Two managers’ questions that drive a KM culture

If you are a leader who wants to help develop a Knowledge Management and Organisational Learning culture in their organisation, you can do this simply, by asking two questions. 

The two questions are

Who have you learned from?
Who have you shared this with?

If you are a leader, then every time someone comes to you with a proposed solution to a problem, or a proposed course of action, you ask “Who have you learned from”? Through this question, you are implying that they should have learned from others before proposing a solution – that they should have “learned before doing”.

Also, every time someone comes to you to report a problem solved or a process improved, or a new pitfall or challenged addressed, you ask “Who have you shared this with”? Through this question, you are implying that they should share any new learnings with others.

The great thing about leaders’ questions, is they drive behaviour. People start to anticipate them, and to do the learning before, and the sharing afterwards. People hate to be asked these two questions, and having to answer “umm, well, nobody actually”.

They would much rather say “we have learned from X and Y, and have a Peer Assist planned with Z”, “We have shared with the A community, and are holding a Knowledge Handover next week with B project”.

And once you drive the behaviours, the transfer of knowledge will happen, the value will be delivered, and the system will reinforce itself.

But the moment you stop asking the questions, people realise that you, as a leader, are no longer interested in KM, so they will stop bothering.

There’s an old saying – “What interests my manager fascinates me”, so make sure you are interested, and ask the questions.

Two similar questions – “Show me that you have shared knowledge” and “Show me how you have re-used knowledge” – are embedded into staff appraisals at Microsoft, as a way of driving the right Knowledge-friendly behaviours. However appraisals happen on an annual basis, and if you want to keep a focus on knowledge all year round, then the two questions described here are very powerful. 

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The biggest barriers and enablers for knowledge Management

This post is an update of an earlier post in 2014, brought up to date with new survey data.

As part of our global surveys in 2014 and 2017, answered by over 700 KM professionals, we asked respondents to rank a number of barriers in order of the impact they had had on their KM programme, ranking these from 1 to 8 (Knoco 2017).

 The results are shown in the table below, with high numbers representing high ranking and therefore high impact.


Average ranking

Cultural issues 5.8
Lack of prioritisation and support from leadership 5.0
Lack of KM roles and accountabilities 4.8
Lack of KM incentives 4.8
Lack of a defined KM approach 4.6
Incentives for the wrong behaviours (inability to time-write KM, rewards for internal competition etc) 4.3
Lack of support from departments such as IT, HR etc 4.1
Insufficient technology 4.0

They were then asked to prioritise the main enablers for KM which had proved powerful, ranking them from 1 to 9. The resulting figures are shown in the table below (high numbers being high ranking).


Average ranking

Support from senior management 6.2
Championship and support from KM team/champions 6.2
Evidence of value from KM 5.9
Easy to use technology 5.6
A supportive company culture 5.6
Effective KM processes 5.5
Clear KM accountabilities and roles 5.4
Personal benefit for staff from KM 4.6
Incentive systems for KM 4.2
So what does this tell us?

  • The number two barrier and the number one enabler are support from senior management. Without this, you will struggle. With this, you will succeed. This blog contains much advice about gaining senior management support (see here for example, or here), and if you need more help, we will be happy to advise. Get this support, all else will be much easier.
  • Although culture is the number one barrier, it is much lower in the enablers table. I think this is because the highest enablers – leadership support, champions and evidence of value – are all means by which the culture can be changed. Culture is therefore not the enabler; culture change is the enabler. 
  • Although roles and incentives are seen as major barriers, they are much lower in the enablers table. These are perhaps not the barriers that they might seem to be, even though they are a key part of your Knowledge Management Framework. 
  • Technology is seldom a barrier, nor is it at the top of the enabler list. Anyone thinking that the solution to effective KM is technology alone is ignoring the lessons from the past 2 decades of successful KM.

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Why a Performance Culture drives KM

KM requires a learning culture, and motivation to learn comes from motivation to improve.  That’s why KM thrives in a high-performance culture, where people are not content with existing performance, and actively seek new knowledge that will help them perform even better.

Image from
U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr

This was a topic of conversation in one of out recent Bird Island exercises where, as always, the teams made massive leaps in performance as their knowledge base increased.

The real value of this exercise comes in the debrief, when we analyse the success factors and relate them back to KM at work. One of the topics we analysed was Motivation and Target setting. What motivated the teams to set themselves aggressive performance targets, and what motivated them to use the knowledge from others, to deliver those targets?

The primary motivation factor was “to do a great job”. 

They didn’t set the target of beating the world record, they set the target of being “up there with the leaders” and delivering a great result. They wanted to be proud of their achievement – that it should stand well in the rankings. Of course, in order to set the target properly, they needed good benchmark data, and data from historical performance. We gave them that data, so they knew what to aim for, and they know what was possible.

And of course, in order to reach the benchmark, they needed the entire knowledge base of how to complete the task, so they could reproduce the successes of previous teams, and ideally could innovate further.

That combination of knowledge of past performance and of how to achieve it allowed them to set targets that were 2 or 3 times greater than the results had achieved so far, and in each case, through reapplication of knowledge, they exceeded those targets and achieved top quartile performance.

So how do teams set performance targets?

In the class, the teams set their own targets, based on knowing the benchmark, and knowing they had the knowledge to reach the benchmark.

Then I asked them how targets are set at work, and how motivating these are. You could hear the groan go round the room. “Targets are set from the centre” “Nobody buys into them” “Targets are a joke” “We set our targets, then define the metrics later so we can beat the target” “Targets are political”. Such a contrast from the motivation in the exercise, where the motivation was internal and the targets were self-selected.

Knowledge and Performance are so closely linked, that we often say that if you don’t manage performance, you can’t manage knowledge.

If people are not motivated to perform and improve, how can they be motivated to learn? And if nobody wants to learn, then KM is a waste of time. Although many of the participants were from companies which already had KM programs, and were introducing the tools and techniques, they were really struggling with motivation issues.

Is it possible to motivate in the same way that we did during the exercise? Yes it is, and you can see that clearly in the Shell Technical Limit process I have blogged about before. Here teams have access to the performance data from the past, have access to all the knowledge they need, and work out for themselves how they are going to innovate beyond the best of what has been achieved to date (it is taken for granted that they can match the best historic performance. After all, that has been proven to be possible- that’s “in the bag”). They set their own targets, and of course they are heavily motivated, through performance bonuses, when they beat the targets.

It was a very interesting discussion, contrasting the success in the exercise with the struggles at work, with motivation and target setting coming out as a key factor.

So when you are introducing KM, start first where the performance culture is well defined, and where people are already motivated to perform. 

If instead you choose a part of the business with no performance management, joke targets, and where people play political games with metrics, then you may very well struggle to develop a learning culture.

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The 5 tools to change the KM culture; one heart and one mind at a time

It’s an old saying; How do you change hearts and minds? One at a time! This updated reprise from the archives explains how this works for Knowledge Management. 

Implementing Knowledge Management is a change process – we all recognise this. Implementation involves changing behaviours and attitudes as well as changing workflows and toolkits.

You are tying to change attitudes towards knowledge; from people seeing it as a personal attribute to seeing it as a collective resource, from seeing it as a source of personal power to seeing it as a source of company power, and from seeing it as something acquired in the classroom to seeing it as something acquired every day through work (see more details on the KM culture shift).

If people can understand this with their heads and grasp in in their hearts, then we have made the culture shift.

KM professionals, helping the organisation make the culture shift, need to recognise that these hearts-and-minds shifts cannot be made wholesale. You need to plan a campaign of culture change.

There are five tools in your toolbox here – stakeholder mapping, communications planning, influencing skills, a compelling case and an inspiring vision.

1. The inspiring vision

You will “sell” KM on a vision more easily than you will on a business case. Unfortunately many KM visions are uninspiring, but you want to sell the power that KM delivers, so you need to inspire. “The knowledge of the whole firm, at everyone’s fingertips” – “Together we have 100,000 years of experience – let’s use that shared power to beat the competition” – or (the TRADOC vision) “If one of us learns, then all of us knows”. The vision makes the emotional case for KM, and sometimes this is a negative case – “All our key experts will have left in the next 5 years. If we don’t act now, this knowledge will be gone, as will our clients and customers”.
Very often this vision can be transferred through stories. Initially these may be stories of what KM has done for other organisations, but as soon as you start your KM piloting program, you can generate internal stories of KM users getting value through KM. Use these stories as “social proof” to spread the vision. 

2. The compelling case

If the vision engages the hearts, the business case will engage the heads. This needs to be a case for the individual as well as a case for the company, and ideally should be presented in such a way that the individual can “feel” the benefit, or “experience” the value of shared knowledge. We like to do this through exercises, such as our millionaire game, or (the King of all KM experiences) Bird island.

The intellectual organisational case (“we will increase profit by x% through re-use of knowledge”) needs to be there in order to change the minds.

3. Influencing skills.

It has been a running theme on this blog that implementing KM is a marketing and sales exercise, and the knowledge manager, KM team and KM champions need to understand the arts of marketing and selling. Understand your market, develop your elevator pitch, understand the range of influencing tactics, and learn how selling works.

If you want to change hearts and minds, then there are certain skills you need to acquire.

4. The Communications plan and strategy

Communication is key to a change campaign, and we believe that communications planning needs to be one core component of a Knowledge Management strategy. To help you with this, we have produced a Communications Plan Template, which is available free of charge from our Downloads page. This template is one we use ourselves, and will allow you to

  • define which message needs to be given to which audience
  • define the medium for delivery of the message, the frequency of delivery, the owner and the sign-off for each message 
  • change the communication style and message as Knowledge Management implementation proceeds through it’s four stages.

5.Stakeholder mapping

The final tool in the KM managers (or CKOs) toolbox is Stakeholder Mapping.

There are many methods of Stakeholder mapping, most of which rely on defining relationships of power and influence (or power and impact). That’s not what you need.

You need to map stakeholders in terms of buy-in and influence, and then you need to map, for the most influential stakeholders, how you need their level of buy-in to change over time. No one person buys into KM in a single step – there are several levels of buy-in maturity. We use an old Amoco model which recognises a ladder of 8 levels of buy-in to an idea, where people seldom move more than 1 or 2 steps at a time.

So once you have listed your stakeholders, you need to look at your Knowledge Management implementation plan, identify the critical decision points, define the level of engagement needed from the key stakeholders, and map out carefully how you will help them climb the ladder, step by step, reach that level.

That way, when the critical implementation decisions are reached, the hearts and the minds will be in the right place to make the right decision.

Use these five tools, address the hearts and minds one at a time, and soon the culture will begin to shift. 

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Knowers and Learners – two end members on a KM culture spectrum

The knower/learner spectrum is one of the key dimensions of KM culture, and one that all knowledge managers should understand.

Knowers and Learners are two archetypes within Knowledge Management, representing two end-members of one of the ten cultural dimensions of Organisational Learning.

The difference between the two is fundamental to the Knowledge Management culture shift, and is well illustrated in an old issue of System Thinker magazine, in a piece entitled “Confessions of a recovering knower” by Brian Hinken. 

In this article, based on typical recovering-addict stories, Brian talks about the difference between knowers and learners.

The difference between a knower and a learner, very simply, is that a Learner is willing to admit “I don’t know”, and be influenced (while) Knowers believe they know all they need to know to address the situations they are responsible for. But at an even deeper level, Knowing is so central to who they are that they sometimes act as if they do know something, even when they don’t.

These two archetypes of Knower and Learner are similar to those that I discussed a few weeks ago as  Rocks and Sponges. One is willing and eager to learn, the other defends their own knowledge as a way of defending their own self-worth.

The 5 secrets of a Knower

Brian describe five particular thinking habits related to the Knower stance, which he refers to as the “five secrets of a knower”. I have shortened these a bit.

  1. I Live My Life on a Problem-Solving Treadmill. My life is dominated by solving problems. It is how I feel effective and make progress. 
  2. I Force Groups to Comply with My Way. I know that groups work best when all members operate from the same page. Therefore, when I work in groups, I must convince others that I have the “right page” and that all they have to do is follow me. 
  3. I Must Protect Myself During Conversations. My objective in every conversation is to win. If I can be seen as right, rational, and not responsible, I have successfully protected my image as a competent person. I defend my beliefs and conclusions at all costs, because a chink in my self-created armor could cause extraordinary stress for me. It would threaten the core beliefs upon which I base all my knowing. 
  4. I Focus Exclusively on My Own Little Piece of the World. Because my aim is to control things as much as possible and to make things around me predictable, I focus almost exclusively on my team, department, group, family—in short, my realm. If I can make sure that my areas of responsibility perform well, then I can blame areas outside my domain when problems occur.
  5. I Direct and Debate During Group Interactions. I expect group members to interact by playing out predictable, consistent roles, which I reinforce by directing the interaction and controlling the agenda as much as possible… I constantly bring up what worked for me in the past as a way of maintaining the focus of attention on areas where I have expertise. If I have position power in a group, I use it to manipulate the conversation, so that the outcomes are in line with what I want. 

We can see easily how an organisation of  Knowers would block any KM culture change efforts, and a key part of the culture change effort is to move Knowers towards becoming Learners.

Moving from Knower to Learner

Brian goes further in his article and discusses both how he changed his own stance from Knower to Learner, and how others can do the same. He describes 5 areas which the Knower needs to “let go of” in order to become a learner.

These are as follows (I have changed the wording slightly);

Question Knower stance Learner stance
1. Are you producing the desired results? Yes, of course Not necessarily
2. Can you take responsibility for changing things? No Yes
3. Could you try other ways of doing things? No – I know the right way. Yes, I am open to alternatives
4. Might there be approaches you currently don’t know? Of course not; I am the expert. Of course.
5. Are you willing to be influenced? No Yes

This shift from knower to learner is one of the most fundamental transformations you may need to encourage and support in your organisation.

  • Finally we can visibly promote and recognise people who show Learner behaviours. 
For more on Knowers and Learners, see below

Don’t be a knower – be a learner, and support others in being learners too.

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Rocks and Sponges – Teachability and the desire to learn

According to one expert, people are either Rocks or Sponges when it comes to learning. 

The most powerful thing that leaders can do to help Knowledge Management succeed is to drive that desire to learn as part of the corporate culture.  If the drive to learn is there, the drive to share will follow. The desire to learn makes Knowledge into a valuable commodity, and where a commodity has value, a market inevitably arises.

But how do you instil a “desire to learn”?

Sir Clive Woodward, the sport coach and Elite Performance speaker, calls it “Teachability” – another word for a “Learner Mindset“. He says

“To have a great team you need great individuals, but you also have to have Teachability … In business or in sport you are a sponge or a rock. A sponge has a hunger for learning and taking on new knowledge  … building a team full of sponges will lead to an exciting and vibrant environment where new ideas flourish and the norm is challenged”.

You cannot teach someone something if they think they know it already, and you can’t share knowledge with someone who doesn’t want to know.  They are like a Rock – the knowledge just bounces off. The sponge however is thirsty for knowledge and will soak up all they can find.

We talk so much about developing a “culture of sharing”, but that will achieve nothing without a “culture of learning”, and without turning people from rocks into sponges. It is only sponges that turn into high performing teams. Having just one rock on your team is enough to vastly reduce your chances of winning.

Turning people from rocks into sponges.

When Sir Clive took over the England Rugby team, he was faced with the challenge to turn a group of rocks into sponges. He did three things;

  • He built the desire to be the best
  • He showed people, through data and statistics, how far from The Best they were, and
  • He bought laptops for the whole team, so they could study and learn about themselves and their opponents.
There is a story about how Sir Clive was working with one of the players, and showed him a flipchart of statistics demonstrating that he was the best player at his team position in England.  He was obviously pleased! Then he turned over the page, and showed that in world terms, he was the seventh best player.  This was a shock, and immediately the player began to think and plan about how he could  learn and improve.

Desire to improve drives the desire to learn

Sir Clive Woodward used the power of data to instil the desire to improve amongst his team, which developed the necessary teachability, and which led to victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
We see the same influences in our Bird island game, when we finally show people the benchmark data, and they realise how much they can improve. The emotional shock they receive destroys the mental barriers to learning.
Sir John Browne did the same at BP, with his vision that “every time we do something, we should do it better than the last time“. 
Business leaders can do the same – by showing their teams where they are under-performing compared to their peers, and challenging them to improve.
If we are to implement Knowledge Management in our organisations, then we need to be changing rocks into sponges, and introducing a culture of Willingness to Learn, by instilling a culture of Desire to do Better.

Only when these are in place, will Knowledge Management reach its full potential.

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Two simple management questions that drive a KM culture

KM behaviours can be influenced quite easily by two simple questions from line management

Image from wikipedia

I posted on Monday about “What’s in it for me” in KM, and how implementing Knowledge Management relies on identifying the local value. Part of the local value can be driven by the local manager, as “fulfilling managers expectations” is generally a valuable thing for people to do!

It is surprisingly easy for managers to set KM expectations. All they/you have to do is ask two questions.

Who have you learned from?
Who have you shared this with?

Who have you learned from?

If you are a leader, then every time someone comes to you with a proposed solution to a problem, or a proposed course of action, you ask “Who have you learned from”?  Through this question, you are implying that they should have learned from others before proposing a solution – that they should have “learned before doing”.

Who have you shared with?

Also, every time someone comes to you to report a problem solved or a process improved, or a new pitfall or challenged addressed, you ask “Who have you shared this with”? Through this question, you are implying that they should share any new learnings with others.

The great thing about leaders’ questions, is they drive behaviour. People start to anticipate them, and to do the learning before, and the sharing afterwards. People hate to be asked these two questions, and having to answer “umm, well, nobody actually”. They would much rather say “we have learned from X and Y, and have a Peer Assist planned with Z”, “We have shared with the A community, and are holding a Knowledge Handover next week with B project”. And once you drive the behaviours, the transfer of knowledge will happen, the value will be delivered, and the system will reinforce itself.

But the moment you stop asking the questions, people realise that you, as a leader, are no longer interested in KM, so they will stop bothering.

There’s an old saying – “What interests my manager fascinates me”, so managers should make sure they are interested, and ask the questions.

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Can KM change culture? Results from research

I think it is well established that introducing Knowledge Management is an exercise in culture change, but can KM itself change culture?

In this summary of findings from an Oxford Review research study, the answer is a qualified Yes.

The research in question, available to subscribers of the Oxford review, was an eight-year study of three organisations, which (according to the authors) follows a number of similar studies in a number of sectors that show it is possible to promote culture change using knowledge management.

The authors cite the following conclusions

  • Leaders can use knowledge management programmes and tools to promote a specific culture change, but this requires persistence, as well as the use of a wide variety of tools and approaches, backed by a clear and sustained vision and rationale. 
  • It is important to promote knowledge management and support the people who have the right attitudes and aptitude to act as champions across the organisation. This helps to enhance local adoption of knowledge management as a tool.. 
  • Technology seduction (popular software tools) can support culture adaptation but the researchers found this approach will not work in isolation. Software and technology based methods must be accompanied by training and the promotion of related activity to ensure that people can absorb the new behaviours into everyday work practices. 
  • One problem is that knowledge management programmes on their own often promote simplistic notions of culture change. It is important to remove barriers to improved performance and think about how to change long-term assumptions, approaches and norms. Knowledge management on its own rarely does this. 
  • If the organisational culture is identified as needing to be changed, an assessment of what those cultural aspects are that need change is important, as is an understanding of why it is no longer appropriate. This can be part of the knowledge management programme. 
  • The use of short-term activities and exhortation to alter deep-seated values and assumptions does not work and is often counter-productive.

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Fully embedded KM is when people can’t get away with not doing it

Knowledge Management is fully embedded when refusing to do it is not an option.

He'll never get away with itLet me give you an analogy, from the world of Safety. A couple of years ago I was conducting knowledge management exercises at a gas plant in the Niger Delta.

In places like this, safety is a huge consideration; both personal safety (keeping individuals safe in a hazardous environment), and process safety (keeping the environment from becoming even more hazardous).

For example, it was mandatory to wear a hard hat and safety boots when on site, no matter how uncomfortable these might be in the African sun.

One of the engineers was giving me a tour of the plant, and we were on a high walkway when he spotted a worker who had climbed a tall tower and was sitting at the top, resting in the sun, without his hat and boots on. Immediately the engineer stopped the tour, and ordered this guy to put his safety equipment back on and report to his foreman about the break of safety regulations.

It did not matter that the worker was safe, and that nothing was about to fall on his head or his feet – it was that such behaviour – such a breach of the safety policy – was not permitted. One small breach for the sake of resting in the sun could lead to a larger breach, and then to something dangerous. There was zero tolerance, and everyone was involved in reporting breaches. Even out of sight on a tall tower it was not allowed, and anyone (like my engineer) who spotted it would take action. If this worker could get away with avoiding the safety rules, then others would know, and would copy, and soon there would be a reduction in safety discipline, and accidents would happen.

Now, if we truly want Knowledge Management to be embedded, then we will eventually need a similar attitude.

Imagine if lesson-learning were truly embedded in the project lifecycle for example.  Imagine that the leadership of your organisation had realised the cost of repeat mistakes and rework, and had made it clear in their Knowledge Management policy that they expected every project to identify, document and share lessons and knowledge for the benefit of the rest of the organisation.

Then imagine what would happen if people could get away without doing it.

As soon as one project manager realised that they could skip lesson-learning with no sanction, then the others would also realise, and would copy, and soon there would be a reduction in learning discipline, and repeat mistakes and rework would creep back in. This breach of the Knowledge Management policy, this neglect of lesson learning, could cost the organisation millions of dollars and put other projects at risk. It should not be permitted.

If you are serious about Knowledge Management, and if you want it fully embedded in your organisational practices and your organisational culture, then you need to aim, eventually, for a time when people cannot get away with not doing it.

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"Trust is important in KM" but what sort of trust?

We hear a lot about trust in Knowledge Management, but what sort of trust do we mean?

Image from wikimedia commons

It can’t mean personal trust in the other people involved, at least not in a large organisation where it is impossible to know everyone, and indeed impossible to know OF everyone involved in KM. I think instead we are talking about trust in a System.

Maybe it is trust that the KM system is safe, reliable, predictable, and useful.

  • Safe. People need to know that spending time on KM will not be disapproved of by management, that a community of practice or a knowledge sharing meeting is “a safe place to be”, that they can ask naive questions without being mocked, that disagreement can be explored in a positive way without argument or flame wars, that Knowledge offered online or during a KM process such as a Retrospect will not be ridiculed, and that they will not be made to look bad by offering it, especially when learning from mistakes, or from failed projects (see more here)
  • Reliable. People need to know that they will get a rapid, quality response to their questions in a community of practice, that use of a search engine will bring useful results without too much effort, and that lessons and knowledge they share will be routed to the right person, and that action will be taken as a result. See here for a story of loss of trust in an unreliable community
  • Predictable. Communities of practice, in particular, suffer from “out of sight, out of mind” and the community that does not communicate is a community in decline. The leader needs to build and maintain predictable activity. People need to know that peer assists and lesson capture meetings are predictable and regular occurrences within a project. They need to know that knowledge assets will be updated in a regular and predictable way.
  • Useful.  KM must build a brand and a reputation as being “a trustworthy means to deliver value”; both to the organisation and to the membership. People must be able to trust that attending a Knowledge management process such as a Retrospect or a community of practice event is a valuable use of time, and that they will come away with new and useful  knowledge.

As a summary, I offer you this quote from John Burrows and Kathy Buckman Gibson of Buckman labs (the source of which I have lost) –

“You have to be able to trust the knowledge and information that you receive to be the best that can be sent to you, and those that send it to you have to be able to trust that you will use the knowledge and information in an appropriate manner”. 

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