Just over a week ago on the ActKM forum I was asked a set of questions by Kelly Green about how you get people to share failure. This is a key area for KM; avoidance of failure is a more successful strategy in evolutionary terms than imitation of success and best practice systems (in my experience) rarely get the same attention as a good failure story. OK, so the human race has evolved as a bunch of malicious gossips (what stories spread fastest in your organisation?), but there is a purpose to it. We learn more form failure, or rather tolerated failure; possibly also undiscovered failure but I am less sure about that.
I thought the questions interesting, so here they are with my answers.
QUESTION~How do you convince people to share failures?
There are a variety of techniques here. The key is not to ask people to share failure directly, that only works in a high trust environment and those are rare and deeply contextual. i.e. firefighters will share failure (Weick & Sutcliffe), but that is in the context of their work. You can only get a similar behaviour if you create the same context and few companies are prepared to burn the office down every morning at the request of the KM team.
In Cognitive Edge use a variety of techniques for this. They all work with SenseMaker™ but its not essential, on low volumes they are all appropriate. I’ll pick on three to illustrate the point.
QUESTION ~How do you develop a culture wherin it is ok to fail if the people have past experiences saying that failure is not ok?
You don’t. It hardly ever happens, and only in special circumstances. Executives who tell you they have created such an environment are delusional and starting to believe their own myths. I have know some cases, Lend Lease was one several years ago within its engineering community, but that was based on inspired leadership and a culture that had evolved over several years. Its not something that can be designed and it will always have limits.
The techniques I listed above are designed to work with reality, rather than try and create an ideal world. I always say when people ask (and they frequently do) “How do I create a knowledge sharing culture?” that they are asking the wrong question. You can’t create such a thing in a world where ,at an organisational level, failure is punished and success rewarded. Within small trusted groups sharing happens naturally, and there are limits to such trust. Such groups are created accidentally as people work on projects, but there are complexity based approaches, such as Social Network Stimulation (SNS which can increase the density and occurrence of such groups in a more controlled way. This involves managing the channels for knowledge flow, rather than managing the knowledge itself. It is based on the assumption that if I can get everyone in the organisation to within three degrees of separation of everyone else based on having worked together then most KM problems will solve themselves.
The final point here, is that the use of narrative based techniques in the field under fire, capturing knowledge in fragments is more effective at capturing key learnings than in reflective environments such as lessons learnt documents and after action reviews. Here the process of reflection will distort what actually happened. This also allows you to capture learning in the forms of photographs and allegorical references to YouTube sites etc which can be remarkably powerful.
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