Why Knowledge Management needs empowerment

Knowledge management needs empowerment – Knowledge provides empowerment.

There is a close link between knowledge and empowerment. Let me illustrate this with two scenarios.

Scenario 1.
Betty is writing a policy paper. She looks online for ideas, and comes across some busy discussions from a similar organisation in another part of the world. Intrigued, she gets in touch with the people in the discussion, and receives some really useful experience, stories, tips and hints that should really improve her policy. Excited, she updates her policy paper with this new knowledge, and takes it to her boss, Johann. “I’m sorry Betty, I am going to take this out” Johann tells her. “We’ve never done it like this – it seems rather risky. Let’s stick to what we know, shall we?” Betty leaves the meeting, dejected.

Scenario 2.
Ben is writing a policy paper. Ben’s boss, Jutta, comes in and say “Bob, I want to you take a fresh view here. I want a policy that is going to make a big impact, and I want you to find first out how others do it”. Bob is excited by this challenge. He looks online for ideas, and comes across some busy discussions from a similar organisation in another part of the world. Intrigued, he gets in touch with the people in the discussion, and gets some really useful experience, stories, tips and hints that should really improve the policy. “Good work, Bob” says Jutta. “We’ve never done it like this before, but there’s enough knowledge and experience here to suggest this might be a good way forward.”.

Betty is disempowered. She has the knowledge but is not allowed to apply it. She probably won’t bother to look for ideas from elsewhere any more, she will just do what her boss expects her to do – play it safe. In Betty’s case, the lack of empowerment stifles Knowledge Management, as she was unable to apply the knowledge she found.

Bob is empowered. He is empowered to look for knowledge and to use it, and the knowledge he finds enables him to write a better policy paper. You could say that the knowledge he finds also empowers him, in an intellectual sense, to write a better paper and so deliver a better policy. In Bob’s case, he was empowered to deliver a better policy, and the knowledge he found enabled him to deliver.

You will find that Knowledge Management is far easier to implement within a culture of empowerment, and delivers far better results.

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Why winners don’t learn (the winner’s curse)

Teams and individuals who are winning, are often the poorest at learning – a particular form of “winner’s curse”.

Who learned more about Tank Warfare from World War One? Was it the victorious Americans, British and French, or the losing Germans?

It was, of course, the Germans.

The story below is taken from a review of a book by Max Boot.

“The British military and government, before Churchill became Prime Minister, lost interest in tanks. In France, Captain Charles de Gaulle was interested in fast-moving mechanized warfare, but the French military favored defensive warfare and firepower.  The United States also devoted little interest in armored warfare. Writes Boot:

“The U.S. had deployed a Tank Corps in World War I, but it was disbanded in 1920 over the anguished objections of two of its leading officers — Colonel George S. Patton and Major Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“It was the Germans who were most interested in fast-moving mechanized warfare. Writes Boot:

“Around 1934, Colonel Heinz Guderian, chief of staff of the Inspectorate of Motorized Troops, gave the Fuehrer [Adolf Hitler] a short tour d’horizon of tank warfare. “Hitler,” Guderian wrote, “was much impressed by the speed and precision of movement of our units, and said repeatedly, “that’s what I need! That’s what I want!'”

“In 1939 Hitler had a three-hour parade of mechanized forces. Fuller was there, invited because of his fascist sympathies. Hitler said to him, “I hope you were pleased with your children.” Fuller replied:

“Your Excellency, they have grown up so quickly that I no longer recognize   them”. 

The Winners’ curse is that the winner often fails to learn, and so is overtaken in the next competition by the loser. That’s why Germany overtook the Allied powers in terms of tank warfare in 1939, and the loser became winner for a while.  Winners are complacent, and reluctant to change. Losers are eager not to lose again.

We often see this “Winner’s Curse” in our Bird Island KM exercises, where the team that builds the tallest initial tower seems to learn the least from the others (and often from the Knowledge Asset as well).  Very often they are not the winning team at the end of the exercise.

The very fact that a team is ahead in the race, means that they have less incentive to learn. So the team with the tallest tower “relaxes” a bit. The best learners are often the teams with the second-tallest tower, as they know that with a little bit of learning effort, they can be in the lead. Also there seems to be a tendency to learn more readily from failure, than from success.

The story of the Wright Brothers is another example – having developed the first effective aeroplane, they failed to learn and optimise their design, and were eventually outcompeted. Their design became obsolete and the Wright Brithers went out of business.

Beware of the Winner’s Curse in your KM programs. Ensure the winning teams also continue to learn. Capture lessons from successes and failures, and encourage even the winners to keep pushing to do even better.  Learning from failure is psychologically easier, but learning from success allows success to be repeated and improved.

Learning from success is very difficult, but it is the most powerful learning you can do.

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The importance of terminology in KM

Each organisation has its own culture, and the terms you use in KM need to fit that culture.

Every organisation that works with knowledge needs some form of Knowledge Management, but the words they use to describe component elements of KM may be very different. They will choose terms that fit the culture of the organisation, and reject terms (and often concepts) that sound wrong, or which jar against their cultural language.

Let me give you a couple of examples. 
  • A rules-driven, “hard engineering” culture may appoint a Chief Knowledge Officer, who determines a Knowledge Management Policy. Accountability for knowledge is delegated to Technical Authorities who gather Knowledge in a Process Database, codify it into Standard Operating Procedures, and develop and share knowledge through Process Delivery Networks.  Knowledge is supported in the business through KM SPOCs (single points of contact). 
  • A softer “creative” culture may use different words. They may have a Head of Knowledge, who coordinates co-creation of a Knowledge Charter. Different knowledge topics are supported by Knowledge Stewards, who gather knowledge in a Creative Commons, codify it into Knowledge Nuggets, and develop and share knowledge through Learning Communities. Knowledge is supported in the business through Knowledge Activists, or Knowledge Gardeners.
The roles may actually be very similar, the processes may be the same, and the overall KM Framework may operate in a very similar way in both cultures, but the terminology has to be very different if the words, and the concepts they describe, are to be accepted. 
If you try introducing Knowledge Activists in a hard engineering culture, or Standard Operating Procedures in a soft creative culture, it will go down like a lead balloon.

Choose KM terms that fit the culture, and you will find that thay are far more easily accepted.

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Describing and measuring the KM culture

To manage something, you need to be able to measure it. But measuring culture is a very difficult task.

Culture is a key issue in Knowledge Management, but culture itself is hard to define and hard to describe  (my favourite definition of culture is “how we behave when nobody is watching”).

Culture is self-reinforcing. The stories within an organisation, the beliefs, the incentive systems, the behaviours, all form a coherent whole, and all reinforce each other. If a culture is one of ruthless internal competition, for example, then this is reinforced from all sides. The posters on the wall are about “employee of the month”. The CEO talks about “the best sales team in the company,” peers talk about “we beat the French team this week!”, you find more (or less) money in your pay packet depending on how internally competitive you were. You don’t help other colleagues – why would you? They wouldn’t help you! Everything feeds into a self-reinforcing, self-sustaining situation.

 In order to be able to influence a culture, to help if become more supporting to Knowledge management (to become more of a “learning culture”), we need to understand

  • What the culture is now 
  • What we would like the culture to be in the future 
  • What are the factors that are re-inforcing those elements of culture which need to be changed. 
However the first step – describing, defining and measuring the current culture – is a major hurdle. 

Describing and measuring culture

Describing and measuring culture is not an easy thing to do. Culture is fuzzy and multi-dimensional, expressed in the way people instinctively think and respond, and a culture can be driven by many things.

A “just culture” for example, has been defined as a culture in which front line operators and others are not punished for actions, omissions or decisions taken by them that are commensurate with their experience and training, but where gross negligence, wilful violations and destructive acts are not tolerated. This description is of the reward and punishment scheme, which will drive a culture of openness and willingness to learn, but describes the cultural drivers (punishment, tolerance) rather than the culture itself.

 You would assume that, if punishments were changed from being disproportionate to experience, to commensurate with experience, then the culture in the organisation would change. But can we describe this change well enough to measure the change, rather than measuring the drivers?

In Knoco we have been grappling with this question for a while.  We do not want a measure of the cultural drivers – knowledge management implementation will affect most or all of the drivers – but a measure of the way the culture responds, that will allow us to track cultural change as Knowledge Management processes, tools, roles and governance are introduced.

Instead we have developed a measurement tool that looks at attitudes, and that measures people’s alignment with a series of attitude statements. These attitude statements are aligned with 10 different cultural dimensions (described here), and allows us to measure, over time, how attitudes shift as knowledge management is introduced. It allows us to look at cultural differences between different sectors, or the different attitudes of management and staff.

This first step towards being able to measure culture also allows you to choose one or two cultural elements, such as “Not Invented here”, or the Knower/Learner axis, as a starting point.

Cultural measurement, although difficult, is well worth attempting, given the importance of Culture in Knowledge Management Implementation.

Contact Knoco  for more details on our cultural measurement tool

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Pride as a KM disincentive/incentive

Pride is an interesting motivator in Knowledge Management. In some cases it acts as a real dis-incentive, but if harnessed well it can be a powerful driver for KM behaviours.

Proud Lion from Public Domain Pictures

I was reflecting on this recently while running one of our powerful Bird Island exercises.

People start this exercise by building a structure from bricks and sticks and rubber bands. They work in isolated teams, and have no knowledge of the task before they start. They create relatively small structures, but are inordinately proud of them.

After a while, we get the teams to share knowledge with one another. They send one member out of the door to go and interact with another team, and very often they have a little discussion about how open the team member should be with the others. Last week, one team actually suggested to their envoy that if the other team’s structure was smaller, they should give misinformation, rather than share knowledge with them. They were proud of their success, and did not want to share it.

This is the negative side of pride. If people are proud of their work they may be unlikely to want to change it, to learn from others, or even to share with others that they see as competitors. Pride is part of what drives “not invented here” and knowledge hoarding.

Wounded pride.

What happened to many of the teams was that they found that the other teams’ structure was much taller, and that theirs looked like a midget in comparison. Now their pride was dented, they realised that their performance was mediocre, and that they had a lot to learn.

When we got the team together in a group and showed them current best practice, their pride was dented even more. Even the best of their structures was less than half the height of the current world record. And sure enough, when we built the structures again, everyone was liberally copying from the “best practice”. There as no evidence of the “Not Invented Here” syndrome.

That’s because wounded pride kills “not invented here”. You cannot proudly continue to reject knowledge from other people who are performing far better than you are.

People want to do a good job, they want to be among the leaders, and if they find that their current approach gives results that are bottom quartile they will not defend their approach, they will not display NiH, but will look for knowledge from any source they can, to restore Great Performance. I remember one drilling crew on the Gulf of Mexico, whose motivation to learn was to be “the best darned drill crew in the Gulf” and who approached KM with great enthusiasm.

You need to remove the false pride in local (substandard) performance and harness the motivation of “proud to be the best” in driving people towards learning and sharing.

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How to introduce a KM culture? Just the same as any other culture.

There is a lot written about KM culture and how to implement it, but most organisations already know how to build and sustain a culture. 

Introducing a Knowledge Management culture is not easy and many people are looking for the secret of how to do this, but my view is quite straightforward.  You foster a KM culture in just the same way as you foster any of the other cultures you already have in your organisation.

Knowledge Management isn’t anything really special or unique; it’s one of a number of management disciplines, and it’s the one focused on knowledge and organisational learning.  Almost certainly you have already introduced, and continue to maintain, a series of cultures related to other disciplines. You might already have, for example, one of the following:

One of the tenets of Knowledge Management is that we should learn as much as possible from others. If we are to practice what we preach, then we should learn how these other cultures have been built and sustained. They are your sources of knowledge, and what works for them, is likely to work for for the knowledge management culture as well..

So if you are interested in fostering a knowledge culture, then look at what culture your organisation is already successfully fostering, and look at how that is done.  Try the following approaches:

  • Find the people who were involved in introducing these cultures, and interview them to find out their lessons: what they did what was successful, and what they would have done differently with hindsight;
  • Find the people who are responsible for these cultures, and set up a peer assist so they can share their knowledge with you;
  • Talk to the staff within the organisation and find out why they comply with the culture. What are the things that influence their behaviour?

Look at how the existing cultures are expressed, look at the messages given from leadership, look at how the culture is rewarded and reinforced and communicated, look at how it is embedded into processes and roles.

Then do the same for knowledge management.

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The "busy trap" in KM

What do you do when people are too busy to implement time-saving activities such as KM?

We know that good KM saves time. But how do you make the time to save the time? This was a conversation I was involved in recently with a client.

This client is very busy. They are short-staffed and work to tight deadlines. They have “no time” for Learning before Doing, and so Do Before Learning.

However much of the busy work they do is wasted, because they lack the knowledge to do it right. As a result, they waste time doing the wrong things, waste time doing things wrong, and waste time reworking everything to get it right.  

Some of the staff we talked to were certain that, with the right access to knowledge, they could do a week’s work in 4 and a half days. But right now a week’s work takes at least 6 days, and they have no time for KM activity. They are in a “busy trap” –  too busy to take the time to do the KM that will stop them being too busy. 
How do they break out of the trap?

The only way, really, is to take a Piloting strategy.

Find one small part of the business which has a supportive manager and a little bit of headroom to invest in making a change. Introduce KM, change the culture, invest in learning, and demonstrate the time savings that result. Use the results to convinces another manager or two to sponsor a second pilot, and a third, and a fourth. Pretty soon the whole business has changed.

A busy business can’t be changed all at once. You have to take an incremental approach, and change it one small area at a time.

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Why hoarding knowledge is bad for you

People often assume that hoarding knowledge will protect their reputation as a “source of knowledge”, and that if they share what they know, they may no longer be needed.  This is not always the case.

I spoke with a lady recently, who had a different experience. This is my paraphrase of what she said.

 “A year or so ago, I was working with another expert. He was more qualified than me, but he took a very different approach to knowledge. He hoarded his knowledge; he protected it, and would not share it. In contrast, I was happy to share what I knew, and I quickly built a network of people to share with. 

“I was amazed to find that after quite a short time, my reputation was much higher than his! Although he was more qualified, people were now coming to me as “the expert”. It seems his knowledge hoarding actually reduced his reputation, whereas my knowledge sharing increased mine!”

Hoarding knowledge can be counter-productive, as the story demonstrates! 

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Building "Rubber Rooms" for Knowledge Management

To play safely, sometimes you need a rubber room.

DSC_1151The “KM rubber room” is a great analogy I picked up from Emily Timmins, Knowledge Manager at Severn Trent Water.  She has been introducing Peer Assists in her organisation, and the analogy she uses for a “safe space” for knowledge sharing is the Rubber Room.

Of course they don’t hold peer assists in a real rubber room, but they use that analogy to create an environment of safe experimentation, and open sharing.

Rubber is

  • soft, you won’t get hurt
  • elastic, so you can bounce ideas
  • stretchy, so you can stretch ideas
  • allows you to erase things if you need to
It’s therefore a great analogy for the safe spaces you need in knowledge management.

Beginning Knowledge management – being the first follower for example – can feel risky. There is a degree of exposure in being open, in exploring mistakes and successes, in offering your know-how to others, and in asking help and advice from others. Especially if the culture is not supportive, the first follower can feel at risk.

Therefore, in the early stages, you may need to create the “rubber riooms” where people can explore KM processes with minimum risk. You may have to do the following;

  • Use external objective facilitators for lessons capture meetings, to ensure they are non-judgmental and focused on learning.
  • Ensure careful facilitation of Peer Assists, to ensure they do not descend into attack-defend behaviours
  • Make sure communities of practice have a moderator and a behaviours-based charter
  • Keep close editorial eye on the wiki
  • Establish ground rules for each KM process, which set out the behaviours we seek.

Especially in the early stages of Knowledge Management, its important that the knowledge workers feel safe enough to ask and share. As KM professionals, we need to set up the Rubber Rooms that guarantee this safety.

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