Monday, August 30, 2010

Succession planning

Typically in our organization, people move on without a successor and then 6 months later someone is finally appointed to fill that role. This leads to lots of running around and waste. The organization is growing very quickly. But tacit knowledge is lost around relationships. This is sensitive information.


Our organization has new management. They do not know the backgrounds of staff and the expertise of their own internal people. How do we tap into the expertise of our own people? External experts tend to come and go because they lack the business knowledge. This can be a drain on permanent staff because they have to constantly train or brief the externals!


All funding for new jobs and contractors has been cut. 40% of our contractors have left and much of this knowledge has not been documented - "It's in our heads".

Sub-surface function

"Sub-surface function" is a specialist group of technical experts. Their functional management is strong across geographies and business units. They use discussion forums to share questions and solutions. They have strong leadership and are resourced by employees.


Hospitals run through professional structures and staff have to work in the context of the organization. One hospital CEO was not an effective leader. Targets and cost cutting were more important than building relationships with key clinicians. Conversely another hospital CEO built very good relationships and instilled a sense of direction and a sense of worth. The latter person enhanced outcomes for their organization.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Unwritten rules

I was at a regional meeting where research project proposals put forward by various consortia were assessed. There were formal rules but there were also many unwritten rules - e.g. Did the consortia members come from a sufficient range of countries? Was there a balance between small & large consortia members?

As a former bidder, I was angry that there were these tacit, unwritten rules.

ISO 9000

Our organization was advised that for its ISO 9000 accreditation, we should use internal people rather than external consultants and that we should map our processes as they actually were rather than they should have been.

Both parts of this advice were ignored. We ended up with a shelf full of manuals that no one uses.

Expert Self-Image

At my previous organization, we carried out a detailed analysis of the impact of a privacy breach on our business. Towards the end of my time there, this actually happened. This made headlines in the technology press. I do not think our modelling was used in dealing with this but perhaps that did not matter.

I thought that i had a lot of knowledge in this area and yet very little of this has been drawn on by that organization after i left. They are still operating so I presume that they did not need it. Perhaps experts have an over-inflated view of their own value?


We had a problem with our Ombudman organization. From a customer perspective, there was no consistency. If you put 10 ombudsmen in a room together, you will get 35 decisions. We encouraged experts in our organizational siloes to talk to each other. We got them in a room together and asked them to discuss what to do in a particular situation. We then put these discussions in our knowledge base. We still have multiple opinions but at least these are now visibl

Ignored Handover

At a large multinational, I worked on a project for a year. When it was completed, I did everything I could to ensure the handover of the project - handover notes, process documentation. When i stopped working in that role, no one used it. That "embedded structural capital" was lost.

Expert as a Role Model

You need “deep smarts” to solve problem instantly, help you to consider the relevant and critical areas. My role model is an ex-boss (American), in a complex industry with brand new technology, uncertain environment with small group of people. Trust was very important to him – he would select someone he can trust and work with. He considered what we could do if the plan did not work, what support we could get from Headquarters. He had a very clear communication style. He gave empowerment to his subordinates, and had a great sense of right timing, so he really had “deep smarts”.

If You Can't Get the Expertise, You Can't Keep the Business

This was a huge project to enlarge a site in Saudi Arabia and we needed good engineers. They need to find the right kind of marble and the company did not know how to source it. The project of enlarging the site was stopped. Issue was that the company couldn’t manage the expertise to get the job done.

Unappreciated Experts Will Leave

We have lots of interfaces between government and citizens and expert groups. We are a large organization. We have lots of people with 20 – 30 years of experience and yet they are not treated as having expertise or wisdom. They are considered to be in “ordinary” jobs with low recognition and not so much training required. There will be huge loss of knowledge when these people leave. Their know how is not appreciated.

Limited Transfer is Weak Transfer

Our old computer system needs improvement. There is lots of inhouse customisation. The guy who did it has quit. The reports generated by the system are useless. We have called the guy and he did teach one person how to run reports. That person taught another and then got transferred. Now the third person is running the reports. All this happened within 6 months. There is not very much documentation and only one channel to transfer learning.

Young People Are Not Necessarily Good at Technology

We assume that young people are going to be expert technology users but this is not true. Not all young people use technology well and they often cannot use search engines successfully.

The Hidden Expert

This is a story about how a common secretarial worker became the most expert person. The secretary does all of the filing and the managers are completely dependent on her. She had developed the system and assumed how to transfer to another secretary would be easy. But it will not be an easy knowledge transfer, and the managers are completely out of the loop.

Turning Expertise into Algorithms

I am currently working in Guangzhou. The textile industry them is in the top 3 in China. In this industry it’s difficult to measure color. There can be 30% uncertainty in measurements. Expertise is built by experience and there is no single fixed formula. Our problem is how can we standardize a formula? We have a gap between the workers, 40-50 age group vs younger 20-30 age group. The knowledge transfer or expertise building rate is not very high.

Change in Decision Patterns

I was working in South Africa. We needed to transfer the white managers’ experience to black managers. The program was 6 months long. In the first 3 months, the black managers shadowed the white managers and it was switched around for the next 3 months. Black managers made the decisions and the white managers coached. The problem was that judgments made in the past were not valued today and they had disagreements. So they had to work on a meta level and work out principles.

Young People and New Expertise

Young people are good with electronic gadgets. Why can they use these gadgets easier than older people? Young people can accept new ideas easily. Life experience may not be that important in today’s world

Assessing Expertise through Peer Review

In the Communist party in China, trust is built using peer-review. They bring in a bunch of people to meetings to observe how people operate and make judgments on their expertise and potential based on that.

Expertise in Shared Drives

In my company, co-workers save their files in local drive. Because of small share drive space, it’s full all the time (only 500mb per person). The issue is that there is lost knowledge (such as presentations) and we have to re-invent documents and waste time.

Experienced But Not Expert

This was an experienced sales person with 25 years of experience who had good and bad habits. He could identify the customers and their roles in the deal-making process, such as price points and relationships between them. But he could not read other internal characteristics they had, such as low esteem.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Time and experience teach us to be experts

I know I look at problems differently now in my 40s than I did in my 20s. I think my perspective now is more instinctive and holistic whereas it probably used to be far more analytic. I also believe I've witnessed the differences in approach between other people. I find that now I tend to see the pattern and what is likely to happen - I mean esp in organisational change situations - without and despite analysis. All I can guess is that with experience more of that earlier explicit knowledge becomes compiled and tacit. But it's odd how the world generally prefers an analytic approach to an experience-based one. I like methodologies, but I think they teach us to be novices, not experts.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Knowledge Transfer by Osmosis

In my PhD research with R&D medical scientists, I explored how the scientists conceptualised the knowledge they worked with. A fascinating and unexpected aspect was not so much that the scientists intuitively understood that much of their knowledge was tacit (and unable to be articulated) but that they thought it could be transferred without being made explicit.

That is, they thought that when a novice scientist worked with an expert, the knowledge ‘sort of fell off the expert to the beginner, almost by osmosis’ (you can tell they were scientists!). Of course, the process by which this happened was shadowing, mentoring, observation – but the net effect was that tacit knowledge was seen to be transferred, without having been articulated.

Experts respected for organisational knowledge more than technical knowledge

This was my first experience as a "knowledge engineer" trying to build an "expert system" for a chemical processing plant in the mid 1980s. That experience still shapes a lot of my thinking. Firstly the context was the archetype expert system one, the expert operator (and long term foreman), 35 years + experience, retiring in 12 months ... his name was Maurie. He had the total respect of the rest of the operating crew (who I might add only averaged 20 years on the job).

After doing my knowledge engineering thing and extracting a few hundred "expert" rules, I began testing them with the "junior" operators. Anything special or insightful? No not really... the common answer was yeah you could do it that way. Would you change your action if this was recommended? Maybe ... not sure if it matters. Even Maurie was a bit ambivalent and supported them in saying yeah that could work too. This was pre- TQM days and shortly afterward the standard operating procedure (SOP) was born, so there was a lot more support for standardisation ... not so much from what might work or what might not, but a view that if we standardised actions we would at least have a measurement environment that operating performance drifts could be more easily identified.

When we implemented the system I would have to honestly say that the value the operators gained was not so much in the "insightful" recommendations the system made, but the "evidence" in terms of signals tracked and displayed to justify the recommendations that were most valued.

I continually experienced this in my Expert Systems days. A case based reasoning system for a consumer call centre was of most use to novices. More experienced staff would want to make their own decisions but appreciated the support information. Expert Systems in my experience worked best in the "complicated" domain (viz Cynefin)...where the effort of logically breaking down a decision process was both viable and valued.

As for Maurie ... why was he so respected as THE expert when the knowledge base we built from his so-called tacit knowledge was not seen as anything special? Well I learnt that respect and expertise can be different things. Perhaps Maurie's technical expertise was not necessarily superior any more to the 20 year "juniors". His people and organisational skills in working with the other operators was superior ... hence the respect that he was given. As one operator quipped ... Maurie knows where everything is .... you want a shovel or a broom....Maurie knows where it is!

I've recently interviewed some chief engineers that will retire soon. I found the same thing...its not their technical "tacit" knowledge that is valued as much as their "organisational" knowledge...especially the "how do you get stuff dome around here" tacit knowledge.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Here was an older engineer (let us call him Mr. Gupta) in a large manufacturing organisation. The emphasis in the organisation was on 'activity'. Those that showed enthusiasm were rewarded better than those who really knew the job. Mr.Gupta's philosophy was 'prevention better than cure'. But this was not glamorous. Younger engineers would jump in & be part of the excitement in firefighting. Mr. Gupta would refuse to be a part of this firefighting, which according him could have been prevented in the first place if only they had listened to him, which point he would not hesitate to recite to any one who came in contact with him. This obviously made him unpopular with the management and a laughing stock among his peers.
Mr.Gupta became a frustrated man and a mental wreck.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Promoted into Unhappiness

This is from a university. Promotion in science is based on scientific expertise but promotion puts scientists in management roles. But management ability is NOT valued, therefore there is poor organizational performance and an unpleasant culture.

Not Appreciated Until the Need Arises

Working as contractor – project manager for a big government organisation – hired by that organisation to teach project management. Found that inside the organisation, project management was not valued. Spent 1 year doing nothing. Then new legislation was created and the resulting change forced a project approach, so this expertise was shown to be more valued. Now the organisation sees the value and focuses on project management.

Need Context to Locate the Right Expertise

This is about the effects of a lack of a phone book and directory. Some people would rather call to find an expert and start a phone tree instead of locating people online. We also have no ability to collect contextual information to help find people so the wrong people are getting calls.

When Self-Identification Didn't Work

This was a project to build a master expertise database for an organization. The experts’ self-descriptions were not precise or systematic or standardized. Some people criticized others’ expertise. We tried to use a standard taxonomy but that failed. Some did not want their expertise advertised.

Expertise Not Discovered Until Almost Too Late

This story comes from the military. We had an NCO who was considered mediocre in his technical job and transferred to a Training Unit, where he could be out of harms way until he retired. This guy turned out to be expert at databases and he ended up creating an online training system. It became the standard system for the whole organization, after it was recognized externally and won awards. His expertise was not visible or valued (even to himself) until he got the right job. His expertise in his original role was not valued. This happened in his 19th year of service so he then retired, and his expertise was lost almost as soon as it was found. He resented being given his original job. Moreover, it was an external party who recognized his accomplishment first, and not his commander.

If Important, it Gets Transferred

If it is important, it will get transferred. The most important knowledge gets transferred. In our institution we have a practice of creating a “collection of artifacts for the next teacher.”

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Emperors Have No Clothes

Sometimes the Emperor has no clothes. I have seen cases where experts draft complex solutions and show off their expertise, and an outsider notices an obvious flaw. Is the expert always an expert?

Retirement Was a Gift

In the late 1980s, I was a supervisor. There was a manual process to create an authority file (like a database) and the person who was the supposed expert in this retired. They used the opportunity of his leaving to reengineer and reinvent the process, which was then much improved. “The expert” turned out to be not so deep, and through a group of knowledgeable people a new and better system was developed, leveraging resident latent expertise.

It's All Replaceable

Where I am, there is no retention or respect for expertise. “They think it's all replaceable.”

Orphaned Technical Knowledge

We developed websites or working interactives for customers. The architects were our SMEs. The boss sold the solutions. Then he left. No techniques were captured on how he sold (personal skills lost, behavioral tacit knowledge lost). We couldn’t bring strategy to new proposals. We were left with the technical knowledge, but the business development and leadership skills were lost. This was an organisational failure to capture or replace knowledge.

Stories to Build Historical Context

I was involved in knowledge retention for a large consulting firm. I was able to interview a retiring partner. We learned a great deal about the background of how working for government used to be like. He told a story about how reporters used to go through the trash of lawmakers’ work in committees and so on, to get material to report. They discovered this during their first audit exercise they did for the lawmakers, and this is why they tightened up the way they dealt with papers.

Deliberate Forgetting, Memory Had to be Rebuilt

When two legacy government agencies were merged, historical documents were shredded or burned from the old organizations, we lost an entire policy system. They probably did this so as to enable the new agency to start afresh. But in the new organization it created great difficulties in rebuilding documentation and history. We recreated knowledge via former employees who had retained old documents or by revisiting stored documents in boxes to recompile or reconfigure our knowledge. Bottom line: we lost organizational history. We had new work forces and very limited efforts to retain knowledge.

Expert by Training or Experience?

Knowledge and expertise are highly contextual. When is expertise actually expertise? “I’ve never actually stormed a castle but I’ve taken a lot of siege management courses.”

Not Recognising the Need to Manage Knowledge Work

In my organization, right now, lean six sigma is a huge initiative. However most activities in our organization are knowledge work, and they haven’t yet come to grips with that.

Expertise Outsourced to Contractors

Here’s a story about government procurement and expertise. There was a huge contract up for renewal. Management was concerned because the incumbent contractor wouldn’t have competition so it wouldn’t be “free and open competition.” Therefore they split the procurement and this led to a great deal of churn and disruption of work, because the contractor’s familiarity with our organization was broken up too.

Not My Cup of Tea

I was the only person with technical engineering expertise in my firm. The firm would garner some projects with technical content. They were never particularly close to my expertise, but as I was closest to the content, I would be assigned. I was unhappy and always having to learn and work on these things. I was actually not all that knowledgeable about it and certainly not interested in this work. Meanwhile, I could not work on what interested me and what I was hired to do. So I left.

The Wrong Expertise

Here’s a story of how a non-expert screwed it up. The assignment was to create a KM system. It was assigned to a non-expert because they had some taxonomy background. The result: we got a “good” taxonomy outcome, but an unusable KM outcome and $1m down the drain.

On Not Building Expertise

At my organization, you “build without thinking.” They never look at lessons learned. You can almost guarantee failure by not looking at lessons learned.

More Than a Job Title

Expertise is more than a name. Job titles in organisations don’t describe or indicate expertise, though people assume they do. We need to think more broadly than title.

Age of the Dinosaur

Sometimes, you need to go back to the source. Legacy knowledge and people are sometimes needed. Don’t discount the old guys’ value or the grey beards.

Management Decisions Didn't Consider Knowledge Needs of Project

This is a story about an IT project. Management decided on a large platform change. A lot of relevant personnel were getting ready to retire. Leadership felt they didn’t need as much mid-level and contract personnel, and this had a big negative impact on the project. We ended up having to re-start, and that project is still going on.

Courage Saves Time

This is about saving time. A new kid gets assignment. He looks up the experts in the “who knows what” database. He finds a “Vice president” as the designated expert in this area and although he is very junior he decides to approach him anyway. He gets advice from the VP and “a 3 day task took me half a day.”

Recognising the value of consultants

I work in a large government organisation as a consultant. I report to a senior manager within one of the departments. My expertise that has been gained from 20 years industry experience is highly valued and my opinion/insights are received very positively. This is within an industry where I have minimal experience in the core service, however I can make significant contribution in the management and governance around the organisation and delivery of those services. Areas where my expertise has been sought include internal team structure, vendor relationships, project evaluation, research data, project and program management and inter-departmental governance

Monday, December 14, 2009

Stagnant Best Practice

I was working in a consulting organization and we had to move content from fileshare to SharePoint as a move to support collaborative workspaces for groups. They wanted to rate the SME content for “best practice”. The manager did not understand the limitations inherent in a stagnant best practice approach and insisted we did it.

From Expertise to FAQs

We knew someone was retiring. We brought someone in to interview him, and he asked questions and we captured all the answers to those questions. And now in SharePoint we have those Q & A and it is accessible to all.

He's an Expert but Not Credible

Experts’ opinion tends to be dismissed due to personality quirks. This person can identify core gaps and develop tools for dealing with them but he is not taken credibly because of history and his personality.

You Can't Ignore Internal Expertise

This was in a bank. We brought in experts / consultants but found that we have people with greater expertise in house. The in house experts are finding flaws in the consultants’ work and driving the need to redo work.

Internal Expertise Ignored, Leads to Failure

Our website was taking too long to respond. It was unstable. It was built by a consultant but our in house expertise was ignored.

Easier to Access External Expertise

I was running into technical issues with System X. I knew that it would take 2 days to get the issue into the Company (owner of System X) system and 2 weeks to get it resolved. I blogged about the issue. Within 20 minutes, I had the solution. We documented the solution and exposed the solution for others to see.

Scientific Secrecy and Accessing Expertise

In my company there are rules about not talking in public. Scientists can’t access others’ expertise – it’s in logbooks or in their heads. Also credit is given to the first inventor, so people are reluctant to talk until they have published.

The Expertise Audit That Wasn't

We wanted to get to know other organizations in the company. We put our top 3 areas of expertise in a table but it turned out that everyone put what they wanted to be instead of what they are.

Lessons Learned Good For Newbies

We did a lesson learned on a refinery revamp where we had exceeded cost and time targets. At the lesson learned meeting we invited new employees to attend (who did not participate in the project). Older folks (38 of them) were reluctant to include new – finally agreed to 2. The conclusion was that the lesson learned meeting was a waste of time until the 2 new guys piped up that they had learned valuable information.

On Not Being Able to Validate Expertise

We have lots of examples of work on projects. We don’t know which are good or bad examples. The author is perceived as an expert but it is really unknown if he’s good or bad.

Sudden Attrition

This was a Fortune 500 company, with 50 years of history. 75% of senior level management retired within the past year after analysis that the company was top heavy. These people all had 25-40 years experience with the company. Who knows what the impact will be.