Knowledge transfer


Image from City A.M.Number 20, Fenchurch Street, London has always been a controversial building.  It has become better known as the “Walkie Talkie”, and was rechristened this week as the “Walkie Scorchie”, because the combination of the curved design, mirrored windows and some bright sunlight created a focus of solar energy which was sufficient to melt parts of an expensive Jaguar XJ parked nearby, and in a non-scientific experiment, to fry an egg!

Unwittingly, the architect had designed a building which worked as a scaled-down version of the solar furnace in Odeillo, France. I remember visiting this whilst on a childhood holiday, and was blown away by the lumps of melted rock on display.  I applied my sunscreen more carefully for the rest of my vacation.

Anyway, I say the architect unwittingly designed a building, but perhaps that’s being generous, because the same Architect (Rafeel Vinoly) designed the Vdara Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, 3 years earlier.  The tall, sleek, curved Vdara Hotel, according to the  Las Vegas Review,

 

…is a thing of beauty.

But the south-facing tower is also a collector and bouncer of sun rays, which — if you’re at the hotel’s swimming pool at the wrong time of day and season — can singe your hair and melt your plastic drink cups and shopping bags.

Hotel pool employees call the phenomenon the “Vdara death ray.”

A spokesman for MGM Resorts International, which owns Vdara, said he prefers the term “hot spot” or “solar convergence” to describe it. He went on to say that designers are already working with resort staff to come up with solutions.”

So the same architect has designed two tall, curved, mirrored buildings which have both manifested the same unwelcome side-effect.

Not only that, but the Disney Concert Hall (not designed by Rafael Vinoly) had similar issues back in 2003.

You have to ask yourself, surely lessons learned from the Vdara Hotel should have been applied by the same firm as they designed the Walkie Talkie?  Surely the Death Ray experience would have burned itself into the memory of the firm concerned?

And would it be unreasonable to expect the Architectural profession to be aware of the Disney Concert Hall case, and consequently have prevented the flawed Vdara design sizzling tourists like ants under a magnifying glass?

Is it easier to learn from the failures and flaws of others, of from our own internal failures?  Well, it depends on whether the power of “Not Invented here”, disguised as “It’ll never happen here”, is greater than the professional defensive reasoning and displacement of failure Chris Argyris described in his brilliant HBR paper, “Teaching Smart People How to Learn.”
If you haven’t read it, and you work in the field of knowledge management, organizational learning, improvement or in any medium-large consultancy, then please do.  It’s 22 years old but it could have been written yesterday.

Here’s a taster to wet your appetite:

 “Any company that aspires to succeed in the tougher business environment of [today] must first resolve a basic dilemma: success in the marketplace increasingly depends on learning, yet most people don’t know how to learn. What’s more, those members of the organization that many assume to be the best at learning are, in fact, not very good at it. I am talking about the well-educated, high-powered, high-commitment professionals who occupy key leadership positions in the modern corporation.

Most companies not only have tremendous difficulty addressing this learning dilemma; they aren’t even aware that it exists. The reason: they misunderstand what learning is and how to bring it about.”

Argyris goes on to distinguish between the single loop learning approach of problem-solving and error correction, and the double-loop learning which addresses how organisations identify, discuss and enact change, and the dynamics, performance measurement systems and behavioural filters which can prevent even the most brilliant (often the most brilliant!) professional from seeing their role in something less than brilliant.

The case of the non-learning professional is not reserved for architects, of course – it’s just that their oversights can be so tangible.  The financial sector, energy sector and public sector have all had their own versions of the “walkie scorchie”.  It’s just that you can’t fry eggs on them.

Egg

As knowledge and learning professionals, we need to make sure that we’re visible, helpful  and active for these fried egg moments.

They are the moments when mistakes are too visible to be missed, and when even defensive reasoning is no defence.   We can help our organisations not just to learn from the specifics of one design error (we can certainly start there, and get our foot in the door), but we also need to have the courage and the influence (and partnership with OD and other functions) to look beneath to the structural and organisational factors which will ultimately determine how many times the organisation gets its fingers burnt.

Oh, and on a related matter, and if you’re thinking of buying one of these – be careful which wall you put it on!

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.

One of my current clients needs to conduct a learning review from a 2-year IT project which, by her own admission, has had its fair share of ups and downs. The project is at its mid-point, so the main customer for the learning is the team itself. They don’t have much time to conduct the review (sadly just 90 minutes), so she asked me for some ideas for pre-work  for the team.

Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of a full day to conduct an exhaustive review, so you have to work with what you have and help the team to quickly connect their hearts and minds to the review process.  It’s the heart bit which interests me here.

When we’re under time pressure, we tend to focus on the facts, the timeline, the plan, the process, contract, technology, scope and the deviations. Intellectual recall. In fact, most project review documents contain little more than this kind of intellectual recall. It usually takes a bit longer to get a team to talk about how they felt, and to draw out some the more people-oriented learning – let’s call that a kind of “emotional recall”.

I combined some ideas from Retrospects, After Action Reviews, Baton-passing and Future Backwards (Heaven and Hell) exercises into this approach. Enjoy the ride!

With thanks to Navcon

Part 1 – the pre-work:

Before the meeting, ask each member of the team to think back over the project timeline and to focus on their emotions at each stage. You can provide them with a template like this, with key dates or milestones marked to give a sense of orientation.

1. Ask them to sketch out their own “emotional rollercoaster”, paying attention to the highs and lows.

2. For the high spots, write down what went well, and why you think it went well.

3. Do the same for the low spots. What was difficult, and why do you think that was?

4. How do you think the rollercoaster is most likely to continue?  Draw the continuing journey.  Bring this to the meeting with your notes on the reasons for the highs and lows.

Part 2 – during the meeting.

Sharing the Past and Present.

  • Collectively, in the meeting, create a large version of the rollercoaster timeline on the wall.
  • Each participant draws their journey up to the present day, pausing to describe the lows and highs, and the reasons for these.   A facilitator should probe these reasons using the “5-whys”  technique to get to the underlying reason.
  • For each high and low, ask the group to express the reason as a recommendation – something that someone else should do to repeat the delight, or avoid the despair – or an action which should be taken in order to change a process such that the good practice becomes embedded.
  • Capture these recommendations on post-its and place on the rollercoaster.
  • Repeat for each member of the project team (towards the end, they can “pass” if someone has already identified a high or low. )
  • This should create a shared view of the past, and “how we got to where we are today”, with some useful recommendations captured. Consider who you might share these with beyond the team.

Creating the Future together.

  • Now ask each member to sketch how they think the project will go from now to the end date. You will probably get a range of options!
  • Focus on the best projected outcome and ask “based on all we’ve learned to date, what actions could we take to make this happen, rather than the less positive options?”. You can take feedback from the entire group, or get them to discuss in pairs or sub-groups first.
  • Capture these actions (with names!).

Thank you ladies and gentlemen, this is the end of the ride.
Please be sure to collect your belongings as you leave and don’t forget to check your photo on the way out.

(more…)

Back in 2009, I blogged about some heart-warming examples of cross-industry peer assists,  involving Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Ferrari Formula 1 pit team.  Geoff and I wrote the story up fully in our second book, “No more Consultants“.

The specific example related to the operating theatre team improving their handover processes during an operation called the “arterial switch” – and the insights of Professor Martin Elliott and his colleagues who had the curiosity and the passion to approach Ferrari and ask for help.

Image

It reminded me of Thomas Friedman’s book “The World is Flat” where he wrote:

“I have concluded that in a flat world, IQ- Intelligence Quotient – still matters, but CQ and PQ – Curioity Quotient and Passion Quotient – matter even more. I live by the equation CQ+PQ>IQ. Give me a kid with a passion to learn and a curiosity to discover and I will take him or her over a less passionate kid with a high IQ every day of the week.”

I was interested to see that Formula One was in the news again this week with another example of curiosity-driven cross-sector knowledge sharing – this time with public transport.  Train manufacturer Alstom, who say that the knowledge they gained has enabled them reduce a 2-day repair job to just 4 hours.

We need more of these “I wonder” moments to bring knowledge together, where curiosity triumphs over the “but we’re different” default reaction of not-invented-here cultures which drives those connections and overlaps apart.

Image

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…)

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.

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