Knowledge is Flow

Dina on KM: “the very fact that its called Knowledge Management irks me – how can something like “knowledge” be “managed” – knowledge is flow. Right On.

“[S]haring what you know is more important than the knowledge itself.” [16-Jan]

Sharing, the flow of ideas and information amongst people, can be “managed” no more than water, and greater attempts to “manage” flow will only result in one of two things happening: all flow will stop (which a smart manager doesn’t want) or people will find alternate routes (more information’s going into externally-hosted weblogs than into “official” knowledge-sharing tools). I believe that the challenging question for managers these days isn’t “which tool should we use?” but rather “how can I foster an environment where people feel comfortable sharing what they know?”


Reflection is known by other names, including “Thorns and Roses,” “Retrospectives,” “Post-event Review.”

We can make our experiences more meaning and effective if we reflect on them afterwards. Reflection is simply the process of talking, sharing experiences immediately after an event or activity.

Reflection provides an opportunity for everyone in the group to have input. Unless we plan times during which everyone gets a chance for input, it is possible that individuals who are less assertive or confident may never say anything, even if they have valuable insights.

“Reflection is a form of careful listening and sharing that allows Scouts and leaders to assess an experience and get from it the greatest value it has to offer.” — The Scoutmaster Handbook, Chapter 11, “Working With Boys”

Reflection is best accomplished by asking open-ended questions such as “what,” “how, “when,” and where.” In reflection, there are no right or wrong answers. Ask questions about the good things first, like “What was good about the way decisions were made?” or “What did the group do well?” Then you can ask about improvement: “What was the problem with the way you were communicating?” or “Were there any problems with what happened?” Allow everyone to share their observations and feelings; this is the evaluation part of the reflection.

Open an informal discussion with the group, inviting them to share some of their reactions to their experience. Encourage the sharing of ideas by asking questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. Guide the discussion to help the group members think through what they have experienced, as well as giving first impressions. Quick answers can help you discover feelings; deeper thinking will help them discover and solve their own problems.

Guidelines for reflection:

  • Avoid the temptation to dominate the conversation.
  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Be positive. Reflection can be enlightening and often fun.
  • Remind everyone that the environment of Scouting is a “put-down free zone” — we want to build up others not put them down.
  • Encourage the group to determine the value of the experience they just had, focusing first on the positive aspects
  • Generalize the experience. Help group members make the connection between the activity they just completed and other Scouting (and life) activities.
  • Steer group members toward setting goals based on what they have learned about their recent experience.

Opportunities for reflection:

  • Scoutmaster’s conference
  • Board of Review
  • Scoutmaster Minute
  • Patrol Leaders’ Council meeting
  • Mealtime
  • Evening campfire
  • Waiting for transportation
  • …and many others

Adapted from several sources for the Scoutmaster and Assistant Scoutmaster Specific Leadership Training course offered by the North Fulton District training team. Permission is granted freely for use by other BSA training teams.

Corporate Culture-Shifting

Back on the seventh, I asked if sharing is natural, and pondered if perhaps some of us have been trying too hard to take the direct approach, holding classes and running reports while “implementing” a new “methodology.”

This past weekend, sitting around the campfire watching our Scouts cook their dinners, I had the opportunity to chat with Ed, a friend who’s business is corporate education. “Is it possible,” I asked him, “to change a culture through training?” The short answer was yes, though it takes time – his estimate is 3-5 years. Also, he said, success depends greatly on two things: the target audience and real management support.

My friend’s first answer spoke right at the heart of my earlier post: “You can be most successful if you find the right people to train first.” In other words, if you can find the early adopters, the people who find change easy to make and even welcome it. Bonus points if those people are also influencers or connectors. He admitted that the other tack, training everyone and hoping that propoents will outweigh naysayers can work, but success isn’t anywhere near as likely.

Ed then turned to another familiar topic, management support. His anecdote came from years ago when he’d been asked by AT&T to change the workflow patterns of their “pole-climbers” – the guys who came out to fix a wiring problem. Where they had just been fixing technical problems and moving on, their management now wanted them to help put a friendly face to the company. When they finished with the repairs, they were then to clean their hands and find the homeowner who had reported the problem. Smile, thank them for being a good customer and reporting the issue, explain that the problem was solved and “have a nice day ma’am.” Great idea, right?

Oh, and at the same time guys, we need you to improve your “time to resolution” – you’ve been averaging three problems fixed each day; now we need you to do five.

Three guesses what the repairmen’s reaction to that was, and, as my mother used to say, the first two don’t count. In the long run, neither did the company’s desire for army of happy-faced repairmen. The managers, intent on “making the numbers”, drove any thought of quality or customer satisfaction right out of the process.

Is Knowledge Sharing Natural?

“The most direct approach isn’t always the best.” So says the Chinese-cookie fortune that I’ve got taped to my display. It jumps out at me this morning as I browse the weblogs of two gentlemen for whom information flow is a normal course of nature.

…as I entered the business world, it simply made no sense to me that computers were being used solely for computing and “data processing”; the collaborative online work environment that I’d taken for granted, that I’d used day in and day out, was simply missing in action. Our work lives are all about interpersonal connections, our businesses processes are structured into connections amongst people and systems that must be coordinated. What better use of technology than to help people to connect?” [Ray Ozzie] Ya see, Ray’s one who “gets it” when the topic turns to sharing information. He sees blogs, Groove and other tools as enabling individuals, allowing them to working together. As such, he doesn’t see a need for defined process changes to take advantage of all this wonderful stuff, it should just come naturally.

We’ve got our set of sharing technologies here, being added to an long-existing workflow. Given the entrenchment of “the old way” of doing things and the day-to-day pressure of metric-driven managers, “what comes natural” for many people is “what we’ve always done.” As Jon Udell puts it, “you can’t swim upstream against what people naturally want to do.” Jon sees more and more people discovering the wonderful world of sharing – and perhaps that’s what it needs to be, discovered instead of having it forced upon them. Maybe some of us have been trying too hard to take the direct approach, holding classes and running reports while “implementing” a new “methodology.”

Have you had more success with “formal” methods of rolling out a set of KM practices and technologies or by simply showing those who appear eager and letting them evangelize it as they go along?

Measuring Knowledge Workers

Last week I mentioned the importance of good “metrics” when managing Knowledge Workers. This week that came home to roost, as I had to provide input for yearly performance reviews on individuals, managers, and groups.

Since the beginning of our KM journey, we’ve been talking about the behaviors we want to encourage. Sharing of knowledge (creating solutions). Reusing others’ solutions. Updating existing solutions. In the western statistics-driven society, the question becomes how to best do that without doing more harm than good.

If you reward sharing by counting the number of solutions created, then people will just create lots – and we’ve found time and time again that results in “a big pile of useless junk” and a knowledgebase full of duplicate solutions. It didn’t matter that the answer was already there; folks felt they had to create their own copy. Needless to say, this makes updating information an impossible task.

If you just measure the number of times that employees reuse an existing solution (provided that your tools allow you to do so), they’ll be tempted to just click the button to get points… even if that solution didn’t help them. If they know the answer but don’t see it quickly enough in a knowledgebase, they’ll click anyway.

If editing of existing solutions becomes the primary metric then folks will be tempted to edit just for editing’s sake, to get into “a style contest.” We’ve seen cases where someone claimed that everything in the knowledge base was wrong – absolutely wrong. What he really meant, when we got down to it, was that the solutions weren’t written the way he would have written them.

We’ve settled on using a percentage, attempting to measure how often our knowledge workers use the knowledge effectively. We divide the number of times that any of the above activities are performed by the number of problems they solve. In a perfect world, every problem would either be in the knowledge base already (reuse it), be there but not quite be complete (update it), or be brand new (create a solution).

This week, as I said, we “ran the numbers” for the past few weeks and months on all the individuals. We also looked at groups as a whole and at their managers and coaches. How did they fare? As with anything done by humans, of course, there was a variety in the level of performance. I was pleased to see, though, that there were very few individuals who over-did one aspect of the job – in other words our lack of emphasis on any one of the above three areas worked.

By the way, please don’t think I’m saying that these numbers are the be-all and end-all of the yearly evaluation. They are just one part of our input to the managers; we also discuss attitude, non-measurable contributions, and other topics.

As I mentioned, we don’t just measure individuals, we look at groups as a whole and the managers & coaches. I’ll talk more about that in my next article.

* – We refer to the items of knowledge that are shared as
“solutions.” You might call them articles, documents, weblog posts, or something else entirely, it doesn’t really matter too much.

Knowledge Management Metrics

…plans to implement knowledge management often require prior exercises in changing corporate culture, moving employees from a gatekeeper culture, where knowledge is kept hidden and produced only when it can enhance the employee’s value, to a sharing culture, where knowledge sharing is encouraged and rewarded.

This is absolutely true, without a doubt. The other half of my job (when I’m not being a Perl programmer) is bringing teams in my company into the Knowledge-Centered world. Over and over we see groups – managers of groups, really – take the “tool” approach. “It’s just a tool, we can give 20 minutes of training and they’ll be ready.”

Bzzzt. Wrong answer.

Just as installing Excel won’t make me an accountant, installing a KM application won’t give me the skills and culture that are needed to truely share knowledge. Neither will simply handing them a weblogging tool, I’m afraid.

For employees to really share their knowledge requires some “cultural” properties not present in most companies:

  • Everyone needs to realize that sharing of knowledge is not only of value for the company but also to themselves, and that sharing what you know is more important than the knowledge itself. In most situations, we’re valued for what we have and what we know. If you want to know how to work the frumple machine, you need to come ask me. That makes me feel important, valued. And I know that I won’t be fired because of that knowledge – if you let me go then the frumple will never work properly again.
  • They need to be recognized for the contribution their sharing makes. If I share some knowledge about frumpling with you, then you get a bonus because you’re more productive… I’m never going to share with you again. You got the brownie for my effort and I’m not gonna let myself get burnt by that twice.This almost always means that “metrics” need to change. If you’re in a helpdesk or call center, for example, and you’re measuring your people on the number of calls they’re taking, that’s what they’re going to do – take calls. If you want them to share what they’re learning from those calls, you need to find a way to measure them on it. Don’t, though, just fall into the trap of measuring them on the numer of “solutions” they capture. That’s a great way to fill a database with useless information. Defining metrics is one of the most difficult parts of the whole task.

More on this later. (Later came on 2002-01-26)

aside: J.Robb refers to the use of weblogging software for Knowledge Management as K-Logs.