Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Project Management in Knowledge-Based Organizations

I recently facilitated a workshop created by our project management community of practice called "Intro to Project Management at ... " The intention of the workshop is basically to lay a simple, solid foundation of common language and process for "non-project managers" in the context of the organzation, and point them to further learning, develop and knowledge exchange opportunities, including the community itself.

Not "rocket science".

But in the context of facilitating the workshop, there was a universal identification, even among this group of "non-project managers", that projects never work out as planned and that there are continuous, very difficult challenges associated with keeping project teams focused and working together on outcomes and objectives - especially in the context of internal projects and resources. The "people side of project management" seems to be a regular topic of concern and conversation across project management disciplines and communities.

So in this workshop I found myself starting to talk about how knowledge-based organizations are complex, adaptive, and cause-effect relationships can't be predicted with any degree of certainty etc. (Obviously I'm being influenced by Dave Snowdon.. but it makes sense to me.)

And I found msyelf thinking that perhaps the traditional way of planning and managing projects, as mapped out in the PMI's Project Management Body of Knowledge for example, is too mechanistic. But then, in the chapters about the project management process, there is explicit mention of a foundation of "plan-do-check-act" (sounds like quality & learning to me) , and there are good descriptions of processes and deliverables about project change.

Then I thought, maybe the issue is more related to expectations on the part of clients, project managers and staff that "plan - good!, change - baaaad!". Maybe there is a traditional mind set that there is a real probability that the plan will be executed more or less as created, that people and resources can be effectively "managed and controlled" to the degree necessary, and that client needs / outcomes won't change.

Do we need to look at our traditional project planning and management practices and adapt them to the emerging view of organizations as complex adaptive systems rather than the traditional, mechanistic, predictive view?

How do we do that?

Do we need to treat project resources, in particular internal ones that are constantly balencing demands from a number of different fronts, as volunteers, with the project manager's role one of encouraging volunteerism?

How do we do THAT?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Encouraging Volunteerism in Knowledge-Based Organizations

This topic has been nagging at the back of my brain for a while - and still does for that matter.

Peter Druker introduced the concept of "knowledge worker" and there has been lots of writing and thinking on what knowledge work is and how it is done. In parallel, there has been much writing on the need to shift management thinking from the scientific method and a mechanistic view of the firm to more of a leadership perspective - at a recent conference I heard someone say " you manage things, you lead people." Covey wrote an in interesting related article in the summer 2006 edition Leader to Leader magazine titled Leading in the Knowledge Worker Age.

So a Manager's job in the knowledge age is to create the work environment for people to be successful, or as a former colleague says, to "release the will and the talent of the team."

The challenge in this is managers can't see knowledge work happen. There is now way of measuring and controlling how much "brain power" someone puts into their work. There is no way of measuring if someone is putting 100% of their energy and focus on a problem or only 80%.. or 50%.. Managers can only objectively observe some of the results / outputs of knowledge work.

Two colleagues recently visited from Poland and I was completely fascinated, as I have been for 3 years now via email discussions, about the country's emergence from communism, changes in organizational culture, and focussed people seems to be on "learning before doing" and building on the experiences and expertise of others. And they are doing a very good job at that.

Conversations with my colleagues reinforced the notion that when people are told to do something they often rebel by doing as less as possible to be compliant. Compliance, though, falls far short of commitment or engagement. An example is that employees who are told that it is mandatory to complete a summary form after each training course or conference will mostly do so, but with as little effort as possible so that they can 'check the box' to either mitigate negative consequence (e.g. can't submit expenses without your summary form) or a positive one (some form of reward / recognition).

So, I'm thinking that something that bears exploring is the concept of "encourage volunteerism" among employees. Creating conditions where they wholeheartedly commit, contribute and engage as much as possible.

MIT Sloan Management Review in Spring 2003 featured an article titled Moving Beyond Motivation to the Power of Volition. The general notion in the article is that volition, which implies deep personal attachment to an intention, is encouraged through perception of an exciting opportunity, a catalyst to provide focus, freedom of choice, disciplined action, protection of intentions, self-confidence, positive energy and emotions. The ability of managers to create this type of environment has some significant knowledge and skill implications.

I think that there are some vital lessons that can be learned from NGO / volunteer sector. What successes / failures have they experienced in encouraging sustained volunteerism? What skills / competencies to managers and leaders have to create an appropriate enviornment? What are the skill / knowledge implications for the volunteers themselves? How do their work processes / collaboration activities differ from a typical public or private sector organization?

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Impact of a "Retirement Culture" on New Employees

Imagine for a moment you are a new employee, in the early stages of your career, and have joined an organization with a long corporate history and a fairly large cadre of long-serving employees less than 10 years from retirement eligibility. You are excited to be there... filled with optimism, potential, desire to make a difference... make a mark for yourself... anxious to meet others who share your enthusiasm, and with whom to build towards the future.

Then you start noticing an interesting set of behaviors.

There are regular retirement parties and receptions hosted by the organization. There are also parties for long years of service; fifteen years, twenty five years etc. Human Resources announces regular retirement preparation seminars. There is an organizational preoccupation with knowledge risks associated with departing employees. You hear about many spontaneous after-work get togethers of small groups of long-serving employees, often meeting with recent retirees to stay in touch and celebrate their new "lives." In elevators, hallways, in the cafeteria you hear snippits of conversations about retirement. There are retirement conversations in the social talk before and after formal meetings. You overhear conversations where people say "I'll be glad to get out of here.. " "I can't wait to retire.. "Only X days!"

Of course, in the context of broader corporate culture, there are often many more signs of what is becoming uppermost in the minds of many.

So, as a new employee, how does this make you feel? Is it a motivator, or demotivator? Do you see it as an opportunity, or a reason for escape? Is it a sign of the early stages of organizational renewal, or the later stages of organizational decline?

Ultimately, I don't think there is any value in attempting to prevent retirement coming to the forefront of many organizations - it would be too much like a fish trying to swim upstream. But what would have value is to consciously devote more focus on the new employee.

  • looking carefully at the characteristics of different generations and what they seek in the work environment and employee / employer relationships
  • recognize that the definition of "retain" in "attract and retain" will mean different things in the very near future, if it doesn't already
  • craft a challenging - ENGAGING - work environment that helps maximize their value, contribution, and voluntarism while they are in the organization
  • build opportunities and work process that support the collaborative co-creation of new knowledge with co-workers, and the capture of vital foundational knowledge as a seamless part of the process
  • consistently recognize the value of ALL employees, not just the upcoming retirees, whether explicitly or implicitly.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A "True" Case of Knowledge Management?

A number of colleagues and I attended a Canadian Government conference last month titled IM Day. This past week, we held an informal meeting / round table discussion with a wider group of colleagues to discuss and share what we had learned.

As I was reviewing my notes from the IM Day conference to prepare for the session - desperately needed as the thoughts swirling around in my head are from the recently attended KMWorld conference - I came across my notes for what I consider to be a real "gem".

This gem was a session delivered by Irving Gold, the Director of Knowledge Transfer and Exchange for the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation. (Knowledge Transfer and Exchange is featured prominently on their home page, with a link to a complete section on the topic. It is also highly visible in their strategic plan.)

Other than finding Irving to be an enjoyable, articulate speaker, able to make good connections with the audience, I find he made a very good connection between KM and business goals and objectives, and some of the approaches he mentioned could have merit in other organizations and situations.

He summarized the CHSRF's mission as "funding research, building capacity, and transferring knowledge," and "moving answers and solutions into the hands of those who need them... to support informed decision making."

When I visit their web site, the organization's mission is "To support evidence-informed decision-making in the organization, management and delivery of health services through funding research, building capacity and transferring knowledge."

CHSRF looks at knowledge transfer and exchange from 3 perspectives:

Perspective 1: "push" - research dissemination through research papers, "mythbusters" (short 2 page, highly digestible, peer-reviewed research papers that debunk common myths), and "evidence boost" (short research published about a decision that should have been made, where there is irrefutable evidence).

Push activities are supported by "how-to" information.

Perspective 2: "pull" - research weeks that bring researchers and decision makers together to learn, and promising practices inventory which offers neat ideas that have been implemented

Perspective 3: "exchange" - brokering and facilitating effective / productive relationships between researchers and decision makers, bringing them together, helping mutual understanding, dissolving stereotypes and turning research into joint knowledge production.

I also noted two other things from the presentation. Irving talked about a 4 step process for either knowledge transfer and exchange, or learning - unfortunately I don't quite recall. The model was:

  • acquire
  • assess - quality and relevance
  • adapt - summarize and relate [to context and need]
  • apply - how recommendations inform decision making

And one other thing he mentioned is "knowledge services link people with questions to people with answers." No doubt this is in the context of his organization, but I thought it was a very elegant way of expressing a mission /objective for KM.

So what I take away from this is that what seems to really matter to CHSRF is not the production of research, but to positively affect healthcare by enabling effective decisions through the application of research. For application to take place, it must be easily available, useful and relevant, and consumable - from the decision maker's perspective.

And Irving's group is adding tremendous value by fostering good working relationships and effective relationships between producers and consumers, and packaging / providing the research in useful ways that not only meet articulated needs, but anticipated ones as well.

Granted the link between knowledge management and this organization's is fairly easy to draw, but I can't help but think what Irving has done can be leveraged in other situations and organizations as well.

Bravo Irving. I hope I can create an opportunity for us to dialog further at some point.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Thoughts and Learning From KMWorld Conference

As I think back on the conference, sessions, keynotes, and conversations, here is a brief snapshot of what I learned, observed, and confirmed, all though the particular lens of my own biases of course, and without referring to my notes!

(Note that I focused on the KM track exclusively. For a more detailed look at what I got from individual sessions, as well as what two colleagues learned from their focus on content management and taxonomy tracks, visit )

Knowledge management is enabling and facilitating productive conversations between people for better decision making and innovation. A mechanistic view of KM has limited value and lifespan.

Decision making and organizational innovation are critical core capabilities for organizations to easily adapt to the anticipated, and unanticipated future.

Management thinking needs to quickly change from Tayloristic / mechanistic modes and models to sense making in the context of organizations as complex systems filled with knowledge workers (volunteers) where cause/effect relationships are not accurately identifiable looking forward to any great degree of certainty.

Information provides a key role in supporting productive conversations provided it is all considered metadata, is tagged with meaningful metadata, and can be fluidly organized in a variety of ways not by an "expert" but by users themselves based on their needs at any given time.

Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 technologies are moving past "early adopters" and becoming mainstream in leading organizations.Technology has a significant role to play, not in the creation of central repositories of information that never get used, but in providing a suite of social technology tools to:

  • enable conversations, decision making and innovation
  • seamless capture, publish, and aggregate the results of those human activities
  • provide easy, user-structured/user-driven access to information

(Additioanl ref: IBM Executive Declares Web 2.0 Technology to Drive New Business Applications)

Organizations need to spend more time contemplating the work environment / technology that Gen-Ys will be demanding - a radical shift from what we're familiar with today - and begin experimenting and implementing it in the near term. They need to plan for and take action for the future.

Socially constructed narrative and anecdotes are high-value information objects for exchanging knowledge in the absence of a direct person-person connection. The transfer of expertise /deep smarts is only truly possible when the expert and the learner co-create new knowledge through joint problem solving, and making their thinking processes explicit in the process.

Overall, a very good conference. Most appreciated - key speakers like Snowden, McDermott, Weinberger, Semple, Pollard etc. and their reasonable accessibility for follow-up conversations - opportunity to meet people talking about and struggling with common issues, including Gordon Vala-Webb, who I'd met previously at a Conference Board Knowledge Strategy Exchange Network meeting.
I'll definitely consider going again next year, speaker dependent. The St. Clair Hotel was awesome. San Jose has good food, nice weather and friendly people.