Why am I trying to establish this?
Having an effective knowledge sharing strategy that my consultants and coaches use effectively can significantly boost the quality of their deliverables on engagements, as their access to knowledge and experiences will be richer. Richer knowledge leads to better decisions which lead to better outcomes blah blah blah.
No really, why?
The truth is far less grandiose. And much more personal. I want better relationships with my colleagues. And the main reason for that is selfish. When I’ve got something interesting/gnarly to solve, I’d MUCH rather solve it collaboratively with someone. I find the ideas that come out of a buzzing pair/trio are generally FAR superior (not just in terms of merit, but also the emotional responses – things like surprise, delight and even just pure joy) than anything I’d come up with on my own. A major contributor to that heightened emotional response is the fact that it’s a shared experience – this has a reinforcing effect on the individuals.
This topic is also related to my post on Courageous Executives – I think being able to create an environment where knowledge and help is shared freely and easily is helpful in establishing a progressive organisational culture.
Some things to consider
The first thing I need, is critical mass. I need enough
colleagues with sufficient latent willingness to participate to increase the
odds of interesting interactions to occur.
The second thing, is to recognise the reality of the group dynamic. I work for a consulting organisation, and like most others, they staff people on engagements. Those engagements have teams. Back at base though, I’m grouped with a set of similar people under the same line manager. That line manager’s “team” is not a team from a behavioural dynamics perspective, regardless of how the individuals describe themselves. Esther Derby is my go-to source for concise articulation of what it means to be a team.
The third fundamental aspect to consider, is how people
participate. The “1/9/90” rule of thumb has been around for over a decade now,
potentially longer. A quick recap: For online groups, there are three broad
categories of interaction
- 1% of the population will initiate a discussion
- 9% of the population will actively contribute to
- 90% of the population will lurk
I also reasoned that in order to sell what I wanted people to do, it needed to be more engaging/arresting than just these numbers (which no doubt many of my target audience would have heard already, so there’d be little impact). While daydreaming about how to go about launching this, an idea flitted across my mind, which amused me. I ran with it, just to see how far I could go. Fishing.
- Lures: These would be the “1% and 9%” of the
population. Their job is to make the environment interesting/appealing enough
for the others to participate.
- Fish: These are the 90% of the population who
lurk. My objective is to convert them into lures by engaging them.
Above all else, the most important thing to remember was
that knowledge management was all about people. We have to avoid the temptation
to create yet-another-document-repository, as those end up generally being
pointless (keeping a stack of documents current is a huge time investment, so
very few people do – the documents become outdated quickly and users lose
confidence in the repository as a source of relevant information).
How did we start?
The first step was to get a sense of that latent willingness
that I needed. To avoid unnecessary confusion, I stuck to a typical technique –
I ran a workshop. The stated objective was to understand the key topic areas /
themes that as a collective, we had some self-professed expertise in. The exam
write down topics, regardless of scale, that you would be happy for a
colleague to come to you if they needed some help
Approaching the audience in this way would nudge them into feeling
valued from the outset (the alternative would be giving them a candidate set of
themes and asking them to sign up. The list at the end of both approaches would
be the same, but the first scenario would have far more engaged individuals as
they’d own the list). This workshop also let me find co-conspirators.
In a word, admin. We had to create a navigable map of the
topics that the audience had supplied (it would help people find the right
place to ask questions). In the end, we settled on a very basic two-level tree
consisting of high-level themes and more detailed topics. That allowed the
grouping of individuals to be based on themes with related topics. The main
rationale was that as experience and knowledge changed over time, the specifics
of the topics would evolve, but the main theme would remain constant. That
allowed for stability of membership – and that membership stability is a significant
factor in determining whether or not a theme would survive. The candidate
themes also had candidate lures – they were the list of people who volunteered
for the topics that were under that theme.
We had to sell the themes to the potential lures.
We also had to set some expectations about what being a lure
entailed. By this point the term “Theme Guardian” had started to emerge as the
role that was to be played. This is what we ended up with.
- Guardians own their Theme
- Guardians are responsible for the quality and
integrity of the Theme’s content
- Guardians should invest in PDCA cycles to
improve the environment in the Theme.
- Guardians need to evolve their vision and strategy
for their Theme.
- Have “something” to help new joiners understand
- This doesn’t necessarily have to be a document.
It could be quarterly intro sessions on WebEx (for example).
- Set expectations of how you’d like the community
to operate – and remind your community regularly
I find analogies very useful as abstraction models to help
me understand a domain/problem. In the event that at least some of the
candidate guardians operated in a similar manner, I picked a couple of
potential models that they could use to refine their thinking about how they
wished to operate:
- Town Planners and Communal Spaces. What makes
some public spaces incredibly successful, and others turn into ghost town?
- Aboriginal Storytelling. In particular, explore
the claims that the Dreamtime stories have remained intact for over 10,000
years without degrading, despite only having a verbal/pictorial, not written
Selling the concept
Now that we had a starting position (themes, candidate
guardians, some guardian responsibilities), we needed to launch. To help that,
we produced some general use guidance on themes:
- People are at the core of any successful
knowledge management strategy.
- Information held in a person’s head is updated
as a by-product of things that person does. Information stored in documents
requires additional explicit effort.
- For a Theme to be useful, knowledge needs to
flow from person to person.
- If a Theme’s only got one person who’s
interested, it’s not a Theme.
- When a question is asked, directly answer. Even
if it’s been asked before. Never rely on a document (or link etc.) to answer
for you. If necessary, end your answer with “this document/link/other goes
further” (or words to that effect).
- Think about what your “background radiation”
looks like. Themes need to feel active otherwise you won’t get people stopping
by and asking questions.
- Have a variety in the complexity / subtlety /
nuanced nature of the conversations and discussions. For example, if you only
have very high brow discussions, you’re likely to put off the inexperienced. If
you only have introductory content, then the experts may not participate.
These were our objectives
- Start small: We picked one Theme that the
co-conspirators were willing to act as Guardians or as participating members. We
would attempt to orchestrate and create an active community for that theme.
- Momentum: We wanted to create some observer
habits in the wider community. With enough people checking in daily (for
example), we’d greatly increase the chances that conversations would spark up.
But we had to kick start the making-it-worth-everyone’s-time process.
- Win over an influential sceptic: Having a
known sceptic promote what we were trying to do would help persuade other sceptics
that there may be some mileage in investing in this strategy.
What happens/happened next?
1 Week After Launch
There’s a smattering of interest from a handful of people. A
few posts have been made and there has been some commenting on posts. Some of
the early efforts from the co-conspirators have been around motivating and
inspiring the community to participate. There is some optimism around that this
approach feels different (probably because it isn’t tools oriented).
It’s still early days, but these are my (current) predictions.
1 Month After Launch
The conversation topics broadly split into a handful of
themes. Most of the themes appear to be consistent with what emerged from the initial
workshop, but the actual topics discussed are quite different. There is some
dissonance from the earlier adopters as there are multiple unrelated themes
being discussed in the same “place”, causing confusion.
3 Months After Launch
Enough interest in different themes has triggered new spaces
on the platform for the conversations about those themes to be segregated, to
simplify the cognitive load on the users. There is some frustration from some
members who are interested in multiple topics, most likely due to how the individuals
have modelled the interactions mentally – e.g. why should two people who are
talking about a range of subjects have to keep switching which “chatroom” they
converse in. Relationships are still point-to-point.
6 Months After Launch
Most of the theme chatrooms are now dormant, most of the
activity has gravitated towards one or two Themes. There’s some blurring
between the competing mental models – relationships are person-to-person and
Analysing my predictions
One of the most significant challenges I’ve seen in Knowledge Management things is the belief (usually tacit) that it’s all about the content. I believe it’s all about the relationship, and the knowledge of who to talk to when a person needs to know something. My predictions have a base assumption that Knowledge can be structured and organised at a fine grain. I think that’s an assumption that’s also being made by the majority. I’m expecting this assumption to be proven to be false and that we will pivot back to trying to be more of a community than a knowledge repository. Looking at the population numbers, I don’t believe there’s any need for more than two or possibly three communities (eventually).