Knowledge Management
June 1, 2015

Learning, innovation and change: What works

Delays in decision-making or about-face decisions, staffing delays, uncertain policy or strategy directions, frequent turnover, loss of valuable expertise, resource constraints, reorganizations – these are but a few of the challenges that managers have to deal with.

Remarkably, they are adept at doing so. Work gets done, expected client service levels are achieved, and people adapt to organizational changes whether welcome or not. But something nags at managers. They can’t help but think that their work unit’s performance could still be better. They can’t help but think that they are not getting the kind of employee engagement that they’d really like. However, they are busy with just getting the job done as it is and the 80:20 rule would suggest a herculean effort to get some marginal increase.

To those who dare, going beyond the status quo is difficult and uncertain. But it is worth it. I’ve known such managers and although they were few in number, they garnered the deep and lasting respect of staff and colleagues alike. They are realists in that they see what works and what doesn’t but they are not content with just keeping the wheels on. They genuinely want to improve the work and encourage the members of their team (they tend not to refer to people as “staff” or “human resources” or even “employees”) to succeed. These managers are open to seeking the advice of their team and others, not just in small operational or organizational matters, but in significant areas of management practice as well. This article is addressed to those managers.

The nirvana state is something called “best practice” – a largely misunderstood term, especially in the field of management practice. It might be better to use the term “what works” instead, for indeed there is much that can be learned from others and it’s the enduring lessons and fundamental principles that can provide the greatest benefit. The danger in seeing what works (or “best practice”) elsewhere is to naively try to copy it without truly understanding the principles and context within which it has worked or not. The key is to adapt versus adopt.

What works best is almost always determined by the people involved. Work gets done by the people in the work unit and each person brings a mix of skills, knowledge and experience to bear. Whether a new-hire or an old-timer, each person is learning about the job. The question really is: how well are they learning and how does it improve the work and the workplace. Here we are talking about all facets of learning. We learn individually, socially and culturally. We learn hard and soft skills and we gain knowledge, experience and wisdom. We learn how to work more effectively in collaboration with others and we learn who to trust.

This leads us to the key issue for managers who dare to go beyond status quo: how to manage in a way that facilitates and takes advantage of learning, innovation and change? Do you have to radically change the way you manage? No, absolutely not. A good manager is a good manager, but they may be able to improve their work unit in surprisingly easy and effect ways.

Many organizations and managers have tried to do this through the addition of a relatively recent management discipline called ‘knowledge management” (KM). Now before you drop this article and run screaming from the room, let me assure you that the principles and practices of KM are not scary, nor costly, nor fluff. There is a widespread misunderstanding about KM. Smart managers and organizations around the world have made simple changes or additions in their workplace that have proven hugely beneficial, if not critical, for organizational success. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I have never seen an organization that needed to make significant changes or investments in order to gain a significantly positive result.

I worked in the Program Sectors of Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat from 2000-2004. During those years our Learning & Knowledge Management Program was tiny but one of the Assistant Secretaries (Assistant Deputy Minister level) told me that his people would not be able to accomplish their work were it not for what we did. I humbly submit to you that this is the measure of a KM program. It was not costly, nor fluff, and I can boastfully state that it was recognized as an exemplary practice in government more than once.

Indeed, as the chairperson of the Interdepartmental Knowledge Management Forum from 1996-2011, I saw similar cases of huge benefit for relatively small but appropriately placed effort. Unfortunately most federal organizations tried to incorporate KM during those years but the vast majority only had limited success at best. The difference between the successes and the others was stark and saddening.

Based on this cumulative experience, combined with the results of an extensive research project, there seems to be three key success factors. First and foremost, the focus of the KM effort must be on the work of the organization. Obvious, you say? Yes, certainly, but only the very few successful KM programs did this. All the others did not. Sadly, many organizations spent a lot of time and energy doing nice things in the name of KM like implementing tools for collaboration, or building repositories for lessons learned, or getting departing experts to try to document everything they knew.

These aren’t bad in and of themselves, but they don’t directly help the people do their work. The manager must succeed at getting his/her unit’s work done and done well, and the good manager wants to do it better or faster. The KM program should not exist apart from helping the manager accomplish his/her work objectives.

Second, the knowledge, experience, and skills of the people in the organization are the critical tools for getting work done, and any successful KM program needs to be able to collaborate with the manager and their team members to help them help themselves. Yes, this is indeed a partnership and it must be so. The role of the KM program is to support the manager in organizing, developing, coordinating, etc, activities that facilitate the most effective learning, innovation, and other positive changes in the work unit through the direct involvement of the people in the work unit.

Third, social leaning is the most powerful and comprehensive practice for team learning, collaborating, sharing, innovating, and retaining in the conduct of improving the work of the group. For example, holding a team meeting may or may not be a really useful learning vehicle depending upon the content of the meeting and how it is done. Have you ever been in team meetings that were very boring with no useful benefit? An After Action Review (AAR), however, is a team social learning technique used widely by the U.S. military, among many other organizations, as a powerful yet brief and simple way to learn valuable lessons, develop insightful ideas and make concrete improvements. The simple practices of the AAR can very easily be adapted to team meetings to make them hugely useful and this is an example of just one of many techniques which could benefit work units.

A number of years ago, the National Managers Community published a series of useful aids for managers, one being the Managers Toolkit. Practices associated with social learning such as the AAR and those in the toolkit can be easily incorporated into regular management activities with very powerful results. In fact, they may best be incorporated by individual managers rather than mandated as part of an organization-wide strategy so they can be adapted to the context by the respective manager.

There are many such KM practices that can be immensely useful for organizations, without incurring significant expense or effort. A small investment, focused appropriately and organizationally located to most effectively support the client manager is all that’s required.

After conducting a survey of senior managers in one government organization on key management challenges and issues that need to be addressed, I summarized the results and subsequently presented the findings to the executive committee. While all the senior managers were strongly supportive of the findings (they were, after all, their issues and ideas), the Associate Deputy Minster asked what it was all going to cost and then immediately terminated the discussion, saying their meeting agenda was a long one and they needed to move on. Lesson learned? Some managers just don’t understand and don’t have the time, or can’t make the time to find out. Perhaps they are expecting the hammer to drop with a large price tag for software or a large project or a proposal for some changes in processes or procedures. Perhaps they think it can be left to the Human Resource or IT group to sort out without “bothering” the line managers. Or, perhaps they are satisfied with the status quo and don’t see the need, preferring to focus on the latest hot issue of the day.

Whatever the context, good managers exist throughout organizations. They want to manage well and they are looking for tips and tricks to do so. Knowledge management has a broad array of tools and techniques that can be a strong ally to these managers in accomplishing their objectives.

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