Friday, March 23, 2018

We Still Need Lessons Learned - (Part 3 of 3)

In the previous two posts, I've argued that 1) KM practitioners need to be prepared to sell lessons learned practices by looking at them differently and debunking myths about the futility of lessons learned databases, and 2) the value of lessons learned is in the transformation of tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge.  In this third and last part of the series, I will talk about the value of aggregation.

Part 3: The value of lessons learned activities is not in the individual lessons themselves sitting in a database but in the aggregation of lessons. 

As I reviewed existing lessons and then spent almost 10 years helping to identify "new" lessons, two interesting insights emerged:  1) Many so-called lessons were deemed unworthy of being pushed higher up for further dissemination; 2) Many interesting new lessons had to do with the need to change and adapt to new conditions.

Dealing with the little lessons
Many lessons did not necessarily rise to the level of "real" lessons that deserved to be pushed to a database. Many of these lessons were good practices that projects needed to be reminded of.  It's easy to get caught in a discussion about what's a real or worthy lesson (almost as easy as getting caught in a discussion of the definition of knowledge management).  The mistake is to dismiss small lessons as not worthy.  The "little lessons" or "motherhood and apple pie" lessons may not be sexy and they may be a reminder that we often seem not to learn, but they are important in other ways.  Perhaps they're not lessons at all, but they tell you something about underlying problems that need to be addressed at the institutional level and not through a lessons learned database. They take on different meaning when you look at them in aggregate. You can review all of them, identify recurring themes,  then develop mini-case studies to incorporate into informal workshops as well as more formal training.  In addition, management could be encourage to use these mini-case studies as story vignettes in their communications.

Another way to look at these less than stellar lessons is to say that they are "local" lessons.  They are valid and valuable as the project's lessons but they don't need to be shared or go any further.  That can also become a problem.  What if the same little local lessons are being learned again and again around all the projects.  Unless someone is paying attention to these little lessons across the projects, they will remain localized, soon forgotten, invisible and will never come to the attention of management... until something goes terribly wrong, a thorough investigation is launched and the findings are that the underlying issue was known to everyone and prevalent across the organization, but it didn't get anyone's attention because no red flags were attached to it.  Make the recurring little lessons more visible. Do something about them.

Part of the role of the KM manager is to keep an eye on the recurring "motherhood and apple pie" lessons.  The idea is that these lessons are obvious, things that everyone should know and can't possibly disagree with.  Anything that sounds like motherhood and apple pie is dismissed because it is just common sense or it's a good practice.  It's the opposite of the powerful insight, the aha! moment.  It's not sexy at all.  It may even be embarrassing.  How could they not have known this before?  That's common sense.  It's just good project management practice.  That lesson is in the database already, in a dozen variations.  I would say, keep an eye on what everyone says is obvious yet keeps coming up as a challenge or a lesson. This is a little counter-intuitive. It's not what keeps management up at night. It could be pervasive, yet under the radar. No red flags.

In addition, just because something is obvious to a senior project manager and he/she doesn't see the value of putting it in the lessons learned database doesn't mean it's obvious to a junior member of the team who hasn't yet learned it first hand.

It is dangerous to think that it takes a major disaster like a Challenger or Columbia to create case studies worthy of widespread dissemination and incorporation into courses and workshops.  People need to learn from the "little lessons" before they become big problems.  The underlying issues that led to or contributed to the Challenger and Columbia accidents were things that manifested themselves in small ways every day and probably almost everywhere in the organization.  You can wait until they become a BIG lesson or you can catch them when they're much less visible.  It's not the stuff of academic papers and conference presentations (though I might try that route too), it's not catchy, but it matters.

As a side note, I've often asked myself if our KM activities could actually prevent another big failure.  How could we ever know what failures we've prevented?  How could KM be held responsible for failing to prevent a failure big or small?  Obviously, KM isn't the only mechanism organizations leverage to prevent failures, especially in high-reliability organizations like NASA.  Safety and Mission Assurance as well as Risk Management also play key roles... which is also why they should be working in close coordination with KM.

Learning to Adapt to Change and Unlearning
Shared Voyage (book cover)Many of what I would consider the more interesting lessons had to do with change and adaptation to change.  They may have been unique lessons and definitely new lessons but they fell into this bigger bucket of learning to adapt to change.  In my last presentation within NASA/Goddard a key point I made about what I had learned during time there was that we are (this isn't specific to NASA) a little slow to learn the lessons related to the need for change.  We have difficulty unlearning, we have trouble accepting that what had worked well in the past may not work well now.  Unlearning is key to adapting to change and continuous learning.   The theme of "unlearning" at NASA is addressed in Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects.  This obviously creates another challenge for static lessons learned databases.  Ideally, lessons would be constantly flowing throughout the organization, aggregated and regularly analyzed for trends, reviewed and re-assessed through constant conversations.

  • Laufer, A., Post, T. & Hoffman, E. (2005). Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects. NASA History Series. NASA SP-2005-4111.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

We Still Need Lessons Learned (Part 2 of 3)

Part 2: The value of a lessons learned activity is in the transformation of tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge,

The value of such lessons learned activities is increased when it is the result of a group reflection process (as opposed to an accumulation of lessons gathered from individuals. The numbers in the visual (in the previous post about the benefits of Pausing to Learn) are made up, meant to convey a sense of comparative magnitude of the benefits of documenting lessons.  A great deal of learning happens in the process of writing lessons down, even if no one else is reading them. It is now out of people's heads and transformed into explicit knowledge.

I have described this in APQC presentation (Rogers & Fillip, 2017). Learning happens in the initial conversation that helps to articulate the context and the lessons themselves.  Learning happens through knowledge synthesis as the conversation is documented (whether it's a narrative, a conversation map or a video interview).  Learning happens in the review and validation process and finally learning happens when others read or are exposed to the lesson.  In other words, learning happens in conversations, but these are not random conversations.  These are intentional learning conversations.

Even if no one ever reads those lessons, at least no one will be able to say that the employees retired or left and walked out the door with all their (tacit) knowledge. And yes, I know that most of it is still in their head and can't be captured, yet a good amount of learning or knowledge transfer can happen through conversations.

The real problem is that we often don't have very good mechanisms for utilizing that explicit knowledge and we draw the wrong conclusions, which is the equivalent of failing to learn from a failure... or learning the wrong lesson from a failure. An example would be to draw the conclusion that people aren't using the lessons learned system because they haven't been trained to use it.  Seriously?  Well... let's not assume anything but that wouldn't be my best guess as to why no one is using the database.  

There could be better utilization of lessons learned through other project processes such as reviews and risk management (Fillip, 2015).  In fact, many repeated "lessons" are the result of institutional challenges that cannot be addressed at the project level and could be tackled through organizational risk management. Expecting all the benefits of lessons learned processes to come from individuals going to the database to look for lessons is just wrong headed. It's standard build-it-and-they-will-come wrong-headedness. 


Monday, March 19, 2018

We Still Need Lessons Learned, and We Need to Look at Them Differently (Part 1 or 3)

In this first part of the series, I will talk about some of the challenges of leading a lessons learned practice and how I tried to address them, in other words, how I learned to sell lessons learned. 

Part 1: Selling Lessons Learned as a KM Practice

KM is a sales job.  When I was working at NASA/Goddard helping project teams document their lessons, I was at times confronted with resistance in the form of remarks such as "no one uses the lessons learned databases, why should we bother contributing lessons to the system?"  This had been exacerbated by successive reports criticizing the Agency level lessons database called the LLIS.  Regardless of the merits of the critique of that system (which isn't the point of this post series), I still had to do my job.

Since I needed to convince project teams to meet with me and document lessons, I developed an approach that would overcome this resistance.  It was based on a simple diagram (below) that allowed me to address the issue upfront by redirecting the conversation by saying "you're right, the lessons are not being used the way they were expected to in the databases, but that's not the right way to look at lessons."

I would use this diagram as a handout during planning meetings with the project leaders to convince them to hold a Pause and Learn (PaL) session (group reflection activity) and I would use it again (hand drawn on a flip chart) at the very beginning of the PaL session to explain why we were all there and what the benefits were.  For a valuable conversation to happen, I needed both the buy-in from the project management team and the buy-in from the rest of the team.  Sometimes the project management team does a good job of bringing the team to the table with the right attitude. Sometimes it's the job of the facilitator to quickly elicit that attitude at the very front-end of the meeting.  There is nothing worse than a senior scientist showing up for a PaL session determined to wreck it with sarcasm about how useless these meeting seem to be since we keep repeating the same mistakes (in their opinion) or a team showing up because they've been told to be there but they really think they should be back in their office working on real immediate and tangible problems.
Source:  Rogers, E. & Fillip, B. Mapping Lessons Learned to Improve Contextual Mapping at NASA. APQC Webinar, August 18, 2017.
Once a team had experienced a successful Pause and Learn session, it was typically much easier to do it again at a later stage in the project life cycle. If you've made a sale and you've delivered on the expectations, you can expect repeat business. KM may be everyone's job, but from the knowledge management professional's perspective, there is a significant amount of "selling" involved.

Related Resources

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Women in Knowledge Management (or any male-dominated field)

Stan Garfield posted a list of  KM Thought Leaders.  I don't think the list is new but it circulated recently on LinkedIn, which is where I saw it. The great majority of the thought leaders on that list are men.  I am re-posting here the names of women who were on that list.  The idea is 1) to give the women more visibility with a separate list; 2) to point out that perhaps there are many more women thought leaders in KM who need to be added to this list.

Ironically, posting the list on this blog will do little to increase visibility, but that's only a first step.

For those interested, there is a Women in KM LinkedIn Group.  It's "unlisted".  I assume there is a reason for keeping it unlisted but I don't know what it is. I shall inquire. I've been a member of the group and never contributed anything (my bad).

There was also a recent article in RealKM by Bruce Boyes about the issue of gender equity in KM (thank you to Boris Jaeger for pointing me in that direction).  The article seemed to point to the fact that the field of KM isn't immune to broader societal inequalities.  There is nothing surprising about that and I can't disagree. Having experienced some gender inequality frustrations of my own.  As a woman, I have a good sense of how it has affected my career.  I can't say I have good answers or solutions other than to become more vocal about it AND take responsibility for some of it as well.

While I happen to be more sensitive to gender bias, there are probably other biases embedded in that list.  How many are not US-based for example?

First NameLast Name
V. MaryAbraham
Gone but not forgotten
Moved on to other focus area or retired

3/16/2018 - Correction: Adding women I had omitted from the original list.

  • Alex Bennet
  • Jo Ann Girard
  • Joitske Hulsebosch
  • Bronwyn Stuckey
  • Beverly Wenger-Trayner

Do I want to be on that list?  
Am I upset because I'm not on the list?  Yes and no.  A year ago I could not have cared less but now as an independent consultant with my own business to worry about, yes, I do need to worry about not being on that list and I may need to figure out what it takes to get the recognition and visibility.  Perhaps it's not that specific list I need to worry about but more what it represents (free advertising).  Do I think I should be on that list right now? I am not able to answer with a resounding "YES", whereas most men would not hesitate.  THAT is the problem!

What am I going to do about it?
  • Learn more about women thought leaders in KM: I don't know more than 1/3 of the women on that list.  I probably should.  I therefore commit to learning more about their thought leadership.
  • Identity other women leaders in KM: Reach out to the women on the list and women in the "Women in KM" LinkedIn group to expand the list.
  • Become more active in the "Women in KM" LinkedIn group
  • Increase my networking with women in KM in my local area

Boyes, B. (2018). Improving gender equality in knowledge management: Is there a gender imbalance in KM, and if there is, what should we do about it? RealKM.  URL: 

Garfield, S. KM Thought Leaders.