Knowledge and Collaboration - Mixing our Drinks

I have had the privilege of working with  over 100 client organisations over past 9 years. (Where did that time go?) In each case they have their own definition of Knowledge Management, often their own label, and usually a specific cocktail of disciplines, processes and tools which they choose to place under the KM "umbrella".

Sometimes the decisions above reflect the specific needs of the organisation, and other times that reflect the focus, background and place in the organisation of any centralised KM resources. Often it's a mixture of both, Rum and Coke? Gin and Tonic? Whiskey and Soda?

Some of the pairings  I've seen include "Knowledge and Innovation" (R&D oriented organisations) "Knowledge and Information" (that's a common one in the Public Sector), "Business Improvement & Knowledge" (manufacturing), "Knowledge and Insight" (professional services) and "Knowledge and Learning" (several sectors) and in one oil and gas company: "Knowledge and Collaboration".


Each of these combinations gives an interesting twist to knowledge management, and I'm surprised that I don't see "Knowledge and Collaboration" in combination more often.  It's always seemed like an ideal blend to me, as it encourages us to think about the practicalities of changing working practices, motivating people to work together in different forms of partnership (see Collaborative Advantage by Elizabeth Lank), and in ensuring that the right conversations happen between the right people, using the most effective supportive technology whenever the need arises.

And if you need to be reminded of what that looks like when it's not done well, then this brilliant "Real Conference Call" parody by Trip & Tyler will hit the spot.

We've all been there!

How The Beatles Share Knowledge!

How the Beatles Share Knowledge! I'm currently co-facilitating a series of consortium meetings with my friend and colleague Elizabeth Lank  for six leading organisations, all well known and well-respected for their KM capability.

One of the more light-hearted activities in preparation for the next meeting is for each of the participants to select a suitable "track to share knowledge by", which has generated some fascinating insights, as well as providing us with a background soundtrack for some of the activities we have planned.

One band which cropped up repeatedly was the Beatles, which got me thinking, and digging through my own collection of Beatles singles - and I thought I'd share the outcome here (there and everywhere...)

What did Da Vinci know about Knowledge Management?

My post on “What did Einstein know about KM” last week seemed to go down well, so I have continued my search for KM musings from great figures. This week, we’ll hear from the Leonardo Da Vinci.  It wasn’t until I read Gelb’s ambitiously titled book How to think like Leonardo do Vinci that I appreciated just how multi-talented he was.  Painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, writer and no mean athlete  - you name it, he could do it.  Curious then that one of his quotations (one of the few which I disagree with) states “As every divided kingdom falls, so every mind divided between many studies confounds and saps itself.“.  I guess you can make yourself an exception  when you’re the archetypal Renaissance Man Polymath. I wonder what he would have made of the ubiquitous availability of information and possibilities which we enjoy today?

So my curated top-ten quotes from Da Vinci will take us on a journey through different facets of KM: from knowledge acquisition, the way our perceptions filter knowledge, the superiority of expertise over opinions, the power of learning, seeing and making connections, the challenge and value of expressing knowledge simply and the criticality of seeing knowledge applied.

Yes, I would have had him on my KM Team.

  • “The knowledge of all things is possible.”
  • “The acquisition of knowledge is always of use to the intellect, because it may thus drive out useless things and retain the good.”
  • “All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.”
  • “The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”
  • “Experience is the mother of all Knowledge. Wisdom is the daughter of experience.”
  • “Although nature commences with reason and ends in experience it is necessary for us to do the opposite, that is to commence with experience and from this to proceed to investigate the reason.”
  • “Learning is the only thing the mind never exhausts, never fears, and never regrets.”
  • “Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses - especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
  • “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
  • “Knowing is not enough; we must apply.”


I couldn’t find a suitable infographic to illustrate these (I'm sure Leonardo would have produced a very good one if he'd not been so busy), but the book I mentioned earlier insightfully looks at the seven different deliberate practices he drew upon.  They’re an excellent set of frames through which to consider our approaches to life and work.

How does your Knowledge Management practice measure up against these?

  1. Curiosita:
  Approaching life with insatiable curiosity and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.
  2. Dimostrazione:
  Committing to test knowledge through experience, persistence and a willingness to learn from mistakes.
  3. Sensazione:
  Continually refining the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.
  4. Sfumato:  Embracing ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty.
  5. Arte/Scienza
:  Balancing science and art, logic and imagination - ‘whole-brain thinking’.
  6. Corporalita:
  Cultivating grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise.
  7. Connessione:  Recognizing and appreciating the interconnectedness of all things – ‘systems thinking’.

Leo, you're not just on the team; you can write the KM Strategy!

What's wrong with Lessons Learned? Part 4.

Over the past two weeks, we’ve looked at three of the inherent weaknesses of “Lessons Learned” and the way the label is perceived:  Passiveness, Negativity and Ambiguity.We will move onto a more positive note soon, but before we do, I want to introduce one further weakness:  Bad Teachers.


At this point I want to make it clear that I have seen the Diaz/Timberlake/Segel film of the same name, and that they are 92 minutes of my life that I would like to have back! However, the image was too good not to use.

What do I mean by bad teaching?

In the educational sense of the word, a lesson is deliberately crafted and designed in order to teach.  I can say from experience of being married to a teacher, that every hour of teaching she delivers requires another hour to cover preparation, marking and feedback to the learners.

Lessons are carefully formulated to take account of learning styles, levels of capability and connections with other parts of the syllabus. They evaluate understanding, they build on prior knowledge, they include references to further exploration and they have measurable outcomes.

Our bullet point lessons look a bit lame now, don’t they?

“Ah, but we’re not in the business of education”, I hear you say. Well, perhaps we should make education more of our business!

There’s a George Bernard Shaw quote which teachers hate - my wife included.  You’ve probably heard it.

Those who can, do.  Those who can’t, teach.

But there’s a corollary to this, which I’d like to add:

Those who can do, often can’t teach.

And that’s often our problem.

A project team successfully learns something from a project review meeting.  A lot of their learning is internalized, and the “lesson” they write down on that flipchart makes sense to them.

But it doesn’t make sense to the next team who will be using it. Just because I’ve learned something doesn’t make it a lesson for everyone else when I write it down.

Imagine my wife visiting an Egyptology exhibition and giving the brochure to her class on Monday morning whilst announcing “Hey class 4, this is what I learned about the Egyptians over the weekend – why don’t you take a look!”It’s not what she learned that matters, it’s what she teaches.

So how do you prepare a lesson which becomes a good teacher?

  • Think about the customer for the knowledge.  Who will be reading this?  What questions would they have?
  • Consider the context.  In what situations would this lesson be relevant?  Is it specific or general recommendation?  A good practice? Something to bear in mind?  Something to avoid?
  • Provide the back-story. Help the reader to understand the circumstances which gave rise to your experience to help them make sense of what you learned and make a judgement on its applicability in their context.
  • Illustrate the lesson with artifacts, images, documents, quotes, videos, references and links to provide a richness to the learning experience.
  • Don't separate the lesson from it's source. Ensure that the person behind the story behind the lesson is clearly referenced.  Include a photo and full contact details.
  • Show where it fits with other lessons.  Signpost other relevant lessons and content by drawing together related content into a "knowledge asset".
  • Keep it fresh. Revisit the content periodically to ensure that it is still current, relevant, and illustrated with the best examples.

That way, we can be those who can do, can learn and can teach.

Follow @chris_collison

What's wrong with Lessons Learned? Part 3.

In the last few posts we've been exploring what's wrong with the way we position "lessons learned".  In part one, we looked at the passive problem of people's tendency to focus on the lessons rather than the activity of learning.  In part two, we looked at the negative associations of the term 'lessons', and the impact that this can have. In part three, I want to look at the problem of ambiguity.

The label "lessons learned" trips off the tongue easily, but that doesn't mean that everybody hears it in the same way. Learning appears in more than one place on an learning loop, so there is plenty of room here for confusion. It can be an output, an input, or an agent of change. Here is one, very simple question you can ask to check whats going on in your lessons learned process.

Who is learning?

Here are potential three recipients of the learning - let's imagine we give a badge of recognition in each case:


It could be person or team who had the experience, who completed the activity and then reflected upon it.

In this case, learning is an output.


It could be a function or department who learn from a team's experience and make a change to a process, policy, standard or working practice -  thereby reducing the risk or improving the prospects for everyone who follows. In this case, learning is an agent of change to the structural capital of the organisation. It becomes an embedded inheritance for all who follow.


It could be another team about to commence a new activity who are learning from the experience of a previous team. In this case, learning is an input. This input could proactively pushed to another team, or pulled by the new team, through a peer assist, for example.

It's important to recognise that all of of these are valid and desirable outcomes , or there's a danger that we allow learning from lessons to be a slightly self-indulgent team huddle.  Worse still, we focus on building the library of lessons rather than actioning the change that the learning should produce, see my earlier shaggy dog story about selling a BMW.

MAKE award winners ConocoPhillips and Syngenta both recognise the need to lubricate all parts of the learning and sharing cycle with appropriate senior recognition.

ConocoPhillips have their 4G awards:  Give (sharing knowledge), Grab (applying someone else's knowledge), Gather (consolidating knowledge), Guts (sharing learning from failure).

Agri-business Syngenta loved this, and created their own TREE awards along very similar lines:  Transfer, Re-use, Embed and [share a difficult] Experience.

In each case, senior leaders are involved in judging and celebrating the best examples of these essential behaviours, and the teams or individuals concerned receive a physical recognition award.  It's very clear who is learning, who is sharing, what is improving and where the value is - all of which is the best antidote for ambiguity.

Syngenta TREE award
Syngenta TREE award

Downton Abbey, what you know, and what you're known for.

Earlier this month I took my family to visit Highclere Castle in Berkshire.  It is beautiful Victorian Castle set in 1000 acres of parkland, and is home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. It is best known though, for its role in the TV period drama Downton Abbey which has gripped not just the British viewing audience, but audiences around the world, and particularly in the US.  It’s become quite a phenomenon, nominated for four Golden Globes.


As we took the tour of the inside of Highclere Castle, we were expecting to see merchandise and references to the TV series wherever we looked, given the worldwide acclaim for Downton Abbey. “This is the room where Mr Pamuk died…”  “This is the spot where Lord Grantham kissed Jane…” We couldn’t have been more wrong!   It would be quite possible to tour the entire castle and completely miss its starring role in the TV series!  Surely a missed opportunity by the owners, the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon?

What they did have on display in the huge basement was a large Egyptology exhibition which told the story of their great grandfather, Lord Carnarvon who, together with Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.  That momentous discovery in the Valley of the Kings is the real story of Highclere Castle, and we got the feeling that the current Earl and Countess of Carnarvon were a little indignant that the vast majority of visitors to Highclere Castle are only there because of a piece of engaging TV fiction!

It’s a perfect illustration of the difference between “what you know” and “what you are known for”.

Throughout our organisations, there are hundreds and thousands of people who have real stories to tell from their past knowledge, experiences and roles – yet they are only known for their current job title.  How do we enable this past experience and know-how, which often lies as buried as Tutankhamun’s tomb, to be rediscovered?

As knowledge professionals, this should be one of our priorities.

  • One way is to enable the creation of internal profiles which encourage employees to describe the interests and past experiences as well as their current position – and to embed their use in the habits of the workforce. Many organisations do this very well, notably MAKE award winners BG Group and Schlumberger.
  • Another approach, often complimentary, is to draw out the experience of others through a collective response to a business issue for example via a “jam” session.  I was speaking with Deloitte in the UK last week, and they described the success of their “Yamjam” sessions which often surface knowledge from surprising locations.
  • The creation of open networks, and the provision of easy mechanisms for staff to join networks of their interest also makes it easy to mobilise knowledge and experience from wherever it lies.
  • Finally, the use of knowledge cafes, world cafes and other free-flowing conversational processes will set the stage for connections and contributions which might otherwise never surface.

These approaches all enable knowledge and experience from the present (what you are known for) and the past (what you know)  to be shared and reused.

Not only would the fictitious butler Carson approve, but also the very real Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.


Is this Knowledge Management's most effective tool?

There are a lot of KM-related words beginning with the letter C.

Connection, Collection, Collaboration, Curation, Conversation, Communities, Culture…

There’s one which you might not have thought of, but which I think is pretty important.

Here’s a clue.

Department of Coffee and Social Affairs, Leather Lane

That's right, Coffee.  One of knowledge management’s most powerful tools.

Not so sure?  Let me share with you a couple of quotes from middle managers in a smart, knowledgeable organization which can spend over £1bn annually on major programmes and projects.  I was interviewing a range of staff to help them create an Organisational Learning Strategy, and the C-word kept coming up:

"Coffee conversations happen all the time – our networking keeps us alive.  People say we’re a process-driven organization, I just do not agree.  We’re relationship-driven."

"Do people regularly go into a Lessons database  - ”I’m just about to start a project, I wonder what’s there?”.  I can tell you that they absolutely won’t!  They might have a coffee conversation, but the learning won’t come from the document – it’ll come from “Blimey, someone told me you did this before, is there anything you can give me tips on?”

We're talking here about a conversation in an area around the coffee machine or in-company Starbucks, rather than coffee taken back to a desk. So why does a conversation over coffee work where formal KM tools and techniques fail?

  1. It's neutral. It feels like you're not working! 

    Coffee is a social activity.  It's something we would chose to do for enjoyment.  Asking to talk something over with a coffee is a sugar-coated request which most people accept without another thought. Especially if they're not buying.

  2. You get to talk and you get to listen. It's not often you see people balancing coffee on the edge of laptops and communicating with each other through PowerPoint.  Far more common is a straightforward conversation, complete with the eye contact which PowerPoint and flipcharts often rob us of...

  3. It's transparent. Others see you talk. Having a coffee with someone is  a pretty visible way to share knowledge.  Many of our interactions are semi-private email, telephone or instant message exchanges. Whilst that's not a problem as such, an e-mail-only exchange takes away the serendipitous "Oh, I saw you having a coffee with Jean  yesterday, I didn't know you knew her - we used to work together..." connections which might follow.

  4. It makes you pause, and go slow. "Warning, contents may be hot." You can't drink a coffee quickly.  There's a forced slow-down of the exchange and time between sips for the conversation to bounce between the participants.  It prevents "drinking from a fire-hydrant syndrome!"

  5. Others stop and talk whilst you're in the queue. Double serendipity!  Not only might you be seen having the conversation, but it's very common for  one of both of a pair of knowledge-sharers waiting the coffee line to connect with others  whilst they wait. You don't get that in emails!

  6. It's a culture-spanner. Coffee is the second most used product in the world after oil, and it is the world's second most popular drink, after water. That makes it pretty much a universal currency for buying knowledge-sharing time in any country and any culture.

  7. It stimulates your brain. Coffee doesn't just keep you awake, it may literally make you smarter as well. Caffeine's primary mechanism in the brain is blocking the effects of an inhibitory neurotransmitter called Adenosine. By doing this, it actually increases neuronal firing in the brain and the release of other neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. Many controlled trials have examined the effects of caffeine on the brain, demonstrating that caffeine can improve mood, reaction time, memory, vigilance and general cognitive function.

  8. It's very cost effective! Set-up costs might extend to some cafe-style tables, but the ongoing operational costs are unlikely to be  a problem.

So there we have it.  The humble, but very effective cup of coffee.

What other KM tool or technique spans all cultures, balances speaking and listening, slows the world down enough for sharing to soak in, encourages serendipity and openness, makes you smarter and more receptive, costs a pittance and doesn't even feel like working?

Mine's a caramel macchiato...


What's your favourite flavour of KM?

I’m a big fan of organizational network analysis.  I think it’s one of knowledge management’s unsung heroes.I don’t know of any other KM or OD tools which can be as informative, revealing and engaging for clients, from a small amount of research input. I’m in the middle of an assignment now with a business who are looking at how one of their business functions really works when it comes to understanding how expertise is distributed, how technical advice is requested and how it flows, and how new ideas surface and are nurtured.  This particular  client is an agri-chemicals business, and has led to some interesting discussions as we have worked together to understand clusters of connections and outliers.  One of the more humourous moments for me was when one of the members of the team loudly exclaimed “look at that isolated cluster over there – they must be the vegetables!”   Needless to say, he was referring to people in the vegetable-related business stream…

Coincidentally, later that day my daughter, who is a big fan of food science, showed me a fascinating Ahn Yong-Yeol article from which used network analysis to illustrate the connections between different ingredients used across thousands of recipes, based on their chemical similarities.  "This looks like those pictures you create, Dad" she said to me.

Isn’t this cool? (Click to enlarge)


A more interactive infographic based on this data is provided in Scientific American here (snapshot below). The data is sorted to show the foods who share the most chemical compounds with others towards the top. Roast beef proves to be the food that does this the most, with strong chemical overlaps with coffee, soya-bean, peanut, beer, wheat bread and butter. In a way, it's the grand-daddy of flavour.   So next time you go into a pub, have some peanuts with your beer, some bread to start, with a tasty steak followed by a coffee – then chemically speaking, you’ve had a whole less flavour variety than you might think!


The social-food-analysis research gets more interesting when they look at the data through a regional lens.  It turns out that the North American palate prefers foods with strong flavour overlaps (steak with a coffee rub anyone?), whereas the East Asian palate prefers food with lower overlaps (mmmm, prawns with lemon…)


So where am I going with this?

Well, I see parallels with assumptions we make when we bring people together to share knowledge. Whether formally through structured networks and  communities, or informally as people cluster around content, discussion and other attractors – my suspicion is that by default, we tend to align and gather with people with similar experience rather than different experience.  In the metaphorical world of food chemistry, that means our knowledge-sharing is built on the assumption of a North American palate, rather than an East Asian one.

This is why a well-planned peer assist will include sufficient diversity to avoid group-think, and why the design of communities of practice should thoroughly explore their purpose before they start recruiting members.  A community focused on continuous improvement and giving and receiving technical help will benefit from being built from members with the same field of expertise - their shared practice.

I often use this simple model when helping organizations characterise their networks:


Communities often move along the axis at the bottom, shifting their mode from ad-hoc help and continuous improvement, to phases when the group is engaged in delivering something together (a policy, a white-paper, a set of recommendations, a good practice guide). This requires a temporary shift in leadership style, from social facilitation towards project management, but the membership is broadly unchanged. If the purpose of the community is re-defined as innovation or the generation of ideas, then you will probably want to extend the ingredients of the group to include people with a greater range of experience and different perspectives.

So if we see ourselves as trusted organisational chefs (I quite like that analogy), then there are times when we need to satisfy the established tastes of our customers, and there will times when we need to educate their palates with new fusion dishes too.