Adopt, adapt, improve

Adopt, adapt, improve could be seen as a mantra for KM – but is it always the right approach?

“Adopt, Adapt, Improve” is the maxim of the British “Round Table” club – a non-political, non-sectarian association for young professional men, for social and professional ends. The maxim comes from a 1927 speech by Edward, Prince of Wales “The young business and professional men of this country must get together round the table, adopt methods that have proved so sound in the past, adapt them to the changing needs of the times and wherever possible, improve them.”

The phrase was even mentioned in a Monty Python sketch.

Adopt, Adapt, Improve also works in KM terms, and is in some ways as good and as simple a KM mantra as “Learn Before, During and After”, or “Ask Learn Share”. You can look at Prince Edward’s vision of the Round Table as a community of practice, developing and discussing best practices. In any task of undertaking we should adopt ideas and knowledge that have worked before elsewhere, adapt them to our current situation, and improve them by learning on the job; making sure we broadcast them to others for their adoption. This way, knowledge is used, improved and shared, and the collective knowledge grows in effectiveness and value.

But is this 3-word mantra always applicable?

  • There are times when adaptation is a risk (see the innovation spectrum, and where adaptation becomes tinkering or meddling) and where a better approach is “copy exactly” as in the Intel case study. People like to adapt – it gives them more ownership of the outcome, but where a context is unchanging, and a solution works and always works (and especially if we don’t quite know why it works) then Adaptation may do more harm than good. In such a case, the Mantra would just be “Adopt”.
  • There are times when there is nothing to Adopt; where no current solution meets your needs. In this case, the Matra is “innovate, test, improve”.

 But in most other cases – where knowledge is evolving, and where knowledge exists that will help you in your work but may not quite fit your current context, then you could do a lot worse than to adopt these three words as your KM strapline:

Adopt, Adapt, Improve 

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3 levels of knowledge authority; Must, Should, Could

Knowledge in an organisation often comes in 3 levels of authority – Must, Should and Could

Copyright Knoco 2018

I am often asked “Does knowledge management have to be top-down, command and control? Should the company be telling people what to do and how to do it? Why can’t knowledge just emerge, from the bottom up?

The answer, as usual, is that it is a question of Horses for Courses. There is some knowledge which can and should “bubble up from the bottom”, and there is some knowledge that needs a top-down validation (but even in this case, this tends to be top-down validation of bottom-up contribution).

Let’s look at the second case, as this is the one that people tend to struggle with.

Here we are looking at knowledge that is mission critical, or related to safe operation. Knowledge like how to run a nuclear power plant, or an oil refinery, or how to fly a jumbo jet. We already know from incidents like the Longford Refinery disaster  that in such situations the company is legally obliged to ensure that operators have access to the knowledge they need to do their jobs, and that an organisation cannot use “operator error” as an excuse excuse if the knowledge is available. Nor, in a  Just Culture approach, can you blame the individual if the knowledge they use is wrong or absent.

Any organisation will (or should) put in place structures to make sure that people with mission-critical jobs have access to the best knowledge, compiled from the best sources, and will require validation that this is happening.

I recently presented about this, and mentioned the role of the “Practice Owner” – the person who acts as custodian or guardian of an area of knowledge. There were some immediate questions – “who gives this person the right to tell others what to do? What if they are wrong?”. The answer is that the person speaks on behalf of the community of practice (and is often appointed by the community), and acts as a check and validator on the community process.

If the community members find a problem with company procedures then this is the person who checks that out, runs the management of change, and signs off (on behalf of the community and the company) on the new process.

People sometimes ask, why doesn’t the community collectively sign off? The answer is, for company critical knowledge, you need checks and balances. Otherwise you can imagine the courtroom conversation

“What made you think that the procedure you provided Mr X, which resulted in the destruction of the laboratory, was safe?”
“Well your honour, it got 20 Likes in the company knowledge system”

When the company is responsible for providing correct knowledge, the company needs that validation process in place, which goes beyond star-ratings and Likes, and requires proper review and sign-off.

What you generally end up with, in high reliability organisations, is three levels of knowledge;

  • There is the “Must Follow” knowledge, which is enshrined in the company standards, and which has been signed off by the Practice Owners (on behalf of the Community) as being the only safe or effective approach, and is endorsed as such by management. Examples might be the operating procedures for the above-mentioned Nuclear plant, or the in-flight checklists for the Jumbo Jet. This is the top down knowledge – created and validated from below, and set as a requirement by management.
  • There is the “Should Follow” knowledge, which is represented by “Current Best Practice”, and which the community collectively agrees that is the best way to do something, and which should be used as a default unless you have a good reason to do otherwise. These are the contents of the Community Wiki, or the community knowledge base, and there will be generally some form of validation procedure to determine that this really is the best knowledge available at the moment. This knowledge is created and validated by the community.
  • Finally there is the “Could Follow” knowledge, that represents the good ideas, good examples, tips and hints, and templates. This is generally the content of the community forums and the community Yammer streams, and has the Likes and the star ratings. This is the bottom up knowledge, bubbling up from below and attracting rating and commentary as it goes, until it passes a validation step to become “Should Follow”. 

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Becoming "One Organisation" – KM’s role in integration of approaches

Many global organisations pass through a stage of global integration. Here is how KM helps.

image from wikimedia commons

Global organisations constantly draw a balance between global aspiration and local delivery. They need to balance agility and accountability in the local business units with the power and resources a global organisation can bring, and one of those resources is knowledge.

The managerial pendulum often swings between globalisation and localisation, and the swing to globalisation is often accompanied by the call to be “One Organisation”. I have seen this at BP with “One BP”, but also “One Rio Tinto”, One BBC”, “One Anglo-American” – and many others.  “One” can mean a uniform branding or a uniform strategy, but it can also mean “one way of working”. And this is where KM comes in.

KM can help learn from different local approaches to operational activity, using a process such as Knowledge Exchange, and to come out with a global “current best approach” on which any future local variants can be based. The company experts and practitioners get together, compare approaches, share knowledge of how things are done in the different regions and why, and build a “best of the best”. This then becomes the new standard way of working for the organisation, and the new baseline for continual improvement.

Immediately there is a step up in productivity and consistency. This is particularly important for global service companies, as their global clients now get a consistent standard of service worldwide.
This standardisation of approach is a Knowledge Management strategy, in that it results in pooling global knowledge into a “company best practice”.

However as a long term approach, this “one way of working” faces several problems;

  • Best practice never stays Best for long. The “global way of working” is going to need to evolve over time if the company is to stay competitive. There needs to be a feedback and improvement mechanism, such as a lessons learned cycle.
  • This is a “central push” model for KM, where knowledge (the “standard way”) is pushed out from the centre to the regions. However the regions are where The Way is applied, and unless knowledge comes back, and is shared between the regions, then that operational experience is lost. There needs to be an experience gathering approach, such as Knowledge Exchange.
  • All too often, the “global way of working” tells people what to do, but not how to do it, nor how to do it in the most effective way given the different operating contexts around the world. It provides the Standards and Rules, but not the tips and hints. The Tips and Hints come from the operators on the front line, and need to be shared with other operators. There needs to be a Community of Practice, allowing effective local application of the global ways.
In other words, a Knowledge Management Framework needs to be in place, supporting, refining and building upon the global ways of working. The first step of standardising needs to be followed by a second step of application and continuous improvement. Then the whole organisation, both global and local, form one learning organisation.

That way lies both local and global success.

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What are the outputs of the KM workstream?

KM organisations need a Knowledge workstream as well as a Product/Project workstream. But what are the knowledge outputs?

I have blogged several times about the KM workstream you need in your organisation; the knowledge factory that runs alongside the product factory or the project factory.  But what are the outputs or  products of the knowledge factory?
The outputs of the product factory are clear – they are designed and manufactured products being sold to customers. The outputs of the project factory are also clear – the project deliverables which the internal or external client has ordered and paid for. 
We can look at the products of the KM workstream in a similar way. The clients and customers for these are knowledge workers in the organisation who need knowledge to do their work better; to deliver better projects and better products. It is they who define what knowledge is needed. Generally this knowledge comes in three forms:
  • Standard practices which experience has shown are the required way to work. These might be design standards, product standards, standard operating procedures, norms, standard templates, algorithms and so on. These are mandatory, they must be followed, and have been endorsed by senior technical management.
  • Best practices and best designs which lessons and experience have shown are currently the best way to work in a particular setting or context. These are advisory, they should be followed, and they have been endorsed by the community of practice as the current best approach.
  • Good practices and good options which lessons from one or two projects have shown to be a successful way to work. These might be examples of successful bids, plans, templates or designs, and they have been endorsed by the community of practice as “good examples” which might be copied in similar circumstances, but which are not yet robust enough to be recognised as “the best”. 
  • More generic accumulated knowledge about specific tasks, materials, suppliers, customers, legal regimes, concepts etc.
The project/product workstream also creates outputs which act as inputs to the knowledge workstream; these are the knowledge deliverables, the lessons which capture hindsight, and the useful iterms which can be stored as good practices and good options. The link between lessons and best practices is described here, and shows how the two workstreams operate together to gather and deliver knowledge to optimise results. 

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How Best Practices work – an example from Sport

Best Practices are part of Knowledge Management, but sometimes misused. Here is an example of how they really work.

Picture originally from here

There is a lot of pushback in the KM world about the term “best practice”. In the discussion groups, we hear people saying “we don’t believe in best practice”. Respected KM gurus say that “best practice harms effectiveness”. There is a school of thought that says the concept is flawed, or even dangerous.

Certainly if best practice is used the wrong way – for example as a reason to avoid innovation and improvement (“we are already following best practice – no need to change”) – then it can be a danger.

But let’s look at Best Practice in the context of sport, let’s look at the value the concept brings, and lets see how it develops over time. This will allow us to draw some conclusions for the world of KM.

Let’s look at the high jump.

There was a time when there was no established technique for the high jump. People approached the bar front-on, often from a standing start. However as the high jump became an international field event, techniques and practices began to be developed.

One of the early successful practices was the Western Roll, introduced in 1912, leading to the world record of that time, and a step change in performance. This new practice rapidly became “best practice” of the time, and was predominant through the Berlin Olympics of 1936. You can see the introduction of best practice in the graph above, as an abrupt improvement in performance (labelled Western Roll, followed by a long flat period, as the new best practice becomes established.

The Western Roll was superseded by the Straddle technique in 1937. You can see on the graph how this new practice led to another step-change in performance, with record height rapidly increasing over a period of years as the technique was perfected and adopted around the world, and then a flat section where the new best practice becomes common practice.

Then in 1968, Dick Fosbury introduced a new technique, the “Fosbury flop“, to win a gold method in Mexico City. As Wikipedia says, “After he used this Fosbury flop to win the 1968 Olympic gold medal, the technique began to spread around the world, and soon floppers were dominating international high jump competitions”. The new practice had become Best Practice, and so standard practice. Over the years since 1968, the details of the Flop have been perfected, but it still remains the basis of Best Practice in high jump techniques, until a new technique is discovered.

So what has all this got to do with Knowledge Management?

Basically, this is a metricated historical look at Best Practice under controlled conditions, and allows us to draw the following conclusions.

1) Best Practice is what delivers Best Results. In high jumping, this is easily defined – it’s the technique allows you to jump higher than any other technique. In the office, it is whatever approach gets your work done better, or faster, or cheaper, or best satisfies the customer.

2) People will follow Best Practice whenever they are highly incentivised to deliver the best performance. In an Olympic Games, people will adopt a new Best Practice when it allows them to jump higher than their old practice did, and when they have not yet found an even better practice (see number 1 above). Nobody would not go back to the practice of the Western Roll.

3) Best Practice is not static. Best is “Best for now, until something better is found”. The existence of “current best” doesn’t stop you looking for Better. In the history of the High Jump, Best Practice has changed three times – from no defined practice, to Western Roll, to Straddle Jump, to Fosbury Flop.

4) Best Practice is easiest to develop and copy in a relatively repeatable situation, where the parameters remain fairly constant, and where the metrics are clear (such as jumping over as high a bar as possible).

5) Under such circumstances, changes in Best Practice drive step changes in performance – the steps seen in the attached graph. Adoption of each new Best Practice gives a step change in performance, followed by a flatter performance graph where the new Best Practice is refined and perfected.

6) There will be personal variants of Best Practice, but the core of the practice – the fundamentals of the technique which differentiate it from other techniques –  remains the same. Tinker with the core, and the practice fails to deliver.

7) Changes in Best Practice are often driven by changes in context. The Fosbury Flop, which drove the biggest leap forward in high Jump achievement, was made possible by the change from sawdust landing pits to deep foam matting. Basically, you could land on your neck without killing yourself. So the new Best Practice – the flop –  was born.

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The difference between lessons and best practice – another post from the archives

Here is another post from the archives – this time looking at the difference between Best Practice and Lessons Learned.

Someone last week asked me, what’s the difference between Best Practice, and Lessons Learned.

 Now I know that some KM pundits don’t like the term “Best Practice” as it can often be used defensively, but I think that there is nothing wrong with the term itself, and if used well, Best Practice can be a very useful concept within a company. So let’s dodge the issue of whether Best Practice is a useful concept, and instead discuss it’s relationship to lessons learned.

My reply to the questioner was that Best Practice is the amalgamation of many lessons, and it is through their incorporation into Best Practice that they become learned.

If we believe that learning must lead to action, that lessons are the identified improvements in practice, and that the actions associated with lessons are generally practice improvements, then it makes sense that as more and more lessons are accumulated, so practices become better and better.

A practice that represents the accumulation of all lessons is the best practice available at the time, and a practice that is adapted in teh light of new lessons will only get better.

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