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.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

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.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

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.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

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.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

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.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

"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”. 

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Why hasn’t knowledge management caught on? Wrong question!

Very often we hear people talking about the failure of KM as a discipline, and asking  “Why hasn’t it caught on after all these years?” It’s an interesting question, but it’s the wrong question.

It’s an interesting question, but it’s the wrong question. People asking the question are often in government or the public sector, and there KM has not yet “caught on”. However there are other sectors where KM has caught on, and has delivered sustained value for a couple of decades.

The consulting sector, for example – early adopters of KM, where KM is embedded, institutionalised, and part of the unconscious fabric of working. Or the legal sector, who’s own document-focused brand of KM is well established. Or the oil and gas sector. Ot the construction sector. Aerospace. The military. etc etc.

Data from the publicly available Knoco global surveys of KM

The plot above shows the maturity stages of KM in various industries, with far more examples of KM fully embedded in legal firms, for example, than in education and training firms. The plot below also shows that the larger the organisation, the more mature KM is likely to be.

Data from the publicly available Knoco global surveys of KM

So the question is not “Why hasn’t KM caught on” but “Why hasn’t KM caught on in my organisational sector, and in organisations oy my size”.

I think there are several reasons why KM has not yet caught on in the public sector in particular, and many of these can be related to the presence or lack of the components of organisational learning culture.

  • KM catches on most easily where knowledge has the biggest and most immediate impact on performance. If you can see, and measure, the added value of knowledge (on cost, speed of delivery, bid win rate, whatever) then good KM, leading to an improvement of the delivery of knowledge to the decision makers, delivers immediate and visible value. In the public sector, performance is a very difficult concept to work with. What makes up “good performance” for a public sector organisation? How easy is that to measure, and how easy is it to tie back to knowledge?
  • The value of KM certainly is more visible in larger organisations. Big multinationals have the most to gain from KM, and learning from their big-money decisions in multiple countries can deliver big benefit. In smaller organisations the benefits are correspondingly smaller and less visible, even though the proportional benefit may be the same.
  • Where I have worked with public sector institutions, one of the things that struck me most forcefully was the way messages were managed. There seemed to be a lot of reworking documents, to make sure they said things in the correct way. Now there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it introduces barriers to empowerment, to transparency, and to other elements of the required organisational learning culture. 
  • There is a distinct lack of “no blame” in the public sector, this time due to external pressures. All over the world (or almost all over), there is a hungry press waiting to pounce on anything that looks like a mistake or a failure from a government body or a national health service. This makes “learning from failure” a very risky affair. Indeed, the default approach to learning from failure is the dreaded “public enquiry”, after which someone will be sacked, someone will retire in disgrace, and the true reasons for failure will remain unfixed. The “just culture” is very hard to apply in a situation like this.

So there are some real structural and cultural reasons why KM is not so easy in the public sector. In addition, where I have seen it, it tends to be focused on the tactical issues, and seldom on the strategic issues.

However, whether you sit in the public or private sector and are pondering “Why does KM seem to be dead? Why hasn’t it caught on?”, then you are asking the wrong question, because in other places KM has caught on and is alive and well.  You need to learn from where it works, and see what’s different about your own context. And make adjustments as needed.

The question should be “why hasn’t KM caught on here yet” and “how can we learn from others, where it has already caught on?”

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Applying a "just culture" to learning from mistakes

The “just culture” is a midpoint between a Blame culture, and a culture of hiding failures. But how does it work?

Any organisation that aspires to learn, and to gather knowledge, must be able to learn from mistakes and failures. However this is a difficult thing to do, especially where failure may have fatal consequences. People often fear they will be blamed unjustly, and refuse to share knowledge of what happened.   Where such blame is frequently unjust, then we have a “blame culture”; a culture where people are blamed even when it was the system that failed, rather than an individual.

However sometimes people need to be blamed. Sometimes they were negligent, or acted as saboteurs. The opposite of a blame culture is a laissez-faire culture, where people can do what they like without fear of consequence.

What is needed is a just culture – where people are not blamed if the system failed. Such cultures are developed in aviation (see this Just Culture toolkit from Skybrary) and the emergency services, and other sectors such as medicine are attempting to adopt the same approach.

One of the clearest descriptions I have seen is the diagram, reproduced below from the Australian Disaster Resilience handbook on Lesson Management, and based on the ICAM incident investigation process. 

In this diagram we see the difference between the individual at the left side of the diagram who followed all rules and procedures and who is free from blame of any failure, but may still need counselling and coaching if the failure was distressing or serious, and the individual at the right side who deliberately violated clear workable procedures in order to engineer a failure, and who is totally to blame.

In most of the cases in this diagram the problem lies at least partly with the system, and the right response is to correct the root cause. This is a just approach to blame. 

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Safety management as an analogue for Knowledge Management

Can Safety Management be a good analogue for KM?

In many ways, Safety Management is a good analogue to Knowledge management.

Vintage safety poster from public domain images
  • Both are management systems for dealing with intangibles.
  • Both are leaps in thinking from treating safety/knowledge as something personal, to treating it as something of company priority
  • Both require introduction of a framework, including roles, processes, governance, and technology support
  • Both need to be introduced as change programs.
  • Both deliver step changes in performance.

This is good news for the Knowledge Manager, as Safety Management has been successfully introduced in many industries, and therefore is a source of learning for KM implementation.

One of the early exercises for any knowledge manager in an organisation where a safety culture is in place, is to look at how safety management was implemented; what succeeded, what failed, what needed to be in place, and therefore what the lessons are for KM. Culture change is possible, implementation of a new intangible-management system is possible, and KM can learn from that.

There are plenty of public-domain guides to introducing a safety culture, which can also be used as templates for introducing a KM culture. For example;

ISHN provide 8 tips (my additions in italics, to show how it could apply to KM)

  1.  Define safety (KM) responsibilities 
  2. Share your safety (KM) vision 
  3. Enforce accountability 
  4. Provide multiple options 
  5. Report, report, report 
  6. Rebuild the investigation (lesson learning) system 
  7. Build trust 
  8. Celebrate success

OSG provide 6 tips – 

  1. Communicate 
  2. Provide Training 
  3. Lead by Example 
  4. Develop and Implement a Positive Reporting Process 
  5. Involve Workers . 
  6. Put your JHSC (Knowledge Management Framework) into Action 

However all analogies break down somewhere, and one of the major differences between KM and Safety Management is that a safety incident is very visible; as lost time, or as an injury. A lost time incident is far more visible than a lost knowledge incident.  Therefore safety management is easier to implement, because the outcomes are so visible, and performance metrics can easily be captured and shared.

However, intangible metrics are used in Safety are only recorded because people take time to record them, and one of the things they record are the near misses and the “high potential events” (times when things COULD have gone horribly wrong. These events and near misses themselves don’t result in accidents or injury, but are a leading indicator, and show that safety processes are not being applied.

An equivalent leading indicator in KM would be the number of lessons without closed-out actions in a learning system, or the repeat mistakes, or the number of  unanswered questions in a community forum – indicators that knowledge processes are or are not being applied. So although we cannot capture a “lost knowledge incident” we can at least record whether the right questions are being asked, or the right observations and insights shared.

Indirect outcome-based metrics can be applied to knowledge management, the ultimate output being continuous business performance improvement. This does not directly measure knowledge, but indicates the effect of the application of knowledge. See my blog post on learning curves, and our website page on valuation of KM.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

4 management styles and how they affect KM

We know that culture and management style affects KM; here is a way of characterising management style through 2 dimensions.

The Boston Square shown here explores four management territories, and their impact on Knowledge Management.

The two axes of the square are

  • management by power v management by empowerment; i.e. how much the leadership operates through command and control, rather than through inspiration and enablement, and 
  • the levels of internal cooperation v internal competition (often reinforced by reward and recognition schemes such as forced ranking, or competitive bonuses).

These two axes give us four territories.

  • Where there is strong internal cooperation, and management by empowerment, then Knowledge Management will thrive. 
  • Where there is strong internal competition, and management by empowerment, then Knowledge Management will find things more difficult. Leaders can, if they try, use KM as a sort of coopetition tool, where the groups will cooperate to a certain extent through knowledge sharing and re-use, but will compete regarding the application of that knowledge. This is a difficult line for leaders to tread, as the internal competition can be used as an excuse not to share with and learn from each other. Sometimes people will “go underground” and share knowledge without their managers knowing, but more often the sharing is stifled.
  • Where there is strong internal cooperation and management by power, then formal Knowledge Management will find things more difficult, but informal KM may arise in unexpected ways.  Here KM definitely will go underground, and can become a way for the workers to share knowledge and gain some sort of personal power without the managers knowing. I have seen this happen in organisations, where the communities of practice become “grumbling shops”. KM can turn from being a grassroots movement to a workers revolutionary force. You can see an extreme geopolitical version of this in the “Arab Dawn” where Government by Power met a collaborative and networked populace.
  • Where there is strong internal competition, and management by power, then Knowledge Management will never take off. Everyone will keep their knowledge to themselves. 

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.