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November 30, 2005

The High Cost of Missing Knowledge: One Example

Last Thursday, a house exploded in Lexington, Massachusetts, where I live. TV news showed the smoldering ruins and told about the people who had come out to rake leaves just before their home blew up.

You hear similar stories from time to time: a gas leak, a spark, boom—no more house. This was different. Turns out that workers from the gas company, following an order they’d received, connected a high-pressure gas pipe to a low-pressure one, creating a pressure spike throughout the system. That caused leaks and equipment damage throughout the town, and the explosion. It has meant 1,800 homes without heat for the better part of a week, restaurants closed in the center of town, and literally hundreds of gas company employees working 24 hours a day, digging up dozens of streets to replace damaged parts of the system and checking gas lines in every one of those 1,800 homes. One evening, I counted 31 company trucks on Massachusetts Avenue. Lawsuits are likely.

You can bet this error will cost the gas company many millions of dollars. I don’t know how it happened, but I imagine there must have been opportunities to avoid it. This was no subtle mistake; they connected a 60 pounds-per-square-inch line to a 2 pounds-per-square-inch line. The manager who gave the order could have caught his own error, perhaps someone who transmitted it could have noticed, the supervisor of the work crew could have seen it, the workers themselves might have said, “Wait a minute; this isn’t right.” You’d think those high- and low-pressure lines would look different (but apparently they don’t).

This episode suggests a couple of points. One is that a lack of knowledge or a failure to apply knowledge at a critical moment (“this is wrong!”) can be expensive and dangerous. Another is that avoiding such problem requires experienced people who can recognize errors, a culture that encourages people to speak up when they see a problem, and systems that incorporate and provide essential information (for instance, color-coded gas pipes, in this case, or drug-interaction databases in hospitals).

I had a conversation with Dorothy Leonard this morning, she mentioned that one of the problems with trying to measure the value of knowledge management is that much of it helps avoid problems, and how do you measure something that doesn’t happen? True, but when it does happen, the cost of missing knowledge is clear.

Posted by Don Cohen at 11:47 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBacks (0)

November 28, 2005

Personal Knowledge Management

Most interventions to improve performance in business are at the organizational or process level, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can also improve individual capabilities. Ultimately, knowledge worker performance comes down to the behaviors of individual knowledge workers. If we improve their individual abilities to create, acquire, process and use knowledge, we are likely to improve the performance of the processes they work on, and the organizations they work for.

Individual knowledge work improvement initiatives have two attributes. One, they are directly focused on improving performance of knowledge worker employees as individuals, not as members of a larger group. A CRM program for customer service workers doesn’t qualify, because a number of people in that function would use it, and the system is not (or at least rarely) customized to individual needs. Secondly, individually-oriented initiatives are targeted at improving some skill or capability, rather than instituting a new process. Once again, giving knowledge workers a new piece of hardware or software—say, a personal digital assistant or cell phone—wouldn’t qualify, but teaching them how to use these devices effectively would.

I became persuaded of the virtues of improving knowledge worker capabilities at the personal level when working with the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie-Mellon. As you may know, the SEI is famous for its “Capability Maturity Model,” an assessment tool for software engineering processes. It evaluates firms or business units on their overall approaches to software development. But Watts Humphrey, the developer of the CMM, had another key insight. He realized that it was taking too long for many organizations to move up through five stages of the CMM, and began to think about what might accelerate the process. He concluded that if organizations were to develop team and individual-level capabilities in addition to those at the organizational level, they would probably improve much faster.

SEI’s research has borne out this hypothesis. Companies employing the “personal software process” and the “team software process” have been known to move from the lowest to highest levels of software development maturity in about a year—versus an average of close to ten years for this journey using only organization-level approaches.

Just as in software development, there are generic knowledge worker skills that almost everyone employs, and could benefit from improving. What do all knowledge workers do? They read and write, of course, and our educational systems do a pretty decent job of inculcating these skills. Even that doesn’t stop some assiduous knowledge workers from taking courses in speed reading, business writing, or the like. No doubt more of this should be done.

Knowledge workers also spend a lot of time in meetings. Most organizations, of course, don’t do a very good job at helping their employees run meetings effectively. A few, like Xerox, have organization-wide programs focused on maintaining a high quality of meetings. However, there are plenty of written materials and educational options for people who want to learn more about meeting management, so I won’t say anything more about it here.

Increasingly, however, knowledge workers also process information—on paper, in telephone conversations and voice messages, and electronically. This subject is much newer than reading, writing, and meeting, and there is relatively little information available about how to do it well, or how organizations can help their knowledge workers do it well. In my recent book Thinking for a Living, I report on three research efforts to better understand this subject. Two were undertaken by a group of companies seeking to understand information work; both corporate and individual-level research projects were undertaken by this group. The report from that project can be found here.

In the same chapter I also report on more detailed interviews of individuals who claim to be very effective in the own personal information and knowledge management. I think this is a fast-rising topic, and we will be hearing much more about it in the future.

Others who have written about it online include Dave Pollard, a former CKO from Ernst & Young and David Gurteen, a long-term web guy and blogger on KM.

Posted by Tom Davenport at 07:11 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBacks (2)

November 22, 2005

Reflecting on KM-World...

Last week I spoke at the KM World conference in San Jose (California, not Costa Rica). It was an interesting conference for several reasons. One, there were lots of people there—maybe 300 or more, which is pretty clear evidence that KM is alive and well. Two, it was their tenth conference, which is something of a milestone for the conference and the field. Three, it was something of a “dog’s breakfast,” as Larry Prusak would say, in terms of content. There were sessions on intranets and blogging and streaming media and communities of practice—you name it, somebody was presenting on it. I suppose one could go all negative and say that this is evidence of a lack of focus for KM, but I think it’s actually pretty positive. We have an amazingly wide variety of tools today to work with. The key, of course, is to understand what tools correspond to what knowledge problems and issues, and to understand the work that your organization’s knowledge workers perform.

I spoke about my book Thinking for a Living and the various types of interventions that one can make into knowledge work. As I spoke I became even more convinced that improving the performance of knowledge workers is what knowledge management should be about. God knows, nobody else is addressing the issue, and with that focus knowledge managers could address a range of solutions that go beyond just technology. Somebody needs to be thinking, for example, about how knowledge workspaces affect knowledge work, and lobbying on behalf of knowledge workers with the facilities and real estate people. Somebody needs to look at what the “self service” movement in organizations—having knowledge workers do all their own administrative transactions—is doing for knowledge worker productivity. Somebody needs to be thinking about how knowledge workers manage their personal information and knowledge environments. Most of the technologies at the KM World conference were oriented to making knowledge work more productive anyway. I think we should step up to that responsibility in terms of technology and anything else that might help.

Posted by Tom Davenport at 10:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBacks (0)

November 14, 2005

What’s the Deal with KM and HR?

So I went down to New York looking forward to giving my talk at the big Biotechnology HR conference, even though it was only a breakout session.

Several of the interviews I had recently done for my research on what we’ve learned about knowledge management suggested that human resources and knowledge management might be beginning to come together in interesting ways. One HR department was collaborating with a knowledge manager to develop talent through personal networks rather than training; another was using knowledge-sharing techniques in some of its succession planning.

Since I’ve always thought knowledge management and human resources should work together (so that, for instance, the people hired have collaborative skills), I thought these were promising developments. My talk—on how to attract and retain talented employees—seemed a perfect opportunity to do my little bit to nudge KM and HR toward one other.

I had twenty people in the room, all clustered toward to back. (Bad sign: that’s where the door was.) I gave my spiel: talented people were attracted by opportunities to learn and do interesting work with interesting people, not just by money; favor hiring based on potentials more than credentials; social network analysis and mentoring could help connect newcomers with the organization; HR needed to be part of the firm’s strategic planning process to know what kinds of employees the organization would need in the future; etc.

Six people left during the talk. The rest were unresponsive (to jokes, questions, abject begging for comments). They were so unresponsive that I couldn’t tell if they:

a) were paralyzed by my brilliance;
b) had heard it all before;
c) hated every word.

All in all, the talk didn’t feel like a success.

So here’s my personal scorecard for that New York trip:

Two good restaurant meals on 9th Avenue in the 40s (at Marseille and Cara Mio—Hell’s Kitchen has changed a lot since I was a kid growing up on Long Island). One lousy show (Dr. Sex: The Musical—Don’t ask, but it was a Monday night and almost nothing is on). And a bit less optimism about the coming together of KM and HR, mixed with a lot of puzzlement about what those people were thinking. If you have a guess, let me know.

Posted by Don Cohen at 12:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBacks (1)

November 13, 2005

The Truth about Telecommuting

I received a very interesting press release a few days ago from the American Express Global Corporate Services group. They state that a survey of 255 large US firms expect to do 61 % more travel by 2010. This confirms what I’ve always thought about all the nonsense written about the death of distance and how technology would replace face-to-face meetings. Everyone knows that the planes are full even today, and many of these people are going to meetings at their own organizations.

Since these flyers almost always have the technologies to do videoconferences, what’s the story? Why is there even more flying coming up in the future? Its expensive, nerve-wracking, tiring, and boring-all at once. Almost no one does it unless they have to at least for business. So what’s up??

Like the silly predictions for the paperless office (paper sales are up even more than travel bills) the predictions of technology replacing live meetings are another instance of the tech-utopianism that pervades American life-especially its business culture.

Of course people want to meet live! It’s the only way to establish trust, read all the signals and non-verbal cues that are offered by everyone in all conversations, exchange emotions and passions, and grasp whatever tacit understandings are on offer. In addition, when one is not present, one can't bond or make any rooted connections with others which can produce some pretty negative results for ones career.

No, and I repeat, no senior executive ever got where she is by telecommuting or exclusively working from home.

When I was at IBM they constantly tried to sell these work at home solutions as great ways to work, etc. But no senior IBM person worked that way- not even mid-level executives. Out of sight is not a viable road for anyone’s advancement.

And all of us know this to be true.

Posted by Larry Prusak at 04:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBacks (0)

November 12, 2005

Farewell Peter Drucker

I see by today’s New York Times that the great Peter Drucker died yesterday at 95. All knowledge practitioners are in his debt as he was the very first theorist and writer to raise the issues of knowledge worker, knowledge productivity, and the entire subject of the role of knowledge in the economy with executives. Some economists and even sociologists had raised some of these points but none had even a fraction of Drucker’s clout and influence with management.

What is also interesting, though also very sad, is how just how little has changed in corporate practice in spite of Drucker’s polemics, philippics, rants and analyses. The Times mentions how he often stressed that firms need to look beyond profitability to remain healthy, how organizations need to see workers as assets not costs, that decision making needs to devolve to the workers who actually know what’s going on, and many other notions believed fervently by me and you but still rarely if at all practiced in large and medium sized firms.

With all the sales of his many books, his crystal clear prose, his immense learning, and his accessible style, did much change in American corporate practice because of him?

Posted by Larry Prusak at 11:52 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBacks (0)

November 08, 2005

Knowledge Management: Broadening and Narrowing

I realized recently that my philosophy on where knowledge management should go seems a little contradictory. On one hand, I have been arguing that knowledge managers should view the field more broadly. In other respects, I’ve argued for a narrower approach. I’ll explain in this blog entry.

KM, as traditionally defined, addresses the capture and distribution of textual knowledge with IT. Even though organizations typically try to capture the knowledge of all their employees across the entire organization, this is a narrow objective in a sense—there are many other things that companies can do with KM. For example, I’ve argued that companies can focus on such things as knowledge creation, knowledge work and workspace redesign, employee and customer suggestions, and business intelligence. I could do a blog entry on each of these knowledge worker “interventions”—and I probably will—but the key is to take a broader approach. If KM doesn’t get broader, it’s probably not going to survive. And from the customer’s standpoint, your generic knowledge worker doesn’t really care whether what’s offered falls into the “knowledge” category or not—they just want to do their work better.

At the same time, however, I’d argue that KM has to be narrower. If we’re going to do more things, we have to focus them on particular audiences. KM may potentially benefit everybody, but the greatest benefits of knowledge-oriented interventions will come when we focus them on a particular job, role, or knowledge work process. I’ve seen some great successes with interventions into particular roles at such organizations as:

- Partners Health Care (with doctors)
- BT (for call center workers)
- Internal Revenue Service (collections agents)
- Fisher-Price (toy designers)

You can’t boil the ocean, and you can’t improve every knowledge worker’s performance at the same time. So it’s really important to pick some knowledge workers whose performance really matters to your organization’s success. In recent months I’ve heard that Intel, Accenture, and several other firms have adopted a similar philosophy.

So there you have it. Broader and narrower—the key to success in dealing with knowledge and knowledge work.

Posted by Tom Davenport at 11:37 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBacks (0)

November 02, 2005

The Importance of Knowledge Workers in a Global Economy

Peter Drucker, who was the first person to describe knowledge workers to any substantial degree (in his 1959 book Landmarks of Tomorrow), said as far back as 1968 that:

To make knowledge work productive will be the great management task of this century, just as to make manual work productive was the great management task of the last century.

Then in 1997 Drucker went even further out along the knowledge worker limb:

The productivity of knowledge and knowledge workers will not be the only competitive factor in the world economy. It is, however, likely to become the decisive factor, at least for most industries in the developed
countries.

Why did Drucker-and why should we-believe that knowledge workers and their productivity were so important to the world economy? There are a variety of reasons.

First, they are a large and growing category of workers. If we can't figure out how to make more than a quarter of the labor force more productive, we're going to have problems with our economy overall. They are also the most expensive type of worker that organizations employ, so it's doubly shameful if they're not as productive as they could be.

Secondly, they are key to the growth of many economies. Agricultural and manufacturing work have generally become commoditized, and are moving to the economies where it can be performed at the lowest cost. The only forms of agricultural or industrial work that survive in sophisticated economies are those in which a high degree of knowledge has been injected-for example, in biotechnology manufacturing, or in "precision farming," where the amount of fertilizer and pesticides administered to a given crop are carefully monitored using GPS devices in tractors. If agriculture and manufacturing are moving to countries with low labor costs (China is a particularly
good example), the jobs that remain in the so-called knowledge-based economies are particularly critical to countries' economic survival.

It's not clear exactly what workers in the US, Western Europe, and Japan are going to do for a living in the future (other than providing local services), but it is clear that if these economies are to prosper, the jobs of many of the workers must be particularly knowledge-intensive.

It's already apparent that the firms with the highest degree and quality of knowledge work tend to be the fastest-growing and most profitable.

Microsoft, for example, is among the most profitable organizations in the history of the planet.

Pharmaceutical firms not only save peoples' lives with their drug treatments, they also tend to have high profit margins.

"Growth industries" generally tend to be those with a high proportion of knowledge workers.

Within organizations, knowledge workers tend to be closely aligned with the organization's growth prospects. Knowledge workers in management roles come up with new strategies. Knowledge workers in R&D and engineering create new products. Knowledge workers in marketing package up products and services in ways that appeal to customers. Without knowledge workers there would be no new products and services, and no growth.

Posted by Tom Davenport at 04:34 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBacks (0)