Organizational forgetting

I wrote the following back in November 2005:

My early days in Knowledge Management included a lot of time developing, deploying, and getting people to use “knowledge repositories.” (At least trying to get people to use them.) A worthwhile endeavor in some regards, I’ve always had misgivings about the whole idea, at least how it has been implemented in most cases. The cheapness of mass storage these days, and the way we just keep everything, has nagged at this misgiving over the past couple of years.

I finally realized one day that the problem has become not, “How do we remember all this knowledge that we’ve learned?” but rather, “How do we forget all this knowledge we’ve accumulated that we no longer need so we can focus on what we do need?”

That post also included a reference to memory and forgetting in the human mind, taken from the book The Trouble with Tom by Paul Collins:

Memory is a toxin, and its overretention – the constant replaying of the past – is the hallmark of stress disorders and clinical depression. The elimination of memory is a bodily function, like the elimination of urine. Stop urinating and you have renal failure: stop forgetting and you go mad.

explored this idea a bit further in March 2007, where I added the following to my thinking:

In the context of mastery, especially of something new, it is sometimes hard to know when to forget what you’ve learned. You have to build up a solid foundation of basic knowledge, the things that have to be done. And at some point you start to build up tacit knowledge of what you are trying to master. And this, the tacit knowledge that goes into learning and mastery, is probably the hardest thing to learn how to forget.

Sometimes, though, it is critical to forget what you know so you can continue to improve.

And yet again in June 2009:

I’m at a point now, though, where the project is going through significant changes, almost to the point of being a “new” project. My dilemma: How to “forget” the parts of the old project that are no longer important and start with an “empty mind” to build up the new project without the baggage of the old.

In his book Brain Rules, author John Medina writes, “It’s easy to remember, and easy to forget, but figuring out what to remember and what to forget is not nearly so easy.”

I was reminded of this train of thought today when a colleague shared a link to a TEDx talk by Pablo Martin de Holan titled Managing Organizational Forgetting, based on a paper of the same name published in the MIT Sloan Management Review. If you read my quotes above, I’m sure you understand why this opening paragraph from the paper grabbed my attention (emphasis at the end is mine):

Over the last decade, companies have become increasingly aware of the value of managing their organizational knowledge, and researchers have investigated those processes extensively. Indeed, the ways in which organizations learn and have stocks of knowledge that underlie their capabilities can be a powerful tool in explaining the behavior and competitiveness of companies. Yet something is missing in the current discussions of organizational knowledge: Companies don’t just learn; they also forget.
Pablo Martin de Holan 

There is a lot of great info in the paper (about 12 pages worth), but for now I’ll just mention the two modes of forgetting – Accidental and Intentional. Obviously, you will want to limit the former and maximize the benefit of the latter. At the risk of a giant spoiler (you should still take the time to read the full paper), de Holan summarizes nicely:

Some companies forget the things they need to know, incurring huge costs to replace the lost knowledge. Other organizations can’t forget the things they should, and they remain trapped by the past, relying on uncompetitive technologies, dysfunctional corporate cultures or untenable assumptions about their markets. Successful companies instead are able to move quickly to adapt to rapidly changing environments by being skilled not only at learning, but also at forgetting. Indeed, as companies work to increase their capacity to learn they also need to develop a corresponding ability to forget. Otherwise, they could easily be learning counterproductive knowledge, such as bad habits. The bottom line is that companies need to manage their processes for forgetting as well as for learning, because only then can they deploy their organizational knowledge in the most effective ways for achieving sustained competitive advantage.

I really wish I had come across this paper back in Winter 2004 when it was published. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

And for those of you interested in the TEDx talk, here you go.

Organizations, organisms, and intelligence (some thoughts)

Some thoughts inspired by  The Genius Within: Discovering the Intelligence of Every Living Thing by Frank Vertosick, Jr., and other sources.

In the introduction to The Genius Within, Vertosick sets up the book with these comments:

To survive, all living beings must respond to an incessant barrage of stimuli: good, bad, and neutral. Some stimuli are so potently bad they provoke an immediate, reflexive response…. [M]ost hazards can’t be handled so simplistically. If I blindly leapt from every threat, I would soon exhaust myself. Moreover, some threats, such as a menacing animal, are better handled by walking slowly away.

Of course, even better would be to avoid running into menacing animals in the first place.

I couldn’t help thinking of this passage when I came across If it’s urgent, ignore it on McGee’s Musings (which in turn points to the original FastCompany article by Seth Godin and a posting about the article on Frank Patrick’s Focused Performance Weblog.) A couple of quick excerpts:

Urgent issues are easy to address. They are the ones that get everyone in the room for the final go-ahead. They are the ones we need to decide on right now, before it’s too late.

Smart organizations understand that important issues are the ones to deal with. If you focus on the important stuff, the urgent will take care of itself.

Organizations manage to justify draconian measures–laying people off, declaring bankruptcy, stiffing their suppliers, and closing stores–by pointing out the urgency of the situation. They refuse to make the difficult decisions when the difficult decisions are cheap. They don’t want to expend the effort to respond to their competition or fire the intransigent VP of development. Instead, they focus on the events that are urgent at that moment and let the important stuff slide.

Or in other words they are, to use Dr. Vertosick’s words, blindly leaping from every threat, and will soon exhaust themselves. This is another sign of a “stupid,” or in this case non-intelligent, organization.

A few more words on “intelligence” in organisms from Dr. Vertosick:

No creature can make it through life equipped solely with dumb reflexes. Reflexes alone do not constitute intelligence. Organisms must temper their reflexes with judgment, and that implies reason.

When reflex alone proves inadequate or counterproductive, living things resort to more subtle ways of dealing with environmental data. They begin by determining the predictive value of their experiences and storing those experiences for later application.

In other words, organisms learn from experience and apply this knowledge to future challenges. Learning is central to all intelligent behavior.

Since the organization that focuses on the urgent, instead of the important, is apparently not learning from the past, it stands to reason they are un-intelligent and doomed to an earlier demise than might otherwise occur if they could start learning. Unfortunately, this type of organization takes a lot of people, money, and other resources and capabilities down with it.*

* Of course, you can look at this as a kind of “circle of life” kind of thing, as most of those resources will eventually find their way back into the system. Unfortunately for the “human resources” involved, though, this will be a very unenjoyable process.

In the loop

“Keep me in the loop.”

This all too common expression is – or should be – the bane of anyone trying to implement, or just use, a community approach of working out loud for collaboration and communication. What it really means is…

I want to know what’s going on with your project, but I don’t care enough to actually spend my own time keeping up with what’s going, so please take time out of your own busy schedule and figure out what information I need to know and then make sure you get it to me. I may or may not bother to read it once you’ve sent it to me.

The next time someone asks you to “keep me in the loop”, let them know where the conversation is happening and offer to grant them access. If they don’t take you up on it, then they don’t really care. If they do take you up on it, they may never join in. But they might, and their participation will be that much more valuable because they are there intentionally, not accidentally.

This goes both ways. Next time someone talks to you about a project that you are interested in, don’t ask them to keep you in the loop. Instead, ask them, “How can I join the conversation?”

 

Meetings in the age of working out loud

Working out loud is typically looked at from the point of view of the person doing the work out loud, with tips and ideas on how to work out loud more effectively. But it is also important for those who are “consuming” this out loud work to understand the process and how they can leverage it in their own work. No one has more to gain, and probably more to learn, from working out loud than the managers of those doing the work. Consider, for example, meetings.

meetings500

Meetings, in general, assume that the process of work is hidden and that the only thing that matters are the results or, in many cases, the current state of the work. So managers will call meetings, or even worse schedule recurring meetings on a regular basis. These meetings are often set for an hour, because that is the default in Outlook and generally the time blocks by which conference rooms are scheduled.

What other factors do you take into account when you plan / schedule a meeting? Some items might include:

  • Agenda

Actually, if you don’t count the availability of a conference room, the only real consideration in the scheduling of most meetings is the agenda, even though it is more likely than not that the agenda is more an outline or a “let’s go around the room so everyone can fill everyone else in on what they have been working on”.  The “this is what we’re going to talk about” gets a lot of attention, the “what do we want to achieve” gets a bit less, and the “how does this contribute to our work” gets barely any attention at all.

When, of course, the most important aspect of meetings, the easiest to measure, and the most overlooked – dare I say ignored – is the bottom line. The value of the meeting. (Not just the cost, but the return you get on paying that cost.)

From the book ReWork:

When you think about it, the true cost of meetings is staggering. Let’s say you’re going to schedule a meeting that lasts one hour, and you invite ten people to attend. That’s actually a ten-hour meeting, not a one-hour meeting. Your trading ten hours of productivity for one hour of meeting time. And it’s probably more like fifteen hours, because there are mental switching costs that come with stopping what you’re doing, going somewhere else to meet, and then resuming what you were doing beforehand.

Which doesn’t take into account the productivity loss for the time required to prepare for the meeting, type up and distribute notes, etc….

When it is possible to work out loud, however, the work is not (need not be) hidden and the current state of work, along with all of the context that goes with it, is readily available to all who may need to see it. Including managers. But this requires a change in how managers approach management, and how they interact with the people who report to them.

Instead of asking to be “kept in the loop” through individual emails or by scheduling meetings, it becomes incumbent on the manager to ensure that their employees are working out loud and that they, the manager, keep themselves in the loop.

Thinking in bits isn’t just about changing the way we design forms to collect information or using fancy techniques to push customized content to our users. It also has far reaching implications and potential in how we design our work and the organizations in which we perform that work.

 

KM vs LSS vs CPI

A coworker posed a question today on one of our internal discussion areas looking for thoughts on the differences between knowledge management (KM), Lean Six Sigma (LSS), and Continuous Process Improvement (CPI). I know a little about KM, not so much about LSS and CPI, but took a stab at a response anyway. Here’s what I came up with:

  • KM is about things you don’t yet know how to do or that you have never done
  • LSS is about doing better that which you already know how to do in the way you already know how to do them
  • CPI is about finding better ways to do what you already know how to do

Each has its place, depending on what you are trying to accomplish, it’s not an all or nothing proposition. Just as organizations need a good mix of structure and fluidity, they need a mix of sustaining and improving on the things that are necessary and learning new things. And, yes, I’d say that there is some correlation between these, where the infrastructure will typically benefit from increased efficiency (LSS, CPI) and operations needs the ability to learn and grow (KM).

Unfortunately, “all or nothing” seems to be the default approach of many as they try to improve an organization. But just as the means of keeping the human body healthy is different and distinct from learning a new language, the processes and tools we implement to keep our organizational infrastructure healthy differ drastically from the way we interact with our operational environment.

A better analogy may be the training of an athlete. The athlete trains both body and mind together towards a single goal, building up from perfecting the basics (LSS), learning how to combine the basics into effective combinations (CPI), and ultimately pulling on this past training and effective interpretation of the environment in which they are performing to achieve something they had not done before (KM).

How would you describe the differences between KM, LSS, and CPI?

 

The rules (updated)

Learn the rules (and how and why they came about).

Understand the consequences of not following the rules. And of following them.

Always follow the rules (except when you shouldn’t).

When a rule needs to be changed, change it.

Our causes can’t see their effects

Cynefin frameworkI’ve been interested in, and trying to understand, the Cynefin framework for many years. Without much success, I might add. However, I recently saw an Intro to Cynefin video from Dave Snowden at Cognitive Edge that has helped me put the final pieces of my understanding in place.

Actually, looking back at my first attempt to use the framework to look at an issue, back in a November 2008 look at the response to the global economic crisis, it looks like I may have understood it better than I thought I did. But then I started taking it places I don’t think it was ever meant to go. Continue reading

Learning s’more skills at Wordcamp St. Louis

Over the weekend I had the chance – the pleasure – to attend Wordcamp St. Louis 2012. I met some great people, doing incredible things with WordPress, and had a chance to learn and be inspired. Although the whole day was great, three of the talks stand out for me:

Most generally informative: Chris Miller (@iDoNotes) gave us the down and dirty on using WordPress as a podcasting/videocasting platform, blasting us with way more information than I thought could be squeezed into the 45 minute session. No doubt he had to leave some stuff out, but it was a comprehensive intro that put those interested on the right path for learning more. Especially if they remember to visit the resource bundle he put together for us.

Most specifically useful: Joshua Ray (@pdxOllo)  and Alex Rodriguez (@arod2634) presented Best Practices and Admin Customization, the latter which has been on my mind of late for a current project. Comprehensive coverage and plenty of code examples (I’ll post the links later, I seem to have misplaced them). Looking forward to digging in.

Most inspirational: Although the WordPress specific parts of Reshma Chamberlin’s (@reshmacc) talk on design were impressive themselves, what impressed – and inspired – me the most was her and her partner’s philosophy of design. And not just design, really, but how to chase your dreams, make a difference, and to do things right. (Sounds so easy, doesn’t it.) Check out the B&C Designers site to see for yourself. (And thanks, Reshma, for the book recommendation: Disciplined Dreaming is next up on my shelf!)