Sunday, 13 January 2013

Exploring the untamable land of organizational learning #kmers

Last week my knowledge management journey took me to the fascinating and “untamable” land of organizational learning. I've embarked on this journey to get a better understanding of what it will take to better facilitate the capturing, sharing and generation of new knowledge.

Let’s start from the beginning. It was reassuring the see that when faced with the challenge of collecting information to undertake any type of activity and “to do a job” the inhabitants of the organizational learning land CONNECT with their peers and consult various sources to COLLECT information.

They seem to have well consolidated and reliable networks of stakeholders and peers who they connect with. They also manage to find their way through various sources to collect content. What remains a challenge and a gap for many, is SHARING the acquired knowledge. 

I am going to use Dave Snowden’s, the father of Cynefin framework and a remarkable KM mentor, seven rules of knowledge management as a framework to share my personal discoveries and reflections: 
  • Knowledge can only be volunteered, it cannot be conscripted. What came out loud and clear from our conversations, is that people “volunteer” knowledge when asked and they do so more with those with whom they have established a trust relationship, otherwise, they share information and not necessarily knowledge (and yes, there is a difference between information and knowledge) 
  • We only know what we know when we need to know it. This is my favourite, because it is so simple and so TRUE. The majority of us knows what we know when we need to know it. There are however, a number of colleagues who in their own words have “learning as part of their DNA”. They also make “time”  to learn.  That said, they learn about the things that they need to know and perhaps during that journey, they may cross boundaries and explore new territories. 
  • In the context of real need few people will withhold their knowledge. I alluded to this earlier on. When someone asks us for something and we know they need it - hardly anyone withholds knowledge.  In Dave’s words “A genuine request for help is not often refused unless there is l a previous history of distrust. On the other hand ask people to codify all that they know in advance of a contextual enquiry and it will be refused (in practice its impossible anyway). Linking and connecting people is more important than storing their artifacts.”
  • Everything is fragmented.  The conversations confirmed that most knowledge sharing is done informally, and that “informal” works. There was a plea not to formalize informal practices, as this may risk to stifle and kill any knowledge sharing moment. On this issue, here is what Dave says: “We evolved to handle unstructured fragmented fine granularity information objects, not highly structured documents. People will spend hours on the internet, or in casual conversation without any incentive or pressure. However creating and using structured documents requires considerably more effort and time. Our brains evolved to handle fragmented patterns not information.”
  • Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success.  This topic is close to my heart, and I hope that sooner rather than later we’ll institutionalize the importance of learning from failures without falling in blame game trap. Dave argues that “attempting to impose best practice systems is flying in the face of over a hundred thousand years of evolution that says it is a bad thing.” I must admit, that while the word failure was never mentioned in our conversations, on the other hand we did talk about best practices and how we should be developing and sharing best practices. I am not going to venture in this mine field, however, I will say that we need to internalize that importance of learning from failures and that there is now enough evidence that success always starts with failure and that if we go about dealing with failures in the right way - that is to say understand the complexity of the issue at hand, we can definitely learn a lot and avoid to reinvent the wheel. I guess, without getting too overcomplicated, I am talking about “learning by doing”. At the end of the day, is that the best way to learn and how we’ve all learnt? 
  • The way we know things is not the way we report we know things. There is so much truth and wisdom in this statement. This poses a big challenge to KM efforts, as when we become too process oriented we fail to share our tacit knowledge and stop at sharing the structured process which is is far less knowledge intensive and interesting than the tacit knowledge
  • We always know more than we can say, and we always say more than we can write down. Dave considers this as the most important rule. Here is what he says on this one: “ The process of taking things from our heads, to our mouths (speaking it) to our hands (writing it down) involves loss of content and context. It is always less than it could have been as it is increasingly codified.” In our conversations,  time and again we heard colleagues talk about the challenge of analyzing, distilling and sharing in a compelling manner. Almost all of them indicated that they do not have time nor are equipped to do so.  They asked to have someone that could help them sift through their valuable knowledge, identify the pearls and share these widely.  Here is my dilemma, if this is done by a third party, is this a second-hand codification, which means a greater loss of knowledge? 
Recurring themes
Here are some of the recurrent challenges that emerged during this week’s conversations:
  • Knowledge sharing as a behaviour and competency is not appreciated and rewarded
  • We are consistently fighting to meet deadlines and unable to make the necessary time to:
    • Reflect
    • Analyze
    • Take stock and learn from our own and each other’s experience
    • Adjust
    • Learn
    • Unlearn
    • Share
    • Contribute to the learning loop
    • Capture and cherish knowledge intensive moments
      There was a concrete suggestion to institutionalize systematic “reflection time” as a form of incentive to improve knowledge sharing culture
  • People do not have time nor make time to read 
  • Not everyone is skilled to analyze, write and share knowledge
There was a demand for help to tap into individual knowledge’s and experience and turn the tacit into explicit knowledge - in other words codify the knowledge - albeit the risk of loosing the real knowledge, as explained by Dave, nonetheless, it is better than doing nothing :)

More questions than answers
After these rich set of conversation and having spent some time reflecting on them and sleeping over them, I ask myself:
  • Can we continue doing KM informally or is it a MUST to formalize everything and at what cost? 
  • How can we increase the percentage of people who share knowledge beyond those who like to or believe in and continue doing so informally?
  • Why is it that we can make time for things that we care about and not necessarily to share what we’ve learnt? And how can make sharing knowledge something that everyone cares about?
  • Considering that colleagues enjoy learning from each other, why is it that people do not systematically take the initiative of organizing informal gatherings with heterogenous groups such as the ones we did last week and share their experience and knowledge?
  • What are the risks of delegating distilling and anlayzing knowledge to third parties? 
  • What are the pros and cons of using the same set of third parties (consultants) to do core business?
  • Who ultimately holds the knowledge? The employee? The consultant? Both? and does it matter?
  • Why do not we talk about failures? Do we sincerely believe that what ever we do is a success?
  • How much of the knowledge gets lost in the codification process and what are risks?
  • When was the last time we asked our stakeholders how useful is our codified knowledge for them, how did they use it and how did it help them do something differently or better?
One of the first things I learnt on my KM journey was that for knowledge management initiatives to be useful and meaningful, they need to contribute to and support organization’s corporate mission. This is why it really does not make sense to have knowledge management specific indicators, rather the KM indicators should be part and parcel of the overall organizational indicators! (I know this is a contentious issue...) I also learnt that for KM initiatives to be successful, at organizational level, knowledge sharing should be a corporate priority. 

None of what I am saying is new nor is it rocket science.  However, I still have to come across an organization that has managed to implement these simple statements seamlessly and effectively. I know it is not easy, as we are talking about how people interact with each other. So, if there is anyone out there who has managed to implement KM activities that contribute directly to the organization’s mission and where staff consider knowledge sharing a corporate priority and are sharing knowledge across organizational boundaries, please give a shout and share your wisdom!

After action review
In closing this blogpost, I want to do an after action review of the process we went through last week.

The small heterogeneous groups proved to be a smashing success. It allowed people to have a conversation. And I cannot underscore enough the value of having a conversation, instead of being talked at and talked to...... Asking colleagues to share how they as INDIVIDUALS go about accessing knowledge, allowed them to tell a REAL and PERSONAL story which was grounded in reality, as opposed to something hypothetical.  We should have allocated two hours instead of 90 minutes from the beginning. All sessions ended up being 2 hours anyways. I am sorry we did not invite colleagues from all over the house and focussed just on a limited subset.

What I learnt? Yet again, I learnt that nothing can replace the power and potential of a free-flowing conversation. I also learnt that it is hard for people to come together and they need someone to facilitate this coming together. At the beginning I had difficulty understanding this, but now I get it. 

A lot of people are  party animals, however, in real life, not everyone is throwing parties every night. But if you are a party animal and get invited to a party, you will definitely make a point to go to the party, or at least drop by. Using this analogy, I now have the proof that everyone wants to share something with someone and what we need to do is to jump start the process by playing party host and inviting people to come to the party. If the parties are consistently good, fun and add value to our work, we will keep coming and who knows, maybe sooner rather than later, we will start throwing our own parties!!!

We’ll have more conversations next week, so watch out this space for updates. I love to hear about your KM journey experiences. Please share your thoughts, aspirations and advice. And thanks for listening.

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