Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Happy New Year! 10 KM Resolutions

1.   Before starting a new piece of work, I will try to find out who has done it before.
2.   When things go off-track, I will encourage people to speak freely so we can do things better next time round.
3.   When finishing a piece of work, I will try to find who can benefit from what I’ve learned.
4.   As a leader, I will try to listen more.
5.   As a junior, I will try to be heard more.
6.   Before moving on, changing jobs or retiring, I will make time to hand over to my successor.
7.   I will write down a list of all those jobs that only I can do and start writing up procedures.
8.   As a leader, I need to know how things really are, so will let people be honest with me.
9.   As a junior, I need to tell it how it is, so will be honest with those above me.
10. I will never forget that I can always learn, from everything I do and everyone I meet.
For a conversation about how Knowledge Management (KM) can help you improve performance and protect your key assets, please get in touch direct or via the Knoco website.

Monday, 29 December 2014

'Tis the season to be knowledgeable - KM at Christmas

This Christmas, we had lunch at my Mother’s house, with siblings, nieces and nephews all over-excited and loving every minute of it.  My contribution to the main meal was the stuffing.  I had watched a Tom Kerridge cookery programme a few days earlier and his pork, sage, onion and chestnut stuffing (wrapped in bacon!) looked fabulous so I had to give it a go.
I found the recipe online, using my phone and went out to buy the ingredients.
When it came to some of the details, the recipe was somewhat vague, so I re-watched the programme clip, again on my phone.  I also read some of the comments left by others, noting a couple of warnings about one key element in the recipe.

The result?  Amazing stuffing, complimented by all that tried it – my stepfather even told us twice how much he liked it which is rare praise indeed.

So what?

Well, it struck me how here was a simple example of knowledge management (KM) at work.
A cookery recipe is a ‘knowledge asset’, designed to tell us how to make a dish in the absence of the chef that created it.  Recipes are more useful if they are clear and detailed, ideally with diagrams and photographs throughout.  In the case of the stuffing, I was fortunate to re-watch the relevant clip, again adding further detail and context.

A further point – reading the comments made by others that had already tried the recipe both gave me confidence and highlighted things I should look out for.  These benefits are just 2 of those gained by membership of another KM tool, the Community of Practice (CoP).  Being able to ask questions of others that have gone before us is immensely powerful and whilst all I was doing was reading others’ experiences, it reminded me of what CoPs offer.

Now, delete cookery and stuffing and insert ‘sales pitch’ or ‘branch opening’ or 'well drilling' or ‘airport construction’ and we can see how powerful KM can be for those that want to try something new but want to benefit from those that have done it before.

I think I might go and try to persuade my stepfather….

For a conversation about how KM can help you sell, buy, design, construct, operate, dispose, recruit, train, employ or retain, please contact me direct or via the Knoco website.

Friday, 5 December 2014

'Wilful Blindness' by Margaret Heffernan - a review

Where to start with this book?  It's brilliant.
Margaret Heffernan is a businesswoman, writer and academic whose book, ‘Wilful Blindness’ examines how individuals and organisations alike fail to see or acknowledge things that common sense or hindsight suggests should have been obvious.
In the field of Knowledge Management (KM), we often encounter issues that cause, or have been caused by, such poor vision.  Lessons capture workshop discussions usually reveal facts that were known to all but were never acknowledged at the time when to do so might have made a difference.  Furthermore, the reluctance or inability of some organisations to act upon such lessons can be partly explained by the ideas explored in this book.
Using examples from personal relationships, academic experiments, oil companies, the City, the military and healthcare, the book sets out many different ways in which we blind ourselves to what is happening:
·        Affinity and ‘love is blind’ – the book starts with us as individuals, exploring the concepts of ‘affinity’ and love blindness – whereby we usually end up in relationships similar to us and allow our feelings for partners, family or friends to obscure certain negative aspects of their lives (e.g. unpleasant traits or even health problems).
·        Ideology, convictions and cognitive dissonance – ideologies provide a framework within which we try to make sense of the world but when facts appear to contradict our interpretation, many of us will ignore them as inconvenient or will refuse to act in ways that go against our beliefs, because to do so would force us to admit such beliefs are flawed.
·        Tiredness and distractions – there is a limit to how many hours of work anyone can do before becoming tired.  Furthermore, chronic tiredness (i.e. the result of a lack of sleep over many days or weeks) can result not just in ‘blindness’ but hallucination.  The book also looks at the ‘myth of multi-tasking’ and sets out how we can actually only focus on a limited number of activities or information feeds at any one time.  Against such a backdrop, the case for well-rested aircrew and bans on mobile phone use whilst driving makes a lot of sense.
·        ‘Sticking one’s head in the sand’ – like the myth of the ostrich, we refuse to acknowledge information that, deep down, we know will require us to act.  As individuals we let debts accrue, ignoring the letters from the bank and loan companies.  We indulge in habits such as smoking, drinking and tanning despite the evidence of harm.  Within organisations, people often prefer the status quo to change and so remain silent, not wanting to ‘rock the boat’.
·        ‘Blind obedience’ – strict hierarchies enable effective execution of strategy but without feedback mechanisms or the ability for employees to exercise discretion, unintended consequences are common.  It’s not just military orders that result in unforeseen outcomes, poorly-designed business targets also lead to short-cuts, accidents and death.
·        Cultural conformity – cultures can be positive and enabling just as they can be negative and restrictive.  In the latter case, the unspoken, implied requirements to conform inhibit employees’ creativity, restrict free discussion between them and lead them towards tribalism and ‘groupthink’.  In such environments, anything approaching honesty is tantamount to career suicide.
·        By-standers – the book reveals that when passing someone having a heart attack in a busy street, most people will walk on by, each presuming that someone else will deal the situation.  However, when faced with such a situation on one’s own, most people will try to help.  Additionally, scrutiny actually reduces with every extra layer of oversight.  Again, this is partly explained by a reluctance to stand out, a fear of embarrassment and a presumption that others know better than oneself.  This chapter notably concludes with a chilling letter from a farmer, complaining of having to witness the brutal treatment of prisoners at the nearby Mauthausen concentration camp in World War Two Austria at which, he wrote,
“…inmates are being shot repeatedly; those badly struck live for yet some time, and so remain lying next to the dead for hours and even half a day long.  My property lies upon an elevation next to the Vienna Ditch and one is often an unwilling witness to such outrages.  I am anyway sickly and such a sight makes such a demand on my nerves that in the long run I cannot bear this.  I request that it be arranged that such inhuman deeds be discontinued, or else be done where one does not have to see it.”

·        Out of sight, out of mind – distanced leadership cannot lead; at least, not in the fullest sense of the word.  Remote leaders can be geographically removed from the bulk of their staff but also by structure and attitude.  Just as organisations can be structurally dysfunctional, so the behaviour of management filters out unwelcome truths, reducing yet further its chances of making well-informed decisions.
·        Cassandras and whistle-blowers – perhaps the most depressing chapter is devoted to those brave few that not only see what is happening around them but are prepared to tell others.  To begin with, they use the proper internal channels and find their concerns ignored, belittled or denied – some are sacked at even this point.  Then they resort to leaking information to the media, risking the wrath of their former employers and colleagues whose guilt leads them to attack the messenger.
Margaret Heffernan concludes by suggesting what organisations (businesses, notably) can do to “see better”.  Obviously, with so many ways in which we can hide the truth from ourselves and others, some significant effort is required so that those with the power to make decisions do so with all the facts before them.
We’ll look at these ideas in a future blog post.
For now, suffice to say that this is an excellent book for anyone interested in management, leadership, politics or those with a curiosity about why some things go wrong and how we can learn from them. 
My only slight criticism relates to a couple of minor assertions that appear to belie the author’s own political viewpoint instead of flowing from rational argument but then, as she is good enough to concede, we all have our own biases.
To discuss how your organisation learns, if at all, or to explore how KM can help it to avoid some of the issues discussed here, please visit for the Knoco website or contact me direct.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Where are we headed? How are we going get there? - KM and strategy development

Most successful organisations develop and follow strategies. 
Opinions differ on the components needed for an effective strategy but one well-known perspective is that of the US military, for whom a strategy must cover:
·        Ends – why are we doing this?
·        Ways – how are we going to achieve our aims?
·        Means – what resources will we use?
Companies can choose any number of objectives but Knowledge management (KM) can inform both Ways and Means thus:
·        Ways
o   Increased collaboration
o   Innovation
o   Quality improvements
o   Higher productivity
o   Reduced costs
·        Means
Knowledge management (KM) can and should inform an organisation’s strategy.  Indeed, at Knoco we believe every company should develop a KM strategy to support and enable its overall business strategy.
A KM strategy should include the following elements:
·        A vision – what will the future organisation’s use of KM look like?
·        The scope of KM – what do we mean by KM and where will it apply? (i.e. it’s not document or information management, although those are related disciplines)
·        The business drivers – why are we doing this?  Examples might include cost reduction, new product development, mergers and acquisitions, movement into new markets etc.
·        Opportunities and risks – what initiatives are underway to which KM can be aligned?  What potential threats exist?
·        The value proposition – what is the size of the prize?  How much value can be gained?
·        The critical knowledge areas – where should we start?
·        Stakeholder management – who should be part of this and how do we gain and maintain their support?
More information about Knoco’s KM strategy work can be found on the Knoco website here.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Pay people to share knowledge and they will, funnily enough.

Seeking help from colleagues at work is something that everyone has done; it's common sense.

When asking someone to share their knowledge, and thanking them for doing so, we deepen the bonds that connect us at work.  Moreover, we negotiate implicit deals whereby we agree that we too will help them back, when the time comes.
Encouraging employees to share knowledge with one another like this is at the heart of knowledge management (KM).  It sounds like a good idea, right?  So why do so few organisations actually do it?

One reason is a presumption that these things will happen naturally, with no effort from anyone and certainly with no-one having to spend either time or money to enable such sharing.

Such a presumption would be incorrect because without deliberate effort, even small organisations develop unseen yet powerful barriers to sharing.  One such impediment is the way in which we are rewarded at work, elements of which include:

- Salary
- Bonus
- Promotion
- Awards

Unwittingly, many organisations use rewards that discourage knowledge sharing and effectively penalise those that seek to combine their knowledge with others.  This is because, without firstly identifying and then rewarding the kind of behaviour they seek, employers usually reward people for what they know.

It’s not uncommon for people to be paid more because they have more experience.  Nor is it unusual for companies to encourage competition amongst their employees, either as individuals or as part of wider teams and departments, paying more to those that have gained more valuable knowledge relative to their ‘colleagues’.

However, if organisations actually want their employees to share knowledge then rewarding people on this basis is both counter-productive and confusing.  It’s counter-productive because such rewards encourage knowledge ‘hoarding’, not sharing and lead to defensiveness and the many problems of internal politics.

If someone is rewarded primarily for what they know, relative to their colleagues, why on earth would they share that knowledge with anyone else?

If a salesperson is rewarded mainly for generating higher revenue, relative to their colleagues, why on earth would they share ‘top tips’ or things to avoid with anyone else?

If a branch of a retail company is rewarded mostly for selling more stock, relative to other branches in the region, why on earth would they share good practice or ‘lessons learned’ with anyone else?

Furthermore, such reward systems are confusing because to claim to encourage certain behaviour whilst actually encouraging the opposite shows a lack of alignment between strategy and implementation.

People will actually do what they consider to be in their best (often short-term) interests, so if organisations genuinely want knowledge to be shared then rewards should be designed to encourage them to do so.

This doesn’t mean paying people less for knowing more but paying them more for sharing what they know.

It means openly praising those that share what they learn with their colleagues.

It means paying bonuses to people for coaching and mentoring colleagues over and above their day to day work.

It means rewarding a branch for sharing its lessons with others, perhaps by giving them a share of the other branches’ increased revenues.

It also means promoting those that demonstrate the right behaviour (i.e. honesty, self-criticism, intellectual curiosity) and demoting or firing those that demonstrate the wrong behaviour (i.e. covering up mistakes, defensiveness, resistance to change).

The use of rewards and penalties to promote knowledge management comes under Governance element within Knoco's KM assessment framework, more details of which can be found here.
For a conversation about how to reward the right sort of behaviour to encourage knowledge sharing, please get in touch via the Knoco website.

Monday, 27 October 2014

The expeditionary operation is dead. Long live the expeditionary operation!

The British contribution to the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan has ended.
I served in Afghanistan in the hot and bloody summer of 2008 and left the place convinced that what we were doing was (a) right and (b) working.

I then worked for 3 years in the British Army’s Lessons Exploitation Centre (LXC), helping the Army try to learn from the Afghanistan operation.  Indeed, it was at the LXC that I learnt about Knowledge Management (KM) and Organisational Learning (OL).  Much of what the Army has done in these difficult areas is to its credit and it is rightly considered something of a world-leader in its efforts to learn and share the knowledge that its learning generates.

I have written at length about these efforts elsewhere and a detailed account how the Army tries to learn is available here.

However, my 3 years at the LXC led me to question why such considerable efforts led to so little achievement.  Why did so many varied and costly inputs produce so few valuable outputs?

My conclusion was that the British Army lacks a learning culture and should try to develop one.

The British Army lacks a learning culture because it does not permit dissent, constructive or otherwise.

The British Army lacks a learning culture because senior officers sing their own praises and those of their soldiers but shy away from self-criticism, thereby most definitely ‘leading by example’ and demonstrating that such frankness and honesty is not the way to get ahead.

The British Army lacks a learning culture because of the ‘can do’ attitude that leads all combat arm officers worth their salt to agree to missions for which they have not been sufficiently well prepared, trained or equipped.

The British Army lacks a learning culture because the current difficult operation quickly loses its appeal and the next one will finally be the chance to do things right.

The British Army lacks a learning culture because every venture has to be successful – we always win…we can’t be seen to make mistakes…we can’t lose face.

In his searing account of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, 'Losing Small Wars', Frank Ledwidge quoted one high-flying officer’s analysis of the outcome of the British Army’s efforts in Basra thus, “We were defeated, pure and simple.”  And yet the public narrative at the time was one of ‘work well done’, ‘worthwhile sacrifices’ and soldiers, sailors and airmen and women of whom ‘we can all be rightly proud’.

To do otherwise, to question (let alone criticize) such efforts is seen as ‘doing a disservice’ to the fallen, or being ‘disloyal’ to one’s former colleagues, or basically contorted in any way possible to deflect from the very real possibility that it was one massive mistake.

And so it is today. With the final troops now leaving Camp Bastion, the message being pushed is that we did a good job, that we can be proud and that we have displayed the utmost professionalism etc etc.  For example, listen to this interview from BBC Radio 4’s ‘The World at One’, between Martha Kearney and Major General Richard Nugee, the current Deputy Commander of ISAF’s Kabul HQ.

Utter rubbish.

Brooking no criticism, permitting no honest enquiry into performance and enabling no consideration of courses of action beyond the safe and self-protecting is no way to learn.

As I have done before, I have to conclude once more with these words, from (formerly) Major Giles Harris DSO, quoted in Toby Harnden’s book, ‘Dead Men Risen’,  

“The British are very good at whipping ourselves into a sense of achievement….we almost have to, to make it bearable.  You can’t do something like this and analyse it all the way through and think: “Actually we got that wrong.”  You just can’t.  It takes so much emotional investment.  I’m not saying we lie to ourselves but there’s an element of telling yourself that it’s all right and it’s going well, just to keep going.”[1]

Such honesty.  We need more of it.

[1] Toby Harnden, ‘Dead Men Risen’, Page 558.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Physician, heal thyself!

On this morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) featured strongly, including an interview with its newly-appointed Chief Executive, Simon Stevens.
Earlier in the programme, Sarah Montague interviewed Professor Malcolm Green, a former physician at Royal Brompton who argued for replacing the current “culture of blame and shame”.  In outline, Professor Green said:
·        When things go wrong in the NHS, someone has to be blamed; someone has to be fired;
·        There is little learning from errors;
·        It is uncommon for processes to be improved;
·        The NHS needs to learn from airline and construction industries, which means:
o   Investigating
o   Supporting
o   Working in teams to make sure there is progressive and consistent improvements in processes
o   Incidents and mistakes should be understood and worked through how to stop them happening
The interview went no further, for lack of time.  However, had it done so, it would have been interesting to hear more about how the current culture inhibits learning in the NHS.
The discussion reminded me of Sidney Dekker’s book, “Just Culture” – a review of which is available on this blog here.
In that book, Dekker argues that a balance must be struck between safety and accountability.  When things go wrong, if all that happens is for people to be ‘blamed’ then true learning can never take place.  This is because we all make honest mistakes and always will – “to err is human”. However, if honest mistakes are treated as crimes and ‘justice’ sought, all that will happen is that mistakes will be covered up and we will never learn from them.
This is far from easy and requires strong, bold and compassionate leadership and for people in senior positions to be honest about their own failings as well as others'.
For a conversation about lessons, leadership and how to develop a learning culture, please get in touch directly or via the Knoco website.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

For us to learn from what happened, tell us what happened. That's all.

Knowledge management gets people to share their know-how with others, to help them learn for the future.  Such learning can be positive - as in, "I found this worked really well, you should consider that approach as well."  It can also be negative - as in, "We simply got it wrong and you need to do something different next time round."
In either case, to learn from what happened, we need to know what happened.
Not what we want others to think happened.
Nor that which will paint us in the best light.
Nor that which protects our feelings.
Nor that which protects the feelings of others.
Nor that which we think may help us get promoted.
Nor that which will save us from embarrassment.
Nor that which may get us a pay-rise.
To learn from what happened, we need to know what happened.
That is all.

Such honesty requires and enables a learning culture and is facilitated by supportive and self-critical leadership.  For more thoughts and information on this and other issues, visit the free resources page on the Knoco website and download the paper on organisational learning culture.

Monday, 20 October 2014

A coffee, a chat and another KM convert...

At the weekend, I was having a cup of coffee with other villagers when I was introduced to a newcomer, John.  Our chat went along these lines:
John: So what do you do?
Rupert: I’m a management consultant.  I work in knowledge management.
John: [A look of bafflement on his face] Err, what’s that?
Rupert: Right…what do you do?
John: I used to be an architect, then I became a teacher and now I’m a campaigner.
Rupert: Okay, so in any of those jobs there would have been knowledge in your head from which others could benefit.  Now, imagine you were knocked down by a bus tomorrow – I’m sure your colleagues would miss you for being you and would be upset etc.  But it probably wouldn’t be too long for them to miss you because you and only you were the one that knew how to do certain things.  Once you’re gone, it’s too late to ask, isn’t it?  Well, knowledge management tries to get the stuff that’s in here [pointing to John’s head] out to those that can use it now, before you walk in front of that bus.
John: Oh goodness, tell me more.  I’m running a really important project at the moment and I’m retiring next year.  What should we be doing to address that?
Rupert: Well, firstly, you need to prioritise the knowledge you have – you can’t share everything and time and resources are limited, so you need to work out in advance what is critical and what is nice-to-have.  So you need what we call a knowledge scan.
John: Okay, can you send me details of that?
Rupert: Of course, next you probably want some sort of knowledge capture process, like an interview where you get to share your knowledge with those that need it, preferably in the room but it’s a good idea to record it as well, on audio or maybe even video for some sections.  The key things is that it’s not just you writing down what you think you know but you need someone there that can represent the end-user, to get you to explain jargon and to keep things as straightforward as possible.
John: Right…can you…?
Rupert: I’ll send you the details….
John: Thanks!
Rupert: Then there’s what you do with the knowledge once it’s out there.  It needs to be tidied up and made presentable, then put into what we call a ‘knowledge asset’, which is basically an online location, such as a wiki or portal that can be accessed by all that need it, as well as edited and updated as things change and the knowledge changes with it.
John: Gosh, I didn’t even know such things existed.  This is really serendipitous, us meeting like this.  Please send me whatever you think we’ll need and then we can discuss.
Rupert: Happy to help.
If you’d like a conversation, with or without the coffee, about how to measure, capture, analyse, protect, share, and in any other way manage your knowledge, please get in touch or visit the Knoco website.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

We can't afford to lose you, please stay. Hey wait, where are you going??!

I’ve spent the last few weeks capturing lessons for a large engineering client.  In all we identified 43 high-level, high-impact lessons from a recent project.  My part in the process is over.  What should now happen is that the lessons are assigned to people that can get the ball rolling in terms of implementation – i.e. actually changing things as a result of the recommendations we made.

(A guide to the 10 steps in the life of a lesson starts here.)

The detailed content of the lessons is a matter for the client alone, given the need for confidentiality.  However, I was struck by the many ways in which one can view the issues encountered on projects and, in particular, ‘sticking plasters’ are often proposed over solutions that will endure.
Whilst this tendency was apparent across a range of issues, I’ll focus on those areas where my own discipline can help.
To summarise some of the problems encountered:
·        A number of people with very specialist knowledge and experience left the project during the planning stage;
·        Replacements were very hard to (a) identify and (b) recruit;
·        The project’s execution phase was prolonged, necessitating a handover between 2 teams.  The second team, lacking the experience and continuity of the first, proved less capable and required close supervision.
Initial attempts to propose solutions to these problems resulted in the following suggestions:
·        Pay specialists more money, to make it less likely that they will want to leave (i.e. either a general increase or a specific retention bonus upon completion of the project);
·        Amend contract terms to prevent specialists leaving without lengthy notice periods (Note: military terms of service often require personnel to give 6-12 months’ notice; in theory this enables the identification and posting of a suitably qualified replacement);
·        Overlap the 2 teams to create a prolonged ‘handover’, giving the second one more time to benefit from the experience of the first.
These are all very well but only this last one recognises that, at the heart of this issue, is knowledge and the need to retain it.  Other observations of mine include:
·        Paying specialists more money might end up being very expensive, increasingly so as rivals follow suit in what might well become a self-defeating competition; furthermore, to do so doesn’t address why such individuals are considered so valuable;
·        Amending contract terms also doesn’t do anything to reduce the value of such specialists either and, in an organisation lacking military discipline and ethos, might create the risk of essential people wishing to move on and resentful at not being permitted to do so; it would also create a perverse incentive for people to deny having certain ‘niche’ knowledge and skills;
·        With the costs of some specialist capabilities being what they are, a prolonged handover could be very expensive indeed.
We have looked at the issue of protecting knowledge before, as in this blog post.
Having framed the issue in this way, I then suggested that, as well as its original suggestions, the client should consider the following ideas – ideas that apply to all organisations that run projects:
·        Identify the critical knowledge areas at greatest risk of loss, usually through a Knowledge Scan;
·        Introduce processes to identify and retain such knowledge, through Knowledge Harvesting Interviews and Lessons Capture;
·        Synthesise and share such knowledge, by creating Knowledge Assets;
·        Ensure that such processes are resourced, supported and formalised, through a Knowledge Management plan.
For a conversation about these or any other KM services, please contact me directly or through the Knoco website.