Knowledge Musings

Musings about knowledge management as I go about my daily life

Friday, May 9, 2008

Voting for Knowledge

We've recently had local elections in England. That got me thinking about voting and knowledge. In Britain's first 'past the post' system you weigh up what you know about the candidates, but since you can't vote on each issue, you consider them and their parties in the round. What do they stand for? What are their core principles? Forearmed with knowledge about voter intentions (opinion polls) you might resort to tactical voting, where you don't vote for the person whose views most closely match your own, but since they are unlikely to win, you cast your vote for someone else who with additional votes from people like yourself can beat an opponent whom you would rather lose.

Voting in some respects is like other decisions that individuals and managers make day-in day-out. You assess the situation, pooling knowledge from many perspectives, then go through a mental process of evaluating the plusses and minusses of various options. Sometimes this can be a lonely decision: I have to reduce headcount, so who do I fire? If I bid too high a price, I lose the opportunity to make money. If I bid too low, I lose money anyway.

Within organisations, there is often something akin to collective decision-making. Although the chairman may make the final choice, he or she may ask for a show of hands on how to tackle an issue. There are groupware decision support systems that let users vote on various options. When prioritising options in a KM action plan, I often give a group of senior executives 3 votes each which they allocate however they please to the 10 or so options available. In these situations you are not just averaging knowledge, you are assessing the collective will and commitment to one choice or another.

Now consider the case of where the choice of decision should be factual rather than judgemental. A party of three people on a trek come to a junction. One way leads down to base, the other into a wilderness. They decide to vote which direction to take. The person who actually knows the way out is outvoted 2:1. There is also the classic case in recent British history where prime minister Margaret Thatcher was accused of being out of step with her 12 European counterparts. Her response was that she was going in the right direction and that they were all wrong. Only in hindsight or with a deeper delving into the situation is the right choice finally clear - even then you can rationalise your original choice based on the knowledge available to you at the time.

What conclusions can we draw from these situations?
  • decisions may improve with better knowledge but a vote is not necessarily a reflection of the validity of the knowledge on which it is based
  • collective decisions provide a greater pooling of knowledge - however, in many situations they tend to converge on the most conservative and conventional thinking - not too good for breakthrough innovations
  • voting for something is a demonstration of your commitment; therefore even if the resultant decision is not necessarily the best, it may well do better because more people are committed to its succeed
  • on the other hand those whose votes were not for the resultant decision might feel overriden or their views ignored and therefore not fully committed to something they did not vote for
  • voting may provide the initial direction of travel, but every good practitioner should continually review progress, make micro-decisions along the way, and - although painful - perhaps admit that the wrong initial decision was made, go back and take an alternative course.
So should you vote on knowledge? You may feel the need to adopt voting so that if things go wrong there is collective blame. However, the smart manager will not offer colleagues such simplistic A or B choices (unlike political elections). He or she will work to explore why there are differences - probing more deeply to get from surface knowledge to fuller understanding and insights, suggesting other options, teasing out assumptions. He or she may stimulate further discussion and open up new opportunities by planting what seem like outrageous ideas (a good way of getting away from conventional complaceny and into innovation mode).

In other words, decisions based on consensus, deep knowledge, smarts and weight of argument, rather than on weight of ballot papers.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Spring clean your knowledge

Spring (supposedly) is on its way. Now is a good time to reflect on what knowledge and information you hoard and what you can safely dispose of. What prompted me to write this piece was an article I wrote on knowledge auditing, that has been reprinted on KnowledgeBoard under the title Cleaning Out The KM Closet. Complete with a picture of a broom, it prefaces the article by pointing out that organizations often overlook what knowledge and information they already hold. It's not the heading I would have given the article, but it did prompt me to think about spring cleaning my knowledge!

First, let me say that I'm pleased that KnowledgeBoard regular emails have started again, under the new editorship of Louise Druce. It really is one of the best KM portals and their emails help keep you informed of developments - beyond the technical promotions that many so-called KM websites pump out.

Coming back to auditing, several that I have carried out typically reveal two contrary situations:
  • duplication of information - how many customer databases does your organization hold?
  • key information that people need - but which isn't there or difficult to find.
Information is continually being created. As volumes grow, it becomes increasingly costly (in time and resources) to store and retrieve efficiently. When we create a document, do we think through the lifetime ramifications - how long it should be kept, when it should be reviewed or disposed of. We may give it cursory attention, but when the time comes we're usually too busy doing something new.

Like many people, my email files have grown and grown. I have many emails that are more than 10 years old. I do occasionally go through a folder or two, keeping only ones that may be relevant in future (it's amazing how management approaches I used 20 years old have stood the test of time!). An alternative strategy would be to do a wholesale deletion of email folders relating to completed projects, ideas that never got off the ground, past visits etc. This would certainly improve the 'feel good' factor, until a day or two later someone asks a question and you knew you had just what was needed only it was dumped.

So is there anything we can learn from physical spring cleaning? Have a look at others tips and see how you might adapt to your office/PC environment - see Tips for Spring Cleaning and Ten Spring Cleaning and Organizing Tips. Here are some things to try:
  • Be tidy in the first place - think logically about where things should be kept
  • Distinguish work in progress from final results - I treat many emails as transient and do not tag them; at a project milestone I file tagged emails
  • Things can only go in three piles - I use it (keep it), I never use it (sell, give away or destroy), I'm not sure (I'm unlikely to use it but it may have historical value or there may be legal or social ramifications if I don't preserve it)
  • If you don't want to make a bad decision, then try putting it in the attic (a temporary archive file); then you can delete it after a few years anything you haven't retrieved, or when you depart, someone will ditch it for you!
  • Don't generate so much rubbish in the first place!
The big question is - do you do a room (file) at a time, or go the whole hog and do everything together? A lot depends on personal preference. Either way, it does take time, so you should allow for it, either 10-15 minutes a day, or take a few days out. As the Wikipedia entry on spring cleaning says "a person who gets their affairs in order before an audit or inspection could be said to be doing some spring cleaning." A knowledge audit should be the spur to do this housekeeping.

What are your tips for keeping your office and online files tidy this Spring?


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Where's the Oil?

I've just been reading an interesting article in Time Magazine by former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer (and before that Energy Minister), Nigel Lawson, entitled Darkness Looms. In it, he argues that all our concerns about getting environmentally-friendly energy sources come up against the practicalities of an energy short-fall in the coming decades. Most of Europe has not replaced its ageing (and dirty) coal-fired power stations, nor its (clean but problematic) nuclear power stations. And where is the oil? In parts of the world where security of supply depends heavily on political forces and the prevailing diplomatic moods, like the Middle East and Russia.

But in the KM context, the phrase "where's the oil?" reminds me of BP's approach to knowledge management. When he led the KM team, Kent Greenes, would always ask this quesiton of any planned initiative. If KM could not translate into helping BP find oil better, cheaper, faster, or the efficiency of its overall supply chain, then what is the point of KM. At the moment I am helping an organisation put into place a KM strategy and action plan. One of my starting points is the approved 5-year corporate plan. By examing each objective in turn, I am asking:

  • what are the knowledge inputs (i.e. to achieve this objective what do need to know, and what information must be readily accessible?
  • what are the tasks, business processes and core decisions that contribute to this objective, and as a consequence...
  • what are the KM activities that support these processes, finally..
  • what are the knowledge outputs, e.g. reports, guidance, database entries
Already it is clear that there are some recurring themes, such as a virtuous cycle of knowledge development, where new knowledge is created, evaluated, shared, refined and developed, applied and lessons learned, which in turn are fed into an evolving knowledge base. Many of these processes are generic, fine-tuned only for stakeholder / user needs and the categories of knowledge (by topic, format, usage etc.)

So, wherever you are in your KM action plan, think of your organisation's product or service, and keep asking this probling question:

"Where's the oil?" (or whatever product or service is your most valuable).

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Eco-Friendly KM

Knowledge is weightless - so it ought to exhibit a low carbon footprint, right?

Well perhaps not, if you have to travel widely to gain or impart knowledge. Tacit knowledge, in particular, is not something that you can just download from the Web. In my younger days as a computer analyst and sales person in the 1970s, I would think nothing of hopping on a plane, often more than once a week, for meetings in Geneva, Munich, Paris or even shorter hauls like London to Manchester. Of course, in those days, airports weren't the hassle they are now and carbon footprints were what your colleague created when stamping out his or her cigarette in the office!

Yet - even though we now have the technology for virtual working, there seems a great reluctance to take advantage of it and reduce travel. I recall the early days of BP's knowledge management initiative where desktop webcams were installed so that staff could videoconference. Instead of flying out to an oil rig off the shore of Scotland, experts in the south of England could have a sensible online face-to-face dialogue. Further, if there were practical problems, and oilfield engineer could point the camera at the offending machinery and both parties could work out a solution online. It might take a little longer than if there in person, but all the time was quality time - not rushing from car park to bus to plane to taxi and so on. A finding that came out of BP's early experience was that a commitment made over videolink was more likely to be honoured than one made in email. In other words, it developed a level of trust close to that enjoyed through physical face-to-face presence.

Well eco-friendly business activities are now core issue for companies to grapple with. A recent article (Computing 7th Feb) on 'going green' aimed at IT professionals highlighted five tips for eco-friendly IT:
  • increase server and storage in data centres - modern kit is less energy consuming than oder kit
  • install energy efficient PCs and monitors
  • print fewer documents
  • enforce poser management (i.e. turn off your PC at night)
  • telework
It was the latter that got me into knowledge management. In the late 1980s I had initiated several telework (US translation - telecommuting) projects in my organisation. We identified benefits not just in terms of cost and time savings in travel, but office space (hot desking), more motivated employees (getting a suitable work-life home-away balance), higher productivity (not being interrupted all the time by phone or ignorant colleagues!). One of my tasks was to map different kinds of knowledge work and what environment suited it best. We found that the design of many offices was not ideal, and that by good planning and support sytems an employee need come into the office only occasionally. One of the main barriers to implementation was management culture - managers who were not confident of managing by output but who gauged employees by their input - the amount of time spent at their desk.

So think about it. Why doesn't your organisation telework more, especially using videoconferencing and webcams? And when you think (unless you are in a gas guzzling vehicle or plane) the energy stimulating your neurons adds very little to your carbon footprint, and may generate some new valuable knowledge.


Monday, February 18, 2008

Tick Box KM

Two recent things prompted me to address this topic. One is for a voluntary organisation I work for where one of our supporters would like our volunteers (people like me) to become accredited advisors. After all we would "tick all the boxes". However, since there is no demand from our beneficiaries (out of work managers and professionals who we help) and to become accrediated would cost us the equivalent of year's rent of the premises we use, I question its value.

Another is an interesting article (Computing, 7 Feb 2008) by software professional, Peter Merrick, who says "it is not project management that is of interest, but project delivery. The fact that a project is well managed and ticks the right boxes, does not mean it will deliver a working system".

I recall when pushing companies to achieve ISO standards for customer quality was in vogue. Even though a company could get accredited, it did not mean it could deliver exemplary customer service, simply that it adhered to the procedures and standards it set for itself.

Unfortunately in bureaucracies - and that's what many large corporations and public sector organizations are today - there is a tendency to say that processes are in place and rules have been followed and to take the eye off the ball about what is really important. I've had a running argument with one such public service recently who keeps hiding behind "our minimal legal obligations" rather than thinking about the needs of the customer.

So far, most KM initiatives have succeeded using necessary but 'light touch' procedures. But with IT playing a major role in many KM initiatives, it would be a pity if too much attention was given to ticking the right boxes in the project management methodology and not enough to the essence of the project. Another danger lurking is that if the movement to KM standards and professionalisation movement were to enforce unrealistic 'standards', then KM might itself become too bureaucratized. Fortunately, the British Standards Institute has realized this and at the moment feel that KM is not mature enough for highly specific standards, so it issues 'guidance on good practice'.

Delivering KM should be similar to what Peter Merrick describes as a delivery framework for IT, i.e. one that "prioritizes the business community stakeholders, senior management, middle management, project management and users". I commend his PrinceLite delivery framework as an approach for knowledge management projects. It may not seem 'lite' enough for some KM practitioners (in that there are mandatory requirements) but its merit is that it is stakeholder-focussed, something every project manager ignores at his or her peril. As Peter himself says: "it does not tell you exactly what to do, but does give you some very strong hints".