KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Archive for November 2014

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

Working out loud – how can we slowly increase the volume?

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17-24 November is International Working Out Loud week (#wolweek).

This celebrates and promotes the idea of “Working out Loud” i.e. making your day-to-day work more visible to others and narrating your work – so that others can see what you are doing, give feedback, get involved or learn from what you are doing (This short blog by John Stepper outlines the 5 key elements of working out loud for those who want to know more about what I’m talking about here).

This is a powerful idea, and as you can see from the working out loud week site, there are a lot of social collaboration and knowledge management experts and thought leaders doing exciting things in this area.

But while we have a lot of experts and advocates who are practicing this, and those of us who try to do it can see the tremendous benefit, it’s still proving challenging (for me at least) to persuade a critical mass of people inside my own organization to give this a serious try.

The #wolweek site has requested contributions from practitioners to 5 questions (see my responses here) which were quite helpful in framing my own thoughts about why this is difficult, but also what steps to take to make it happen.

Some people are naturally open or curious about the idea and are willing to give it a try – for them it’s enough to explain, show examples and help them use the tools. But for most there is a great deal of reluctance or even fear about this idea – and a lot of questions. How do I do it? What is the benefit of doing this? Aren’t I just spamming people? How can I share what I’m doing before it is completed and fact-checked? Won’t people steal my ideas? Won’t I get into trouble if I make a mistake?

So here’s what I’m learning about how to encourage those who are more reluctant. It is important  to start with a small and relatively low risk opportunity to give it a try. This could be trying it on a specific project or with a small team, or for a fixed period of time. In any of these cases both the effort and the risk is relatively low, yet there can still be some added benefits. Over time as people become more comfortable working out loud within a small team or project then they can be encouraged to do this more broadly such as within a department or professional community. Eventually they might even feel comfortable enough to share what they are doing to the whole organization, and then possibly even a few of them might work or think out loud in public. The more you share the greater the potential benefit, but also the greater discomfort and even risk  – so if you are not a “natural” it makes sense to start quietly and slowly turn up the volume.

Another important element is to have relevant examples of working out loud to show how it can be done from within your organization or in others – you need a few champions to lead the way – and it can’t be bad to create a little envy – why are people talking about these guys? (because they are talking openly about their work and you can too). It can also be good to try doing it as a team to share experience and provide mutual support.

But realistically speaking not everyone is going to be willing to share all their work in public, and I also think sharing in public is something that is qualitatively different from sharing within the organization. I’ve been tweeting and blogging for several years – but for me the act of sharing in public is quite different from sharing inside the organization. In some ways I can write about things publicly that I don’t write about inside because the audience and the purpose is different – in fact I write what I like here because I now that most people inside my organization will not read this or are aware that I blog (or that anyone else that they know does either). Sharing publicly for me is a way of reaching out to people who have similar interests, experiences and challenges to me, of which there are many more outside the organization than inside, whereas working out loud inside the organization is more about helping disseminate what we are doing and looking for people to work with where there is mutual benefit but where our work is different.

Among the people who work out loud in public – while I admire the trailblazers who promote the idea of working out loud, those I admire the most are not those who write and promote this topic, but those that are working out loud in their area of expertise without explicitly talking about it – but who are just using it as part of their work. In the world of international development these are the aid bloggers who write about their work covering what they achieve, but also the process and the discussions and their challenges and failures – not explicitly to promote their organization as marketers, but as authentic voices for the work. There are not to many of these in large aid organizations and some of the best ones are anonymous – but a few more obvious public  cases that come to mind are the World Bank bloggers, or the Oxfam bloggers (including Duncan Green and Jennifer Lentfer) and UNDP’s Voices of Eurasia and then there is a much larger number of independent blogs by individuals (see this list here from Aidsource which, although incomplete, includes many of the more popular and frequently updated ones). The aid bloggers deserve a shout out as part of work out loud week since they write what those of us working in this field know are the challenges of our work, but which you rarely hear from official sources – a comfort for aid workers and the beginning of an education for those who don’t work in our field about some of the misconceptions about what aid workers do – the challenges they face – and what works and what doesn’t.

UNICEF also recently launched its first official public blog, led by Jim Rosenberg who helped get the World Bank blogging before coming to UNICEF. Let’s hope we can use this to get some strong authentic voices who will be willing to share more about what they are doing as they do it to an external audience – not just for the sake of fundraising or building a strong brand, but to help inform those who are genuinely curious about how we get our work done and from whom we could inform, partner with and learn from by opening ourselves up.

Written by Ian Thorpe

November 17, 2014 at 9:00 am

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Social is here; but it’s unevenly distributed

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This is my second #KMWorld blog post, many less than I’d hoped to have written by now!

One of the recurring topics across the sessions so far has been the potential and the challenges of creating a networked organization through enterprise social tools (such as Yammer, Jive, Connections or Teamworks). There was refreshingly little of competition between tools and vendors promising that their specific product would solve all your problems, and much more of a focus on the very real challenges in realizing the potential of such tools resulting from the challenges in getting user adoption of and engagement in these tools.

Dion Hinchliffe’s keynote laid out both the (theoretically) revolutionary potential of the networked organization, and its ability to tap into the knowledge and expertise of its staff. He highlighted how networked organizations are much more easily able to quickly mobilize knowledge for problem solving and crisis response and that networked organizations also have higher motivation and higher productivity with potentially large impacts for the bottom line (for-profits) or efficiency for non-profits. But he also highlighted that it is organizations and individuals which are struggling to adapt to catch up with the potential of the tools, and this is where a change effort needs to be focused. (there is an upcoming McKinsey report with more details on this but I’ve only seen an advance copy – will share a link once it is public).

Over the past few days there were several sessions looking at social tools where different organizations shared their successes and challenges and some of their insights on what is needed to make social happen. (A few notable examples were Ernst and Young’s introduction of Yammer, Pact’s use of Jive especially for communities and innovation, Microsoft on the importance of working on cultural change and Stan Garfield of Deloitte on the important role of leadership)

Some of the specific lessons that were repeated in several presentations were:

Simplicity: make it as easy as possible to use whatever tool you select. People are either unfamiliar and reluctant to use social tools at all so you need to make it easy and unthreatening for them, or they are familiar with tools they are often from the consumer world (such as Facebook) and want and expect the same kind of easy to use experience.

Give people practical ideas of what they can do socially: The best thing I saw on this was “Safaris” from Stan Garfield


Leadership: Leadership support is critical in terms of talking up the importance of collaboration and in providing resources and material support – but equally important is the behaviour of senior leaders as role models. If they don’t collaborate and have visibility in knowledge sharing themselves then their support is not credible. Having senior leaders participating in collaboration platforms showing that they value this in practice is by contrast a big draw to other staff as an opportunity to interact with leadership in a more human way.

Focus on business value not just sharing: its important that collaboration is embedded in existing work processes rather than being seen as an add-on. This way it becomes part of everyday work and also people will use collaboration when it helps them get concrete results. related to this is that it’s helpful early in rollout to work with a few receptive groups to get them to apply the tools and collaborative approaches to solving concrete problems which matter to them to win converts and quickly demonstrate benefit.

Use of carrots and sticks: there was a lot of discussion about gamification (see here and here) as a way of promoting adoption and engagement  – but this needs to be designed carefully to encourage the right behaviours. Early on material rewards might encourage participation, but longer term recognition for the value of contribution is much more effective. Things like likes shares, recognizing most valuable contributions or contributors are different approaches to this.  But also you might need some sticks – such as requiring people to participate  – or making this a more formal part of their job expectations. Again this needs to be handled carefully to avoid people complying in letter but not adding value. One example was from Microsoft where performance appraisals are based on impact but also on i) contribution to company knowledge ii) evidence that you have reused knowledge.

Adaptation to organizational culture: introduction of this new way of working needs to be tailored to the organization and its culture – in particular it needs to respond to concerns of middle managers who may feel threatened by the introduction of new tools and approaches, or concerns of IT and legal who may be concerned with data security and confidentiality.

Digital literacy: adopting collaboration tools requires some effort to improve staff familiarity and comfort with such tools in general, especially with an older workforce – approaches such as reverse mentoring (younger staff teaching older staff) can be very useful for this.

Community management: we heard evidence that hiring good community managers was critical to the success of online communities for internal and external users, and that investment in good facilitation could multiply their effectiveness in terms of bottom line results. First you need to have community managers for key communities, but you also need people with the right type of skills who respond to user needs and facilitate dialogue amongst members. (note quite often we focus on investing in developing platforms while neglecting to invest in the people who manage them).

Measuring and demonstrating results – if you don’t show quick progress then people quickly lose interest in social platforms. But because of the nature of platforms they might not show the most significant results i.e. changes in how the organization does business, for quite some time and without high levels of adoption. Also standard metrics of registered users, number of logons, contributions or replies, while valuable, don’t tell you much about the return on investment. The suggested approach to deal with this is to work with a few forward-looking groups who are ready to try using the tool and then get them to tell their stories of how working socially improved results such as by saving time a money, or helping them develop new approaches.

The last point I took away is that the above are key ingredients in any strategy to get people to work socially – but every organization is different and so you can learn from, but you can’t copy how others have done it.

So enough talk – let’s engage!

Written by Ian Thorpe

November 10, 2014 at 9:00 am

Turning KM strategy on its head – Dave Snowden at #kmworld

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This is my first year going to KM World (first year where I had the resources and where my bosses were receptive) – the first day of workshops, and of meeting people I only previously knew online did not disappoint.

I was excited to participate in Dave Snowden’s session on KM strategy since I’ve never seen him live and as a recently hired chief of knowledge exchange there is some unreasonable expectation that I’ll come up with a master plan for knowledge in my organization. His own blog on the session is here  – below are some of my own take-aways from the session.

As I expected, this was no knowledge management strategy and plan 101, and what was being recommended looks nothing like most of the KM strategies we have seen in most organizations similar to ours.

Dave was basically saying that we have been doing traditional top down knowledge management strategies for almost 20 years now promising great returns and not achieving them. After 20 years of failure just going into a meeting with senior managers with a proposal for a new KM strategy automatically creates a negative emotional reaction in the C-suite.

He was also scathing of one tool or one approach fits all KM strategies which focus on a common systems such as shared taxonomy, lessons learned databases, knowledge bases, global communities of practice, social software that are rolled out across an entire organization whether or not they are a good fit to the needs and problems of different stakeholders. Interestingly he did say social platforms were one of the more promising of these – because they allow people to self-organize without central direction.

What he described instead as a “strategy” was to focus on using knowledge to solve some of the organization’s most intractable problems – proposing an approach for how to identify these by asking the most senior leaders/decision makers to identify these (or by observing their day-to-day frustrations) and then clustering the results. He specifically warned against focusing on “low hanging fruits” as KM will only add value and get recognition when it helps solve previously unsolved challenges with limited resources.

To take action on these he suggested finding relatively small projects (“fine-grained objects”) that could impact on these through a “decision mapping” process. There’s much more explanation in Dave’s slides but the basic idea is to look at lots and lots of decisions made across the organization and then analyze how information, communication and resources are used in those decisions and how these could be improved. Comparing how actual decisions are made and official process maps and mapping these against the previously identified big problems helps identify a portfolio of relatively small-scale knowledge projects which are manageable in scope but which can create an impact on the big problems. The overall process is outlined in this slide by Dave below


What’s clear from this is that the resulting “strategy” from using this approach will look very different from what we normally see as a KM strategy focusing on governance, systems, policies and tools. Instead you get a portfolio of small diverse projects quite possibly using disparate approaches and tools but from which longer term some patterns may emerge which could grow into more organization wide approaches – but even then not universally applied and always applied in the specific context rather than as a consistent replicated  approach. Basically building specific customized projects to deal with small problems in context that can contribute to progress on major organizational problems.

A few other key insights I took from the session:

– Understanding the key problems, and also the everyday decisions is best done through storytelling, and through getting people to narrate their work as they do it. This gives you a very different understanding of what actually happened than getting people to describe their work through structured techniques such as lessons learned templates or interviews since people tend to retrospectively interpret what they did into a logical linear progression when reality what much more messy.

– The best learning comes from failure rather than success – while most lesson learning exercises focus on identifying success stories. Many organizational cultures discourage admitting failure – so paradoxically you may need to ask people to make up fictional stories of failure to get them to tell the truth whereas asking them for the truth may cause them to lie to cover up or sugar coat failure. But the key issue from individual instances isn’t so much failing or succeeding, but whether learning (and therefore future improvement) occurs.

– Many problems we face in an organization (and certainly in international development) are “complex” in nature which means we don’t know in advance how to address them given all the interrelations between different parts of the system in which we are intervening. In this context we need to try multiple parallel experiments – and then evolve these based on how they work in practice enhancing the positive and attenuating the negative. In this context a past successful practice might be a good starting point for an experiment but it can’t simply be replicated as it needs it be adapted and evolved to the new context (and might not work at all).

– A related note was a tip to break up winning teams. This may sound counterintuitive – but there is a strong risk that a team that is successful in one project is likely to try the exact same approach in the next as they have not learned from failure. Unsuccessful teams by contrast can be kept together if they show that they are learning.

This is a lot of food for thought for our new knowledge exchange practice as it goes against a lot of how we are used to doing business, and frankly what our bosses expect from us. A couple of practical challenges I see in trying to implement this approach is i) how to get access to senior leaders to get them to frankly share “what keeps them up at night” and ii) how to get space and resources to try the small projects approach when what senior leaders seem to expect is global strategy, policy and systems, a long-term plan and a clear consistent monitoring of results.

At the same time, we don’t currently have the resources and the clear mandate and authority to do things the traditional way, so this might be an opportunity to try to do some small innovative projects with high leverage to prove our worth – the risk is that in an organization that is both slow to change, but also impatient, if tangible results don’t come quickly, and we don’t have a major strategy to fall back on, then our work could be at risk. But if you keep trying the old approaches then you can only expect the same results!

Written by Ian Thorpe

November 5, 2014 at 9:30 am

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