
I’m not at the top;
so this is the stair
where
I always
stop.

Halfway up the stairs
Isn’t up
And it isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head.
It isn’t really
Anywhere!
It’s somewhere else
Instead!

There’s a charming version sung by Robin the Frog from the Muppet’s Show on YouTube, which takes me back to my childhood!  (I’ll post it at the end as a treat for you)

The River Diagram is has now become a fairly well established tool, combining the principles of positive deviance with knowledge sharing.  However, less people are familiar with its companion tool, the Stairs Diagram.

The Stairs diagram shows levels of capability (often derived from a common self-assessment tool or maturity model) plotted against the size of the improvement goal.  The example below (fictitious) shows the results of a number of healthcare-related networks who have all used a common self-assessment tool to discuss and agree their levels of networking capability against a number of practices.  They have also identified a number of targets for improvement.
One of the practices in the self-assessment was “Network Leadership & Facilitation”.  This is the Stairs Diagram for that practice.

Stairs Diagram

  • The Diabetes Network is at level 5, and clearly has something to share.
  • The Quality Improvement Fellows network is at level 1, but has a desire to improve by two levels.
  • The Cardio-community is at level 2, and hasn’t chosen this practice as a priority for improvement.
  • There is a cluster of networks at level 3 with no aspiration to improve, including the Health Informatics network.
  • Finally, the TB Network is at level 3, but still seeking to improve by two level.

The power of the stairs diagram is that it maps out the potential connections of highest value – connecting those who have something to share with those who have something to learn.  This is shown in the green and red areas respectively.

Having a common measure (in this case, a self-assessment tool) enabled this group of networks to identify not only the positive deviants, but also the networks with the greatest aspiration to improve.  For each “staircase”, the group can be coached to use an appropriate knowledge management tool to help those in the nursery to improve, and those in the town to share. That might be a Peer Assist, offers and requests, a knowledge cafe, knowledge fair, storytelling approach, or the capture and sharing of a distinctive or excellent practice.

So with the right motivation, the right leadership and the right methods, you can help people avoid the stair where they always stop.

(more…)

Have you heard the story of Billy Ray Harris?  It’s a heart-warming one.

Credit: KCTV5Billy Ray is a homeless Kansas man who received an unexpected donation when passer-by Sarah Darling accidentally put her engagement ring into his collecting cup.  Despite being offered $4000 for the ring by a jeweller, he kept the ring, and returned it to her when, panic-stricken, she came back the following day.  Sarah gave him all the cash she had in her purse as a reward, and as they told their good-luck story to friends – who then told their friends –  her finance decided to put up a website to collect donations for Billy Ray.  So far, $151,000 have been donated as the story has gone viral around the world.  Billy Ray plans to use the money to move to Houston to be near his family.  You can see the whole story here.

On closer inspection, it turns out that this wasn’t the first ring that Billy had returned to its owner.  A few years previously, he found a  Super Bowl ring belonging to a football player and walked to the his hotel to return it.  The football player rewarded him financially, and gave him three nights at that luxury hotel.   So the pattern was already established for Billy Ray, who also attributes it to his upbringing as the grandson of a reverend.

Whether you see this story as an illustration of grace, karma or good-old-fashioned human nature,  it illustrates the principle of reciprocity.  

Reciprocity is an important principle for knowledge management, and one which underpins the idea of Offers and Requests. 
Offers and Requests was a simple approach, introduced to make it easier for Operations Engineers at BP to ask for help, and to share good practice with their peers.  The idea was for each business unit to self-assess their level of operational excellence using a maturity model, and identify their relative strengths and weaknesses.   In order to overcome barriers like “tall poppy syndrome”, or a reluctance to ask for help (“real men don’t ask directions”), a process was  put in place whereby every business unit would be asked to offer three areas which they felt proud of, and three areas which they wanted help with.  The resulting marketplace for matching offers and requests was successful because:

i) The principle of offering a strength at the same time as requesting help  was non-threatening and reciprocal – it was implicitly fair.

ii) The fact that every business unit was making their offers and requests at the same time meant that it felt like a balanced and safe process.

 

Like Billy Ray, one positive experience of giving and receiving led to another, and ultimately to a Operations community.  A community website for offers and requests underpinned the process, enabling social connections and discussions.

This is played out in the Kansas story, where the addition of technology and social connections created disproportionate value – currently $151,000 of it. 

In the words of Billy Ray, “What is the world coming to when a person returns something that doesn’t belong to him and all this happens?”

36brokenHeartNecklaceBack in the ’80s, the oil company Shell ran a promotional campaign from their petrol (gas) stations in the UK which would never work today.  With every petrol purchase, you were given a scratch-card, which would reveal the left or right half of a banknote, with a value of up to £5000.  The half-note had no value in itself  – but if you could discover both halves of the banknote, then you would receive the cash.  As a child, I can remember it made those boring garage stops much more exciting!

Shell’s promotion relied on a good geographic separation of left and right halves of the high value banknotes. It worked well… until someone had the bright idea of asking for the missing half-notes on national radio (we’re pre-internet here folks!), at which point I think Shell cried “foul” and cancelled the promotion.

I’ve been working on a KM/OL strategy for a company with a large number of major construction projects.  I had the privilege of interviewing a very perceptive senior manager who was reflecting for the first time on the challenges of managing knowledge in a project  team environment.
She made an interesting observation about the power of stories as a source of shared knowledge, and the true cost of breaking up project teams to reallocate resources to new tasks.

It’s easy to assume that when a team dissolves, each of the members  take the knowledge, lessons and stories with them. Completely.  Within this assumption, every team member is a  repository and can be managed and reallocated as a lossless, portable knowledge transfer approach, plugged into the next project just like a lego brick.

This manager’s insight was that many of the stories don’t reside wholly with an individual – they only surface when two former team members come together and spark each other’s memories to release the value – just like our £5000 Shell scratchcard halves.  Without the other half, the knowledge value of that shared story is volatile, and at risk of dispersing into the ether.

Image
In this world there is a real loss of knowledge when a team is disbanded and reallocated – it’s not all carried by the individuals. The sum of the separated parts is now less than the sum of the parts when they were together.

As I write this, it seems obvious, but I have a feeling that our approaches to managing and sharing experience and expertise – and even our interpretation and use of network analysis – is often built on the assumption that we can make and break bonds and still retain all the knowledge in the nodes.

I think it’s a lot messier than that – as Joe Cocker and the Beatles both sang – we only get by with a little help from our friends.

I grew up in Devon, (south west England), surrounded by fields and sheep. A beautiful area, but sadly too remote to be a practical base for a much-traveled management consultant!

One of the things about sheep is that you can see where they’ve been on the hillsides.  Their propensity for following each other leads to paths being worn away over the generations of sheep – becoming, quite literally, the path of least resistance.

by xoque on Flickr, used with thanks.

We can identify similar patterns in our organisations.  We can discover who the go-to people are, and we can reveal how they interact with their colleagues, how technical advice flows, how requests for help are requited and where ideas are incubated.  That’s basis of organisational network analysis, which can be an excellent tool for determining the focus of a KM strategy or Community of Practice plan.

Of course, if you’re a sheep, and your landscape is unchanging, then a well-worn path is a good thing.

In most cases though, parts of our business landscape are changing.  Yesterday’s hill is tomorrow’s valley. However, it’s easy for sheep-like behaviour to persist, because the tracks are entrenched.

Contrast the behaviour of sheep with the waggle dance of the honey bee.   There’s an excellent 7-minute documentary about this on YouTube, but here’s a quick summary:

When a bee identifies a source of pollen, it returns to the hive and performs a ‘dance’ in the presence of the other bees.  The dance follows a figure-of-eight pattern and includes a pronounced waggle.  The direction of the waggle relates to the location of the pollen source – a precise angle in relation to the sun (even when cloudy) in relation to the hive; the duration of the waggle indicates the distance to the source.  It’s an amazing piece of design, and the documentary explains it very well.

In contrast to the sheep, the sources of pollen are short-lived – perhaps just a few days, for a few hours of the day.
This action of discovery-broadcast-sign posting reminds me of the way in which organisations are using micro-broadcast tools like Yammer.  I was privileged to get some insights into the way Deloitte (UK) are using it recently, and was impressed by the buzz(!) of discovery and sharing which it had generated.

So reflecting on the sheep and the bees,  I’m left with a belief that:

i) we need to understand the sheep paths on our organisations.  They may be positive and worthy of reinforcement, or they may be historical patterns of a “ghost” organisation, rather than a current picture of where the optimum knowledge flows should be.

ii) we also need to encourage the bee-haviour (sorry!) and enjoy the discovery of resources  – and subsequently the discovery of shared interests, expertise, passions and ultimately informal networks.

So perhaps the ultimate knowledge-sharing dish is roast lamb glazed in honey?

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