I remember some years back running a two-day workshop as part of a management development program for a large construction company. The company started out as a small family building construction company and ended up as a multifaceted international conglomerate. They now build and manage, amongst other assets, a string of international five-star hotels and apartment buildings.
At the time of my workshop, the founding directors were due to retire. Over the thirty or so years they had been running the company, they had developed a fiercely loyal band of staff and senior managers.
They'd also been good at passing on their mantra of "always leave something in the deal for the next party", to their ever growing number of employees. And it was an eye-opener to me to see how dedicated their managers were, despite not being compensated at the highest levels then being paid in the industry.
On the first day of my workshop (which was on recruitment practices), I was constantly told of how good last month's session had been. I was curious (and maybe a little envious) - why was it so memorable? I found out that it had not been run by an external consultant like myself, but by two of the retiring directors.
The topic of their workshop? "Major and minor mistakes we have made and what we did about them".
Their intention in running the workshop wasn't to instil the corporate credo within the participants or even to reinforce the corporate values. Although it obviously had a positive impact on both of these, their intent - due to their imminent retirement - was to encourage the transfer of knowledge within and across the organisation.
It's often been said that we learn best from our mistakes. These directors were taking this saying to heart, with a practical application of active knowledge management.
The topic of knowledge management as a business issue has been around since the early '90s. But now, with organisations shrinking, re-organising and merging, the challenge of maintaining corporate knowledge are greater than ever.
Added to this, the notion of having a "job for life" - the norm in the 1960s and 70s - has also disappeared, replaced by a new reality in which most people will change employers at least five times during their working lives.
What this means is that knowledge no longer stays with the organisation. Instead, it resides within individuals.
My interest in this topic was heightened recently by a colleague who said that she has been consulting with an organisation for the past six years or so and now has more corporate knowledge than all their employees bar one. She is now widely consulted on many organisation issues and projects – she's even represented the organisation with external stakeholders – and feels that she has become a de facto employee. Her question, "How does the organisation retain the knowledge I now have, when I leave?"
Perhaps this is a similar question that many organisations are now asking themselves about the knowledge that remains within the head of their current employees?
So, it's worth looking at the range of strategies and practices used in an organization to manage knowledge, or as Wikipedia describes it "to identify, create, represent, distribute, and enable adoption of insights and experiences. Such insights and experiences comprise knowledge, either embodied in individuals or embedded in organizational Business Process or practice."
For me, the words "insights and experiences" are important in this description. So often, knowledge management is thought of as static data or information that is available within the organisation and can be filed for access when needed.
But in reality, it's the insights one gains from on-going experiences that makes knowledge management an active rather than passive practice.
Hence the obvious benefits the participants in my management development workshop had gained from the insights of their directors in managing the many mistakes they had made over the years.
Initially, much of the push into knowledge management was really about information management – systems, processes and procedures. But more recently, academic institutions and commercial suppliers have developed courses and programs that take a four-pronged approach: knowledge creation, knowledge retention, knowledge transfer and knowledge utilization.
There are also commercial systems available that promise to manage corporate knowledge in a similar manner.
Organisations have also put in place many strategies to retain knowledge. These range from such things as designated Knowledge Managers, to employment contracts that require an outgoing employee to brief his/her replacement on specific issues before they can leave.
Yet as good as these programs, systems and tools might be, to me the simple approach taken by the directors mentioned earlier embodies the key underpinning of effective knowledge management. What are we learning on a day-to-day basis about how we conduct our business, and how do we pass this experience on to others?
There are six strategies that I can suggest will aid effective knowledge management.
Learning and Development: Structured L&D activities are an ideal way to pass on knowledge. For example, one organisation when selecting audit teams, always builds in questions around L&D issues such as:
- Current audit knowledge (process, people, systems) of each team member?
- What was learnt from previous audits? How do we apply this learning?
- How will what we learn from this current audit be passed on to others and made widely available across the organisation?
Meetings: There is an inordinate amount of information discussed and shared during meetings, but how much of this provides insights and experiences that can be passed on to others?
A simple technique that can add to knowledge transfer, is to embed as the concluding agenda item for all meetings, these four questions:
- What went right (since the last meeting)?
- What did we not do so well (i.e. mistakes)?
- What did we learn?
- What should we do differently in future?
Blogs and online discussion groups: People are now used to participating in online discussion groups. Organisations can improve their knowledge management by encouraging the development of these around specific topics or issues.
For example, Cannondale, the bicycle manufacturer, started with their website and then opened it to 15 of their sales and marketing staff. "Each one now has the tools to file his or her own updates, press releases, photos, and news about the race teams Cannondale sponsors", says Janet Maurice, the company's Webmaster. "The program will expand to a host of Cannondale staffers and affiliates. We're transferring our corporate content management system to blogs," Maurice says.
Mentoring: Mentoring has been growing in popularity over recent years as a means of developing up-and-coming managers. There could be a very useful side benefit from this - that is the passing of knowledge from senior to more junior managers, much in the same way as my directors mentioned earlier did.
The key to mentoring success is the development of trust between the two participants. Trust becomes even more important should the organisation be using mentoring as a way of having the senior manager pass on experiences gained when making mistakes.
Cross-functional project management: Many organisations now use these. In fact in matrix organisations, they have become a way of life. From a knowledge management perspective, it is critical that what is learnt from each project, is not only shared amongst the project team, but more widely across the organisation.
Feedback forums: My experience suggests that these are used sparsely. There are many different formats feedback forums can take. However, the most important thing is that they are structured in such a way as to transfer knowledge and experience.
For example, one organisation holds a bi-monthly, half-day information sharing meetings they call "A Day In The Sun". Project teams develop posters on their progress and learning, then display these in a large auditorium. Employees from across the organisation are encouraged to spend an hour visiting the venue to meet, discuss and question project team members on what they had learned from their project over the past two months.
One of the best definitions of knowledge management I've read can be found in this white paper:
"Knowledge management undertakes to identify what is in essence a human asset buried in the minds and hard drives of individuals working in an organization. Knowledge management also requires a system that will allow the creation of new knowledge, a dissemination system that will reach every employee, with the ability to package knowledge as value-added in products, services and systems."
The challenge for organisations is to develop systems and processes that encourage all employees to share the information contained in their "hard drives" to enable the organisation to grow and develop.