Posts Tagged ‘KM’

Knowledge Management and the Novice’s Mirror

July 7, 2010

The focus of Knowledge Management is usually on the folks with all the Knowledge and Experience, the people who have been with the company for years and in the industry for decades – and this is hardly surprising, since they are the ones who have most of the good ideas, know how to do stuff, and have all the tips, tricks, and war-stories.

We are focused on the Experts because that’s where the goodies are for the most part.

However, experts are also those who have best learned to put up with stuff and the Jerry-rigged quick-fixes that were put into place as a short-term stop-gap five years ago but just blended into the stream of history at some point. They have also forgotten many of the things that initially bugged them, and have accumulated a host of bad habits and habits to protect them from the embarrassment of all those bad habits.

This is one of the ways that “ single-loop” learning mechanisms start up, and how we wind up protecting ourselves from evidence that things are wrong. As Chris Argyris explains it, not only does the problem itself become unmentionable, but the very fact that it is unmentionable is unmentionable!

It is simply bad manners to even hint about it, so over time people learn to unconsciously avoid certain subjects, issues, and facts.

A second problem with expertise is that we no longer notice how we do things – much of what we do is autopilot and runs fast and smooth on well-oiled rails. We effortlessly and unconsciously glide over shortcuts, detours, and work-arounds that are so well practiced that they are all but invisible.

Expertise and its learned-behavior hides problems that more expertise is almost powerless to break and to whom the problems are as invisible as a vampire’s reflection.

This is where the Novice’s Mirror enters the picture.

A new-hire presents a perfect opportunity to make invisible reflections show up again briefly – until they are assimilated and acculturated and the images fade from their consciousness.

A novice can reflect to us things that have become invisible in two ways

  • Where they do not yet know how things are done and will be able to question things that have no apparent reason. It is this “why” that can fleetingly bring something back into view, and if we keep our natural instinct to defend or distract under control, we will get a brief opportunity to snare a bad habit.

  • Secondly, we can learn a great deal from what a new-comer gets wrong. When they stumble over a task step, or can’t find something, or something doesn’t make sense, it is a red flag that we may have built an invisibility shield around something that was wrong but for which had we evolved ‘tricks” to get past.

Quite often the original reason for the tricks might have resolved itself or simply become irrelevant, but the “tricks” to circumvent it may still be in operation long after their need had gone. – A novice often shows us a reflection of ourselves by what they trip over or what they do wrong.

In the choices they make that strike the expert as wrong, they in fact articulate the shape of the expert’s assumptions in all three areas of tacit, explicit, and cultural knowledge.

I have used this notion of the Novice’s Mirror in varying degrees of success in several different organizations over the years.

For example, in one case customers following the download and installation instructions of software components and fixes would often interpret the instructions “incorrectly” and perform steps out of sequence.

The customers had come to believe that our fixes were fragile, and they often needed to call on us to manually assist them in loading the fixes. If the fixes worked fine when we loaded them, they wrote this off as being just another example of the mysterious and unpredictable nature of our fixes.

To us of course it was clear that customers were just lazy or unqualified and didn’t follow instructions.

It took a newbie to point out that in many cases the order of steps to fit a fix was important, but that we didn’t say so in the instructions. The instructions were in fact quite unclear on this point and many others once you looked at them from the novice point of view. Some steps required a strict order, others not, some steps were seemingly trivial, but weren’t.

The newbie had tried to fit a patch themselves as part of training and had skipped a step that was unclear with the idea that they would find out later what it meant.
The resulting failure made them wonder if we had meant that the steps were strictly sequential and were all necessary.

Luckily the experts caught the implication and examined what had gone wrong rather than simply laughing it off as newbie stupidity, and from then on we had far fewer calls for “bad fixes” because we henceforth clearly stated if steps were to be taken as sequential or not, and which were crucial and which were there for comfort or cosmetics.

The opportunity to glimpse in the Novice’s Mirror was very brief, and could have just as easily been dismissed and lost. If the newbie had been taunted rather than really listened to, they would simply have learned to do it “our way”, and also have “learned” that pointing out faults was not welcome in that organization.

I apply this idea to any new-hire or visitor, requesting them to take notes whenever they are unsure of an instruction or document, cannot find something, or don’t know who to ask for assistance – the “novices mirror” shows us assumptions and inbuilt problems or obstacles that are invisible to the experts.

A very effective way to use the Novice’s Mirror, is to build it into a constant-improvement philosophy such as the Japanese quality control concept of Kaizen. In this way workers and management are made curious about failure and become more likely to seek causes, rather than simply assign blame or to ignore the problem.

That is my story, and I am sticking to it.

Knowledge Management and Niche Mastery – How KM can add a few hundred million dollars to corporate worth

June 17, 2010

Part of becoming successful is envisioning what success looks like*, and then figuring out how to get to the vision.
This holds true whether one is talking about individuals in pursuit of personal goals, teams in search of prominence, or corporations trying to attain mastery of their market niche.

In the case of corporations, niche mastery is important from two perspectives: the perception of potential clients, and sometimes more importantly – the perception of potential investors and market analysts.

This is not a trivial matter and involves inter alia how clearly a firm’s mission and presence is defined, how consistent its behavior is with the mission, and how “believable” the basic “story” is – market valuation can be dramatically different if a firm is placed clearly in one quadrant versus another and whether the “story” hangs together clearly to investors and influential analysts.
The impact of how solid the “story” looks can sometimes run to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars and substantial multipliers of either the asset-value or the stock value.
A firm can wind up with a marketable value of twice its combined stock and asset value if the “story” looks good to potential investors.

So what makes for a compelling story?

One aspect is whether the firm appears to be focused on a value proposition that makes market sense, and another is how its intellectual capital and intellectual activities reflect the value proposition.
On one hand what the firm is thinking must be aligned with the niche it is claiming and the content must demonstrate thought-leadership in that space.
On the other hand the content must be visible and run deep and broad within the organization.
You can’t be a niche master for long if all you can show is a flashy CEO or a single brainiac – you must be able to leverage a broad array of experts with deep industry smarts from within the organization.

So what, from a Knowledge Management perspective, would it look like if your company dominated the market niche it has chosen?

Well firstly you would expect that the majority of articles, references, white-papers, expert opinions, blogs, tweets, seminars, presentations, etc. out there would be by your company or about it, and those artifacts would be consistent with the story and show evidence of subject and domain mastery.

Secondly, you would expect most of the innovation and ideas in that space to be coming from your own staff or your customers and partners.

Thirdly you would expect your organization to have a well-rehearsed and efficient production-line for ideas, and to be practiced at germinating ideas and moving them through a maturation and dissemination process.

What to do?

Each discipline and group in the organization should be thinking about what success of the whole organization would look like from where they sit in the company ecosystem. This ranges from the front desk to the seat of the CEO. Every group can show smarts that are specifically tuned to the market niche.

Drilling down into specifics, it means that you would build and display thinking on your specific product area, particularly with regards your core vertical markets. So if you picked up random white-papers on either your product area or market domain, you would expect to see that most of the time, it was to do with your company. Most speakers at seminars touching on those areas would be your staff, your partners, or your customers, or other people talking about your products or services.

Most references or citations would be to your publications.

The reason that this spells dominance is that it creates very high entry gates to new niche entrants, and raises the bar on competition in a way that sorts players into pole positions according to their best abilities to produce and display intellectual prowess and subject mastery. It allows you to determine to a large extent what the frame of reference looks like, and what questions and topics are seen as pertinent.

It means that the market niche ecosystem will stabilize around those abilities that you display, and although still vulnerable to disruptive innovation, most of the disruptive ideas will be coming from the leaders – and therefore your firm.

From an individual perspective, it means that you would have a great many people producing intellectual property, and be strategically displaying it, and enabling and linking the people who create it – It means using your people to succeed in an arms race of ideas and expertise, and to train and mentor them in how to display their thinking in public where the investors, analysts, and customers can see it.

To do that requires that you mobilize and train a far broader array of staff than previously, and to help them to develop the corporate-wide intellectual assets.

It also means that you must build an environment where they can practice internally, and then when ready, work in tandem with Marketing to dominate the intellectual terrain in your market niche.

Having a CKO to organize and orchestrate this is not a necessary precondition, but like having your own experts it would make things easier.

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

* this deserves a big sidebar on neuro-psychology and the huge chunk of brain devoted to visual systems and why so many metaphors are visual


Matthew Loxton is the Outgoing Director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.

Knowledge Management : What a toilet and Nature tell us about Information Ergonomics

June 10, 2010

I am sure that the author of Ecclesiastes who said that there is nothing new under the sun was a nascent Knowledge Management specialist. Much of KM involves “shamelessly borrowing” ideas and patterns because (a) KM loves parsimony, and (b) most innovations occur when an idea that is matured elsewhere is imported and adapted to a novel purpose.

Biomemetics, for example, takes the position of Orgel’s second rule that “Evolution is cleverer than you”. There are a great many methods and mechanisms that evolution has refined and tested over millenia and which can be adopted in chunks.

For instance, when a cell is manufacturing something in your body, it sticks a sample through a port in the cell wall which advertises what is being produced. Roaming “quality inspectors” examine these on a routine basis and if the product looks suspicious, an apoptosis signal is sent to the cell to self-destruct.

Suicide is perhaps a bit over the top for a workgroup doing the wrong thing, but I am sure you can see the opportunity for either saying “hey look at this cool idea” and spreading it (Knowledge Diffusion), or alternatively to issue a “quit that!” instruction (Quality Management).

The point is that you can learn a lot from nature*.

What I really want to talk about though has to do with the balance between concision and redundancy.

Back in the days when telecom circuits were expensive, noisy, and prone to failure, we had to balance the protocol choice between whether we needed great message integrity or greater speed when sending from one machine to another. One approach was X.25, a robust protocol that had several layers of error checking and correction, and could select alternate routes, receive packets in any order, and would almost run on fencing wire. However X.25 was pretty slow, and gobbled up bandwidth in housekeeping overhead.

Frame Relay however was sleek, fast, and used most of the bandwidth for message payload and thus far cheaper per byte and far faster.

So why not use Frame Relay?

This is where toilets come in.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but during droughts in some parts of the world, reducing the flush size was a big deal. A brick or two in the cistern (or fancy adjustment) would save a lot of water over the long haul simply by reducing the quantity of water used per flush. The downside was that at a certain point, the flush was too small to be entirely effective and repeated (and embarrassing) multiple flushes were needed, and besides reducing the intended saving, the immediacy became a bigger problem than the benefit of potential savings.

Repeating a message in the datacom scenario had the same general outcome – any savings that Frame Relay had over X.25 were lost as soon as the retransmission rate crept up, and even worse, the end user was left waiting while the retries mounted and latency became observable.

This principle applies to everything from answering the telephone to sending emails – if you make the message too concise, the “excuse me?” rate will climb and message integrity will be lost.

There are some really clever formulae and algorithms that can tell you what the best concision vs redundancy balance is, but in general nature has already kitted most of us with that equipment – we just need to pause a moment and let it inform us.

So next time you answer the phone, send an email, or put instructions on a user interface – pause a moment and consider if you need to be really curt and concise to get high transmission speed, or whether you need to layer in a bit of extra payload redundancy to allow the other person to reconstruct any lost information. (Loxton, 2003)

* see Robert Full’s fascinating TED Talks video on “Learning from the Gecko’s Tail


Matthew Loxton is the outgoing director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.

Knowledge Management: The Disease Model discussed

May 1, 2010



Some readers of my blog on the Disease Model of Knowledge Transfer might have justifiably wondered if I had been typing after a few beers. Admittedly it was a joy to write, but the back-story is actually quite solid and very interesting. (to me at least).

The issue is one of how we can take models built for one purpose, and apply them productively for a completely unintended purpose – in fact a large proportion of technological and scientific breakthroughs occur in exactly this way. Taking a way of seeing things from one domain to an unrelated domain means that you might impose a degree of artificiality, but still derive benefit from the change in perspective and the new questions that might be productively raised.
Philosophy of Science (PoS as it is hilariously abbreviated) calls this an “Instrumental Theory” approach, and people like Ernst Mach (he of speed-of-sound fame) proposed that many if not all scientific facts and theories were actually just instruments of explanation and not real in any strict sense. Electrons, he held for example, were just a useful concept to further investigation, and not real little ball-like things.

In this way one can plot the “infection characteristics” of obesity even though nobody is saying it is “really” infectious, and Richard Dawkins could propose that one could look at ideas themselves as infectious replicators.

What Prof.Dawkins was trying to do was instill a better understanding in his students as to how evolution works at the gene level, and he emphasized that while genes are teleologically blind and not intentional in any way, variation and selection could nevertheless shape populations of people carrying the genes. To understand evolution one needs to look at the world from the perspective of genes under selective pressure in which there are not enough resources for all of them to be replicated. Successful replicants tend to slowly increase in proportion to those that aren’t simply because it is the victors whose code gets replicated.

To explain this Dawkins proposed a thought experiment in which ideas themselves are seen as a replicator.

Picture a world filled with ideas that aren’t entirely stable and can mutate or join together, and which can replicate from one host mind to the next – sometimes suffering copying errors on the way. There are more potential ideas than minds to run them, and those that don’t get run by a mind die out.
Like the DeLorian or Cuban Heels.

The idea of “memes” (as he named them) itself went viral, and soon it became evident that it was a highly productive way of looking at ideas. Whether or not memes or even temes* are “real” is not terribly important – but what is, is the ability it gives us to do useful things and ask productive questions. *See Prof. Susan Blackmore’s Meme/Teme TED talk online

It allows us to ask why some ideas transfer more readily between people, why some are more stable, why some last longer. It allows us to look at Intellectual Property, Job Aids, and Knowledgebase articles in a new way, and to try new ways of getting ideas to behave in ways that we would prefer.

For example, it asks why gossip and the “corporate grapevine” are so compelling and so fast, and begs us to consider how we could put this to use or gather information from it. In Nonaka’s “Ba” a coffee area or watercooler is a place where people will gather to exchange information – the question is how to increase the work content of that without tunring it sour and putting people off.

A second area that I find an interesting parallel, is in the work of a psychologist of human behavior by the name of Eric Berne. In his Transactional Analysis approach, he proposed that there were somewhat stable “games” that seem to be enacted by people – especially in interpersonal settings. By “games” he didn’t mean fun and party-novelty kind of behavior – he meant that the on inspection one could make out somewhat persistent “rules”, “players”, and “roles”. Important to note however that the dehumanizing form of Game Theory described by the earlier Nash is not what I have in mind at all – that path leads to a dreadfully dehumanizing approach to people and drives highly destructive behavior.

Putting the two together (part of my own research activities) one comes to a perspective in which games and ideas “fight” for space in people’s minds and to get expressed as behavior. Just like genes, some memes work well together and some are mutually exclusive. We even know why (to an extent) some ideas push others out.
For example, if you are thinking of money and especially personal reward, some very specific parts of your brain fire up and they suppress activity in some other parts – you can’t easily run the two sets of circuits at the same time. This is why economic norms suppress social norms and why somebody who was perfectly happy to donate time and effort to do something for a “good cause” might be put off if you pay them to do it. It is also why rewarding people with money is a risky approach and tends to lead to conflict and gaming of the system of rewards.

If you doubt this, try the suggestion of researcher Dan Ariely, and at your next Christmas meal offer your Mother In Law $50 for her trouble. Let me know how that works out for you.

Putting another layer on this, some ideas, like pathogens or genes, have evolved specialized penetration or adhesion mechanisms that are usually very specific to the host they will use – and this is where we can start asking how to make some information easier to use, or stick better, or be easier to locate.

For example, although digital watches and instruments were very hip, they were actually less usable – it takes more processing power to turn a digital readout into what your brain uses than analogue.

You can literally measure the time difference between how long it takes to say if a specific time is still a long way off or near when viewing either an analogue clock-face or a digital readout. For this reason many time-critical instruments in a cockpit are analogue.

This is also why it is important to decide if information is something we want somebody to remember, or if we will just present it to them at the appropriate time. Getting people to memorize product codes or server paths is not as effective as simply presenting them with the information when the time is ripe.
It is also important in GUI design and in how IT needs to be appropriate.

At a higher level, when everybody knows that the “real rules of working here” mean that you aren’t actually allowed to use the eLearning materials or the open-door policy, then they behave according to the game rules of the “real ground rules” not the ones in the employee handbook.

In a future blog I hope to go into some of the practical implications and uses, but for now, this is my story, and I am sticking to it.


Matthew Loxton is the director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.

Knowledge Management in Practice: Service Center Operations.

March 25, 2010

One criticism of Knowledge Management is that its practitioners are reputed to be a cloaked brethren steeped in arcane practices and secret terminology.
Well not really, I haven’t actually ever heard any such criticism, but I am sure it sometimes crosses people’s minds when they wonder just what the practical benefit of KM is.

The truth is that KM is very much about the fine details of daily work performed in a way that the big picture says they should be (supporting the corporate mission), and good KM practices interlock across many disciplines in an organization to help an organization deliver on its objectives.

One place where this comes together very visibly is at the call-center where an organization’s customers go for help.

The Business Issue

Poor service at the call center can drive down a customer’s willingness to be a good reference for sales prospects, makes retention of maintenance contracts more difficult, reduces the likelihood that they will increase their use of the product portfolio, and drives up the cost to keep and maintain the customer.

It comes down to putting knowledge to work in the service of organizational objectives.

However whilst people love to know things, they find learning quite hard, and except for when fear is involved, learning takes a lot of effort, repetition, understanding and reflection, as well as needing a context.  Learning is also very expensive to bring about and to maintain – people forget, and memories are subject to mutation, combination, and simple fabrication.

The Approach

A principle in KM is therefore not to teach something unless you really need to – It is far more effective to present the person with the right information in an ergonomic and timely manner, than to teach it to them and hope they will remember it correctly in the future.
Instead of forcing people to remember transaction codes (which might change anyway), or procedures (which may be amended), or details of what products a customer uses (which you hope will change), you could rather present that information in its latest version, if and when they need it.

That means you might want to make judicious use of dropdowns, help texts, or a knowledge base to present the right information at just the right time – In fact, a major source of trouble in call-centers arises from staff who having struggled to find information, will keep a cache of private printouts, cheat-sheets, and code-lists (and then use those rapidly obsolescent versions forever).
At best, private stashes lead to inconsistent experience for the customer, or even outright harm (or at least a black mark on a quality audit).

Elimination of the perception of a need for hoarded information is thus a major objective in applying good Knowledge Management practices, so the information must be reliably at hand and useful to purpose.

Old Habits Die Hard

Eliminating knowledge hoarding is one of those places where learning is key, and needs to be built into the ongoing training of support/service staff.

One way to do this is to regularly hold open-book quizzes that walk staff through a given process or a scenario, and in which the first assessment question tests if they have the right document at hand. This enables you to detect when caches are being used and to provide quiz feedback through eLearning that points them to where the correct information is to be found. It also lets you see where the documentation is misleading or unclear.

Obviously to support this you will be best served by having a Learning Management System to deploy the eLearning material and to automatically grade quizzes etc., and in turn an Electronic Content Management System of some kind to help you keep document versioning and editing under wraps.

It also means that you need to know:

(a) What information is critical to operations, and

(b) Who has that knowledge.

Getting your SMEs to produce the documentation, the cheat-sheets, and the help texts and Job Aids, is the start of building and managing your intellectual assets, which allows you to recognize SMEs, and to reward knowledge-sharing behavior – You can of course limp along just fine without all this, and many companies do but there is a price to pay in ability to execute and in higher costs.

Higher costs can of course be reduced by off-shoring to lower-cost geographies, but then  you will need to quickly ramp up the capabilities of the offshore team and avoid simply creating a “your mess for less” situation in which they simply learn all your habits both good and bad.

The Presentation Layer

The second place that KM practices play a role in this scenario is the targeted use of Knowledge Bases – and that is plural. Unless you implement clever filtering, you will need to keep different-purposed KBs separate but linked.

Here are two principles applicable in a call-center/customer-support environment:

–          The level-one people are the arbiters of whether an article is a good one or not because “good” is whatever allows them to close a call at level one, and “bad” is one that may be technically perfect, but doesn’t put information in their hands in a form that they could use.

–          The level-one staff are also determine the template format and the structure of KB articles for their use, and decide what fits ergonomically in their environment.

Level 2 and 3 support should therefore produce KB articles for use by level 0/1 that would:  

  1. Enable them to close a case at level one, or failing that
  2. Gather the necessary information for use by other levels

The corollary to this is a principle that the higher levels should be trying to only get cases that are either exotic/complex or dangerous, by empowering level 0/1 to increasingly deal with everything else. They do so by giving them information that is ergonomically suited to level 0/1 operational needs.

A good practice to determine content requirements at level s 2-3 is to Pareto the cases being passed on by level 0/1

–          Firstly, by simple description frequency: to find repetitions that could potentially be addressed with a KB article and have a high hit-rate

–          Secondly, by the potential impact: to make sure that there are articles to deal with situations that could lead to a disaster if incorrectly handled.

At level one, a similar Pareto exercise can be carried out to look at cases that caused embarrassment or escalation, or which simply occur frequently and thus unnecessarily drain resources at higher levels.

Where the solution and its resultant KB article is not producible by level 0/1 staff, a Lean Principle approach is appropriate.
In this method the knowledge article topics are determined by level 0/1 and requested from levels 2 and 3 for fulfillment. Rewarding the best submission is likely to drive attention and response to these requests without producing too much “money for junk” behavior. However, it is wise to bear Kerr’s dictum in mind – don’t reward one thing and expect something else.

I hope that this article showed you how very practical and vital good knowledge-management practices are in a function as specific as customer-support.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it


Matthew Loxton is the director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.

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