Knowledge retention


See if you can find the connection between these three things: a news item, a book and a song.

1) There was an interesting article in the news this week, regarding a radical proposal to change the way international football matches (soccer – stay with me, my American friends…) are handled in the event of a level score after all the time has been played.

penaltyThe traditional sequence of events is that after 90 minutes of normal time, and 30 minutes of extra time, a penalty shootout ensues – and sooner or later, one or more unfortunate players commit the heinous, unforgettable crime of missing a penalty – and endures a lifetime of shame from unforgiving fans. It’s a tough, but dramatic way to end a game – or a career as a popular footballer. Most fans would much prefer a legitimate win in the conventional way.

The radical idea (proposed by UEFA, which represents European football associations) was to hold a penalty shootout at the start of every international game, just in case it ends in a draw. That way everyone gets to enjoy the drama of the event without creating instant villains – and the game which follows has an extra degree of urgency. When you think about it, it’s actually quite a good idea – bringing forward what you occasionally do at the end of the game, so that everyone gets the benefit.

tom sawyer
2) In the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer becomes fascinated with the idea of attending his own funeral – and, by faking own death, he gets to do exactly that, and upon hearing his own obituary and seeing the grieving Aunt Polly he comes to realise how much he was loved, and is filled with remorse.At least for a little while until his next adventure.

joni_mitchel_byt_cd
3) Joni Mitchel’s “Big Yellow Taxi” – and in particular the famous line from the chorus:
“Don’t it always seem to be, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…”

 

 

Can you see the connection?

 

Now, more importantly can you see the connection to our world of Knowledge Management?

 

Here it is:  Harvesting knowledge from someone leaving the organisation, just before they go.

 

Why do we leave it until too late to start paying attention to the know-how and know-who bound up in our most valued employees? How many leaving parties have you been to where you leave saying “I never knew that about Bob, and I’ve worked with him for 20 years!”

Wouldn’t it be cool to work in a organisation where you got to “fake your own retirement” after 5 years. You get to hear how your colleagues valued and appreciated you, they get to discover so much more about your background and experience, and it all happens in time to have a positive impact on the ‘game’ which is the rest of your career in that organisation.

The good news is that we can do this more and more as our digital histories in organisations become longer and more readily accessible. All those contributions to discussions and conversations can be mined through my Yammer or Twitter profiles. My contributions to Wikis are marked by my electronic fingerprints. My blog entries reveal my personal thoughts and ideas in an ever-evolving memoir. My profile (internal and public) provides me with space to declare my interests, passions and past.
Add to this some of the processes carried out in more progressive, networked organisations, where I’m connected to buddies and mentors and I’m deliberately introduced into networks and communities as part of my induction.  Perhaps after a few years I get invited to do a “hot seat” exercise within a community, whereby members of the community can ask me questions over a 24 hour period.

If we were able to piece together all of these knowledge touchpoints from my career, then last-minute salvage exercises like “knowledge harvesting” would no longer necessary.

Now that would be a game-changer.

 

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apple-watch

Like hundreds of millions of others, I enthusiastically  tuned in to watch the Apple Launch event yesterday.

And like hundreds of millions of others, I was frustrated by a the spectacular failure of the live-streaming of the event, which stuttered, error-messaged restarted, over-dubbed Chinese real-time translation, and regularly reverted to a bizarre test-card of a Truck Schedule.

Very un-Apple-like. Very embarrassing.

Needless to say, Twitter was in uproar baying for retribution; this tweet summarising the mood.

applefail

When things go publicly wrong, this is so often the reaction.  We look for the fall-guy and take ‘decisive action’.

Does this change anything?  Does it reduce the risk that the source of the failure will repeat it in the future?  I don’t believe so.
Somewhere out there, there are one or more totally committed Apple employees who have experienced the most agonizing, unforgettable public professional moment of shame.  They probably worked through the night for weeks in advance to make this a success – and somewhere, someone screwed up, in front of one of the largest audiences in the world.  Does anyone really think they would want to re-live that experience? Does anyone  think that they  – more than anyone else – will want to know who, when and why this failure happened?

So why would any sane organisation want heads to roll after such a one-off failure?

Because the trouble is, when heads roll, knowledge and experience rolls too.

All this reminds me of an apocryphal story from IBM – one which I often use to illustrate true cost of failure – failing to learn from it.

A sales executive was working on a big deal for IBM – around $10m of potential value. Somewhere along the way, they screwed up and lost the deal to a competitor. That was a big deal.

The salesperson was summoned to Lou Gertsner [or perhaps his predecessor CEO, John Akers?] to explain himself.  After hearing the  explanation, Gerstner asked the salesperson, “What do you think I should do?”.

“Well, I guess you’re going to fire me.” came the faltering response.

“Fire you?  Why would I fire you when I’ve just invested ten million dollars in your education?” retorted Gerstner.

Now that’s knowledge leadership in action.

I hope that today, intelligence triumphs over indignation  at  1, Infinite Loop, Cupertino, and Apple are smart enough to do the same.

 

Minecraft is a phenomenon.  It has around 40 million paying players worldwide, and probably tens of millions more when you count those using free or pirated versions of the game. Merchandise bearing its logos – hoodies, wallets, necklaces – can be found wherever computer game spin-offs are sold. Its Swedish creator, Markus ‘Notch’ Persson, is rapidly becoming the kind of celebrity who needs a bodyguard for public events.

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If you’re not one of the 40 million enthusiasts, Minecraft is a popular online “survival” or “sandbox” game that puts players in a randomly-generated world where theycan create their own structures and contraptions – It’s often compared to a kind of infinite virtual Lego set, which can be played in creative mode, alone or socially, or in  survival mode, where the players have to defend themselves against attacks from various creatures.

Gaming website G4 describes it in an interesting way, which caught my eye.

“In a way, Minecraft is the exact opposite of most games out there. The focus is on exploration, not accomplishment. You can dig all day and find some gold, but the game isn’t going to reward you with anything but some gold. The presentation is secondary to the gameplay itself — your imagination fills in the blanks as opposed to an army of highly paid texture artists.  Minecraft doesn’t lead you through the same experience every other gamer has.  What you get is yours alone.”

Hold that thought, whilst we swap the world of Minecraft for the world of knowledge management.

I’m just finishing an assignment working with one of the largest construction programmes in the UK, advising and helping them with their approach to knowledge and learning.   It’s one of those times when there is no  immediate “customer” for the knowledge – to there is nobody to request a peer assist, hear a set of stories or receive a baton.  In this case, it’s collect rather than connect.

Here are the steps we’re taking together.

  • We designed some good open questions and a relaxed interviewing approach to elicit stories, examples, the basis for decisions, rules of thumb, documents, references and further contacts.
  • The interviews were framed a chance to send a “message to the future”, which helped gave a forward momentum and practical edge to the advice and examples.
  • Each interview was recorded and fully transcribed.
  • The interviewees concluded each session by providing a short video of their message to the future and top recommendations.  The most effective ones explained their points on a flipchart whilst on camera.

That gives us a significant resource of half-a million words, hundreds of recommendations, stories and examples, documents and connections to individuals.

The trick now is to avoid the temptation to weave everything together into a single version of the truth, complete with ten commandment top tips and a clearly defined path which leads the learner.  Instead, we need to take a leaf (block?) out of Minecraft’s book  and create a resource for which the focus is on exploration.

That will be the best way to serve a future team with as yet unknown knowledge needs – to help them find some gold.

Golditm

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This is of my favourite exhibits at the Tate Modern Gallery in London, sculpted (if that’s the right word) by Giuseppe Penone. Here’s a summary from the description:

Out of processed planks of timber the ancient technique of carving draws out the shape of a tree, wood removed ring by ring until twelve metres of tree – bottom to top and top to bottom – is exposed within two sawn pieces of wood, initially intended for construction.
Sculpture is engaged in a reconstruction through deconstruction, a turning back of the clock, pulling back to reveal the raw within the contained.

I love this work because it speaks to me of the stories which lie within. It says that with careful skill, the layers of what looks on the surface to be an unremarkable object can be peeled away to reveal years of history, detail and in this case beauty.  In the case of the tree on the left– it revealed truth that the world was actually the other way up!

If you’re anything like me, there will have been times when you have looked through the write-up of a post-project review, or lessons learned summary, and wanted to ask questions of the document in your hand, or on your screen.   And when we try to ask a document a question, it will always be a one-sided conversation!

Asking the right questions is the core activity for anyone facilitating a learning review.

Naturally it’s better to learn whilst doing, rather than try to get a team to remember at the end of a significant project (and not post-rationalise events!) – but all too often you are confronted with a “learning after doing” scenario.  So how do you make the best of that situation? So what types of questions should we consider?  Here are 20+ questions and some techniques which I find helpful.

Questions to establish the facts and re-set the context.

  • Can anyone talk me through the original plan and objectives of the project?
  • Did these change over time?  (When, How, Why?)
  • Who was responsible for this task, and did this responsibility change? (Why, How, Who?)
  • How well did the project achieve its aims?
  • What were the areas of deviation from the plan, and what were the reasons?

Questions to surface the notable high and low spots.

  • Think back over each phase of the project: What did the team do well during this time?
  • What was the most professionally satisfying part of the project for you?
  • What should have gone better?
  • What were the most frustrating parts of the project?
  • Were there any early warning signs which we should have spotted? What should we look out for in future?
  • If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about the project, what would you change?
  • If you had to give a mark out of 10 for the project outcome/output – what would that be? What would make that a 10?
  • If you had to give a mark out of 10 for the project process – what would that be? What would make that a 10?
  • How many marks of 10 would your customers/contractors give it?
  • Consider the Emotional Rollercoaster as a technique.
  • Michael Greer’s PM Resources article has a number of more specific questions for design and implementation phases.

Questions to dig deeper

  • Why?  The 5-why’s technique is a very powerful way of peeling away the layers and getting closer to the root, but try not to be too mechanical about it! There’s more than one way to ask “why” to make it sound less like an inquisition –  for example:
    •  “What makes you say that?”,
    • “What led you to that decision?”,
    • “Why do you think that might be?”,
    • “Was there a reason for that?”…
  • Can you give me an example of that?
  • Can you share a story which illustrates this? (Capture these on video/audio if possible.)

Questions to construct advice, recommendations or principles for the next team.

  • What would you say to a colleague about to start the same kind of project, to help them repeat your success?
  • Imagine you were having a drink with a close friend, and they mentioned that they were about to take a similar approach to the one you took – what advice would you give them to help them avoid the pitfalls you encountered?  Specifically, what should they do or not do?
  • If you could go back in time to the start of this project and shout something in your ear, what three pieces of advice would you give yourself

Questions for de-risking discussions about failure. (Works best with multiple projects represented.)

  • Imagine for a minute you were writing a guide on how to screw up projects of this type – what would your top tips be?

 

The truth is in there, if we can ask the right questions…

Young Tree Carved Inside Old Tree

I’ve been working this week with an organisation who  are looking at knowledge retention from some major programmes with a significant gap (several years) between the closure of their current programmes and the start of the next phase of projects, when today’s lessons will be most relevant.

Now let’s be clear here –  knowledge transfer is always a better starting point than knowledge capture, I think that’s a given for KM.  However, in this case, some kind of strategic knowledge capture is going to be necessary , as there is no guarantee that  the staff with experience will be available in the future.  I’m  putting a brief together for them which will help them to involve the workforce in prioritising topics, conduct some media-rich interviews and create a set of knowledge assets with the needs of future projects in mind.

The default position is just to let nature take its course and see what survives. Let’s call this the fossilisation option.  Hope that in the rough-and-tumble of organisational change, that there will be enough fragments of knowledge and experience preserved that it will be possible to reconstruct the “soft parts” (the context for decisions made at the time).

Next up is the time capsule approach.  Take an eclectic set of artefacts, bury them somewhere safe, and erect a memorial plaque or signpost (SharePoint folder anyone?) to remind people where  things have been buried.  Then hope that the person who exhumes them can make sense of the way in which each of the artefacts (documents) would have been used, and extrapolate to cover the gaps. Better than the fossil record, but still pretty unreliable.

Museum image (thanks to Prafulla.net)Moving up the scale of effort and thoroughness, we have the Museum collection. Painstakingly assembled and expensively detailed, this represents a high-resolution snapshot of the past in terms of the documents and outputs, but will still say little about the underlying reasons for decisions taken at the time.  And as Ian E Wilson, Canada’s chief librarian and archivist once said:

“No amount of sophistication is going to allay the fact that all your knowledge is about the past and all your decisions are about the future.” 

So where do we find a suitable metaphor which places the emphasis on recommendations for future re-use, rather than yesterday’s lessons?

I found it at futureme.org.

Futureme.org

What’s futureme.org you might ask?  As they say on their website:

FutureMe.org is based on the principle that memories are less accurate than e-mails. And we strive for accuracy.  See, usually, it’s the future that will reflect back on the present. We here at FutureMe think it’s fun to flip that all around.
So send your future self some words of inspiration. Or maybe give ’em swift kick in the pants. Or just share some thoughts on where you’ll or what you’ll be up to in a year, three years…more? And then we’ll do some time travel magic and deliver the letter to you. FutureYou, that is.

You can browse anonymous real examples on futureme – some thoughtful, some hilarious, some prophetic and some poignant.  I think the idea of sending yourself, or someone else,  a message for the future is an excellent way of focusing on the capture of recommendations and thoughtful advice. It makes is personal and actionable (characteristics so often missing in lessons learned reports) – and it so much cheaper than building a museum!

So we’re planning to use a creative twist on futureme.org with this particular client to draw out the advice. As they say at Futureme – it’s the future that will reflect back on the present, so it’s fun to flip that all around.

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.

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.

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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.