Monday, October 29, 2007

Workforce Transitions and Knowledge Management

Workforce transitions are a way of doing business in our current environment. As companies relocate, reorganize, restructure, revise business models and review and change current employee numbers and responsibilities, they forget about the hidden impact of loss of knowledge.

I recently was the guest lecturer at a Knowledge Management class taught by Mani Subramani for Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. The students had studied the issues of managing knowledge during this time of business transition. I gave them a view as to what it's really like on the ground as you are applying the theory to real life situations. And I was struck again by how important the nuances can be, as well as cultural issues such as trust.

I am contacted almost every week by a company going through a transition. Sometimes the transition is the retirement of workers and the need to transfer knowledge to a younger and smaller workforce. Always the issue seems overwhelming to the companies involved.

Yes, identifing and transferring knowledge is a big undertaking, but it need not be overwhelming. Part of the issue is that somehow we think of managing knowledge as separate from business processes. Yet, is that logical? The knowledge we need to manage and transfer IS business knowledge. Transferring knowledge in context is the most successful and easiest way to do so. Adult learning theory bears that out. But we want to make this work separate from our day to day operations. That is our first mistake.

Trying to do too much at once is often the second mistake. We can not take on the entire enterprise. We can do well in the transfer of knowledge in one area and apply the learning to build momentum and create success in another area of the organization.

There are many ways to make the identification and transfer of knowledge across boundaries (generational, geographic, cultural, etc) workable-- and to help our businesses not only survive but thrive. A well crafted plan, leveraging opportunities as they arise, knowledge of how organizations and people change, TRUST, and good old fashioned common sense are the key points to remember. We'll take on the basic steps in the next blog.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Expertise shared online for the rest of us

Want to know how to stop that wobble in your ceiling fan? Learn how to belly dance? Whatever your 'need to know', you need to know about

'Experts' share their knowledge via video on a wide variety of topics. Easy to access, easy to contribute to, easy to learn from. This site allows each of us to share and learn from the rest of us, much like what we are trying to do with expertise in our organizations. Decide for yourself, perhaps we make it all too complicated.

Learn a skill, solve a problem, teach what you know....Sounds like knowledge management to me!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Principles of KM, Leadership and Life

The principles of managing knowledge do not deviate from the principles of good leadership.
Many organizations (and people) want a quick fix to their KM issues. What the following demonstrates is that without these basic principles, we will fail or at the very least falter, at our efforts in managing knowledge, leading people, and building solid and authentic relationships.

The leadership Center of Franklin University website discusses the three principles of leadership they think to be critical: Passion, Communication and Integrity

These three principles apply also to Knowledge Management and to those who practice it.

It takes passion for us to identify the opportunities to apply KM, to hold the torch as we facilitate behavioral and organizational change, and to continue onward through long term implementation.

Communication can make or break the effectiveness of KM as we build awareness, drive toward acceptance and finally motivate the organization to take action.

The principle of integrity is what I find most intriguing today. We often don't discuss integrity as a key component to managing knowledge. Integrity is a key component to all we do, especially as we affect the lives of others. It is integrity and the consistent practice of it, that allows people the freedom to take what they perceive as professional and personal risks in sharing knowledge, and sharing themselves.

As Jane Robinson, Chief Talent Officer writes in Leadership: The Relationship Perspective on the Franklin University website:

Correct principles are like compasses – true north does not change. People expect leaders to stand for something and to have the courage of their convictions. A leader that acts with integrity will model consistency in their behavior and will make the same choices and decisions regardless of their audience.

When actions are in alignment with principles, honest communication will be a trademark of their leadership. Integrity enables a leader to remain committed to honesty, reliability and confidentiality. Staying in alignment with one’s principles provides “notice” on those non-negotiable issues. There will be no uncertainty regarding what guides motivation. It will be very clear to a person of integrity what she will not do. Followers of a leader will not be surprised; her actions will be consistent.

In addition to acting in ways that are consistent with underlying principles, an effective leader will engage in forthright honest communication. Members of the team won’t hear bad news somewhere else in the organization first. They will hear it first from their leader. There are no surprises.

Integrity demands that leaders address performance-related issues quickly and openly, offering appropriate alternatives. A leader of integrity shares information and does not hoard it, encouraging two-way participation in achieving the goals of the organization. A leader shares the “secrets of success." Jane Robinson, Chief Talent Officer, Franklin University

Applying these concepts to KM and to life is critical to sustainable success, to building solid healthy professional (and personal) relationships and to moving KM forward. And we find again and again, the principles needed for managing knowledge, as for leadership, are those for living an authentic life.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I did something I have not done before, this last week. As I drove through Nebraska, from Kearney up through the Sandhills, through the rolling hills, valleys and plains of Eastern South Dakota, back into Minnesota, I stopped at every historical marker I saw. Why, you ask (with good reason) would you do this?

Well, for those who are efficiency minded, it did add time to the trip. A good amount of time. But it also added context. I was driving across territory I had never before seen and I wanted to understand the land, the history, the context of the vast territory upon which I was driving. I wanted to learn, to understand what knowledge and wisdom was to be shared with me, from the past.

What I learned, one more time, is that everything is contextual and is portrayed through the lens of one view. I was amazed, actually, and saddened.

I stopped at historical markers all along the way that spoke of the conflict between the Native American and the soldiers who were assisting in the 'settling' of the land back in the 1860s. Each told a 'story'. I soon came to understand the voice, the view, the point of truth of that story depended completely on who erected the monument, who wrote the inscription, who paid for the piece. And who won the war.

I read continually about the bravery of the soldiers, but little about the plight of the Native Americans. There was little context behind the conflict except that this was a 'wild' land and that the soldiers bravely fought to ensure the settlers were safe. I will admit that I may have missed something along the way, but I found no markers that described how the world of the Native American was ripped apart, changed, without any understanding of why or to what.

One of the places which most impacted me on this trip was called Fort Release. There were two markers designating 'Fort Release'. One, a large obelisk in the middle of a circular drive, described the release of 269 hostages, held by 'hostile Sioux', to General Henry H. Sibley after a 'signal victory' at Wood Lake.

The second marker, a black and bronze sign standing by itself just across the driveway, talked about a Dakota peace faction that kept watch over the hostages, risking their own lives to keep the hostages alive. This marker described how the Dakota peace faction saved the lives of the hostages.

These two markers were not more than 20 feet from each other and told different stories of the same event. My guess is that the truth does not fully lie in either marker.

We must be aware of the issue of point of view in all of our work in managing and sharing knowledge. The truth does not lie in the view of one person, it lies in the mixture of many, and the context of each. You might think this makes sharing knowledge impossible. No, not at all. But it does mean there is a deep responsibility for those of us in the field to check our assumptions and the assumptions of those around us. We must check facts, stand in curiosity and not in ego. We need to remember there are reasons why things happen. Be curious, be mindful and be respectful of what is being shared to whom.

I know we can do this well. I have seen it done, experienced it myself and worked to build processes to assist others share knowledge authentically. But I know it takes thought. It should. That is the responsiblity that comes with our work. We must hope none of us are responsible for two markers, so close together, telling two totally different stories.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Of Storytelling and Joan Didion

I have been listening to the CD edition of 'The Year of Magical Thinking' by Joan Didion. As I listen, I am myself literally on a glorious adventure, driving through some of the areas of the country I know little of. The backdrop of Didion's writing, as read by the incredible Barbara Caruso, is not only an enhancement to my attitude of exploration and diving deep, but provides learning I will apply to the knowledge transfer work I do. I am driving, feeling, learning, and loving this experience.

I find Didion's writing so descriptive and emotive that I lap it up like a thirsty golden retriever at a watering dish. Verbs and nouns and turns of phrase splash out all around me. Didion has a courage in her writing so strong as to inspire courage in the reader as well. And there are moments in this book so real, the reader needs courage to continue to read. Didion ponders the details of each event, each action or thought so vividly that the reader is anchored in that exact time and space.

(And yes, this will come back to knowledge management and storytelling.)

Once anchored in the details, Didion is able to describe with word pictures how she felt at that time and you are with her, you understand her. You can not help but make sense of the emotion she describes as you too have had those emotions, even if not as well articulated.

She unflinchingly compares the experience from the past to how she feels about that same event or moment some two years later, as she is writing the book. In that comparison is a leap in learning and healing, both for Didion and for her reader.

She then uses her gifts to describe what she is doing physically at the time of the emotion, and what people around her are doing, which has an amazing impact of the scene. The way in which her physical actions or those around her is described either underscores the truth in the emotions she has stated, or that her judgment of what she was feeling is off. In other words, if she has stated that she was a calm customer, handled the news of the death of her husband well, she will tell you that her heart is racing, she is forgetting which room or city she is in or she presents another indication that she is truly not the cool customer she considers herself. She allows you to see the truth in a way she could not immediately do herself.

You get, from this, the whole story. And, you understand the event, the background or context, the rationale, the intended outcome, the actual outcome and as much as humanly possible, the truth. Joan Didion is showing us the art of storytelling at it's finest.

Think of those experts who hold many years of deeply held knowledge, aha moments, and lessons learned which you wish to transfer. What a challenge to not only get the full understanding of how the innovation or action came to be, but also what a challenge it is to keep the learner fully and completely engaged. Can we not learn from Didion and use her formula?

Consider this: Have the expert describe the background and context leading up to the innovation or event as completely as possible. Have them think about where they were, what they had just read or spoken of which influenced them, what they were wearing even, to help anchor and jog their reflection. Then, in detail, consider the intended outcome, what truly had they hoped or assumed they might learn or do, what they trying to achieve or change. Next ask for the same deep description of the actual outcome, to understand what really happened, why the gap exists and how it came to be. Now, have them consider what they really learned from that, what they will do with that learning or what others might do with that learning.

Perhaps this all sounds too much for one story. But if you want to understand how the inventor of laser surgery decided to go from lasers for non-human uses to repairing burns in a hospital in Vietnam, or how someone inventing a drug which failed for one disease realized she could now apply it to save lives in another totally different area, you need to uncover and develop a deep understanding of that moment. We need to learn how to learn these things from each other. Not to be mired in the past but to apply the new ideas to the future. And I know of no better teacher than Joan Didion.
Now, I must get back to the drive and the adventure which awaits!

Monday, October 01, 2007

You say tomato, I say tomato

Today's New York times had an interesting column written by Verlyn Klinkenborg titled 'Watching the Full Moon Rise Over the Northeast Corridor'. Verlyn wrote about taking the Acela up the Coast from Washington D.C. to New England, something I am familiar with. Though the column's focus was the rise of the full moon during that trip, the first paragraph is what truly caught my attention.

'Riding on the Acela I was surrounded by the sounds of business—the young women whose voices ring out like high heels on marble, the false laughter of a young executive talking to a headhunter on his cellphone. (He makes 175, going up to 200 in December, and is happy to relocate.) Everyone around me was speaking managese, that strange dialect used among the shepherds of other humans to communicate an enthusiasm for communication.'

Well said. Especially that last sentence.

I write in this blog often about being authentic. Yet, communication is simply so much more complicated. Your words can be profoundly authentic, but if not heard that way by those around you, miscommunication will reign. There is so much more to our communication, and to sharing knowledge, than simply telling the truth. We must also consider the listener, the receptor. Where are they in their own experience? Can you be heard, at that moment? Is there a way to describe what you need to say in the language of the receptor, instead of your own language? Is there a more opportune time or location to share what it is we need so desperately to share?

Our work, as knowledge sharers, as communicators, as humans on an authentic path, is complex. We need to identify what it is that is critical to share or to illuminate, how to do so, where the listener is, what language they use, how the message might be perceived, risks involved, risks involved in not sharing and how the information can be shared more broadly. And even this list is simplistic.

We expect much of ourselves and others. Yet, we can not give up. We must strive to clearly communicate, to seek first to understand before being understood, to drive towards sense making. We are the Shepards Verlyn refers to. Let us never stop being the best we can be at what we do.