How big is your "knowledge footprint"?

How far does your knowledge spread in your organisation?

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We are used to the idea of the Carbon Footprint – the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of your activities – but what about your Knowledge Footprint? This is the amount of knowledge released into the organisation (or the world, if you prefer) as a result of your activities?

What is the size of your knowledge footprint?

We could measure that by seeing how far your knowledge spreads; whether you contribute in Community of Practice discussions, for example; whether you contribute to lessons learned, or whether you add your contribution to Wikis and knowledge assets. All of these are examples of broadening your knowledge footprint, and contributing your knowledge to the wider organisation.

In contrast, a small knowledge footprint would be if you shared your knowledge only with the team you work with, or only in individual reports in a library which nobody might read. As an example, a study of “Which World Bank Reports Are Widely Read” found that over 31% of the reports they publish are never downloaded. The knowledge in these reports effectively has a zero footprint.  Just publishing knowledge does not mean a large footprint, the knowledge has to be read and reused.

Some companies incentivise having a large knowledge footprint.

  • In Deloitte, the performance appraisals will address what employee has done to contribute value to the firm beyond standard billable hours, including the creation of knowledge  
  • A similar approach is applied in McKinsey where one of the ways in which an employee can advance is by gaining recognition outside their own office through knowledge sharing. The knowledge behaviours people exhibit directly affects their promotion. 
  • The Fluor KM “Pacesetter” Program uses peer recognition to reward employees who are actively engaged in knowledge sharing behaviours. 
  • Boeing offer “Knowledge sharing awards” for people whose knowledge has been reused elsewhere for business advantage.
In Knowledge management, unlike in carbon dioxide release, a large footprint is generally a good thing.

How big is your knowledge footprint?

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The KM one-stop shop vs the multi-site experience

When we set up our KM systems, lets make it as simple as possible for the knowledge-seeker. Let’s aim for the one-stop shop.

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It is common for Knowledge Managers to start to plan their KM systems based on the supply of knowledge, or based on the different forms knowledge can take. 

“Let’s set up a lessons database to collect lessons”
 “Let’s put together a best practice repository”
 “Let’s build a site where we can collect videos together. We can call it AcmeTube!”
 “Let’s set up some forums for communities of practice”
 “Let’s create an expertise-finder system so people can find others with relevant knowledge”
“Let’s start a wiki site. We can call it AcmePedia!”

All of these are worthy aims, but the complication comes when a future knowledge worker comes looking for knowledge. Say they are looking for knowledge on a particular topic – a maintenance engineer wanting to overhaul a submerged pump for example. With the system above –

  • They have to open the lessons database to see lessons on submerged pumps,
  • They have to open the best practice repository to see best practices on maintaining submerged pumps,
  • They have to visit AcmeTube to see videos on how to maintain submerged pumps,
  • They have to visit the community of practice forum to see discussions on submerged pumps,
  • They have to log into the expertise-finder system to find people who know about submerged pumps,
  • They have to open AcmePedia to find if there are any articles about how to maintain submerged pumps.

By setting up multiple knowledge systems, and splitting up your knowledge based on it’s type rather than its topic, you are setting unnecessary demands on the user. It is hard enough to get people to re-use knowledge without making it time-consuming and complicated. Far better to construct your technology around the needs of the user and to create a one-stop shop. Make it as easy as possible to re-use the knowledge.

The one-stop shop

The ideal situation for the user is that they search or navigate through “rotating equipment” and “pumps” until they find the Submerged Pumps Portal. The portal then gives them:

  • Wiki guidance
  • All videos are embedded in the wiki (even though they might be hosted elsewhere)
  • Alongside the page is a list of experts on submerged pumps
  • At the bottom of the page is a summary of open lessons on submerged pumps (the content of older closed lessons has already been used to update the wiki)
  • Also at the bottom of the page is a summary of open community discussion on submerged pumps (the content of older closed discussions lessons has already been used to update the wiki)
  • The wiki contains best practices, maybe with links out to Standards documents. It may also contain case histories, links to training material, and so on.
Ask yourself – if you were the maintenance engineer, which of these two approaches would you prefer to use? The one-stop portal, or the six separate systems?

Set up your technology systems with the needs of the user in mind. Don’t structure them based on the type of knowledge or the provenance of the knowledge, separating out lessons from best practices, or separating videos from discussions. Instead structure them based on the needs of the users. Structure the knowledge according to the activities the knowledge workers undertake, or the equipment they work with. 

Set up the one-stop knowledge shop to make life quick and simple for the knowledge worker.

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Knowledge as "the voice of experience"

Is KM a way of sharing the “voice of experience”?

In many ways, you can look at much of Knowledge Management as being a systematic approach to identifying, distilling and transmitting the voice of experience around the organisation.

Experience is the great teacher, and experience which is shared through Knowledge Management can teach many people other that the person who had the experience themselves. People trust knowledge when they know its provenance and when they know it is based on lessons from real experience.

So how do we make this voice of experience heard? Here’s some ways –

  • Always attribute the source of the knowledge. Give its provenance, put people’s names against it. It shows that it comes from a real and experienced source.
  • Use people’s own words if possible. Include quotes. Let the experience talk.
  • Include pictures of the people who provided the knowledge. Knowledge seems more authentic of you can “see” the person who provided it.
  • Capture the stories. Provided they are true stories, told in the words of the people involved, they convey authentic experience.
  • Include the case studies. These are the record of experience.

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The 8 demand-side principles for KM

Here is another reprised post from the archives – as relevant now as it was 5 years ago.

David Snowden’s 7 principles for Knowledge Management are justly famous in the KM literature as a simple and accessible set of principles. However they all relate to the supply side of knowledge management; to the transition from unconscious knowing, to conscious knowledge and to expressed knowledge. 

There is of course another side – the demand side, or the user side – which represents the transition from expressed knowledge to conscious understanding and to unconscious knowing. Here are a set of principles which apply to the other side of the equation – the learning side

These principles are based on our own experience in Knoco, and there is some overlap with the established “principles of learning” used in the educational field.

Here are our principles

  1. People don’t pay attention to knowledge until they actually need it. People won’t  absorb knowledge until they are ready, and they won’t be ready until they feel the need.  I could give you detailed driving instructions of the quickest way to travel from Cheddar in Somerset  to Woking in Surrey, but you wouldn’t retain them because they are of no immediate value to you. Then one day, you are at a garden party in Cheddar and your boss calls and says “can you get to Woking as quickly as possible, we have a potential big deal to close and I need you here right now”. THEN you will be highly receptive to the knowledge. The consequence of this “attention when needed” is that it is more effective to set up “just in time” knowledge sharing processes than “just in case” knowledge sharing processes(although these also have their place).
  2. People value knowledge that they request, more highly than knowledge that is unsolicited.  I don’t know the psychology behind this, but it seems to be true.  The best way to get knowledge into people’s heads seems to be by answering their questions. The old fashioned “show and tell” is far less effective than “question and answer”, and the blog is less effective than the discussion forum.  The company where the most questions are asked, is often the company that learns the quickest.  This principle is behind the design of most effective knowledge management processes, the majority of which are based on dialogue, and the primary focus of communities of practice should be answering questions rather than publishing ideas.
  3. People won’t use knowledge, unless they trust its provenance.This is the “not invented here” principle, which is a very strong factor in knowledge management terms.  People won’t use knowledge they don’t trust, and they don’t trust knowledge if they don’t know where it has come from.  They need either to trust the individual who gave them the knowledge, or the organisational construct (such as the CoP) which provided the knowledge.  The source may be an expert, or a wiki (many people trust Wikipedia for example, despite its shortcomings), or a community of practice, and building credibility and trust has to be a key activity when building these constructs as part of the knowledge management initiative.
  4. Knowledge has to be reviewed in the user’s own context before it can be received.  One of the knowledge receiver’s first questions is “is this relevant to me?” Everybody always feels their own context is different (even though the difference is often less than assumed), and they need to test the knowledge for relevance before they really pay attention.  We were recently facilitating a peer assist, where people were bringing knowledge from Africa, from India, from China, to be used in an Indonesian context.  For each of the learning points, we needed about half an hour to an hour’s discussion around context, before we could even approach discussion of how imported knowledge might be used. This means that transferring knowledge in a written form is difficult, unless you can introduce a process by which people can interrogate this within their own context
  5. One of the biggest barriers to accepting new knowledge is old knowledge.  This is the curse of prior knowledge. People have to unlearn, before they can learn.  Old assumptions, old habits, “the way we have always done it in the past” may all have to be challenged before people can absorb and make sense of new knowledge.  This can be hard work! As an example, see the story about the war of the hedgerows, where the U.S. Army completely missed the implication of the Normandy hedgerows, assuming that these features would not be a factor in tank and infantry warfare after the D day landings
  6. Knowledge has to be adapted before it can be adopted.  If people are provided with guidance, tips and hints, or even a “recipe to follow,” they will always tweak it and adjust it in order to “make it theirs”.  Sometimes this tweaking and adjusting is necessary to fit the knowledge to their own context; sometimes it is unnecessary in practical terms despite being necessary in emotional terms.  So when you are providing people with guidance, tips and hints or even a “recipe”, you have to give them some idea of where they can still adapt it, and where dangerous tinkering should be avoided. Otherwise they may “adapt” the wrong thing. We see this all the time in our Bird island exercise – they all want to tinker with the final design, and you have to let them tinker, but try to guide them to tinker in non-fatal ways!
  7. Knowledge will be more effective the more personal it is.  The more personal, emotional, and highly charged the learning situation, the more the knowledge will be easily adopted.  Discussion, story telling and coaching can be personal, emotional and highly charged, but it becomes difficult to translate this into the written word.  The use of stories is very helpful, the use of video even more so.  Obviously this has profound implications for knowledge transfer mechanisms.
  8. You won’t really KNOW it until you DO it.  We very often see in lessons learned meetings, teams that say  “we picked up this learning from the previous project, we tried it and it really did work!  That was a great learning for us”.  When they picked it up they knew it intellectually; after they had tried it they knew it practically and emotionally.  Seeing is believing, trying is trusting, doing is internalising.  This sort of positive reinforcement of learning is a massive boost for your knowledge management program; as people try things and find they work, this reinforces the belief that knowledge from others is of real practical value.

Bear these principles in mind in the design of your KM programs, as getting people to seek, use and adopt knowledge is as hard, or harder, than getting people to supply knowledge. 

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How do pilots stay disciplined in their use of knowledge?

One of the biggest challenges is knowledge re-use. How does the aviation industry address this challenge?

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I often refer to aviation as a successful example of knowledge management, with lessons captured from every accident and incident and provided to pilots in the form of checklists, or shared through site such as the Skybrary.

But how does the aviation industry address the issue of knowledge re-use? Why don’t experienced pilots skip the checklist?

We know that this is a big challenge in other industries, and that experienced doctors, engineers, programmers and consultants often do not re-use knowledge, but rely instead on the knowledge they already have. How do you make sure that experienced airline pilots, with thousands of hours under their belt, stay disciplined and use the checklists, even after they have become routine?

  • Because if they skip it and it was not OK they can be fired and lose their license
  • In four years in an airline cockpit I only encountered 1 person who didn’t respect checklists. Perhaps not coincidentally he did not make it through his probationary year and was fired 
  • Because if they skip it and it was not OK they could DIE
  • On commercial flights, key checklist items are forced by using a procedure call a “cross check”. The one pilot must “challenge” another for those specific check list items. 
  • The cockpit consists of two people, one reading/actioning the checklist, the other one monitoring and checking/cross-checking. If you say: “Nah, no checklist today”, your copilot is bound to say: “Sorry, but we have to!” 
  • The importance of a proper preflight is drilled into you by your primary instructor from day one in light aircraft, and that mentality carries through all the way up to heavy transport-category aircraft: You want to find any problems you can while you’re on the ground, because if you take a problem into the air with you it’s a decision you can quickly come to regret.
  • If you do it often enough, it becomes a habit. It then feels wrong to not run the checklist. 
  • You stay vigilant by having seen things go wrong.
  • Everyone expects everyone else to do the checklists properly and if you don’t do it you will get called out. 
  • In an airline environment you will have recurrent checkrides every 6-12 months and captains will have line checks every year and proper checklist usage is among the most basic requirement to pass these checks.
  • Every year we sit through a day of crew resource management training and part of that day involves looking at past accidents and understanding what the first thing was that set the accident events in motion (pilot error!). These often serve as vivid examples of how bad things can get if you start ignoring the checklists (among other things) 
  • There are a few tricks that are used to stop you falling in to that “Yeah, everything will be fine” mindset and just skipping the checks 
    • Not doing the checks from memory, but actually doing them in reference to a physical check list. 
    • A prescribed order of checks, starting at a point on the aircraft and moving around methodically 
    • The fear of missing something, such as engine oil levels, which gets very serious once airborne. 
    • Once carrying passengers, especially nervous ones, they tend to feel safer when they’ve seen you PHYSICALLY checking the aircraft before flying it. 

We can see several factors at work here, including

  • a logical and emotional case for learning (we might die, our passengers might die, better to fix things on the ground, fear of missing something), 
  • peer pressure from the copilot (you will get called out) and passengers
  • you might lose your job if you skip it
  • an awareness of what might go wrong (looking at past accidents)
  • training (from day one, and every year)
  • audit (checkrides)
  • physical lists (not relying on memory)
  • logical lists (prescribed order of checks)
  • habit

Many of these can be transferred from the aviation sector into other sectors. You could imagine a company where the re-use of existing knowledge (in checklists or procedures or
other guidance) was mandatory, trained, supported, checked, believed-in (perhaps through regular analysis of failures), audited and habitual.

I agree this is a long way from where many of us are at the moment, but it is a vision for how one industry supports the re-use of knowledge.

To finish, here is a personal story from the Stack Exchange thread of how one person re-learned the importance of checklists

  •  In my case, I learned the discipline to use a checklist for every action on every flight the one time I decided not to use a checklist while taxiing from the fuel pump back to the parking ramp. It was winter, and a snowplow pulled up behind me, so I decided not to use the checklist in the interest of expediency (ha!). I primed the engine, checked the fuel valve, engaged the electrical system, keyed the starter, and the engine responded by firing up and then immediately dying. Repeat about a half-dozen times, at which point, I finally decided to use the checklist because something obviously wasn’t right. Once again, primed the engine, checked the fuel valve, move the mixture to the rich posi– Oh…I had left the mixture in the idle-cut-off position. Oops. I’ve used a checklist religiously ever since then 😉

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