Friday, 20 February 2015

How do large companies manage knowledge? Put it in the small print!

Today I met with the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of a large telecommunications company (telco) here in the UK.
Whilst the details of our chat remain confidential, a brief over-view of some of the issues might resonate with others that are also having to manage knowledge and information in vast quantities whilst relying on large numbers of contractors and service providers.
Our conversation focused on the realities of managing knowledge in an organisation where the majority of the work is done by external suppliers.  At the company in question, 300 permanent headcount are managing, and supported by, over 50 suppliers, at a ratio of 1:8 (i.e. 8 outsourced people for every permanent one).
Issues include:
·        Lack of in-house knowledge, especially of a complex technical nature.  One pertinent example was that of a 10 year contract, currently in its eighth year, with a large IT firm.  The product at the heart of this contract has evolved so much that the client company now lacks sufficient knowledge to be able to use a different supplier.  However, having learned from this, the client now insists that contracts ensure that it retains ownership of any intellectual property (IP).  Also, it has stipulated that it retains responsibility for Enterprise Architecture governance (i.e. alignment of IT development with business strategic goals) as well as requiring its supplier to update the client’s own product artefacts (i.e. akin to knowledge assets).  Despite these measures, the CIO conceded that its own in-house knowledge base is insufficient, leaving it vulnerable to some of its suppliers.
·        The risk of knowledge loss has been met by requiring suppliers to ‘pair programmers’.  This is effectively an in-built redundancy which ensures continuity of effort in the event of sickness or unplanned departure.  This initiative has improved both speed of development and quality of product and these benefits have outweighed what initially appears to be a costly headcount.  A further measure designed to mitigate the risk of supplier dependence is that of retaining the right to interview and approve anyone provided by the supplier to work for the client.  As working relationships have strengthened and deepened, this right has been exercised only for key senior positions.
·        The lessons identified from the performance reviews of large contracts (i.e. of which the previous points are but two examples) inform the client’s supplier strategy, which is itself reviewed on an annual basis.  This ensures that learning from one contractual relationship can be carried over to others, where appropriate and practical to do so.
·        All projects are subject to Project Implementation Reviews (PIR), during which lessons are captured and documented.  Where necessary, actions are assigned to embed the learning, with the governance provided by the Project Management Office (PMO) ensuring that such retrospective learning happens consistently.
·        However, interestingly there appeared to be few examples of ‘learning before’ projects (i.e. whereby a new Project Manager actively uses historic lessons and experienced personnel to ensure the new project repeats previous good practice and does not repeat past mistakes).  Indeed, the preference for “starting with a clean sheet” appeared to be a cultural phenomenon but my host conceded that this ‘wheel re-invention’ must be costly, in terms of both time and money.
Overall, it was a useful insight into how this telco is using the contracts with its suppliers to manage its knowledge.  They're not doing everything right and there are some glaring gaps in its KM tool-set but at least they're trying - many organisations don't even bother.
I shall now follow up with some information about KM plans, Peer Assists and some thoughts on how to develop a learning culture.
For more information about these and other KM tools, please visit the Knoco website.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Communities of practice - nothing new, it would seem!

Frequent readers of this blog will be familiar with my take on military culture and KM.  Both the American and British Armies have invested resources into the knowledge management capabilities that can facilitate organisational learning.  However, military culture often prevents such investment achieving its intended value. 
This is because whilst ‘heroic leadership’ can often be useful, perhaps necessary, for getting scared and weary soldiers to engage in combat, it is too often very hard for such heroes to admit to their own mistakes, thereby sending out the example that euphemisms and cover-ups are okay.  The cumulative effect of this is an exaggeration of achievements and a wilful blindness when it comes to failure – neither of which help successors to learn.
One of the KM capabilities with which armies have been experimenting is the Community of Practice (CoP) – a forum within which functional colleagues can collaborate, seek mutual help as well as sharing ideas and lessons.  The British Army’s dabbling in CoPs has yet to bear the fruit for which many have hoped but these things take time and require support, not least from above.
Interestingly, this article by Dr Robert Foley of Kings College London, shows how the Prussian Army was using Communities of Practice over 200 years ago.  For me, a pertinent quote is, “While the membership was obviously as self-selecting group — only those with the interest and the aptitude applied and were accepted — being part of this society also clearly helped create important professional networks that aided the careers of its members.” 
People need to see that participating in CoPs is worthwhile and, when they do so, they will join up.  That means it’s up to other members to spread the word and to use clear examples of where pulling on the brainpower and know-how of several hundred colleagues helped them get results far beyond what they would have achieved on their own.
For information about Knoco’s CoP services, please contact me direct or via the Knoco website.