Knowledge Management is urgent

KMUrgentThe Maeslantbarrier in The Netherlands is a unique piece of water engineering. It is a storm barrier of epic proportions and inventive technology. It has been created between 1991 and 1997.

People who have designed, built and maintained it are nearing their retirement, and it is essential that the knowledge of this artefact does not get lost. Therefore the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, the owner of this construction, organizes regular training sessions for everyone who works with the barrier. And because they have found that learning-on-the-job is more effective for such a unique piece of engineering, they also work according to the age-old master-and-apprentice model to exchange information.

The article that I am citing above (in Dutch) also has a scary statistic (by Paul van den Brink, KM specialist)

90-95 % of companies in the Netherlands do not take any action to keep knowledge and expertise in the company.
And that while the population of The Netherlands is ageing, and many people are facing retirement, or being laid off due to reorganizations or bankruptcies.

I think we have all complained that nowadays it takes so long before a vacancy has been filled. Having 3-6 months between departure and arrival is not only annoying for colleagues; it also means that there is no time at all for knowledge exchange and that new employees start at level zero – again. Everything that the old employee has learned in their job, is gone – at least for the organization.

Of course you can sit back and think: “Oh well, I will wait until we have a company strategy on knowledge, or until we have figured out what the company knowledge is that may not be lost.” Or “Yeah right, we do not have Watson or any other machine learning software, so I can not start.”

Think again. There is knowledge involved in your job. It may not be the strategic company knowledge, such as “developing and marketing new coffee products for consumers and foodservice”, but you have specific knowledge of the products and processes in your role. It would be a waste of time and effort if colleagues can not use it now, or find it after you have left.

You can also do Knowledge Management on a smaller scale than Company-wide. I think it will even be easier if you can just focus on your own knowledge and your needs. Check out the knowledge products I shared earlier – and my example of the Tips & Tricks list.

Writing these posts is a little harder for me that writing about SharePoint stuff or videos. But with the frightening statistics above (and I expect they will be similar in other Western countries), I have promised myself to finish the rest of my “KM Memoirs” as soon as possible.

So, if you promise to think and act about collecting and sharing the knowledge of your job NOW, I promise I will help you with some simple and easy tools!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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KM – a practical example

In my opinion, the way to embed Knowledge Management in an organization is to a. avoid using the  term “Knowledge Management” as much as possible (like “Employee Engagement”, but that is another topic) and b.  keep it practical and aligned with the needs of the business or team.
That means you will still have to know the theory and do the thinking process, but you need to translate it into one or more products that work for you.

This is a small, but powerful, example of practical knowledge management: a list of good practices. This is one of the Knowledge Products from my earlier post.

In my earlier role, we had a team of 5 people creating Business Solutions, sites that were custom-configured to facilitate processes. Scroll through the tag “Business Example” to see what I mean. We advertised our services as “We have the experience, and we configure all solutions in a consistent, user-friendly, low-maintenance way”. We had expectations to live up to!

What did we do?

One of our tools was our “Good Practices List”. Here we added experiences, common issues, uncommon bugs, workarounds, useful URL’s, and other things we had found,  wanted to share and/or did not want to forget. Examples:

  • We agreed on a standard button from a button-creation website, and stored preferred shape, shadow, colours, typeface and font information.
  • We collaborated on a good explanation of the difference between targeting and permission settings.
  • We discussed the pros and cons of Choice and Lookup columns and as a result created some recommendations of when to use which type. (I turned it into a blog post)
  • We stored code snippets and instructions on how to use them for instance to change text colour on the edit page of a list item.

Everyone was free to add or comment on each item. We discussed new items and changes every two weeks in our team call.
At first, we all felt a bit hesitant. Sometimes we thought: “is this important enough to even write about it, let alone call it a good practice?” But once we got used to it, and we started to re-use more and more ideas from our list, it started to become a game. Who could add the most practices? Who found the next unexpected issue in our rather finicky content query tool? Who would finally find the code to use conditionally coloured texts in list columns?

Good Practices List
This is what the list looked like. Quite simple, right?

 

What were the results?

  • We became more aware of the benefits of having and sharing good practices. We learned about so many issues, small and large, that with every new solution we created, we thought more deeply about implications of changes over time, common misunderstandings from users, daily and on-demand maintenance etc.
  • We turned out to be complementing each other: one was very good at code; the other with visual design, etc. Each of us had our specialties that the others could learn from. We were stimulated to show our talents. This also resulted in shorter development cycles (we did not have to reinvent every wheel), and a better distribution of projects over the team.
  • Our solutions became indeed more consistent.

I am still using the knowledge from that list. Many SharePoint functionalities have not changed that much over time and some practices are still relevant. I have created a similar list in my current role.

It is not magic. In fact, the list itself was pretty straightforward:

GoodPractice
Only 4 fields to fill to submit a good practice.

It was just being practical and realizing that creating and sharing experiences is fun and helped the team forward. It gave us all recognition.
So, this simple SharePoint list supported Knowledge Management AND Gamification! 🙂

KM – which “knowledge product” do you need?

KM-ProductsIn my earlier post we have identified our experts. Now we have to decide what to do with them :-).

You may want to ask yourself these questions:

  • Which knowledge does this person need to transfer?
  • Which “product” does the remaining team need?
  • What is the best method to create this product?

And you thought you could just apply a simple flowchart and all would be solved!  🙂
No, I am afraid you will have to do some thinking (as with every tool). Some knowledge products will be better for your team than others. Is a simple contact list of  internal and external experts sufficient, or do they need an extensive manual?
It also depends on your expert – is he/she a good speaker and happy to chat freely into a microphone and camera, or do they prefer to condense their knowledge into a mindmap?
You are the one who knows the situation best!

Knowledge Products

In general it will be your expert and your team who will create the product. However you may need other professionals, e.g. writers, education professionals, designers, video editors etc. This is depending on your needs, the aspirational level (is this just for your team or for all the company?), and on the skills of the expert.
The knowledge products below are loosely sorted from generally easy to create (1) to very resource-intensive (14). Not all of them may be suitable for an expert who will leave in 2 months time, but there may be a few that you may want to start creating immediately, before any of your experts leave!

I am indebted for the overview to Rob van der Spek, who was our knowledge management advisor at the time.

  1. Lists of resources
    Examples: A list of contact details of experts, customers, suppliers or organizations; a list of relevant websites.
  2. Blogs
    This can be a “manual in many chapters” and may be easier to digest and apply for the audience than a fullblown manual, especially when the expert starts blogging as soon as possible.
  3. Instruction Video
    A video of how to do something (cleaning a machine, conducting an experiment or configuring a team site) can be highly useful and easier to create and absorb than a written manual.
  4. Frequently Asked Questions
    This tool is especially useful when questions reoccur because the target audience is changing and new people are asking ‘old’ questions.
  5. Mindmaps
    These are especially appropriate for knowledge areas that consist of many relationships and associations, including diverse knowledge sources. They will provide a structure and the relationships of a topic only – the audience should be able to understand this level of abstraction.

    Mindmap
    Example of a mindmap. Highly abstract and schematic, but for the right audience it will be useful.
  6. Templates or macros
    Templates provide direct guidance to employees to create products in the company based upon earlier experiences. Think about project statements, market introduction procedures or weekly measurement reports.
  7. Top 5 do’s and don’ts
    This can be a list, a podcast (perhaps with a good story added to it as illustration) or a more fancy format such as an animated video or an information poster. Senior management love them, but be aware that you can easily oversimplify complex situations by reducing them to a bullet-point list.
  8. Decision Trees/ Process Flowcharts
    These are especially useful to structure process knowledge (which steps to take?), problem solving (what might be the problem and which solution should we try?) and selection problems (what is the best way to …?)
    They look simple, but creating one can take some time! Check out my flowchart to retrieve a disappeared web part.
  9. Good practices
    A ‘good practice’ has been implemented in operations and has proven to improve business results. I will show you an example later.
  10. Case studies
    A case study describes a situation from the past including the activities, decisions and outcomes that happened. Case studies are very popular to transfer experiences, and they are especially useful when the knowledge was very specific for a certain situation but provides general lessons for the future, for instance for the launch of a new product, or a merger/acquisition.
  11. Educational materials 
    All the products mentioned in this list are potential training materials. Good educational materials must focus on clear learning objectives, to-the-point information, and exercises and feedback mechanisms.
  12. E-learning
    If you plan to distribute the expert’s knowledge to a larger audience, which is also scattered around the globe, e-learning will be the best solution. This will need an e-learning expert.
  13. Handbooks/manuals
    Handbooks and manuals describe in a structured way how to perform actions, how a technology works  or how to perform diagnostics. They are most useful if the knowledge is easy to structure and does not change very often. You best create a handbook when you have a large audience with similar and repetitive tasks, which is willing and able to read this documentation when necessary.
    Today’s handbook/manual is very visual, with a strong structure, and bite-sized and searchable content.
  14. IT-systems.
    At that time my previous company had no idea which  type of knowledge we most needed to retain and build on, so all vendor attempts to sell us a “knowledge system” were in vain.  New product development? R&D? Knowledge about the customer? Financial risk analysis?
    By now, dedicated products to collect and analyse knowledge have been developed such as IT-ticketing systems and  CRM-suites, which work with large amounts of structured data. Also, knowledge-based simulation software is now more common, reducing the need to do physical experiments.
    IBM’s Watson is a class of its own: it works with unstructured data!

As mentioned, I did this project around 2000. In the mean time, more products may have become popular.  Which knowledge products do you use most frequently? Have I missed some good ones?

Next time, I will show you one of the knowledge products I have co-created. It is about and on SharePoint, so it’s back to the roots of my blog!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

KM – Who is that “leaving expert”?

KM-Leaving ExpertsOne of my Knowledge Management projects was finding ways to retain and redistribute the knowledge of experts that were leaving the company.

At that time, before the recent economic crisis, most leavers were job-hoppers or retirees.

Knowledge management tactic at that time was focusing on manuals, learning histories and other formal tools that take lots of time and effort to create and that nobody has the time or patience to read nowadays. 🙂
Video was still a lot of hassle with studios and tons of large equipment. Social media did not exist.

In the meantime, many things have happened and there are so many new ways to capture and distribute knowledge that I have modernized and streamlined my old “Leaving Experts” documentation. The concept is still valid, though!

Before you jump headfirst into applying the principles to every employee that says goodbye, please answer these questions:

  1. Is departure hostile, e.g. is someone being fired or made redundant?
    If yes, be very careful. People may not want to leave their knowledge behind. In most cases, doing nothing is the best thing.
    You can try to ask for the very tangible things that you know they have, such as manuals or reports they have created, or a contacts list, but do not expect them to spend any effort to make things easier for you.
    Losing company knowledge is a long-term side effect of making people redundant. Most organizations only look at short-term results, especially at times of financial panic.
  2. Does the person have unique knowledge?
    If not, do nothing.
  3. In which timeframe will this person leave?
    A jobhopper will probably leave in less than 3 months time and you will need to take action fast.
    A retiree’s departure is generally planned beforehand and you will have more time to capture knowledge. It may even be very rewarding to the retiree to be asked to capture his/her knowledge for posterity!
  4. Will the person stay in the company?
    It is always a good idea to agree to keep in touch. Get connected on LinkedIn, at the very least.
    If the person stays within the company you have a little more room to maneuver, but keep in mind they have moved to another department for a reason! Still, it may be good to agree on a certain time that the person will be available for questions.
    If the person moves outside the company, you have even less time and opportunity, so focus on the essentials.

This is the first part of my “Leaving Experts Decision Tree”.

KM-Leavingexpertspart1
The first questions to ask if someone leaves the organization.

The above has nothing to do with technology. (Well, except perhaps LinkedIn 🙂 ) But you know that Knowledge Management is not just about a tool.  It also means you will need to have some processes in place:

  • A succession and risk planning process. This will give you an overview of everyone with critical knowledge, their expected “lifespan” at their position, the exact problems you foresee should they suddenly leave (including serious illness or death), their likely next career steps and/or retirement.
  • A fast-track procedure to recruit new personnel if someone with critical knowledge suddenly leaves. At the moment, a 3 to 6 month gap between roles appears to be common. This does not help knowledge transfer.
  • And of course, a process to capture knowledge on-the-go on an ongoing basis to avoid stress and emergency measures when someone suddenly leaves. I recently learned about Microsoft’s knowledge management process. I have one at my company, focusing on IT-related knowledge. Unfortunately, the processes appear to be in place mostly at consulting and IT-organizations, but I hope that is because of my own “filter bubble”.
    Fortunately, “working out loud” is gaining traction in other places.
    I hope we all end up at the same place.

Next time I will share the toolkit for those people that need to transfer their knowledge.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net