What KM Books Are You Re-Reading?

Davenport and Prusak Working Knowledge coverWhat KM books are you re-reading? No, this is not a trick question. You are, of course, keeping up with your professional reading, aren’t you?

If you are, please let us know via the comments below what is on your KM reading list.

If you are not, we need to talk.

When I first began to work in knowledge management, I eagerly sought out as many KM books as I could find and then dutifully read them. They were awful. It’s not that the authors did not have something useful to say. The issue was that I was not ready to listen to them.  In part this was because I did not have the vocabulary to understand what they were saying. However, the bigger problem was that I lacked sufficient experience in KM to appreciate the lessons those authors were trying to teach me. So I slammed those books shut, put them on the shelf to gather dust, and set about to be a knowledge manager.

After a few years of KM work, I noticed an interesting pattern. When I found myself dealing with one challenge or another, I would say to myself, “Surely someone else has encountered this issue and solved it already.” After this happened a few times, it occurred to me that those dusty KM books might contain some insights. So I pulled them down from the bookshelf, blew off the dust, opened the books, started reading, and discovered…answers! Not just answers, but amazingly useful answers.

What changed? I finally had both the vocabulary to understand what the authors were saying AND the experience to appreciate what they were saying.

So now I find myself reading and re-reading KM books, and find the time well-spent.

If you would like to replicate this experience, let me recommend Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know by Thomas H. Davenport and Laurence Prusak (affiliate link). Written by two of the early thinkers in KM, this book provides a great introduction to the discipline, as well some useful warnings about the mistakes we make when we do not learn from the experience of others. With the benefit of some KM victories and challenges under my belt, I now find that parts of their book that could have been written for me or for the organizations I have worked with. Here’s an example:

Too often, knowledge transfer has been confined to such concepts as improved access, electronic communication, document repositories, and so forth. We believe it is time for firms to shift their attention to the more human aspects — from access to attention, from velocity to viscosity, from documents to discussions. Obviously, firms need to exploit both the hard and soft aspects of knowledge transfer, but in the Western business culture there are usually too few advocates of the soft stuff. [p. 106]

It took me several months of working in KM to figure this out for myself, yet unbeknownst to me Davenport & Prusak had written about it a couple years before my own epiphany. Think of the pain I could have spared myself if I had only read their book earlier. For this reason, I go back and re-read their book regularly. And I find new gems hidden there every time.

So what KM book or books are you reading? Please share your recommendations in the comments section. You might inspire a colleague and save them a boatload of pain.

[This blog post was inspired by a discussion on the Leonard Lopate show (January 28, 2016) during which Jane Smiley, Philip Lopate, Leonard Lopate and several listeners talked about the books they re-read and the value they obtain from reading those books over and over again. If you are looking for some non-KM reading, I recommend that episode of the show to you.)



The Value of Checklists

Let’s start with the premise that you’re fantastic. In fact, you’re well-trained, experienced and routinely exhibit good judgment. So, do you need a checklist? Ask a pilot or a surgeon.  Surgeon Atul Gawande did exactly that and learned some interesting — and sobering — things.  In a recent interview, he discussed his latest book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, which recounts his exploration of the value of checklists.  Time and again, he found that checklists were an effective antidote to ignorance, uncertainty and complexity.  He and his team developed a two-minute checklist that covered some basics for surgery (e.g., do we have enough blood and antibiotics?), as well as some basics for good teamwork (e.g., does everyone in the Operating Room know the name of each person in the room?).  They then tested these lists in eight different hospitals.  The results were stunning.  For example, when they took the time to make introductions, they had a 35% decline in deaths and complications related to surgery.

Creating checklists for routine procedures makes sense.  They allow you to act quickly and confidently.  Creating checklists for complex situations are even more important since these are precisely the times when you are most beset by uncertainty and may not even know what you don’t know.  In these cases, it’s helpful to have a checklist that can help pin down facts and eliminate areas of concern.

After the trial period in eight hospitals, 80% of the surgeons involved said they would continue to use the checklist.  Interestingly, 20% remained resistant.  They believed that the checklists were a waste of time and didn’t add value. However, when asked if you were having an operation, would you want your surgeon to use the checklist, 94% of those resisters said they would.

So why are professionals resistant to checklists?  Atul Gawande thinks that this is because experts have a hard time admitting their own fallibility.  There are also experts (be they lawyers or knowledge managers) who approach their work as “artistes.”  Therefore, they believe their creative outflow cannot be reduced to a dry checklist.  Finally, there are the thousands of us who race through our days just struggling to get things done.  In the press of business, it is hard to take the time to stop and reflect on what works and what doesn’t.  It’s harder still to take the time to document it.  Tragically, when an error or accident happens, we are forced to stop and think about what went wrong.  Under those circumstances, the analysis is charged, value-laden and painful for all concerned.

Is there a two-minute checklist you could develop this week that might help strengthen your work flow or work product?  If so, can you afford not to make the investment of time required to create that checklist?

[Photo Credit:  Adam Sacco]