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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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?”

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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3 ways to look at the KM Paradigm Shift

Here is another couple of ways to characterise the KM paradigm shift.

Image from wikimedia commons

When I looked at this topic in 2009, I saw the KM paradigm shift as a shift from seeing knowledge as personal and individual property, to seeing it as collective. I presented the shift as follows:

The “individual to collective” culture shift

From To
I know We know
Knowledge is mine Knowledge is ours
Knowledge is owned Knowledge is shared
Knowledge is personal property Knowledge is collective/community property
Knowledge is personal advantage Knowledge is company advantage
Knowledge is personal Knowledge is inter-personal
I defend what I know I am open to better knowledge
Not invented here (i.e. by me) Invented in my community
New knowledge competes with my personal knowledge New knowledge improves my personal knowledge
other people’s knowledge is a threat to me Shared knowledge helps me
Admitting I don’t know is weakness Admitting I don’t know is the first step to learning

Here is another way to look at this shift, taken from a paper on The Learning Organisation, by organisational Psychologist Gitte Haslebo, translated by Maja Loua Haslebo.

Shift to a learning organisation

From To
Knowledge has permanent validity Knowledge has temporary validity
Knowledge = Adding of information from the outside Knowledge = Insight created from within
Learning activates the intellect Learning activates thoughts, values, emotions and action
The right answers must be found The central questions must be formulated
The expert finds the right solution New ways and new methods are co-created by the employees

This mirrors the transition from Knower to Learner, and Gitte suggests it is accompanied by a shift in the attitudes of managers and knowledge workers to transition from the attitudes we learned at school to the new attitudes we need at work.

Shift in learning attitudes

From To
Do not make mistakes Learn from your mistakes
Do not reveal that there is something you do not know It is a good thing to admit that there is something you do not know
Do not make a fool of yourself It is important to explain what you wonder about.
Know that the teacher is always right Know that your manager may be wrong.
What counts is the individual achievement What matters is teamwork
If you ask the person sitting next to you, you are cheating When there is something you do not know, ask your colleague

So there are 3 ways to look at the shift, with significant overlap between them. They give you some ideas of the culture you need to aim for in KM – the sort of attitudes and behaviours that a learning organisation, and the people within it, should exhibit.

Now you just have to make that shift, and ensure you don’t shift back again.

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The ongoing state of learning

Companies that succeed are those that learn all the time, even when the going is good

This is an insight that came to me from 2 directions this week, one from an article in Forbes magazine, and one from a discussion on Toyota

The Forbes magazine article is called “finding the secret to success requires embracing an ingoing state of learning”, written by Daniela Pineda, who makes the following point;

The secret to success is to not be content with succeeding as an outcome. That is not enough. You have to continually cycle through learning, applying and adapting to ever-changing conditions in order to be an effective organisation.

Daniela describes a cycle of learning from experience and knowledge sharing which will be familiar to most Knowledge Managers but the point about “not being content with succeeding” also echoed comments in the Toyota discussion. As we can read in this HBR article,

over the past 40 years, (Toyota) has recorded steady sales and market-share growth. Despite this enviable stability, senior executives constantly hammer home messages such as “Never be satisfied” and “There’s got to be a better way.” A favourite saying of former chairperson Hiroshi Okuda is “Reform business when business is good,” and Watanabe is fond of pointing out that “No change is bad.”

This is a tough discipline and one that requires a strong will, but if an organisation can learn and improve all the time, even when things  are going well, then it will be ready for anything.

Success is not good enough. Continuous improvement is the goal.

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"Who owns a scientist’s mind?"

“Who owns a scientisist’s mind” is a really interesting article about the “ownership” of knowledge which raises some deep questions which are fundamental to KM.

Image from wikimedia commons

The article, written in “physics today” by Douglas O’Reagan, a historian of science and a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, takes a historical look at the ownership of Science knowledge in industry. Douglas is particularly interested in research knowledge, or knowledge of technology, but also looks in general at –

“intangible skills, the deep knowledge of the company’s processes, relationships with other technical workers, and the general know-how that makes an experienced employee more valuable than someone fresh out of college”

This is the type of knowledge that Knowledge Management addresses, and the question he raises is “who owns this?”

Who owns the products of intellectual labour such as research?  Douglas points out that patents (as an example of monetised knowledge) once went to the inventor by default. He contrasts that with the current situation, where companies “extract workers’ know-how so that the company can store and own it indefinitely” through knowledge management, and he believes that this trend has resulted in “scientists slowly losing control of their discoveries, both in private industry and in academia”. Where a scientist once had patent rights, now the organisations have taken those away, through contracts and through claiming trade secrets.

We had a similar discussion in 2012 over this issue, based around a LinkedIn poll with 3 potential answers to the question “Who owns the knowledge in your head”, the answers being

  • I own it and the organisation leases it from me
  • My employer owns it
  • We co-own it

Most of the respondents felt the knowledge was theirs, and was leased, not owned, by the organisation.  The people who responded were knowledge workers, not scientists, but the principle was the same. They felt they owned the knowledge in their head, much as scientists might feel that once they owned the knowledge in their heads, and that this is being “taken away”.

But is this fair?

We are not really in the world of “lone inventors” any more – of lone scientists who through their own personal intellectual endeavours make the breakthrough that can earn them millions in patent rights. Generally the scientist works for an organisation which has a research department, and (if the organisation practices knowledge management) which provides to the scientific researchers the sum total of the organisation’s previous endeavours on a topic.

The scientist is part of a team, part of a community and part of a longer history of scientists, who communally develop and have developed the knowledge. As far as ownership of knowledge is concerned, you cannot separate the individual and the organisation. An organisation is made up of individuals, after all, and knowledge is created, shared, refined, re-used and re-evaluated through interactions between individuals. It is the interactions within the organisation that put most of the knowledge in the scientist’s head in the first place.

So what happens when a knowledgeable scientist or other knowledge worker leaves an organisation? Can they take this knowledge with them? Could they set up a company in opposition to their previous employer? Could they come back as a consultant, and sell the knowledge back to their previous employer at a higher rate? Could they sell the knowledge to a competitor?

Here Douglas takes us through the intricacies of trade-secret laws and the Economic Espionage Act of 1996, where the theft of trade secrets is quite clear (albeit only a recent offence), and then rightly focuses in on the grey area of know-how, which is where we are most interested as Knowledge Managers. Douglas takes us through a whistle-stop tour of what he calls the “1990s business fad” of KM, and concludes that

“(KM’s) history shows how far businesses’ ambitions have expanded when it comes to controlling what’s in their employees’ heads. Business owners in early America disliked skilled technical workers moving on to new jobs with company secrets in tow, but they generally accepted it as a reality of doing business. Today, managers’ desire to control the knowledge scientists possess is usually thwarted not by the law but by the nature of knowledge: We often know more than we can say or write down”

Is he right?

Is KM a top-down ambition to control?

What Douglas doesn’t cover is the flip-side. If an organisation has managed to make knowledge “common property” within the firm, then the scientist joining the firm suddenly has access to far more knowledge, know-how and experience than they ever held previously.   What he sees as an attempt to control the loss of knowledge should be seen in the light of an attempt to revolutionise the access to knowledge, albeit within the boundaries of the organisation

My own view is that we should see knowledge as communal rather than individual, and that the individual knowledge worker generally gains more than they lose through KM. When they leave the organisation they are required to leave documents and trade-secrets behind, and may sometimes be compelled by non-compete clauses not to work for a competitor for a couple of years (by which time the memory of secrets will be dimmed to useless), and they should also be asked and supported to share the know-how they have been developing, for the use and benefit of their colleagues.

But knowledge is not like money – if you give knowledge away, you also still retain it. The departing scientist, however much they share their with the organisation, still get to retain the generic know-how and experience in their heads.

Both sides benefit. The knowledge you use at work is through an unstated cooperative agreement – the company will educate you and give you access (through KM) to a wealth of knowledge, and you will use that knowledge to support the company. It’s not yours, it’s not theirs, it belongs to both.

That’s my view. What do you think?

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