posted 9 Apr 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 6
A repurcussion of recession is widespread uncertainty and insecurity – the damaging effects of which could be ongoing. In this environment, collaboration projects may come to the fore as crucial for recovery. Caroline Poynton reports.
As a freelance journalist, I have the pleasure of working with several organisations. This work stretches my skills and experience not just across different industry sectors, but also across disciplines – from business management to media relations. I believe that this independence is vital – both to being able to view knowledge management (KM) within a broader business remit, but also to having a perspective that is not driven by my own KM predilection. I may undertake research into KM disciplines, involving speaking to numerous practitioners, but I have no particular KM bias; nor would I have any particular motivation to extol the virtues of KM, if the environment was pointing to its likely demise. Such an outlook may be useful as a long-term question is whether the recession will act as a catalyst for change, which will fundamentally alter the practice of ‘KM’ as we know it. If we agree that change is more than likely, then this will clearly affect the ways in which KM should now be ‘optimised’.
It was within this kind of thinking that I was taken back to an article I wrote for another publication, CorpComms. The magazine is dedicated to communication professionals, largely in the
One of the pieces I wrote earlier in the year for the magazine was on leadership. On conducting interviews for this CorpComms article, it struck me that the recession had almost overnight singled out the many instances of poor leadership, particularly in the many examples of vague or non-existent communication that had seriously undermined both employee and public trust. At a time when most companies were facing the prospect of redundancy programmes, I quoted John Smythe, a partner at Engage Group, as saying: “Many employees are looking at their bosses and feeling like they haven’t been told the truth – they are starting to wonder if their bosses are actually up to the job.”1
A damning indictment, but it was compounded by other contributors to the piece, one of whom described the present times as bringing about “the permanent elimination of the employee/employer contract”. David Ferrabee, managing director of Able & How, added: “The traditional relationship of employer towards employee has been breaking down for a while. Businesses no longer feel that they have to be loyal and supportive of employees throughout their careers. In contrast, employees have generally retained their sense of loyalty and commitment – although that may now change.”
In the face of this relationship breakdown, the piece pointed to a renewed need for “clarity, openness, integrity, dealing and listening to people, and understanding their knowledge of the situation”. As Sheila Parry, managing director of The Blue Ballroom, said: “The worst thing you can do is shut down on people and stop communicating.”2
My conversations with these communications professionals highlighted a level of employee distrust and even paranoia. Much of it reminded me of the comment to Jason Rathbone’s KM blog that employees would have to be “complete suckers” to participate in KM collaboration projects, because knowledge sharing would only hand over an employee’s essential knowledge to “unpredictable employers”. In a boom period, employers and employees could afford to be relatively relaxed about their ongoing relationship – job security was high and business profitability on the increase despite the odd internal inefficiency or, perhaps, even periods of low morale. But with the recession, the tables have turned, exposing weaknesses in companies where there was insufficient collaboration, creating the insecurity of an ‘us and them’ environment – and potentially hampering post-recession innovation and growth.
What now for KM?
In this kind of environment, the question over the role of KM is more pressing than ever. With the first signs of economic recovery, the temptation for surviving KM professionals may be to revert to pre-recession projects that have been put on hold. But the conditions for KM may have changed, brought about by shifts in employer-employee relations that have been encountered by both KM and communications professionals. Of course, for those companies that were already hugely successful in their collaboration and communication strategies, this need might be less pressing, as efforts have been ongoing throughout the downturn. But assuming that most companies are only moderately successful in both communication and collaboration strategies, there is now the added pressure of having to improve both disciplines – so that, as the economy improves, any residual distrust turns into knowledge sharing once again, as employees become enthused about the future possibilities brought about by internal collaboration. There is another reason to focus on collaboration, too: while technology may have played an important part in driving KM projects in the past, technology investment has largely been stripped to the bone in recent months. Where KM practitioners are trying to do more with less – or rather, make the most of existing resources – projects focused on bringing people together and fostering internal collaboration might be the most effective way of both getting KM and companies out of a potential communications rut, as well as sowing fertile ground for rapid recovery through shared thinking.
Shawn Callahan and Mark Schenk, founding director and director respectively at Anecdote, and Nancy White, founder of Full Circle Associates, recently co-authored a three-part masterclass on collaboration for Inside Knowledge.3 In the first part, they provide a neat rationale for enterprise collaboration:
“Today we face an entirely new environment for innovation and getting things done. The days of the lone genius quietly toiling away in pursuit of that ‘
“We are now in the days of asking and listening to our customers and working with them in our innovation cycles. Innovation demands collaboration. So does production. In the past we could focus on a single task in an assembly-line fashion, handing our completed activity to the next person who would in turn do the same, until the job was finished. Now the jobs change fast, requiring learning new skills rather than merely repeating the old. We have to seek out people who have other pieces of the puzzle and work with them to tackle increasingly complex issues at a much faster pace.”
In a recessionary environment in which suspicion and even fear might have become more the order of the day, realising such ambitions might have become more difficult. But that does not mean such aims should not be attempted at all. Indeed, in a workplace where leadership might be more distrusted, it could be argued that such efforts are more important than ever for a quick market recovery.
Callahan, Schenk and White go on, in part two of their masterclass, to provide a good benchmark for KM teams attempting to improve collaboration, by describing some “basic indicators” of a strong collaboration culture:
“Reflective practices are valued. Reflection enables individuals, teams, communities and networks to learn and improve their collaborative practices. This includes all types of ongoing communication and feedback;
“A receptive environment for learning from mistakes. Mistakes are discussable learning moments rather than shaming moments. Being ‘right’ is not the only thing valued so being wrong is not hidden, hiding learning and collaborative moments. This includes constructive criticism and critical thinking in general;
“Transparency is the sets of tools and practices that supports reflective practices and the culture of learning from mistakes. Most importantly this includes speaking up when something is wrong and doing it with respect and good intent;
“Awareness of, and balance between, competition and cooperation. Awareness of the impacts of competition – how much focus to put on individual, team and organisational achievement;
“Willingness to surface and share expertise. This means people are encouraged to and are allowed the time to share what they know in addition to focusing on their own work.”
On looking at the above tips, it is clear why a recessionary environment might threaten a collaborative culture. Where jobs, and sometimes whole departments, are under threat, mistakes are more likely to be hidden rather than treated as “discussable learning moments”. A recession also poses related environmental problems to “speaking up when something is wrong” or being willing “to surface and share expertise”. A recession could reverse months or even years of collaborative efforts, as people revert to self-interest in difficult times. Effective leadership, however, can go a long way to remedying this issue, providing a transparency of communication and a collaborative role model to calm fears and actually support teams through difficult periods.
The authors, for instance, discuss how effective collaboration relies on good leadership. “Leadership is a keystone for establishing supportive collaboration cultures, especially in teams and communities within organisations... To create a culture that supports collaboration, leaders must understand, create conditions for and model collaboration for teams, communities and networks,” they write.
They also list six main behaviours leaders display that mould an organisation’s culture:
“Attention – what leaders pay attention to, measure, and control on a regular basis – are they paying attention to collaborative strategies and behaviours from team, community and network perspectives?
“Crisis behaviour – in crisis, how are leaders reacting to critical incidents and organisational crises – are they sacrificing long-term goals for short-term fixes which sabotage collaboration? Does fear of connecting to the larger network keep them from tapping into it?
“Resource allocation – are leaders allocating for, and investing in, the collaboration capability? Is the investment attentive to all three types of collaboration [team, community and network]?
“Walking the talk – as leaders express their identity through deliberate role modelling, teaching, and coaching – so we follow!
“Recognition – how leaders allocate rewards and status – are your leaders rewarding individual or collaborative behaviours? Or both?
“Recruitment – leaders are key influences for how collaborative talent is brought into and nurtured in the organisation. Is there a plan and practice for recruiting, selecting and promoting good collaborators while edging out bad collaborative apples?”
In looking at these signposts for improved collaboration, it is clear not only how much leadership is responsible for ensuring a collaborative culture, but also how far their actions impact the long-term resilience of teams, in good times and bad. A good example, for instance, is the point about recognition. If leaders are seen to reward individual rather than collaborative behaviours, it is hardly surprising if employees then take an individualist and protectionist outlook themselves, especially in a market downturn. If it is generally agreed that collaboration is an essential requirement for the demands of modern business, then it also follows that leaders themselves must demonstrate collaborative behaviours, or threaten a company’s ability to recover in an improving market by isolating employees when joined-up thinking is needed most. Quite simply, KM collaborative efforts may be more essential now than ever – especially as we see the first green shoots of recovery.
Another interesting collaboration tip relates to leadership in a crisis. A cynic might argue that collaboration is all very well and good in a burgeoning economy, but such behaviours are extraneous when the real need is to batten down the hatches. However, looking back at the advice of the communication professionals, in the article mentioned earlier, it seems that a more open, honest and collaborative culture is particularly essential in a crisis. As I quoted David Ferrabee saying at the time: “Leaders need to understand that this is a serious point in employees’ lives where the perception might be that if push comes to shove, it’ll be them getting the push, not the leadership teams. In that environment, employees want and need visibility and empathy from their leaders – it’s a time for lots of honest conversations and the sharing of ideas.”
From theory to practice
One area of collaboration that has proved particularly successful for many companies is communities of practice (CoPs). CoPs are a means of using people’s natural inclinations and passions to encourage knowledge sharing and innovation. The great advantage is that while such communities might need some leadership to get going, they generally do not require massive ongoing investment or the use of costly company resources to function effectively. The results can also be quite profound, as Cadbury discovered when it created communities and networks across its science and technology (S&T) group – a team of 750 people spread across 36 countries. Arthur Shelley, founder of Intelligent Answers Pty Ltd, wrote a case study on the initiative in his report Being a Successful Knowledge Leader.4
The collaboration project began during the 1990s, when Cadbury Schweppes expanded through acquisition leaving silos of knowledge distributed across its global locations. The company decided to attempt to bring the businesses together to leverage collective strengths and enable the company to work better as a united, global entity. Within the S&T team in particular, the aim was to find “small pockets of excellence (collaborative practices, critical expertise and practices, and personal networks) and join these up into larger global networks to increase awareness of each others’ activities”.5 In his article, Shelley described the early goals of the programme as:
Creating networks and communities amongst scientific personnel “to increase awareness, collaboration and interactions for capability development, and problem solving”;
Supporting these activities with processes and tools for “virtual project management, and collation and sharing of technical information and ideas”; and
Evolving how people interact, behave and build the company’s capability to leverage existing knowledge.
Such goals were supported by specific goals and projects, so that the effectiveness of the collaboration could be measured and benefits communicated to the rest of the company. In the early years, although several communities were established, some were more successful than others, but with finite resources, it was decided that energy would be spent on those communities that were clearly gaining results and making a difference. Such quick wins could then be used to reinforce further community building. A huge advantage, in terms of resources and operational efficiency, was that the groups were self-directing and managed themselves – although global knowledge resources monitored progress and provided support for community leaders. Most importantly, progress was monitored, with some particularly striking success stories. “Some individual virtual collaboration projects produced some spectacular results,” wrote Shelley. “One generated millions of dollars in increased sales, while one saved months of research. Another highlighted a looming maintenance issue which, if not acted upon, would have caused significant factory downtime and unplanned maintenance. The programme worked very well and executives were happy with the return on their investments.”
Two factors are particularly striking in this case study. First, the community initiative was put together at a time when the company was rapidly expanding and needed to break down silos of knowledge. More recently, Cadbury Schweppes has demerged, with new challenges including the change of supporting software for community activity and the departure of key community leaders as the company restructured. Through both of these extensive change periods (reminiscent of some of the changes a recession might impose), the communities have continued to prosper – largely because of leadership support. In fact, the leadership involvement in the community projects not only enabled their success, but also led to the development of succession planning, as the experience of the communities enabled the departing KM programme leader to devise a succession plan to ‘mentor’ his successor and ensure that his knowledge wasn’t lost to the organisation when he left.
Collaboration and succession planning
From the moment that a new recruit was brought into the team, it was known that he would succeed the KM programme leader, with responsibility for the communities and the knowledge programme generally. A smooth succession was complicated by the fact that the leader and recruit were separated geographically by a ten-hour time difference, but by establishing a ‘virtual mentoring relationship’, including irregular face-to-face meetings, weekly scheduled teleconferences, a shared team space on the intranet and weekly summary e-mails, they were able to learn from each other, using tools well established in the CoPs.
Equally interesting was the fact that the successor was primarily a communications professional, not a KM expert. In fact, the choice of a communications expert to head up the KM programme seems fully in keeping with the communications emphasis of the projects, exemplified by the community slogan, ‘Connect, Collaborate, Capitalise’, which had been devised to engage people and brand the CoPs initiative.
Nor was the mentoring programme merely a means to pass knowledge on from the programme leader to his successor. The mentoring phase was very much a two-way process in which the lead provided guidance on knowledge management, strategy development, behaviours and leadership, while the recruit reciprocated by helping the leader on communications, and managing the schedule and planning activities. This ensured a smooth transition, which might have otherwise been quite challenging, given that the succession happened at around the same time as the Cadbury Schweppes demerger.
The Cadbury case study makes an explicit link between communications and KM, not only in the nature of the knowledge-sharing community projects, but also in the very people who were being recruited to the KM team. In some respects, it again calls into question the very nature of the KM role and how it will evolve post-recession. The activities no doubt will remain; some will grow in importance. But whether they will continue to be defined as ‘KM’ remains to be seen.
This diffusion of KM into other disciplines may also be intensified by technology – particularly in terms of collaborative tools including Web 2.0 technology. This article would not therefore be complete without some discussion of the far-reaching impact of social networking software on communication, collaboration and KM generally.
There is perhaps no better demonstration of how collaboration and technology are coming together than in looking at the public sector. Here, there is not only the constraint of finite resources and budget (further limited by recession), but increasing demands for better and more joined-up public services.
In the UK, for example, councils were pressed by the government to keep council tax increases as low as possible for the 2009-10 financial year. While this may have been a relief for beleaguered council residents struggling in the recession, it was not so great for councils trying to maintain service levels. Local Government Association research from earlier in the year, for example, projected council income to fall by £2.5bn in the 2009-10 financial year, while half of councils had already cut jobs due to the recession.6
Nor is local government just facing the obstacle of having to deliver services with reduced funds/resources. There is also the new Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA), which is forcing many local authorities to do things differently.
The CAA, whose findings will be made public every year started in November 2009, will assess local public services in terms of their overall effectiveness in improving local quality of life – and, in particular, how effectively local partnerships, such as the council, police, and prison and probation services, work together to achieve this.
The Improvement & Development Agency (IDeA) plays a crucial role in addressing these challenges through its role in driving improvement across the sector. In particular, its KM strategy has been devised to connect resources and individuals – a hefty task considering that Local Government in England and Wales employs 2.1 million people across 410 local authorities. Each local authority also tends to work in isolation, often little sharing experiences or knowledge with other authorities despite having relevant expertise to share.
There was also another incentive for IDeA to develop a collaborative programme. While the public sector is far from new to KM strategies, it faces a similar problem to most organisations – information overload.
IDeA’s CoPs programme – based on its virtual collaboration platform – is therefore essential to bringing people and local authorities together, with the aim that they can learn from each other. In addition, while this could work on a very simple level, the emergence of Web 2.0 tools has enabled IDeA to build a collaboration platform on which communities can thrive. The web-based platform supports any number of CoPs, and includes a people finder, user profiles (similar to social networking sites, such as LinkedIn), blogs, a forum, wikis, news feeds, a document library, polls and alerts. The platform is also centralised by a ‘community hub’, which brings together all CoPs in a central zone to encourage cross-collaboration between communities.
The process of bringing people together may have been achieved without the technology capability, but it is unlikely it could have been done so efficiently. Not only does Web 2.0, with its social networking capabilities, allow forward-thinking organisations to relatively easily apply online tools to encourage community behaviour but it also enables them to tap into a growing and global social-networking phenomenon. According to a recent Neilsen report, two-thirds of the world’s internet population now visits a social network or blogging site, and the sector now accounts for almost ten percent of all internet time.7 ‘Member communities’ have also overtaken personal e-mail to become the world’s fourth most popular online sector after search, portals and personal computer (PC) software applications. In coming up with a collaboration platform, IDeA, and organisations like it, are combining technology capabilities with the natural inclinations of people to connect online, to bring distinct knowledge-sharing advantages to their service-delivery capabilities.
Here, we have seen the degree to which KM can be a community influencer – helping to bring people and communication strategies together with Web 2.0 tools that are still relatively new but incredibly powerful for collaborative success. The role of technology in KM has long been a source of much debate, with early KM often being criticised as overly technology-biased. However, social networking has brought a whole new dimension to the possibilities of KM – one that many businesses are still exploring. But it may well be the springboard from which KM becomes far more about communication – centred on people rather than systems. That technology might be the key to enabling that development is ironic to say the least.
Poynton, C., ‘Leading Lights in Dark Times’, CorpComms, May 2009. Available at www.corpcommsmagazine.co.uk/features/379-leading-lights-in-dark-times.
Callahan, S., Schenk, M. & White, N., ‘The spectrum of collaboration’, ‘The culture of collaboration’ and ‘Fostering collaboration leadership and support’, published in Inside Knowledge, December 2008, February 2009 and May 2009 respectively.
Shelley, A., Being a Successful Knowledge Leader, Ark Group, 2009.
Shelley, A., ‘Sweet like chocolate’, Inside Knowledge, volume 12, issue 6, May 2009.
‘Council tax rises to be lowest in 15 years, officials predict’, Guardian.co.uk, 26 March 2009.
‘Global Faces and Networked Places: A Neilsen Report on Social Networking’s New Global Footprint’, March 2009. Available at http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/nielsen_globalfaces_mar09.pdf.
This article is adapted from an excerpt of Delivering Business Critical Knowledge Management written by Caroline Poynton and published by Ark Conferences.
For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org