Is there a problem here?

Solving a problem that you know has a solution may require knowledge, but it is knowledge that already exists. Unfortunately – or, if you prefer, fortunately – many of the problems that are worth solving, that need to be solved, don’t come with that level of certainty.

In his book, How Life Imitates Chess (which, by the way, I highly recommend), Garry Kasparov has this to say about uncertainty:

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage; it’s like not having a “none of the above” option. Anyone with reasonable competence and adequate resources can solve a puzzle when it is presented as something to be solved. We can skip the subtle evaluations and move directly to plugging in possible solutions until we hit upon a promising one. Uncertainty is far more challenging. Instead of immediately looking for solutions to the crisis, we have to maintain a constant state of asking, “Is there a crisis* forming?”


Retaining knowledge in organizations – a contrary view

Yesterday’s #kmers chat focused on the topic Retaining the Knowledge of People Leaving your Organization.  Quite a bit of discussion around the topic, including questions about whether you should try to capture knowledge from those leaving, how you should do it, etc. etc.  Personally, I agree with V Mary Abraham (@vmaryabraham) when she says:

Ideally, move to system of #observable work. Then people disclose info & connections as they work & before they leave.

That way, the knowledge that is shared is in the context of a current action and not just information sitting in a repository somewhere.

This is a question that I – and many others – have wrestled with for many years now. Here is something I originally posted in Sep 2004 on the question. This is an unedited copy of that original post; I may come back later and give it a fresh coat.

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For many years now I’ve read about and been involved in discussions about the impending retirement of baby boomers, the effect this will have on institutional memory, and what can be done about it. Most of my interest in this at the time concerned the impact on the federal government workforce, which will be very hard hit since the retirement age is a bit lower than the populace in general.

Though I’ve not yet read it, the book Lost Knowledge by Dave DeLong addresses this problem in great detail (more on the book can be found here, here, and here). A snippet from the book’s website:

Dr. David DeLong, a research fellow at MIT’s AgeLab, has just created the first comprehensive framework to help leaders retain critical organizational knowledge despite an aging workforce and increased turnover among mid-career employees.

Like most discussions of the topic I’ve been involved in, the book seems to focus on the negative aspects of people leaving, and taking their knowledge with them. However, I have been reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and think that we may be missing out on an opportunity to actively reinvent the corporate knowledge as we try, probably in vain, to keep the old knowledge around.

Granted, there is some information and there are many processes that must be recorded and retained. This the basic infrastructure of how an organization functions. But if you simply take the knowledge of people who are leaving and transfer that to the people that are replacing them, you are effectively eliminating the value of the “new blood” coming into the organization. Or, in the words of Surowiecki, you are maintaining homogeneity at the expense of diversity.

Organizational memory, like human memory, can be a stubborn thing to change and often results in the this is how we’ve always done it syndrome. An excellent description of memory formation can be found in Tony Buzan’s The Mind Map Book (sorry for the lengthy quote, but it bears repeating in whole):

Every time you have a thought, the biochemical/electromagnetic resistance along the pathway carrying that thought is reduced. It is like trying to clear a path through a forest. The first time is a struggle because you have to fight your way through the undergrowth. The second time you travel that way will be easier because of the clearing you did on your first journey. The more times you travel that path, the less resistance ther will be, until, after many repetitions, you have a wide, smooth track which requires little or no clearing. A similar function occurs in your brain: the more you repeat patterns or maps of thought, the less resistance there is to them. Therefore, and of greater significance, repetition in itself increases the probability of repetition (original emphasis). In other words, the more times a ‘mental event’ happens, the more likely it is to happen again.

When you are trying to learn something, this is obviously a good thing. However, the very nature of this learning process makes it more difficult to learn something new, especially if it is very different (“off the beaten path”). By pointing new people down the paths of the people that are retiring, you are ensuring that the well known paths will continue to thrive and that it will be harder to create new paths through the forest.

That’s fine if your goal is to continue on the path you are on, but it brings to mind an old proverb I saw somewhere: If you don’t change the path you are on, you’ll end up where it takes you.

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How can I join the conversation?

“Keep me in the loop.”

This all too common expression is – or should be – the bane of anyone trying to implement, or just use, a social media approach to collaboration and communication. What it really means is…

“I want to know what’s going on with your project, but I don’t care enough to actually spend my own time keeping up with what’s going, so please take time out of your own busy schedule and figure out what information I need to know and then make sure you get it to me. I may or may not bother to read it once you’ve sent it to me.”

The next time someone asks you to “keep me in the loop”, let them know where the conversation is happening and offer to grant them access. If they don’t take you up on it, then they don’t really care. If they do take you up on it, they may never join in. But they might, and their participation will be that much more valuable because they are there intentionally, not accidentally.

Of course, this goes both ways. Next time someone talks to you about a project that you are interested in, don’t ask them to keep you in the loop. Instead, ask them, “How can I join the conversation?”

Are you just acting, or do you really know what you are doing?

The Ultimate Matrix CollectionI love the Matrix movies. All three of them. (Four if you count Animatrix.) As someone interested in learning and knowledge management, I find the whole idea of being able to simply download knowledge and really, truly learn how to do something very cool. Need to know how to fly a helicopter off a roof and across the city? There’s an app for that.

Compare this to the process that the actors went through to be able to provide convincing performances of these skills.  The actors trained for several months in order to obtain a sufficient level of physical readiness, then learned some basic martial arts skills. Hong Kong director and fight choreographer Yuen Woo Ping created the fight sequences, which the actors then learned.

From a knowledge management perspective, this is an excellent comparison of tacit vs. explicit knowledge.

The fight choreographers developed the fight scenes, then made the “knowledge” of the fight (in this case the choreography) explicit so the actors could “learn” the fight. But, and here is the important part, the actors did not learn “how to fight” but rather “how to perform the fight” for the film. They were acting on explicit knowledge, but it never really became “tacit.”

On the other hand, the stunt men portraying the bad guys obviously had the tacit knowledge of how to fight – you can see it in how they carry themselves and the weapons. For them, it was a matter of taking the new choreography and incorporating it into what they already knew.

From a learning perspective this shows the difference between what Carol Dweck refers to as performance goals and learning goals. Quoted in Dan Pink‘s new book Drive Dweck says, “Both goals are entirely normal and nearly universal, and both can fuel achievement.”

Inside the Matrix, the goals are learning goals. The characters need to actually learn the skills they need. For the actors, the goals were performance goals. Not what you’d call easy, but much easier than actually learning the martial arts and engaging in fights with other masters.

In your job, are you  an  “actor”, trying to provide a performance that follows the script and meets the approval of “the audience.” Or are you a master, continually learning and improving and getting done what needs to get done?

Some thoughts – and a mind map – on Army Knolwedge Management

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of my discharge (honorable, in case you’re wondering) from active duty as a US Army officer.  It was while serving in the Army, both on active duty and later in the Army Reserves, that I was first exposed to and practiced knowledge management so it seemed fitting that I mark the date with a reflection on Army Knowledge Management.

In the early days of Army Knowledge Management – or AKM – the focus was very technology focused, as evidenced in AKM Guidance Memoranda #1 (August 2001) and #2 (June 2002).  Then, as now, AKM was primarily the responsibility of the Army’s CIO.

In some ways, this reflected the “state of the art” at the time, where KM was the pitch phrase of all sorts of software vendors hawking the latest and greatest KM tools.  The main early focus was the capturing and conversion of “tacit” knowledge into “explicit” knowledge that could be stored in a vast “knowledge repository” that could be shared across the Army enterprise, and the consolidation of the technology infrastructure to support that repository.  In many ways a necessary evil; the downside was that it reinforced the idea that KM was solely the domain of IT.

Over the years the broader scope of KM has come to be realized, as can be seen in the most recent Army Knowledge Management Principles, published in August 2008. The principles are broken down into three main categories: People/Culture; Process; and Technology. For all you visual thinkers out there, and for myself, I’ve taken the principles, and the supporting Rationale and Implications, and put them into a mind map using Mind Manager.


Back when the paper was published, Jack Vinson posted some thoughts about the principles. Having seen the early tech focus of AKM, I share Jack’s appreciation of the Army’s stated goal for AKM:

Implementing these principles will create a culture of collaboration and knowledge sharing in the Army where key information and knowledge is “pushed and pulled” within the global enterprise to meet mission objectives — an Army where good ideas are valued regardless of the source, knowledge sharing is recognized and rewarded and the knowledge base is accessible without technological or structural barriers.

Though it is safe to say that AKM is still very heavily IT centric, KM has steadily infiltrated further and further into the Army culture.  This can be seen in one of the latest offerings from the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth, KS, the soon to begin Knowledge Management Qualification Course for KM sections:

The KM section supports the commander and staff in achieving situational awareness and situational understanding to enhance and speed decision making. The section does this by developing a plan that includes the “how-to” in displaying the common operational picture. That plan details the process on how a unit accesses and filters new information internally and externally, and provides a working KM system that can route content while keeping commanders and staff from being overwhelmed.

A long way indeed from knowledge repositories.

UPDATE:  For those of you who don’t have Mind Manager, here are two things to help you get the most out of the whole map:

1) a .gif image of the entire Mind Manager map;


2) a public version of the map at Mind Meister;

If you update the Mind Meister map, I’d appreciate a quick note back so I can go back and check it out.

Cool phrase of the day: Effective Efficiency

In a post earlier today, Jack Vinson reflects on six years of his blog Knowledge Jolt.  Jack was one of the first bloggers I ever followed and was one of the reasons I first started blogging, also nearly six years ago in June 2003.

I’ve had a bit of a blogging-block of late (I blame Twitter), so I thought I’d take the occassion of the upcoming anniversary of my first blog post to revisit my earlier blogs and repost (with maybe a little editing) my favorites in the hopes that this may get the juices flowing again.  It is fitting that this first one, originally posted on 1 Dec 05, was inspired, in part, by Jack.

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Cool phrase of the day: Effective Efficiency

Effective efficiency from Frank Patrick’s Focused Performance Weblog[The Focused Performance Weblog is still up and running, but the article I originally linked to doesn’t seem to be there anymore.  Odd.  -gbm ]

Jack Vinson and Jim McGee presented a session at BlawgThink about how knowledge management and collaboration affect productivity and process, which I like to look at as effectiveness and efficiency. (Now you know why the phrase appeals to me so much.)

BlawgThink attendee Jeffrey Phillips has also written a bit about process, etc in several posts: Sometimes process doesn’t matter and Actively Unhelpful are two that have caught my eye in recent days.

In the old days of the Industrial Age the relationship between efficiency and effectiveness was, for the most part, a linear one: the more efficient you were, the more effective (productive) you were. [It would probably be more accurate to say, “..the more effective you could be.”  -gbm] Even in the information age there are some activities which are, in essence, information assembly lines in which this relationship holds.

True knowledge work (whatever that is), however, seems to me to have an inverse relationship between efficiency and effectiveness. In other words, the more efficient a process the less room there is for the “waste” that is necessary to support innovation.

I don’t believe this is a straight linear relationship, though, nor is it likely a purely exponential relationship. Somewhere along the line, there is a spike that shows the optimum amount of efficiency to achieve maximum effectiveness in a given knowledge activity. (Note that, unlike an assembly line situation where most situations are very similar, true knowledge activities are almost always unique.)

Of course, this all goes back to what exactly we mean by knowledge work. There, I think more than anywhere, the definition of “productivity” and “effectiveness” is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Network effects of KM blogs

I, along with several others, was interviewed last summer by Lilia Efimova concerning my experiences as a Knowledge Management blogger using the blog as a networking tool.  (The interview came about from my blog No Straight Lines, which started out as a KM blog).  You can see a summary of my interview here.

The short of it is that I didn’t start blogging with the purpose of networking with others in KM, but it was a (very) nice side effect.  I’ve met many people through blogging, KM and otherwise, that I never would have had the opportunity to get to know.