Friday, July 10, 2009

Approaches to Sustainability: Embedded KM

[Continued from Sustainable KM: Principles & Approaches]

The first approach to sustainable KM is fairly obvious: embedded KM. This is where you embed knowledge management practices into the existing business processes. Some of the benefits to embedded KM are:

  • Rapid adoption
  • Tied to business metrics

An added advantage is that -- if done properly -- there is little or no need for training since there is little or no change to behavior. If you place the knowledge management procedures in the existing operational processes, they will be completed by people as they perform their day-to-day work.

This is best explained by example:

  • Say your business process already includes reviews at key milestones. It is likely that certain documents are required for the review: project overview, costs, schedule, etc. There may already be a template for these documents.
  • If one of your KM goals is to make employees more aware of other projects to increase shared resources and reduce overlap, an easy way to do this would be to simply collect the project overviews from each review to create a project catalog.

First, let's look at an embedded KM solution with little or no change to the process. Since the documents are already being created and the review is an existing milestone in the process, the only work needed to implement the KM catalog is creating the repository (a one-time event) and influencing the review managers to post the appropriate documents in it. Working with the managers responsible for the reviews, it should not be a major hurdle to get this slight modification to the standard process in place.

However, collecting information is only part of the solution. To have any impact at all, the information has to be used. And, quite frankly, a directory full of unsorted documents is neither particularly useful nor appealing to anyone. So to complete the circle there are at least two additional steps:

  • Adding steps to the project lifecycle to remind team members to use the repository. (Again, this is best done by tweeking existing process steps or milestones, such as the steps for starting the requirements gathering, design, and/or implementation stages.)
  • Making the repository easy to use.

The latter step sounds deceptively simple, but is really the crux of where KM projects go astray from a sustainability perspective. For the repository to be useful, it needs to be searchable/sortable in some meaningful way. The primary way to do this is to provide metadata about the documents; classifications such as industry, country, client name, etc.

Rarely is the interesting information clearly or consistently labeled in business documents. So the only way to effectively add the metadata is to:

  • Require those contributing to the repository to fill out the metadata for each item
  • Modify the templates used to include specific fields for the metadata (and get the authors to use them correctly)

Suddenly our simple update to an existing process has become far more complex. Getting people to fill out input forms including metadata is extremely hard; they are either put off by the form and so resist contributing or they fill out the form with incomplete or misleading information. The same problem occurs when templates contain embedded fields. Making sure everyone uses the new templates and uses them correctly is a significant training and communication task, besides the effort required to maintain and periodically update the templates. Finally, the only way to make sure the forms or templates are being filled out correctly is to monitor the submissions to make sure they are complete and meaningful.

As you can see, a simple "improvement" to the system quickly burgeons into extended activities required to maintain and support the process. Conceptually, you can view a "capture & reuse" program such as described as being positioned somewhere on a curve from no modification to optimized for reuse.

When there is little or no modification to the content, very little management needs to be applied and the process is highly sustainable. Unfortunately, this also leaves the work of providing relevance up to the users of the content, which is often too much to make the effort worthwhile. (In other words, the system may go unused and have little value.)

To make the information usable, it needs to be modified to provide relevance. However, doing this requires changes to the process by which it is captured, adding new challenges in communicating the new process, training the users, and encouraging submissions. The content becomes more usable, but significant, ongoing effort is required to enforce and monitor the submissions, since the effort is now put on the contributors rather than the end users. In other words, an unsustainable process.

The trick is to find the middle ground (indicated by the blue box in the following diagram), where the content is usable enough and the contribution process simple enough that people can and will manage their own use of the system. Experience teaches us that this "sweet spot" can be an extremely narrow segment of the curve and very hard to hit.

Now, I must confess. I cheated in my previous example. Creating a project catalog from existing documents is often the first instinct. But as I point out, processes managing this sort of explicit knowledge quickly evolve into complex, unsustainable programs from only minor "improvements".

So let's consider an alternative. Rather than trying to make all project knowledge available to anyone, what if we simply try to expand the current knowledge base incrementally over time? Rather than collecting the review documents, why not include at least one reviewer from an unrelated project to each review? This could be an architect, implementer, or project manager as long as that person can provide an objective, outside view of the project progress.

This approach has numerous benefits, but two in particular are related to our example:

  • First, from a project management perspective, the outside reviewer helps to keep the project team "honest". It is easy for internal reviews to become formulaic rubber stamp events if those involved are all working on the project.They do not have enough distance to see hidden pitfalls and will resist calling foul on people they have to work with on a daily basis.
  • Second, from a KM perspective, including outsiders gives at least one person a much more indepth and personal knowledge than could ever be gained by reading a set of historical documents with no one to explain them. Another value from a KM perspective is the opportunity the reviewer and the project team have to exchange knowledge, hints, and tips on the fly and in context of the discussion.

The outside reviewer will take this knowledge back to their own project where it may or may not be used immediately. But it will stick with that person for a long, long time due to their intimate interaction with the other team.

What is required to make this program work? Initiating the program may be difficult because it requires diplomacy. On the other hand, it involves only a limited number of people. What is needed is to convince management (either of the project teams or of the review process itself) of the efficacy of including outside reviewers. Although there are KM benefits, the real advantage is that the proposed process has management benefits, as described, and will make the reviews more meaningful.

Once you succeed at convincing them to make the modification to the review process, the program then becomes essentially self-managing from a KM perspective. The project management teams are responsible for ensuring outside reviewers are included and with each review, little by little, knowledge is shared across the organization.

Again, there are a number of details I have left out that will impact the efficacy of such a program. How outside reviewers are selected and/or rewarded for their efforts can significantly impact the extent to which knowledge spreads as well as the reviewers' willingness to participate. But all of these factors can be addressed either up front or at a periodic (annual?) review of the program, with little impact to the individuals who carry out the plan. The program will continue to expand the knowledge base over time with little or no input from the KM team. The KM team can move on to addressing other issues without being tied up in maintaining the review process, in the best sense of sustainable KM.