It’s often easier to talk about best practice than to just get on with it. I’m sure lots of us have sat in after-action reviews or meetings where projects have been comprehensively analysed and “ways to do it better” have been skilfully identified. Then everyone returns to their desks and carries on as before! There are many reason it happens – change takes time, teamwork and, often, training. Business as usual can dictate the pace of work (even if that work entails time-consuming activities such as trawling through over-loaded email inboxes to find important information). Introducing new and more effective ways of working can prove to be ‘too much hassle’ – particularly if senior team-members consider themselves exempt from adopting new practices.
Maybe that’s why we’re more willing to invest external agents with the authority to make change or perform services that we could, if we chose, do for ourselves.
Gary Colet is the Facilitator for the Knowledge Retention and Transfer special interest group at the Knowledge and Innovation Network of Warwick University Business School. He has a strong aversion to the term “Knowledge Management” preferring the description “Organisational Learning”. It’s not difficult to see why he has a problem with the KM handle – it’s not exactly explanatory, and when practitioners (as they often are) are called on to explain it, the descriptions of KM’s value and impact can vary widely.
So, organisational learning is what Gary facilitates.
The LIKE evening started with Gary calling on four volunteers to assist in illustrating how ‘knowledge’ rapidly degrades when passed along a human chain. The first volunteer was told a story that contained a number of facts. Their job was to relate the tale to the next volunteer, ensuring the facts were transmitted. That volunteer then had to relate the story to the next person to enter the room and so on. Surprisingly, one of the participants asked if she could take notes – Gary said that was the first time anyone had ever thought to do so (maybe not so surprising that a LIKE member should think so practically ). His point was well illustrated though – facts evaporated in the telling, and the name of a publication morphed into another (the New Scientist became the New Statesman).
We moved on to analyse the shelf-life and value of various examples of knowledge/information transmitters:
- Transactional information such as emails = low value, short life
- Round-tables and seminars = high value, short life
- Meeting minutes, FAQs, check lists = low value, long life
- Partner contracts, design rationales, projects decisions = high value, long life
Transient knowledge fits into the high value, short life category – and the high value makes this knowledge well worth eliciting. Gary is often called in at times of change in organisations: when a round of redundancies is taking place, or when acquisitions and mergers are in progress. He facilitates meetings or dinners during which the outgoing individual (always a key team member or senior leader) is encouraged to pass on their knowledge and experience.
Gary calls his approach to achieving this ‘O.P.E.C.’: Open, Probe, Examine, Close. So his questions begin with “Tell me about your current role?” or “Tell me about the project you’ve just completed?” – deliberately broad and open queries aimed at opening the dialogue in an unchallenging way. With the discussion initiated, he moves on to the probing questions: “What were your particular successes in…..?”, “What were you trying to achieve in doing…..?”,“What didn’t go so well in…..?”, etc: the kinds of enquiry aimed at garnering facts and details. Then come the ‘examining’ queries: “Why didn’t it work so well?”, “Why did you choose that approach?”, “Who was your most useful contact?”. These questions focus on clarifying details and encouraging the individual to make their implicit knowledge explicit. Finally he asks the important closing questions – for example “If there were three main things you’d speak to your successor about, what would they be?”
As anyone who’s facilitated these exchanges can testify – the process is not easy or comfortable. The last thing a person who is feeling bruised and cynical may want is to share their professional knowledge with the organisation that is discarding them! So, as Gary pointed out, the approach you take is vitally important. Even if the organisation believes they own, or have a right to, that person’s knowledge, the individual is likely to see things very differently. These structured exchanges do, however, offer them something worthwhile: respect for their professionalism and the value of their know-how; acknowledgment of their contribution and importance to their soon-to-be former colleagues. By making this respect and appreciation clear to the individual at the outset, exchanges which begin with hostility and suspicion can quickly become positive and rewarding experiences for both parties.
It may seem trite to say “do as you would be done by” – but it’s a fact that this sentiment underpins good practice in Organisational Learning (or KM, sorry Gary). The moment you allow yourself to believe that time is too precious to invest in enabling individuals to exchange knowledge and information is the moment you step onto the wheel of organisational amnesia and recurrent mistakes from the past.