posted 9 Aug 2001 in Volume 5 Issue 1
Coaching KM back to health
Learning from the past to create the future
Although there are exceptions most current knowledge management practices actually do more harm than good and companies are abdicating their responsibility in terms of developing the skills of their employees. So argues Kelvin Moore who believes the technique of coaching can help practitioners put KM back on track.
Nothing has been invented that comes anywhere close to rivalling the human brain as a knowledge repository and retrieval system. And the brain has further exceptional qualities in that it can make judgements about when and in what context to apply knowledge.
This was well understood by our forefathers and enshrined in their approach to learning and knowledge transfer. Guilds apprenticeships societies schools professional bodies even elders of the tribe played significant roles in the development of human understanding over many centuries past. And there is storytelling perhaps as old as mankind itself.
Our forefathers were in some ways lucky. What else could they have reasonably done other than to bring people together based on their knowledge needs and encourage discussion sharing and exploration?
But this is not to say that they did not harness technology. They did in the form of the written word and the printing press. And they needed a taxonomy of sorts hence the birth of dictionaries. People discussion exploration print and dictionaries were their stock in trade. They did a pretty good job of managing knowledge without inventing the knowledge management label. Perhaps luckily for them there was no functional department that could be reasonably tasked with ‘making it happen’ whatever the ‘it’ may have meant.
So what have we done in recent years to develop knowledge management? Heralded its importance and left ‘it’ to the IT department mainly. And this is grossly unfair on the IT department. But senior executives love to have ‘things that are difficult’ placed somewhere within the organisational hierarchy under a person that can be ‘made accountable’ and perhaps castigated or worse when ‘it’ does not happen.
Their thinking must be that as knowledge management probably involves computers in some way then it must be the responsibility of the IT department. Remember how quality management was pigeonholed and largely failed until it was shared across the whole organisation? So now IT departments up and down the land are nursing the sick knowledge management baby and wondering what to do next. But as the fundamental issues are around behaviours not intranets and databases it is nigh on impossible for them to be successful working alone.
Fundamental to knowledge management is people and their experiences and motivations to learn and to share. With property the adage ‘location location location’ remains a guiding principle. With knowledge management the parallel prime guiding force is ‘people people people’. The twist is that people issues extend well beyond traditional notions of an organisation’s boundaries and today more than ever before must include all people in its wider business community. This includes customers partners suppliers regulatory bodies professional associations et al which is where complexity starts to build and build fast. Perhaps this is why leaders find it a difficult area to grasp and deliver rapid results. But the commercial benefits from just incremental steps in knowledge management are there for the taking.
Let us consider some of the people issues and barriers that commonly arise to the detriment of knowledge sharing. Firstly in a capitalist economy in which knowledge is both power and potential revenue why share it around just because the IT team has been directed to develop or buy a big shiny data storage box and link it to computers on every desk? You might lose your job or status if you give away what you know.
Secondly with the best will in the world you cannot pass on more than a small amount of what you know by recording it and placing it in a communal database. Most experienced and knowledgeable and usually busy people would find it difficult to write down what they have learned on more than a handful of pages. Just try it for yourself if you have reservations about this assertion.
And forget the absurd claims of the software companies that promise knowledge classification and sensible retrieval in the blink of an eye. There has been no serious rival to dictionaries when it comes to classification and retrieval. New taxonomy approaches are complex sophisticated and painfully inadequate.
So it is one-nil to the human brain in its match against the computer brain (or probably ten-nil). An old piece of business wisdom is ‘to start where the pickings are easiest and the rewards the greatest’ or in numbers speak go for the 80/20 rule. Hence we start with people people people.
Here is yet another crunch. Knowledge is only of real value when its context is properly understood. I may have some great knowledge to help me survive for five days unaided in the Borneo jungle with only a Swiss army knife but that knowledge may be of no use to another hapless wanderer lost in the Amazon Basin. Why might that be? Different snakes perhaps? Well partly.
There are at least two main reasons. The context of the knowledge used in Borneo is not the same as that of the Amazon Basin. Beware similarities and their pitfalls. Secondly what I may have written about survival in Borneo is in the context of my experiences as a person. I cannot assume that it would be of help to someone else with very different experiences. If you have doubts then consider most operating manuals that accompany new electrical appliances. Are they correct and written by someone who understands the product? Most probably. But do they help the reader understand? Certainly not.
We have therefore at least two fundamental barriers to effective knowledge management: lack of precise context in which it is to be used and the suppression of peoples’ motivation to share their knowledge. The knowledge is power syndrome inadvertently or not is set by the leadership of an organisation and commonly reinforced by reward systems both explicitly and tacitly. This is the time for leadership to take responsibility for its collective pillaging of knowledge development and sharing on the high alter of cost savings.
Leaders throughout much of the past 15 years have to a large extent and commonly unwittingly (which is the sad part) done untold damage. Fuelled by a lemming-like pursuit of every new ‘management speak’ fad imaginable from process re-engineering to downsizing they have simply somersaulted backwards in terms of building knowledge management competence. Destruction has been immense yet subtle in its unfolding and now the ravages are there to be witnessed plainly by all. There has been the collective creation of lean mean and dumb organisations. Customers know this perhaps more than anyone else. It is time to swing the pendulum of business opinion back from burn to learn.
So what has been burned? Well gone are the days when organisations with some notable exceptions cultivated their workforce over the longer term engendered diverse career paths encouraged peer group networking and maintained continuity of tenure with their people dealing with a portfolio of clients.
The social heart and learning heart fostered for so many years by leading companies have withered on the vine of abdication to ‘personal self-development’. For personal self development read ‘its no longer an issue for the organisation but here are some learning support tools for all you workers so just get on with it our conscience is clear!’ People are now encouraged to think ‘self’ and to think ‘assignment’ and to think short-term results. They are not encouraged to think long-term value creation as a partnership deal between them and their paymasters.
Now for more of the burn effects. There were few more powerful ways of extending learning and co-operation across functional boundaries (or is that baronies?) than placing people with marketing skills into sales or finance people into risk management. What ever happened to seconding people multi-functional project teams and job swaps between partnering organisations? Not quite as extinct as the dinosaurs but an endangered species nonetheless.
Shuffling human beings and their diverse knowledge and skills around functions and projects was a major stimulus to learning and sharing across disciplines and cultures. It had an immense benefit in that it helped create a social trust network that could drive questions and answers a speedy and less threatening environment. People often prefer not to ask questions for fear of looking stupid in the eyes of others whose trustworthiness has not been established or validated by the person seeking guidance and answers. Diversity of experience and networking has been largely replaced by tram-lining progression within a single function and single focus external professional networks.
Much research has been conducted on the performance of diverse teams versus homogeneous teams. The former may be initially more difficult to lead and manage (all those different perspectives and prejudices take some effort and enlightenment to overcome) but no surprise which delivers superior results. Diversity wins.
Managers themselves are suffering from a lack of learning direction and support and from a lack of diversity of experience and paradoxically are now part of the problem. It is difficult to achieve a holistic understanding of issues and problems from a single perspective and neither are they given time to assist others. They are less able as a consequence to develop coaching skills and have far less time to practice such skills even if they have them.
The eco-systems of learning and sharing within organisations have suffered environmental damage and no amount of IT investment will remedy the position alone. This is not a problem that can be resolved by just opening the cheque-book as many companies are finding to their cost and indeed embarrassment.
It is nearly unimaginable that senior executives would abdicate responsibility for finance or marketing. So why then is it OK to abdicate responsibility for the most precious capital that an organisation possesses its human capital? No amount of investment in relationship capital or structural capital will make a difference in knowledge management competence in the absence of a wise and well-lead and well-implemented human capital strategy.
So where should knowledge management go from here? Forward rather than backward one hopes. And the best guide is to learn from the past to create the future. The knowledge management baby is indeed sick but let us not continue to apply more of the same medicine. Patients can die because of the unwillingness of others to change the treatment.
There can be no magic wand to transform knowledge management into mainstream value creation for organisations but there is a magic starter button. That button is coaching. It has been said and correctly that coaching is not magical but its effects can be. As we move out of the industrial control and command era management and leadership is understanding more clearly that ‘telling’ has to give way to education persuasion and motivation. This is particularly true when dealing with high-octane and potentially footloose knowledge workers.
A good coach is able to transform a person’s or team’s performance. A coach need not be a subject expert but rather a person who can help another person or team develop their talents skills knowledge and performance. In turn a person who is the beneficiary of successful coaching is more able and more willing to coach others. Coaching is as good as any pragmatic starting point in the knowledge management journey that I have come across in the past ten years. And it should start where it matters most: at the top with executive coaching. This is an area where ‘walking the talk’ is a must. It has to be behaviour-led a tough one for the leaders to adopt successfully and hence a need for them to have development or coaching support.
Coaching within the context of knowledge management is best started with the objective to create awareness of the issues and to build helpful working models that may be harnessed across the wider organisation in order to make progress in a complex area. Simple concepts are needed to make order from chaos.
One simple concept for instance is to consider knowledge management as having just three interdependent components: human capital relationship capital and structural capital.
Human capital is all those critical people people people issues. Relationship capital is all that latent value locked or hidden away within an organisation’s wider community of stakeholders and critically its customers. Structural capital is all the knowledge management-supporting tools operating manuals databases systems and processes embedded across the organisation – the knowledge that stays behind when the workforce goes home. The latter is a prime area for engagement for the IT professionals in collaboration with the rest of the organisation.
Armed only with simple and practical working concepts are executives and a workforce able to make sense of the chaotic world in which we all operate. Executives must both understand and be able to engender understanding in others. Coaching is about changing behaviours both in oneself and in others. It is a prime leadership quality required more than ever as complexity and speed of change accelerate.
A further piece of coaching advice is to start with a real business issue to drive knowledge management as a competitive tool. Take a big and respected problem that has board-level attention and make a difference in terms of results. Knowledge management must be elevated from a ‘nice to do’ to a ‘need to do or else watch out’. Start with the people (or human capital) issues first and build structural capital support tools and mechanisms second when the former issues are understood. Do not build things in the hope that some people may use them.
Coaching is a big subject in its own right and like knowledge management there is no single best way to achieve the required results. This article is not intended to describe coaching theory and practices or to explore in any depth the human relationship and structural capital components of knowledge management. It is just a call from a frustrated knowledge management practitioner and executive coach to others to reflect hard and consider applying age-old remedies to age-old problems to 21st century issues.
One last thing to consider: when developing knowledge management initiatives only do so when they are linked to real a business issue and choose one that is so important and with such a high profile that failure to implement carries unacceptable (but commonly inherent) risk. Courageous perhaps but how else to better build knowledge management credibility? Importantly the required and actual contributions from the knowledge management component of the project must be measurable in terms understood and respected by other functions. In fact why not let them propose measures themselves? Courage in business life is not an abundant resource is it? Here again coaching can help a person or team gain confidence in their abilities. And confidence with competence equals extraordinary performance. Just look at the world’s leading sports figures: none of them have the arrogance to perform without the help of an experienced coach.
Anyone interested in knowledge management who has experienced being successfully coached in some form by somebody at some time is likely to have empathy with the following contention. Knowledge management starts with people and coaching triggers behavioural change and performance faster and more effectively than any other form of intervention. If that person is you what are you going to do next? Be courageous and make a difference hopefully.
Kelvin Moore is a principal consultant at ConsensusOnline. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org