Metaphor


Last week I had the opportunity to see Matilda  in the West End. Coincidentally, it’s just opened on Broadway to well-deserved rave reviews.
For the uninitiated, it’s a musical production of Roald Dahl’s book of the same name – about a little girl who develops her own knowledge, imagination, stories and her own special powers in some pretty extreme family and school circumstances.  It’s Dahl, (and Tim Minchin who wrote the musical), at their best – my family loved it.  Here’s a 90 second clip:

 

Reading the programme in the interval, I was really  struck by a phrase in an interview Tim Minchin’s Olivier Best Director acceptance speech:

“Denying stories is denying the most human part of being a human.
Without stories we’re just eating machines with shoes.”

I like that.

It challenges me a bit too, as I think about the way in which organisations often treat their employees, focusing only on their current role and failing to surface their stories and experience. It’s like they’re “working machines with shoes” rather than people with a wealth of experience.
Here’s a picture I ask people to reflect upon during my training programmes on knowledge-sharing, networks and communities of practice. I ask them to describe how it relates to their own organisations.

Upturned jigsaw pieces

They usually talk about not knowing who to connect with, not knowing where expertise and relevant experience lies, relying on serendipity, not knowing where to start (no corners or edges), lacking strategy (no picture to copy) etc.
Then we discuss what it would take to turn the pieces over, so that we learn more about each others’ stories.

That then leads nicely into a conversation about social media, or into some practical, no-tech activities like personal social network mapping on paper (thank you Cheryl Cooper), anecdote circles (thank you Ron Donaldson), peer assists (thank you Geoff Parcell) and knowledge cafe’s (thank you David Gurteen) – or a trip to the bar (thank you Stella Artois and Samuel Adams). That way, we move from being eating machines with shoes to drinking machines with stories!

I’m sure Roald would have approved.
Even if Miss Trunchbull wouldn’t.

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.

alfiecar

Our BMW is nearly 8 years old now.  It’s been brilliant, and it’s had to put up with a lot from a growing family, and now a dog with an affinity for mud and water.

It’s about this age when cars generally – regardless of the manufacturer –  begin to reveal some of the longer-term glitches to owners and manufacturers send letters to notify people like me that “there is an extremely small chance that you may experience a problem with the battery wiring in the luggage compartment, and please would I contact my local dealer at my earlier convenience where they will be glad to examine and fix any potential problems without charge…”

If I wanted to sell my car (probably to someone who doesn’t read this blog!), then I have a choice:

  • Sell them the car, and give the new owner the keys and a small pile of vehicle recall notices.  These represent all of the lessons about the 535D Touring that BMW and their customers have learned over the past 8 years, so they are, of course, invaluable to the new owner…
  • Take the car to the dealer, get the problems fixed for free and the vehicle record updated on their systems.  Throw away the recall letters which now have no purpose. Give the new owner the keys.

It’s clear which is the better option.  Now let’s park the BMW analogy and think about knowledge management (which, coincidentally, BMW are also very good at).

In my experience, many organisations sometimes treat lessons learned like they are an end in themselves – as though the value has to remain in the document – rather than where possible leading to actions which embody the learning.  These actions might include updating a process, policy, standard or system has been updated to incorporate the learning, which  removes the need to promote the lessons or recommendations to future teams.

So why do some organisations settle for a pile of lessons rather than a set of improvements?

Some possibilities:

  • It’s much easier to write a document than see a change through to completion.
  • It’s too difficult to find the owner of the process which needs changing.
  • I’m measured on how many lessons our project captures.
  • We have invested in customizing SharePoint to capture lessons learned documents, and need to show that we’re using it.
  • Although I wrote the recommendation, I’m not 100% confident that we should change the process for everyone.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not decrying any kind of activity to capture lessons learned.
Sometimes the learning is such that there is no obvious process or standard which can be changed, and there is no immediate customer for the knowledge.  In those cases we need to preserve it in such a way that our learning is expressed as a recommendation for the next team, and is supported with the reason, the narrative, any relevant artifacts and the contact details of the person behind the recommendation.  These things all add context to what would otherwise be a recommendation in isolation.  The next team then have more background to assess whether this particular recommendation is relevant in their world.  I wrote about this on my February posting on dead butterfly collections.

However, I do think it’s worth looking at the barriers which prevent people from from translating their personal or team learning into an improvement for everyone.   Perhaps we’re not selling the idea of lesson-learning in the best way?  Hearts and minds, or just minds?   Commitment or compliance?  Value or box-ticking?

Let’s not let the tail wag the dog!

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

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

by xoque on Flickr, used with thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earlier this year I presented at Henley Business School’s annual KM Forum event, on the subject of “Lessons Earned”. They kindly recorded the event, and I have finally got around to editing and posting a ten minute excerpt on YouTube.

Watch it to discover:

  • How Lessons Learned are like the Higgs Boson particle…
  • How project lessons are like a leaky bucket…
  • Why frequently asked questions aren’t frequently right…
  • Why captured knowledge is like a dead butterfly collection…
  • How ‘not hiding’ is different to sharing…
  • And why curiosity is good for business, even if it is bad for cats!

Thank you to @susanfrost for sending this my way.

Some great food for thought – literally – from JP Rangaswami, using Food as a metaphor for our relationship with information. It’s an interesting and stimulating comparison, and you have to chuckle when he extends the metaphor to Fox News to McDonalds at the end!

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