I'll try to synthesize my views below:
1. Lessons learned activities have the potential for providing a great deal of value to individuals, teams and organizations, yet it's easy to completely miss the boat.
2. We often look for benefits of lessons learned activities in the wrong places. Those who argue that lessons learned are a waste of time will point out that lessons tend to end in databases that are not used, where they languish and soon become obsolete. I don't argue with that. Instead, I think it's a mistake to assume that the primary benefit of lessons learned activity are to be derived from other people consulting a database.
3. The primary beneficiaries of lessons learned activities -- assuming the activity is done as a group -- are the people involved in the activity themselves. This ensures that a) they take the time to reflect on an experience to articulate lessons; b) they do this as a team to avoid individual biases and narrow points of view.
4. Aggregating the lessons into some form of database has value even if not a single person comes to consult the database, as long as someone is responsible for doing analysis on the repository of lessons to identify trends, critical knowledge, issues to be addressed at the institutional level, etc...
5. Lessons learned activities are a source of valuable insights for other types of knowledge management activities, such as knowledge sharing workshops, where the issues emerging in lessons learned activities can be discussed in the context of panels of practitioners who can share their experience in much more engaging way than a database of lessons learned will ever be able to achieve.
- Reframe the way you talk about lessons learned activities and their benefits.
- Don't ditch the database idea. Make sure the person responsible for the database isn't just uploading lessons. You need an analyst, not a database administrator.
- Continuously work to improve the way lessons learned are captured and to educate employees about what constitutes a valuable lesson.
- Broaden your view of what a database of lessons learned might look like. Hint: It could be a collection of 100+ concept maps hyperlinked into a rich web of knowledge.