Identifying Critical Knowledge Starts with Good Collaboration

Lauren Trees's picture

APQC recently interviewed Jack Vinson on a wide range of topics regarding transferring critical knowledge. In part one of our interview, he talks about why identifying critical knowledge can be a difficult collaboration between management and workers. In part two, Jack will discuss the challenge of transferring and using critical knowledge during a crisis.

Jack Vinson is a knowledge management advocate who has been a consultant with P3Consulting Group, a project manager at Aspen Technology, and an adjunct faculty member at Northwestern University. You can follow Jack on Twitter @jackvinson and read his blog, Knowledge Jolt with Jack.

If you would like to learn more about transferring and applying critical knowledge, listen to our free webinar 12 Best Practices to Transfer and Apply Critical Knowledge or check out our Transferring and Applying Critical Knowledge Study Overview.

APQC:  Jack, we just completed a study on transferring and applying critical knowledge, and one of the interesting findings in our report was that best-practice organizations rely on business leaders to identify critical knowledge, since they are the ones who know what’s important, but the organization has to provide some criteria on which business leaders can base their decisions.  What are the keys for an organization in identifying that critical knowledge? 

JACK VINSON:  I like the way you framed the question. One of the things I look at is: Well, what is the organization trying to do? And, specifically around the knowledge question, you have to look at it as: Where does the organization, where does the flow of work, whether it’s a project organization or a manufacturing organization, frequently get stuck? Where do we find that there’s some interface between the guys doing engineering design and the guys trying to build the design?  Where do they get stuck?  Do they get stuck at the outset?  Do they get stuck halfway through?  What is the type of—I’ll use the word “knowledge,” but of course we know that the definition of knowledge is fraught with difficulty.

What is the thing that we need to know that we don’t know? Where did we miss out?  Was there a key collaboration that we missed out on?  Does that lead you down a path of looking at collaboration?  Was there not clarity on the use-case between what the engineers thought and what the builders thought?  You know, engineers in an IT shop vs. the users at the customer.

Depending on where you find the most frequent causes of—I want to use “stuck-i-ness;” I don’t know what the word is—holdup, that’s where you want to address the question of: Well, this is the critical knowledge. This is the critical information that we need to enable this work to flow better.

APQC:  One of the interesting things in our findings is that it’s best to have a combination of top-down and grassroots approaches to identify critical knowledge.  That sounds really great in a study and on paper, but in the real world, there’s always sort of a hierarchy and there’s going to be a dominant voice and they’re going to decide, “This is what I think is critical, and since I’m the boss, everyone will follow.”  In your experience, in most organizations, who makes those calls?  And the people that make the calls, are they the ones who should be doing so?

JACK VINSON:  I think one of the challenges that I’ve seen in many, many organizations, is that if they don’t spend some time thinking about what’s going on, and they make assumptions, then you see situations where somebody with authority—and again, it could be the role authority, or it could just be personality, right?  Somebody with a lot of relationship authority says, “Well, this is what we have to do,” and they make that happen, but it still doesn’t unstick the organization.  So, what I find is that definitely happens.  What your observations suggest is something that definitely happens. People in authority make decisions.

My take on that—and one of my big takes about knowledge management in general—is that knowledge management has to be about helping the organization get things done.  It can’t be just about collecting things for “just in case,” or “collecting everything that we could possibly ever think of;” it really has to be “helping us get things done.”  In my mind, the responsibility of the people with the role power has to be to understand the system, and back to my first point, understanding really where is that lack of knowledge, or the wrong knowledge—again, fraught with difficulties in definition—that “the lack of knowledge is causing us pain.”  Or, “if we had more knowledge, we could get even more of something we really want.” Frequently with businesses, what we really want in the end is paying customers that are happy and that come back to us so that we get repeat business and we can grow and continue to thrive.

Really, the role, I think, for business leaders is to go beyond. The gut may actually tell you something really good, but to check it and ask, “Is this kind of thing causing us problems?”  So, lack of collaboration or lack of consistent document management or lack of good research services in our library.  Again, you can think about it from both sides. Is it a significant limitation to our business, or, if we were able to get more of that, would it release some capacity and enable us to get more of that key goal for the organization?

APQC:  Is there sort of a push and pull, where you have the people that are down in it, doing the work and the day-to-day stuff—do you have a push and pull where they might say, “Hey, we’ve got to collect all this information because we’ve got to get stuff done in the field,” and you have the board or the CEO saying, “No, no, this is the most critical?”  How do you navigate that push and pull if you start having friction and people disagreeing on what is critical knowledge?

JACK VINSON:  I’m going to give two answers.  One of the beauties of the world today is that we can frequently allow for both of those things to happen.  At some point, if people are really stuck—so I’m thinking about the grassroots—and they need something, they’ll figure it out, right?

So, of course, the people who are trying to keep the organization under some semblance of control and structure react strongly to that because they say, “Wait a minute!  Wait a minute!  You’re going onto some cloud service.  How do I know it’s secure?  Oh my goodness, what’s going to happen to my data?”  I think that’s exactly what you’re talking about, right? How much control do we apply vs. how much do we let people—you know, let a thousand flowers bloom? So, the question is, really, how do you resolve the conflict?

APQC:  A lot of organizations focus a lot of attention on protecting and preserving knowledge. Our best-practice organizations are concerned about that, but they adopt a philosophy: Share unless you can’t.  But in many firms, employees fear sharing the information with either the wrong people or too many people. What’s your philosophy on sharing? 

JACK VINSON:  I think some of it is the history of knowledge management, the strong IT component of knowledge management that says: Well, we can develop some IT solutions that do some very specific things, like archiving every possible document we could ever create.  Well, if you have a technology solution that does that, then you start worrying about those kinds of things.

As you were talking, I was kind of thinking, well, it’s not really “share unless you can’t.”  The question is really—and I’m not sure I have the right phrasing, but—share what is needed. I’ve worked in the pharma industry where there are all the regulations around what you have to keep.  I worked with legal firms where, particularly with a good enough sized legal firm, you have to have the firewalls that protect one part of the business from the other so that they don’t share proprietary information.  And I’ve worked in financial services, which has the same kind of issues. 

So, the issue really is back to the question of: What is it that we need to be able to do our business?  There’s sort of the basic, okay, yes, we understand that we need to have the technology, document management systems or what have you. That may end up creating the situation of, worst-case, somebody walks away with proprietary knowledge. But from a knowledge management perspective, again, what is it that we need to be able to do? There’s a real key aspect of being able to access historical reports—maybe not historical, but reports that we’ve generated longer than the last six months, so, longer than the lead time of people’s memory, right?

Can we get back to the classic HP quote of: Do we know what we know? Is there some way to allow for that, because we believe that specific type of knowledge is going to help us go forward?  Then there needs to be some mechanism; there needs to be the internal expectation around—and this has nothing to do with knowledge management, but just has to do with business management, and not so much the legal “sign this in blood, and if you do something wrong, we’re going to sue you”—it’s just: “What is the expectation that we have?”  Sure, we have a lot of stuff out there, but what we expect for you is to be able to find the people and find the information that you need. 

I think a lot more of it is finding the people.  Ten years ago in knowledge management, people talked about connecting people and documents and this kind of thing. I think, over the last five years even, that’s really shifted to being able to connect people together. In smallish organizations, you can still have those conversations, but the way people connect, many times, is by discovering that, “Hey, I have a shared interest,” and that shared interest may be because our internal collaboration platform says we’re both interested in cycling, or it might be because I found something that you’ve written that has to do with a problem that I’m trying to solve. The thing that you’ve written might be interesting, but what I really want is to pick your brain.

Again, now we’re thinking about more of a collaboration direction.  The tools need to facilitate the ability of people to connect.

Then the other thing that needs to happen is that the policies in the organization—so maybe this is where management comes in and both needs to set the policy and set the example of: You know what?  It’s got to be okay for me to cross boundaries and find people, and not only find them, but actually talk to people who have additional knowledge that is going to help this particular project.  It’s got to be acceptable for them to give up a little bit of their time to support a project that doesn’t play, necessarily, in their divisions quarterly report, or whatever it might be.  So, there’s a lot of the policy practice that has to be enabled. That, I think, is something that leadership—again, another fraught term—and the organization needs to reinforce.  If we want that to work, we have to reinforce that.  We have to provide examples.  Good old Steve Denning telling the story of, “Here’s a situation where this worked really well, and isn’t that great?” and “Boy, would we like to see more of that happening!”

 “Oh, that was okay?  Let’s do more of that,” versus the stories that frequently get told, of, “Hey, I went and asked somebody for help and they helped me, but then their manager gave him a whack because they spent five hours with me instead of on some other project.” That’s going to kill collaboration.  Unfortunately, those stories get told and either leadership doesn’t know that they’re being told or doesn’t listen to the fact that they’re being told, and then they wonder why collaboration isn’t working.  So, there’s a lot of stuff that has to work well for some of that stuff to really take off.

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