posted 18 May 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 8
Capturing knowledge - Realising the value from lessons learnt
Though many organisations have processes in place to identify and record lessons learnt, most such knowledge assets tend to end up on a physical or virtual shelf gathering dust. But, by following a few straightforward guidelines, those charged with capturing knowledge will be able to create rich and engaging content that will only grow in value to the enterprise as a whole. By Chris Collison & Geoff Parcell
Imagine for a minute that you’re packing your bag in preparation for a business trip. It’s late in the evening, and the following day you will be catching the red-eye flight. What kind of things come to mind? Tickets, passport, currency, itinerary, contact details, driving licence, power adaptor, iPod…
We usually manage to remember the things we need for our business trips (often starting with the things we forgot the previous time). What we don’t do is to stand over an open suitcase and think, “Now, what was it that I took when I went to
And yet, when it comes to lessons learnt, we expect people in our organisations to work through a heap of lessons-learnt reports in the hope that a key insight will leap out at them. It’s little wonder that the lessons learnt in our organisations are often little more than ‘lessons stored’, because we frequently pay little attention to the way they could be structured for easy access. We don’t have a customer in mind when we capture them.
As a consequence, we struggle to absorb all the information available to us, and yet still don’t feel knowledgeable. These days, everyone complains about information overload, but you never hear anyone grumble about ‘knowledge overload’.
Recording context – a double-edged sword
In most organisations, a common sentiment is, ‘I don’t have time to read all these reports – just tell me the ten things that I really need to know.’ At the same time, people will decry the perceived over-simplicity of key-point checklists. The challenge is to capture knowledge in a way that retains as much context as possible so that we can multiply its value. Of course, too much context can sometimes cloud our judgement as to how transferable a particular piece of knowledge is.
It is therefore important to distil key learning themes from the finer details, so that people can quickly find their way to the most salient points.
Imagine that you are watching TV, and see a celebrity wearing a particularly attractive outfit. The way they walk, their accessories, their location, the people they are with – all of these factors might persuade you that you could never look that good in a similar outfit, and you would probably not even contemplate buying it. If, however, you walked into your favourite clothing store, and saw the same clothes on a mannequin or on a hanger (and the price was right), you might try them on. It may be the same garment, just presented in a more neutral environment; arranged, in other words, with a customer in mind. As the person responsible for capturing and packaging knowledge, your challenge is to arrange examples of captured knowledge according to a similar rationale, to ensure they have a wide appeal (see sidebar: Structuring lessons learnt).
Guidelines for building a knowledge asset
During our time at BP, the KM team developed the notion of a ‘knowledge asset’. This is a rich resource that combines: a high-level distillation of key guidelines; specific details and quotations illustrating the guideline from more than one setting or context; a video or audio clip introducing the story to bring in some emotion; links to relevant people; and, re-usable examples, documents and artefacts.
The guidelines below are drawn from our book, Learning to Fly: Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organisations.
Is there a customer for this knowledge?
Have a clear customer – current or future – in mind when considering the creation of a knowledge asset. Without a customer, you may be creating a knowledge graveyard. Who has, or will have, a need to know something? Even if the requirement for this knowledge is not immediate, think about the needs of a potential future customer.
Are you clear what your knowledge asset is really about?
What is the scope of your knowledge asset? What will it be called? A knowledge asset needs to cover a specific, and not too broad, area of business activity. Examples of knowledge assets from BP include:
‘Conducting a turnaround at a refinery’;
‘Transferring ownership of an offshore platform’;
‘Restructuring and right-sizing our business’;
‘Effective shift handovers’.
Which topics would be most valuable to your organisation? What are the strategically important, high-value, repeatable events that would really make a difference if you captured knowledge relating to them? You need to get some idea of what the content of the knowledge asset will be. Ask yourself:
What do I need to know in order to do business?
What is the biggest issue facing me today?
Do I need to know processes, techniques, people, reasons for acting?
Why bother? What difference would it make if I didn’t capture this knowledge?
Is there a community of practice that relates to the subject?
Knowledge assets should be owned by communities of practice, which should regularly refresh the content to keep it current. The community will be the source of the knowledge in the first place, the users of the knowledge in future and the people who validate the knowledge held in the knowledge asset. For example, the asset ‘how to drill effectively in deep water’ is owned by BP’s drilling engineers. If there is no existing community of practice, you should try to establish one – in fact, the very process of collating history and exchanging knowledge may be a powerful catalyst to bringing a community together.
This is a key step. Without the involvement of a community, there is a real risk that you will end up with an electronic time capsule – a snapshot in time of the way things used to be done – rather than the current, prized know-how that is alive within your organisation.
Is there existing material upon which you can base your knowledge asset?
Often someone in the company will have made efforts to record lessons or recommendations in some form – this will be important content to incorporate into your knowledge asset. Your first step will be to collate the existing material. This may include lessons-learnt and project-completion reports, the results of any after-action reviews, and interviews with key players. It may also be necessary to research important documents and artefacts, such as project plans, communications plans, sample presentations and project processes. If you are working in a new area, you may need to conduct interviews and introduce some learning reviews and processes in order to generate the content for the knowledge asset. Additionally, you could consider the wealth of information that exists beyond your company’s walls, either from the internet, or from other external sources.
Look for general principles or guidelines
Provide some context so that people can understand the purpose and relevance of the knowledge asset.
What was the business environment when this was created? Why was this seen as important at the time? Who brought this material together? A knowledge asset works as a general guide for future use in all contexts.
Go through the historical records of previous work and extract the knowledge from the context in which it sits. Different people will have seen certain approaches work at certain times. Are there general guidelines that you can distil out of this material?
The distillation is a creative and value-adding step – probably the most important one. You are taking what may be a mass of material, and distilling it into something really useful. It doesn’t have to be a solo effort, but it is not something that you would engage a large group to try and do. In all cases, it will require a block of uninterrupted time (a day or more in most cases), space, your undivided attention and a set of coloured marker pens.
Build a checklist illustrated with examples and stories
The checklist should tell the user of the knowledge asset:
What are the questions I need to ask myself?
What are the top ten things that I need to think about?
What is the information that I need to gather?
What are the steps that I need to take?
How you present this checklist is entirely dependent on the customer. Some people seem to respond better to a set of questions (eg, ‘have you considered using a facilitator?’) than they do to a set of guidelines, and procedures (eg, ‘use a facilitator where appropriate’), while others will prefer to work to a rule book. Check which style is preferred, rather than risk distracting or irritating the reader. The ten steps described in this article are presented as guidelines, but could equally have been presented as questions. Check with your community of practice which format people prefer.
If the topic is a part of a recognised process, consider structuring the guidelines in a way that mirrors the process steps – this may mean structuring them around a flow diagram or a Gant chart. This will mean that the knowledge asset can be used as reference material to support anyone working through these steps.
Checklists generally make dry and academic reading, and it helps if you illustrate them with examples, stories, pictures, models, quotes or video and audio clips, if possible. Always get agreement from the individual referenced, to ensure that they are happy with sharing their quote or clip more widely. It can also be valuable to include links to important source documents, so the reader can follow things up further if they desire. For example, BP’s knowledge asset on ‘business restructuring’ includes project plans, communications strategies, presentation materials, press releases and briefing documents.
The reader will usually access knowledge assets via the checklist, and drill down into areas that interest them through key quotes and as far as in-depth transcripts, video clips, key documents and, most importantly, links to people.
Emphasise links to people
Although the knowledge asset will include a lot of explicit knowledge, there will be far more knowledge that remains in the heads of members of the community of practice. This knowledge is also a vital part of the knowledge asset; it is therefore important to point to it wherever possible. Create a hyperlink to a person’s personal homepage or e-mail address wherever you mention them in the text.
Include a list of all the people who have any relationship with the content – their photograph, e-mail address, telephone number and, again, a link to any personal homepage. The photograph is significant, as it is psychologically easier to contact someone if you know what they look like.
Make sure you include your name and contact details (and photograph, if you like) at the bottom of the page. Additionally, provide details of the community of practice – who leads it, and how to access the discussion forum or mailing list.
Validate the guidelines
You will have constructed a knowledge asset, with guidelines based on history and experience collected from thecommunity of practice. Sometimes an individual will overemphasise a particular pet theme at the expense of other key points. The next step should therefore be to circulate the knowledge asset around the community again, and ask, ‘do the guidelines accurately reflect your knowledge and experience?’ as well as, ‘do you have anything to add?’.
Publish the knowledge asset
You now need to make the explicit part of the knowledge asset widely available, so that the community of practice can access it at any time. If the content is sensitive, you may find that you have to restrict access. Don’t worry too much about this – the community is you primary audience; community members will be the people who apply the guidelines and create value through its application.
Where you actually store the asset will depend on the nature of the community. The knowledge asset has to live with its owners. For a local community or team, this might mean something as simple as posting the asset on the office wall or project ‘war room’. For a global or virtual community of practice, you will probably store the knowledge in a virtual space – typically on an intranet. The power of the hyperlink means that original documents can reside with their owners.
Of course, you don’t have to restrict yourself to a single medium. In BP’s Norway office, the results of learning reviews were put on the notice board by the coffee machines, where all the important managerial notices were posted. Everyone browsed this board daily, and the key lessons were printed on bright coloured paper to catch the eye. The lessons were also sorted and put on the intranet, but posting them on the board was a key step in making them visible.
If the knowledge asset is a local one, serving a local community, then you might choose to store it in a physical space rather than electronically. It’s amazing what you can do with different shaped and coloured Post-it notes and a large sheet of paper.
Finally, keep the asset alive. Initiate a feedback and ownership process.
When you publish the knowledge asset, make sure there is a visible feedback mechanism so that users can validate it through use. You will want to encourage feedback from users, so that they pick up and eliminate any invalid recommendations. Make sure there is some sort of maintenance mechanism. Instil a sense of obligation that ‘if you use it, you should add to it’. Responsibility for maintenance may lie with the facilitator of the community. Alternatively, this responsibility can move from one business unit to another as activity migrates within the business. For example, in BP, the knowledge asset for deep-water drilling was created initially by the Gulf of Mexico business unit, then used and updated by the Scottish Foinaven field, before passing to its neighbour, Schiehallion. In a way, it’s a little like carrying the Olympic torch – keeping the flame burning for the next team.
The reality is that sustaining a knowledge asset is more difficult than creating it in the first place. Our experience is that success hinges on the active presence of a community of practice that feels a strong sense of ownership for the content. Without that, the result can be an elegant website that rapidly falls into disrepair and becomes a monument to some fine research. Alternatively, an individual may take editorial charge of the knowledge asset and religiously maintain it, but fail to take into consideration the opinions of the rest of the community. Unfortunately, it’s easier to create a company expert than to sustain a company-wide community.
Because captured knowledge is a tangible, physical thing, the ability to showcase it can add credibility to a knowledge-management programme and can give credence to the work of communities of practice. By approaching the challenge with a specific customer in mind and a community aligned, structuring captured knowledge in the right way can yield enormous benefits for the organisation. It can also act as a source of examples and success stories for those charged with championing knowledge management.
Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell are the authors of Learning to Fly – Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organisations, which will be reviewed in the next issue of Inside Knowledge. Both have recently taken the decision to learn to fly personally, and now work as independent consultants. Visit www.learning-to-fly.org.
Try this exercise: rewrite the following lesson learnt so that it is expressed in a way that makes it more relevant and accessible for a guide on ‘How to get the best deal on a PC’.
“When I bought my new Sunny TX3000 laptop computer from www.bargain-PCs-online.com, I didn’t notice in the specification that it came with a
Answer: there a few red-herrings here. The fact that the battery couldn’t be charged was just a consequence of not having correct wrong power lead. The make of the laptop and the name of the supplier are irrelevant and could cloud the core lessons, which are likely to be:
When buying online, remember that you’re in a global market. Check that all aspects (eg, electrical supply, modem, wireless modem and Bluetooth connectivity) of your proposed PC are based on standards that will work in your own office environment;
Decide what your needs are and how you are going to use your purchase. Additional applications push the price up and you may not make use of them;
Before making a software purchase or working out the benefits a bundled deal, check in advance that the version will be compatible with the people you work with.