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.