Why asking for knowledge contributions is so important.

One of David Snowden’s principles is that “Knowledge can’t be conscripted, it can only be volunteered”. However waiting passively for voluntary contributions is the wrong way to spread knowledge. Ask for volunteers instead.

I Know The Answer!
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Knowledge can’t be conscripted, it can only be volunteered, and often it won’t be volunteered until someone asks for it.

This is an outcome of the problem of the Unknown Knowns. Often people don’t don’t realise they have learned something, until they are asked about it, or have the chance to discuss it.

Sometimes you find organisations who have set up a system whereby people are required to identify new knowledge themselves, and then to add it into a knowledge repository. The system effectively says “if you have learned something, please share it here”. 

I am not a huge fan of volunteer systems like this; I don’t even like them for collecting innovation suggestions. I think you capture only a small proportion of the knowledge this way, because people are often not aware that they have learned anything, and if they are aware, they often discount the learning as “not important”. Also, self-written knowledge is often superficial, because there hasn’t been the depth of dialogue and questioning to get to the root lesson.

I am not arguing for forcing people to share knowledge, but I am suggesting that you don’t wait for the volunteers to come to you. Instead you give people question-based opportunities where they are prompted to become aware of what they know, and which provide a safe and encouraging environment for them to share it. This is a different sort of system, where people are asked what knowledge they have to offer. 

There are three main approaches for doing this; reactive, scheduled, and point-of-need.

The reactive approach requires someone to identify particular successes and failures from which to learn. The failures can be obvious, such as HSE incidents or significant project overruns, and many companies have mandatory processes for reviewing these failures. But how do you spot the successes? This is where you can become more proactive. 

 Maybe you can use your company benchmark metrics, and pick the best performing units for review. Perhaps you could work with the knowledge from the manufacturing plant that never had an accident, as well as from the one with frequent accidents. Maybe you can look for the best sales team, and look to learn the secrets of their success. Or maybe you can do both successes and failures – I did a very interesting study not long ago for an organisation that measures staff engagement using the Gallup survey. We picked the ten top scoring sales teams, the ten bottom scoring teams and the ten teams which had shown the most improvement over the previous year, and interviewed the team leader and a team member from each one, so they could share the secrets of successful staff engagement.

Another organisation we have worked with uses global consultants and Technical Directors to identify opportunities for learning and knowledge transfer. They travel the world, reviewing activity at different centres, and will identify good practice which needs to be repeated, as well as opportunities to learn from mistakes. They then ask the local team how they achieved their success, and what knowledge they can share with others. 

An alternative approach, common within project-based organisations, is to schedule learning reviews and knowledge exchange within the activity framework. Each of these reviews involves asking the team to voluntarily share what they have learned.  These reviews could be

  • After Action Reviews on a daily basis during high-intensity learning, or after each significant task 
  • Peer Assists early in each project stage, or during project set-up
  • Retrospects (or some other form of Post Project review) at the end of each project stage, or at each project review gate
  • A Knowledge Handover meeting at the end of a project, to discuss new knowledge with other projects
  • A Technical Limit meeting during the detailed planning stage, to bring in knowledge from people with detailed experience
  • A Retrospect (or some other form of review) at the end of a bid process, when the company knows if the bid has been successful or unsuccessful.

There are many advantages to the scheduled approach. Firstly, success and failure are components of every project, and if every project is reviewed, lessons may be identified which can avoid the big mistakes later on. Secondly, if lessons identification is scheduled, it becomes a clear expectation, and the company can monitor if the expectation is being met. This expectation is common in many organisations, thought the rigour with which the expectation is met seems to vary. Finally, by scheduling and facilitating the learning dialogue, you can uncover the knowledge that nobody knows they know, until they start to discuss it.

The final approach is the point-of-need approach. This is where someone realises they need knowledge, and the ask the relevant community of practice for help. This is often a very effective way to transfer knowledge, and represents a “just in time” rather than a “just in case” approach. It can be run in parallel with the scheduled knowledge discussions mentioned above.  A McKinsey study I reference here claimed that direct requests for help between colleagues drive 75 to 90 percent of all the help exchanged within organizations.

So don’t rely on people volunteering their knowledge spontaneously – instead set up scheduled processes which provide a request and a context for volunteering. Ask for volunteers – that’s the way knowledge gets shared.

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