Monday, December 22, 2008

Knowledge is volunteered

And now you know why the words “a culture of trust” always comes up when you start discussing knowledge sharing, communities of practice and innovation.

This kitty won’t be back in your lap for a couple of days.

"Knowledge can only be volunteered, not conscripted". (David Snowden)

This is is one of David Snowden's heuristics, rules of thumb, for knowledge management. David Snowden is one of the gurus of knowledge management and worth paying attention to.

Building relationships, a culture of acknowledgement (giving credit where credit is due) are essential to building trust.

So if you talk about knowledge sharing in an organization long enough, the discussion will inevitably arrive at a statement like "Knowledge sharing is part of our organization's culture" or just as likely "is not".

Follow the conversation further down the lines of why the organizational culture around information sharing works or doesn't and "trust" pops up.

"Culture, trust and communications" all start to appear in the conversation. Why they interplay well in successful organizations and badly in dysfunctional organizations is a function of how well internal communications people and managers understand:

Sharing really good information and know-how requires trust. If the recipient has a history of behaving badly (especially a recent history), trust is low and the expert holding the really good information or know-how does just that. They hold onto the really good information. They will appear to conform if pressured to deliver good information. They can, with justification, deliver the conventional wisdom of the day. They can tell you enough about their work for you to write a detailed job description. In Larry Prusak's words, they "are canny, they will appear to conform".

Meanwhile the organization suffers because really good information does not emerge nor does a real understanding of the expert's know-how reside in the organization. The classic Joni Mitchell truism: "
Don't it always seem to go. That you don't know what you got 'til it's gone". And when the expert leaves, you arrive at the succession planning crisis.

So it is about trust. Trust is not given. Trust is earned. And being trust-worthy is where knowledge sharing begins and ends. Internal communications are most often focused on avoiding generating fear. What the focus has to be is what generates trust.

So where there is information sharing issues in an organization, "we don't do a good job of sharing information necessary for our work", is usually a sign that there is also a trust issue to be dealt with as well as information sharing processes and tools. Don't assume that a knowledge management initiative will solve trust issues. That requires an astute facilitator to have a careful conversation with staff and managers about what more trustworthy communications would look like.

At the core of many trust issues around information sharing are recognition issues.

For that reason, a good knowledge management initiative starts by working with human resources to improve employee recognition processes. I spent my first three years in KM on a employee recognition team. It still is one of the most important staff voluntary teams in our organization. The fact that it thrives by recruiting volunteers and not by staff assignment is a vivid illustration of this truism.

So David Snowden's truism explains why the mind dump collected from the departing expert does not work. It explains why reward based contributions to a knowledge library don't work. It explains why some communities of practice work and others are still born.

If you have problems with information sharing and a "culture of trust", start examining what the organization does for recognition and trustworthy communications.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Knowledge Sharing: It's 80% about people and 20% about tools

Ron Weisenburger was the Government of Alberta's first Chief Knowledge Officer. He is the author of the heuristic (rule of thumb) in this blog's title. I had the good fortune to work with Ron for five years in knowledge management. He had the reputation of being one of the "wise men" in the department of agriculture. He also is one of the best networked individuals I have ever met. He has a dazzling I.Q. and a capacity to bring good ideas to cutting edge implementation. He set a bar for knowledge management practitioners that continues to challenge me and others who know Ron. He's retired but still engaged. And he provides advice to organizations that are intelligent enough to listen.

Onto Ron's heuristic: "Knowledge sharing: it's 80% about people and 20% about tools".

It is the first, the primary, the most important guide on what to pay attention to when cultivating knowledge sharing in an organization.

I return to this rule of thumb regularly to review my KM action plan and activities. When I find myself spending too much time down in the weeds making tools work, I know it is time to switch gears. Time to do advocacy, communications and coaching. You don't often find a coach in the office during working hours. And you have to interact with staff to coach knowledge sharing. We never could track down Ron. He was always in someone else's office learning about their information sharing challenges, reminding them of the tools that already existed and then brainstorming with them on how to make the information sharing process and tools work better for them in their work.

Do this and the need to practice elevator speeches to executive team about why knowledge management matters to the organization is reduced.

Ron's heuristic also puts to bed debates about different tools and the debate about the generational war between knowledge management and Social Media. Most of the early innovators in KM would acknowledge that the tools in the early days did not work very well. And most would also acknowledge Marshall McLuhan's:
"The medium is the message". So tools do matter.

And if you think we have figured out the implications of the Internet and "connectivity" in the last 10 years, then give your head a shake. Because the reason the "Medium is the message" is because it is the "medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action."

But all the attention and discussion about how tools shape and transform human interactions can lead us away from the essential. Knowledge sharing is a rich, complex human activity. Focus on the people side of knowledge sharing and the tools (and their importance) fall into place.

Now start the conversation again with; "Knowledge sharing: It's 80% about people and 20% about tools".

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tom Davenport rediscovers Knowledge Management in Enterprise 2.0

In 1998, Tom Davenport and Laurence (Larry) Prusak wrote Working Knowledge. It came to be recognized as the primer for knowledge management a decade ago.

So where do the new Web 2.0 tools, blogs, wikis, tagging, Facebook, fit together with organizational knowledge sharing? Tom Davenport had positioned himself as a skeptic until recently. And yes he blogs on Tom Davenport, the Next Big Thing.

Here's an interview with Tom Davenport: "Talking Social Media with Tom Davenport" (Nov. 12, 2008). Tom's views on knowledge management has always been influenced by his focus on process management (he is responsible for overall management of Babson's College's "Process Management Research Center" ). But he also smart enough to recognize and advocate that innovations also result from knowledge sharing that do not follow along the organization's regular business processes.

Here's Tom's original commentary on the subject from his own blog: "Enterprise 2.0, The New, New Knowledge Management" (Feb. 19, 2008).

In the discussion of "old wine in new bottles", we get back to a foundational heuristic in knowledge management voiced by Ron Weisenburger, ex-Chief Knowledge Officer, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development:

"Knowledge sharing, it's 80% about people and 20% about tools."

Davenport and Prusak repeat this rule of thumb midway down in this article, "The Knowledge: Tom Davenport". "If you’re spending more than a third of your efforts in KM on the technology, you’re probably neglecting the human side".

So the tools have gotten better. So knowledge sharing is easier to do.

For those trying to organize our companies for effectiveness and efficiency, the messiness of knowledge sharing that the new tools enable is a source of angst. Hence, Tom Davenport's question: "Is Web 2.0 Living on Thin Air" .

But if we listen to Tom Davenport, we recognize the power of the new tools to promote a new wave of knowledge sharing in our organizations. It is noteworthy that the blog interview, "Talking Social Media with Tom Davenport" came from a staff member's blog at SAS (the statistics software company) and was included in their e-mail newsletter.

So what do we do to coach and support our people to help them discover what know-how and really good information they need to share in our organizations?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Rules of Thumb for Knowledge Sharing


Heuristics are useful rules of thumb. Coming from trial and error or experimentation, heuristics succinctly describe key principles without elaborating a model or explanation.

A common one is: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailor take warning”. Weather systems in the northern hemisphere generally catch a ride on a jet stream travelling west to east. So, a red sunset at evening indicates a clearing sky to the west; whereas in the morning, a red sunrise indicates a storm system is approaching. Which is easier to remember and captures the essence of knowledge about weather and sailing? The rule of thumb of course.

Knowledge management has its heuristics too. There are five that I keep close. When a KM project heads off the rails, or I need to get back to some first principles:

Here are the five rules of thumb (or common sense) about knowledge and knowledge sharing that I keep rediscovering:

1. Knowledge sharing: It’s 80% about people, 20% about tools.
(from Ron Weisenberger, the first CKO in the Government of Alberta)

2. Knowledge can only ever be volunteered, not conscripted.
(from David Snowden, Cognitive Edge Pte)

3. I only know what I know when I need to know it.
(again from David Snowden). David’s corollary: “I don’t know what I need to know until I need to know it” is just as insightful.

4. I know more than I can say and I will say more than I can write down
(The third rule of thumb from David Snowden)

5. People are canny; they will appear to conform.
(from Larry Prusak)

These heuristics of knowledge frame how we should approach knowledge management. I wish I could offer the links to the models of human behaviour and how humans learn. But in the end, it may be more useful to return to these rules of thumb as we try to navigate the seas of collaboration, innovation and learning in our communities and organizations.

I’ll try to summarize what I’ve learned about these KM rules of thumb next time.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Knowledge Management Essentials: Beginnings

I've been asked to speak at the "Knowledge Management in Public Health" conference, Hamilton, Ontario, Nov. 3, 4. Sponsored by the National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools, the conference intends to bring together leaders and change agents in knowledge management and public health.
Here's the link to the NCCMT website for information about the conference. Here's the irony. Trained in physics, a practicing engineer, regarded as primarily as a semi-IT person in my organization for collaboration tools and software, I'm speaking in the "culture" stream. How does "culture", knowledge management and I have a good fit? You have to know that I became an engineer so that I could work with people. In 1975, as a farm boy graduating with a physics degree, I went with CUSO to east central Africa, Malawi, to teach high school. I taught lots of geography, mathematics and a bit of science. I also learned lots about third world development, which is mostly rural development and realized that was primarily agricultural development. Yes, roads, schools, hospitals are all important and essential. But economic development was at the core (to provide a tax base to support these other infrastructures) and farmers were the key. Farmers are great for driving an economy. Give them a bit of money and they spend it. I came back to Canada convinced that agricultural development was critical. When a country ignores its agricultural economy, it is on the road to ruin. This includes Canada. So I became an agricultural engineer as the easiest way to leverage my physics degree towards agriculture. As I started to practice agricultural engineering with farmers as clients, I discovered that my exposure to third world development and high school teaching was formative. I was talking to farmers about changing their practices and I was dealing with adult learners, who mostly learn by doing. Change and adult learners. Agricultural land grant universities in the USA and the provincial departments of agriculture in Canada have a rich tradition in developing the theories and practices of adult education, innovation and community development in a practice called "extension". "Extension" and I hit it off. From the viewpoint of practitioners of agricultural extension, knowledge management is just one component of support for adult learning and helping change happen. Successful extension helps with fast learning. The "fast" in fast learning is predicated on acceptance of change. So understanding how people learn fast (the coaching that prepares and supports change by an adult learner) is key to knowledge management. Understanding how you can coach, advocate and influence change in behaviour leads you to the "culture" side of knowledge management. So as an "extension" practitioner, I have spent lots of time thinking about culture and behaviour in knowledge management. What will follow in subsequent blogs is a summary of some of the key points from of my presentation on KM Essentials.