A Lesson for the Modern Workplace and School: Connection Before Content

A few years ago I had the privilege of attending a discussion led by Clayton Christensen on the future of education. As you may know, Christensen is a professor at the Harvard Business School who became famous for his work on disruptive innovation. So it was likely that this discussion would leave us feeling uncomfortable.

Christensen did not disappoint. He asked lots of challenging questions about the true value of higher education as currently constructed. What were residential colleges delivering that so exceeded the educational value of a free MOOC that those colleges could justify charging over $60 thousand or even over $70 thousand per year? And what about graduate schools? In this era of back-breaking student debt, what were they offering that the school of hard knocks could not?

I have been thinking a great deal about these questions since I started teaching in the M.S. in Information & Knowledge Strategy (IKNS) program at Columbia University. And those questions became even more pressing when I became Academic Director on July 1. How do we justify the time, effort, and expense required by our program?

It would take me a while to enumerate all the ways in which the IKNS program provides value so let me focus on one thing that became very clear this past weekend: we provide a laboratory in which our students can learn proven concepts and practices that equip them for effective leadership.

On Wednesday, August 22, our new cohort of students arrived at Columbia University’s Morningside campus for four days of Intensive study (the Intensive). Our original impulse was to stuff them as full of learning as was humanly possible in such a short time. As a practical matter, this would have required lectures from 9:00am – 6:00pm daily. We could do that. But was it the right approach?

Early in our planning, we realized that we needed to rethink our approach. Given that our program is demanding and very hard to complete without collaboration, the key was to spend the Intensive building the capacity of the cohort to collaborate. So we rethought everything. Rather than making them sit through hours and hours of lectures, we first had them develop their own self-awareness and then their knowledge of their teammates. Through a series of carefully designed individual and group exercises, they built an extraordinary level of trust and empathy. Then we could focus on learning collaboratively.

Our bet paid off. Within hours, these new students moved from being strangers to being friends. And, in that capacity, were more than willing to share their own knowledge and experience to help a classmate integrate new concepts and practices. In the process, they all learned an astonishing amount remarkably quickly. Arguably, more than they could have learned sitting passively through a series of well-intended lectures.

Don’t get me wrong. We had formal teaching sessions. But only after they were ready to learn together.

This experience is a timely reminder of an insight Nancy Dixon has shared with several prior IKNS cohorts: Connection before Content.” Building on the work of Peter Block, Dixon observed that in the workplace, we all work better when we know each other and trust each other. But that knowledge and trust should not be left to happenstance. A thoughtful manager can help speed the development of professional relationship and trust through some intentional practices such as ensuring that team members connect (and later reconnect) with each other before diving into the agenda. This creates a foundation of goodwill and understanding that can act as a shock absorber for the necessary creative friction of teamwork.

If “Connection before Content” is true in the physical workplace, it is doubly true in the virtual workplace and in a virtual learning environment such as ours. The capacity to connect enables the capacity to collaborate and the capacity to share knowledge.

Thankfully, our newest cohort demonstrated this past weekend that they are well on their way to developing their capacity to collaborate with their classmates. NOW they are ready to learn in our program and share that learning with their colleagues at work.

All of us will be the better for it.

 

Share

Humans are KM’s Secret Sauce

Years ago, TV ads taught us that one of the things that set a Big Mac apart from the competition was its “secret sauce.” (Remember: two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, and a sesame-seed bun.) Thanks to Google, we now have easy access to recipes for that special sauce. It turns out that the sauce is basically a doctored version of thousand islands dressing. How mundane.

In knowledge management, we search high and low for the secret sauce that will unleash engagement and prompt people to “share their knowledge.” If you have ever created an intranet or other repository, you know how hard it can be to coax your colleagues to contribute fresh content. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had the secret sauce to make this possible?

Nancy Dixon, one of the pioneers of KM, writes in Common Knowledge that we have been misled by the myths that knowledge sharing happens with technology alone or requires an established learning culture. She has found that robust knowledge sharing happens when the technology evolves to include face-to-face interactions. Further, she believes that if people are encouraged to share knowledge, their exchanges will create a learning culture.

In fact, she says that the perception that “it’s really difficult to get people to share what they know” is a misconception. In her experience, people generally share freely — when asked directly by another human being who has a legitimate need. Why? Because most of us like to be helpful. Further, we appreciate the opportunity to showcase our expertise and receive praise for our generosity. Therefore, if you stop by someone’s office and ask a question or post a request for information, most people are willing to give you the best answer they have. This, by any definition, is knowledge sharing.

By contrast, people balk at taking the time to “write something up” and submit it for inclusion in some collection. Then the five-minute chat at the office door transforms into a PROJECT that needs focus and must meet submission standards. In the face of such a project, most busy people prefer to walk away.

So how to solve the knowledge sharing problem? Encourage more face-to-face interaction, more direct conversation. Keep it simple and keep it between two humans. If you are worried about scaling up knowledge sharing, don’t force people to write lessons learned documents that languish untouched in databases. Instead, organize peer assists in which a team that has worked on a specific type of project sits down to discuss their experience with another team that is starting a similar project. In the course of their conversation, they will share knowledge and both teams will benefit from the experience.

In these cases, humans are the secret sauce. When you focus on helping them connect, you enable them to exchange information freely in the context of relationship and you accelerate the knowledge flow throughout the organization.

You may think this approach is mundane, but don’t knock it. It works. Remember, the “secret sauce” in a Big Mac may be mundane salad dressing, but it still makes a critical contribution to the success of the burger.

[Photo Credit: Ailinder]

Share

Industry Leaders Conversation: Change, Culture, and Learning #KMWorld

KMWlogo_Stacked_Session Description:

Former head of KM with the BBC, Semple believes in conversations and leads our panel on a far-ranging discussion of change, culture and learning as we all aspire to an outbreak of common sense on our journey for knowledge sharing and creating sustainable, high-functioning organizations and communities.

Speakers:

  • Euan Semple, Director, Euan Semple Ltd
  • Jean-Claude Monney, Former Chief Knowledge Officer, Microsoft, Columbia University and Digital Transformation Coach
  • Kim Glover, Global Manager of Knowledge Management, TechnipFMC
  • Nancy Dixon, Principal Researcher, Common Knowledge Associates

[These are my notes from the KMWorld 2017 Conference. I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, so they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]

NOTES:

  • Why knowledge management?
    • at Microsoft Services, Jean-Claude Monney was given responsibility to get 100% of Microsoft knowledge to 100% of Microsoft’s customers, 100% of the time.
    • Best of the knowledge = relevant (in the context of the work) and trustworthy
    • For Nancy Dixon, knowledge management helps the organization learn better and faster.
  • What is the pedigree of knowledge?
    • if the knowledge comes from a person, is that person reliable/trustworthy?
    • if the knowledge comes from a document, is the source of the document reliable?
  • Knowledge management should focus on the issues that matter.
    • Nancy Dixon worries that KM focuses too much on the tactical (how to be more efficient) but misses the issues that can really bring down the organization, such as ethical issues.
    • General Motors once had a terrific KM group. However, they were unable to help the company prevent bankruptcy. What if there were a KM group at Volkswagon that could shed light on ethical issues? Would that have prevented the emissions control disaster? Would there have been a different outcome at Wells Fargo if there were a KM-organized forum for employees to express their concerns about business practices that did not align with the company’s mission statement?
  • Conversation is Consequential. 
    • Conversation is something you enter with the realization that you might be changed.
    • Conversation in an organization creates a culture — it is important to notice what is talked about AND what is not talked about.
    • An organization that wants the benefit of consequential conversation must first create an environment of psychological safety.
  • We Make Culture.
    • Culture is not just something that is something that is done to us. We make culture by everything we do (or do not do).
    • We learn culture in the first instance from our experiences with our direct managers.
  • How to Start a KM Program.
    • If you are lucky, the CEO comes in one day and says we need a KM program.
    • More likely, find business problems that KM can help solve.
    • When you are asked to “show them the money,” don’t assume the responsibility for the numbers. Instead, partner with the business first, find out what KPIs are important to them, and then figure out the value KM adds to achieve those KPIs.
    • Before you mention KM to anyone, collect stories of instances when one unit helped another unit (and how much money was solved). Then suggest to management that you create an organizational strategy out of this collaboration.
  • What’s Next for KM?
    • Monney:
      • We are experiencing a massive change due to digital augmented knowledge. The reality of AI and augmented reality is extraordinary. The key is to use AI to improve a human’s ability to make better decisions.
      • We need to figure out to digitally transform our business — or someone else will.
      • We need to develop empathy
      • We need to harness the source of knowledge — but what if the knowledge is the heads of contractors or people who do not want to be handcuffed to the organization.
    • Glover: As technology gets better and easier to use, KM professionals can go back to being “people people” rather than reluctant technologists.
    • Dixon: There is an erosion of cognitive authority. We have stopped trusting CEOs and other people in positions of authority. KM’s role is to make things more transparent so that we can operate without omniscient authority figures.
Share