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.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Collaborating and Learning Across Organizations in the Context of Joint Projects

Two speech bubbles - Co-learning

Learning in the context of collaborative efforts and/or complex organizational structures can be a challenge. Most of the literature, including what has been written by KM practitioners, focuses on the organization as the main unit of analysis. On the other hand, the Learning and Development (L&D) practitioners are primarily focused on individuals and sometimes teams. There is also a significant amount of work written about learning across teams, which addresses transferring knowledge from one team or one project to another. In fact, the theme of knowledge transfer comes up regularly. The focus below will be different.

Increasingly, individuals within organizations find themselves working in teams, projects or work groups that are made up of staff who belong not just to different divisions within the organization but to different organizations altogether. As collaborations, partnerships and contracting arrangements evolve to meet the needs of a constantly changing environment, individuals must learn to work effectively within these teams, which includes learning to learn collaboratively. This type of joint learning or co-learning is relevant in the two fields I am most familiar with, international development and aerospace. In both fields, the Government entities (USAID & NASA) do not deliver their mandate on their own. They work with and through myriads of partnerships, contractual arrangements as well as formal and informal collaboration agreements each of which comes with a specific set of constraints and opportunities. For each of these ways of working together, co-learning opportunities need to be identified and their potential value assessed upfront. Co-learning isn’t for everyone and every situation.

Co-learning across multiple organizations can be challenging. It’s one thing to conduct a lessons learned conversation within a team whose members all belong to the same organization. It’s another to conduct the same lessons learned conversation when members of the team belong to different organizations. The likelihood that walls (defensive mechanisms) will come up is increased.

For example:

  • The organizational cultures may be different. While one organization may be accustomed to open and honest conversations about what isn’t working, others may shy away from such transparency. 
  • Organizational processes may be different. One organization may have a very rigorous and structured process for documenting lessons while another doesn’t have a process at all. This may lead to many unspoken and unwritten assumptions. 
As with all aspects of collaboration (not just the joint learning aspect discussed here), one of the drivers of success is a thorough discussion of all assumptions about not just what will be done, but how it will be done. For example, if two organizations are going to implement a project together with specific roles and responsibilities clearly assigned and a component of that project is to discuss and document lessons to make regular adjustments in the project’s path forward, it will be important to address all relevant assumptions upfront and clarify as much as possible, including the following:
  • Clarify the overall goals and objectives of the joint learning activities. There should be a clear understanding of why the learning activities are being undertaken jointly as opposed to each organization involved in a collaboration conducting its own independent lessons learned. This can happen even within the same organization and is typically a sign of dysfunction. There are many circumstances where an internal lessons learned session is also needed, which might focus on questions such as “What did we (as organization x) learn from our collaboration with organization Y? Joint lessons learned sessions should never be used to try to place blame on any member of the collaboration or to tell other members of the collaboration what they should have done differently. If a serious problem occurred (a partner isn’t performing as expected for example), there are avenues to address these problems other than a lessons learned session. The joint learning session helps identify what every party involved could have done different from the start, not who is to blame for failures.
  • Clarify who will lead the joint learning effort. Perhaps not just which of the two organizations, but which staff position. This may be important in providing clues regarding how the activity is perceived by both organizations and whether there is a disconnect that needs to be addressed. Does the position/person have the right level of seniority, appropriate level of expertise, etc.? If it is important for all parties to be represented fairly and equally in the discussion, it may be a good idea to get the support of a third party facilitator to ensure neutrality in the conduct of the session.
  • Clarify the schedule of learning activities. Avoid using ambiguous wording. Phrasing such as “Lessons learned will be documented on a regular basis” can be interpreted in many different ways and could lead to disconnects between the collaborating partners.
  • Stipulate the methods to be used: A wide-open lessons learned conversation with 20-30 participants is very different from a series of one-on-one interviews, yet both could conceivably be used to elicit and document project lessons. In fact, a broad discussion of methods and their use in the specific context of the project would be valuable. Don’t assume that the way you’ve been doing it on other projects is necessarily the right approach in this context.
  • Be clear about outputs and utilization: Discuss how lessons identified will be utilized to make adjustments to the path forward in terms of work plans and specific activities. For example, my preferred format for documenting lessons learned discussions is an insight map. However, I would never assume that it’s always the best format or that it works for everyone. Beyond concerns about formats which can be trivial, it’s important to talk upfront about whether the session is meant to identify specific recommendations and actions or not. In some cases, the parties to the discussion have a wide open conversation, go back to their respective offices and independently decide on specific actions they will take to address issues raised during the lessons learned meeting and perhaps report on actions taken at a later date. In other cases, a second joint meeting may be held to focus on specific recommendations and actions. In these different variations of the process, it’s also important to discuss the issue of decision making and validation. Who will have the final say in terms of the final version of the lessons and/or recommendations? What kind of follow up or accountability process is in place to ensure that lessons are indeed embedded into future activities (within the ongoing project, not just in a potential future collaboration)?
  • Be ready for disconnects: Since it is not possible to anticipate every inaccurate assumption or disconnect that might derail the collaboration, there should be a clear mechanism for quickly addressing disconnects when they arise. 
And a final point, don’t assume that prior collaboration experience between two organizations means you can skip all these steps about clarifying assumptions. For all you know, one of the two organizations may have held an internal lessons learned process at the end of the last collaboration and decided that it didn’t work well for them and they would recommend a completely different approach. Or, you might just be dealing with very different team, different leadership, making it a completely different collaborative environment. It never hurts to check that you are all on the same page.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Teaching Knowledge Management

I've immersed myself in teaching with two classes. Both are focused on Knowledge Management, but they are as different as one could imagine. I am just finishing my first session online at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and I am preparing for George Mason University's face-to-face class in the fall of 2018. Very different classes with (for now), the same foundational textbook which has just been updated. Next I'd really like to provide some KM training within an organization.  That would provide a third, completely different way of teaching the same subject.
University of Maryland
University College
George Mason University
Schar School of Public Policy
100% Online
100% Asynchronous (though some chats are possible)
8 weeks long
Face-to-face over four-months.
Some Fridays 5-10pm and some Saturdays 9am-5pm
Total of 7 face-to-face sessions
Small online component.
Level & Discipline
Required class for Undergraduate Business Management major, elective for other majors.
Specialized Masters Degree in Organizational Development/Knowledge Management
Curriculum Design
Instructor follows a set syllabus and pre-selected readings and assignments. Multiple instructors teach the class and the common syllabus helps maintain consistency. Greatest degree of freedom is in designing the Learning Activities for weekly discussions.
Instructor is fully responsible for curriculum design with some coordination with other classes to create synergies and avoid overlap.
Student Audience
Working adults, many in military, including many first generation higher education seekers. Students have never met each other, will probably never meet.
Working adults. Student cohort goes through the program as one group.  They know each other well.
Learning Objectives
An introduction to KM as it applies to business. Why is it important? How does it manifest itself in organizations?
A thorough understanding of KM concepts and approaches and building the skills needed to implement KM initiatives in organizations.
Making It Stick
Apply key KM concepts to yourself, your work, your studies; Make the learning activities very scenario-based to encourage critical thinking.
Highly experiential, practice KM skills in the classroom and work with real organizations. Lots of small group work.
Readings & Other Materials
Core textbook (Dalkir), supplemented by less abstract materials, including videos.
Core textbook (Dalkir), Milton/Lambe's Knowledge Manager's Handbook, and lots of case studies, including an in-depth presentation and discussion of KM at NASA.
Some technology enhancements for added "engagement": Animated presentation using PowToon for instructor introduction, class overview and/or difficult concepts.
Possible guest speaker(s) to leverage the wealth of expertise in the DC area.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Conversations among KM Practitioners

The soon to be renamed Knowledge Management Association - DC Chapter held its monthly face-to-face meeting yesterday.  John Hovell facilitated a knowledge cafe starting us of with a short informal presentation on what he sees as a a set of trends leading to convergence of Knowledge Management, Organization Development, Diversity and Inclusion, and Systems Thinking (not sure I'm remembering this last one correctly but Systems Thinking was discussed in the mix).

In my mind, it's not so much that any convergence is really happening across disciplines, it's just that Knowledge Management has always been interdisciplinary and therefore crosses many other disciplines. Someone interested in Artificial Intelligence is probably observing a convergence between KM and AI.  We all approach KM from our personal framework, disciplinary background and professional experience. 

At the center of this convergence framework, John put the concept of conversational leadership.

As a tangent, I was also scanning through Kimiz Dalkir's Knowledge Management in Theory and Practice (3rd Edition) and I was struck by the number of KM models and frameworks presented. Clearly, there is no consensus on how to look at KM simply because it is so interdisciplinary. I also like the way Chun Wei Choo looks at it in  The Knowing Organization: How Organizations Use Information to Construct Meaning, Create Knowledge and Make Decisions. Choo approaches KM from an information science perspective without making it about IT.

I hope we can continue the conversation within the Knowledge Management Community and I would recommend that we focus on the concept of conversational leadership to explore it further. It's not new. It deserves re-visiting.

Conversations don't solve everything but they embody both the simplicity and complexity of human interactions. What is it about conversations that is so powerful? From a practical standpoint, how can we, as KM professionals, introduce "effective" conversations in the workplace? When we say "effective conversation" what does that mean? How do conversations relate to another KM tool, storytelling? Is that part of a bigger theme of narratives? I could keep going with questions and how things relate to each other.

How do conversations facilitate the transformation of individual knowledge into team and organizational knowledge? How can I integrate conversational leadership skills as a learning objective in classes I teach (both face-to-face and online)? If your job focuses on employee engagement then you'd be asking how do conversations support employee engagement.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Knowledge Management & Organizational Learning for Startups

To be successful, startups need to know how to fail early and fail fast, work with prototypes, engage in a lot of testing and a rapid iterative cycle of planning, doing, testing, assessing/learning and planning again.  They need to be agile.  They need to make decisions very quickly about a myriad of issues.

In that sense, they can benefit from knowledge management if they adopt practices that will support improved decision making based on rapid organizational learning. You don't conduct After-Action-Reviews or their equivalent every year, you incorporate an element of "pausing to learn" in every weekly core staff meeting and you make it a practice that gets disseminate as the organization expands so that it becomes part of the organizational culture.

In addition, startups are, by definition, small and immature organizations.  They may lack organizational structures and governance because as long as they are small, they can get away with having very little formal structure.  That may be exactly what is needed at that early stage of organizational development, but if they look ahead and think in terms of increasing maturity, they will want to pay attention to the inevitable emergence of organizational silos and preemptively set up information and knowledge structures and governance to ensure continuous knowledge sharing across the organization as it grows and evolves. Creating teams and giving them autonomy to go do what they do best is great but they will tend to go off and reinvent the wheel if they are allowed to, resulting in a multiplicity of tools, duplication of resources, proliferation of intranets and overlapping discussion forums, none of which will be integrated within a global vision of where the organization's knowledge resides and who to leverage it for the organization's benefit.

For something more substantive to read, see Piera Centobelli, Roberto Cerchione, and Emilio Esposito, "Knowledge Management in Startups: Systemic Literature Review and Future Research Agenda," Sustainability 2017, 9, 361.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Learning More and/or Better

The following string of thoughts comes out of recent readings and meetings.  As always, more questions to ask than answers to provide.

We can think about learning in two dimensions, quantitative and qualitative.  Learning MORE is quantitative.  Learning BETTER is qualitative. 

I am inclined to think (or hypothesize) that learning MORE is a very incremental process whereas learning BETTER is potentially an exponential process.  I don't really want to use the word "exponential" here and I certainly don't want to use the word "transformational".  What I mean is that learning BETTER, addressing the qualitative dimension of learning is potentially more impactful than learning MORE. 

It's the difference between the idea of continuous learning, which is simply about learning more over time, and the idea of learning HOW to learn, which is about becoming a better learner.

This manifests itself currently for me in terms of something as simple as reading.  The number of books I will read this year is somewhat irrelevant.  I am much more interested in developing, nurturing my capacity to engage in deep reading and deeper learning.  There is some tension there because I could benefit from reading more broadly, which might translate into more books.  The compromise might be scanning more books from a broad spectrum of disciplines but reading deeply a smaller subset of those books.

Reading now:  Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age, by Edward D. Hess and Katherine Ludwig.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Why We Need Contrarians

I don't make New Year's resolutions.  I have a variety of reasons for not doing it, but at least one of them is that I like being a contrarian.  When the crowd is doing something just because everyone in the crowd seems to be doing it, I resist.

More seriously, and in a professional context, being aware of the fact that each time I write publically about monitoring and evaluation (M&E), I run the risk of never getting hired to do M&E work, simply because of my skepticism and at times contrarian opinions.  And yes, these are opinions. I don't claim to be correct while everyone else is wrong.  I just wish people would stop and think rather than follow the crowd.  Admitedly, following the crowd is much easier.  You get pushed by its forward motion, going downhill like the little grey people in the picture above.  When going in the other direction, not only are you going uphill but you have to fight your way through a crowd of opposing views.

Today, I will point to research that may support at least some aspects of my thinking and validate my conviction that we need contrarians.  Not surprisingly, it has to do with a cognitive bias, the resulting fallacy.

I first encountered this fallacy through a simple case study run by NASA and developed in collaboration with academics researching decision-making.  The case study describes a mission that was ultimately successful but was considered a near-miss.  In other words, it benefited from a certain amount of luck and it could have been a complete failure. The learning objective of this case study is that people draw conclusions about decisions made based on the outcome.  The mission succeeded, therefore the decisions must have been good.   People studying decision-making and focusing on the resulting fallacy say, "not so fast." You cannot say much about the quality of a decision based solely on the outcome.

What does the resulting fallacy have to do with being a contrarian you ask.  It points to the need for more in-depth analysis of cause and effect and the thinking behind our decisions.  We need more contrarians who are ready to raise their hand and say "not so fast." 

Why be a contrarian?  Someone has to.  When 99% of the people in a particular industry or discipline are jumping on a bandwagon, I like to be the one standing back and watching.  It's not that I don't ever jump on bandwagons.  I do.  There are some bandwagons however where I get tickled and I go, "wait a minute... something is fishy.  I don't know what it is yet but I'm not getting on that one."

I like poking and prodding when I see the bandwagon passing by.  Being a contrarian doesn't make me right.  I can make me useful.  There's always a role for a devil's advocate, a skeptic who will force others to articulate their positions and assumptions.

This is also related to the importance of allowing dissenting opinions in organizations, but that's a topic for another post perhaps.


"Do you have a contrarian on your team?", Insights by Stanford Business, November 13, 2015, by Elizabeth MacBride.

"The Resulting Fallacy is Ruining Your Decisions," by Stuart Firestein, December 7, 2017.

"Understanding Near-Misses at NASA," ASK OCE, August 17, 2006, Vol. 1, Issue No. 12.