bingoThere was an article in one of London’s free papers today listing the “top ten most annoying phrases”, and among the usual suspects, holding on at number 8 is “Best Practice”, for which Metro’s plain English translation is “a good way of doing something”.

It caused me a bit of soul searching about the language barriers we build around our own lexicon of tools, techniques and frameworks. I thought it might be fun to come up with my own “KM Buzzzword bingo”  card for use during dull moments at KM conferences and team meetings. I’m not criticizing the featured buzzwords (I’m guilty of many of them myself!) – just pointing out that the KM discipline is more than capable of making your average employee scratch their heads and say “whaaaat?”.
(Feel free to click and download the PowerPoint version if you’d like to adapt it.)

Going back to Best Practice for a moment though, it reminded me of a recent discussion I had with Ian Thorpe on his blog entry “Will I spoil KM if I tell people that “best practices” don’t exist?”, which, incidentally has one of my favourite ever Dilbert cartoons in it.

I think Ian and I ended up agreeing that where Best Practices do exist (whish is much less than people might think, and usually in an operational context – checklists for routinely landing a plan, preparing an operating theatre etc.),  they should  be considered time-bound – Best for today, based on current knowledge – but not set in stone.  The problem comes when we treat good practice unthinkingly as if it were truly “best”, and fail to adapt it for our own context.

So the Metro free newspaper’s translation “a good way of doing something” is probably true of most good practices which are mis-labelled as “best”.

I wonder what their editor would make of the rest of our Bingo card? Perhaps I should reach out to her…

Have you heard the story of Billy Ray Harris?  It’s a heart-warming one.

Credit: KCTV5Billy Ray is a homeless Kansas man who received an unexpected donation when passer-by Sarah Darling accidentally put her engagement ring into his collecting cup.  Despite being offered $4000 for the ring by a jeweller, he kept the ring, and returned it to her when, panic-stricken, she came back the following day.  Sarah gave him all the cash she had in her purse as a reward, and as they told their good-luck story to friends – who then told their friends –  her finance decided to put up a website to collect donations for Billy Ray.  So far, $151,000 have been donated as the story has gone viral around the world.  Billy Ray plans to use the money to move to Houston to be near his family.  You can see the whole story here.

On closer inspection, it turns out that this wasn’t the first ring that Billy had returned to its owner.  A few years previously, he found a  Super Bowl ring belonging to a football player and walked to the his hotel to return it.  The football player rewarded him financially, and gave him three nights at that luxury hotel.   So the pattern was already established for Billy Ray, who also attributes it to his upbringing as the grandson of a reverend.

Whether you see this story as an illustration of grace, karma or good-old-fashioned human nature,  it illustrates the principle of reciprocity.  

Reciprocity is an important principle for knowledge management, and one which underpins the idea of Offers and Requests. 
Offers and Requests was a simple approach, introduced to make it easier for Operations Engineers at BP to ask for help, and to share good practice with their peers.  The idea was for each business unit to self-assess their level of operational excellence using a maturity model, and identify their relative strengths and weaknesses.   In order to overcome barriers like “tall poppy syndrome”, or a reluctance to ask for help (“real men don’t ask directions”), a process was  put in place whereby every business unit would be asked to offer three areas which they felt proud of, and three areas which they wanted help with.  The resulting marketplace for matching offers and requests was successful because:

i) The principle of offering a strength at the same time as requesting help  was non-threatening and reciprocal – it was implicitly fair.

ii) The fact that every business unit was making their offers and requests at the same time meant that it felt like a balanced and safe process.


Like Billy Ray, one positive experience of giving and receiving led to another, and ultimately to a Operations community.  A community website for offers and requests underpinned the process, enabling social connections and discussions.

This is played out in the Kansas story, where the addition of technology and social connections created disproportionate value – currently $151,000 of it. 

In the words of Billy Ray, “What is the world coming to when a person returns something that doesn’t belong to him and all this happens?”

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.

Click to download the Knowledgeable BrochureWell, hats off to NASA and their partners for pulling off an amazing feat of project planning, innovation, technological wizardry and collaboration. That MARDI video was quite something. Curiosity has landed – let’s see what it finds.

I’ve been reflecting on the topic of curiosity recently, and in fact it even made it onto the cover of my most recent brochure!

In many respects, it is curiosity which closes the learning loop.  We can invest vast amounts of effort in learning, reviewing and capturing (when we don’t have an immediate customer to transfer newly generated knowledge to) – but if nobody is curious enough to want to learn from the experience of others, then there is no demand – and no marketplace for knowledge exchange.

That’s why Thomas Friedman wrote about the importance of the “Curiosity Quotient”, created the equation:  CQ + PQ > IQ  (PQ is Passion Quotient) and 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.”

As we look to make our organisations more effective in their use of knowledge, let’s keep one eye on how  we can increase the levels of curiosity.
We can do this through any number of means: leadership encouragement and open questions, raising the levels of awareness of projects and activities, curation, gaming, social serendipity, thinking out loud, peer challenge and peer assistance, overcoming “not-invented-here” and making our organisations a safe place to ask for (and receive) help.

If we could accomplish more of this, then who knows what new life we might discover in KM?

My shaggy-dog story.
In April we had a new addition to the family.
Alfie the Labradoodle came into our lives, and for 98% of the time, we haven’t looked back.

Charged with lawn-crime

You can put that 2% down to unscheduled early mornings, a chewed laptop power supply, a hole in the garden – and a very disturbing barefoot encounter on the lawn after dark.  I’ll leave that to your imagination.

The thing I find most remarkable about being a dog owner is that it’s as though you suddenly become visible to people.  I have had more conversations with complete strangers in the last three months than in all the 10 years we have lived here. For the first time in my life, random women approach me with a “hello gorgeous” (OK, not me exactly), parents stop me and ask if their toddlers can stroke him, car drivers stop and ask what breed he is and grown men share their innermost ideas about dog training tips and anti-pull harness choices.

It was a bit disconcerting at first, but it’s actually quite pleasant.  Perhaps this new social norm is what it was like in the 60’s?

So why so people feel OK to engage in conversation, share their experience and impart wisdom in ways that they never would have done before?

We’ll, it’s obvious I guess – because the dog is obvious. Everyone can see that I’m a dog owner, so my membership of the dog-lovers’-club is visible to all, at the end of a lead.  That gives permission for other club members to approach me and ask or share.

This reminds me of Etienne Wenger’s famous definition of Communities of Practice

A group of people who share a concern or passion for something they do, and they learn to do it better as they interact regularly.

You can see where this is going.
How much more effective and productive would our organizations be if we made our expertise, our experience, our concerns and our passion more visible to our colleagues?  Here are six to consider.

  • I’ve written before about the poster culture in Syngenta and how they make their projects and programmes more visible.
  • Expertise directories, personal profiles and smart social media which suggests connections generates a culture of greater disclosure are also helpful.
  • Retreats where you have time, space and informality to get to know your colleagues better are a natural way to make new connections and deepen existing ones.
  • Communities of practice can create a safe place for shrinking violets to flourish, and communities of interest (I’ve seen photography, cycling, food and wine societies, women’s networks etc. in organisations) can also generate the conditions to mix business with pleasure.
  • Finally, Knowledge fairs and offers-and-requests marketplaces create a pause – a moment to browse and discover.

So much better than leaving your knowledge in its kennel…

Alfie in Kennel

I’ve always believed that we can learn a lot from children as analogues for behaviours in organisations.

They’re just like us, but usually more transparent about the motives for their actions.

Image by Carol VanHook

A few years ago, I was asked to present at an internal conference for a large Oil Company and had the opportunity to put that to the test.  Tom Davenport, co-author of Working Knowledge once shared his “Kindergarten Rationale” for why children share:

  • You share with the friends you trust
  • You share when you’re sure you’ll get something in return
  • Your toys are more special than anyone else’s
  • You share when the teacher tells you to, until she turns her back
  • When toys are scarce, there’s less sharing
  • Once yours get taken, you never share again


With the help of the of the local team (and the permission of the parents!), we video-interviewed several of the children of the leadership team, asking them questions like “What makes you want to share?” and “What kind of children do you like to share with?”.

You can imagine the impact that these vignettes had when played back to the 200-strong audience, who delighted in spotting which children belonged to which leader, and particularly enjoyed the moment when the 6 year-old son of the Finance Chief said that he only liked sharing with people who  gave him something just as nice in return…

Perhaps we should ask our children some other interesting knowledge management questions:


How do you come up with new ideas?

What stops you asking for help?

What kind of people make group-work easy?

Why do you make the same mistakes more than once?


Wise words might be closer (and cheaper) than we think.

I’m often asked to explain what a “River Diagram” is, and how they can be used to shape knowledge management strategy, and as a way to help communities share and learn.  Geoff Parcell and I wrote a couple of chapters in “No More Consultants”, but some how it’s one of those topics always has me grabbing a sheet of paper, a whiteboard or a napkin to work through the steps in a more visual way.
I’m sure that the guys at Commoncraft will do a great job on it one day…

So for now, in the spirit of vlogging, and with thanks to Geoff for the use of his green screen, here’s a quick YouTube tutorial on “How to Create a River Diagram”.

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.