KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

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

with 7 comments

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

7 Responses

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  1. This is great stuff, Ian! Totally on board!

  2. Very interesting indeed, Ian. I am in a similar position to you here at Helvetas, where we are in the early stages of discussing our new KM strategy, which I think we will call a Knowledge and Learning strategy…I’ve always found Cognitive Edge’s approach compelling and intimidating at the same time. I hope to learn more in a course Dave’s running in January on Cynefin and Sensemaking, but I expect that our strategy will not be so radical. Three things come to my mind to explain this: we have never applied anything close to a sensemaking approach, though we believe in the power of stories to support learning and KS; I worry that we’d be throwing out the baby with the bathwater to scrap the various things we already do to learn in the wide variety of contexts in which we work, and; perhaps biggest of all, in addition to what might make sense conceptually as a way to contextually strengthen understanding and learning, I believe existing organisational cultures exert very strong inertial forces that tend to limit the potential for rapid change, except perhaps in crisis situations. I will try to promote all of us looking in promising new directions, experimenting, reflecting – including on Sensemaking – in order to collectively decide in which directions we will move. In a way, it’s a kind of safe-fail approach to exploring Sensemaking 😉

    Riff Fullan

    November 7, 2014 at 2:34 am

  3. You were at the conference? I world have loved to meet up. On my way to the airport now…

    Steve Barth

    November 7, 2014 at 4:52 pm

  4. Thanks for this which helps to take the discussion to another level. I tend to agree with Riff though that what we are looking at is evolution more than revolution … hopefully a few early and demonstrable successes will help consolidate a change in approach ….

    chris davids

    November 9, 2014 at 3:36 am

  5. I can attest to this approach. This has been a core principle of our KM engagements for many years. The focus on solving business or operational challenges or problems in organizations, both public and private, from an improved ability to (1) use their critical and relevant knowledge and (2) improve its ability to move across and organization (boundaries) is not new or necessarily innovative. Organizations focused on performance also do not care what you call the solution that solves their problem, but they do care if it is effective and if it delivered value, benefit, and a positive return on the investment in the solution. Pilot projects (carefully selected and with defined measures of success) to demonstrate the value of KM (investment in solving business or operational problems) are a very effective way to demonstrate “KM Strategy.” Keeping the lexicon simple and focusing on solving these problems with measurable results really counts.

    Bill Kaplan

    November 13, 2014 at 4:20 pm

  6. […] For KM, the conference highlighted the importance of not referring to KM as such, to avoid big KM strategies and to rather focus on solving small, achievable organizational challenges with KM solutions, showing their direct organizational impact and business benefits. My colleague Ian Thorpe wrote a good blog post about this on turning KM strategy on its head. […]

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