Flow


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 spent yesteday at Henley Management College in a research workshop facilitated by Richard McDermott.  We were exploring a number of research topics relating to the development, transfer and retention of expertise.  We tabled a number of topics, including mentoring,  aging workforce, knowledge harvesting and salvage, lifelong learning and communities…  we’re going to have to focus!

Then I came across this recent post on Connectivism from Helen Nicol, who has talent for spotting good stuff in this arena. 

Helen’s thesis is that “any community of of practice must have a mix of novices, experts and all those in between, which in itself has implications for the moderation or management of communities to gain the best result for organisations.”

…which is consistent with Wenger’s definition:

“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.”

I wonder, though whether there are some limiting thresholds which illustrate Helen’s idea – a community with large gaps in the continuum of expertise can generate frustration, elitism, “dumb questions and smart flaming”; whilst a communtiy with access to a great diversity of expertise can remain untapped if not well facilitated.

With apologies to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, here’s an attempt to illustrate this…

Flow and connectivism in communities