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.