Monday, January 26, 2009

Accessing knowledge that was already there

This is a story about helping a beginning Feldenkrais practitioner access a huge amount of knowledge she had, but didn't know she had.

The training to become a Feldenkrais practitioner involves several months of concentrated work per year for four years. In the training students do a large variety of movement 'lessons’ (Awareness Through Movement) that look a little bit like yoga. Many of the lessons are modelled on the sequences that infants go through in the process of learning to crawl and walk. They help the brain develop more efficient patterns of coordination.

The training also includes body analysis to work out the patterns of poor coordination whereby clients end up with pain, and training in subtle physical manipulations that enable clients to make sensory discoveries that support improved coordination.

A recent graduate of one of the Feldenkrais trainings joined a practice group that I was supervising. The procedure was straightforward: to look at the body organisation one of the fellow students (none of us is perfect!), see something that could be improved, and devise an individual lesson to make the improvement.

This student felt stymied. She said, in anger, "I did learn anything from the training."

Ah. So my job was not to 'teach’ her, but to help her access the enormous amount of understanding about the body and movement that I knew she must have acquired.

So I asked her if she could recall an Awareness Through Movement lesson that related to the body patent she was seeing in her 'client'. She needed some prompting, so I suggested one such lesson, and asked her to come up with two more. She came up with three, and was thrilled because she now saw that she could bridge between Awareness Through Movement lessons she knew and the specific needs of clients.

This is similar to a way of accessing obscure knowledge that is used in Synectics, one of the world's great problem solving techniques. We use 'rich associations' to jump from our problem to analogues in other domains that may give us fresh lines of solution. So here she learned to jump from seeing her client’s specific need - say clarifying the organisation of the hip joint - to one of several lessons that include mobilising the hip is part of a larger movement pattern.

Often great ideas come from such play of the mind.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Written expertise

I'm getting really concerned about our team's zest to collect past proposals and project documents, sanitise and use them as expertise captured in documents. They say that new projects of similar nature may reuse those documents to help them in their writing. There are 3 main problems i see in this: 1. how can we trust a write-up based on a previous version of technology. 2. is it the best way to deliver expertise since it's almost a surety that the thought process has not been captured? 3. how much of the remains helps us understand the true problem after all the sanitisation? How did this arise? People easily limit knowledge as information and tries to codifies it, making unspoken assumptions that this is the means to share expertise. The collecting KM department gets a sense of achievement by counting the number of samples they have collected. Now i try to mitigate this by chanelling their collection (if they must) to documents that the people on the ground wants (or thinks they want) and move on a rampage to connect people to people to discuss and solve on-hand and cutting-edge issues.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Anticipating the future

Here is a personal example of a failure of anticipatory thinking. It demonstrates a lack of expertise. I once took a flight from Dayton, Ohio to New York City and left my car in the airport parking lot. I tuckedmy car keys in my briefcase because I wouldn’t need them while in New York. For complex reasons I was unable to fly home but instead took a train from New York to Toledo, Ohio where I was picked up by my mother-in-law (who was driving from her home in Detroit to my home in Ohio) and driven south to Dayton. I was dropped off at the Dayton airport so I could reclaim my car. As I left my mother-in-law's car I wondered if I should take my suitcase and briefcase with me but didn’t see any reason to do so – my mother-in-law and I were both going to drive to my home and I could get the suitcase and briefcase at that time. As I approached my car I realized my mistake. If I had been questioned a minute earlier I would have been able to correctly answer all these questions: Where is your car? (In the airport parking lot.) Where are your car keys? (In my briefcase.) Where is your briefcase? (In my mother-in-law’s car.) Where is her car? (Currently driving away from the airport.) The problem is that all four facts stayed separate until too late. This example shows a failure of anticipatory thinking. It was a failure to anticipate that I would need the briefcase and car keys as I got out of the car.

Don't Rock the Boat

At a previous firm, I was hired mostly based on my expertise and reputation in the field of knowledge management, with the idea that I would help change the existing KM organization based on my experience. What I found when I got there was a lack of other KM expertise in the organization, a strong resistance to change, and a reluctance to implement new approaches based on my suggestions. It was a large organziation with political infighting, an over-inflated self-assessment, and a very conservative and risk-averse approach. When I suggested an improvement to how communities collaborated, I was told that this was inconsistent with the culture, and that a less-efficient method should be used instead. I learned that new expertise is not always appreciated or valued, especially if it threatens the status quo or power structure of the incumbents who lack that expertise.

The Value of Outside Perspective

Expertise is often valued more highly outside of a an organization than within it. When I was at a previous firm, I regularly received complaints that our KM tools were bad, and that we were greatly inferior in our KM capabilities to all of our competitors. I invited a colleague from Company X to present to our internal KM community about Company X's use of best practice replication, which was much admired in the KM field. I was asked to reciprocate by presenting our KM program to Company X's KM community. When I did so, I was surprised at their enthusiastic response to my presentation. They said they would love to have the functionality which we had. This led me to submit a presentation to APQC for their national conference, which was accepted. At that event, I hosted a lunch with KM leaders from other systems integration and consulting firms, which led to the creation of the SIKM Leaders Community. And given the good reception of my presentation, I went on to present at other conferences, publish articles in KM journals, and write a book on KM. This same effect was also evident across organizations with the company. Our business unit did not appreciate our KM program nearly as much as other business units, who would have loved to have the people, processes, and technologies we had in place.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

A very simple form of expertise sharing was very successful at Company X. We used a process called the knowledge-sharing request, which was an email sent to me with a simple request along the lines of "has anyone ever done this before?" or "has anyone solved this problem before?" or "does anyone know how to do this?" I would forward the message to all consulting managers in the worldwide organization. In almost all cases, several useful replies would be received within a few hours. It was a good example of Dave Snowden's principle that people will almost always help each other at the time of a specific need. Indeed, we had much more success with these ad hoc requests than we did with trying to get people to submit formal project experience documentation.

Appreciation of Expertise Depends on Where You Sit

At several of my previous jobs, expertise was appreciated very differently depending on the level within the organization. The first-line consultants and managers greatly valued expertise in knowledge management, including knowing where information could be found, whom to contact for specific expertise and help, and how to make the best use of technology. They subscribed in large numbers to knowledge-rich newsletters, asked for help regularly, and greatly relied on a list of key contacts in the organization. But higher level managers did not actively engage in collaboration, using the tools, or observing how expertise was shared. As a result, when profits dropped and budgets were squeezed, these managers scrambled to preserve their jobs and were willing to eliminate the jobs of knowledge managers and even expert consultants. Their mission was short-term survival, and it came at the expense of long-term failure.

The Camelot of Collaboration

Expertise sharing regressed at Company X from the time I joined in 1983 until it was acquired by Company Y in 1998. In the 1980s, Product A Conferences were very successful Communities of Interest/Practice, with widespread and boundary-spanning participation. When Company X migrated from System B to Microsoft for office automation, it failed to similarly migrate Product A to a new platform. As a result, Product A lost its luster and usage plummeted. What had been a competitive advantage for Company X - knowledge sharing across engineering, manufacturing, sales, service, and support - was lost. Lotus came to market and was successful, whereas Product A had been there first but failed to be offered as a product. Communities of practice did not make a resurgence until much later - after Company Z aquired Company Y - and even then, not as much across organizational boundaries. Company X might have succeeded if it had continued to embrace knowledge sharing as it once had.

Monday, January 12, 2009

It'll be worth more later

We were engaged in a KM project and we were encouraging departments to be more open about sharing their knowledge, especially the more experienced staff. This fellow told me "Look, I'm nearing the age for early retirement. If I share what I know now, they won't hire me back as a consultant. It's good money."

Thursday, January 8, 2009


I receive feedback from people that they don’t mind sharing, but there’s a lack of acknowledgement of contributions. After a while, they become reluctant to share.

It's not in the files

It was quite shocking when I first started work here. I expected to be orientated, but instead I was told to read files. One can read files, but they don’t tell you the story behind them. When you really need to know something, then you search high and low for someone who knows

Up close and personal

There’s this guy, you have to call him by his nickname or he won’t help you. It’s funny because I don’t really know him. My colleague told me about the nickname when I just joined.

Knowledge sharing is two way

I just changed job scope, and the colleague who handled that before me shared her experience with me. Knowledge sharing is a 2-way thing. Experienced colleagues can’t recall everything so you have to ask them questions to jolt their memory.

You do your own work

People don’t want to share hard-earned knowledge. Why should they let you benefit from it?

No spoonfeeding here

In my dept, our supervisors ask you to read the manuals, and then they ask you questions. There’s no spoon-feeding.

Lost knowledge

Staff turnover is high in my dept. Recently, there was a query from Internal Audit about payments not done since 2002. However, all the staff who were involved in the matter had left, and my boss and I had to trace everything from scratch.

Dropped in the deep end

When a staff resigns, the new staff taking over is not briefed on job and yet expected to start work immediately. So the new person has to seek help all over the place.

People go, knowledge goes

There’re people you always ask for information, like Mrs Y______ from HR who’s been around for 25-30 years. When these people leave, there’ll be no continuity. People will eventually figure things out, but that’s quite inefficient. But who has the time to go through 30 volumes of stuff?

Starting from zero each time

We handle different projects. Sometimes we rotate projects but the end users remain the same. When projects are passed on to new people, we don’t usually have chance to pass on knowledge, so they have to learn from scratch.

Don't ask me again

As a newbie, I approached this person for info. She expressed frustration because my predecessor had asked her before. Knowledge resides in people. When they leave their knowledge leaves too.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Hire you for advice and then don't listen to it

I had a situation where we were hired by an organisation to help them develop a KM strategy. It became clear during the engagement that this was a very turf-sensitive, political organisation, and in fact they had two different kinds of KM initiative going on, each reporting to a different senior manager. There were all sorts of coordination and knowledge non-transfer issues, and much wider confusion and scepticism about KM in the wider organisation. They needed role and mission clarity. Despite the opposition of both senior managers, one of whom was the one who hired us we recommended that the KM teams be united under one senior manager, so they could implement a common strategy and present a common face to the rest of the organisation for what needed to be done. I argued this forcefully at the senior management team level but they disagreed. Not long after, the more experienced people in both KM teams left out of frustration, and they had to build their teams again from scratch. The result is a slightly stronger team on one side which is more active, but there's still confusion. Why do organisations seek to hire people ostensibly for their expertise and experience and then fail to act on their advice?

Asking the right questions

It’d be good if the information requester can be more specific. Otherwise, we can’t help. Recently, we received an email from one division. They were planning a tender. But which area does the tender pertain to? What stage are you at? Some can then be specific. Others just don’t know what we’re talking about when we reply.

Familiarity and habits

Although the organisation has been restructured, people still look to you regarding your old job. They say it’s because they know me, but there’re other staff in my department.

Want or don't want?

I used to send a lot of research info to people, but then they tell me they don’t want to read them. Then they complain if you don’t send to them. I do research, but they want customized knowledge - I can’t remember who needs what.

Maturity and generosity

Older staff more willing to share than younger staff. I asked a younger staff about computer-related stuff but he’s unwilling to share. I don’t know why they’re like that.

Trust and rich knowledge transfer

Relationships are important. You can communicate a lot of info but if trust is not there, you get only factual info.

Taking credit

We share our experience on organizing events. Individuals and divisions are interested in what we know. We have no issues, but our SOPs have been abused. We put a lot of time and expertise into our SOPs. Those divisions borrow our SOPs and change them and claim credit. We are not acknowledged. Sometimes, they leave for another agency, also heading events, with our SOPs. They need to let us know what their intentions are. Now, we are careful about what we share. If we don’t know what it’s used for, we just give general answers. We share freely but in other agencies, knowledge is competitive advantage or even IP. Where do we value-add? Do we give the lot, lock stock and barrel? Before we give, we have to find out what’s the value-add. There are lots of free riders here. You don’t need to work so hard, you just need to know someone to ask. There was an exodus of people who left us for other agencies. They asked for manuals, SOPs from us before they left.

Knowledge handover

We get a replacement only after staff have left, so the knowledge is lost. Timely replacement is important especially for heads of department. Once you know someone’s going to be transferred, you have to find a replacement. You can’t ask someone to share after she has moved to another department and learning to do a new job. The incumbent staff struggle to do two persons’ job until the replacement is in. Sometimes they leave. When the new head comes in, it’s tough to find out what has happened in the past.

Flowery language or street smarts?

Some of the Executive Assistants are quite senior. The majority of them know more than us. They have the network. Better than us clicking a button. I ask my EA and he can get the info, just one phone call away. It’s easier that way than to go directly. We can use flowery language etc but no offence, it may not help. We have to use a different array of tools to get the job done.

Conversation, not documents

Field documents can only capture decision points, but the knowledge resides in people involved in projects. We get so much data we are overwhelmed. Sometimes the most important info resides in the person. It’s hard to document implicit knowledge, but it’s their competitive advantage. They don’t mind sharing but they don’t want to document in a 1000 page document eg. State of the industry - it’s the conversation rather than the document.

Share or Meet KPIs?

I certainly agree that going to colleagues is faster than going into the KM system but only if colleagues are willing to share. I have come across colleagues who are not willing to share. So I go to someone else for a second or third search. I don’t see a sharing culture yet especially with colleagues from other branches. Even for friends, if you approach them once or twice, it’s ok. But after that, they get frustrated. Everyone has KPI. He may have to put in extra time to meet his KPI if he spends time helping you.


We get info from experienced staff. There was this case where the customer said we did not assess the situation correctly. We didn’t know what to do. We went to a colleague and she taught us how to do the assessment. She was willing to help even though it hindered her own output. She was willing to put her work aside.

Can't remember

We were trying to ask an experienced person about handling this particular case. This person had been transferred to another department, and he couldn’t remember how he handled the case. There was either no documentation, or he didn’t know how to locate it.

Matching competencies to jobs

Here, the knowledge lies with people. Who are the people doing the different jobs? It’s hard to help people know the strengths and weaknesses of staff, and match them to the right job. We have a performance appraisal but it’s still hard to pick out the right info and then put into the hands of the right people to make decisions.


I went to this guy for some info and he said “I’m sorry I have no time.” I was shocked. Then, another time he asked me how to grant access to a particular folder. I guided him through the process, step by step. I even helped him fill up the Excel template. After that, another time, I needed some info again from him. I thought maybe he would be nicer since I helped him before. He said “I have no time.”

Leaning through mistakes

Knowledge captured in documents is for new people, but they still have to learn through mistakes to gain experience.

Inexperienced boss, experienced staff

New people and new bosses bring in new perspectives, but they still have to learn from older staff. We shouldn’t differentiate by rank. We are all in it together. It’s hard to answer who comes in. We are experienced and when the new manager comes in, we teach them everything they need to know. But we don’t get recognized.

Leaking knowledge

Our challenge is that technology is always changing. Also, others try to poach our staff – it’s not easy to get training overseas. When we go into the field we don’t know which system we will face. When people leave, all the knowledge people have gained over the years is lost. We try to keep databases, but it’s hard to keep tacit knowledge. We try to address this through sharing. We try to keep staff by providing them with training since we can’t compete on salary.

Who knows?

It’s not so much about knowledge sharing but access. If info resides in humans, I wouldn’t know who to look for. For example, Task A and B. Who do I ask? I can’t email the whole department to ask. It would be weird. So knowing who has the info, that intimidates me. I sent emails to different individuals but I still haven’t got the info.

Get it first time, dummy

Not everybody is willing to share knowledge. I have this colleague who is very experienced. She will explain in one breath and you have to try to understand her. If you ask her again, she’ll raise her voice. These tend to be old-timers.

Helping could be a full time job

I only help my friend. If I help one after another then it becomes my full time job to help. If somebody is helpful, everybody goes to that person. For example, I helped the XYZ department once to prepare a site plan. Then another email from that branch came “I understand that you can prepare site plans”. My core duty is to serve my internal customers.