October 31, 2006

Red Auerbach, Communications Guru

If you’re a basketball fan or live in the Boston area, you know that Red Auerbach died a few days ago. Among other achievements, Auerbach coached the Celtics to eight consecutive N.B.A. championships. There’s a bronze statue of him sitting on a bench in Boston’s Faneuil Hall marketplace—balding, stocky, holding his famous “victory cigar”—an ordinary-looking guy, but a basketball genius.

Part of that genius was an extraordinary ability to communicate with his players. How? Yes, he had a loud voice, he was passionate, he knew a lot about basketball. But the key to his effectiveness as a communicator was his ability to listen.

In a 2004 USA Today interview (quoted in the New York Times obituary for Auerbach), Bill Russell said, “Red had the greatest of ears. After he talked to a player four times, he knew how to communicate with him.”

In other words, communication has as much to do with listening as talking.

Auerbach himself once said, “It’s not what you say; it’s what they hear,” putting his finger on what I think is the essential truth about communication. It only works when you understand the person you’re talking with and shape your words and manner to how he hears—that is, to how he thinks; what he cares about; what he needs. And the only way to understand those things is to listen and observe.

You can’t communicate well if all you do is talk.

Posted by Don Cohen at 10:30 AM | Permalink | TrackBacks (0)

October 03, 2006

One Way to Stifle Creativity

Some years back I wrote what I thought was a pretty good little article about the origin of a knowledge group at a well-known consulting company. It told the story of two young guys who thought it might be useful to collect proposals and reports from successful engagements and make them available for research and reuse. When their boss rejected the idea, they went ahead anyway, working on weekends, pulling a couple of discarded computers out of a storeroom, soliciting contributions from people they knew, informally spreading word about the resource they had created. A few months later, a consultant used some of the material they had gathered to win a big contract. Demand increased. The bootleg system was eventually legitimized and grew into a sizeable knowledge center.

The article was never published. The company executive whose approval I needed admitted that the article was accurate but said he didn’t want the public to get the impression that things happen in such an informal, ad hoc way at the company. Although he didn’t say so, I think he was also uncomfortable about casting disobedience in a positive light.

I think the fiction he wanted to maintain—that all decisions are carefully deliberated at the top and carried out by those below, that nothing happens by accident—is a damaging one. To the extent that leaders tend to believe it, it stops them from seeking and learning from the innovative ideas and practices that bubble up in odd corners of their organizations. To the extent that they present themselves as the sole source of company wisdom, they stifle the creativity of the people who work for them. (Why bother if leaders won’t listen and then take credit for ideas that survive in spite of their opposition?)

By way of contrast, I think of a story from the early days of Hewlett-Packard. David Packard responded to an engineer who had disregarded an order to stop working on technology that turned into a successful product by calling a meeting of engineers and presenting him with a medal for “extraordinary contempt and defiance beyond the normal call of engineering duty.”

Posted by Don Cohen at 03:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBacks (0)

June 06, 2006

Attention Bloggers!

I haven’t written a blog entry in a while, but apparently a lot of people have. I heard in a presentation today that there are (as of May 30th, 2006) 28,592,813 blogs, and 43,109 new blogs in the last 24 hours. Hmmmm. One could argue that this is too many. As I pointed out in my first entry for the Babson Knowledge blog, the key issue is the imbalance of information in the blogosphere and the amount of human attention available to attend to it. It’s far easier to write a blog than to get anyone to read it. This imbalance leads me to believe that a couple of major changes need to take place in individual and organizational information environments.

One is the automated mining of textual and unstructured information. We’re finally getting a handle on how to get value from structured information. But most organizations don’t have a clue about how to mine blogs, emails, instant messages, presentations, and so forth. We don’t have time to look at all of this stuff to see if it’s interesting and relevant to us, so we will have to have systems that find the good content and serve it up or summarize it for us. It is individuals that read and take action on unstructured information, so we need to address this issue at the individual level.

Some of this mining will be automatically intuited by an intelligent system based on stuff we’ve looked at in the past, and perhaps on how we’ve rated it. But, of course, we’ve been hearing for a number of years that such “machine learning” will improve our lives. Thus far and for the foreseeable future, we’re going to have to help our computers with some personal interventions. In particular, we’re going to have to get better at specifying what information we care about.

Most of us are pretty haphazard about what information we need and want to see. We click mindlessly through the blogosphere. We read whatever free magazines publishers are willing to send us. We read whatever emails appear in our inboxes or on our Blackberry screens. One prominent GE executive admitted to me—without much sheepishness—that the only articles he reads are those that other people attach to his email messages. This is not a well-designed personal information environment!

Someday it will all be better. I’ll be able to say to a computer something like the following:

- I like and want to read/hear/view content about the Boston Red Sox, analytical competition, attempts to improve the performance of knowledge work, case studies about knowledge management, process management initiatives that employ IT, Julie Bowen (a somewhat obscure but lovely actress) and so forth.

- I don’t want to receive stuff about dining hall schedules at Babson College, regular meetings that I have never attended in the past, marketing messages from IT vendors, movies that are badly reviewed, hockey, Britney Spears, and so forth.

Of course, it’s the “and so forth” that kills us. We know some things we definitely like and don’t like, but we’re always afraid that we’re missing something important, and we’re afraid to rule out sources and topics because there just might be something valuable there. I’m hoping that technology will help us out in this regard—noting that you haven’t looked at the last 42 RSS feeds from a particular blog, so maybe you should stop pretending to be interested in it—or that you seem to be clicking on a lot of sites about real estate in Palo Alto, so should I feed you more of that? Between all of us working a little harder at figuring out what we want, and a bit of help from intelligent software, we’ll eventually get to an attention-preserving environment that still keeps us well-informed.

Posted by Tom Davenport at 12:21 AM | Permalink | TrackBacks (0)

May 22, 2006

A Storytelling Story

Pretty much everyone interested in knowledge management knows that storytelling can be an effective knowledge-sharing technique, largely because it conveys context, causal relationships, and emotional content more effectively than most other modes of communication.

Here’s one little story about storytelling that suggests some of the benefits.

For six years, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory librarian Teresa Bailey has been overseeing monthly storytelling sessions at JPL’s library that often attract fifty or more listeners. Some stories have focused on fairly narrow technical or scientific issues (for instance, “Discovery of Sulfur Dioxide on Jupiter’s Satellite Io”). Other stories have dealt with particular missions (“The True Story Behind the Mars Pathfinder Success”), with more general learning from experience (“How Spacecraft Fail”), and with the organization itself (“Jet Propulsion Laboratory—The Early Years”).

What do people get from these stories? Some pick up bits of wisdom they can apply to their own work—do’s and don’t’s of planning and design, maybe a technical insight that helps solve a problem. Some are inspired by stories of success. Most gain a greater sense of connection with the organization, because they hear about what colleagues have been doing, because the stories express values and aims that tellers and listeners share, and because they are participating in a communal experience. I believe building trust and relationships is a more important effect of organizational storytelling than knowledge transfer.

Knowledge managers seldom talk about what stories do for their tellers. In fact, the benefits of telling a story can be profound. Shaping stories helps people make sense of experiences they’ve had. Telling them to a receptive audience not only provides heartening evidence that colleagues find your work interesting and valuable, it remind the tellers how much they care about what they do. Describing her scientist and engineer storytellers, Bailey says, “They don’t even know how passionate they are about their work until they start talking about it.”

The person who learns most from the story is often the one who tells it.

Posted by Don Cohen at 12:35 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (0)

May 20, 2006

How Google Plans to Change the Scope of Googling (And Why Information and Knowledge Workers Should Care)

Want to find out where the weird word “pachyderm” came from? Just google the phrase “pachyderm etymology” and within a second you can learn how the English word traces its roots back to Frenchman Georges Cuvier, the father of modern biology. In 1797 Cuvier began using the French pachyderme to describe animals like elephants and hippopotami. The French term derives from pachydermos, the Greek word for thick-skinned.

Want to find out where your company’s 2005 revenue came from? Good luck to you.

These days, employees feel increasingly confident that they can find anything, just as long as it’s external information. But if it’s right under their noses in their companies’ databases, their confidence will often be much lower. (And they will assume that it will take a lot longer to find it.) One obvious culprit is the massive quantity of internal or proprietary data that companies now stockpile—an amount that continues to grow 40-70 percent a year. As one analyst recently noted, “in the same way that consumers were set adrift in the early days of the Web, enterprises are now drowning in data sets of their own.”

Enter Google, which is now redoubling its efforts to do for internal information what it once did for the Internet. Below we offer excerpts from a few noteworthy articles that outline the company’s strategy to “go corporate”—and thus diversify away from its core search-advertising business, which currently drives 95 percent of its sales.

- In “Google shifts focus to show it means business,” Matthew Glotzbach, Google’s head of enterprise products, explains: "Companies have to deal with [internal content explosion] if they want to compete. Google wants to use its experience in web search to provide a ‘fast front door’ to that information – one that doesn’t require any special training for users."

- Quoted in another article, “Enterprise Search: A Different Animal,” Glotzback describes how Google’s search appliance allows administrators to select documents that will appear at the top of results for specific key words, not unlike the way Google.com returns a few paid listings at the top of natural search results. “It's almost like an internal ad.”

- In an interview with CIO Insight, Dave Girouard, general manager of the enterprise business, describes the fruits of his customer research: “When you put Google inside a company…There's almost a sigh of relief that now they'll be able to find their information. For us, that is always the most important thing—how well does it solve the problem for the end-user.”

- Finally, in “Google dodges knowledge management question,” you’ll see Google product marketing manager Arvind Desikan do just that. However, Desikan does mention a couple of potential case studies worth tracking, "We appear to have served the knowledge management needs of several large companies to date, including BA and Schlumberger."

Posted by James Wilson at 12:17 AM | Permalink | TrackBacks (1)

April 05, 2006

The KM Benefits of Having a Higher Purpose

I don’t have statistics to prove it, but anecdotal evidence suggests that people working at organizations devoted to missions other than (and arguably higher than) making money share knowledge more readily than employees at companies that emphasize the bottom line.

My colleagues and I have looked at knowledge programs at the World Bank, NASA, the navy, and MITRE, among other entities devoted to reducing poverty, advancing science and space exploration, and contributing to national security. Although these organizations have their share of territoriality and competitiveness, their missions do seem to encourage people to share knowledge and cooperate more readily than they would without a sense of a shared worthy purpose. My conversations with experienced NASA project managers suggest that knowledge sharing happens most fully and readily when project leaders keep the value and excitement of their shared mission in view and appeal to that inspiring goal to help resolve disagreements and overcome crankiness and suspicion.

There is a lesson here for for-profit companies. Knowledge workers are unlikely to devote time and talent to knowledge management activities if the only articulated purpose for those efforts is to save money for the corporation. The CEO and CFO and major stockholders may be inspired by those dollars, but most employees aren’t. In many cases, though, profit-making companies can also legitimately invoke a higher purpose to support knowledge sharing—perhaps scientific discovery or the public benefits of their products or services or even pride in the quality of work accomplished. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, are unquestionably profit-making ventures, but most researchers are driven (and driven to seek and share knowledge) by the goal of discovering drugs that cure diseases. For them, profits are a byproduct of a scientific and humanitarian achievement.

People who are proud of their work are more likely to offer what they know to people they think of as colleagues in a shared journey toward a worthwhile goal.

Posted by Don Cohen at 06:10 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (0)

January 09, 2006

The Knowledge Technology Trap

Again and again during the two dozen interviews I’ve conducted to figure out what we’ve learned from a decade of knowledge management experiences, practitioners said, “Knowledge management projects focused mainly on technology will fail,” or words to that effect. No surprise there. From the early days of KM, thoughtful commentators talked about the human and organizational elements of knowledge work and the need to balance technology, process, and culture. Everyone heard stories of failed technology-driven projects—“knowledge bases” ignored by intended users, unreliable and abandoned expertise locators.

But some of the same practitioners who expressed this supposedly obvious truth said that the point had to be made again and again to prevent their organizations from falling back into the mistake of depending on technology to make knowledge sharing happen. Companies still invest in mainly technological fixes to knowledge problems and, when those fail, they do it again, pinning their hopes on some improvement or other in the software.


Part of the answer is that the human element is complicated and subtle. When you buy hardware and software, you at least know what you’re getting for your money. Investments in relationships and behaviors are harder to see and measure. Also, and despite all the talk about the old factory-model of the organization dying away and the importance of “our people” in the knowledge age, I think many leaders still want to think of their organizations as efficient machines and people as part of the equipment who “should” adjust themselves to the rest of the mechanism without pampering or a lot of talk about “culture.”

In the U.S. at least, a sheer love of technology may be an even more important factor. We have a long history of believing that the next technological marvel will eliminate drudgery or hunger, cure disease, make us happy. The social, political, and environmental problems of the last half century may have weakened our faith in redemption by technology, but the longing for simple, mechanical solutions remains strong. It’s reflected not just in the love of technology, but in the belief underlying the whole self-help industry—the idea that a pill, a mantra, or a machine can make us slim, beautiful, rich, and happy.

This persistent search for the silver bullet (or the silver bullet point) is a kind of tribute to American optimism, the belief that we can make ourselves, our companies, and the world better if we find the magic formula. Too bad it’s not true.

Posted by Don Cohen at 11:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBacks (0)

January 05, 2006

Lesser-Known, Must-Read KM Books for 2006

There are quite a few good books about KM and related practices that never receive much publicity and consequently are rarely seen by practitioners and have little impact on practice.

For those of you with a taste for theory and a little patience, however, there is much of value in these academic tomes. Here are some recent ones, all read by yours truly (I don’t watch TV or talk too much on planes so I get some reading done).

Knowledge, Institutions and Evolution in Economics by Brian Loasby. This is a very well written book by an economist(yes, some of them can write and even write well about knowledge). Loasby' lectures are focused on how knowledge as embedded in organizations can best be understood as an evolutionary phenomenon. He is right, too.

Architectures of Knowledge : Firms, Capabilities, and Communities by Ash Amin(an economic geographer, and Patrick Cohendet, an economist). This is a very good book, original and full of insights on the spaces of knowledge and learning to be found in society and in organizations. The chapter on "The Spaces of Knowing" is worth the price of the paperback edition, by itself. The book is very "cross-disciplinary" and rewards frequent reading (especially if you fly often).

Complex Knowledge : Studies in Organizational Epistemology by Haridimos Tsoukas. He is an abstract thinker and organizational theorist and these are his collected essays on knoweldge and learning. Tsoukas is quite influenced by complexity theory (but not in a silly or superficial way) and is a great believer in sense-making a-la Karl Weick [Sensemaking in Organizations, Making Sense of the Organization, and Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity]. Don’t miss the chapter entitled "Do We Really Understand Tacit Knowledge." It’s the best one in the book.

Finally, for those of you with a taste for theory grounded in cases there is a very good introduction to KM by Donald Hislop entitled Knowledge Management in Organizations: A Critical Introduction. This is far more then just a text for MBAs, etc. It’s a critical synthesis based on much reading and observing. Not always sympathetic to our more simple practices, it’s a great text to give to someone new to the subject who is smart and can't stand most business books (Sue Newell's Managing Knowledge Work would be a great choice too).

All of these books are new and can easily be found on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. There are other such tomes around that I'd be happy to discuss if anyone is interested. Let me know and have a great 2006!

Posted by Larry Prusak at 02:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBacks (0)

December 26, 2005

Was Drucker Wrong?

OK, I will confess that this entire posting was originally motivated by self-interest: I checked the Amazon sales rank for my book Thinking for a Living, and found that it had fallen over the past few days from the respectable levels it occupied for the first couple of months it was out. Most authors, of course, are semi-obsessed by their Amazon rankings; I get less so with each book I write.

But the apparent fact that my tome is not going to compete with Who Moved My Cheese at the top of the best-seller lists made me wonder just how important it really is to make knowledge workers more productive and effective.

I also had a chat a few days ago with a Wall Street Journal reporter who is researching an article on knowledge worker productivity. He asked me if the subject is important. I said yes, and mouthed the old Peter Drucker chestnut that “making knowledge work productive is the greatest economic challenge of this century.” He asked, “Well, was Drucker wrong?”

Mon dieu! How could he possibly ask such a question, particularly since the great man only passed a few weeks ago?

In order to quickly deflect such a heresy, I spewed out a few more clichés, such as “Knowledge workers are the key to growth and innovation in their organizations,” and “Unless our knowledge workers are the most productive and effective on earth, their jobs will flow to the parts of the world where they do it better.”

Then he asked the killer question. “Are companies doing anything about this?” Again, I spouted the names of a few companies that have actually attempted to make life better for their knowledge workers: Intel, Capital One, Novartis, Cisco…OK, it’s a pretty short list. If improving knowledge worker productivity is so important, why aren’t more companies doing something about it?

There are some good reasons, i.e.:
1. It’s hard.
2. It takes a fair amount of up-front investment.
3. Knowledge workers, like Greta Garbo, like to be left alone.

But these seem insufficient as rationales for doing little or nothing to make knowledge workers more successful at work (other than providing them with their very own legal copy of Microsoft Office, a PC, and a telephone with voice mail). I am frankly puzzled why more of this isn’t happening. If you know the answer, you will be giving me (and the world) a great holiday present if you feel generous enough to share it.

Posted by Tom Davenport at 05:16 PM | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBacks (2)

December 21, 2005

Think You’re Thinking Outside the Box? Sorry.

There are a lot of business-language clichés I’d be happy never to hear again. I don’t care for the phrases that confuse people with computer technology (“Let’s talk about that off-line.” “I don’t have the bandwidth to take that on.”). Or the tendency to use a ponderous phrase when one straightforward word will do (saying “in the July timeframe” instead of “in July”). Or those ugly “-ize” verbs (“incentivize;” “operationalize;” “productize”).

But maybe my least favorite phrase is “think outside the box.” It bothers me partly because I’ve heard it used 11,580 times in the past 10 years. (I’m exaggerating, but I’ve heard it a lot.) Also because people who talk about “thinking outside the box” never will. If they could, they wouldn’t use a tired cliché to talk about originality. When advertisers parody a phrase (“Think outside the bun”), it’s time to move on.

What does any of this have to do with organizational knowledge? Well, a lot of knowledge sharing happens through language that not only communicates a certain quantity of information about something but that intrigues, inspires, and tells you that the speaker is thoughtful, knowledgeable, and alert. Good knowledge-sharing language generates energy and thoughtfulness. The dead language of clichés that you’ve heard a hundred times before puts people’s minds to sleep (and sometimes their bodies, too).

So what’s the take-away? Net-net, implementing cliché avoidance 24/7 is a win-win for speakers and listeners alike. If you disagree, let’s take it up off-line, when I’ve got some more bandwidth.

Posted by Don Cohen at 12:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBacks (1)

December 14, 2005

Knowledge Needed; Access Denied

I recently spent an hour or so talking about the value of personal networks as sources of knowledge with a group of sixty project managers. During the discussion, I described various uses of the technique (formerly known as “social network analysis”) that Rob Cross of the University of Virginia now calls “organizational network analysis.”

We were not in a setting where it made sense to do a network analysis (and I don’t have enough experience to do one well), but I wanted people to think about their own networks. Taking a cue from some of Rob’s categories, I asked them to jot down the names of people they went to for knowledge and information, people they went to for advice, people who added energy to their networks and people who sucked energy out of them. And I asked them to list people who were inaccessible but had knowledge they needed to do their work. It was a valuable exercise; I recommend it.

This last category generated the most discussion. About a third of the sixty project managers said, Yes, there were people who had important knowledge they were unable to get access to when they needed it. I asked them how many of those inaccessible people were their supervisors or others above them in the hierarchy.

The answer won’t surprise you: all of them.

They told stories that are probably familiar to anyone who has worked in a large organization: projects suffered from the absence of vital information on budgets or changes in direction that only unavailable bosses possessed; they needed but couldn’t get the opinion of an experienced senior manager on a critical element of the work; they needed an approval but couldn’t get on their leaders’ calendars. Emails requesting a meeting or information went unanswered.

The result: projects ground to a halt or drifted off in what eventually proved to be the wrong direction.

We’re not talking about finding time for a long meeting; in most cases, people needed only ten minutes or so of their bosses’ attention, and still couldn’t get it. One project manager said he dealt with the dilemma by coming to work early and standing outside the boss’s office to waylay him before he retreated behind the protective barrier of his secretary.

Sometimes work place design helps avoid this problem. Senior managers in open offices near people who work for them (rather than on mahogany row behind a phalanx of executive assistants) can be available for these quick, essential exchanges. A (very) few leaders set aside “office hours” for just such interactions.

But the difficulties remain. If you have stories of similar problems or good ideas for solving them, let me know.

Posted by Don Cohen at 01:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBacks (0)

December 03, 2005

The Backlash to Process

It was inevitable, I suppose. After several decades of largely positive palaver about the power of process, a backlash is beginning to emerge. Several journalists and bloggers have begun to argue that process is injurious to organizational health and innovation.

Erin White of the Wall Street Journal, for example, reported on September 19, 2005 that companies are beginning to become disenchanted with Six Sigma and process management—particularly where innovation and new product development processes are concerned.

On John Hagel’s blog, he and John Seely Brown argue that "for the past couple of decades, the primary focus of IT investment in the enterprise has been to standardize and automate business processes. Over the next couple of decades, the real opportunity will be to amplify practices by supporting collaboration on demand – helping people both within and across enterprises to connect more flexibly and richly with each other around real business needs."

In a somewhat silly blog entry entitled “The End of Process,” Socialtext's Ross Mayfield argues that, “Because of constant change in our environment, processes are outdated the immediately after they are designed (sic, but you get the idea).” He goes on to say that connected knowledge workers can simply organize their own groups and processes at will.

First let me say that the devotees of process don’t have much to fear.

Process isn’t going away, at least for the vast majority of situations to which it’s been applied. For any sort of structured work activity, processes are the key to efficiency, quality, and efficient use of IT. For business activities like manufacturing, order management, accounting, and customer service, to eschew process is to eschew performance.

But the process malcontents do have a purpose and a point. It’s actually healthy to have a debate about how much process orientation to have in business, and where it should be applied. The idea that the same approaches to process management worked well for all businesses and all activities within them was never a good one. Of course, it’s just as nutty to argue that we don’t need processes at all as it was to argue that process was good for everything. The hard-core “enterprise engineers” and the advocates of self-organizing work are equally unhelpful.

The backlash to process generally focuses on the negative implications for innovation. This is both wrong and valid. It’s wrong when applied to process innovation. Companies that do process management right can certainly incorporate opportunities for participation by those who do the work, and continuous innovation in the process. Just ask Toyota, which has mastered both processes and process innovation.

But process critics are valid when the focus their attack on applying process to product and service innovations. We can call these activities processes, and we can try to impose structure on them. But innovation activities in business will always be less structured than other business domains, and harder to measure and automate. If we impose too much of a process orientation on these activities and people, we’ll either drive down the level of innovation or get frustrated. Cisco, for example, is a very process-oriented firm, but it has relaxed some of its orientation to process in its new product development activities.

The key to establishing a balance, as John Seely Brown and several of his former colleagues at Xerox PARC have argued for a while, is to mix process with practice. Process is an abstract structure for how work should ideally be done; practice is the day-to-day way in which work is actually done. Process involves respect for methods, measures, and organizational attempts at improvement; practice involves respect for smart people and localized decisionmaking. Process without practice is unrealistic; practice without process is chaotic.

In structured business activities such as manufacturing, we need more process and less practice; in less structured knowledge work domains like innovation, we simply need less process and more practice. To admit that a mixture is necessary, and to work at determining the appropriate balance, is the only reasonable approach.

Extreme arguments in either direction are counterproductive at best.

Posted by Tom Davenport at 04:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBacks (1)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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

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.

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October 14, 2005

6 Common Attributes of Knowledge Work and Knowledge Workers

The fact that knowledge workers primarily rely on their brains in their jobs rather than their bodies means that they have some attributes in common. These aren't terribly surprising, and they all follow from a few basic principles and observations, but they need to be stated. Most derive from the fact that knowledge work is less structured and perhaps less structurable than administrative or production work.

The basic principles and observations follow below:

1. Knowledge Workers like Autonomy
One important aspect of knowledge workers is that they don't like to be told what to do. Thinking for a living engenders thinking for oneself. Knowledge workers are paid for their education, experience, and expertise, so it is not surprising that they often take offense when someone else rides roughshod over their intellectual territory.

Of course, knowledge workers don't like for their work to be ignored, and there are some things they like to be told, such as the broader significance and implications of their tasks and jobs. But they'd generally like the details to be left to them.

This autonomy is in part a natural result of the nature of knowledge work. Since it's difficult to tell whether a knowledge worker is actually thinking at any given moment, supervisors pretty much have to take their word for it.

The knowledge worker also knows the circumstances in which he or she thinks best. If a computer programmer tells the boss that he is most productive working from 8PM to 4AM, smart bosses would try to facilitate that arrangement. The outputs of knowledge work are also difficult to specify in great detail, so that is generally left up to the worker.

2. Specifying the detailed steps and flow of knowledge-intensive processes is less valuable and more difficult than for other types of work.
This is a corollary of my first generalization about knowledge work.

Knowledge workers don't like to be told what to do, and they also don't like see their jobs reduced to a series of boxes and arrows.

Typically, when we want to improve performance we begin by breaking down the structure of the task into its constituent elements. This has been the case at least since Frederick Taylor's day, if not before. The idea is that when broken into piece-parts, knowledge work processes can be more easily followed and measured, and unnecessary steps eliminated altogether.

However, this approach often doesn't work very well for knowledge work and workers.

In my experience, knowledge workers will often resist describing the steps they follow in their work. The more complex and knowledge-intensive the work, the more likely this will be true. Perhaps there are so many variations that describing the typical flow of work is impossible. Knowledge work also often involves a high degree of iterative collaboration among knowledge workers, and this may be difficult to describe or model.

Even if you can get a knowledge worker to describe his or her work process, it may not be a very helpful description. First, the work flow may not be very similar to another worker's description of the supposedly same process.

Secondly, the steps may seem maddeningly inefficient: "First I come up with an idea. Then I think about it for a while. Then I talk to my lab partner about it. Then I think about the reactions she's given me." Such a process would be anathema to a stopwatch-packing Taylorist, but it's often how knowledge workers - particularly those involved in knowledge creation activities - work.

3. "You can observe a lot by watching." (Lawrence Peter Berra)
A natural follow-on to the previous attribute of knowledge workers is that if you can't get them to describe their work in detail, you have to observe it in detail. Systematic observation - also known as "shadowing" or "ethnography" - is often a way to better understand how knowledge workers do their work.

4. Knowledge workers usually have good reasons for doing what they do.
In the days of business process reengineering, we assumed that smart analysts could quickly figure out better ways of doing work. This was, in fact, often true. Nobody had ever thought about many administrative and operational processes before, and improvements were easily identified.

It's not so easy with knowledge work, which is one of the reasons why we have to observe it closely. Knowledge workers have typically thought about why and how they do their work, and have made many of the obvious improvements to it. There is probably a reason behind almost everything they undertake (or at minimum a logical rationalization).

If improvements are going to be identified, it's probably only after serious and deep study.

5. Commitment matters.
In the industrial economy, one could do a job with one's body even when the brain and heart weren't committed to the job.

But this isn't the case for knowledge work. It's unlikely that you'll get great performance out of a knowledge worker if he or she isn't mentally and emotionally committed to the job.

This fact has a number of ramifications. Chief among them is that knowledge workers need some say in what they work on and how they do it.

There is nothing that limits commitment like being told what to work on by someone else. This factor is behind, for example, the famous 3M approach of giving researchers 15% of their time to work on something they think is important to the company.

Obviously knowledge workers are generally willing to do some things that others ask (or even tell) them to do, but a degree of voluntarism helps a lot.

6. Knowledge workers value their knowledge, and don't share it easily.
Knowledge is all that knowledge workers have - it's the tool of their trade, the means of their production.

It's therefore natural that they would have difficulty relinquishing or sharing it in such a way that their own jobs might be threatened.

In the early days of knowledge management, when companies were beginning to talk about sharing knowledge within and across organizations, I used to say, "Sharing knowledge is an unnatural act."

I also mentioned that, "Of course, unnatural acts are committed every day."

Companies just needed to put the necessary incentives and assurances in place to ensure that people were willing to share their knowledge.

But that's the subject of another post, or you could read my book.

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October 11, 2005

Analyze This

I just wrote a short piece for CIO on business analytics.

One of the question I ask is - how do you know when you're there? In the article, I point to several indicators that a company is competing on analytics:

* The CEO has an analytical background. Harrah's Loveman was a business school professor and has an MIT PhD. Amazon's Bezos was an A-plus student in electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton. When the CEO or vice chair of a company is a rocket scientist, it's a good bet that there will be other scientists on the payroll.

* Nobody's asking about the ROI for each little initiative. What's at stake in analytical competition is not an application, but a corporate strategy. If the analytical activities are succeeding, they will be manifested not in ROI calculations, but in revenue and profits.

* The company is very successful. Certainly there are industries (for example, U.S. domestic airlines) where a lot of analytics don't seem to be the critical success factor. It isn't with Southwest. But the great majority of highly analytical companies that we studied are leaders in their industries and making lots of money.

As more analytically trained managers enter the workforce, it's likely that analytical competition will become more common and intense. However, this capability can't be developed overnight.

Most companies took at least five years to develop their analytical capabilities sufficiently to compete on that basis, and a couple of very successful companies (including Procter & Gamble and Mars) had been pursuing analytics for several decades. Assembling the right data, finding and using the right tools, and developing the right relationships between analysts and decision-makers all take time. Therefore, it makes sense to start pulling them together now.

History seems to be on the side of the numbers.

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