Posts Tagged ‘double loop learning’

On the Psychosocial Determinants of CoP Success

August 30, 2012

Over the past few years I have been inching along with a thought – what if we looked at Knowledge Management through the lens of psychology, what would we see and what problems and issues would stand out in relief against the many prickly problems faced by KM practitioners.

One that stands out to me is the question of whether CoP success (and we get to define that however we like) is proportional to variation in how much and how its members share knowledge.
When we look at this from a psychosocial perspective, the question that pops out to me is why do some people share knowledge and others don’t, why do some share more and others less.
Is there perhaps a character trait that predisposes people to sharing knowledge, are their environmental pressures and social norms that cause the behavior to vary, are these relatively stable over time and place or do they vary according to some sort of root cause?

Success Factors

Here is the first pass at a list of facets for what constitutes “success” for a CoP:

  1. Longevity
  2. Membership Factors
    1. Member Count
    2. Member Seniority
    3. Member Diversity
  3. Activity
    1. Level of Interaction
    2. Number of meets
    3. Participation
  4. Productivity
    1. Creation of a Controlled Vocabulary
    2. Innovations
    3. Creation of Operational KPIs
    4. Documentation of Best Practices
    5. Degree of Outreach
    6. Efforts in Training & Induction
    7. Mentorship

Psychosocial Constructs

So far this is what I have noted as potential constructs.
The list needs to be expanded somewhat and then trimmed back to only those things that really contribute towards explaining variation in success.

  1. Emotional Intelligence
  2. Locus of Control
  3. OCEAN
  4. Individualism vs Communitarianism
  5. Emotional Investment
  6. Great Leader / Cult of Personality
  7. Action vs Reflection
  8. Conservatism vs Liberalism
  9. Q
  10. Creativity
  11. Frustration Tolerance

 

 

~~~

Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management practitioner, and is a peer reviewer for the Journal of Knowledge Management Research & Practice. Matthew holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra, and provides pro-bono consulting in Knowledge Management and IT Governance to various medical institutions.

CoP vs CoE – What’s the difference, and Why Should You Care?

June 1, 2011

In a previous blog I covered how corporate Silos and Communities of Practice work together, and in this blog I will cover two similar ways to leverage expertise.

Other than having snappy Three Letter Acronyms (TLA), Centers of Excellence (CoE) and Communities of Practice (CoP) provide a company with ways to consolidate and build on its expertise in areas that bring direct financial and competitive results, and which translate to higher customer satisfaction, increased referenciability, and improvements in both capacity and capability. Both techniques of deploying expert knowledge provide increased job satisfaction and career development for staff at the same time.

One requires special organizational changes and an operational budget, and the other simply needs some infrastructural support to let people do what they are passionate about.

The following operational definition of a CoE is fairly useful

Whatever you call them, a Center of Excellence (CoE) should, at a most basic level consist of:  A team of people that promote collaboration and using best practices around a specific focus area to drive business results. This team could be staffed with full- or part-time members.” (Strickler 2008)

Strickler goes on to list what he considers to be the responsibilities of a CoE:

  • 1. Support: For their area of focus, CoE’s should offer support  to the business lines. This may be through services needed, or providing subject matter experts.
  • 2. Guidance: Standards, methodologies, tools and knowledge repositories are typical approaches to filling this need.
  • 3. Shared Learning: Training and certifications, skill assessments, team building and formalized roles are all ways to encourage shared learning.
  • 4. Measurements: CoEs should be able to demonstrate they are delivering the valued results that justified their creation through the use of output metrics.
  • 5. Governance: Allocating limited resources (money, people, etc.) across all their possible use is an important function of CoEs. They should ensure organizations invest in the most valuable projects and create economies of scale for their service offering. In addition, coordination across other corporate interests is needed to enable the CoE to deliver value.
  • (Strickler 2008)

In comparison a CoP provides more or less the same in terms of 1-4, but has no official authority over deployment of company resources such as people, places, equipment, or budget.

A CoP provides as follows:

  1. Support – provision of a network of experts from both inside the organization and from outside
  2. Guidance – a CoP can be entrusted to devise and document best practices, standards, methodologies, tools, bodies of knowledge
  3. Shared Learning – Except for actually creating formalized roles in a company hierarchy, a CoP does all the same things as a CoE under this heading, plus provides mentorship, apprenticeships, and access to external informal and formal trade groups.
  4. Measurements – besides providing measurements of efficacy, a CoP typically describes what measures are appropriate for the proper execution of the domain of expertise or trade
  5. Governance – in this one dimension a CoP differs greatly from a CoE and instead of managing resources, a CoP strives to refine and improve the domain of expertise itself. A central function of the CoP is to improve the domain itself rather than simply managing its deployment. A CoE for project management seeks to improve the deployment of project managers and the like in furtherance of operational targets, whereas a CoP would seek to improve the entire field and practice of project management itself.

The Carnegie-Mellon Software Engineering Institute (SEI) offers a more detailed account of CoE including how to measure them

(Craig, Fisher et al. 2009)

They also offer a broader definition

(Craig, Fisher et al. 2009)

Their categories are similar to that of Strickler, but the SEI tabulate them as follows:

  1. Internal Business Process
  2. Customer Focus
  3. Leadership
  4. Innovation and Learning
  5. Financial

Again we can usefully compare what a CoP does on the same dimensions

  1. Internal Business Process – A CoP applies domain principles to service organizational goals
  2. Customer Focus – While a CoP is focused more on refining the domain than on customer service, it acknowledges that this is a business goal of the host organization and therefore puts domain expertise in service of customers.
  3. Leadership – a CoP provides leadership on the use and principles of the domain itself
  4. Innovation and Learning – These are perceived as vital objectives and programs within a CoP, although it must be said that neither a CoP nor a CoE are natural sources of innovation as such since they are both conservationary entities rather than innovative.
  5. Financial – CoPs have little or no financial responsibilities , in part at least because they depend on members to provide discretionary effort and volunteerism rather than performing work in exchange for payment.

So What is a CoP then?

Wenger (2007) defines CoPs as follows : “Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavour“(Wenger, McDermott et al. 2002) and goes on to provide some examples to demonstrate

“… a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope. In a nutshell: Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (Wenger, McDermott et al. 2002)

A CoP is an affiliation of people who share a common practice and who have a desire to further the practice itself … and of course to share knowledge, refine best practices, and introduce standards – but more on that later. CoPs are defined by their domain of interest, but the membership is a social structure comprised of volunteer practitioners.

CoPs differ from a CoE mainly in that they tend to have no geographical boundaries, they hold no hierarchical power within a firm, and they definitely can never have structure determined by the company.
However, one of the most obvious and telling differences lies in the stated motive of members – CoPs exist because they have active practitioner members who are passionate about a specific practice, and the goals of a CoP are to refine and improve their chosen domain of practice – and the members provide discretionary effort that is not paid for by the employer.

CoE members are paid by an employer substantively to perform that role, whereas CoP members may use infrastructure and time provided by their employer, but provide services and participation out of discretionary effort of their own. They are not paid for services rendered in the way a CoE member is.

For example: a CoP for Project Managers would transcend organizational boundaries and consist of members who are passionate about Project Management itself, and who may or may not be employed by the same firm or live on the same continent. They participate and contribute towards the improvement of project management itself because their common interest in refining and improving the practice of Project Management gives them a common interest.

CoPs may remain internal to a single company but there is no reason why they should do so (and plenty of reasons why they shouldn’t), and while they would benefit from support from the company, they don’t have to have it.

What a company can do for CoPs is provide resources like time, places to meet, IT services, stationery, coffee, tea, cookies, and maybe some money for occasional travel and beer.

What a company gets in return are fired-up and expert people who are masters of their game, and a set of practices and methods that get used consistently across different silos of the organization.

Suffice to say that companies that have thriving CoPs tend to be the leaders in their market niche and tend to have better staff retention and higher EBITDA than those that don’t.

Let’s look at the core characteristics of a CoP according to Wenger (2007)

  1. A Domain
    ‘…[a CoP] has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership therefore implies a commitment to the domain, and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people’
  2. A Community
    ‘In pursuing their interest in their domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. They build relationships that enable them to learn from each other’
  3. Practice
    ‘Members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction’

(Wenger 2007) in (Smith 2003, 2009)

Conclusion

A CoE is something that you must be able to afford to put in place, whereas a CoP is something you cannot afford not to put in place. The essence of a CoP is the concept of management being enablers and then simply getting out of the way of passionate people so that they can do their thing. Whether a person’s passion is codification systems for diagnosis & repair, financial measurement, or business analytics, there are bound to be others in the company, amongst business partners, or within the customer-base that are dying to work together on refining and advancing their domain of interest – all you need to do as a manager is enable them, empower them, and get out of the way so they can put passion to work.

~~~

Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management expert, holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra, and provides pro-bono consulting in Knowledge Management and IT Governance to various medical institutions.

References

Craig, W., M. Fisher, et al. (2009). Generalized Criteria and Evaluation Method for Center of Excellence: A Preliminary Report, Citeseer.

Smith, M. K. (2003, 2009). “Communities of practice.” The encyclopedia of informal education Retrieved 31 May, 2011, from www.infed.org/biblio/communities_of_practice.htm.

Strickler, J. (2008). “What is a Center of Excellence.” Retrieved 31/5/2011, 2011, from http://agileelements.wordpress.com/2008/10/29/what-is-a-center-of-excellence/.

Wenger, E. (2007). Communities of practice: Learning, meanings, and identity, Cambridge university press.

Wenger, E., R. A. McDermott, et al. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge, Harvard Business Press.

My 2010, a year of blogging

January 6, 2011

Today marks my 1st anniversary of blogging, and 2010 was an “interesting” year, as they say.

I changed continents (again), and took on multiple roles in addition to being a global director of Knowledge Management, and wound up job hunting – but not in that order.

My roles this year included my main job, that of a director of Knowledge Management, as well as unofficial Chief Learning Officer which saw me in many meetings with universities and vendors of learning materials, head of Localization & Translation in which I inherited a recently emptied department and a strangled budget, and made friends with several translation vendors across the world.
Another role was that of program manager of the offshoring and outsourcing activities that took me to India, and involved building a team of over a hundred software engineers while I also managed the contract and relationship of a similar-sized group in Bali, tried vainly to move some outsourcing to South-Africa, and celebrated the building of a 15-person team in Chile.
During this time I received a few “what are you doing” phone-calls from the Australian embassy in India, and many people avoided me in case I was looking to offshore their job.

In July I my relationship with Mincom ended, and having waved goodbye to Brisbane, found myself back in Denver and job hunting.
Since then I have interviewed with dozens of firms – been hugely interested in some, horrified by a few, and left others feeling vaguely relieved not to be working there and having to breathe in their toxic culture on a daily basis.
Some interviews ran into several months and included large panels only to end with me as the runner-up, while others ended in a fizzle when the budget vanished, the position was cancelled, or the VP herself resigned after missing several chances for an interview.
Some had really sharp and focused job descriptions (HP, Invensys, and Philips for example), some had a copy/paste smorgasbord, and some had job descriptions that were a complete mystery.
Some organizations were clear and transparent about their process, others seemed to be playing it by ear and making it up as they went along.

Generally, the people were nice but clearly unsure about what they are trying to achieve – one guy spent 30 minutes posing an elaborate scenario that he fed me piece by piece until we arrived at the answer he apparently had in mind. According to him this was the first time anybody had given the correct answer but he was seemingly unhappy with that so I didn’t get the job.
Maybe just as well, all things considered.

I often wonder how much a firm’s recruitment practices are a reflection of what it is like to work there, and what effect recruitment practices have on their clients.
According to a few research papers I read, it is and it does.

Keeping Busy

Besides looking for a permanent employer, flying around for interviews, and making copious resume modifications to satisfy recruiters, I blogged on KM-related topics, networked, and read several IO Psychology and KM textbooks from cover to cover. Some people have hobbies, some play golf, and I read textbooks – go figure.

Some people take a break from work when they are between jobs, I mostly designed questionnaires and wondered about Communities of Practice.
I also thought about Sharepoint a lot – can you believe it, 130 million licenses and likely to hit 97% adoption rate this year?
Again, go figure!

As part of a Master’s in Knowledge Management I covered various maturity models and although I really liked the KMMM by Lange & Ehms, the K3M by Liebowitz & Beckman, and the various KMMI attempts, they all seemed to be heavy on the Conservation side and light at the Innovation end. I also felt that they neglected the point made by Argyris that processes will inevitably obscure and hide those systematic problems that are essentially never spoken about – things that we become systematically blinded to by the way we measure and think. As a result I built my own KM Maturity model based on the Carnegie-Melon CMMI, with two added layers bookending the CMMI, and blogged incessantly about the implications of Argyris and his Single and Double Loop Learning concepts. The blog about externalization and avoidance I was sure might get me lynched by recruiters.
Seems I must like Argyris, because he comes up in my blogs more than any other author.
Owing to my longtime interest in IO Psychology and research methods, the offspring of the KMM was a questionnaire instrument (currently in Beta), which of course lives on a KM wiki (CoP-M).

To get a better way to benchmark and examine the current state of KM in an organization, I developed a KM & OL Climate questionnaire called the KMOL-C which is now in its RC2.1 version with an RC-3.0 in planning.

During this time I also started thinking about starting my own LLC, firstly because even providing pro bono consulting in the US means one is vulnerable to being sued personally.
Secondly it would allow me to do paid consulting and contracting.
I am still stuck for a company name however, so feel free to suggest one.

Having Fun

Mostly I read textbooks for fun, but I also had many enjoyable discussions, debates, and arguments with HR people on LinkedIn – Since I was dealing with them a lot it seemed logical.
I also played with some new applications – bibus an opensource equivalent to EndNote, Qiqqa a nice CAQDAS tool for qualitative interviewing, R a free statistical package that means I can’t afford SPSS or SAS, and ggobi a graphical add-on for R. No spinplots like VisualStats had, but VisualStats seems to have stopped.
I added all my books to GuruLib – mostly by using a webcam to scan in the ISBN barcodes.
Using R, I pulled correlation numbers for a survey I did for a LinkedIn discussion and discovered that self-identified HR people are more than twice as risk averse as operational managers.

Reading academic papers was very enjoyable, and in case you think they are all boring and filled with indigestible facts and arcane theory, here is one I particularly enjoyed:

My most favorite piece of research findings was this one about penguins (Meyer-Rochow & Gall 2003)

Now besides the fact that next to ducks, penguins are the next funniest animal, there is something inherently funny about research that clocks the speeds and distances of penguin evacuation.
Also, knowing that penguin poop is more dense than blood but less dense than honey, and is ejected at pressures that approach that of a car tire, is just fascinating.
The paper also won an IgNoble award in 2005

What’s in Store for 2011

I hope to register my own LLC soon, start a PhD, and get a job with a really interesting and innovative company, and I hope to use my survey instruments with several organizations, volunteer time to worthy organizations, and stay healthy.

More to the point, I hope to carry on enjoying knowledge management, IO Psychology, and discovering interesting ideas and people.

… and blogging, of course.

~~~

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 assets to work.

Death, Learning, and Corporate Survival

October 26, 2010

Why do mature companies die or grow frail and get eaten?

After all, once they have passed through the helter-skelter of childhood and have attained stability after the hectic days of early formation, why don’t they just live on forever?
This was a topic that interested Arie de Geuss of Royal Dutch Shell and he asked a similar question to one that led to a breakthrough in medical science almost four centuries ago – could the same hold for how we look at corporations?

Death as a subject

In 1662, John of Graunt built tables of mortality for the city of London, listing for each year the numbers of deaths by cause. This required not just the collection of data about death, itself a valuable exercise, but also required him to think in terms of categories of causes of death. Although many of the categories have changed over time, this process of thinking once set in motion, led to steady revision and improvement.

For example, from the year 1632, Graunt lists these as the top five causes of mortality:

Chrisomes*, and infants        2268
Consumption
**                     1797
Fever                                    1108
Aged                                     628
Flock
s†, and the small Pox    531

*Infant mortality before 1 month of age
**Tuberculosis
†Means “sediment”, but it is unclear what Graunt meant by this in conjunction with Smallpox

This systematic approach paved the way for tracking and intervention, and gave birth to the science of demographics and enabled epidemiology to develop.
You could say that Graunt was a necessary and key player in the development of modern medicine.

The Mortality of Companies

In his analysis of companies in terms of mortality, de Geuss created categories from the data that led him eventually to conclude that companies die because they develop learning disabilities – they became deaf and blind, and stopped learning – and therefore eventually succumbed to external forces that they were unable to notice or against which to marshal an appropriate response in time.

I view this in terms of Organizational Learning (OL) – which is why I describe my occupation as “Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning”, and I break it into five major components:

  1. Stimulus-Response Learning
  2. Vicarious and Promiscuous Learning
  3. Scenario Planning
  4. Ongoing Professional Development
  5. Innovation Intent

Stimulus-Response Learning

This is the kind of thing that even an earthworm can do, but which many organizations seem to lack.

If an earthworm touches an electrified wire, it eventually learns to avoid the wire, no matter which part of its body did the touching. In contrast, some companies will repeat the same mistake over and over again, seemingly needing to reiterate the same mistake several times with each and every business unit and team before the message finally gets through and becomes part of its adaptive repertoire.

Being smarter than an earthworm should not be that difficult for a corporation made up of smart people, but it means that internal communications and repositories are done in such a way that if one part of the organization makes a mistake or encounters something that poses a risk, that all other units and geographies have access to that same information in a way that they can actually use (and do!).

This turns out to be more difficult than one might assume and the “plumbing” side of providing email, portals, knowledge-bases, and content management are only about a third of the solution. The remainder is a corporate culture that is able to learn across divisional boundaries, and for this you need both leadership and vibrant Communities of Practice

Many organizations never get this far, and die because the rock that they stubbed their toe on last year, came back and hit them in the head this year.

Vicarious and Promiscuous Learning

Once one has evolved past the realm of Annelids, the next big advantage is to learn from other people rather than needing to take the lumps yourself. This saves money and time, and is therefore a direct competitive advantage.
Rome learnt from Carthage, apprentices learn from their tradesmen, and hopefully a company can actively look for examples of what to do and what not to do by observing others. Except where patents and copyright are an obstacle, the keyword is to “shamelessly borrow” ideas and then modify them to fit localized conditions.

This is best done by the leadership team, and by the Communities of Practice who can effortlessly dig their roots into the pool of expertise and experience that lies outside the organization but within their domain of excellence. When an SME comes back from attending a trade show or seminar they can mutate the ideas to suit the organization and spread them throughout the organization via the interdepartmental CoP structure.

Just achieving this stage will provide a significant competitive advantage and add decades of life-expectancy.

Scenario-Planning

So far we have dealt with the past and the present, and the next evolutionary phase is to consider the future beyond the next departmental quarterly review. Scenario-planning is a toolset that attempts to break at least partially free from the learned helplessness and practiced defensiveness that Chris Argyris outlines as part of “Single-Loop Learning“. By posing “what if” scenarios, there is the possibility, if you are nimble, to catch yourself before the auto-protective blinds come down and to notice the stealthy approach of a hidden predator, or surprise yourself with an outcome that was unexpected.

This is the playground of the giants mainly, because everyone else is too busy “just surviving” to look several years down the pike and try to make out the fuzzy shapes on the horizon or in the shadows. The irony is that it can lead to complacency (look at BP and the recent gulf of Mexico debacle), in the same way that seatbelts and airbags led to less careful driving in some people.

Scenario-planning requires a mix of dogged fact-finding and logical step-wise thinking, systems-thinking, and imaginative brainstorming. Plenty of DIY books exist on the topic, but usually a firm needs external help at least in the beginning. It also requires a mix of culture and technique that is frankly beyond most firms. After producing various scenarios and plotting the likely outcomes, and then working back to find solutions, it requires a very peculiar kind of management culture to stare the scenarios in the face and put money and executive sponsorship behind remedial action.

Although this is a critical component of achieving and maintaining longevity, its very success is a risk, since dodging future bullets makes a firm more likely to become complacent and also to value the process less. People in westernized countries are less likely have their children immunized because they have forgotten or have never experienced the real diseases – dodging them makes them seem less like the killers they are.

Ongoing Professional Development

Another dimension in successfully competing is simply having better skills and intellectual assets than your competitors. This runs the gamut of identifying people with better SKAs than your competition, to acquiring and keeping them, to putting them to work more efficiently and effectively than the next company in your market space. However, time passes, things change, tools rust, and if you want to keep ahead of the competition, having a workforce composed of people who actively pursue their own ongoing professional development is surely the best.

This is also the key element in forming a CoP, and without a culture of ongoing learning, the intellectual assets of a company will slowly gather dust and be buried.
The absence of a vibrant and concerted effort to maintain professional expertise is an early sign of cognitive degeneration in a firm, and a harbinger of senescence. If your staff don’t actively pursue their own ongoing professional development, you are already a dead-man walking.

Innovation Intent

The final dimension is the desire for change, and perhaps the hardest of all to achieve.

As companies age, like people, they tend to grow more conservative in outlook and more comfortable with the tried and true over the new and exciting.

This is a perfectly logical risk-aversive approach since most novelty, most innovation either fails or is deleterious. Mutations, for example, seldom produce an improvement – usually they just result in cancer. So sticking to what has already proven to work adequately is a very safe bet – in the short term.

However, this leads inevitably to rigidity in the face of change and decreased ability to formulate new solutions when the old ones no longer apply. Think of this in terms of bacteria – over time bacteria will acquire resistance to existing medications no matter how effective they were originally, and unless novel attacks are discovered, eventually the bacterium starts gaining ground and flourishes.
For this reason one has to have a deliberate intent to innovate, to test out new approaches and ideas before the old ones are exhausted and overrun.

However, this requires a cultural environment in which experimentation is supported, controlled, and encouraged. An early warning sign is if mistakes are typically punished rather than treated as learning opportunities – If punishment is the first and foremost reaction, then you have a safe bet that there is little innovation and the firm is already gathering moss and accumulating risk.

A word of caution is appropriate here – Major innovations don’t typically come from individual work, nor from steady evolutionary refinement over time, but from importing mature ideas from other domains and collaboration between people and across domains and organisations.
If individual work is rewarded and there is a winner-take-all culture, you already have a massive handicap.

Conclusion

Studying the causes of death in firms serves two valuable purposes – knowing the facts of death itself, and the formation of a classification on which to build remedial efforts. This provides a framework against which to take preventative and generative action, and with careful action, a firm can greatly extend its productive lifespan.

Most of the steps require a cultural component, and all require leadership and executive support that can look beyond the next quarterly earnings. But for those companies that have the character and desire, the processes listed can provide not just a new lease on life, but significant competitive advantage.

~~~~~~~~~

Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management professional 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.

Peer Review vs Recruitment

September 9, 2010

From time to time I serve on peer-review panels for academic work on Knowledge Management and Information Science, and although it is somewhat arduous work, it is very rewarding and goes to the heart of how science works and how knowledge can be built through peer review and layers of quality-control. It is by no means a perfect system, but as a mechanism to reduce errors and poorly formed arguments, it functions very well.

On average I approve or promote approximately only one tenth of the papers I review and reject or return the remainder. Considering that I only receive papers that have already passed muster for basic format and construction, you might think that my ratio is overly aggressive and may be dooming many authors unnecessarily.

In this you would be right – by trying to keep false positives very low I would be making more type II errors and thus sacrifice some papers that had merit. However, progress of knowledge in science is not only incremental, but in many senses, inevitable.

Progress: Science vs Business

Even though it is tempting to think of scientific advances in terms of the “great minds” perspective, even our greatest breakthroughs were inevitable to a significant degree. If Einstein had not made the connection that Maxwell’s findings suggested, eventually somebody else would have. If Einstein had simply remained a patent clerk, physics would have been delayed by only a few decades. If Darwin had never made the historic trip on the Beagle, the theory of evolution would perhaps only be celebrating its 100 th birthday, rather than its 151 st.

One reason for the almost ineluctable progress is that results are published and available for falsification or verification, and above all – re-use. While this process works well in science in general, the same does not hold of course in microcosm because time is a constraint and re-use is constrained to a far smaller subset. For individuals or organizations where immediacy is more of concern than eventual progress, the kind of delay and high mortality rate of the peer-review process can be deadly.

In the case of a commercial firm, the tolerance for error cannot be set so low since although the innovation or solution to a business problem will almost inevitably be found, it may not be found in time to save the specific firm, or be found by that firm – it may be found by a competitor or too late to be of any use in gaining competitive advantage.

Let’s take the case of intellectual assets and recruitment.

A problem of assets

In many ways a firm has a critical scientific problem to solve, and that is to identify and acquire intellectual assets (people of course) that are at least as good as the competition, and preferably better.

It doesn’t take much reflection to conclude that if you have less intellectual firepower, competing is going to be harder and survival against competition for limited business, more difficult.

Digesting resumes is much like reviewing papers, except that while resumes are easier to read and usually much thinner than scientific papers, recruiters get more resumes than a reviewer gets papers.

.. but do they?

For every paper I receive as a reviewer, I guess that about ten times that number were screened out before the review stage, and perhaps a hundred times were aborted when the respondent read the submission criteria.

So on the whole the volumes are probably in the same realm.

Tolerance for Error

Returning to an earlier point, while science as a whole can tolerate a significant loss of papers that were actually valid, the same is not true for businesses – if you turn down a candidate who was better than you thought, you wind up with the lesser candidate on a long-term basis and your competitor probably gets the better one.

… but it gets worse.

When I get a 2500-word paper, I read the entire thing, sometimes several times to make sure I understood it, and when I reject a paper, I do so with copious notes that go back to the author, and therefore (1) they learn and their resubmission and all subsequent submissions are more successful, and (2) only fundamental flaws lead to complete rejection.

In contrast, when a resume is rejected the applicant has little clue as to the specific reasons and cannot resubmit, and rejections based on superficial or irrelevant objections are undetectable.

… but that’s not all

While I will spend several hours on reviewing a paper, recruiters are said to spend less than a few minutes.

… and finally

The peer-reviewer is selected from a pool of experts in a field and any conflict of interest is declared, but recruiters often evaluate resumes for positions in which they are inexpert and no declaration of conflict is either recorded nor required.

Conclusion

The peer review system deals with a similar bulk of documents, but while it has better safeguards and more rigor than recruitment processes, it can afford a far greater loss of positives than recruitment. Yet while recruitment has a similar rejection rate, it has none of the accompanying safeguards.

Perhaps recruitment would be better served by something more akin to the peer review process.

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 professional 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.


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