Why "Know-why" is as important as "Know-how" – the monastery cat story

Recording the Know-how is key to Knowledge management, but Know-Why is also important.

Do you know the story of the monastery cat? It goes like this

Cat at Sovloki Monastery
picture from wikimedia commons

Once upon a time, there was a monastery where the monks meditated from dawn to dusk. One day a cat trespassed into the monastery and disturbed the monks. The head monk instructed that the cat be caught and tied to a tree until dusk. He also advised that every day, to avoid hindrance during meditation, the cat be tied to the tree. So it became a standard operational procedure “To catch the Cat & Tie it to the Tree” before the monks started meditating. 

One day the Head Monk died, the second most senior most monk was chosen as Head monk and all other traditions including tying the cat to the tree were continued. One day the cat died. The whole monastery plunged into chaos. A committee was formed to find a solution and it was unanimously decided that a cat be bought from the nearby market and tied to the tree before starting the meditation each day.  This tradition is still followed in the monastery even today.

A simple story, but carries a clear message – if you don’t know why you are doing something, then you don’t know when you can stop, or what you can change.

We are working with a client at the moment, who has a good system for documenting Standard Operating Procedures, and updating them with new Lessons Learned as appropriate. This is their way of continually improving their processes, and of institutionalising a form of corporate memory. However there is a risk here. The risk is that they are recording “how to do it” and not “why to do it this way” – the “Know-How” and not the “Know-Why”. And if the context changes, and the procedures need to be adapted, then without an understanding of the “why”, people won’t know how to change. The SoPs could become “Tying cat to the tree”.

This is an operational version of “thinking fast and slow“. The Fast thinking is to follow the SoP, when all you need to know is “what to do” or “how to react”. The Slow thinking is to go back to the principles, go back to the Why, and derive the new operating procedure. Or you could look at is as double-loop thinking – the first loop focused on “what to do”, and the second loop on “why do we do it that way”.

So how do you record the Know-Why?

You have a couple of options.

  • Record enough commentary in the SoP so that you can see what it is based on. For example, one legal company we worked with used to keep standard contracts, but each contract clause had extensive commentary describing why the clause was there, and why it was written the way it was. The contract could then be amended if needed (together with amended commentary) and the commentary stripped out when the contract was printed. That way they preserved the Know-Why.
  • Create a secondary document, such as a Basis of Design document. This document takes each element of a project design, a product design or a software design, and described the basis and the assumption son which it was designed. You can create a BoD before the project, and revise it during and after the project to capture changes to the design, and the rationale behind those changes. The BoD then helps future teams working on the same product to make intelligent changes, rather than blind changes. It also helps transfer knowledge to subcontractors working on the project, and protects against loss of knowledge. I recall someone saying to me, about Basis of Design, “I could look at the BoD and put out a quality project design in 2 weeks, and there hasn’t been any work done in this area for 2 years”.
Recording the Know-why keeps the context, and avoids the risk of repeating the Monastery Cat story.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Where should you focus Knowledge Retention?

Knowledge retention can be a massive exercise if not focused. But which knowledge should you focus on retaining?

Imagine you are setting up a Knowledge Retention interview with a company expert. This expert has a lifetime’s knowledge which would take an eternity to capture – where do you start? Where are the highest priority areas for capture?

This Boston Square may help.

The first axis of the square is the routine/non-routine nature of the activity which the Expert knows about. The Expert often has something that the ordinary practitioner does not have, and that is an understanding of the non-routine activity – the “one in a thousand” occurrences that most people never see, but which an expert has either met, or heard of somewhere. Most practitioners, even the junior ones, understand routine activity – it is when they meet non-routine circumstances that an expert is needed.

The second axis is teh criticality of the knowledge. How critical will that knowledge be? Will it save lives and millions of dollars, or is it not particularly critical?

Obviously the focus for your retention is the critical non-routine areas. If you do nothing else, then capture the knowledge of these topics.

Then, if you have time, address the “critical and routine” (although most people will know this already, it may be good to have the experts viewpoint), and then the “Non-critical non-routine” (it will at least help people avoid reinventing the wheel).

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Reaching the deep knowledge

Reaching the Deep Knowledge often requires the help of a facilitator or interviewer, and there is a tell-tale sign that shows when you get there.

woman, thinking
“woman, thinking” by Robert Couse-Baker, on Flickr

Superficial knowledge transfer happens all the time.

A foreman leaves his job. The company arranges a hand-over meeting, and the foreman talks through the processes and procedures with his successor, but the real knowledge – the tips of the trade, the workarounds, the instinctive feel for the tasks – leaves with the man.

An engineer opens his email, and reads a request for advice from a colleague on another continent. The engineer drafts a quick reply, describing a solution he has applied in the past. However he fails to think through the reasoning and insights underlying the solution, and his reply is superficial and of little value to his colleague. The colleague gets no help from the suggestions, and next time she won’t even bother to ask.

A project manager finishes her project. She sits down for a couple of days and writes a close-out report, where she details the history of the project, and the successes this project has achieved. But she never gets to the secrets behind the success; these are hidden in the undocumented interactions in her team. As a result, the successes are unrepeated.

In each of these examples, an opportunity to exchange valuable knowledge has been lost – in some cases forever. The crucial knowledge stays in the head of the foreman, the project manager, the engineer, because none of them are conscious of what they know. Without being conscious of what they know, they have no way to pass that knowledge on. Any knowledge management system that fails to find the things that people don’t know they know (the unknown knowns), that fails to mine the deep knowledge, will fail to deliver it’s full potential.

One of the key tenets of Knowledge Management is that we know more than we realise, and more than we can record. The individual, working alone and with a blank sheet of paper, seldom accesses the deep knowledge, and you end up recording the superficial. The only way to dig a bit deeper (while still realising we won’t get everything) is to start probing with questions.

Questioning processes

A good questioner, or a good questioning process, can help the individual dig deeper than they can manage unaided. That’s why so many Knowledge Management processes are based on questioning and dialogue.

On a short-term small scale, the After Action Review is a questioning process; getting at the ground truth behind the results of an exercise or activity. The team’s expectation of an event is compared with the actuality, and the facilitator goes through a questioning process to find the reasons for the difference between the two. Where there is a difference, there is learning, but it may take some probing questioning to get to the knowledge. Oil companies use After Action Reviews in situations where a small team conducts a brief action, such as a maintenance team working a shift at a refinery, or a negotiation team conducting a difficult meeting with a host government. In every case we found that the quality of the questioning determined the value of the knowledge. Superficial questioning gives shallow knowledge of limited use. Harder questioning, maybe using the technique of ‘the five whys’, gets at the deep knowledge, where the real value lies.

On a larger scale, the Learning History uses the same sort of questioning techniques. A skilled facilitator, informed but detached, not a member of the team, will take a project team through a structured questioning and discussion process, where the history of the project is reviewed and the knowledge brought out and captured. For example, I was once part of a joint interview team, charged with capturing and packaging the knowledge from a major industrial merger. We targeted 40 of the top decision-makers, and sent them an interview guide with some high-level questions. We then followed this up with hour-long interviews, where we applied some of these questioning techniques. It was pretty obvious when we started to tap into the unconscious knowledge – the pace of the interview slowed as the interviewees started to really think deeply about what had happened, and started to ask themselves ‘what really happened there, and what did we really learn?’.

You know, as an interviewer, when you are tapping into the deep knowledge. The interviewee stops, thinks, leans back in their chair, and their gaze rises as they look upwards and inwards.

That’s the sign that you are digging deep – the sign that you are hitting Knowledge Paydirt!

View Original Source Here.

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