The Knowledge Transfer Equation

One of the great benefits of teaching is that I get to read some wonderful guidance on many key aspects of knowledge management. As I’ve written before, at the top of my list of books to read over and over again is Working Knowledge by Tom Davenport and Larry Prusak. Inevitably, every time I go back to that KM classic I find something I have never noticed before.

In preparing for one of my recent classes, I spent some time on the chapter in Working Knowledge concerning Knowledge Transfer.  It was a good reminder that all our efforts to capture, collect, and organize content are not an end unto themselves. Rather, they are intended to help us transfer knowledge throughout the organization, thereby increasing the organization’s value.

But how do we transfer knowledge effectively? The answer Davenport & Prusak offer may not be exactly what you were looking for:

The short answer, and the best one, is: hire smart people and let them talk to one another.

But, you say, in busy days (and nights) spent battling exploding email inboxes, who has time for conversation? Davenport & Prusak remind us that “In a knowledge-driven economy, talk is real work.” Arguably, dealing with some of the trivialities in your inbox is not.

If you are skeptical, consider the example of Sematech, a nonprofit consortium that focuses on research and development for the computer chip industry. Davenport & Prusak report that Sematech was successful because it created “organizational and human resources structures devoted to technology transfer.” One way they transferred knowledge was by inviting assignees (i.e., representatives from sponsoring firms) to participate in research at Sematech. Then these assignees carried their new technical knowledge back to their own firms where they could put it to use. In the words of one Sematech technology transfer manager:

We have documents, document databases, an intranet, Web, groupware, you name it. But the assignees and the face-to-face meetings we have are by far the most important channels for transferring knowledge to the member firms.

As you think about how you try to transfer knowledge within your organization, on which channels do you rely? Your SharePoint intranet? Training sessions? Email threads? Practice group meetings?

Once you know what channels you are using, consider this crucial question: how successful is the knowledge transfer? Davenport & Prusak remind us that it is not enough to simply post, publish, or announce information. In fact, even a training session may not be enough. Yes, you have made information available but have you fully transferred it? The answer to that question lies in the following equation offered by Davenport & Prusak:

Transfer = Transmission + Absorption (and Use)

In other words, posting, publishing, or announcing information is the equivalent of transmitting it. Once you have made it available, then you must take additional steps to ensure that this information is absorbed by the recipient. Finally, you need to see how and when they use it. Until the moment of use, you do not have a complete transfer. After all, it is through the use of knowledge that you achieve the goal of knowledge transfer: “to improve an organization’s ability to do things, and therefore increase its value.”

This knowledge transfer formula poses an interesting test of our intranet efforts. How much of the content in your intranet is used, much less re-used? If the answer is not sufficiently high, then it is time to think about how to get out of the knowledge transmission business and into the knowledge transfer business.

I suspect that is where you and your organization intended to be all along.

[Photo Credit: Nick Youngson]

 

Share

A New Adventure

Every so often, opportunity knocks.

This year, opportunity started knocking and did not quit until I finally paid attention. Thanks to the persistence and support of several wonderful colleagues, I now find myself embarking on a new adventure.

On July 1, I became academic director of the Master of Science in Information and Knowledge Strategy (IKNS) program at Columbia University. It is a remarkable program that equips students to lead high-performing teams and unleash the power inherent in the knowledge assets of their organizations. In the words of one our distinguished faculty members, Jeanne Harris, our program teaches how to  optimize organizational decision making and execution.

Who doesn’t need that?

Next week we will welcome a new cohort of mid-career executives eager to learn the things that knowledge management professionals know how to do. However, unlike most KM professionals, this cohort will have the benefit of a thoughtfully designed set of courses taught by industry leaders. This creates a wonderful path to the education that the rest of us gained painfully through the school of hard knocks.

We just released to our new students the online learning site for their first course. One of their initial assignments is to read a foundational book for knowledge management professionals: Working Knowledge by Tom Davenport and Larry Prusak. The site directs the students to read the book with a critical eye — not because there is a particular problem with the book but because they will have a chance next week to discuss it face to face with Larry Prusak. What an opportunity! And it’s only the beginning for them and for us.)

Together with the other members of the program’s leadership team (Dr. Ed Hoffman and Carolina Pincetic), our expert faculty, and dedicated alumni, I look forward to bringing the benefits of collaboration and knowledge sharing to more and more individuals and organizations.

We have some powerful tools in our IKNS toolkit that are just too valuable to hoard.

 

Share

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.)

 

Share