03 May 2016

Social Collaboration tools in Foreign Cultures

Benedikt Sheerer is one of the up and coming young guys in the KM world.  I like his fresh approach, eager passion for social collaboration and the places it can take organisations in the Future of Work.

Based in Germany, recently he visited the Tokyo office of his company as part of the roll out program of their internal social collaboration tools.  You can read his report about it here.

Benedikt made three modifications to his usual launch presentation for the Tokyo staff. These were:

  1. First: We reduced the amount of topics we explained and discussed. This was due to the language barrier (meaning it simply takes longer to get a message through). Moreover, since the Japanese culture is high in context, people need more time to make up their own picture.
  2. Second: We also mitigated those messages that stress the social media possibilities to create short-cuts in the information flows (meaning: changing the role of management).
  3. Third: We focused on longer practice sessions that allowed me to help each participant individually (otherwise reluctant to raise questions in the group).

I really liked these three modifications, especially the mitigation of messages about subversive applications of Social Collaboration tools. A lot of my Asian experience (being based in Australia) is with South East Asia, but the strategy is also applicable to Japan and something Westerners can easily overlook.

His insight that national and corporate cultures are interwoven is a good one. Possibly thanks to the popularization of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, many seem to over-simplify culture or think of it as a separate master attribute, rather than the emergent sum of the many individual’s beliefs and behaviors (see update below). I like Harald’s advice to Benedikt to get the local people more involved in the process. Not just because it gets them engaged and starting on a learning journey, but because a project like this creates an environment where ideas and understandings can be explored in an iterative way and new applications of Social collaboration tools can be tested (and hopefully measured). This helps us avoid the “It worked there, so it must work here too” problem that many managers fall for.

Senior Executives are undergoing an interesting time right now.  The push for the advantages of the digital workplace is strong and I am seeing support for a lot of fantastic and progressive projects. At the same time, this is more than just process automation. There are long-term cultural and structural norms that are being challenged right now to allow digital (and AI after it) to see it's full potential. Challenges that appear to threaten of the executive's traditional power-base. Some are adapting, distributing knowledge down-to and among the decision makers closest to the problems. Others are centralizing power further through business intelligence tools, deep-analytics and the application of industrial-age thinking to modern knowledge workers.

Time will only tell what mix of the two styles will influence the successful companies of the future, but I think Social Collaboration tools are here to stay in some form or another. Whether it is corporate cultures or national ones, I think the key skill isn't going to be how to use the software, but rather how tolerant we are about others breaching what we consider to be our social norms.

UPDATE: After a challenge on twitter by Stewart MacLeod from State Trustees, I thought I should clarify things for the academics among us. When I refer to culture as the "emergent sum of the many individual’s beliefs and behaviours" I don't mean a simple addition. This concept takes in to account the embedded and embodied impacts of both the environment and artefacts that influence each of the individuals involved, like Org structure, technologies and a plethora of other factors that are both moulded by and in turn mould the evolution of the local sub-culture. For more of my thoughts about culture check out these articles here and here. For a really deep treatment of the subject, my nine part series on Knowledge Cultures is guaranteed to put you to sleep :)  I love Hannerz' quote when talking about culture:  "The term 'complex' may in itself be about as intellectually attractive as the word 'messy,' but one of its virtues in this context is precisely its sober insistence that we should think twice before accepting any simple characterization of the cultures in question in terms of a single essence."

07 March 2016

Is corporate politics that bad?

Corporate Politics...
"the process and behavior in human interactions involving power and authority"
I used to hate it. Managers stabbing each other in the back while smiling to their faces, stakeholders with-holding key information, business cases filled with twisted numbers to make their project seem more important.
Of course, if "Knowledge is Power" then Knowledge Management certainly runs in to it's fair share of politics, both at the personal, corporate and even the international level.
New Eyes
I remember the exact moment when I saw a new way of looking at it.  I was studying for my Masters degree and we had to read a chapter of a book called "Strategic Organizational Communication" by Conrad and Poole (I remember the name because of the effect it had on me).  After reading the chapter I glanced at the next one and started reading out of personal interest.
Chapter 8 is about power and politics in organisations and the way it holds companies together. It got me thinking: kind of like how ligaments hold the body together. The people are the bones, but the ligaments control how everybody interacts and works together to lift the load.  To quote Penn & Teller, I immediately called Bullshit! This wasn't my experience of politics, but I started reading about the different types of political power anyway....until it described mine.
My first reaction was "Hold on! That's not politics! That's just making sure I am effective and stopping people from undoing my hard work!" and then in a millisecond it dawned on me. That is what everybody else would say too. I had been political all my career, I just hadn't seen it that way.
So when I see people try to play their games or manipulate circumstances for what appears to be personal gain, I no longer immediately think incompetence or politics. I wonder what the underlying personal, emotional, financial and organisational needs are that they are trying to meet or keep in balance.  I'm not saying I'm right, I am sure sometimes people are just covering their tails because they really are incompetent, but I guess that's one of those needs as well - security.
In any case, if you are experiencing political games or push back in your projects, I encourage you to give Conrad and Poole a read. It has served me well and helped me keep my professional diagnostic hat on when dealing with sick or injured organisations, and lets face it, if they didn't have any problems then they wouldn't need me in the first place, right?

08 January 2016

"The operation was a success but the patient died"

Are you a man or a microbe?

You're human right? So you would always choose a surgeon over a microbiologist to fix your medical problem.

But would you trust a surgeon that had never been trained in microbiology?

Someone who was brilliant with a scalpel, amazing with an arthroscope, but didn't care about infection control?
Would you be OK with somebody who has a 100% track record of successful knee reconstructions but 20% of his patients get septicemia in the weeks following his operations and the response is always "Nobody seems sick when they leave the hospital. I think it's more about personal hygiene and maybe a bit of bad luck."

Well that is basically how a lot of managers and consultants work today.  While doing brilliant work, they commit basic KM mistakes, often successfully solving the business problem but leaving behind a trail of orphaned knowledge, little to no strategy, incomplete change management and unfinished training that is a recipe for knowledge loss, service degradation, internal conflict and reinventing the wheel.  As for learning, they see that as something you did in Uni before we hired you, not an active component of the organisation's collective decision making process.

Building the Knowledge Lens

Your primary task isn't to hire more knowledge managers. It must first be to teach your current managers how to manage with knowledge awareness, just like a surgeon focuses on solving the issue, but always has the threat of infection in mind.
  • Introduce the concept in meetings, asking "what have we learned this week?" and "how can we make that available to our future selves?" 
  • When a problem pops up, ask "who else might have dealt with that before?" or "what is our process for solving problems like that?"
  • When you find a solution, commend the problem solver(s) then ask how they are going to make that knowledge available to the next one who has the problem and the method that person will use to find it.
  • If you are sending your people to get an MBA, make sure they do a KM subject and then share what they learn with your team.
  • Look for KM advocates who "really get it" and create a community of guardians of the company's knowledge.
Experienced knowledge managers are brilliant, especially when big changes need to be made. However, never forget the majority of positive change will always come from the people on the front line exhibiting behaviors that put the company's long term prosperity first.
To me, that's a sign of a good leader.

Stuart French facilitates the SIRF KM Roundtable, runs the MIS & KM online subject for La Trobe University's MBA program and also runs the KM-101 Practical Introduction Course for those wishing to become better managers by understanding the impact of KM on their businesses. If you would like to take the next step in your management journey, Stuart can help you find the best next step for you.

23 December 2015

Enabling Process Improvements with Business Systems

Really enabling our workers

Business Automation is a key deliverable of any digital transformation program.
Many business systems help solve the problem of workers not being able to remember large or complex data-sets.  Ie:

  • What day do we delivery to Customer X’s area?
  • Do we follow the usual flour recipe if the pH of the mains water drops by 0.5?
  • What does Customer Y’s contract say about pricing for multiple purchases?

The problem is, these systems treat workers like robots with two staggering repercussions:

  1. They can only handle situations that have been described by the system (assuming a good search), and
  2. They tend to lock in and then resist future changes “But we’ve always done it that way”

The answer is to embed not just the information to do the job, but also the WHY in your systems and encourage your staff to sense-make, looking for patterns that can dynamically handle these two situations.  For example, if a customer has an exception to the normal pricing model, include the reasoning behind that exception. This will help the worker to be aware for this type of exception for other customers of the same type.
Secondly, include WHO is the domain expert or information source (ie the Sales person who wrote the contract) and encourage communications and questioning to increase quality of service.
Just treating our workers as idiots isn't really enabling them. Not only will it limit their effectiveness, but job satisfaction will drop, they will be less willing to go the extra mile in busy times and staff turnover will increase.

Setting a good example

These issues don't just happen at the customer edge of the business. These sorts of behaviors are seen regularly in the back office teams that implement business system changes. Have you ever seen:
  • Failure to record the assumptions that decisions were based on?
  • Only recording the result, not the conversation and debate that led to it?
  • Only recording the main reason for a change?
If so, you are not alone. These things always make sense to us in the thick of the change, but the details are all too easily forgotten and before long we are repeat mistakes and cracks appear in the systems that directly effect how we service our customer's needs.
Next time you find yourself frustrated with an end user not correctly documenting a change or updating a customer contract record, take a quick look in the mirror first to make sure there isn't a log in your own eye.

The bottom line

Workers will build mental models of how they think the business works whether you like it or not. Whether you are creating bottlenecks, not fully delegating authority or failing to build communications channels, your staff's productivity will suffer.
By encouraging access to situational knowledge (both via the business system or through communication with the sources) you build a more flexible and accurate model over time. One that can then propagate and self-correct socially within and between teams.

If you would like to learn more about how KM impacts your productivity and what you can do about it, our KM-101 course gives you both the understanding and the tools to make the most of your organisations collective expertise. Click here to find out more.

10 November 2015

Do you know that, or is it just something you remembered?

I have struggled for a little while with the Tacit/Explicit model of knowledge, feeling it was incomplete. The Cambridge Dictionary defines Tacit Knowledge as "knowledge that you do not get from books or being taught, but from personal experience". This basically rules out the idea of Tacit/Explicit transfer, leading to what James Dellow claims is a choice of either "Perfect knowledge capture or nothing at all".

Uriarte's book "Introduction to Knowledge Management" from 2008 discussed the concept of implicit knowledge. Implicit knowledge is basically "remembered facts". ie: Internal knowledge that is possible to be written down or made explicit.

Likewise, the "Internalisation" part of Nonaka's SECI model turns explicit knowledge in to implicit knowledge but not tacit (as is claimed), which comes from the personal embodiment of decision, behaviour and action.  Nonaka has been widely criticised for SECI's many failures in practice and I submit that this confusion between implicit and tacit knowledge may be one reason why.

This was discussed in a debate at the KM Australia Congress in 2011 which has been blogged about by both Aprill Allen and Brad Hinton (I recommend reading both) and one of the reason's I think this is important is captured in David Snowden's comment on Brad's blog where he points out that "(true) tacit knowledge transfer in general takes place through doing – apprentice models come to mind".  In other words understanding the distinction directly effects the types of solutions we implement to transfer knowledge. I would argue that our almost total abandonment of the apprenticeship model has resulted in untold loss of tacit knowledge over the last two decades.

It seems the Tacit-Implicit-Explicit may also help when drawing a line between IT and KM.  Helen Palmer's excellent treatise on this touches on the Tacit/Explicit divide being one of the key factors. Adding Implicit may allow for a slightly clearer look at the interface between the two, especially when it comes to learning, capturing expertise, following workflows, etc, and possibly, just possibly, opening the way to more formal learning while doing.  The computers may be new. The software may be becoming more social. But in evolutionary terms, the last thousand years is nothing and human brains have hardly changed. If we already have an amazing way of transferring tacit knowledge, proven by 1000+ years use in guilds, societies and trades, I would argue it is time to consider both old and new ways of getting the right knowledge to the right people at the right time.

If you are interested in this and want to get a grip on it, consider the KM-101 course from KMRt where it is discussed in depth as we look at pragmatic ways to improve knowledge flows in your organisation.

What do you think?  Does the Tacit-Implicit-Explicit model help you explain KM better?  Are there situations it doesn't explain?  Should we start including Implicit in our conversations with non-KM people so they start to understand the distinction?  I would love to hear your thoughts.

14 October 2015

Call for info about KM Tools & Solutions

Do you create, maintain, sell, implement, support tools for better KM?  If so I want to hear from you.

As part of the upcoming KM 101 course I am running for the KM Roundtable, the focus is very much on pragmatic learning and understanding what tools are available, what they can and cannot do and which problems they are best suited to solve.

I have built my own list over the years, and I am aware of both the Knowledge Bucket and the Knowledge Sharing Toolkit, but this is an area that continually evolves, so if you have or know of solutions that help in these areas, then please email me or give me a call on +61 411 797-781 for a chat.

  • Knowledge sharing
  • Collaboration platforms
  • Project asset management & coordination
  • Decision making
  • Workflow tools
  • Sensemaking
  • Social network analysis
  • Intranets
  • Lessons Learned databases
  • Learning Management Systems
  • Document Management
  • Record Management
  • Knowledge Bases for Customer Support
  • Enterprise (Federated) Search
  • Plug-ins for Confluence & SharePoint
  • Innovation Hubs
  • Blogging, Podcasting, Publishing
  • Expertise Location
  • Competency Frameworks
  • Dashboards, Analytics & BI
  • Alternatives to email
I will need the following from you please:

  1. Description of the solution
  2. Problems it solves / potential application areas / Usual market (ie: SME, Enterprise, Gov't)
  3. Simple Case Study - if available
  4. Australian distributor / sales point
  5. Rough pricing model
  6. URL for more information
  7. Product information
    1. Key selling point
    2. Key features
    3. Extensibility and ability to connect, (ie: federated search, links to external content, etc)
    4. Underlying technology requirements (ie: MS Stack?)
    5. Compliance with the Australian Government Record-keeping Act.

If you are trying to get your product, tool or software in front of more eyes, then this is you chance. The course starts late November, so I look forward to hearing from you soon.