K Street Newsletter :: Directions

August 2019    |    VOLUME 17, ISSUE 8

Sharing Great Ideas

One of the biggest obstacles in Knowledge Management is overcoming the reluctance people have when comes to sharing their ideas. You need a very solid foundation of trust before most people will make a suggestion. There's a fear of ridicule, or being wrong or simply misunderstanding the tactical landscape. Just because the boss says she values your opinion, doesn't necessarily mean it's true.

You might be surprised to learn that one of the most forward-looking KM organizations is the United States Army. Since the 1970s, they've used something called an After Action Review (AAR) to evaluate a unit's experiences. It's a classic Lessons Learned exercise, aimed at documenting what we did, how it went and what would we do differently next time. And as the manual says, "the key is the spirit in which AARs are given."

So we liked this article about how a Stryker brigade in northern Iraq collectively learned how to make the best use of its first surveillance drone. One soldier remembered seeing live video pumped to different monitors around a baseball stadium. Applying the same technology let them display the drone's video on every computer in the operations center, instead of just the drone's dedicated hardware. That led to something called StrykerNet, a virtual community for exchanging related ideas and insights. And by 2008, this community network had been scaled up to support 20,000 soldiers. By recognizing innovation and creativity, the Army was able to generate the kind of bottom-up ideas that made a difference. It saved lives.
 

Is knowledge power?

Research shows that knowledge sharing leads to greater creativity, more innovation and better performance. But it also finds that many employees tend to hoard their knowledge, in many different ways. They might pretend not to know something, or promise to share but fail to follow through. It's a behavior rooted in the days when knowledge really was power. The late, great Peter Drucker said "Trying to instill Knowledge Sharing is a struggle, since it reverses 25,000 years of human history. Human beings in the wild are completely defenseless, so it's natural that we want to put our backs to the wall." Given today's rapid pace of change, the knowledge-is-power days are numbered. The shelf-life of business knowledge gets shorter every year, and power is now rooted in relationships, networks and collaboration.

The authors of this article found that jobs with more cognitive complexity tended to promote knowledge sharing. The same was true of jobs that offered more autonomy. That suggests that the way jobs are defined can help encourage people to share their knowledge. Pressuring people to share knowledge isn't likely to succeed, if they don't already see the value of it. If managers want to establish effective knowledge sharing they need to design jobs that make people want to talk about what they know.
 

 

Street Smarts 190: Encourage collaboration.

There are lots of reasons people opt not to collaborate, as mentioned in other articles this month. That's true even though organizations know they'll benefit from successful collaboration, as do most participants. When people produce something as a group that they could not have produced as individuals, there's a huge sense of accomplishment. Teamwork feels good, but you can't force people to be good team players. All you can do is encourage them. And one way to do that is to establish an environment where individuals feel personally appreciated and respected.

The author of this article suggests an exercise rooted in improvisational comedy. A principle of improv is that you can never contradict a partner -- you need to build on what each member contributes. In the exercise, a facilitator divides a group into two teams; call them A and B. In the first round, Team A offers ideas on some selected topic, and Team B responds with "Yes... but." They get the idea, and then give a reason why it can't be done. In the second round, Team B takes a "Yes... and" approach. They get the idea and add something to expand on it. The exercise makes it clear that it's very hard to contribute ideas when they're rejected out of hand, and very easy when input is valued.
 

 

Deep Smarts

Knowledge Managers are tasked with trying to hold onto the hard-won know-how of retirees: experience-based, business-critical knowledge that is sometimes called "deep smarts." This kind of knowledge may be technical or managerial. It might be knowledge of customer relationships or corporate operations. And if it goes out the door when senior staff retires, it may be gone for good. Companies can definitely be hurt by this kind of knowledge loss, and many are looking for ways to address it. But they may not be considering the experts' various motivations for hoarding knowledge in the first place.

There are financial incentives for one thing. Experts know they might be brought back as consultants, doing essentially the same job for a lot more money. This article suggests that hiring back retirees is shortsighted since it doesn't address the root problem. The re-hired expert still has no incentive to mentor more junior employees and transfer his or her knowledge back to the company. Some companies, like GE, have changed their hiring practices so that re-hired experts are tasked exclusively with training and mentoring, not returned to their operational positions. Another strategy is to put programs in place that will nip knowledge hoarding in the bud. Base compensation on team performance, so experts are motivated to transfer what they know for their collective benefit. And be alert for resentment among senior staff. People who feel they've been undervalued have another reason for keeping their knowledge to themselves.
 

The Importance of Doing Nothing

Now that we're deep into the summer, we wanted to revisit the importance of down time. Workers today are always at risk of information overload. It's not a new problem, but it's gotten worse since most of us have become reachable 24 by 7. You can't leave work behind when you walk out the door, unless you're extremely self-disciplined. Unfortunately, business culture has devolved to the point where it's no longer considered rude to call a co-worker about business, even after hours or on the weekend. Or even on vacation!

But as considered in this article, our brains need to power down from time to time. Otherwise, it's very hard to integrate new information with what you already know and thereby learn something new. Many of us have become rabid information consumers, and you can see it almost anywhere you look. People can't enjoy a simple cup of coffee without the comfort of their smartphones. We have personally watched young mothers pushing swings with one hand while texting with the other. Or even worse, sitting off to the side checking in with Facebook while the kids play on their own. The most effective knowledge workers are those who can find time to both act and reflect, and that means unplugging from the need to keep busy. That's the real trick for working smarter.

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