Microsoft, Collaboration, Competition and how not to create a Knowledge-sharing Culture.

Steve Ballmer waves goodbye So Steve Ballmer leaves Microsoft within the next year, and his epitaphs are already being cooked-up by many commentators.

Most are lukewarm at best.

I had the privilege to share a platform with Steve at a conference in the late 90's. He was presenting Microsoft's collaboration technologies at a groupware (remember that term?) event.

Unfortunately, whoever prepared the laptop for their CEO's presentation forgot to plug in the power supply.  10 minutes from the end of the presentation, there was an awkward moment when the "5% power remaining" message rudely appeared on the screen and a frantic Microsoft employee materialised  at the foot of the podium asking to plug in the cable.   He was waved  dismissively away by Steve, who declared to the audience that it would be a good test of the battery life.   The audience stopped paying attention to the content of the presentation, and started wondering with increasingly bated breath whether the battery would make it to the end.

Happily, it lasted the distance.

I'm not so sure what happened to that Microsoft employee though.

Steve kindly provided a written endorsement for "Learning to Fly" which, at the time, was a bit of a coup for Geoff and me.  However,  reading the more recent articles about the culture of competition in Microsoft, I'm wondering whether he made it as far as the chapter on creating the right cultural environment for knowledge-sharing.

This week, the  Washington Post  carries an interesting article describing how Microsoft's stack-ranking damaged collaboration:

while forced rankings can boost employee performance immediately after the system is introduced, the gains fall over time, with people more focused on competing with each other than collaborating. revisited the fable of the two men running away from a bear.  One stops to put on running shoes; the other says, don't be crazy - you can't run faster than a bear.  He retorts, I don't need to - I just need to run faster than you.

So while Google was encouraging its employees to spend 20 percent of their time developing ideas that excited them personally, Ballmer was inadvertently encouraging his to spend a good chunk of their time playing office politics. Why try to outrun the bear when you can just tie your co-workers' shoelaces?

There were even cases of the most able engineers not wanting to be placed on projects with other high-calibre staff because they knew that they would be force-ranked against them at the year end.

Google's "grouplets" aren't the only knowledge-sharing contrast to Microsoft.  BP's T-shaped Management approach (80% of your time should be spent on your objectives, 20% collaborating and sharing to support someone else's objectives) was well documented in a much-read HBR article "T-Shaped Managers, Knowledge Management's Next Generation."

My favourite current example is Schlumberger's approach to professional development which requires technical  staff pursuing recognition as principals or fellows (the two highest positions on the technical career ladder) to have led a community of practice, to which they are democratically elected by members of that community.  As a result, knowledge-sharing and collaborative behaviours directly influence technical promotion.  You can't be individually brilliant and make it to the top - you have to also be socially and behaviourally mature.

All of this feels like a thousand miles from forced ranking bell curves, and it reminds me of the importance of KM partnering with and influencing HR and Talent Management - something which is still relatively unusual.

Let's hope that Steve Ballmer's successor sees the connection between performance management and knowledge management, and executes a stack (ranking) dump!

Lessons Lost

Following on from my last post comparing operational effectiveness with knowledge effectiveness, I’m reminded of the “Choke Model” from my BP days.  The choke model was a way of modelling production losses at every stage in the process, for example during the refining of crude oil to produce the raw materials and refined products which customers want to buy. Starting with 100%, every step in the process was analysed, and the biggest “chokes” were identified and targeted for improvement.  There is a belief in BP that the total of all of these small percentage production losses across all of its refineries was the equivalent to having a brand new refinery lying dormant!  Now when you focus it like that, it’s one big financial prize to get after.

I think there’s a similar perspective that we could take looking at the way in which knowledge is lost during our efforts to “refine it” and transfer it to customers.  Sometimes we are so upbeat about “lessons learned” and “learning before, during and after”, that we start believing that we’ve got organizational learning cracked.  Well I don’t believe that we have!

Let’s take a walk through an organizational learning cycle and see where some of the “chokes” in our knowledge management processes might be.

Imagine that you’re working with a team who have just had an outstanding success, completing a short project. There’s a big “bucket of knowledge” there, but from the moment the project has completed, that bucket is starting to spill or leak its lessons.  (On a longer project, the leakage will start before the project has ended, but let’s keep it simple for now and say that memories are still fresh).

So from this moment, your lessons start to leak.  The team will be disbanded, team members join other projects, and people start re-writing the history of their own involvement (particularly as they approach performance appraisal time!).


Let's have a project review or "retrospect" to capture the lessons.  Good – but not a “watertight” process for learning everything that might be needed.

  • Are the right people in the room?  Team?  Customers? Sponsor? Suppliers?  Partners?
  • Are you asking the right questions? Enough questions?  The questions which others would have asked?
  • Are people responding thoughtfully?  Honestly? Are people holding back?  Is there politics or power at play which is influencing the way people respond?  Is the facilitator doing their job well?  Are they reading the room,  pressing for detail, for recommendations, for actions?


And then we try to write-up this rich set of conversations into a lessons learned report.  However hard we try, we are going to lose emotion, detail, connections, nuances, the nature of the interactions and relationships – and all too often we lose a lot more in our haste to summarise. Polanyi and Snowden had something to say about that.


And what happens to that report?  Is it lost in the bowels of SharePoint?  Is it tagged and indexed to maximise discovery?  Is it trapped on someone’s hard drive, or distributed ineffectively by email to “the people we thought would need it”?


And of course, just because it’s stored, it doesn’t mean it’s shared! Sharing requires someone to receive it – which means that they have to want it.  Are the potential users of this knowledge thirsty? Curious?  Eager to learn?  Encouraged to learning rather than reinventing?  Infected with “Not invented here”?  Believe that their new project is completely different? Willing to root around in SharePoint to find those lessons? Willing to use the report as a prompt to speak with the previous team, and to invite them to a Peer Assist to share more of their learning?

Leak! Leak! Leak!

So you see, it’s a messy, leaky, lossy business,  and I think we need to be honest about that.  Honest with ourselves as KM professionals, and honest with our colleagues and customers.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work hard to address the leaks and losses - quite the reverse.  We should be anticipating and responding to each one.  Whether that means having a “knowledge plan” throughout the lifetime of a project, engaging leaders to set the right expectations, providing support/training/coaching/facilitation/tools etc.   There’s a lot we can do to help organisations get so much better at this.  They might not save the equivalent of a Refinery’s worth of value – but they might just make their workplaces more fulfilling, increase staff engagement and reduce their dependence on external consultants.

I think it starts with the business answering the question:


“Just how valuable do we really believe this knowledge is?”



If you look at the picture at the top of this blog and imagine it’s happening on a beach somewhere, then it’s just part of the fun in an environment of abundance.  You can fill the bucket up again and again...

If the picture was taken in a drought-stricken part of the world – an environment of scarcity – well that’s a different story.

BP Oil Spill, Knowledge Management and HBR

Tom Davenport posted an interesting blog in the HBR site this week, entitled: If Only BP Knew Now What it Knew Then where he asserted a relationship between the BP Oil spill, and the reduction of its knowledge management programme.

It's something which Geoff and I have receive many questions on, so I thought it might be helpful to cross-post our responses to Tom's blog here:~

As the other author of “Learning to Fly”, let me add to what Geoff has written, which I agree wholeheartedly with.

It’s been desperately, desperately sad to see the unnecessary loss of life. Tragic to see the environmental impact. Shocking to see the commercial impact. Disturbing, yet understandable, to see the media, political and public reaction.

Being good at knowledge management doesn’t make you immune from making a poor decision, but being put on a pedestal for long enough can give you vertigo. I’m sure Toyota, another veteran of Knowledge Management would agree. As Larry wrote – all that any of us can do is work to improve the odds. I believe that BP’s knowledge management and organisational learning efforts have diminished in recent years, and what was once an almost instinctive culture of learning and sharing between peers has become diluted. I think Tom’s allowing himself some poetic licence in his use of the word ‘relic’, but I don’t disagree with the thrust of his argument. Like Geoff, I’ve been away from BP for too long to offer an informed view as to how much sharing and learning was going on around its operations at the time of the events in Tom’s post.

Clearly something went very wrong.

Hopefully we will learn the what, why, when, how and who of what went wrong over the coming months or years of review and inquiry. Perhaps we’ll find that there are positive knowledge-sharing and collaboration stories which also emerge, showing how competitors, partners and individuals joined with BP to work to remedy the situation. Possibly we’ll discover will be some Apollo 13 paragraphs within this Challenger story? After the final traces of crude have been dispersed, the food-chain has purged itself of the pollutant effects, the rightful compensation paid and livelihoods restored – what will the legacy of learning be for the oil industry? I really hope that the genuine learning is surfaced and shared, and isn’t drowned out by the noise of the legal machinery.

TS Elliot famously wrote: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" Perhaps today he would have added: “Where is the learning we have lost in litigation.”

Now that might make another interesting article, Tom.

Geoff Parcell

I am one of the authors of “Learning to Fly” and I have been watching the response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with a mixture of anguish, sadness and concern. It is almost 9 years since the first edition of “Learning to Fly” was published, and more than 5 years since I left employment with BP, following a period of secondment to the United Nations AIDS agency UNAIDS. I don’t feel in a position to judge whose fault it was, whether the response was adequate, or whether sharing and learning was adequate within BP. I’ll leave that to others.

However there are three main themes on the topic of knowledge management that seem relevant to this story:

1. What knowledge and information are we basing our views on? 2. What sort of environment has been created for collaborating and learning? 3. How well have the risks been managed?

Let’s deal with these in turn.

1. Most of the information we have to base our views on are directly from the media - television, the internet and the press. My Member of Parliament in the UK, David Heath, recently wrote a press article on the future of political reporting.

“I am very worried about the standards of political and other reporting. If we need new politics, then perhaps we need a new journalism too.

Much that is written in the national newspapers is sloppy and under-researched. A lot of it comes from press releases and chats over lunch rather than looking for facts. As a result, much of it is drivel. On top of that you have a layer of unconcealed prurience masquerading as incisive investigation, concentrating on celebrity and trivia over substance, and the whole edifice looks remarkably shallow.”

I have some sympathy with this point of view. The press has moved from reporting news events to providing instant analysis and answers, assigning blame, searching out the high numbers (of casualties, demonstrators or barrels of oil spilt.) Accuracy is not the aim, finding the highest number someone is prepared to state is. In addition, the internet reinforces extreme views by replication, which has the effect of seeming more convincing even though there is no more information.

At the same time BP is providing its own information - video feeds of the well head, video explanations of each attempt to cap the well and stop the flow. Some think there is a bias to that information.

We make our judgements based on the information provided, coupled with our own knowledge, biases and values.

2. One of the biggest barriers to learning the lessons from mistakes is the litigious society we have created. Learning and sharing takes place in a trusting environment. So many incidents - from train crashes, to fires, to conflict situations, to explosions -are subject to litigation that people are afraid to open their mouths. Even for minor car crashes our insurance companies instruct us not to admit liability even when our instinct is to explain our actions and assumptions to others involved. There are few reports of collaboration for this response. BP did acknowledge cooperation between various government agencies and itself. Other oil companies have provided knowledge, experts, equipment and advice to support. I’d have liked to have seen much more cooperation especially with the US government to fix the problem and clean up first, then learn the lessons, and only then address the issue of who pays and who if any is negligent. What I saw and read was a mix of assigning blame, politicking and maintaining reputation; hardly the environment conducive to listening and learning from each other. What are the chances of really learning the lessons so that we can prevent something like this occurring again?

3. We need to manage the risks and for that we need knowledge. As individuals we rarely avoid risks altogether else we’d never get out of bed. We all handle risks not avoid them. When we assess the risk we judge the probability of occurrence, the impact if it happens and the amount of control of influence we have to mitigate the risk. It does come down to judgement and that judgement comes down to having the relevant knowledge.

Malcolm Gladwell in “Blink” shows examples where only a small amount of knowledge is required to make a decision. People who are risk averse often seek more and more knowledge rather than make a judgement. We need less knowledge than we think to make a decision, rather we need the right balance of knowledge and judgement according to our tolerance to risk. What concerned me was not that BP took risks but the response plan to mitigate the risk did not seem to be operational.

The basic principles of Knowledge Management outlined in “Learning to Fly” are as relevant as ever and are being applied within and between many organizations around the world. It is the application of the techniques that matters and the actions taken once you have the knowledge.