How bullet points kill knowledge.

Bullet points may have their place in helping punctuate meetings, but are no way to capture knowledge. 

image from wikimedia commons

Discussion and dialogue are still the most effective ways of transferring knowledge from person to person. Although”we know more than we can tell”, we can still tell enough of what we know to transfer useful understanding and insight to someone else when they are standing in front of us, asking questions, and taking an active part in trying to understand. That’s why techniques such as Peer AssistKnowledge HandoverKnowledge Exchange and so on are so powerful.

However the nature of the human memory is that as soon as we hear something we start to forget it.

Notes from the meeting are crucial, even for the people who attended. Traditionally, facilitators of such events stand up the front of the room and write bullet points on a flip-chart. However when a good discussion gets going, there is no way that you can write bullet points quickly enough, and in enough detail, to capture the details, the subtleties and the context of what is being discussed. And most importantly, bullet points don’t capture the stories, and we learn best from stories.

Bullet points may be useful aides-memoire for those who were part of the discussion, but even then they are only useful for a very short time, and are totally useless for anyone who could not attend.

You can do a better job sat at the table, taking shorthand, but for the best results, you need to audio-record the meeting.

Then, what do you do with the recording?

  • Option 1 – transcribe it yourself. This is time consuming, but accurate. My favourite approach is to use voice recognition software trained to my own voice, and dictate into the computer while simultaneously listening to the recording (slowed down to about half speed).  The transcription can be used as the basis for a Knowledge Asset containing advice, good practice, stories and examples.
  • Option 2 – use a transcription service. This is quicker, but the transcription service will not understand any of the technical terms. You need to send them an entire glossary. This transcription can be also used as the basis for a Knowledge Asset.
  • Option 3 – edit the audio or video recording into a podcast or videocast. This can be useful, but a recording of an active conversation (rather than an interview) is actually very difficult to follow unless it is very well edited, and few people will sit through a recording of an entire meeting.
  • Option 4 – my preferred option – use options 1 or 2, and then in addition, get people to video-record a series of small summaries of the main points (rather like a big brother diary room).

Any one of these is infinitely better than bullet points on a flip chart.

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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

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.”

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Using MOOCs to transfer knowledge at WHO

When it comes to transferring knowledge to a massive audience, MOOCs are a potential solution.  Here is a fantastic example from the World Health Organisation.

Image from wikimedia commons

There are some Knowledge Management cases where knowledge is created through research and analysis, then needs to be spread around a wide audience. There are challenges to this sort of knowledge transfer, and just sending our reports and emails often does not work. MOOCs – Massive Open Onloine Courses – can be an answer.

This article describes an approach taken at WHO, and contains the following quotes from WHO scientists and doctors:

  • “The major epidemics we have seen this century highlighted the need for a system that quickly transforms scientific knowledge into action on the ground,”
  • “The key is actionable knowledge. For us the value of knowledge is when it is shared – and it is especially important that responders have enough knowledge to protect themselves and do good work. We had information on diseases like Plague, MERS and Ebola, we had a number of courses but they were on paper, not accessible from the field.”

WHO have created 34 online courses in multiple languages on a Portal they call “Online WHO”, covering 4 areas

  1. pandemics and epidemics
  2. emergency response operations
  3. soft skills such as risk communications, social mobilization and community engagement, and 
  4. preparation for emergency field work.

So far response has been very good, and more than 25,000 people have signed up for the course.
Let’s finish with a couple more quotes that show the critical importance of the effective transfer of transfer.

“We don’t call it training – we call it knowledge transfer. OpenWHO allows us and our key partners to transfer life-saving knowledge to large numbers of frontline responders quickly and reliably,” 

“Too many people have died from lack of knowledge. We want these online courses to help save lives.”

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4 ways to increase knowledge flow – lessons from fluid dynamics

If we look at knowledge flowing through a company as an analogue of fluid flowing through a porpous medium, can we draw any conclusions to help us with KM?

In their 2011 presentation, Tim Stouffer and Reid Smith did just this. They took an interesting look at the flow of knowledge, and likened it to the flow of oil, water or other fluid in a fluid-bearing rock.

In such circumstances,  flow is governed by the equation shown here, which is known as Darcy’s law. Flow is governed by the permeability of the rock, the dynamic viscosity of the fluid, the pressure difference, and the distance the fluid needs to travel.

Stoufer and Smith used this equation as analogy to draw some conclusions about how to increase knowledge flow in organisations, and focused on four factors.

  • If we want to increase knowledge flow, we need to make the organisation more permeable to knowledge. This is the area most KM programs focus on – providing the tools and the organisational structures that remove or reduce the barriers to knowledge flow, making the organisation as transparent as possible as far as knowledge is concerned. They do this through the introduction of community forums, good search, well constructed knowledge bases, lessons management systems with good workflow etc.. This is vital to success of a KM program, but is only 1/4 of the equation.

  • If we want to increase knowledge flow, we need to reduce the viscosity (the stickiness, or flow-resistance) of the knowledge itself. Many organisations will claim on the one hand that knowledge does not flow round their organisation, while on the other hand agreeing that gossip spreads like wildfire. That’s because gossip is low-viscosity knowledge – it will find any little gap through which to flow. We need to reduce the viscosity of technical knowledge to a similar level, through packaging it well, through the use of stories, video, examples and lessons. Well written, catchy, punchy, and speaking directly to the reader/listener/viewer.

  • If we want to increase knowledge flow, we need to increase the driving pressures – both Push and Pull. This is the cultural side of the equation, the pressure to share and (more importantly) the pressure to Ask and Learn. The pressure is the sum of Pull and Push, and is the sum of peer pressure and management expectations. The more attention you give to creating expectations for both sharing and learning, the faster the knowledge will flow. 

Stoufer and Smith conclude as follows:

“Getting Knowledge to flow is much like the physics contained in Darcy’s Law  

  • Increase “Permeability” 
    • Improve access to knowledge
    • Build knowledge connections: P2P and P2K
  • Increase “Pressure” 
    • Management leadership
    • Metrics
  • Decrease “Viscosity”
    • Turn tacit knowledge into explicit, actionable knowledge
  • Decrease “Distance” (make things easy)
    • Bring people, knowledge and communities closer together.

So although Knowledge flowing through an organisation is unlike Oil flowing through a rock, the factors of Darcy’s law can still be used as an analogy to give us insight into 4 ways to improve the flow of knowledge. 

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The Aha! moment – how to tell when knowledger transfer is successful

There is one immediate test of effective knowledge transfer, and that is the Aha moment.

Image from wikimedia commons

Anyone who has ever, at any time, tried to explain something to someone else, is aware of the “Aha moment”.

The Aha moment, oterhwise known as the Light-bulb moment, is a moment of sudden inspiration, revelation, understanding or recognition. It’s such a common experience that it has made its way into cartoon iconography, with the image of a light bulb lighting up above a character’s head when he or she suddenly “gets it”.

You can see the light bulb in real life – you can see the moment when understanding dawns. It’s a brightening of the features, an increase in the level of engagement, stiffening body posture, a widening of the eyes, a smile. Those are the outward signs of the inward dawning of comprehension.

The Aha moment is a very valuable indicator in Knowledge Transfer, because it means that the recipient has “got it”. They have recognised the new knowledge for what it is – namely something better and more valuable than the knowledge they currently hold in their head.

I remember a classic example when I was running a Knowledge Management training session in Alaska, and I was trying to get across the idea that KM is not an abstract notion, but is something that needs to be applied to real business problems. I saw someone at the back of the room suddenly “light up”, come to attention, and start scribbling rapidly on a piece of paper. I asked him later what had happened, and he told me that the light bulb had come on when I had said “KM can help you with the things you need to know, right now, to deliver your business” – and he had immediately jotted down 10 business problem that KM would be able to help. These would become the basis of his KM strategy.

The Aha moment can only be recognised, and happens in the most dramatic form, when knowledge is transferred face to face. In fact any trainer or teacher looks for that moment, and keeps trying different ways to transfer the knowledge until the lightbulb lights. They watch the faces, and watch the eyes, and watch the body language, and look for the moment when people “get it”. Until that point, the knowledge has not been received. So for important knowledge, where the light bulb needs to go on and stay on, you need to look at tried and tested mechanisms such as Peer Assist, Knowledge Exchange, Knowledge Handover and so on, where the facilitator can prompt for, and watch for, the Ahas and the light bulbs.

Knowledge Managers, please watch out for the Aha moment, That is your best indicator, metric or KPI to show that Knowledge Transfer has really happened.

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Why effective knowledge transfer requires nuanced language

To be able to transfer subtleties of knowledge, we need subtleties of language.

Image from wikimedia commons

The Eskimo languages have, it is claimed, 50 words for snow (falling or lying snow, and ice).  This may or may not be true, but their various words can carry a huge amount of subtle detail, and this detail is vitally important for a people that live, travel and hunt on snow.

For example there is a word “Nuyileq”, meaning “crushed ice beginning to spread out; dangerous to walk on. The ice is dissolving, but still has not dispersed in water, although it is vulnerable for one to fall through and to sink. Sometimes seals can even surface on this ice because the water is starting to appear.” (source here). This is a crucial distinction if you intend to  travel on this ice.

Those of us who live in temperate and tropical cities find this level of detail remarkable.  Snow is an unusual feature for us, and we basically only have two or three words for it; snow, slush, and “the wrong sort of snow” (the stuff that shuts down the rail network).  To have 50 words seems quite amazing.

Winter mountain climbers on the other hand, who rely on snow and ice for the safe ascent of mountains, have additional words –

  • “Neve” – that tough snow that securely holds the pick of your ice-axe
  • “Rime” – the coating of frost and snow over rock which you can brush off using a glove
  • “Spindrift” – fine falling snow swirling in the air, not enough for an avalance, but enough to get down your neck and soak your shirt
  • “Cornice” – the awkward overhang of snow at the top of your climb which you must circumvent, or tunnel through.
  • “Verglas”  – a thin coating of ice that forms over rocks when rainfall or melting snow freezes on rock. Hard to climb on as there is insufficient depth for your crampons to have reliable penetration.

Words convey nuance, and the more important a context is to you, the more nuance you need and the more words you use. Some call this jargon, but really it is nuanced communication which allows efficient and effective knowledge sharing.

As an example of nuance, the UK is a very wet place, and how many English words do we have for water?  Falling water, or water lying or running across the ground?  We certainly have many more than 50, and yet water is not much more complex than snow.  See the list below, and add more if you want to. (This article suggests the Scots have 100 words for rain, but to be honest, some of these are cheating).

We have so many words because water is a very familiar concept to us, we know it well, we see it in its manifestations and all its scales, it affects our travel, our gardens and our crops, and we know it well enough to make fine and subtle differentiations. It is useful for us to be able to differentiate between different types of water, just as it is useful for the Inuit to differentiate between different types of snow.

This actually makes it quite difficult to exchange knowledge between two such different contexts. 

 Without some experience of different types of snow, or different types of water, you don’t have the words to explain the difference.  In fact without the experience of the subtleties, you can’t understand the differences.  And how do you communicate when you cant understand the meanings behind the words? How do you exchange knowledge, when the contexts are not there?

That is why one of the first things you need to do when setting up knowledge transfer between people with different contexts is to agree on terminology, and what it means. 

And those fifty words for water? Here’s 55 – tell me if I have missed any!

  1. Drip
  2. Drop
  3. Droplet
  4. Rain
  5. Shower
  6. Deluge
  7. Downpour
  8. Drizzle
  9. Mist
  10. Fog
  11. Smirr
  12. Puddle
  13. Pond
  14. Pool
  15. Lake
  16. Tarn
  17. Loch
  18. Lochan
  19. Mere
  20. Ditch
  21. Dyke
  22. Swamp
  23. Bog
  24. Lagoon
  25. Oasis
  26. Seep
  27. Spring
  28. Source
  29. Spout
  30. Fountain
  31. Rising
  32. Creek
  33. Trickle
  34. Rivulet
  35. Tributary
  36. Stream
  37. Brook
  38. Bourne
  39. Brooklet
  40. Streamlet
  41. Beck
  42. Burn
  43. Gill
  44. Rill
  45. Runnell
  46. Rapids
  47. Waterfall
  48. Force
  49. Falls
  50. Cascade
  51. Cataract
  52. Flume
  53. River
  54. Flood
  55. Estuary

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Knowledge as a rubgy ball or knowledge as a relay baton?

Do you pass knowledge forward, as in a relay race, or do you pass it backward, as in a rugby match? 

 The metaphor of a relay race is often used in Knowledge Management. Knowledge is seen as a baton that is passed from a runner (project team), after they have finished their leg (project) to another runner (project team) that is just starting.

Knowledge transfer is serial – from one, then to the next, then to the next. This is what I refer to here as “serial transfer” of knowledge. This is supported well by knowledge handover; which Pfizer called “baton passing” in a direct reference to the relay run).

Nonaka and Takeuchi contrast this with the Rugby metaphor, where the whole team runs forward, passing the ball from hand to hand between them. In Rugby the ball cannot be passed forward, and when one player meets an obstruction they seek to pass the ball to another player behind them who tries to find a way through.

By sharing small advances, the whole team moves forwards and eventually one player crosses the winning line.

In some ways this is a much better metaphor for knowledge transfer many organisations, where the aim is to make progress on all fronts, and where knowledge is shared between the different divisions and the different teams like a rugby ball, where small gains in knowledge from one part of the business are combined with small gains from another part, so that everyone advances together, rather than in series.

This is particularly true in Pharma organisations or in research organisations, where few projects succeed in developing a new product and success comes from knowledge which passes through many hands and is accumulated through many projects. Rather than the knowledge being lost or archived when one project is closed, it is far better if the knowledge is passed on and “kept alive” – built up over time through the experience of many projects.

The ball in rugby is always passed backwards – from leader to follower – but the roles of leader and follower are always changing, depending on who made the breakthrough. In knowledge terms I referred to this as “synchronous transfer“, and this is supported by communities of practicelessons learned systems,and knowledge exchange and by “learning while doing” rather than “learning after doing”.

If you are unfamiliar with rugby, see the masterclass demonstration below, which shows that display of passing the ball from hand to hand until the breakthrough is made (particularly clear in teh overhead shot). The match was in 2002, England (in white) were playing Ireland (in green), and the ball was passed from player to player as each in turn met an obstacle, always passed backwards, involving almost the whole team, until finally the winning line was crossed.

If only we could do this in our organisations, with knowledge rather than with a rugby ball


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Learning by Watching

There is only a certain amount you can learn by reading. Sometimes you have to go and see.

With complex knowledge, there is more going on that can ever be documented, and (if it’s possible) the best way to learn is to go and see for yourself. Toyota call this “Genchi Genbutsu” – an approach they apply to problem solving. Wikipedia has this story –

“Taiichi Ohno, creator of the Toyota Production System is credited, perhaps apocryphally, with taking new graduates to the shopfloor and drawing a chalk circle on the floor. The graduate would be told to stand in the circle, observe and note what he saw. When Ohno returned he would check; if the graduate had not seen enough he would be asked to keep observing. Ohno was trying to imprint upon his future engineers that the only way to truly understand what happens on the shop floor was to go there”.

In Knowledge Management, these Knowledge Visits have a place in knowledge transfer. If you really want to learn from something complex and truly understand what happens, then go and see and talk to the people who are involved.

See for example the Observer Programme organised by the International Olympic Committee as part of their Knowledge Management framework.

This article describes how more than 100 staff from the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games visited and observed the Rio 2016 Olympics.

IOC’s Observer Programme, which is an integral element of the Olympic Games Knowledge Management, represents a key component of the knowledge transfer process, providing a unique opportunity to live, learn and experience real operations to future hosts, guided by key personnel of Rio Organizing Committee or IOC. 

POCOG will attend the total of seventy-six programmes, including Airport Operations, Look of the Games, Accreditation, Medical Services, Venue Management, Ticketing, Venue Energy, and Transport. 

SEO, Min-jung, the Head of Doping Control Team said, “After closely observing Rio Games, I now know what to do for PyeongChang 2018.” She added, “I can expect what needs to be done to give athletes absolute confidence in the doping control system and uphold the integrity of Olympics and Paralympics Games.” 

POCOG Spokesperson SUNG, Baik-you commented, “Thanks to invaluable IOC Observer Programme, POCOG staffs are here to watch and learn, and every moment and experience from airport arrival to competition venue visit will be a learning experience for PyeongChang 2018.”

Sometimes, in cases like this, you just have to go and see in order to learn.

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Why you need pull-based community meetings

Don’t just run your community meetings as presentations; instead engage in real multi-way dialogue around important questions.

I have blogged several times about Push and Pull in Knowledge Management – about the dangers of focusing only on Push (such a common strategy, unfortunately), and about the need to create a culture of pull – a demand for knowledge, a thirst for learning.

Push is Knowledge Supply – an answer looking for a problem – “Just in case” KM, with re-use only in the case where the knowledge happens to meet a need. Pull is knowledge demand – a problem looking for an answer – “Just in time” KM, with guaranteed re-use.

The need for creating Pull operates at many levels – in Communities of Practice, on websites, even in face to face meetings.

However very often community meetings are not designed this way. Very often they as “show and tell” meetings, where an expert is brought in, and the community members sit passively and listen. The members are treated as knowledge consumers, whereas the real value of a community is that ever member has knowledge to offer, as well as knowledge to learn.

One variant of these meetings is the dreaded “lunch and learn” – one of my pet hates. There are many reasons why I dislike “lunch and learn”;

  • they assume that community meetings can’t take place in “real working hours” and need to be held at lunchtime (thus perpetuating the idea that “KM is not Real Work”;
  • they assume you can eat and listen – that you don’t need to pay full attention;
  • they assume you don’t need to take any notes (with your hands full of sandwiches);
  • they assume that the people who turn up will be passive listeners and not active contributors. After all, how much can you contribute with your mouth full of food?
This is the worst way to transfer knowledge – a one-way presentation to a bunch of people who are busy doing something else.

If this is your approach to community meetings, then consider turning the meeting around, and base it around Questions and around Dialogue. Identify before hand the major questions and problems within the CoP (maybe using a Knowledge Market approach) , and build the agenda around those questions. Use the collective knowledge of the Community to address the questions. Bring that knowledge to bear on the most pressing business problems, so that every person leaves the meeting with a problem solved, and with new connections, new links, and a renewed sense of community value, and having contributed as much as they gained.

Maybe use a knowledge exchange approach, with small problem-solving break-out groups to make sure that everyone was involved in the dialogue. Not a series of presentations that probably very few people would be interested in, even if they weren’t eating lunch at the same time.

Even the face to face meetings need to be driven by Pull, if they are to really impact the business.

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"My knowledge is unique – I can’t write it down"

“My knowledge is unique” is another challenge you meet on your KM journey. How do you respond?

image from wikimedia commons

This observation was shared with me by a knowledge manager in the UK health service, who hears it all the time from top doctors and surgeons.

“Nobody can do what I do” they say; “I am unique, my knowledge is unique, it is part of who I am. How could you ever capture it?”

And you can see their point. They quite possibly do have some unique knowledge and skill – they are probably top of their profession, have built their understanding over a decade, and much of their knowledge is probably now so ingrained and so tacit that they may not even understand how they know it.

But that doesn’t mean this situation is OK, nor that KM cannot help. For a start, if this knowledge is so important and so unique, then this person represents a “single point of failure” (as they say in engineering terms). If they die, the knowledge dies with them, and (in the case of doctors and surgeons) patients will suffer as a result.

So you need to get into a conversation with the person, and ask a series of questions.

  • What is it that you know, that is so unique?
  • Are you really the only person in the organisation/industry/country/world who knows this?
  • What would happen if you became ill, or were otherwise be unable to work, or reached the end of your career, and that knowledge was unavailable?
  • What would be the effect on the company/customers.patients?
  • Would that be OK?
  • If not, what can we do about this?
Through this questioning you are hoping that the expert will realise that “my knowledge is unique, and that is not OK”, and then you can start to design some mitigating actions.
The sort of things you can do include

You will never capture or transfer all of the unique knowledge, but even 10% may be enough to save a few lives.

View Original Source Here.

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