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
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.