Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning – How does your firm shape up?

I was going to publish a different post today, but the excitement of having responses to a questionnaire got the better of me.

This week I put up the first release candidate after doing beta testing of a KM/OL climate survey questionnaire designed to measure the Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning beliefs and activity in an organization.

The sample frame was mainly KM/OL people, so there are some inherent biases that limit the degree to which the results could be generalized to the whole working population and all firms – one would for instance expect KMers to be active in social networking, to use Twitter, and probably have a blog or a web page. However, there are still many aspects which would be generalizable and which indeed stood out in the survey results, such as whether the performance appraisal system in use “makes a big contribution to helping [them] learn and develop” – to which a full 50% of respondents said it didn’t. This alone should be a wake-up call to HR and managers, because if your performance appraisals don’t drive learning and development, you are shooting yourself in the foot.

It is a “hair on fire” kind of thing.

.. but first some technical points.

Questionnaire Design

This is a questionnaire, not the result of a magical truth-serum, so there is some margin of doubt as to whether people are telling the truth or fooling around – that said, people are usually quite serious about giving their point of view, and there are ways to detect horseplay.

The sample is small: I had 20 responses to the beta, and 21 to the RC-1 version of which I deleted three either because they were incomplete or because the person was clearly just walking through the questionnaire to see what was in it. With 18 responses there isn’t a lot of generalization that can be done, but it certainly is enough to generate some “hey, what’s this!” moments.

Finally, this is a fast-track survey that I designed in just a few weeks and I didn’t have the luxury of a team of analysts, survey technicians, statisticians, and a trove of existing question items with a known behavior and pedigree. I borrowed some questions from Dubrin (DuBrin and Dalglish 2003), Debowski (Debowski 2006), and some previous work I have done over the years including a survey on eLearning use which I blogged about a while back, but on the whole the question items have little provenance and so one cannot compare this survey too finely against other or previous research uses.
From the beta version I also got a few good ideas from the test respondents, so a big thanks to them in helping me create this instrument. Without their help this would have taken far longer and been far more difficult.

Bottom line, this instrument is a marvelous (says I) tool for identifying trends and issues within a single organization, but you cannot at this point draw any conclusions about industry trends etc. from it.

Now, let’s look as some of the more interesting findings from the sample we have, and discuss what the implications would be if this was your firm.

Let’s start with the big-ticket items.

Frowns and Smiles

Only 27.8% of respondents said that their manager would smile if they saw them doing self-study during work-time, versus 33% that said they would frown, and 39% that said they would be neutral.
This is actually a bit of a disaster, as my previous research showed – if people think their manager would smile, then they not only keep their skills up to date by improving them at work, but they also do it on their own time. In contrast, those that think their manager is neutral about it, do far less at work and none at home, and those who think their manager would frown tend to do nothing about their own professional development at all.
What I found previously was that there is no correlation between what staff think their manager would do and what the managers report they would do – managers almost to a person think they would smile and be supportive, but their staff typically think differently, much of which is based on whether the manager themselves put visible effort into their own ongoing professional development.
Simply put if the managers do not model learning behavior, their staff presume that learning is not valued.

Apropos of which are the 28.7% who thought their managers did not “make a visible effort to improve their own knowledge and skills” and the 33% that couldn’t tell.

If you don’t fix this in your organization you had better like high staff turnover, low levels of discretionary effort and under-performing morose staff, because you are going to have a whole heap of it!

Sharing

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that teamwork makes the difference between success and failure, and that when it comes to knowledge, sharing behavior is a critical component of achieving that end goal of maximizing shareholder value.

That is why it is alarming to see that while 61% feel at ease to access others in the organization for help and guidance, the same percentage feel that it isn’t true that “Knowledge-sharing is incorporated in the regular staff performance reviews”

So let’s get this right, we think it is important, our people want to do it, but we don’t make it part of how people are measured?
If your performance reviews don’t measure behavior that you definitely want, then what exactly is the point of a performance review?

HR, are you awake?

Organizational Assets

Here’s an IQ test: your company relies on some fancy factory equipment that costs about $100k a year in lease and maintenance and you have several hundred of these machines but don’t keep track of what they are and what they can do.
Is this a company that is going to survive over the long term?

Well over 60% report that their firms do not maintain “a current database of knowledge and skills of all employees”
Ok, so let’s get this straight, the assets that account for about 80% of a company’s value and we are in the dark about their location or capabilities?

HR, are you awake?

Organizational Learning

This one gets interesting.

Although the vast bulk of innovation and growth comes from learning from mistakes, 50% of respondents say their firms do not treat mistakes as learning opportunities and a further 22.2% don’t know, 50% also say that they focus on fixing low performance rather than replicating high performance, and to cap it all 55.5% report that each time their team encounters a problem, they seem to start from scratch to solve it, with the balance reporting that they feel only somewhat that they learnt from previous experiences.

Put that into perspective with the 72% that feel that their firms celebrate “the Superman who saves the day rather than the person who prevents a situation in the first place” and you have a picture of an organization that doesn’t learn or even know what to learn from, reinvents the wheel constantly, and then celebrates disasters.
Remember, you get more of what you celebrate, so if you make a big fuss of people doing heroic things rather than preventing the need for heroism, you will get more occasions that are a crisis and require a hero.
If you ever get the feeling that your company seems to lurch from one disaster to the next, this is probably why.

Work Health & Safety

With over 60% reporting that their work environment was characterized by “interruptions, noises or other distractions” you have accidents waiting to happen, low productivity, high stress, and of course, higher costs.
Research into medical mistakes shows that a huge proportion can be laid at the door of interruptions, and I have no doubt that the same applies to other fields and activities.

HR, are you awake?

Now that you are feeling depressed, you might wonder if there was any good news.

The Good News

Firstly, people seem to be experts in what they do, with over 80% reporting that they regard themselves as an expert in their subject domain, 78% know who the other experts are in the organization, over 60% make the effort during breaks to discuss their work with others, and 50% report that they get good ideas from customers and business partners.
Furthermore, not only are 68% passionate about what their organization is trying to do, but 89% say that having specialized knowledge has cachet in their organization.
Over 77% say that they keep up to date with what goes on in their area of expertise and also regularly attend external seminars and events in that regard, while over 60% go as far as presenting papers or delivering addresses in public on their subject area.
Nearly 80% indicate that they feel at ease in asking for clarification in the event that somebody in the firm said something they didn’t understand, which truly is a triumph of culture.

Of course this is somewhat offset by the fact that 60% also think that doing your job well means not having to care about what goes on in the rest of the company and 56% think that in their teams if something works ok there is no need to experiment to make it better – a surefire way to become obsolescent by embracing creeping conservatism, and it also means that 20% feel inexpert at what they do, 22% don’t know who the experts are, 40% make little effort to talk about what they do, and a stunning 50% don’t see customers as sources of knowledge.

… but then who’s perfect, right?

Web2.0

The use of web2.0 technologies like blogs, twitter, tagging, etc. was high in this sample, but that was to be expected and was even a bit low – fewer had their own web pages than I would have expected, and a some don’t even subscribe to podcasts.
In a more typical cross-section of a workforce, this would be lower, but it would be important that there was some activity in this region and a solid training plan behind teaching people how to use the technologies without making a fool of themselves, exposing the company, or getting themselves dooced.
If your senior staff and SMEs aren’t using podcasts to get domain-specific information while they are on the road and sitting in planes, trains and automobiles, then it is an early sign of trouble.

Conclusions

Knowledge management isn’t about buying a product – it’s about what you do with the knowledge at your disposal, and whether you put your knowledge assets to work in achieving your organizational goals – and whether your bad knowledge management habits work against you, is all up to you.
Whether your staff are keeping themselves at the peak of their game and know who to contact and feel free to do so is as much part of being competitive as having a good product but, is often neglected.

This post covered a survey tool that has been developed to measure the knowledge management beliefs and habits within an organization, and by using the current respondent data as if they were all in a single company, provided an example of what it might discover and where the critical areas might be.

The survey questionnaire is made available under a copyleft attribution basis free of charge, and the author can be commissioned to provide guidance and assessment.
You can try KM/OL climate survey questionnaire out online.

That’s my story and I am sticking to it.

Please contribute to my self-knowledge and take this 1-minute survey that tells me what my blog tells you about me. – Completely anonymous.

~~~

Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management expert and holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra. Mr. Loxton has extensive international experience and is currently available as a Knowledge Management consultant or as a permanent employee at an organization that wishes to put knowledge to work.

Bibliography

Debowski, S. (2006). Knowledge management. Milton Qld, John Wiley & Sons.

DuBrin, A. J. and C. Dalglish (2003). Leadership, an Australasian focus, John Wiley and Sons Australia.

 

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One Response to “Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning – How does your firm shape up?”

  1. Ferdinand Says:

    Hi Matthew
    Congratulations.
    You present your findings in a concise and easy reading style.
    Although we are probably from antipodes, I clearly identify and most agree with the findings presented.
    Recently I read that what people respond in surveys do not directly correlate to what they would do in real life. Not sure if it was in the last book of Dan Ariely. I think this can happen when you are reading a couple of books at the same time.
    Curious to see further results.

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