KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Do you know your staff?

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mystery employee

Finding up to date useful information about people in your organization can be challenging – Who is the social policy officer in Bolivia? Who speaks French and has worked on conflict prevention in west Africa? Who contributed to the position paper on HIV and breastfeeding? Who knows.

We already have a plethora of different information systems about our people who are only partially connected. We have our HR system, our IT/Network directory, our telephone directory and we have various email lists and spreadsheets managed by individual offices and sectors.

Thanks to some great work by our IT colleagues we just launched a new staff profiles system in UNICEF at the beginning of the week that seeks to help with some of these questions. It is built using the Office365/SharePoint Infrastructure that the organization has already invested in, but linking to other systems as needed. I just wanted to share our experience in trying to come up with a useful profiles system, which we have called “Who’s Who in UNICEF” in order to address the challenges we currently face in knowing about our staff, in case it is of interest. Our new system was an attempt to pull together some of the different existing information sources to provide the best (but far from perfect) information that we could get about the people who work for us, in order to make it much easier for people to find out about one another from a single place.

Pulling this all together was tricky – but basically we built on the idea that useful information about any individual can come from three broad types of sources:

1. Official system information such as our HR systems and our internal directories. This is fragmented into several non-coordinated systems in our organization so we needed to map which is the “official” source for what information and then combine them together. This is already a step forward compared to what previously existed but official information is limited in that some of the more interesting things are not digitized or confidential where we work (such as performance evaluations, training records, past work experience) so can’t be shared in searchable profiles. Plus they often miss out key experiences and expertise – and as we found out through this exercise – official information about our people is often unreliable – wither out of date or just plan wrong.

2. What you say about yourself. A lot of people profiles in social media tools and enterprise social networks give you the opportunity to also enter information about yourself – what do you do, what are you working on, what are your interests, languages spoken, a flattering headshot etc. We merged these features with the “official information” giving staff the chance to be able to present themselves and their skills beyond what the organization officially knows about them. This makes the profiles more interesting and more useful because it makes them more “personal”. But self profiling also has its limitations – just because I say I have a particular skill or set of knowledge doesn’t mans that I actually do have it. And a superficial description while helpful doesn’t give the full nuance of exactly what your skill is.

3. The trail people leave in the system. One interesting way to figure out what people actually know about is the communities and groups they join, the information they share and the things they contribute to. Our profiles are starting to make use of the “social graph” i.e. what you work on, what you share and with whom you exchange information. We’ve incorporated some initial inputs on this such as highlighting documents people have worked on, shared documents, showing people’s activity feed and identifying who they work closely with through this information – but in the next few months we plan to do more, building on social graph tools that Microsoft have developed with Office 365. At this point I feel the potential for using this type of information to help recommend people and content based relevant to the person doing the search is very large – and also needs some experimentation to see how to get the best out of this capability.

A few lessons learned from this exercise:

1. Getting a common agreement about what should be included in a staff profile is challenging. Given the absence of  good existing system the tendency is to want any new system to do everything and there is pressure to add a long list of potential attributes. Also some of the things that users want that could be extremely useful are just not supported by the underlying information that we have about staff. Having self completion fields can help with this, but if the profile has too  many self-complete attributes then the chances are most of it will not get completed. Also there are some attributes that individual functions and offices would like that are not relevant to others so coming up a with a common list of useful core attributes is key.

2. There are a lot of data quality problems in our official systems of record about our staff that go unnoticed and therefore unaddressed (I expected this but perhaps not as many as we are currently finding). People care about how they are presented when they realize this is in a profile/search system so when they see this information is incorrect they want to change it – and I’ve had a deluge of e-mails requesting corrections. While frustrating this is important since it is providing an incentive for staff to care about what the organization knows about them and to get this fixed – and if we are lucky it will help put the spotlight on some of the challenges with our underlying staff information systems and create momentum to fix them.

3. Working with cloud service software like Office 365 has some great strengths, such as the ability to be able to search across content from multiple sources and to take advantage of the very promising work that has been done on using the “social graph”. It’s also challenging since the platform and interface is being frequently changed and updated and so there is a risk that any customizations are broken or obsolete without notice. In fact Microsoft are currently moving away from SharePoint profiles (on which our profile system is based) to Delve profiles, and we will soon have to recreate our profile system on Delve. However Delve profiles don’t yet allow the type of customization we have done in terms of grouping and ordering fields  – but well we’re hoping that will change soon so we can migrate.

4. People don’t yet understand the “social graph” and can even be a bit scared of it. “How does the computer know what I want to see”, “Why can I see this document in my profile that should be confidential”. The social graph can at times be uncanny in knowing what you might be interested in. It may therefore show different results depending on who is looking at a profile. This needs careful explanation –and also reassurance that it’s only showing people what information they are authorized to view. It’s also a good reminder to check on the sharing/security setting on your documents – in particular a number of people put private documents in their ‘shared with everyone folder” probably assuming that if you didn’t know something was there you would never find it. The social graph it’s much easier to find things – which seems to actually a cause for concern for some :-0

5. The social graph only has what you put in it. We’re still only part way in migrating the intranet to SharePoint online and adoption of sharing tools like Yammer and One Drive is still fairly low. This means a fair amount of useful information is not being captured. The profiles have highlighted that a lot of staff are still not sharing much of what they do in any place where it would be easily accessible by others. We still have a lot of work to do to promote a culture of “working out loud”. Only when we have a higher level of participation in social collaboration tools and adoption of cloud storage (rather than people using the shared drive or worse their e-mail archives and hard drives as the main store for their important organizational work) will we really be able to get the benefits of the social graph.

I’m sure we will have a few more key lessons in the coming weeks and months about what works and what doesn’t and the key challenge of getting people to update and use the profiles. Will keep you posted!

Written by Ian Thorpe

April 29, 2015 at 9:10 am

Kill the shared drive!

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Late last year I went to the South Asia region to participate in a discussion on knowledge management. I talked briefly about what we are doing globally, and then each country gave an update about what they are doing – and what their priorities and challenges were.

While I was trying to make the case for cross organizational networking and working out loud, as well as the potential for using social tools,  what I heard from the ground was a bit of a wake up call as to where many offices still are in their thinking about knowledge management.

One of the biggest preoccupations of offices was being able to organize and then retrieve their everyday documents, and for many of them the way to do this was by reorganizing their “shared drive” i.e. a shared storage space on server in a local area network (I define this because some of you might be surprised that we are still working this way).

So what’s my advice about how to improve the management of the shared drive. Simple – GET RID OF IT.

What’s wrong with having a shared drive in your office?

  • It’s only accessible when you are in your office – you can’t easily access it when you are at home or travelling.
  • Access control is limited – usually at the level of folders directory and you can’t easily share things with people outside of your group on an ad-hoc basis (also because the probably don’t have access to your LAN)
  • There are limited metadata and only a simple search to help you find things.
  • Space is usually limited and you are most likely already close to your quota.
  • Let’s face it – your shared drive is probably a mess. You most likely have years of accumulated documents in a directory structure you didn’t create and possibly don’t understand. No-one knows what half the materials are or whether they are important and whether or not they are current. There is no logical file or directory naming convention, no-one can tell who edited what and which is the latest version.

So what can you do instead? Use the cloud!

In UNICEF we are a Microsoft Office365 house so the tools I’m going to mention here are based on that but Google, IBM and other providers all have their own suite of tools that do the same thing.

If all you need is access to a set of official reference documents that people don’t need to frequently edit and update or that are confidential then the best place to put these files is on your intranet – don’t refer people to copies you keep elsewhere – it’s much easier to have a simple intranet page (or set of intranet pages) and keep them logically organized and up to date than it is to create a separate storage silo.

If you need a place to store shared documents that people need to collaboratively develop and edit, or a space for working documents e.g. for an office, a particular team, for a community of practice or network, you should use a SharePoint document library.

For individual files that you want to access remotely, or where you want to collaborate on these files with a more limited or ad-hoc number of colleagues or even e4xternal partners then a cloud based storage solution such as One Drive is your easiest option.

In a cloud based solution you can:

  • Access files from anywhere with an internet connection, whether at work, at home. You can also usually configure it maintain a local copy of your computer which allows you to work offline and sync with the cloud version later.
  • Your stuff is available 24/7 – it’s not dependent on the IT departments servers and whether they are being maintained or if they break down, or if they get destroyed by a fire, or if someone spills coffee on them.
  • You can share with more easily with colleagues and even with external partners, deciding exactly who can access the document and whether they can view or edit. This can be controlled at the level of libraries, folders or even individual documents. You can even link it to conversations about the documents through Yammer.
  • Cloud based storage is comparatively cheap.
  • SharePoint libraries also allow you to much better tools to organize your data including being able to add metadata attributes that are either optional or mandatory to help you sort your documents (such as document type, organizational unit, subject classification and tags). And when your stuff is in the cloud it’s also much easier to search in particular the SharePoint Search and Delve are quite powerful tools to search not only the documents you entered, but anything else that you have access to. Delve is even smarter in that it uses the “Office Graph” i.e. the set of interactions you have with colleagues and the materials you work on to help predict which materials are most relevant to you.
  • SharePoint has versioning control so you can see what was changed when by whom – very useful for ensuring you have the right version of a document.
  • It takes a bit more work and technical expertise, but SharePoint also allows you to program workflow i.e. to automate common work processes for working on document (such as a chain of approvals) which means you can automatically make sure a document goes through a pre-defined work process, see where it is along the way and identify any bottlenecks in getting it completed.

But if you are to move to the cloud you probably are wondering how do you migrate all the years of accumulated files to your new platform. The simple answer is DON’T. Take a copy of your hard drive and put it on DVDs or a portable drive somewhere if you are really concerned you might need it again later – otherwise only take over those files that you are currently using or have referenced in the past 6 months – or for which you know exactly what it is and what you need it for. Forget about the rest – even if they seem potentially valuable, the truth is you will never use them. I’d recommend creating an entirely new system for filing and categorizing your documents – one that makes sense for how you organize your work now with the current document types, topics, work units etc. that you are currently using and forget about how it was done before.

The step of giving up on your old shared drive and creating something completely new in the cloud (i.e. not a migration of your existing mess) is itself one of the biggest benefits of making the change. Creating something that works for you right now that you understand, control and has what you need.

Written by Ian Thorpe

April 14, 2015 at 10:02 am

The blog is dead, long live the blog

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deathofblogging

(Image: StrategicRevolution.com)

As you may have noticed. I’ve not been blogging much lately – It’s hard to find the time to blog in-depth on a topic, so I’m experimenting now with much shorter blog posts in an attempt to share more often.

Appropriately enough the first topic for a short blog is the death of blogging.

I’ve been trying to encourage colleagues to blog, particularly now as UNICEF has launched its own public blog and is planning on expanding this to allow offices and departments to run their own sub-blogs under the UNICEF umbrella. This led to a colleague forwarding me this article in the NYT asking whether blogging is dead (and people have been talking about the death of blogging since at least 2009).

Given the number of big names who have stopped blogging (including in the aid and humanitarian world), and even my own declining blog production you might think this is true.

I’d argue blogging isn’t dead – it’s just become one among many tools for communication. I started blogging inside UNICEF back in 2006 and publicly in 2010. Back in the early days blogging was an exciting new tool that was going to allow people to share their personal views unfiltered to the world. It was something anyone could do with little technical expertise and at little expense, and it was going to revolutionize and democratize communication. When I first started blogging it was something almost a bit counter-culture and also what the cool kids were doing.

Like any new technology or tool it suffered from the Hype Cycle, in particular it rode the peak of inflated expectations. But in the meantime a lot has happened. Lots of people tried blogging and gave up because it was too much effort, or the benefit wasn’t apparent enough, or they simply lost interest. Meanwhile a few star bloggers stood out and got famous, (including a few in the aid world), and then many absorbed by the mainstream (think Perez Hilton, Lifehacker, Guido Fawkes or FiveThirtyEight which became major properties in their own right). And mainstream media and corporates also got in on the act and started producing on-message, well written, slickly designed, well promoted blogs to burnish their image – to humanize it a little bit, but still while being firmly on brand and of course these overshadowed many of the original start-up blogs. New tools emerged  – first Twitter, then Tumblr, Snapchat etc. and even inside the workplace with tools like Yammer and Slack that were even simpler and quicker, and of course more suited to diminishing attention spans – now even a blog is tl;dr.

So where does this leave blogs?  Is it a good idea to start a blog or even to continue blogging? It can be. Even with the decline in blogging there are still a lot of them around, and many with interesting high quality content.

If you want to start a blog to be cool and ahead of the curve, to show your counter-culture street cred., or to become famous in your field of work blogging is unlikely to be a shortcut – that time is long past.

But if you want to have a medium were you can share your ideas and your work in a first person format; one that is shorter than a book, less formal than an academic article, more personal than a news story but with more substance than a tweet or a vine, then blogging is a great medium. Writing a blog can be a great way to refine your ideas, just through the act of writing, and engaging others to get feedback on it, even with a small following. For organizations it can be a great way to personalize your work and an alternative to slick corporate messaging which can often be a turn off. It can also be a great way to get your staff and your partners to talk about their work – their successes, but also their challenges – this can increase your outreach and make it more authentic, and also can give your staff a voice.

So it’s not so strange that UNICEF is launching a blogging platform after the hype and excitement of blogging is part – it’s actually a sign that blogging is now a mainstream tool for communication, one among many tools, but a valuable one nonetheless.

Written by Ian Thorpe

April 2, 2015 at 11:06 am

KMWorld’s 100 Companies that Matter in K

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KMWorld’s 100 Companies that Matter in Knowledge Management http://ow.ly/2Vn8rN

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 3, 2015 at 8:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Delivering development through case studies

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gdi

(picture: from @andyR_AGI twitter feed)

I just came from a two-day meeting in Berlin launching the “Global Delivery Initiative” which is being spearheaded by the World Bank and the German technical cooperation agency GIZ.

You are probably wondering what the Global Delivery is – I did (one wag asked if it was something about safe childbirth). While it sounds like a way of doing programming it is actually about building an alliance and common knowledge base between development organizations around what works in development. It is related to, but different from the recently launched “Doing Development Differently” initiative (about which I shall blog separately).

The key insight driving this initiative is that while there has been a lot of research and evaluation on the “what” of delivery and a lot is known about what approaches “should” work, especially around technical issues and programme design, much of what goes wrong in development is related to the “how” i.e. how programmes are actually delivered on the ground in the messy reality. Relatively less is understood about what makes some similarly designed projects successful while others fail.

Many of these implementation challenges are messy human problems and don’t lend themselves easily to experimental design or traditional research methods. In fact much is based on “tacit” knowledge that lies in people’s experiences (here is one of my first blog posts “the truth is out there” which explains this in more detail).

The key approach being taken through the global delivery initiative is that in order to capture this tacit knowledge and make it shareable and reusable is the development of case studies on the “how” of delivery. The aim is to develop case studies that are of high quality, focus on the how rather than the what,  and according to common standards and format to make them shareable both within, but more importantly across development organizations. The initiative is proposing to create a global online repository of  delivery focused case studies using a somewhat standardized template and methodology. The aim would be to collect and share examples of how delivery challenges have been overcome on the ground to build up an evidence base of what works – but not as “best practice” but as a resource of example approaches which could be adapted to local context, and longer term as the number of examples grows as a resource that could be analyzed and mined to spot common themes and solutions to delivery challenges.

The aim of the meeting was to present the approach together with case study examples from participants to help refine the approach as well as to get more contributing partners aboard and to talk through more on how to make the initiative be successful – including what needs to be done collectively by partners and what needs to be done inside individual organizations to strengthen their ability to create and effectively use case studies. However at the meeting it was clear that “case studies” meant different things to different people, have different uses and employ different approaches – and there is a balance to be struck between coming up with a shared approach that allows cross organizational learning versus specific needs of individual organizations. There was a marketplace of example case studies from which the diversity of approaches was clear  – some were simply an approach to research to understand a problem while others were much more focused on documenting a programme, and others on how a problem had been addressed.

A few of the key issues raised in the meetings were:

  • Who identifies the “problems” that should be documented? The general feeling was that this needed to be done in a participatory way with beneficiaries and country team leaders rather than being top down. Importantly the case studies should focus on problems and not projects
  • What is the difference between case studies and more formal evaluation techniques? There was some confusion in the discussion but the general sense was that these are complementary activities not alternatives, and that case studies shouldn’t seek to be as rigorous and comprehensive as evaluations
  • How to make use of existing knowledge sharing techniques that result in self-reflection such as appreciative inquiry or after action review in the development of case studies as the currently proposed methodology didn’t fully make use of these – and self-reflection is an important part of a learning case study.
  • How to incorporate learning from failure – there was general agreement we should, but also that this was extremely challenging in publicly funded development work. Case studies focusing on failure might not be feasible, but including lessons from the less successful aspects of a programme or a comparative analysis across different locations to identify the determinants of success or otherwise was seen as valuable. A more challenging approach, but also more fruitful would be to design more experimental, iterative approaches to problem solving in development from the outset, which may have a higher risk of failure, but also greater potential benefits, and greater learning.
  • Who can/should write case studies? it was felt that not everyone has the right skill set to develop good case studies. Also there is a balance between using insiders who know the context and outsiders who can be more impartial and may have better documentation skills. Case studies are not objective in the same way as evaluations are however and they do need to draw on the reflections of those involved in the case. We also heard from Jennifer Widner that Princeton is developing a MOOC for writing case studies which will be interesting to check out.
  • Case studies are very labour intensive – and there was some discussion about weighing the value against the amount of time they take to develop (one estimate was that a single case study takes at least 350 person hours of work)
  • There are a lot of organizational challenges in the use of case studies – partly because use and dissemination is often not fully thought through at the beginning of the process – but more importantly because organizational practices and incentives are not aligned to support the use of tacit learning in our work (a much larger issue that I’ve discussed previously on this blog), and because our tendency to present everything as a success and as an advocacy opportunity to funders hampers our ability to self-critically reflect and learn.
  • My final observation was that unsurprisingly it was pointed out that case studies are only one of a range of approaches to fostering learning from experience and sharing delivery related knowledge. It was felt that other approaches such as communities of practice, peer learning and support, use of innovation approaches such as human-centred and participatory design also needed to be part of any initiative to improve delivery.

Going forward there was strong support for learning more about delivery challenges and sharing and applying that knowledge, although the nature of the partnership and who would do what was a little less clear (understandable since there was a diverse array of partners and the meeting only lasted a day and a half)

The World Bank and GIZ have started producing case studies and are planning more in 2015 along with an online repository – they are now trying to get others to sign up and do the same.

There was an agreement that case studies should be complemented by other work – and participants agreed to do more to share with each other both what they learn about delivery related knowledge but also how they learn about delivery in terms of tools, techniques and approaches they are using and how well they work.

Participants also agreed to advocate within their organizations for the idea of learning from experience on the how of development and more generally doing development differently.

All told, this looks like a promising initiative to improve sharing of tacit knowledge between development organizations – and one which I need to follow-up on to see if and how UNICEF could be involved. But for it to be successful it will need more partners, and notably absent were local and southern partners who would be key to any learning on delivery. In addition while case studies can form a good basis for this learning, the initiative will need to go beyond collecting and sharing case studies to focus on the idea of fostering learning from experience in development – both in identifying and sharing that learning – but also in overcoming some of our institutional challenges in actually applying it – and ensuring that there is continual learning in how we do our work.

Finally I mentioned at the beginning of the blog that this was related to “Doing Development Differently”, an initiative which seeks to rethink how we do development. While the global delivery initiative can contribute to that – I think the groups need to keep asking themselves whether they really are contributing to doing development differently by collecting new, more grounded information on what works and in a way that helps inspire and inform action, but doesn’t direct it – and avoid creating another knowledge repository that goes unused, or is used as a set of development recipes from donor to beneficiary (see this old blog of mine on why “best practice” databases are not the way to go), or a way of telling stories that make our (current traditional) work look good without real learning.

So let’s give it a try!

Written by Ian Thorpe

December 16, 2014 at 8:45 am

Love the One you’re with (on using official software)

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20141126_163044

I think we have gotten quite used to assuming that our organizations will not provide the latest technology tools we need to do our jobs, and so if we want to get things done we will have to download or use free or even paid consumer software, even though this is officially frowned upon.

For quite a while externally available tools looked much better than what our organizations were able or willing to provide. Ease of use, attractive design,capability to work with external partners, real-time collaboration were all things that consumer tool have that our office tools did not.

As a result I saw people using a plethora of unofficial tools to do their work: Google Docs, Evernote, PBWiki, Yousendit, Dropbox, Ning, WordPress, you name it – even using Facebook for official internal networking (see here on why I don’t think this is a good idea), and YouTube to share internal videos. The upside was that people were being entrepreneurial finding ways to collaborate to get things done – but this also comes with a big downside – especially from a knowledge management perspective.

When a lot of work is going on in outside applications there are a number of risks. If it is a free service, then most likely your data is being used to advertise to you and others and you may have little control over the privacy and security of your information – nor any real guarantee that it will even always be there.

Another challenge is that all this organizational knowledge is being kept in separate silos as each department or team use different tools, or even when they use the same tools have individual accounts that are not connected to one another and not widely known about across the organization. When staff or consultants leave, tools are changed or abandoned, passwords are forgotten and content is lost. And none of these are integrated with our official tools so we need to learn different passwords and manually copy or transfer data between systems.

But I think we have now hit a turning point where the benefits of using official tools outweighs the limitations they might impose. For the first time I remember, we have many official tools that can  do almost the same as, and sometimes even do more than the consumer tools we have grown to love. In UNICEF we are using Office365 which includes tools such as Yammer for social networking, Lync for video conferencing, One Drive for file sharing and SharePoint for document management and collaborative authoring (and IBM and others offer similar tools). These are all quite powerful, they are more or less integrated together and with our other systems, and they are officially sanctioned and supported. What’s more they now also allow users to participate from any location and most devices, and they also allow collaboration with external partners – all stumbling blocks to using official systems in the past.

But while the software has greatly improved our behaviour is yet to catch up. There are still many who continue to use unofficial tools. The reasons for this are several including simply not being aware the new tools are available and what they can do to not knowing how to use them, to feeling more comfortable with the external tools they already know and preferring them as they “work better”, and perhaps not trusting what IT is pushing to them.

In the past I’ve also been one of those people who used a lot of outside tools and complained about what we being provided as official tools. While I still think we need to do more to make our official tools better, for me there was a turning point when I realized the benefits of using official systems for reliability, privacy, knowledge retention and ability to collaborate were more important that the inconvenience in learning new tools and coping with the mostly minor issues I have with them.

In my own mind I apply a kind of 80% rule. If the official tool meets 80% of my feature and usability needs then it’s better to use if for work than going it alone with my preferred tool. Only in those instances where the official tool is lacking key functionality, or where no real official alternative exists will I find my own external solution. For example we don’t have a corporate tool for staff surveys and while SharePoint can be used to do this we don’t have the templates and setup yet to provide this as an option for staff who want to do their own surveys so I would use Surveymonkey, Limesurvey or some other tool. By contrast now we have One Drive there is no real justification to use private Dropbox accounts to share files internally, even if the interface might be slightly nicer.

It’s of course totally fine to use whatever tool you like for personal use – and also to use external tools to participate in work groups set up by others outside your organization (e.g. I participate in external online forums such as KM4Dev or on UNDP’s Teamworks as I couldn’t expect them to join me on Yammer instead!) But if you are setting something up for your organization, even if you are inviting external participants then you are better off using your official tools.

So how do we overcome the reluctance of staff to use perfectly adequate existing tools. A few thoughts:

1. Communicate, communicate, communicate about the tools that are available and what they can do

2. Train and support people to use them

3. Show real life examples of how they are being used to support work and get better results i.e. have the users speak to how they can be used and the benefits rather than only promoting this from an IT perspective.

4. To users – apply my 80% rule – do you really need to use your preferred tool? Why not at least give the official systems a try – and let the network benefits do the rest.

5. To IT – listen to user feedback and try to make the tools as responsive to user needs as possible – in particular look at what external tools are doing well that official tools don’t and try to work on those.

6. Again to IT – look carefully at what unofficial tools staff are using and why – not to control and forbid – but to better understand what are common technology needs of staff or new ways they are finding to use technology to improve their work. These are the things the official systems need to catch up with. Use this as a way of identifying future tools and services that would be really valuable (did I mention that we need a good corporate survey tool?).

Post script: After posting this I got in a heated twitter discussion with @Wayan_vota who strongly disagreed and who has some good points (although I still disagree with him). I realized that this post might sound like I’m cheerleading for Microsoft and corporate IT rules and regulations. I’m certainly doing neither. My main point is that as much as I might personally love other tools, and everyone in the organization has their own favourites, I realized that if we want to get people to collaborate across the organization, and we want to be able to find anything – even after people leave then we need to get over fighting “the man”. Instead we need to figure out how to get the best official tools we can that everyone use, and then make the best use of what we have got, including how they are managed – and keep the pressure up to make these as useful as possible.

 

Written by Ian Thorpe

December 3, 2014 at 9:00 am

Where does your knowledge go when you leave?

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brain drain

One thing organizations are not good about is figuring out how to retain or reuse knowledge of staff who leave the organization, whether through retirement or leaving for a job in another organization. Many organizations do very little at all to address this, but even for those that do, there are a few fundamental flaws in how organizations look at this problem:

1. They consider that whatever knowledge you generate or use while you are in a job belongs to the organization and so should be kept there

2. They consider knowledge to reside either in documents and products produced by staff – or in a slightly more enlightened state they consider that it resides in individuals and can be downloaded from the when they leave.

3. They create a firewall between current and former staff, including retirees making it hard to maintain personal networks and relationships that are often where the real source of knowledge exchange lies.

Probably the most effective strategy to retain knowledge is to be the kind of organization that retains and develops its best staff – and that could be a series of blog pots in its own right – but staff will leave whether through retirement, to seek new opportunities, or as a result of restructuring  – so we need to think of ways to address this.

At KM World a couple of weeks ago (yes I’m still blogging about that) there were a few interesting presentations about how to tap into the knowledge and expertise of former staff  – in particular a very interesting one by Lesley Schneier a retiree of the World Bank about a system they had set up to tap into the expertise of Bank retirees to support current projects on a pro-bono basis, building on the enthusiasm of many retirees to keep in touch and be helpful and the interest of current staff to get free expert advised from seasoned professionals.  There were lots of good ideas on how to make us of the desire of retirees to stay involved to support current work but also a couple of important lessons on the challenges too.

One challenge at the Bank is the interaction between staff and retirees takes place on an externally facing platform which is separate from the platforms that staff use in their day-to-day work (because I presume IT security?) which means that it is much more of an effort for current staff to go there, and many don’t even know that it is an option.

I don’t have any magic solutions to the problem of “knowledge walking out the door” but it seems to me that there are a few practices we could try to change which could make an important difference:

Most IT systems use your current official email as a means of authenticating you into social platforms. This is great as it is a good shortcut to check whether you are a current employee and so should be permitted to be part of the internal intranet and all the secrets and confidences in contains – but when you leave you lose your official email and access to your internal resources, but also to whatever internal social networks you have.

However in reality the nature of a social network is that is social, that is it is based on personal and professional relationships that have developed over time. Once you have left an organization your social connections (and willingness to collaborate with them) do not disappear overnight with a change of job or of email address. Neither do your past contributions suddenly become useless – even if over time they might decline in relevance.

So a couple of practices to consider might be to allow some kind of continued access to communities or similar sites after you retire or leave the organization. Obviously there would be some things which are too internal or confidential to share, especially in commercial operations; but in my area of work, international development, any technical discussions on how to do our work better should not be confidential and so there is no reason to lock people out after they leave the organization – after all they may still be willing to provide free advice to support current projects.

Maybe an even better way to handle this would be to create communities that are by default open in the first place and have your staff use those for non-internal non-confidential collaboration – that way you can more easily engage with and learn from external experts even if they have never worked for your organization – and also your internal expertise can be of benefit to others without needing formal cooperation thus increasing the influence of your knowledge work.

One particular bad practice I have seen that should be avoided at all costs is to delete a persons contributions to online discussions after they leave an organization, or after they choose to leave a network, or to delete their user profile. It’s useful to mark on someone’s profile if they are currently working for the organization and if they are currently active in the network as this is useful information when reading the contributions – but don’t delete either the contribution or the profile of the person who created it.

Another challenge with retaining knowledge is the handover process. In some places we don’t have any consistent handover procedures at all and if there is a large gap in hiring (as is often the case in the UN) then a newcomer is often forced to try to recreate from scratch the knowledge base of their predecessor. A few thoughts on this:

1. It’s good to have some standard handover process in place with some standard elements of what should be included and a timing to do this that is before the last minute. Even better if these are in some widely accessible database. Better still if there are some “teeth” to make sure that this is complied with. This could be as simple as a standard template  – but there are also some more creative techniques out there involving interviewing, video etc. that make it more alive and less procedural.

2. It is however unreasonable to expect that someone can download all relevant knowledge into a form or interview since a lot of the important tacit, just in time knowledge can’t be captured in a handover note – in fact you don’t always know what is most important until you need it. Having human contact between someone leaving a post and a new person coming can help a lot with this. Ideally having an overlap when two people are in post together so that the newcomer can see in practice how the job is done can be extremely valuable, and it would be good if we could change our hiring practices to allow for this – especially for critical office positions that require a lot of “feeling” for the job that can’t be easily captured in written form.  If an overlap isn’t possible then a face to face handover meeting, or better still a meeting with some follow-up calls can greatly help.

3. Lastly since this is “World Out Loud Week” – one of the best ways to mitigate against knowledge loss is not to try to capture everything when the person leaves, and when memories of important events and learnings have often been retrospectively interpreted to fit your own world view – wouldn’t it be better instead to capture knowledge all the time as you work? That way it is much easier to see the individual steps on how a project was developed, how and when key decisions were made and what were the key drivers. Encouraging all staff to work out loud (inside the organization if they are not willing or able to do it publicly) and making all that available to the rest of the organization to learn from is one of the best ways of preserving living knowledge that comes from how we actually do our work (rather than how we talk about it afterwards).

Written by Ian Thorpe

November 20, 2014 at 9:29 am

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