The Asker/Helper culture – why these are the core behaviours of KM

A recent McKinsey article, if you read it carefully, suggests that the core KM behaviours for group effectiveness are Asking and Responding.

Ask (always)The McKinsey article entitled Givers take all: The hidden dimension of corporate culture is a really interesting article, describing a study by Harvard psychologists of the US intelligence system in order to determine what makes intelligence units effective. By surveying, interviewing, and observing hundreds of analysts across 64 different intelligence groups, the researchers ranked those units from best to worst, and looked at what made the best ones so good.

Conclusions of the study are as follows:

  • The single strongest predictor of group effectiveness was the amount of help that analysts gave to each other.
  • Across these diverse contexts, organizations benefit when employees freely contribute their knowledge and skills to others (what McKinsey refers to as a Giver culture, where knowledge is freely shared, in contrast to a Taker culture, where it isn’t)
  • Giver cultures depend on employees making requests; otherwise, it’s difficult to figure out who needs help and what to give. In fact, studies reviewed by psychologists Stella Anderson and Larry Williams show that direct requests for help between colleagues drive 75 to 90 percent of all the help exchanged within organizations.

So in fact the single strongest predictor of group effectiveness is the amount of “asking for help” that happens, and the Giving/Helping response. So it would be more accurate to talk about an Asker/Helper culture rather than a Giver culture.

It is possible to develop an Asker/Helper culture – the article talks about an exercise called a Reciprocity Ring, which is a face to face version of the Question-driven communities of practice we see operating so successfully as part of mature knowledge management programs. Peer Assist is the archetypal Asker process, which always generates a Giver response. Many of the standard Knowledge Management interventions act as culture change agents in their own right to promote the behaviours of asking and of giving.

So if you are interested in creating the KM culture which is “the single strongest predictor of group effectiveness” – remember that knowledge sharing is 75% to 90% of the time a response to Asking.

Aim for the Asker/Helper culture (as I suggest in this video).

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When KM becomes group therapy

There can come a time when the therapeutic benefits of Knowledge Management can outweigh the commercial benefits.

[25/365] On the couch (Explored)One of the spin-off benefits of Knowledge Management is the culture change it can bring with it. Facilitated dialogue-based processes such as after action review, peer assist, retrospect etc are all themselves agents of culture change.

However they can have other spin-off benefits as well, and at times the facilitated listening almost acts as therapy.

When I am facilitating a retrospect, particularly from a project that has had its troubles, or was a bit of a disaster, it almost feels like I am conducting a group therapy session. If a project really was a bad experience, then it really helps the team to be able to talk about it in an open and non judgemental way. And that’s what a retrospect is; it’s a session where you talk about what happened in a non judgemental way. It’s a no blame process. (As I often say, when teaching the skills of Retrospect, that we will ask What, How and Why – What happened, Why did it happen, and How do we ensure it doesnt happen again – but we never ask Who).

People at the session really appreciate the chance to talk through the problems and challenges,they appreciate being asked for their views and being listened to,  and even more they appreciate the commitment to identify and apply lessons which make sure that similar projects will not have to go through the same trouble as theirs did. It’s more than just the chance to talk, it’s the opportunity to make a difference.

This feeling of “Therapy through Learning” comes back strongly when I recall an exercise I did on an offshore gas rig a long time ago.

 This visit was in the aftermath of a merger where things had not always gone well, and where the staff on this particular rig had ended up with a real feeling of grievance and anger. I spent a couple of days on the rig conducting learning interviews, and people were very forthright about the feelings that they shared with me. I came away with a whole list of learnings for the future, and I was sitting in the departure room waiting for the helicopter, feeling emotionally quite exhausted, and one of the roughnecks I had spoken to walked past. Seeing me he stopped, came over and shook my hand and said “I just want to say thanks mate. It was really good of the company to send somebody out just to listen to us”.

That’s when I realized that, although the learning was the primary objective from this exercise, it had not been the only benefit, and even if all I had done was listened, I would have still added real value.

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There are only 4 types of barrier to Knowledge Management

Here’s a great Boston Square which looks at the four barriers to KM in a generic way.

It looks at the unwillingness and the inability that can affect both the knowledge supplier, and the knowledge user. Any combination of these is a block to Knowledge management.

The Supplier is Unwilling to share.

The unwilling supplier is afflicted by Knowledge Hoarding. He or she feels they will lose something (power, job security, reputation) if they give their knowledge away. Luckily we can demonstrate that this is not true, and managers can ease the shift from hoarding to sharing by careful use of incentives, eventually outlawing hoarding entirely.

The User is Unwilling to learn.

The unwilling user is afflicted by Not Invented Here (NIH). He or she feels more secure in their own (“invented here”) knowledge than in scary knowledge from somewhere else. This barrier can be addressed by redefining “here”, so that “invented in my community” equates to “invented here“, by using performance metrics to shock people out of complacency, and eventually by outlawing NIH completely.

The Supplier is Unable to share

The unable supplier suffers from the Stranger problem – “I don’t know who to share this with”. This can be tackled through developing a Pull-based approach, so that they share by answering  the questions of an individual or team (through community forums, or peer assist), or by using the concept of the “Unknown User” – the psychological construct that we can bring into retrospects and after action reviews.

The User is Unable to find knowledge

The unable user suffers from “needle in a haystack” – they don’t know where to look. Here we need the knowledge assets, that synthesised knowledge that creates the faucet rather than the firehose. We need the expertise locator. We need good search, and we need the places to ask – the community forums described above.

All four of these barriers are very real. All four can be overcome.  The Ability to share and learn is provided by the creation and roll-out of a Knowledge management framework, while the Willingness to share and learn is provided by culture change and communication activities, and cemented by KM governance. 

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Wishful thinking – the inevitable outcome of "not knowing"?

The almost inevitable outcome of “now knowing what you don’t know” is wishful thinking. Even the use of benchmarks may not help.

Wishful ThinkingWishful thinking is one of the curses of project management.  Any project team without a perfect knowledge of the challenges that they will face in a project, tend to underestimate them.  They assume things will work well, they assume the “best case scenario”, and they end up with an over-optimistic view of the project, an over-optimistic view of costs, and an over-optimistic view of schedule.

Daniel Kahneman gives a great example of this in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.
He describes a project, many years ago, where he convened a team to design a new high-school curriculum and to write a textbook for it (ironically, it was about judgement and decision making).  They had had several team meetings to construct an outline of the syllabus, had written a couple of chapters, and even run a few sample lessons.  They decided to do some planning, and to create an estimate of how long it would take to submit to finish draft of the textbook. Kahneman knew that one of the most effective ways of estimating is not to start with discussion, but to get everybody to individually submit their judgment, so has asked everybody to write down their estimates, and then collected these in.  Estimates ranged from 1 ½, years to 2 ½ years with a median of two years, to finish and submit the first draft.
Then he had another bright idea. He asked one of the curriculum experts on the team whether he could think of any examples of similar projects in the past, and how long they had taken.

“He fell silent” Kahneman writes. “When he finally spoke, it seemed to me that he was blushing; embarrassed by his own answer: ‘You know, I never realized this before, but in fact not all the teams at a stage comparable to ours ever did complete their task. A substantial fraction of the teams ended up failing to finish the job’”.  That fraction was 40%.

Kahneman then asked how long it took those who actually had finished the job.

“I cannot think of any group that finished in less than seven years” he replied, “nor any that took more than 10”. 

(Note that this guy himself had, shortly before, estimated it would take about two years!).  Then Kahneman asked how the current team ranked compared to the others (perhaps they were much better and could finish much faster!).  “We are below average” he replied “but not by much”.

So now the team had new knowledge, that comparable or better teams often fail at this job, and those that succeeded took four times longer than the groups estimate.
So what do you think the group did?
Kahneman tells us

“our state of mind when we heard Seymour is not well described by stating what we “knew”.  Surely all of us now “knew” that a minimum of seven years and a 40 per cent chance of failure was a more plausible forecast than the numbers we had written on a slips of paper.  But we did not acknowledge what we knew.  The new forecast still seemed unreal, because we could not imagine how it could take so long to finish a project that looks so manageable.  All we could see was a reasonable plan that should produce a book in about two years. ……….  The statistics that Seymour provided were treated as base rates normally are – noted and promptly set aside.  We should have quit that day.  None of us were willing to invest six more years of work in a project with a 40 per cent chance of failure …..  After a few minutes of a desultory debate,  we gathered ourselves together and carried on as if nothing had happened”.

The book was eventually finished eight years later.  The initial enthusiasm for the idea in the ministry of education had waned by the time the text was delivered, and it was never used.
This is a very interesting story.  Not only did the group not know what they didn’t know, they were unable or unwilling to accept the new knowledge when it was presented.  They ignored it, and continued with the wishful hope that they would be finished in two years.
Kahneman concludes from this that there are two different approaches to forecasting, the inside view and the outside view.  The inside view is based on “what you know that you know”, and what the team knew was that they had made some good progress already, albeit completing some of the easiest chapters at a time when enthusiasm was at its peak, and they extrapolated from this good progress.  But they didn’t know what they didn’t know, and they didn’t foresee the bureaucracy, the distractions, and the conflicts that would eventually arrive.  However because they were anchored to their inside view, they would not accept the outside view, even though the outside view was based on reliable baseline statistics.
The rest of Kahneman’s book, which I highly recommend, explores other aspects of the psychology of decision-making, and gives many examples of how people will make wrong decisions as a result of over confidence through limited data.
There are many are implications here for knowledge management; the need to access outside knowledge through activities such as peer assists, the need to collect baseline data on performance to act as a “reality check” for optimistic teams, and the need for continuous project learning to recognise when predictions are optimistic, and to renegotiate the prediction.

 Without effective knowledge management, and without effective knowledge-based decision making, project predictions will be, as Kanhneman’s project was, based largely on wishful thinking.

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After Action Review as an agent for culture change

When we talk about Culture Change and Knowledge Management, we need to realise that the Knowledge Management processes themselves are in themselves culture change agents.

change_thoughtsAfter Action reviews are a prime example. They promote openness; people will learn that ‘there is no comeback’ and questions will receive answers. They promote reflection, learning and a performance focus, through discussions on “What did we set out to achieve? What actually happened” “How can we do better next time”.

Below is some feedback from work we did several years ago at an industrial plant in the US, experimenting with introducing After Action Review. We found that not only did the AARs identify many many opportunities to save time and money, they also started to change the mindset, as these quotes from the workforce demonstrate.

“I thought I needed to be the expert and felt threatened at first. After a few AAR’s I felt comfortable that the guys appreciated using their ideas and we became a team” (Supervisor)

“Before the AAR, they didn’t feel like they were a team; After a few AAR’s they became one”. (Boilermaker)

“I have been doing this work for 20 years, and no one has ever asked me what I thought before; so it was a change”. (Boilermaker)

“We are now doing a Before action review in the mornings”. (Supervisor)

Here’s another quote, from a mine manager in Botswana, where we used AARs to radically improve some of his production processes, and deliver savings in the million-dollar range. However for him, there was something even more important than the money.

“The most important thing was the engagement of the people. The people who were involved in this, they actually feel that they are part of a team now. It’s not the project team vs the contractor vs the end users – everybody is part of a single team now. And people are actually coming up with suggestions for implementation, and what makes it quite exciting is that people come up with very good suggestions, we implement it, they see the implementation of that, and they see the benefit afterwards, and so success breeds success”.

That engagement, and that “success breeding success,” was worth more to this manager than a million dollars, because it is the start of a new engaged performance-driven knowledge-enabled and knowledge-seeking culture that will deliver value for years to come.

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Knowledge Management and Friendship

Is friendship an enabler of Knowledge Management?

foosball at work
Foosball at work, by Al Abut, on Flickr

In the western world of work, “Friend” is a bit of an F-word.

We hardly ever use the word “F****d” about our work relationships. We call people colleagues, associates, co-workers, but never F****ds. It’s as if F****d is a dirty word and inappropriate in work circles.

And yet, when we think about the relationships and the trust needed for knowledge sharing, and the social relationships we can build in Communities of Practice, is that so very far from Friendship?

I once interviewed a client from an Asian organisation as part of a Knowledge Management Assessment and Knowledge Management Strategy exercise, and he said to me “I often visit another manager that I know, to share my knowledge and help him achieve his targets. He is my friend, so I would help him”.

And this quote, from an assessment of another company “If my friend‘s got a problem I can’t leave him to work on it on his own”.  Here’s another, from a third company. “It is a very small group of people in the division in (Country), and most of us are good friends since university. We share our knowledge very openly”.

None of these quotes are from North American or European organisations.

I searched through many of my documents for the use of the word “friend”, and in the North American and European organisations, the word was used as part of the phrase “user-friendly” and as part of the cliché “phone a friend” (a reference to the Millionaire TV show). With one notable exception (Canadian) I didn’t find any reference to friendship at work.

In the North American/European mindset, friendship at work can be seen as a risk. See for example

And yet, as the quotes above show, friendship is a huge enabler for effective knowledge sharing and knowledge re-use in otehr cultures. It removes the Not Invented Here barrier, and replaces it by “Invented by my friend”.  And an increasing number of studies suggest that work friends are good for your wellbeing and important for productivity.

So maybe we should stop looking at the risk and the downside of Friendship at work, and seek instead to help employees to build a wider social network of friends, as support for the behaviours and culture that Knowledge Management requires.

In fact, if we return to the person I first quoted, who said “He is my friend, so I would help him” – we asked this guy what would be the most useful thing the company could do, to encourage knowledge-sharing and re-use in the organisation. He replied;

“I would like to meet other managers like me on a regular basis, have dinner with them, share knowledge in an informal setting, and become friends”

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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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