Wednesday, 29 January 2014

How steep are you prepared to go? Learning curves

How many times, after undertaking something new, do we hear or use the phrase, “It was a steep learning curve”?
As individuals we use this phrase because we usually don’t like the effort required to go from ignorance to knowledge at an uncomfortable pace.  But what we don’t like is the fact we have been given insufficient help en route - it’s been too much hard work…etc.  But think about this from a company’s perspective – surely any cost-conscious, profit-seeking enterprise would value the ability to accrue knowledge as quickly as possible?

In the business context, a ‘shallow’ learning curve implies taking longer and incurring greater costs along the way.  So, steep learning curves are what ambitious businesses should aim for but how do they think these are going to be achieved?

If out on a mountain, you wouldn’t try a steep ascent without appropriate equipment (e.g. harness, some crampons, ropes and pegs etc.) – indeed, it would be irresponsible to try, foolhardy even.  One would probably fail, at considerable risk of injury en route.

Now, to return to the business environment, we replace climbing equipment with the tools, processes and disciplines of Knowledge Management (KM) – such as Peer Assists, Knowledge Exchanges, Lessons Capture and Communities of Practice etc. 
Using these aids, companies are well-equipped to manage steep learning curves - perhaps whistling as they go.  They cheerfully pass their competitors on the way up – companies that either attempt the same incline without the right kit, at considerable risk, or those that have to make do with a gentler slope, taking their time and incurring greater costs along the way.

Let’s picture this with a graph – Knowledge vs. Time:
Finally, the KM-equipped reach the summit and can finally enjoy the view – noting how far they have come in such a short time. 
For more information on how to get better equipped for steep learning curves, please visit the Knoco web-site.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Confusing efforts and effects – the British Army in Afghanistan

This morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4 carried a piece by Sima Kotecha on the British Army’s efforts in Afghanistan, including interviews with some soldiers reflecting on what their work has achieved, if anything.

Given the restrictions on soldiers talking to the media, their identities were not revealed but the main points they made were:

  • The performance of the Afghan National Army (ANA) did not give them a “warm and fuzzy feeling”;
  • ANA soldiers often appeared to be “going through the motions” and not fully understanding why they had to do things in a certain way;
  • ANA soldiers often displayed poor weapons discipline, slinging them over their backs;
  • Drug-taking was common, as were sexual relations between the ANA soldiers;
  • ANA soldiers were mainly interested in fighting, not the broader range of functions in which the deployed NATO forces have been engaged (i.e. establishing good relations with locals etc.);
  • The ANA lack the capabilities needed to maintain a presence in remote locations (i.e. medical evacuation helicopters, integrated surveillance systems etc.) so are more likely to pull back to the more easily defended bases;

Overall, their view was that Afghanistan is likely to revert to the way it was before NATO operations began in 2001.

Following the report, Brigadier Rupert Jones (the former Commander of the UK 1st Mechanized Brigade that deployed to Helmand last year) was interviewed (2hrs 43mins onwards) and asked to respond.

During the interview, rather than engage directly with the points made by the soldiers, Brigadier Jones repeatedly referred to the “enormous progress” that the ANA has made recently.  His argument appeared to be that lots of people have been trying really, really hard and that they should be praised accordingly. (I addressed this tactic in this post earlier today.)

This is a classic example of what I term, “defensive dissonance” and fails (or, truth be told, refuses) to address the issues raised, since it is perfectly possible for the Afghan forces to have made ‘enormous progress’ yet still fall far short of the capability and credibility needed to prevent any slide into chaos to take place just as the earlier soldiers feared.  Indeed, starting from such a low base, it is not surprising that the ANA has improved nor that local elders have been impressed by this (another of Brigadier Jones’s points).

Where defensive dissonance stalls further journalistic enquiry, it is frustrating. Where it blunts the desire to reveal poor performance, from learning ‘what happened’, it is unforgivable.

Let us not confuse effort with effect, costs with benefits, inputs with outcomes....

How should we measure success?

There is an inherent antagonism in the planning and execution of some of the activities from which organisations try to learn (e.g. projects, mergers, operational deployments, product launches etc).  By this, I mean that they contain relationships such as those between client and contractor, customer and supplier, designer and end-user (perhaps with a manufacturer in-between).

Lessons capture workshops (details of what they are and how to run them can be read here) are a good forum for examining issues from different perspectives and enable a more rounded, balanced picture to appear than if only one side’s view is considered.

Facilitated discussions enable such antagonism to be explored for the purposes of learning how to do things better.  Sometimes the clear distinction of roles and responsibilities enables good governance and clear accountability.  At other times, defensive behaviour may occur which can result in tribalism, wherein each ‘side’ wishes to engage with their ‘opposite number’ only to point the finger, find fault and lay blame as far away from their own doorstep as possible.

When a discussion takes this unfortunate turn, as may happen from time to time, a good facilitator will need their wits about them and will seek to re-create the more collaborative and reflective mood in which the meeting may have started.  This may require some cajoling, some humour, some inquiry into motivation or a combination of all of these.

Sometimes, people representing what they perceive to be ‘opposing’ parties may talk at crossed purposes, such that they are actually not engaging with the issue in the same way – this can either help or hinder inquiry, depending on how it is handled.  Firstly, let us look at how it can hinder learning.

For example, person A may have a view on outcomes, to which person B responds by describing inputs.  This is a frequent phenomenon in what passes for political debate in the UK, from which few parties emerge with much credit.

Let’s take a well-worn topic for discussion – the National Health Service (NHS).

The Opposition of the day (of any party – they all do this, alas) will criticise the outputs of the Government’s health policies thus, “Waiting times, re-infection rates, average response times for ambulances in the NHS are not good enough.”

To which the Government of the day (of any party – they all do this, alas) will respond by listing their health policies’ inputs, “That’s ridiculous – we’ve spent more money than ever before and have increased recruitment of doctors, nurses etc….”

With education, the talk is of falling real standards through grade inflation vs. the efforts of “hard-working pupils and teachers”.  And so on….

At a recent lessons capture meeting, attended by a client and contractor on a large project, discussion turned to communication with one side saying that this had been poorly planned (if at all) and the other side recounting numerous examples of where this was not the case.

In other words, one side questioned the value in acknowledging the planning efforts that had been made because performance was still not good enough. On the other hand, the ‘opposing’ side was concerned that it was not receiving sufficient credit for the efforts it made, whilst not wishing to dwell on where these might nevertheless have fallen short.

Unless someone intervenes and points out that the two sides are talking at crossed purposes (often for their own defensive and selfish reasons), then true inquiry and subsequent learning cannot take place.
So which side of the equation should provide the fertile ground from which we might learn?  Inputs or outputs?  Costs or benefits?  Should we measure effort or effects?  This is where different perspectives can help us in our efforts to learn.

In truth, serious attempts to learn from experience should examine both what an organisation is doing (e.g. inputs, costs, effort etc.) and what it is actually achieving by its efforts (e.g. outputs, benefits, effects etc.).

It is not good enough simply to look at how hard people are working to conclude that their efforts are fruitful, productive or worthwhile.  Nor is it helpful merely to examine the results of such labours without seeking to understand how they have been achieved.

If we are to build a comprehensive and accurate a picture of ‘what happened’, from which we and others can learn, then we need to hear from both sides: customers as well as suppliers, patients as well as doctors, pupils as well as teachers.

Ultimately, however, we should always be prepared to judge efforts by what they actually achieve, rather than presume that hard, fruitless, wasteful, inefficient work is good for its own sake.

Life is too short.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Discipline and leadership

A recent post on this blog looked at how lessons analysis can help organisations identify some of the high-impact issues affecting their performance.  We last examined ‘knowledge gaps’ and the related problems that organisations may encounter, such as over-reliance on external specialists and increased costs.

In our final post in this series, we now look at discipline and leadership – closely associated issues as an absence of the former is often due to an absence of the latter – and the extent to which both management and workforce conform to the expectations that organisations place upon them.

What is the problem?

Organisations suffering poor leadership have management teams that fail to communicate, inspire, encourage or control.  Poor discipline often ensues, with corners being cut, deadlines being missed and control measures (if in place at all) ignored.  Team spirit is notable by its absence with few willing to help others unless formally instructed to do so.

How does it manifest itself?

Poor leaders say one thing and do another.  They expect their staff to stay late whilst they head home.  They punish transgressions in others whilst ignoring or rationalising the same misdeeds in their own behaviour.  They rely on their place in the hierarchy (i.e. their ‘rank’) instead of skill, charm, charisma or inspiration.  They don’t listen to warnings from their staff when risks are identified and fail to enforce control measures, thereby exacerbating problems. When things do go wrong, they avoid responsibility yet dishonestly exaggerate their role in success, thus discouraging their staff from being honest about mistakes and unwittingly encouraging deception which prevents organisational learning and performance improvement.

Consequently, such poor leadership usually (and deservedly) creates an ill-disciplined workforce. Employees fail to follow procedures, including those relating to safety, which puts themselves and their colleagues at risk. They arrive late for work and increasingly try to leave early.  They ‘go sick’ – often on Fridays; sometimes for weeks on end.  They steal from the stationery cupboard, use phone and email for personal purposes and browse the internet as much as possible (often looking for a new job), resulting in high staff turnover.

What is its impact?

High staff turnover is expensive and organisations suffering from this are forever enduring the costly, unproductive induction phase as it seeks to get new employees ‘up to speed’ so they can become useful.

Ignoring budgets and deadlines results in reduced profits (or even actual losses) and delays in the short-term but also impedes future planning, as few will believe the projections next time round.  This can lead to an increasingly negative spiral of non-conformance and over-runs.

Without resolution, an organisation’s reputation suffers, as investors and customers alike (or patients, students, soldiers etc.) lose confidence and take their money (ailments, study, skills) elsewhere.

What recommendations are made to address it?

Problems relating to discipline and leadership are often identified during lessons capture sessions, either in the meetings themselves or during subsequent analysis of the lessons, which reveals a common theme of non-compliance across an organisation.

Responses have included leadership coaching initiatives, reviews of terms and conditions of employment and the introduction of grievance management procedures.

KM initiatives play their part too, with cultural audits and KM assessments helping organisations uncover ‘what is really going on’ before remedies are selected.

For more information on any of the initiatives outline above, please visit

Monday, 13 January 2014

Mind the gaps - managing knowledge and minimising its loss

A recent post on this blog looked at how lessons analysis can help organisations identify some of the high-impact issues affecting their performance.  We last examined ‘quality’ and the related problems that organisations may encounter, such as inconsistent performance, increased costs and reputational damage.

We now turn to knowledge gaps.

What is the problem? 

The world is divided between those organisations that manage their knowledge and the rest.  Relatively few organisations treat knowledge as an asset and fewer still do so in ways that protect and enhance its value.  Consequently, they remain exposed to significant risk when (a) new work reveals they lack sufficient knowledge in certain areas or (b) high-value knowledge is lost when employees retire or (even worse) resign and enable competitors to benefit therefrom.

How does it manifest itself?

Organisations that choose not to manage their knowledge in a planned, deliberate way leave themselves exposed to ‘key-person dependency’, where critical knowledge is retained by a few individuals.  Where such knowledge is guarded jealously, the ‘chosen few’ may wield disproportionate influence; conversely, such individuals may be held back in roles because their ‘loss’ (whilst understandable and necessary for positive career development) will leave their less experienced former colleagues struggling to fill the gap.

The risk associated with this massively increases when the most knowledgeable employees retire or resign to join another company – the latter being a double blow to their firm since valuable (yet clearly undervalued) knowledge has not only been lost but to a competitor who can now enjoy its benefits.

Some companies respond to such problems by hiring temporary consultant support - often in the form of former employees - to ‘plug the gap’.   However, this may be expensive and can only be considered a ‘sticking plaster’ solution.  Failure to make more fundamental changes means that such companies remain prone to the vagaries of the market - notably in niche, specialist areas.

Examples of this issue include hiring 'locum' doctors and the mobilisation of military reservists to address manning shortfalls in hospitals and on operational deployments respectively.

What is its impact?

Undervaluing knowledge and the failure to anticipate and mitigate its loss can adversely affect organisations, by:

  • Preventing delivery to deadlines, as employees taken for granted move elsewhere;
  • Increasing costs and reducing profits (or incurring losses) as reactive measures are used to address knowledge loss.

What recommendations are made to address it?

We’ve already mentioned (and discounted) the short-term solution of contracting in specialists.  Longer-term responses, that seek to develop enduring capabilities, have included:

  • A KM assessment – used to measure and benchmark an organisation’s KM capabilities against others in its field, including best in class; this is often the start-point for any organisation’s journey towards credible knowledge management;
  • A knowledge scan – used to identify an organisation’s knowledge strengths and weaknesses; when faced with so many apparently vital subject areas, this enables an organisation to plan their retention and protection in a systematic and efficient way;
  • Retention interviews – used, usually following a knowledge scan, to build an organisation’s knowledge base to reduce the impact of the departure of experienced employees.  Complementary interventions include knowledge transfer strategies (i.e. to junior colleagues) and the creation of knowledge assets (i.e. using wikis, SharePoint or other technology).

Knoco Ltd. is a firm of knowledge management consultants providing these and other services to organisations that value knowledge and seek to use, re-use and leverage it to enable improved performance.  Please get in touch for more information on how we can help you manage your organisation's knowledge more effectively.