Learning to Fly



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.


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?


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.


…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.
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?


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.

Continuing from my top ten KM consulting highlights (in no particular order!) from 2014…

6. Sharing Knowledge in the Offshore Wind community

The UK is a world leader in the Offshore Wind Energy business, and with multiple companies involved in planning, developing and constructing wind farms, there is huge potential for reducing the cost (and increasing the size of renewable energy “pie”) by sharing knowledge between the industry players – who happen to be competitors! It’s a classic example of tragedy of the commons.

I have been working with all of the main stakeholders over the past year to develop a community of practice, a common language, and a series of sharing workshops to help this group of companies to trust, share, connect and learn whilst respecting the commercial limitations which exist. Where of you start? Where are the safe places to begin knowledge-sharing? It’s an unconventional community of practice – but a fascinating one to work with.



7. Communities in Copenhagen 

After nearly ten years of independent consultancy in KM, I finally managed to combine a business trip with an extra family holiday. My wife and daughters accompanied me to Copenhagen for a brilliant weekend, whilst I stayed on to work with Maersk Oil and help shape their work on communities of practice.



8. The African Evaluation Association conference in Cameroon.

I have to admit, I love visiting new countries, so when I was asked to speak and deliver workshops at the AfrEA 2014 conference in Yaounde, Cameroon, it didn’t take much to persuade me.

Being exposed to the sheer breadth and depth of M&E activity in the development sector – and the natural way in which Knowledge Management dovetails into this important work was an eye-opener. Meeting Rituu Nanda, who has worked so hard with the AIDS constellation, building on Geoff’s work with UNAIDS which we wrote up in Learning to Fly, was a real highlight for me.

Oh and the bread basket was certainly eye-catching!



9. Board Gamification in Syngenta

MAKE award winners Syngenta have been one of my longest-running clients, and I’ve had the opportunity to support their KM Strategy, Communities of Practice, Lessons Learned and Operational Excellence programmes. Whether it’s cartoons, glass knowledge-sharing awards, pocket cards or toolkits, I’ve always enjoyed their love of embedding knowledge in artifacts and their courage to innovate. One of the best examples of this was the creation of a board game about the early stages of leading of a community of practice, based on Snakes and Ladders. Of course, we called it “Snakes and Leaders”.
The game was used as part of an internal training programme for Network Leaders, and incorporated the ups and downs, celebrations and pitfalls of the first 100 days of a typical network, with some additional randomised surprises and challenges.

Here it is being played by fellow participants in the Knowledge Driven Performance consortium.

Snakes and Leaders

10.  Tearfund

Tearfund is a charity which has been important to me for as long as I can remember.  Their approach to After Action Reviews made it into Learning to Fly, and I had the chance to visit them to work on their Organisational Learning Strategy a few years ago.  Towards the end of last year, I was asked to join their People and Learning committee as an non-executive external advisor; something I really look forward to contributing towards.  What makes this extra special is that my eldest daughter Martha is also working with Tearfund on their No Child Taken campaign against Human Trafficking as a public figure, following her appearance on the Great British Bake Off (aka PBS British Baking Show), so we will be able to share knowledge over her cake experiments!


Looking forward to seeing what 2015 has in store…

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.


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!


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

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!

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…


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.

Last week I spent a day in The Hague, delivering a KM training programme to a group there.
As part of the day, after an experiential exercise adapted from the Marshmallow Challenge (which was great fun!), we had a more detailed discussion about the Peer Assist technique.

A Peer Assist, as Geoff Parcell and I said in “Learning to Fly”  is

…a meeting or workshop where people are invited from other organisations and groups to share their experience, insights and knowledge with a team who have requested some help early on in a piece of work.

Whenever I teach how this works in practice, I always emphasize that the invitees to a Peer Assist are there to share their experience, rather than give their opinions.  Experience, you see, is a precious commodity, an earned reward because someone was present, involved and personally learned from an event – and hence can share their story first hand.

Opinion is cheaper and easier to come by.  I can google for opinions; I can give/receive opinion in a LinkedIn group;  I can email you my opinion. I can receive opinions on a blog posting or a tweet.  Sometimes the opinion given is rooted in experience, but not necessarily. It’s often “retweeted” opinion, amplified from someone else.  This video where members of the public give their opinion on the new iPhone (or so they think!), is a classic example of retweeted opinion – the unwitting stars of the show have absorbed so much of the iPhone 5 hype that their received opinions distort their personal experience!

The language we use around Opinion and Experience is interesting.

“Do you want my opinion on that? Let me tell you what I think…. ”

Opinion is something which is given.  It’s transactional.

It’s like me buying a coke from a vending machine.

Coke vending machine

In contrast, we would never say “Let me give you my experience”!

We usually ask “Can I share my experience with you?”

As you share your experience with me, I begin to enter your world. I can feel how you felt, see what you saw, think what you thought, and then ask about what I don’t understand.

Sharing experience isn’t transactional – it’s a conversation. It’s relational.  It’s like we are sharing a meal together.

Why is this important?
We have seen a dramatic rise in the number of social channels which surface opinion – within and beyond the boundaries of our organizations.  For people like us, who work with knowledge, this is a good thing. We need to put that opinion to work and make sense of the patterns and sentiment available to us.

But all that experience is also still available for sharing….

This post is a plea for us to remain ambidextrous – let’s continue to be smart at working with opinion, and let’s also strategic about learning from experience.

As we immerse ourselves in transactional tide of opinion, let’s make sure that we can still see the richer, personal knowledge available through the sharing of experience. We need to spot the relational opportunities as well as the transactional ones.

Take a closer look at the bottom of that coke machine, and you’ll see what I mean.
It’s the real thing.

Have you ever been given a pot of homemade jam?  (Jelly to my American readers!)
Perhaps you won some as a prize on the tombola stall at a school fair, whilst secretly hoping for that champagne bottle?

It usually comes in a recycled jar, carefully labelled by hand – often in the spidery handwriting of somebody else’s Aunt Agatha.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll smile dutifully, and put it away in the dark corner of a kitchen cupboard for a few years.  One day you’ll rediscover it, and put it straight into the bin (or if you’re unscrupulous, offer it to the tombola stall at the next school fair).

The trouble is, I don’t know Aunt Agatha.  I’m sure she’s a very nice lady, who thought she was doing a wonderful job of preserving those blackcurrants for the future.  However, I have no idea about her jam-making prowess, whether she thoroughly checked the ingredients for bugs or mould – or whether I’ll I reach the bottom of the jar and discover her false teeth.
No thank you.  I’d rather stick with a new pot of Bon Maman™ from the supermarket.  I like it, I know exactly what I’m getting, and I can return it if there’s a problem.
You know what the truth is?  Don’t tell her, but as much as she loves to make it, nobody ever eats Aunt Agatha’s jam…
We’re in the throes of a global recession, and on the edge of some pretty severe job reductions, particularly in the UK public sector. As this becomes a reality, I have no doubt that many enlightened but embattled managers will recognise implications for corporate memory, and look for “knowledge harvesting” solutions.  This is where alarm bells start ringing for me.

Why the alarm?  Well, I fear that management consultants and KM specialists can give false hope to organisations, and in the worst cases, prey on the fears and insecurities of managers.

“Don’t worry – we’ll interview all your key members of staff, and give you a nicely packaged product on a memory stick which represents each person’s knowledge, experience, relationships, favourite references etc.  You can relax – your worries are over.  The corporate knowledge is safe for future generations.”

In ‘Learning to Fly’, I described these kind of personal knowledge capture activities as “knowledge salvage”.  I’m speaking from experience, as a consultant who has tried these techniques, and as a former corporate employee who has used them.  Yes, there are some practical steps you can take in an emergency situation for a key individual small number of retiring staff – but you need to recognise that it’s a damage limitation exercise at best.  All is not lost – but most of it is.

No matter how skilled and prepared the interviewer is, no matter how much you involve colleagues and networks in formulating the questions and iterating the content, no matter how slick and media-rich the final product is, and no matter how much you can persuade the “survivors” to actually use it…  it’s a salvage operation.

Large scale downsizing is brutal.  Surgery is usually carried out with a blunt instrument and valuable knowledge will be lost forever. Fact.
I think it important that we face up to the limitations of KM, and manage expectations.

We know how it works.  After a painful period of reduction and redundancy there is a period of adjustment as things begin to stabilise and the downsized world becomes a reality.  After a couple of years management attention will turn back towards future growth  – at which point the organisation will usually  look to the outside for transformational leaders with fresh thinking to begin its new chapter. Doesn’t that sounds more like a future taste for Bon Maman™, and less likely that a jar of Aunt Agatha’s 3-year old preserve will be savoured?

So what should we do when faced with downsizing on a large scale?  Nothing at all?  Just let that knowledge walk out of the door carrying its redundancy package?

I’m not saying that – but I do encourage a healthy dose of pragmatism.

  • Don’t structure knowledge around an individual.  In two years time, nobody will remember who they were, what they achieved or which context they were working in.  Identify which topics are critical to continuing current operations.  Capture any key points against these topics. If you come across a memorable story or anecdote which illustrates the point, then take note of it.
  • Focus where knowledge is technical or procedural, and can be captured as guidelines, checklists and recommendations.  Embed these in a process or policy if you can.
  • Pay attention to ‘know-who’, but remember that you can’t capture a relationship – all you can do capturing contacts and a small amount of background context.  Relationships will have to be re-built from scratch by the new job-holder.
  • If the pace of the downsizing allows it, place the emphasis on knowledge transfer methods to staff likely to remain.  Examples include the use of future retirees as mentors, buddying, shadowing and participation in communities of practice.
  • Work with HR to find creative ways to remain connected to leavers. It might be better to divert that knowledge retention budget towards securing ongoing knowledge access.  The ability to access an alumni network, or to have a timely telephone call or meeting with a former employee will  easily outweigh the effort required to anticipate all possible questions, capture the answers up-front and bury them in SharePoint.

Above all, challenge yourself with the question:  “If this knowledge is important to the future, what is the best can I ensure that it’s actually used?”.  That will stop you, or your consultant, from getting too carried away.
I don’t believe that you can be a meticulous corporate historian and an effective corporate strategist at the same time; you’ll only end up in a jam.

With apologies to Aunt Agatha.  Taken from my upcoming column in the next edition of Inside Knowledge.

Tom Davenport posted an interesting blog in the HBR site this week, entitled:

If Only BP Knew Now What it Knew Then where he asserted a relationship between the BP Oil spill, and the reduction of its knowledge management programme.

It’s something which Geoff and I have receive many questions on, so I thought it might be helpful to cross-post our responses to Tom’s blog here:~

As the other author of “Learning to Fly”, let me add to what Geoff has written, which I agree wholeheartedly with.

It’s been desperately, desperately sad to see the unnecessary loss of life.
Tragic to see the environmental impact.
Shocking to see the commercial impact.
Disturbing, yet understandable, to see the media, political and public reaction.

Being good at knowledge management doesn’t make you immune from making a poor decision, but being put on a pedestal for long enough can give you vertigo. I’m sure Toyota, another veteran of Knowledge Management would agree. As Larry wrote – all that any of us can do is work to improve the odds.
I believe that BP’s knowledge management and organisational learning efforts have diminished in recent years, and what was once an almost instinctive culture of learning and sharing between peers has become diluted. I think Tom’s allowing himself some poetic licence in his use of the word ‘relic’, but I don’t disagree with the thrust of his argument. Like Geoff, I’ve been away from BP for too long to offer an informed view as to how much sharing and learning was going on around its operations at the time of the events in Tom’s post.

Clearly something went very wrong.

Hopefully we will learn the what, why, when, how and who of what went wrong over the coming months or years of review and inquiry.
Perhaps we’ll find that there are positive knowledge-sharing and collaboration stories which also emerge, showing how competitors, partners and individuals joined with BP to work to remedy the situation. Possibly we’ll discover will be some Apollo 13 paragraphs within this Challenger story?
After the final traces of crude have been dispersed, the food-chain has purged itself of the pollutant effects, the rightful compensation paid and livelihoods restored – what will the legacy of learning be for the oil industry? I really hope that the genuine learning is surfaced and shared, and isn’t drowned out by the noise of the legal machinery.

TS Elliot famously wrote: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
Perhaps today he would have added: “Where is the learning we have lost in litigation.”

Now that might make another interesting article, Tom.

Geoff Parcell

I am one of the authors of “Learning to Fly” and I have been watching the response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with a mixture of anguish, sadness and concern. It is almost 9 years since the first edition of “Learning to Fly” was published, and more than 5 years since I left employment with BP, following a period of secondment to the United Nations AIDS agency UNAIDS. I don’t feel in a position to judge whose fault it was, whether the response was adequate, or whether sharing and learning was adequate within BP. I’ll leave that to others.

However there are three main themes on the topic of knowledge management that seem relevant to this story:

1. What knowledge and information are we basing our views on?
2. What sort of environment has been created for collaborating and learning?
3. How well have the risks been managed?

Let’s deal with these in turn.

1. Most of the information we have to base our views on are directly from the media – television, the internet and the press. My Member of Parliament in the UK, David Heath, recently wrote a press article on the future of political reporting.

“I am very worried about the standards of political and other reporting. If we need new politics, then perhaps we need a new journalism too.

Much that is written in the national newspapers is sloppy and under-researched. A lot of it comes from press releases and chats over lunch rather than looking for facts.
As a result, much of it is drivel. On top of that you have a layer of unconcealed prurience masquerading as incisive investigation, concentrating on celebrity and trivia over substance, and the whole edifice looks remarkably shallow.”

I have some sympathy with this point of view. The press has moved from reporting news events to providing instant analysis and answers, assigning blame, searching out the high numbers (of casualties, demonstrators or barrels of oil spilt.) Accuracy is not the aim, finding the highest number someone is prepared to state is. In addition, the internet reinforces extreme views by replication, which has the effect of seeming more convincing even though there is no more information.

At the same time BP is providing its own information – video feeds of the well head, video explanations of each attempt to cap the well and stop the flow. Some think there is a bias to that information.

We make our judgements based on the information provided, coupled with our own knowledge, biases and values.

2. One of the biggest barriers to learning the lessons from mistakes is the litigious society we have created. Learning and sharing takes place in a trusting environment. So many incidents – from train crashes, to fires, to conflict situations, to explosions -are subject to litigation that people are afraid to open their mouths. Even for minor car crashes our insurance companies instruct us not to admit liability even when our instinct is to explain our actions and assumptions to others involved.
There are few reports of collaboration for this response. BP did acknowledge cooperation between various government agencies and itself. Other oil companies have provided knowledge, experts, equipment and advice to support. I’d have liked to have seen much more cooperation especially with the US government to fix the problem and clean up first, then learn the lessons, and only then address the issue of who pays and who if any is negligent. What I saw and read was a mix of assigning blame, politicking and maintaining reputation; hardly the environment conducive to listening and learning from each other. What are the chances of really learning the lessons so that we can prevent something like this occurring again?

3. We need to manage the risks and for that we need knowledge. As individuals we rarely avoid risks altogether else we’d never get out of bed. We all handle risks not avoid them. When we assess the risk we judge the probability of occurrence, the impact if it happens and the amount of control of influence we have to mitigate the risk. It does come down to judgement and that judgement comes down to having the relevant knowledge.

Malcolm Gladwell in “Blink” shows examples where only a small amount of knowledge is required to make a decision. People who are risk averse often seek more and more knowledge rather than make a judgement. We need less knowledge than we think to make a decision, rather we need the right balance of knowledge and judgement according to our tolerance to risk. What concerned me was not that BP took risks but the response plan to mitigate the risk did not seem to be operational.

The basic principles of Knowledge Management outlined in “Learning to Fly” are as relevant as ever and are being applied within and between many organizations around the world. It is the application of the techniques that matters and the actions taken once you have the knowledge.

Great to see the National Health Service looking beyond its boundaries for techniques to improve its learning…

From bbc.co.uk last week:  The lessons pilots can teach surgeons

Which reminded me of this great story from Great Ormond Street: Ferrari pit stop saves Alexander’s life

I wonder what lessons surgeons can teach pilots?

No need for “learning to fly” – these are the experts! 
My family enjoying the Red Arrows whilst in holiday on Devon…

The Red Arrows at Dawlish Carnival