Posts Tagged ‘Knowledge transference’

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

 

 

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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.

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Expert Wisdom and Slurping up Context

December 20, 2011

Most firms employ experts, and let’s be honest, don’t really use them much.

Considering that being smarter, that is fielding better knowledge resources, than one’s competition is a key survival criterion in business.
After all it is putting knowledge to work, or the actual deployment of Intellectual Capital that is typically what makes one firm survive and another die or get eaten.
So it is curious that many firms fail to leverage their expert’s discretionary effort, subject interest, and awareness.

In this blog I will provide a practical technique for using your experts better to increase your holdings of Intellectual Capital and for improving your firm’s awareness of its business environment, and perhaps even taking another step in the direction of becoming a learning organization.

In a recent webinar for the ic knowledge center I presented some ideas on Knowledge Management & IC and you are welcome to download the presentation slides from the ICKC website, or to join the conversation.

Objectives of Knowledge Management

Firstly, let’s just remind ourselves of the two main forks in Knowledge Management objectives

  1. Operational Excellence
  2. Niche Mastery

In the first we want to put knowledge to work and by doing so to reduce cost due to wasted effort and duplication, increase output and efficiency by replicating best practices, and by propagating knowledge across the organization.

In the second we want it to be seen that we do this, and make it clear to potential customers, investors, and would-be employees that we are masters of our craft and market niche.

Expertise is the gold, but alone it is insufficient – you can’t just have expertise, you must put it to work in as many ways as possible in order to make it a competitive advantage rather than just an “also-have”.

The Learning Organization

As I have outlined in previous posts, a major cause of corporate mortality is failure to learn – in essence a fatal learning disability.

One of the primary features of such a learning disability is an inward focus and a steady loss of awareness of what is going on outside the firm – such firms stop using external events and information to drive change within their organization.
For a firm to learn I believe there are several components that must be satisfied.

Inter alia, a firm must successfully engage in and master:

  • Environmental Awareness
  • Processing & Contextualization of external information
  • Deriving Synthesis & Meaning from external information
  • Adaptive Behavioral Change

A firm needs its experts to be aware of what is going on in the world and specifically in terms of their area of expertise, to have a high index of curiosity, and to do something with what they see.

Specifically, what I have in mind is that they will place a context around things that would otherwise simply pass the rest of us by unnoticed or unmarked, and as a result the firm will adapt to external conditions and innovate.

How an Expert Tags Novelty

What this means in real terms is that I want experts to be aware of things going on in the outside world, for example news items, events, technological changes, and market movements, and then to pull those into the firm, and provide an explanation of what this means, how it is relevant to what the firm does, and finally, to suggest actions that could put this to use for the firm.

In the presentation I give two examples, but your use is likely to be different and should be driven by your experts because they are the only portal through which new ideas can enter your firm without triggering the embedded immune systems that usually crush novelty as a form of error.

DIY

Here then are the steps I suggest you use in getting your experts to pull in Intellectual Capital for your firm

  1. Capture Content from external sources
  2. Provide a Context from the eyes of an expert
  3. Explain why this is Significant to the firm
  4. Add an Evaluation to test message integrity
  5. Provide a Social Environment for interaction
  6. Layer with advised Actions

Although hosting the content in a CRM, LMS, or Wiki will help, don’t prioritize IT systems over the people element – most KM practitioners I have polled believe that people-factors account for 80-90% of the success of this kind of thing, and technology only 10-20%. So spend proportionate amounts of time and effort on organizing, motivating, and helping the people and don’t get distracted by the shiny IT toys.

Conclusion

Experts are often underutilized and pigeon-holed into highly specific roles that reduce their effectiveness as agents of organizational learning that can boost operational performance and increase adaptive capacity. By deliberately encouraging your experts to retrieve found articles of information from the outside world and add value to them by explaining context and implication to the firm, and by specifying recommended actions, the expert can extend their value and that of the firm.

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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. Matthew is a peer reviewer for several Knowledge Management and Information Science Journals.

Gossip and Rumor – The Natural Instruments of Cultural Learning?

January 26, 2011

Gossip in organizations is almost universally seen as a negative phenomenon and one that in a work situation should be stamped out if at all possible, but what if there were valuable knowledge to be gained from gossip and information that could improve corporate governance and innovation?

For the purposes of this article I am going to conflate gossip and rumor to a large degree, although at a finer level of granularity the two become very different (McAndrew 2008)– Rumor deals more with externalities and objects, whereas gossip involves interpersonal relationships more.
Gossip is a natural human communicative phenomenon that is part of our evolution (McAndrew and Milenkovic 2002) that does several things, amongst which are articulation of what people are worried about, worries that are insufficiently known, instances of cheating, and changes of positional power or influence.

In case you get bored by the discussion later on, I am going to discuss a quick win first – mining the gossip in your organization as an early-warning system.

Early Warning System

Perhaps I should qualify “early” here – I don’t mean like you have a radar that can detect an oncoming wave of bombers long before they reach your shores, I mean in the sense that you get to sample what is already eating away at your foundations and which may give you an idea of what you are dealing with.
For this reason I strongly recommend that gossip be sampled regularly in order to get on the radar screen threats and weaknesses that might otherwise have been missed until they made themselves known more overtly and systemically.

The technique is to gather gossip without people being afraid that the intent is to track the source and to mete out punishment.
If people fear retribution, the gossip doesn’t go away and neither do the causes, it just goes silent – silencing gossip is the equivalent of switching off power to the radar screen.
The idea is not to encourage gossip as much as simply sample and monitor it.

Depending on the level of trust in your organization, there are two main ways to sample gossip:

  • Get them from the people in the organization who are the Connectors, those who lie at the nexus points in your Social Network
  • Provide staff with an anonymous postbox

OK, so I lied a bit, there is another and far more accurate way, but you aren’t going to like it.

Predictions

Gossip is often the stuff that people believe to be true or likely but that they feel uncomfortable to tell management. This might mean they just have a hunch, but it may also mean that they know something but won’t say it for fear of being embarrassed or the retribution that may visit them if they come clean.

This is where Prediction Markets come in, and boy are you going to hate this!

If you ask how a project is going or what the sales forecast is, you are likely to get the sanitized and upbeat evaluation, but if people bid on a market – even with fake money, something different happens, and you are likely to get a far more accurate picture. Asking “how is the project going” gets you a CYA response, but if there was a pseudo-stockmarket in which people bid on a specific question such as “Project X will achieve Y milestone by Z date”, the results are likely to be far more accurate.
Share-value in the market rises or falls according to the insider knowledge and conviction of buyers, and if the identities of bidders are unknown, it represents the most accurate sampling of the organizational knowledge that one can get.

The downside is that questions must be highly specific and need to be somewhat Boolean in nature (Manski 2006), and people must not be able to game the system for personal gain which is perhaps an insurmountable obstacle since you could get the equivalent of “insider trading” in which a person might deliberately sabotage a project to gain benefit from the market.
However, some academics show evidence that “bear raids” and other attempts to game the market tend to be short-lived and self-correcting (Hanson, Oprea et al. 2006)
On the other hand, economists were the same geniuses that said this about the real stock market prior to the Global Financial Crises that appeared from the shadows and ate about $8 trillion.

I told you that you wouldn’t like it! – but let’s talk very quickly about what gossip is really, after all.

Cultural Learning

In a very real sense gossip is a manifestation of “cultural learning” (Baumeister, Zhang et al. 2004), it emerges under several distinct conditions that have to do with (amongst others) detection of social cheating, message incongruity, fragmented information scent, and power vacuums. It also manifests when there are threats and insufficient information available. Rumors often start because of simple information underload.
In the case of social cheating, gossip functions as the channel to communicate cheating and as the foundation for what has been termed “Costly Punishment” (Henrich, McElreath et al. 2006)

Gossip not only communicates efficiently and fast, but also delivers peer pressure to correct non-conformance with norms of behavior – and this is where there is both a problem and an opportunity.
If organizational goals and policies are out of step with the organization’s social norms, then gossip will “correct” behavior to satisfy the social norms rather than the organizational goal, and people will tend to obey the “ground rules” (Davenport and Prusak 1998; Stacey, Griffin et al. 2000) rather than the institutional rules, and this bears repeating – if the social rules are at odds with your institutional rules, the social rules will win almost every time.
Peer pressure is faster and stronger than institutional power, so it is wise to sample the gossip stream to see if there is significant divergence between the two and measure the results of any remedial interventions for signs of success. – bringing the two closer together puts peer dynamics into play to achieve organizational objectives, rather than undermining or corroding them.

At a different level, sampling the gossip-stream also gives a very good picture of what the organizational culture really is like and to what degree the organizational mission as communicated is infectious, sticky, and resilient – A poorly crafted mission statement simply won’t stand up to the test.

“Ba” and the Water-Cooler Dilemma

One of the foundational objectives of Knowledge Management as a practice is to create both built-environment and mental space that fosters and encourages innovation and knowledge diffusion. In his conceptualization of “Ba”, the mental and physical knowledge terrain (Nonaka and Konno 1999), Nonaka proposes the “water-cooler” phenomenon – that more often than not breakthroughs and acquisition of critical knowledge happens in the spaces between formal meetings and workareas rather than in them, that sometimes the water-cooler and other social spaces see more real work than the formal work areas.
While this is certainly a strong argument, what is also clear is that when left to their own devices, people tend to talk about sports, celebrities, and gossip more than they do about work, and that even when they talk about work it tends to be more about their idiot boss, the lazy workmates, or which members of staff are in a romance or likely to leave, than about work itself.

This leads to somewhat of a dilemma – creating “Ba”, areas and time in which staff can mingle, chat, and relax certainly does increase the likelihood of real innovation and productive spread of knowledge, but it also increases at a larger rate the amount of gossip and non-work related talk.

Conclusion

Gossip isn’t going to go away anytime soon and while it can be reduced both by disciplinary action and removing some of the information-gap causes, it can also be monitored as a good error-signal and mined for content to flag things that are miss-matches between organizational objectives and social rules. Gossip is also a reliable indicator of organizational culture, and can be a valuable source of information that can lead to beneficial intervention programs.
Gossip is something that is likely to increase if knowledge management is done well, but the upside is that it becomes a mechanism for good just as much as it does for serving the craving people have to know about the personal foibles of the powerful and who is sleeping with whom in the office.

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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.

Bibliography

Baumeister, R. F., L. Zhang, et al. (2004). “Gossip as cultural learning.” Review of General Psychology
8: 111-121.

Davenport, T., H. and L. Prusak (1998). Working knowledge: how organizations manage what they know. Boston MA, Harvard Business School Press.

Hanson, R., R. Oprea, et al. (2006). “Information aggregation and manipulation in an experimental market.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization
60(4): 449-459.

Henrich, J., R. McElreath, et al. (2006). “Costly punishment across human societies.” Science
312(5781): 1767.

Manski, C. F. (2006). “Interpreting the predictions of prediction markets.” Economics Letters
91(3): 425-429.

McAndrew, F. (2008). “Can Gossip Be Good?” Scientific American Mind
19(5): 26-33.

McAndrew, F. T. and M. A. Milenkovic (2002). “Of Tabloids and Family Secrets: The Evolutionary Psychology of Gossip1.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology
32(5): 1064-1082.

Nonaka, I. and N. Konno (1999). The concept of Ba : building a foundation for knowledge creation. Boston MA, Butterworth-Heinemann.

Stacey, R. D., D. Griffin, et al. (2000). Limits of systems thinking Complexity and management; fad or radical challenge to systems thinking. London, Routledge.

 

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.

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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.

Silos, Leadership, and CoPs: How to stay on target and build expertise

October 13, 2010

Introduction

Over the years I have often heard bitter complaints about “Silos” within organizations, and have seen many attempts to dismantle or at least de-claw institutional “silos” – sometimes with limited and short-term success, and other times with deleterious results.

In this blog I argue that these divisional boundaries are not just a natural manifestation of vertical specialization common in almost all large organizations, but that they are also vital and indeed necessary for the smooth functioning of the organization itself.
The counterparts to silos, and ways to deal with the downside of silos will also be discussed.

Silos – The Causes and the Upside

Once any group reaches around 70-150 people, it naturally fragments and if you want people to focus on key objectives and deliverables, vertical structures are close to mandatory in order to achieve success.

The reason we need to have a Customer Support division in a vertical structure distinct  from Consulting, Sales, HR, etc. is that each needs to focus on deliverables and goals and not get distracted by what other groups are doing.

Paying attention to the job at hand and staying on track with the KPIs and metrics common to the others in that divisional group is vital to delivering the desired results.
So the silos have to stay – unless you can afford to have people just doing whatever they feel like doing.

A counterargument to this is of course the Open Source or Crowd Source example, where the job gets done simply because people who may only contribute a single thing will do so out of intrinsic interest.
However, while this is clearly a model worth looking into, at this point it is unclear whether these discretionary acts are actually a form of parasitism on the traditional work structures – i.e. people tend to only donate excess capacity to Open Source when they have already secured a formal occupation that pays the bills.

Silos represent one of the few strong points of Taylor’s “Scientific Management” – keeping goals clear, simple, and tightly measured usually results in achieving desired results with a minimum of waste of resources or time.

The Downside to Silos

The complaints about siloed behavior are not without cause and many firms have seen internecine warfare erupt amongst divisions over resources, and all of us must have witnessed poor Organizational Citizenship Behaviors that result from an “us vs them”” sentiment within a company.
It is even quite common to find that divisional goals and metrics are mutually destructive – that the success of one division leads to damage to other divisions, sometimes even to the point that one division will pursue goals in a manner that does irreparable damage to the organization as a whole.
You might even have wondered if that division wouldn’t be better off working for the competition!

I have seen cases in which a Networking Sales group of a company refused business on the grounds that it wasn’t in their group’s best interests, but which resulted in disqualification from tendering on far more lucrative tenders for several other divisions in the same firm.
Likewise I have witnessed a Consulting team achieving fantastic results and plaudits all round for implementations that caused long-lasting damage to the Customer Support group and resulted in severe customer dissatisfaction.
A final example is of a sales-team that overachieved quota, but at the expense of both the Consulting group and the Customer Support division, and which virtually crippled the R&D team for years.

In all these cases the achievement of narrow goals and single-minded focus of one silo caused more harm than good when viewed from the perspective of the entire organization.

A second area of damage is degradation of skills and diminished organizational learning.
Divisions are usually largely homogenous in terms of goals and objectives, but are often diverse in terms of functional expertise – several different divisions might each have similar roles, for example salespersons, project-managers, managers, and so on.
By segregating project managers from each other and embedding them in distinct divisions one achieves better focus, but at the cost of loss of knowledge and reduction in organizational learning.
Mistakes tend to be repeated across the organization and discoveries or innovations in one part of the firm may never be utilized or even known in another.

There are two basic approaches to dealing with the negative side of Silos

  1. Managing them
  2. Balancing them

Managing Silos – The Leadership Way

The conflict can be solved by leadership at the executive level, and senior managers need to be aware not only of where their division fits in the overall scheme of things, but also how their actions impact other divisions. Often the term “Leadership Team” is more a desire than actuality, and unless there is real teamwork between the managers of different interdependent groups, Organizational Citizenship Behavior (OCB) amongst staff is unlikely.

It isn’t enough to just be friendly in the boardroom – OCB must be visible in the actions of the leaders, and embodied in their presentations and memos, and other communications within their group must be peppered with references to cooperative activities and policies, and must contain specific examples of cooperation and interaction with other groups.

If this isn’t done consistently, continuously, and deliberately, an “Us vs Them” mindset in staff is the default that will slowly creep back in as the operant behavior pattern.

Celebrating the successes of other departments is a good example of highlighting that “they” are “Us”.

Balancing Silos – The Community of Practice Way

To solve the problem of fragmented disciplines and the degradation to Organizational Learning, it is necessary to re-connect the areas of expertise in a way that enables cross-pollination and information flow without diluting their departmental focus. The command & control hierarchy needs to stay according to the organizational chart, but a new, informal structure such as the Community of Practice (CoP) should be built in order to let SMEs communicate with and learn from their peers.

A CoP of Project Managers, for example, enables “lessons learned” to be spread beyond divisional walls, and also opens up the opportunity for innovation – such as when PMs in one division mature a process that can be imported as a practice by another.

CoP’s cannot however be created by fiat – you cannot simply decree that one exists and then expect it to flourish. Instead it occurs by intrinsic reward and attraction, and with the support of the organization through provision of time, space, tools, and acknowledgement.

What the formal organizational structures can provide is resource support in the form of infrastructure such as meeting time during office hours, occasional travel funding, stationary and supplies, meeting rooms and equipment, and the like.
The bigger support though is intangible – it is the explicit and tacit acknowledgement of expertise by management all the way up to the CEO, visible respect for the fact that the organization has experts in the domain, and some degree of deference to that expertise.

It becomes visible in simple but powerful messages – like when a management meeting is rescheduled or relocated to a different venue when it clashes with CoP meeting or event. This sends a clear signal that expertise is a highly-valued quality, and that demonstrating one’s expertise in an organized fashion earns respect.
That respect engenders awareness, identification, and a desire to contribute and participate.

Conclusion

Silos are a natural part of the corporate ecosystem and need to be retained, but like any organism, may need to be pruned or trimmed occasionally. Silos can be kept healthy by managing them properly in ways that show the interdependency of each and its relationship to the success of the whole, and by balancing the formal structures of the Silos with the informal structures of expertise to be found in Communities of Practice.

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

~~~

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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