Sunday, January 9, 2011

What Knowledge Management Can Learn from Small Groups

I used to work for a large multinational corporation. I now work for a small startup consisting of 12 people who work in one room together. There is not much "knowledge management" needed with a group that size. That doesn't mean knowledge management doesn't happen, just that it happens more instinctively and with less stress around the edges.

In fact it would seem reasonable to assume that there is little if any relationship between the two situations. But in fact there are some interesting lessons when observing small groups that can be applied to larger corporations:

Everyone is different

Even though my current company consists of only 12 people, there are 12 different personalities and approaches to work, communication, technology, etc. When you work in large organizations, there is a tendency to talk about how people will respond to new programs as if it were a unary decision, where all (or at least most) people respond in one way. We are then surprised by the number of people who fall outside of the defined norm.

Every project or process has a target behavior — how you want people to use the process. But that behavior is only a target. The overall response, when all individual behaviors are taken as an average — may fall within the target range. But any single person is likely to have their own particular usage model that may well be unexpected.

Multiple, overlapping technologies are not a problem

Within my small sampling, we have 12 unique sets of technologies, including different operating systems; different hardware (some laptops, some desktops, often both); different software tools; and countless communication devices. Everyone has email, everyone has an instant messaging client of some kind (or two or three), we also have wikis, blogs, forums, and an IRC channel. Not to mention smart phones, blackberries, iPads, etc.

We occasionally have a discussion about the appropriate place to post information — especially material under review or in draft form. But I have yet to hear any complaints that there are too many choices.

In large organizations, one of the basic requirements for any project is keeping the toolset small. If there is to be a knowledge management "system", it has to be a single system accessible by anyone in the target audience. Better yet, a single system covering multiple disciplines (KM, project management, resource management, etc.)

The rationale for keeping the toolset small sounds good in theory:

  • Universal accessibility
  • Reduced learning curve/training costs
  • Only one place to look for information
  • Reduced IT/support costs & complexity
But this rationale is based on 1980's computing constraints:

  • Universal accessibility — what technology, especially collaboration technology, isn't available through a web browser or across platforms (e.g. IM clients)? Selecting one tool does not make the information more or less accessible.
  • Reduced learning curve/training costs — at the same time corporations are trying to restrict the number of applications to "reduce the learning curve", their employees are busy trying out Facebook, Twitter, Skype... The main reason learning curve is a problem is because you are trying to teach people something they don't want to learn. Perhaps the issue is with the content, not a limitation of the audience's ability to multi-task.
  • One place to look for information — I have heard this argument for years, but I have yet to see a single instance where a company has successfully integrated all information into a single application. In fact, corporations seem determined to segment their knowledge into individual repositories. The closest they come to "one place for all information" is intranet search. However, they determinedly resist efforts to use generalized search engines (such as Google) and often limit what information is indexed by search under the auspices of "qualifying" content. (What happened to "one place"?)
  • Reduced IT/support costs — I used to believe this argument, because it was true. But over time, just as the locked door computer room has shrunk and more and more technology (and computing power) has migrated from a secure, air-conditioned environment.... onto the desk... out of the office... into the pocket... the role of IT in controlling — or even choosing — technology has changed significantly. But IT as an organization and as a profession seems unwilling to accept or accede to that change.
However, individual technologies can run foul of individual preferences

The fact that people have multiple technologies, doesn't mean they use them the same way (cf. everyone is different). Years ago, I was shocked when I answered my office phone to discover that the caller was in an office no more than thirty feet away. But I thought nothing of sending email to the person in the cube next to me.

More recently, I was bemused the first time I received an instant message from a fellow worker two cubes down. (They didn't want to disturb the others by talking, since we work in such close proximity.)

How and when individuals use different technologies seems like an almost limitless set of permutations. Of the 11 people I currently work with:

  • At least one answers email before IM
  • One seems to respond to both equally (and instantaneously)
  • Several answer either IMs or email, but with no clear pattern or preference
  • One will respond to IMs more often than email, but will answer the IM via email.
  • One never responds to IMs.
Is this good or bad use of the technology? It is neither. It is how individuals work. Part of "knowledge management" is managing your sources of knowledge, your technology, and your contacts. It is not enough to know how to use the technology; you must also know how it is used by your community.

I know this concept — the preeminence of personal choice — is an anathema to many KM practitioners. It is like trying to establish order without disturbing the chaos. How can you promote a company-wide program if each individual gets to choose for themselves?

Well, it is not quite that bad. It is not that each individual gets to decide for themselves. You can dictate, require, or recommend specific technologies and approaches. But you need to recognize that your audience will perform those actions in the way they think is best.


Have faith in people

It is easy to see other people's behavior — when it runs counter to expectations — as stubborn or willful when it is nothing of the sort. People will be altruistic, especially when it involves assisting other individuals. However...

KM is not their job!

As well intentioned as they may, people have a job to do, deadlines to meet, and responsibilities to uphold. If they think of it, they are willing to share with others. But more often than not, it does not occur to them that the information they hold is valuable to others — especially if that value will not be realized until some indeterminate time in the future.

Discussions held in hallways or decisions made over lunch are sometimes the most important events within a project. But no one thinks to capture them in a wiki or email the rest of the team. This is not knowledge hoarding, it is simply an inability to recognize that anyone else cares.

Ultimately, perhaps the most powerful KM tool any company has is nagging repetition. When someone writes something down, remind them to post it to a forum or wiki. When they say something interesting suggest others they should tell via email. Suggest alternate ways to search for solutions to project problems.

This sort of gentle persuasion on an individual basis can be tedious, since the scope is limited to specific situations with one or two people at a time. And I am not suggesting it alone is sufficient to make KM work on a large scale. However, it is surprising how soon you see others (who you have prodded) acting without instigation or suggesting it to others. And from such small efforts, large effects can accrue.

Well, that is OK for a small office, but how does this apply to large corporations? The most successful KM programs I have seen, even in very large corporations,  have always had one or two advocates who were tireless in not only promoting "the program", but jumping in and helping individuals with their specific problems and demonstrating KM-ish techniques along the way. Their influence went far beyond just the person they helped, but to anyone that person then spoke to, their friends, etc... Not only their reputation preceded them, but the behavior they modeled went with it to corners of the company they might never have visited personally.

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