Why don’t good practices spread better?

Sharing is no guarantee of uptake. Sometimes better practices and innovations take a long time, and require a lot of support, to take hold.

_MG_0095Here is a very interesting article from the New Yorker, by Atul Gwande, about why some ideas or best practices catch on and spread, while others don’t. In today’s connected world we expect good ideas to diffuse virally, but the fact is that many great ideas never spread.

For example, Gwande contrasts the histories of anaesthesia and asepsis in medicine – both important life-saving ideas, but the practice of anaesthesia spread like wildfire, while asepsis is still not properly adopted world wide. What was the difference between the two?

The difference was the immediacy and visibility of the problem to the practitioner.

Anaesthesia solved an immediate and visible problem for the surgeon. Under ether, the patient was no longer screaming and thrashing about, and the operation could take place in peace and quiet. Asepsis, on the other hand, did not solve an immediate problem. The operation took place as normal, and nothing apparently changed. As far as the surgeon could see, there was no immediate improvement. OK, the long term patient survival rate improved with asepsis, but that was a longer term issue and more remote for the surgeon. Asepsis solved a big problem, but a problem that was largely invisible to the practitioner, at least in the short term.

Gawande concludes that with the big invisible problems, you cannot expect improved practices to spread virally. You need to work on them. You need to sell the solutions, and like sales reps, that requires frequent interactions (the “seven touches”) between the trainer or knowledge holder and the user – person to person, door to door, talking.

He gives an example of an interaction with a nurse who learned, from a visiting trainer, a new practice that improved the survival rate of newborn infants. This was a practice that addressed one of these “invisible problems”, but had proved very difficult to spread. Gwande wanted to know why the nurse had adopted the practice in this case.

“She showed me how to get things done practically,” the nurse said. 

“Why did you listen to her?” I asked. “She had only a fraction of your experience.” 

In the beginning, she didn’t, the nurse admitted. “The first day she came, I felt the workload on my head was increasing.” From the second time, however, the nurse began feeling better about the visits. She even began looking forward to them. 

“Why?” I asked. All the nurse could think to say was “She was nice.” 

“She was nice?” “She smiled a lot.” “That was it?” 

“It wasn’t like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes,” she said. “It was like talking to a friend.”

This was one of those big ideas that spread through repeated personal contact and influence, rather than virally, and the repeat contact and trust that developed between the trainer and the nurse was vital for adoption and re-use of the knowledge.

So what is the implication for Knowledge Management?

The implication comes through the strategies you need to employ for knowledge re-use. Where knowledge solves an immediate problem for the user, then you can rely on a viral approach. Where it solves a longer term problem for the organisation, but may be invisible to the user, then knowledge re-use needs to be promoted through training, coaching and frequent interaction with a friendly person. 

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

How big is your "knowledge footprint"?

How far does your knowledge spread in your organisation?

Image from wikimedia commons

We are used to the idea of the Carbon Footprint – the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of your activities – but what about your Knowledge Footprint? This is the amount of knowledge released into the organisation (or the world, if you prefer) as a result of your activities?

What is the size of your knowledge footprint?

We could measure that by seeing how far your knowledge spreads; whether you contribute in Community of Practice discussions, for example; whether you contribute to lessons learned, or whether you add your contribution to Wikis and knowledge assets. All of these are examples of broadening your knowledge footprint, and contributing your knowledge to the wider organisation.

In contrast, a small knowledge footprint would be if you shared your knowledge only with the team you work with, or only in individual reports in a library which nobody might read. As an example, a study of “Which World Bank Reports Are Widely Read” found that over 31% of the reports they publish are never downloaded. The knowledge in these reports effectively has a zero footprint.  Just publishing knowledge does not mean a large footprint, the knowledge has to be read and reused.

Some companies incentivise having a large knowledge footprint.

  • In Deloitte, the performance appraisals will address what employee has done to contribute value to the firm beyond standard billable hours, including the creation of knowledge  
  • A similar approach is applied in McKinsey where one of the ways in which an employee can advance is by gaining recognition outside their own office through knowledge sharing. The knowledge behaviours people exhibit directly affects their promotion. 
  • The Fluor KM “Pacesetter” Program uses peer recognition to reward employees who are actively engaged in knowledge sharing behaviours. 
  • Boeing offer “Knowledge sharing awards” for people whose knowledge has been reused elsewhere for business advantage.
In Knowledge management, unlike in carbon dioxide release, a large footprint is generally a good thing.

How big is your knowledge footprint?

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Optimise for speed in KM, not production quality

KM should focus primarily on getting knowledge out quickly, and worry about production quality later


Here is an interesting article from the customer-service wing of KM, entitled “5 ways to use team knowledge to do better work”. The one that struck me as the most interesting of the 5 was the principle to “Optimize for speed, not fidelity”

Here the writers are making the argument that in a fast changing world, it is imperative to get new knowledge out to the users as fast as possible, and not worry about fidelity in terms of high production values. They say 

“Fidelity refers to highly-produced content such as broadcast-quality videos or interactive walkthroughs. This content is expensive to make and difficult to maintain. Optimizing for speed allows for rapid updates—with easily editable text, pictures, screenshots, and more. Since most customer service teams work with constantly changing information, they need to move quickly to be effective”. 


For example, if you have knowledge you want to share in video form for internal use, then don’t wait until you have access to a TV-quality production suite – instead capture the video on your phone and get it out there for others to see. The important thing, especially in the fast moving world of customer service, is to share the knowledge quickly so others can use it. If it is useful and helpful then they will not worry about things like lighting and framing.

Production values and quality of presentation take time and effort, and this time and effort may also be a barrier to any sharing at all. You do not want to send the message that “all shared knowledge needs to be produced to a high quality” because this may deter people from sharing. Instead the message needs to be “if you have knowledge to share, then get it out there as soon as you can. Make it helpful and usable; production values can some later”

In some cases production values can be worth considering as well as speed. As the authors of the article advise – 

“If you’re creating content that stays pretty static, such as compliance information, fidelity may make more sense. Information regarding your products and services (however) should be designed for speed so you can reflect changes in real-time”

However when sharing knowledge, don’t let production values get in the way of speed.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

The "Umbrella Week" as a means of sharing lessons.

The Umbrella week (aka Knowledge Handover) is a face-to-face process for sharing lessons with the rest of the organisation. 

Umbrella week image from army.mil

You can read about a recent Umbrella week here, where Captain Scott Kuhn of the 3rd Armoured Brigade described an event last week. According to Scott, 

An Umbrella Week is scheduled by brigade-level units or higher “within 6 weeks of completion of major deployments or Combat Training Center rotations in order to share lessons and best practices, and facilitating changes to Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership and Education, Personnel, Facilities and Policy. 

The Umbrella Week basically gives other units a chance to come and gather knowledge from a unit right after a deployment, through a structured series of facilitated discussions. The  process is as follows:

  1. There is an initial phase of lesson-gathering from the Brigade, for example through After Action reviews
  2. The team from the Centre for Army Lessons Learned who organise the Umbrella week also create a collection plan to collect these lessons, and also to look at the points of interest for the rest of the organisation, and the issues where more knowledge needs to be discussed and gathered
  3. Various departments and agencies are invited to the Umbrella week in order to take part in the discussions, which may be in a focus-group setting or may be individual discussions. Even though lessons are prepared in advance, the discussions are question-led, rather than being presentations to an audience. 
  4. At the end of the week each agency takes away the lessons they gained and updates training, doctrine etc, and the Analysts at the Centre for Army Lessons Learned also update their own materials. 
Similar processes are run in industry as well, such as the 2-day Knowledge Handover process we ran at BP after a major pipeline project. The steps were the same – gathering of the lessons first, identification of the questions which needed to be answered and the people who needed to attend, and two days of facilitated discussion to ensure the knowledge was transferred to those teams an experts who needed to know.
So this is not just a military process; it is something that can and should be done in any organisation after a major piece of work, as a way to communicate the lessons and to facilitate any changes to procedures that need to be made.  And it uses that good old-fashioned technology – face to face discussion.

“Umbrella week is our chance to contribute to future engagements. What we share this week will ensure that units deploying in the future can build and learn from our lessons learned.”

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Why "knowledge sharing" cannot replace "knowledge management"

Can we use the term “knowledge sharing” as better replacement for the term “Knowledge Management? There are two good reasons not to do so.

image from Wikimedia Commons

The terminology debate continues to rumble on in the KM world, with many people preferring the term “knowledge sharing” over the term “knowledge management”. This is partly due to a distrust of the concept of management, or use of the “management” term especially when used in conjunction with the word Knowledge.

As Tom Davenport wrote in his article “Does Management mean Command and Control?”

“I have a problem with overly simplistic characterizations of knowledge management, and management more generally. …. The term “management” is apparently a synonym for “command and control,” and we know that’s bad. “Command and control” is top-down, mean and nasty, and headed for extinction; “sharing” is bottom-up, nice and friendly, and the wave of the future. Maybe the Yale School of Management, for example, should become the Yale School of Sharing”. (However)…if your organization really cares about creating, distributing (I’m sorry–“sharing”), and applying knowledge, you need to manage it”.

But irrespective of whether you think Management equates to Command and Control or not, there are still 2 good reasons why you cannot replace “Knowledge Management” with “Knowledge Sharing”.

Firstly, sharing is not the end of the process of knowledge transfer and application.

There is a common misconception that sharing is the be-all and end-all; that people should first Capture and then Share their knowledge (and Sharing is often taken as meaning posting a document into a repository), and that this constitutes an effective transfer of knowledge.

However KM does not work like that. KM is not about one person with knowledge making it available to others; transferring knowledge as if you were transferring a can of beans from one person to another as in the image above. Knowledge is not transferred, it is co-created.

Once knowledge is shared, as a post on a discussion forum, a lesson in a lesson management system or a comment on a wiki, then it can be questioned, tested, combined with knowledge from other sources, and synthesised into new and better knowledge through discussion and dialogue. After sharing comes synthesis.

And after synthesis comes re-use. Even if knowledge is captured, and shared, and synthesised into up-to-date, valuable reference material, it still adds no value unless someone looks for it, finds it, and re-uses it.

All to often a “knowledge sharing” approach is strong on capture of knowledge, strong on some form of sharing (usually by publishing in a public repository), but weak or absent on synthesis and re-use.

Secondly, sharing deals only with supply and not with demand.

The common approached to knowledge sharing, and to the development of a “knowledge sharing culture” tend to focus only on the supply of knowledge. They assume knowledge will be captured and shared, creating a constant supply of new knowledge, and that this is enough.

But it is not enough.

To make any exchange work, you need demand as well as supply.  In parallel with knowledge sharing you need knowledge seeking, and in parallel with a knowledge sharing culture you need a knowledge seeking and re-use culture. A constant supply of new knowledge is a waste of time unless there is a constant demand for new knowledge.

In fact knowledge seeking is actually a better place to start than knowledge sharing (even though both are needed as part of a Knowledge Management Framework). Seeking stimulates sharing, and as McKinsey found, “direct requests for help between colleagues drive 75 to 90 percent of all the help exchanged within organizations“.

You could draw the whole knowledge cycle from a seeking point of view if you want – starting with seeking, then finding, reviewing, synthesising with existing knowledge, and applying, rather than starting with capture and sharing – which can give you a different way to look at KM.

Knowledge Management is therefore much more than knowledge sharing.

Knowledge Management includes Knowledge Sharing, as well as Knowledge Creation, Knowledge Capture, Knowledge Synthesis, Knowledge re-use, Knowledge seeking, Knowledge finding, and so on. To focus only on Knowledge Sharing is to underestimate the topic, and runs the risk of creating only a partial solution.

Beware of a focus only Knowledge Sharing. Focus on Knowledge Management instead.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Knowledge Management in the corporate Code of Conduct – Example

One powerful enabler for Knowledge Management is a clear statement from senior management. Here is an example.

Medco Energi is a publicly listed Indonesian oil and gas company, founded in 1980. Winners of a MAKE award in 2007, they have had a KM program in place for many years, led and supported by my Knoco Indonesia colleague, Sapta.

Medco Energi has done something quite unusual in terms of Knowledge Management Governance, which is to put Knowledge Management within their “Good Corporate Guidelines and Code of Conduct”  document, dated 2014. 

Within the Code of Conduct we can find the following:

Knowledge Management Knowledge management is a set of proactive activities with the aim of supporting the organization in developing, integrating, disseminating and implementing its knowledge. 

Knowledge management is a continuous process to understand the organization’s need for knowledge, the location of knowledge, as well as the process for improving knowledge. The goal of knowledge management is to increase the organization’s ability to perform its key processes effectively.  

Knowledge management requires commitment to advance the organization’s effectiveness, in addition to improve opportunities for its members. 

Thie current focus seems to be on sharing knowledge externally, as the code of conduct goes on to demonstrate, with the following guidelines on external knowledge sharing:

Participation in Lecturing, Training, Radio and Television Broadcast 
MedcoEnergi encourages its employee to give lectures or participate in training or radio and television broadcasts. However, prior to engaging in such activity, employee must obtain the approval of his/ her Line Director if he/she use document and information relating to MedcoEnergi. The employee is permitted to receive remuneration from such activity. If an employee acts as a representative of MedcoEnergi, he/she then must report any received remuneration to his/her direct supervisor for further deliberation.  

Publishing of Articles or Books 
Every employee is permitted to publish articles in journals, daily newspapers, magazines, or other print media and/or publish reports and/or books without affecting the working time. Any profit from and copyright of publications that is not related to MedcoEnergi shall remain the property of the employee. In the case of writing, where the employee uses documents relating to MedcoEnergi, he/she must obtain the approval of his/her Line Director prior to publishing the article and the copyright of the published article or book shall become the property of MedcoEnergi.

Even with this purely external focus, it is still good to see KM as a significant Code of Conduct item.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Meetings about What, meetings about How

Not every meeting or every conversation involves sharing knowledge!

Image from Wikimedia commons
Very often, when we are conducting our knowledge management assessment or benchmarking exercises, or designing KM frameworks for clients, we come across a confusion. This confusion is again a linguistic confusion about knowledge.
We might ask the client “what meetings do you have, which are dedicated to knowledge-sharing?”. Often they reply something like this; “we have project meetings every week – people share knowledge with me about their progress, and I share knowledge about their goals for the coming month”.
But is this really knowledge sharing? Is “telling people something” the same as “sharing knowledge”? Are Briefing and Knowledge Transfer the same thing?
We think not.
The types of meeting described above are Project Management meetings, not Knowledge Management meetings. The difference between the two types of meeting is that the former deals with What (What has happened, What will we do) while the latter deals with How (How will we assimilate what we have learned? How will we deal with things in future?”).
Again this confusion comes back to the fact that the English Language has only one word for Knowledge while other languages have two; one for “Know-what” which deals with facts and information, and one for “know how” which deals with capabilities, learning and insights.
Knowledge Management meetings are the ones that deal with How, and which address building capability in the organisation, and transferring and building Know-how. Examples include:
  • The After Action review meeting, where teams build their know-how about how to work together effectively;
  • The Peer Assist meeting, where a team invites others to share their know-how of how to address a project or a problem;
  • The Retrospect meeting, where a team discusses and documents what they have learned about how to best deliver certain types of projects;
  • The Knowledge Exchange meeting, where people from many teams share their best approaches to certain issues, to determine the current best practice.
If the subject of the meeting is about How (what do we know or are learning about how to do something) then it’s a Knowledge Management meeting. If the subject is What (what have we done, what will we do), then it’s another sort of meeting – planning, reporting, briefing etc.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Why you need to place some demands on the knowledge sharer

Sharing knowledge is a two-sided process. There is a sharer and a receiver. Be careful that making knowledge easier to share does not make knowledge harder to re-use.

Image from wikimedia commons

Sharing knowledge is like passing a ball in a game of rugby, American Football or basketball. If you don’t place some demands on the thrower to throw well, it won’t work for the catcher. If you make it too undemanding to throw the ball, it can be too hard to catch the ball.  Passing the ball is a skill, and needs to be practised.

The same is true for knowledge. If you make it too simple to share knowledge, you can make it too difficult to find it and re-use it.  In knowledge transfer, the sharing part is the easier part of the transfer process. There are more barriers to understanding and re-use than there are to sharing, so if you make the burden too light on the knowledge supplier, then the burden on the knowledge user can become overwhelming.

Imagine a company that wants to make it easy for projects to share knowledge with other projects. They set up an online structure for doing this, with a simple form and a simple procedure. “We don’t want people to have to write too much” they say “because we want to make it as easy as possible for people to share knowledge”.

So what happens? People fill in the form, they put in the bare minimum, they don’t give any context, they don’t tell the story, they don’t explain the lesson. And as a result, almost none of these lessons are re-used. The feedback that they get is “these lessons are too generic and too brief to be any use”.  we have seen this happen many many times.

By making the knowledge too easy to share – by demanding too little from the knowledge supplier – you can make the whole process ineffective. 

There can be other unintended consequences as well. Another company had a situation as described above, where a new project enthusiastically filled in the knowledge transfer form with 50 lessons. However this company had put in a quality assurance system for lessons, and found that 47 of the 50 lessons were too simple, too brief and too generic to add value. So they rejected them.

The project team in question felt, quite rightly, that there was no point in spending time capturing lessons if 94% of them are going to be rejected, so they stopped sharing. They became totally demotivated when it came to any further KM activity.

 Here you can see some unintended consequences of making things simple. Simple does not equate to effective.

Our advice to this company was to introduce a facilitation role in the local Project Office, who could work with the project teams to ensure that lessons are captured with enough detail and context to be of real value. By using this approach, each lesson will be quality-controlled at source, and there should be no need to reject any lessons.

Don’t make it so simple to share knowledge, that people don’t give enough thought to what they write.

The sharer of knowledge, like the thrower of the ball, needs to ensure that the messages can be effectively passed to the receiver, and this requires a degree of attention and skill. 

View Original Source Here.

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