Chicken or Egg: Sharing Culture required for KM?

16 Jun

Lot’s of organizations are trying to establish better systems to share information among employees. This is usually known as Knowledge Management (KM). Here is a decent description for our purposes. We could get into a deep discussion about the concept of managing knowledge but we will skip that for now.

The very simple but powerful idea is that organizations are comprised of a group of people who hold vast amounts of information about how they do their collective jobs. While they use this information on a day to day basis, they usually don’t share it with others. The lack of sharing creates inefficiencies, steep learning curves for new hires, and less chances to identify where changes could make a difference. Organization’s seems to know their workers are the real experts so they want to lean on these workers to improve performance, identify inefficiencies, and drive overall organizational success. In short, knowledge buried within organizations is generally accepted as an untapped resource for organizations. KM is lauded as the way to tap into all of this great stuff. So, the business case or ROI of this untapped knowledge is unchallenged currently.

As a whole, industry is now focused on implementing KM since the consensus is that KM is a great thing. As companies contemplate getting batter at KM, they wonder how implementation should work. Most fixate on the technology required (SharePoint, etc.) and the training on these new systems. The implementation of KM basically is two-phased: 1) buy KM application/system and then 2) get everyone in to start filling the repository with information (knowledge). The KM initiative invariably becomes a giant data collection effort. Some thinkers (such as Polanyi most famously) call this making the tacit explicit. The problem is that these KM initiatives rarely survive much after the first knowledge accumulation phase. Employees see the process as extra work, little of the collected information is really used, usually the system purchased for KM is hard to navigate, and leadership ceases to push the initiative. While the business case for KM was made long ago, the actual implementation of the concept has been limping along for decades with much more failure than success.

With so much implementation failure, most agree there is some missing ingredient necessary for long-term success. I’m in the camp that believes successful long-term KM requires much more than an IT system or swanky enterprise-wide information collection. What is missing in this process is the concept of the organization’s culture that needs to be present to make KM really work. Harold Jarche makes a good case for the required culture for successful KM along with a few other ingredients like organizational structure and the proper support from leadership.

Jarche makes the case for leaders needing to cultivate the required network within organizations promoting a culture of trust. I look at leaders as a necessary component of the overall culture. So, call it a culture of leadership. In the end, it’s about having the right supportive environment for employees who need to create lasting and trusting networks where the information is shared. As you can see, this goes far beyond the IT system itself.

I’m going to be looking into the required culture for successful KM over the next few weeks. Obviously, I’m not the first to fixate on this … we will see where this goes.



11 Jun

You could probably have a three day debate about the significance of the two terms Instructional Design (ID) and Instructional Systems Design (ISD). Are they the same? Completely different? Most could say that the difference is tiny and even more would probably say they mean the same thing. In our new world of learning and development, I think there is a need to describe two different learning design functions and maybe these two terms can now have something distinctly different to hang their hat on now …

What I need is a nice pair of titles/terms to describe two functions within learning design: one term for the act of designing and developing discrete learning content (modules or courses, etc.) while the other term would describe the act of designing and developing learning environments. The two learning design functions are different enough that I think we need two terms. For now, I propose using ID for learning content D&D and ISD for learning environment D&D.

Selfishly, this is driven by the fact that I am much more involved in the design and development of learning environments (ISD) than learning content (ID). In literally hundreds of conversations over the past three years, I’ve found myself sort of taking issue with what I do being described as ID and looking across the table at the term ISD as somehow more suitable. Is there any rationale? Probably not! I just have this driving need to find a way to make distinct what I do for my clients vice what I used to do back in my days in eLearning.

My current work is about creating a series of social experiences and building an environment (virtual and physical) for learners in the corporate workspace. In actuality, this is all ID and in fact I use ID theory on a daily basis to create these social experiences. So, this isn’t a debate about me NOT practicing ID. This debate is about the fact that I have little in common on day to day work with traditional instructional designers.

My previous work mostly involved the classic ID functions of a learner and task analysis, design and development of discrete content objects (for ILT and online training), etc. I was a classic instructional designer. However, my work moved to new places and I have a hard time putting what I do in the same bucket as my previous work. I’m human … I need to categorize to make sense!

My current work is social in nature, loose in structure, conversation and experience-based,  and geared towards applied learning spaces. My driving mantra is that 1) peers learn best from one another  and 2) high-level management usually has about 90% of the answers among them already. Does this mean it’s a closed system of learning … no. Does this mean they learn naturally on their own … yes. Does it mean they cannot be helped with some facilitated learning … certainly not. I do bring value to the engagements. This work I do facilitating this learning to me is what I mean when I say that I design learning environments or learning experiences. What do I title this? Is this the same as building courses?

For now, Instructional Systems Design seems to fit the bill the best. I’m sure there are other terms out there. So, the purpose of this blog post is to kick-start my own exploration into the best way to describe what I do …

In Search of Simplicity …

24 May

Showing ROI

In consulting, you often are faced with a dilemma where you feel pressured to prove your “analytic value” to the client by delivering complex techniques and in-depth opinion based on copious piles of data. You feel you need to prove your worth to the the client and the connected business case for your cost to the organization. Sometimes this sort of pressure drives you to better answers and deeper analysis … but most of the time it takes you away from what the client really needs.
What the Client Really Wants
The irony of this situation is that the client really just wants a way to cut through the complexity of their job and the decisions required to move an organization along. Buried in detail, data, and problems, clients are searching for patterns, explanations, priorities, and next steps.
Painting a Better Picture
As a consultant, are job needs to be what the challenge requires for our clients. Oftentimes, the real client needs focus on clarity, simplicity, and patterns. They actually seek explanations for their problems; however, often they are simply looking for the next best step to take as leader.
Intricate Detail of Nature's Perfection
You can find this great art from Harold Davis here.

Order from Chaos – Your Ultimate Value
Instead of working to show the complexity of our methods and proposed solutions, consultants need to focus on simplifying the current environment for their client. The balance between clarification and over-simplification is a fine one and it takes real experience to know when each approach works best. However, modern organizations are flat, under-funded, under-staffed, quick-paced, under duress, and short of cash. Clients are looking for ways to prioritize what they have and order what they need to do next. The luxury of granular processes and in-depth analysis need to make way for simple messages and big-picture patterns for issues.

What is Your Real Deliverable?
So, ask yourself as a consultant what you really bring to the table. What can you deliver to the client? What challenges are they facing right now? Is your value in complex deliverables or simple solutions and clear pictures of complex environments? Will your simple approaches and understandable takes on highly intricate situations drive up your value? Will you bring something to the table that the client really needs as a leader? Stop trying to impress with over-wrought deliverables and focus on the solutions you bring to the client. Be less object and more idea oriented!

The Efficacy of Replication

31 Dec

I’ve grown tired of tools and processes that promise innovation and deep thinking banded together as an end-all-be-all strategic planning device. Beware of sleek process matrices, web-based collaboration tools, and scripted brainstorming models taped and bolted together promising a turn-key solution to creative thinking. Organizations (also known as a collection of human beings) are too complex for approaches always too simplified or abstract for the real world of group problem solving.

That’s not to say there are not tools and approaches that work … however, you need to be able to employ any number of them at any time during the process of problem solving for effective creative thought and problem solving. As a facilitator, you have to be comfortable with an unscripted iterative approach to thinking otherwise known as “the way the real world works”.

This might seem obvious: organizations are complex, remain flexible, try new ideas, learn from mistakes, stay agile in your approach, build on success for long-term progress. However, we seek order out of chaos and that holds true with our never-ending desire for a ready-made solution to problem-solving at the organizational level. We have to be comfortable with the fact that there isn’t one answer.

The last decade has brought a veritable waterfall of new technologies and discoveries about the human mind allowing us to mimic human thought and behavior with more and more fidelity. We have online manifestations of humans, virtual worlds of group dynamics, cheap automated online tools facilitating more communication every year … our ability to create copies of thought and human behavior grows. However, it seems as if the quest to replicate human interaction has only muddied our own results.

We seem to understand more and more about the complexities of human interaction however we seem dead set on continuing to try and automate the process. We’ve moved away from the notion that the inherent complexity of the way groups think their way through a problem is idiosyncratic of being human and too messy for an automated tool or process alone.

These great tools best used to “grease the skids” of thought are now being marketed as replacements for the personal enterprise of interacting with others and solving a shared problem.

The interesting implication here is while we are busy falling in and out of love with the next great solution using the next great technology, we need to be relying more and more on the messy and complex collection of experiences we have as professionals. We need to depend less on tools and more on our own intelligence to read situations, understand people, and read group dynamics in order to facilitate productive thinking and problem solving.

Being human is as important as ever.

Design Thinking

20 Dec

Design Thinking: Embracing the Complex …

I just completed a week-long course in Kansas about design thinking and the facilitation of groups using design thinking to solve complex challenges. The class was fascinating … hard, complex, exhausting … the best class I’ve attended in many many years of workplace learning. Design thinking has some heavy-hitting academics researching the way of thought and has some successful manifestations in business. This course has been a cornerstone of the School for Advanced Military Studies in Leavenworth, Kansas for over a quarter-century. I was lucky enough to take the course from the original professors.

Simply put, design thinking is a way of approaching complex issues or challenges that are made of multiple systems. It is not a set of tools nor a defined process as much as it is a collection of methods to get groups thinking big and delving very deep into a situation. The goal is to move out of the traditional paradigm of thinking (whatever that is for the group at the time) which is causing the vexation as they address the problem. Moving to the edge of thought about the issue, a group can begin to explore alternative solutions, trying out potentials ways ahead, experimenting, learning more as they fail as a group, and ultimately arriving at a novel appropriate solution to the situation.

I’m still an obvious novice but the subject matter will be my focus over the next several months as I explore the possibility of using design thinking in the workplace. I have some key questions:

1. What type of person is a good fit for a design workshop/session/challenge?
2. What types of problems are best addressed with this approach?
3. How do you facilitate a group addressing something that is going to be confusing and vexing?
4. Ultimately, where does design thinking fit into the workplace as a tool/approach?


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