When Xerox was interested in learning how copier repair technicians got work done, they hired an ethnographer who, like the Margaret Mead of office workers, lived among his subjects to study their ways. What he found was remarkable, in part because he did it more than 30 years ago, and in part because we’re still struggling to know what to do with his findings.
Fixing copiers in the 1980s was no easy task. Machines were idiosyncratic, and diagnosing the cause of a particular failure could take a long time. Often, the answers simply weren’t in the manual. So Xerox sent in Julian Orr, an ethnographer, to work with the technicians and see what they actually did.
He wrote about what he found in Talking About Machines:
“Narrative forms a primary element of this practice…The circulation of stories among the community of technicians is the principal means by which the technicians stay informed of the developing subtleties of machine behavior in the field.”
He kept seeing how technicians would find ways to meet and share their experiences over coffee or a meal. When management asked, “How can we leverage this naturally occurring learning?” the solution at the time was to give technicians two-way radios so they could ask questions and share stories more readily.
It helped, but the limits were obvious. “The audience was limited to the half-dozen people in their home office,” and none of the knowledge was written down so it couldn't be found or built on later.
“The big challenge was the work practice and motivation…”
So, nearly 15 years later, they introduced a knowledge management system called Eureka to capture this knowledge. It was a major improvement over radios, but getting people to use it was a problem. The director of corporate strategies described it this way:
"The big challenge [in KM] was the work practice and the motivation elements…we still couldn’t figure out how to get engineers to take the time to input the data," he recalled.
Technicians were busy, and contributing to Eureka seemed like an extra thing to do in the little downtime available to them. They tried different design changes and incentive systems, and then they made a change that made a difference: “an ability to ‘author' their solutions.”
"Once we enabled them to attach their name, it became a professional peer process. They’re proud of their solutions and are recognized for it.”
A complement to the best KM practices
Some firms have their own modern equivalents of Eureka, along with processes for systematically capturing knowledge. Yet even those firms firms are still using the equivalent of two-way radios for much of their collective knowledge, the bulk of which is in email (“where knowledge goes to die”) or in people’s heads.
That’s one reason why a growing number of firms are looking to spread the practice of Working Out Loud. Whereas Xerox technicians got “professional credit” for authoring something, people who work out loud tap into even greater intrinsic motivations. Since the emphasis is on deepening relationships and not just sharing, people who work out loud tap into autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Their growing network makes them feel more connected while giving them more control over their learning and access to opportunities.
It's easier now, too. Making work visible has become dramatically simpler with enterprise social networks like Jive, Yammer, and IBM connections. And Working Out Loud circles help employees develop the habit so it becomes a natural part of the day and not yet another task.
If your firm has a KM program, does it capture all the knowledge you need? And if the bulk of your knowledge is in email, shouldn’t you start helping employees find ways to share it that are better for the individual and better for the firm?