What would you say to 400 knowledge managers?

Today, I’ll fly to Houston to take part in the APQC Knowledge Management (KM) conference. Many of the 400 attendees have been working on KM for years, some for decades. They’re already experts when it comes to the tools and processes they need. 

But something has been missing. The traditional focus on tools and taxonomies has left little room for a harder challenge: people.

Long-time KM experts like Stan Garfield and Nick Milton have written often about the need for focusing on behavior change and a cultural shift. (In one of Stan’s recent articles, the word “culture” appears 8 times.) To increase both the supply and demand of knowledge, you have to create an environment where people are intrinsically motivated to share and search for knowledge as part of their everyday work. But how?

The talk before mine will have many of the answers. It’s by Dan Coyle, author of the excellent book, The Culture Code. Here’s an excerpt from an APQC article about their interview with Dan. 

I have asked KM leaders what their main objective is for implementing KM.  And, overwhelmingly, the #1 response is to “change the culture of the organization.”  

A collaborative culture feels and works better. Dan’s formula for success focuses on

1) making the environment safe to accelerate building relationships and trust,

2) demonstrating how leaders can use vulnerability to forge reciprocity, and

3) creating a roadmap that gets people onboard for the journey ahead.

WOL is a method for implementing some of these ideas. That’s why the APQC also wrote that “Working Out Loud is KM’s most transformative trend.” WOL Circles give people a chance to do what Dan writes about: exchange knowledge, vulnerability, and more all in a psychologically safe space. And the method helps them practice over time till they develop new habits and a new mindset. As the new behaviors spread, the culture changes.

I hope to give a good talk. More importantly, though, I hope to give each of the 400 attendees something they can use, so they can finally fill in the piece that’s been missing, and kick off culture change movements of their own.

If You Have a Knowledge Management Strategy, It’s Probably Missing This

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.

“Two-way radios”

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.”

Talking About Work

Talking About Work

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.

The KM Iceberg

The KM Iceberg

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?

“Working out loud”: Your personal content strategy

While collaboration platforms are increasingly attractive to enterprises, most people still don’t know how to use them at work. After a brief introduction, individuals are quick to understand the concepts: the power of networks, the potential for shaping their reputation, the extraordinary commercial possibilities.

But they struggle with what they should actually do.

Here’s a good place to start.

Beware the YACCs!

Two of the most common objections I hear are “I don’t have enough time” and “I don’t know what to post.” That’s because people often think of using a collaboration platform as an extra thing to do. An additional way to communicate.

And people at work are already overloaded: email, phone, voice mail, mobile phone, mobile phone voice mail, instant messenger, group chat, desktop video, desktop video messages.

The last thing anyone wants is Yet Another Communications Channel.

So, instead of focusing on communicating in new ways, it’s important that collaboration and contribution is in line with the work people do every day.

Working out loud

Recognizing this, Bryce Williams coined the term “working out loud” and defined it this way:

 “Working out loud = Narrating your work + Observable work”  

For Bryce, narrating your work is “journaling...what you are doing in an open way.” And making your work observable is “creating/modifying/storing your work in places that others can see it, follow it, and contribute to it IN PROCESS.”

This used to be impractical with most communications tools. (You’d never send email to a large group about things you’re doing throughout the day.) But modern collaboration platforms combine rich content-handling with Twitter-like activity feeds that make it easy to skim large amounts of content quickly.

That combination opens up new possibilities.

Observable work

The vast majority of people at work are uncomfortable blogging or tweeting. They’re simply not used to it and some may never be.

But everybody works. They create documents and presentations. They schedule and attend events. They comment on other people’s work.

Collaboration platforms make all of that work visible. Every one of those actions can be communicated to your social network without any extra effort.

“John Stepper just uploaded 'Banking & social media' in Social Media Community”

Simply by using a collaboration platform to store your material, you make you and your work visible in real-time. And, better still, your work (projects, documents, discussions) is now searchable and discoverable. People will find you any time they’re looking for content related to what you’re doing.

Narrating your work

In 2009, Dave Winer wrote about “Narrating your work” - the practice of providing a brief, running commentary on your work as you do it.

Later, in an extremely helpful article entitled “Do’s and Don’ts for your work’s social platform”, Andrew McAfee also encouraged people to narrate their work:

“Talk both about work in progress (the projects you're in the middle of, how they're coming, what you're learning, and so on), and finished goods (the projects, reports, presentations, etc. you've executed). This lets others discover what you know and what you're good at. It also makes you easier to find, and so increases the chances you can be a helpful colleague to someone. Finally, it builds your personal reputation and 'brand.'"

Confused about what to write? Simply post about what you’re working on every day. Who you’re meeting with. The research you’re doing. Articles you find relevant. Lessons you learned. Mistakes you made.

The form factor of short posts that are easy-to-skim make this kind of narration practical - for both the author and the audience.

It’s a start

It only takes a few posts before people start seeing the benefits. Being able to work out loud allows employees to make connections - finding people and content relevant to their work - like never before.

As Stowe Boyd writes:

“..bringing activities out of closed repositories and applications, and pulling them into the open increases the likelihood of learning key information earlier...working out loud leads to succeeding (or failing) more quickly...makes a company more intelligent: quicker to improve, and more resilient in the context of uncertainty.”

People already familiar with social tools understand this. For the rest, they’ll have to begin using the tools and experience it for themselves.

Working out loud is the most practical way for them to start.

“Working out loud”: Your personal content strategy

While collaboration platforms are increasingly attractive to enterprises, most people still don’t know how to use them at work. After a brief introduction, individuals are quick to understand the concepts: the power of networks, the potential for shaping their reputation, the extraordinary commercial possibilities.

But they struggle with what they should actually do.

Here’s a good place to start.

Beware the YACCs!

Two of the most common objections I hear are “I don’t have enough time” and “I don’t know what to post.” That’s because people often think of using a collaboration platform as an extra thing to do. An additional way to communicate.

And people at work are already overloaded: email, phone, voice mail, mobile phone, mobile phone voice mail, instant messenger, group chat, desktop video, desktop video messages.

The last thing anyone wants is Yet Another Communications Channel.

So, instead of focusing on communicating in new ways, it’s important that collaboration and contribution is in line with the work people do every day.

Working out loud

Recognizing this, Bryce Williams coined the term “working out loud” and defined it this way:

 “Working out loud = Narrating your work + Observable work”  

For Bryce, narrating your work is “journaling...what you are doing in an open way.” And making your work observable is “creating/modifying/storing your work in places that others can see it, follow it, and contribute to it IN PROCESS.”

This used to be impractical with most communications tools. (You’d never send email to a large group about things you’re doing throughout the day.) But modern collaboration platforms combine rich content-handling with Twitter-like activity feeds that make it easy to skim large amounts of content quickly.

That combination opens up new possibilities.

Observable work

The vast majority of people at work are uncomfortable blogging or tweeting. They’re simply not used to it and some may never be.

But everybody works. They create documents and presentations. They schedule and attend events. They comment on other people’s work.

Collaboration platforms make all of that work visible. Every one of those actions can be communicated to your social network without any extra effort.

“John Stepper just uploaded 'Banking & social media' in Social Media Community”

Simply by using a collaboration platform to store your material, you make you and your work visible in real-time. And, better still, your work (projects, documents, discussions) is now searchable and discoverable. People will find you any time they’re looking for content related to what you’re doing.

Narrating your work

In 2009, Dave Winer wrote about “Narrating your work” - the practice of providing a brief, running commentary on your work as you do it.

Later, in an extremely helpful article entitled “Do’s and Don’ts for your work’s social platform”, Andrew McAfee also encouraged people to narrate their work:

“Talk both about work in progress (the projects you're in the middle of, how they're coming, what you're learning, and so on), and finished goods (the projects, reports, presentations, etc. you've executed). This lets others discover what you know and what you're good at. It also makes you easier to find, and so increases the chances you can be a helpful colleague to someone. Finally, it builds your personal reputation and 'brand.'"

Confused about what to write? Simply post about what you’re working on every day. Who you’re meeting with. The research you’re doing. Articles you find relevant. Lessons you learned. Mistakes you made.

The form factor of short posts that are easy-to-skim make this kind of narration practical - for both the author and the audience.

It’s a start

It only takes a few posts before people start seeing the benefits. Being able to work out loud allows employees to make connections - finding people and content relevant to their work - like never before.

As Stowe Boyd writes:

“..bringing activities out of closed repositories and applications, and pulling them into the open increases the likelihood of learning key information earlier...working out loud leads to succeeding (or failing) more quickly...makes a company more intelligent: quicker to improve, and more resilient in the context of uncertainty.”

People already familiar with social tools understand this. For the rest, they’ll have to begin using the tools and experience it for themselves.

Working out loud is the most practical way for them to start.