KSS1: Why its an issue and common errors

December 22, 2009

silos_stoccaggio_21.jpg Apparently my Ballerinas and Aircraft Carriers post gained some interest at ministerial level in Wales last week, and I was asked to expand on the subject of cross silo knowledge sharing. Now as it happens this was also the subject of my keynote to KM Asia in Singapore (slides here but no podcast I am afraid) so the subject was already on my mind. I also spoke about it, together with more general knowledge management issues on the 5th in Farnborough, and that has both slides and a podcast.

Now this is one of the big subjects and it comes up all the time in nearly every client I spend any time with, and those I don’t! So, in what has become a fairly substantial post I want to look at some of the reasons why this is seen an issue, some basic facts that need to be taken into account and then some solutions, or rather methods and techniques to allow solutions to evolve. That latter point is key, solutions to complex problems emerge from the application of sound theory, not from simplistic recipes based on bast practice.

The goals of cross silo knowledge sharing are noble ones (said with a tinge of irony I admit). My own experience distilled from multiple conversations over the years reveal the following:

  • A concern that necessary information is not taken into account, to wit, department A is not aware of information held by department B that would make a material difference to a key decision. It can also lead to absurdities in criminal justice and elsewhere in which opportunities are lost and harm is all to frequently done in consequence.
  • A variation of the above underpins initiatives to (for example) integrate all health records in a single database. Multiple records, the need to manually carry, transmit or reproduce material is seen as not only inefficient, but also results in reduced service to the patient.
  • A further variation is found in sales and other environments, here two people visit the same client unaware of each others actions.
  • A real concern that good practice developed in one area is not appreciated or understood elsewhere within the same organisation or, in the case of Government related organisations. This is sometimes characterised as reinventing the wheel, although all to often its not knowing that the wheel has been invented.
  • A failure to allow for innovative combination and variation of issues, ideas, solutions and problems from within different silos. This is more ephemeral that the others, but there is a palpable sense of missed opportunity in many organisations.
  • In Government, and a lesser extent in industry, a sense that the citizen or customer has to navigate tortuous pathways through the organisations bureaucracy with increasing degrees of frustration with obviously negative consequences.

Any one of these would justify investment in finding a solution and many have been tried. In fact you would think people would learn from the fact that this has been a reported problem without a solution, despite multiple attempts over thousands of years. You can find similar complains, albeit in more eloquent language in Roman and Greek literature.

The two common mistakes in finding solutions are:

  • Assuming that the issue is to get people to share information. This can involve asking people to publish material to common databases, give common access to departmental information systems, search out practice from other groups.
  • Attempting to admonish people for failures to share, defining ideal behaviours, creating targets for knowledge sharing (especially with monetary rewards) and generally blaming the lack of a knowledge sharing culture for the manifold and various sins of your employees.

The first of these assumes that the problem is one of information flow, and that humans process information. The second assumes that the problem is a behavioral one. Now the information processing model of the human brain and behavioral theories of motivation have dominated organisational thinking for some time, even though their basis in cognitive science and systems theory is weak. So what do we know? What basic principles should we take into consideration in finding a solution?

to be continued …

Note: in practice knowing I had to get this one done has help up other blogs so I have been absent for most of December from the blogosphere. I am going to publish in parts to get things back on the road. It will probably end up as 3/4 blogs spread over the next week

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