posted 15 Nov 2000 in Volume 4 Issue 3Seven spiritual laws of successful knowledge management
Knowledge management is all about people, but the human side of KM is often overlooked. Marcus Speh Birkenkrahe presents an attempt to redress this imbalance, describing seven spiritual laws that should form the basis of any KM initiative.
Knowledge management continues to command greater understanding, in terms of technology, process, and strategy. In my work I have dealt with all these aspects in quite some detail. What remains unexplained is what is usually referred to as ‘the cultural issue’. Everybody admits it’s the people that make or break successful knowledge management, but the spiritual, or human, side of KM has received relatively little attention. Using what you might call an ‘Eastern philosophy meets Harvard Business School’ approach, the following article represents an attempt to redress this imbalance, by identifying seven ‘laws’ of human growth.
Because that is what knowledge management really is – an aspect of fostered human growth, achieved through greater transparency of the world of information in and around us. Take Buckman Laboratories as an example. Bob Buckman has applied KM ideas since the mid-80s in his global chemicals research business. A key catalyst in his success story is a small pocket card, which contains his organisation’s ‘Code of Ethics’; really a set of laws on human behaviour that are compatible with good knowledge management.
I don’t expect you to accept the following laws as if they were laws of physics (in fact, not even laws of physics work this way...). Rather, each law, in its incompleteness, is accompanied by a short story, taken from real life. At the end, I will summarise the seven ‘laws’ in slightly different words and draw a few very simple conclusions.
To be perfectly honest, the formation of these ideas started with a key ability of effective knowledge management – stealing. What follows owes a great deal to Deepak Chopra’s best-selling book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. Needless to say, it’s a book I would recommend, though I doubt he thought he would ever become a knowledge management guru with it!
1. The Law of Unity
The source of all creativity is experience of the true Self.
It sounds like 40,000 feet stuff – but it’s actually only a few inches away from your nose! That is, your Self. It is what determines your identity as an individual. If their Self does not ‘buy in’, people become machines that perform their tasks without joy. But if their core Self is touched, they are capable of almost anything.
In our world, there is often little space given to the true Self. Everybody talks about sharing, but few people make time and space for listening. Yet, without the ability to listen, to really listen, all the sharing is pointless. It leads to more and more data, and not to a greater understanding of the world. So the first way to follow the Law of Unity is by committing to listen.
Few things are capable of touching the core of a person. Outside the sphere of business, nature does, and so does beauty – or more generally – expressions of nature’s amazing complexity.
Within the business world, one of the things that can touch this core is knowledge: Satisfying someone’s child-like curiosity; posing an interesting, exciting problem; letting someone in on a trade secret. And so on, including many more successful knowledge-creating activities, all related to the peculiar relationship between our Self and knowledge. So the second way to follow the Law of Unity is to open yourself up to the experience of complexity, and even to the often scary, change-inducing character of knowledge.
One key condition for the true Self to allow itself to be touched is non-judgement. Hasty judgement is the death of curiosity, the death of innovation. Non-judgement is the heart of progress when you are trying to tap into, and make use of, people’s knowledge. The same holds for groups of individuals, and indeed for organisations – they, too, have a true Self (and often a false Self), and they, too, can establish an atmosphere of judgement and stifled expression, or an atmosphere of non-judgement, curiosity and innovation – not just permitted, but rewarded and required. So the third lesson is to practice non-judgement and establish an atmosphere in which non-judgement is the rule, not the exception.
2. The Law of Giving
The easiest way to get what you want is to help others get what they want.
Everybody, always, asks the question: “OK, now we’ve got the tool, but how do we get people to contribute?” Databases are caught in a catch 22 loop: Nobody goes there when they’re empty. And they’ll stay empty as long as nobody goes there. And that is only the beginning. Because even if you get people to go where you want them to go, and contribute, and make use of the content, how do you keep them interested?
Again, let’s start with a simple premise: The easiest way to get something from people is to help them get to what they want. You could call this the first principle of building human networks. This requires thinking hard about people’s incentives. What drives an individual to join your organisation? What binds staff to your product, what fascinates them about their work? What is it that you have that no other company has that motivates them?
Knowledge communities are potentially powerful organisational networks. They live and die by the interest their members take in interacting with one another. So the first lesson is, find out about your people’s incentives. Home in on the ones that create long lasting links, not the superficial attractions. A nicely designed website is attractive and will get people to log in and drop by again. A website that gives them a truly unique view, which they cannot get through any other channel, provides a much stronger incentive. And if having this view is a critical part of a business process, they’ll come back.
Figure 1 is an example from the website for Finance for the Future, a programme internal to Shell’s community of finance professionals, touching approximately 2,000 staff worldwide. It shows the current web of finance sites within the company. A simple example, but it provides a level of access like no other site.
In parallel with the aforementioned idea on the role of listening in the sharing process, is the role of receiving in the process of creating a community. If people are not prone to receive what others have to give, it won’t work. A popular negative version of this law is ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome. So, another lesson is: Give people incentives not only to give, but also to receive.
And as I have already said, this is an on-going process, not a one-off. Ask yourself, therefore, what the long-term fate of your sharing process could be. Have you opened a channel of unique experience, or something with the lifespan of a fruit fly? You often don’t need to wait for the numbers to drop in order to find out the answer.
3. The Law of Cause and Effect
Your future is created by the choices you are making in every moment of your life.
The Law of Giving was easy, wasn’t it? This one seems to be just as obvious. The future is determined by the choices you make in every moment. Simple, once again, but a fundamental principle of change: Unless you take responsibility for your choices, and accept accountability for the outcome, you remain detached from your own future.
Let’s translate this into a simpler example: Discussion forums. Once you feel convinced that you have cracked the problem of contribution to the knowledge base, most knowledge management experiments begin like this: “Hey, we need to create a discussion forum to capture all the good stuff.” Then the agony begins. Discussion threads are started but don’t go anywhere; the people who have the least to say seem to be writing the most messages; after a few postings, you feel like giving up because nobody seems to respond to you, and so on.
What’s wrong here? The discussion forum is a mixture of playground and jungle. As a knowledge manager you think you can control it, but you can’t. The only way to teach people to handle something as new as a virtual forum is to teach them accountability. Let them know: “This depends on you, and nobody else but you. Everybody has an important contribution to make.” And give them examples, plenty of examples, and stories when you introduce the relationship tool – whether it’s a discussion forum or a video link, because our minds are thirsty for examples and hungry for the meat of real experiences.
One of the most successful examples for these forums comes from Shell’s exploration and production sector, where many thousands of engineers are linked up through electronic networks, sharing their problems and solutions.
Several of the most successful forums in Shell operate with multi-lingual moderators, because forum participants often don’t speak excellent English, and their fear of being exposed lowers their courage to contribute. The trick is to make it more comfortable, not harder, for people, especially in the beginning, so that when they ask their hearts whether or not this feels right, they can answer in the affirmative and keep going.
4. The Law of Least Effort
When you remain open to all points of view, your dreams and desires will flow effortlessly.
This is about the person in you who wants to respond defensively to challenges and changes, simply because it’s hard to face them. We all recognise this trait. The observation, however, goes way beyond individuals. Whole organisational cultures, in particular in large organisations and corporations, can buy into collective denial and lying; and often this is worse, the stronger the winds of change are blowing. Everybody who has observed change knows that the organisation must overcome the denial.
The process usually starts with acceptance – of how things really are. Once you accept that, you can begin to take responsibility for your actions and for your past. Suddenly you realise that what you considered to be a problem is really an opportunity in disguise. An opportunity to grow. An opportunity to do something new, and exciting. This is when our spirits start to wake up again.
This is also when the danger is greatest that the opportunity to really learn from disaster will be missed – mistakes are opportunities to learn. The lesson has only been learned when you move from a closed culture of problems into an open culture of opportunities and institutionalised change.
An interesting knowledge management example in this context comes from Shell Chemicals. Here, a small group of sales people created a tool called Chemicals Marketing Management, which was populated with all the good stuff: Databases for plans and strategies; competitor information; product and service information; market and industry information; a who’s who; and product research details. All implemented in a portable way, ready for the road. While this in itself is a good example for good and practical information management, the crucial step for them was to actually make use of the tool – and essentially change their ‘Old Shell’ way of thinking about the customer as a nuisance. Instead, they understood that customers are part of a living system that includes Shell, and whose boundaries are often unclear. The main change to make the system successful was eventually to be found in their changed attitude.
Today their small system has been exported to Shell Chemicals globally, as the carrier of an attitude change towards customers, in the first place, and towards knowledge, in the second place.
5. The Law of Intention and Desire
Whatever you attend to, will grow stronger. Whatever you take your attention away from, will wither.
This law is about paying attention – something I’ve mentioned several times already. There are a few more ingredients to this law, which I’d like to illustrate with one of my favourite examples of knowledge communities in Shell – the Instrumentation Customer Service Centre (see figure 2). The discussion forum for this site is the one I had in mind when I described a forum that employs a multi-lingual moderator to help contributors with language difficulties.
The centre is established on the Shell Wide Web, Shell’s intranet, where it functions as a single window to instrumentation expertise around the group. A customer can find out who the relevant expert is, contact him via email, ask for technical advice, find relevant best practices and search for current knowledge in his area of interest. Other options include links to related (Shell specific) vendor websites, and to research and training departments.
But most importantly, the virtual community of instrumentation experts in this example transcends the ‘official’ experts – the customer service centre is actually run by the customers themselves, who do not have to go through a central bureau for advice. Instead, they can now bypass this phase and go straight to the ‘real’ expert.
These people have done it all – and it works. The system is now in its third year of operation. They have focused on what their customers actually desire. They have let go of the canonical role of a central office service as a unit that wields power by controlling all the knowledge, in and output, and they have instead created a functioning knowledge network including their customers, which they facilitate and nurture. They have provided the process and the architecture, and they have replaced control by structure and by human relationships that work.
It is in this sense that you could say ‘the universe handles the details’, which is a shortcut for: You have to let go of control in a big way in knowledge management. Use that energy instead to focus your intentions and build and successfully manage lasting relationships.
6. The Law of Detachment
Uncertainty is the fertile ground of creativity and freedom.
Replacing customer control by customer intimacy. But this law seems to ask us to give up our attempts to forecast, to control the outcome, to improve through knowing more and more about what’s coming. Yet nobody who has witnessed the recent rise of the new economy, or indeed who has investigated what has made any company big and successful in the past, can deny the power of uncertainty.
The challenge is not to remove it, but to handle it. To do that you need to accept that uncertainty is a key source of creativity and creative freedom.
In The Age of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurzweil writes about a gambler who dies and gets to a place where he never loses – winning is guaranteed, all uncertainty is removed. It takes him a while to realise that he is indeed in hell!
Uncertainty is at the root of radical innovation. And radical innovation is at the root of all wealth, personal as well as collective. You could continue from here reading an article by Gary Hamel in the Harvard Business Review (September 1999) on the true reasons behind the success of the Silicon Valley business model, and the mechanics of Shell’s Gamechanger process to stimulate innovative thinking.
Our first task is not to force solutions on problems. Rather, work with the problem and work hard to discover all of its different aspects. ‘Action planning’ is good stuff, but we actually learn at least as much from failures as from successes, and probably more. Failures have the extra charge of ‘I’d really like to find out how...’. We need to account for uncertainty as an essential part of our experience. When we do that, we can allowourselves to experience some of the excitement of not knowing.
A famous example of handling uncertainty is a good tradition at Shell – scenario planning. Because Shell has been exposed to scenario planning as a technique for so long, we have also had an opportunity to study the resistance of business managers around scenarios in great detail. And probably even more than the technique, we cherish this experience with the human condition. This has led to great a number of changes in the way we build and ‘sell’ scenarios internally. Above all, it has helped the Shell business community to handle uncertainty to create value.
7. The Law of Purpose in Life
There is something that you can do better than anyone else in the whole world.
We have arrived at the last ‘law’ – the law of ‘purpose in life’. It asserts another very simple, and powerful statement. Earlier I claimed ‘everybody has a contribution to make’ around knowledge management. This is much stronger – it gives an individual a unique place in the world, and the workplace as part of it. If we don’t believe in this then we, once again, equate humans with non-intelligent machines.
The story I have to tell here is about a very consequential change in the internal talent allocation and human resource system in Shell. As you may know, Shell is currently undergoing a major transformation of the way it manages its business as well as the relationships with third parties. As part of this global transformation, which is already in its fourth year, we changed from centrally scheduled job-filling to ‘open resourcing’. Effectively, an internal job market was introduced where anybody who has a job to fill, in any of the 1,700 businesses, and in any of the 140 countries where Shell has a presence, is obliged to post details of the job on the intranet.
The original concern that this would lead to an enormous increase of internal applications, with extra overheads and a marginal value increase, was not justified. Yes, on average more people apply for a position. But a high percentage of these are highly qualified for the job. The system is not without flaws – it took employers and employees a while to sort their relationship out. Businesses had to respond to the employees needs with templates and training. And staff members are still suspicious of the process. But once the dam has been opened, the water cannot be stopped: The nature of their relationship with the company is changing profoundly.
What has happened here is that individuals, instead of being mute human ‘assets’, have been given the opportunity to take their careers in their own hands.
They now have to ask themselves what their unique value proposition is; they have to ask themselves how they can help and serve – words that suddenly have more meaning, because Shell has stopped playing the parent to the employee. Instead, they are now meeting as equals – the power, really, is with the people.
To summarise, these are some key statements taken from the seven spiritual laws of successful knowledge management.
To return to my opening proposition, that the human dimension of knowledge management, which is focused on increased creativity and learning, is not really addressed anywhere, this is what I see happening in terms of these laws:
- Instead of the practice of non-judgement, our world is literally built on judgement and on making people feel bad for making mistakes.
- Everybody talks about give and take as the key for knowledge sharing. But hardly anybody is prepared to listen. Not Invented Here syndrome still dominates. People receive more reward for being original than for being co-operative. And most current knowledge management tools only encourage information exchange; they do not address the issue of trust at all.
- We don’t encourage staff to take responsibility and be accountable. We tend to use systems as the big excuse for not making choices. Knowledge management needs to be pulled back to the contribution of every individual to be effective.
- Radical innovation is the source of all wealth. There is no radical innovation without questioning current practice, and there is no questioning current practice without acceptance of new points of view – of ideas that seem crazy at first, and even threatening.
- Pay more attention to what you do and what goes on. Do your investments flow to the many proven practices, or to the few challenging ones?
- Uncertainty may be threatening but you don’t have to be a gambler to realise its power.
- And finally, appreciate that not only has everybody got a role to play, but each role is unique.
With this background, the seven laws constitute an agenda of radical innovation in the way we look at humans, and what we expect from them.
I realise that I have not told you how to establish these laws in a corporate setting, other than through examples. But my key thesis is that all KM needs to start with, and needs to routinely go back to, the individual and individual experience. That there is no substitute to nurturing the human capital that you already have and that you must continue to attract if you want to thrive.
The new/knowledge economy may help you by opening up pools of labour that you had not previously dreamt of. While the knowledge economy generally seems to lead to a higher degree of diversity, in the long term, that only makes the job of optimising talent allocation and of nurturing individuals harder.
The good news is, once you’ve done it, you’ve really done it, and instead of working against your workforce, you can work with it.
One way to get started on this journey is to allow people to get obsessed by knowledge, by its extraction from data and information, by its application, by its sharing, and to inject all the excitement of childlike curiosity and problem-solving into their daily lives. This is a challenging task, but it will be well worth it.
Marcus Speh Birkenkrahe is knowledge manager at Shell International. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org