Friday, June 17, 2011

Typical Knowledge Problems

I've been asked by colleagues recently - "What business problems does knowledge management solve?"  Obviously a good question, but it also caused me to reflect on how much of what is written about knowledge management is from the solution perspective - knowledge management definitions, tools, techniques, methods  and approaches - and less about how to recognize a business problem for which a knowledge management "solution" is appropriate.

So, here is a business problem for which knowledge management is a solution.

We all work in complex environments, where no one person knows the answer, in particular to a never before faced situation/problem or issue, or a completely new context for a known problem. Not only that, but as every situation and context is different, even the best of "best practices" (a misnomer in my opinion) need to be adapted if they are to be at all useful. The nature of the problem could be any business process, management challenge, technical hurdle etc. Imagine anything from "How can I best evolve my talent acquisition process?" "How do I adapt my financial management processes to align with new international reporting standards?" to "How can I stimulate the generation of more profitable ideas in our research and development group?"

Seems logical, then, to tap into external thinking and learning to try determine the best course of action. The approach / process used to tap into this external thinking / learning is considered, in today's context, a knowledge management solution.

McKinsey's article titled Using Knowledge Brokering to Improve Business Process positions seeking external thinking as "knowledge brokering," and uses process / open innovation as the broader business problem/context. But you may have heard this learning before doing process referred to as a peer assist process as defined by Collison / Parcell in their book Learning to Fly.  Regardless the name, using an explicit, disciplined process to identify knowledgeable people and tap into their insights and knowledge is a knowledge management solution. 

To maximize value from the knowledge brokering / peer assist process, the context must be the business problem.  It is not enough to ask people about their experiences / lessons learned, then be saddled with the challenge of applying that learning to the problem.  The problem itself should be the context for the conversation and drive the learning - the people who have experience and knowledge to offer should themselves apply it to collaboratively defining the problem and building solutions. That is the real power of knowledge brokering / peer assists.

(If you're looking to identify your own knowledge problems, a great starting point is the KM Diagnostic Cards available from Straights Knowledge.)

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Key Collaborative Behavours

Reflecting on a number of meetings I've been involved in the last few months, I'm realizing that three key behaviors are required for effective collaboration (and just plain old good teamwork):

Limit your airtime.
There are many people who always monopolize the time available in meetings and consume the vast majority of airtime with their (on the positive side) ideas, enthusiasm and excitement, their (on the negative side) assertiveness, aggressiveness, and sometimes ego. If you want to be collaborative, and contribute to a collaborative environment, give others the time and opportunity to contribute to the conversation.

Invite contributions.
More than just allowing time/opportunity to contributions, an invitation is a very powerful device for encouraging participation. Questions like "What do you think?" "How do you feel about... ?" "What would you do about...?" when asked genuinely/sincerely, will draw out perspectives worth considering, even from the most reluctant of participants.

Chose the right time and tone for critique/criticism.
One of the easiest ways for smart people to demonstrate they are smart is to look for, find and point out faults in logic, ideas or plans.  At the wrong time, criticism, in particular if it's harsh, can completely stifle creativity/innovation, in particular in the early stages of idea generation and exploration. As I'm sure most of you have seen, withering criticism can also create a climate that discourages more introverted people from sharing their thinking. So, defer critique and criticism to later in the thinking process, once the ideas are generated and will articulated. Then, when it is time to analyze and think critically, do so in a positive tone and "on the same team" as others, exploring the thinking objectively for gaps within the context of the conversation.

"Check-in" for common understanding.
We all view what happens around us differently, thanks to our DNA and our experiences that create the mental models and filters we use every day. Just because something is written, illustrated, or presented on a PowerPoint slide, don't assume that everyone shares the same understanding. Do your self a favor - test for common understanding about key ideas and concepts before everyone walks out of the room. Ask people questions like "What does that mean for you?" "Explain in your own words.. " "How does this apply in  your context.. ?" "If you had to explain this to someone else, how would you.. ?"  If you are doing the presenting, use illustrative examples to ensure everyone is "on the same page."  Simply asking people "Do you understand?" is not really a good test for common understanding.

Limiting. Inviting. Timing. Checking-in.