A Knowledge Exchange Strategy for Enterprise

This is a transcript of a presentation I plan to give at 3:10 on Thursday, June 4.


First, I’d like to thank the Defense Acquisition University for inviting me to speak with you today. I’m incredibly honored to have the opportunity to talk about my passions. I’m very grateful and humbled to be here at George Mason University.

I’d like to make a small amendment to the program. In the hour we have, I’m going to link Social Networking to the exchange of knowledge inside an enterprise. It is part of a greater strategy that connects Social Networking to Knowledge Management and Formal Learning. Back in February when I was invited to speak, I planned to go into the mechanics of a Knowledge Exchange strategy that ties to E-Gov models and research. In the last few months, such exciting and compelling stories have sprung from bringing Social Networking to a mid-sized commercial organization that I have to share what’s happening, and what comes next in a strategy around enterprise knowledge exchange, in terms of supporting Communities of Practice.

My disclaimers right off the bat are such: slide listing disclaimers spell out LETSI I work full-time for a Fortune 500 company, though I’m not here today on their behalf (even though they’re awesome). I’m also a chairing member of the Learning, Education and Training Systems Interoperability group — LETSI, for short, and they are also quite a remarkable group to honor me with membership, collaboration and support. I also consult independently and I’m happy to take your money. If this hour resonates with you, I’ll be happy to talk with you offline about my company, LETSI, consulting, Twitter, dogs… whatever. There’s my disclaimers.

Let us start with getting to know me, not my affiliations. I’m 36 years, married and out of college for 13 years with two very young daughters and the aforementioned Mr. Chompers. I’m on my 7th job since college (first wife). Job #5 was as the content developer for Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL), which is an initiative out of the Office of the Secretary of Defense that is most known for shepherding this specification for E-Learning called SCORM. My job was to decipher the specs and figure out how to build SCORM content so that ADL could explain how to do it to everyone else. I have a background in teaching and Curriculum & Instruction. I mention all this because it might help you to know that I’m an expert in something as opaque (yet concrete) as SCORM; and, even though I am on the lower edge of the demographic known as Generation X, my career has taken the sharp turns and rapid evolutions of many of the 20-to-30-somethings who get lumped into Generation Y.

I also mention this because you knowing a bit about me is important; not just to me because I have a lot of Generation Y-like tendencies and an admitted need to be recognized as a unique snowflake unlike any person you’ve ever met before ever… but because knowing who I am is just as important as the information I’m going to share with you. slide on provenance In Knowledge Management circles, this concept is called provenance and it allows you to relate the credibility of information to the credibility of the source. So let me tell you a little bit more about me for your voir dire. I went to three different colleges as an undergraduate. I’m a first generation Latino (on my mother’s side). In my K-12 education, I had to skip Kindergarten and jump right into 1st grade in an inner-city Chicago bilingual school. My parents also moved us around a lot growing up and I ended up going to seven different school systems before I was 15 years old. I lived on a farm in western Wisconsin from when I was 11 until I was 14. I was awkward at making friends until I transferred to a suburban Milwaukee high school and then moved on to college.

I mention these things because the sum of these personal development experiences forged and eventually honed an ability to adapt to new environments with new peer groups. slide on ass formula With each new experience, I learned to improve on my assimilation “formula.” Key to successfully connecting with new people is to spend a lot of time up front observing while leveraging and cherishing the first good human connection you make. If you’re a disciple of Stephen Covey, you might sum up this principle as “Seek First to Understand.” (Other learnings as an adult involve always volunteering to buy the first round at every social gathering for the first five weeks with a new group, but that is another topic for offline conversation.)

This talent I honed for observation and “sense making” (admittedly colored by relativity), supplemented with methods from my professional training as an educator — this talent has empowered me to help forge effective teams in a workplace, whether I’ve been on a team of middle school teachers, school librarians, web developers, learning technologists or cross functional/cross-discipline teams in large enterprises.

In several professional experiences over the last thirteen years, whether I was teaching or coordinating technology for public schools, developing commercial websites and online games, prototyping E-Learning and advocating international standards or even working in small and large companies in the commercial marketplace, I’ve noticed time and again some very similar dysfunctions, both of which imperil organizations and the development and retention of their people.

Perhaps these sound familiar to you..

Unplanned service disruptions impact team members who aren’t “in the know.”

Critical skill gaps keep employees from developing, and failure to anticipate these gaps cripple organizations from growing.

Wasteful exercises — especially those caused by duplicative and competitive internal efforts often demotivate people while expending resources that would otherwise sustain or grow the organization in other ways.

The need to be quick and flexible increases, both for organizations and for people — but the resources both can work with seem to be evaporating.

Groupthink and/or bureaucracy seems to be killing innovation (or even just the things you need to do right now).

Continuous Improvement efforts, programs like Six Sigma and LEAN — these are effective if you can guide the organizational culture to embed a shared vision of continuous improvement into its DNA. Here’s the trick, though: a shared vision of continuous improvement is something you can’t mandate to your employees through compliance training. Real “alignment” doesn’t happen through a series of quarterly weekend retreats with your top 200 leaders. Pizza lunch & learns won’t build the grassroots, holistic employee-engagement vital to an agile and innovative organization. These are tactics, and as much as continuous improvement programs like Six Sigma and LEAN can eliminate “waste” (however you want to define “waste”) from your organization, these programs — just like lunch and learns — are tactics; maybe operational practices in as much as they’re planned. They’re not strategies.

Strategy — real strategy — is tough. It needs to be simple enough to be explained and shared. Strategy also needs to be big, bold and audacious. Strategy requires a vision. It needs to captivate people, not with awesome and mighty flow charts and processes but with ideas, pictures and stories of how the end state will look and feel.

The vision I share with you today involves an organization seemingly removing the layers of leadership between the front-line worker and the leader at the very top of the organization, while retaining a familiar distributed leadership structure for the purposes of team-coaching and obstacle removing. In such an organization, the competitive functional silos translate to communities of people with shared interests, but the organization feels more atomic — where every person regardless of position is empowered to use their own matrix of resources to perform better and faster.

In such an organization, there aren’t just communication plans, but actual communication — between the organization and its employees, business partners and customers. Continuous Improvement is also more than a plan — it’s actual way of working and living at every level from the individual, concurrent with improvement in workflows and processes; concurrent with filling the voids in customer service which builds the relationships that organizations need to survive and grow long term.

I’m helping organizations do this today with a cycle of knowledge exchange.

I wish I had a sexier name for this idea than the “Knowledge Exchange Cycle.” “The Bacon Exercise” doesn’t lend itself implicitly (even if bacon is delicious).

A boring name, however, is descriptive and helps me be very transparent with you about how organizations can leverage the activities that their employees are already participating in, learn more about itself, find the performance gaps, fill them and dig deeper as they repeat the cycle. I have been putting my thoughts together on this subject for a very long time, it was only in January and February of this year that I formally put those thoughts into any kind of cohesive statement. I believe there is an ongoing relationship between user-generated knowledge that occurs in social networking, knowledge management and formal learning.

The big picture is really pretty simple: employees in an organization share and exchange information with each other in a variety of formats using a variety of tools. A group of librarian-type people use tools, some the same and some different from your contributing employees, to collect, codify and tag all that information in a way that the organization can now and forever know things about itself in a lasting organizational way. Learning professionals take in the gestalt from the employee interactions, much of which is through collaboration or social media AND look for the gaps in the official knowledge that’s being collected — and those Learning Professionals fill in the gaps they find through formal instructional methods and then wash, rinse & repeat.

It’s a recipe not just for institutional knowledge exchange but also for continuous improvement. There are always gaps in individual, team and organizational performance to fill in. With each cycle you reduce the impact and severity of such performance gaps— and by continuously chipping away at performance gaps an organization steadily and assuredly improves because unlike learning “events” that never seem to fully solve the organization’s issue de jour (chances are that no single event ever did), continuous improvement is being embedded into the culture of the organization.

Rather than walk you through each step of this cycle, in the time we have today, I’d like to go more in depth on the beginning of this cycle, focusing on Social Networking and Communities of Practice. This allows me to share actual stories about what’s already happening in an organization that is adopting this strategy.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m on Twitter. People who “twitter-know” me will tell you that I’m pretty active. It took me a while to figure out what I would do with Twitter. Not just why I needed it, but why I should invest my time at all with it. I’ve maintained several blogs since 2002, and personal websites since 1997. At 140 characters a message, I failed to immediately see what I had to gain by being on Twitter. Yet, I’m on. For the past year, I’m reading and posting throughout the day, everyday. I tap into the flow of information I’ve subscribed to — mostly my personal network or “tribe” (if you’re into Seth Godin’s “Tribes”) which consists of a few flesh-and-blood geek friends but mostly the voices in the learning technology community that I most respect. To spice up that mix, I subscribe to a number of people from other technology or social networking communities who tinker more than market themselves. I like those people — they’re where the action really is and when they share something, it’s usually something pretty spectacular.

Now, in a professional context, employees — all employees — need and crave a medium to connect with each other. Technology organizations, the ones that are thriving or turning themselves around (IBM, Cisco) figured that out. More traditional enterprises have taken their time in recognizing this need.

Once Twitter made sense to me, I saw its potential as a tool to connect employees to each other. Maybe not Twitter itself, but at least something like Twitter. Something that could be secured yet accessible would be ideal to kick start social networking in an organization. It just so happens that I’ve been on a bit of a lucky streak since summertime 2008.

Like any service that’s popular, there are clones of Twitter. At a conference called TechCrunch, one of the Twitter competitors won an award. The service is called Yammer and it markets itself as “Twitter for Enterprise.” Only people with the same domain name in their email address as you can join your company’s network, which can be started by anyone in the organization.

As soon as the news got out (on Twitter) about Yammer, I signed up a company I work with. I invited a few people I knew who would be interested, and the same four or five people were who stuck with it from September until early May 2009. Before May, there were a total of 100 people signed up on Yammer, and most had signed up, clicked a few links, read a few threads and found no value in it as it was. They never came back.

In April of this year, celebrity and actor Ashton Kutcher was on Larry King and eventually Ashton and the guys who created Twitter ended up on the Oprah Winfrey show, which exposed a much wider audience to Twitter. Ashton Kutcher had made a bet with Larry King that he would get a million “followers” on Twitter before CNN’s Twitter account did. Among the people watching were middle managers, vice presidents and presidents of companies. In one of the companies I work with, these people started to sign up for Yammer. They may not have known what Yammer was, let alone what Twitter was, but they knew both services were very similar, but one was for business, specifically. Those managers signed on, looked around, saw only a handful of nerds using it actively and stayed off the radar. They asked questions here and there but they were lurking.

The president of a company I work with approached his communications team and announced that he wanted to get on Twitter. His main communications guy commutes with me on Chicago’s mass transit system. This is where flesh-and-blood social networking pays off. This communications guy was one of my four Yammer users. He told the president that if he wants to connect with people inside the organization, “We already have this service called Yammer you can use.” The President thought that was awesome, and he signed up, got in the system, connected to me and the four other active users… and he must’ve thought it was pretty lame.

So the president of this organization used his corporate blog to announce that he was on Yammer, and everyone else should sign up, too. This was the very beginning of May. We had 106 users officially in this network. It’s grown about 100 people a day since then, almost flat yet consistent growth. As of today, we are at about 2500 members, out of a total organization population of 16,000. Let me recap this in a different way so the context and magnitude doesn’t escape you. We have 16,000 employees. This is a tool that was not approved by IT, or Legal, or Communications or Marketing, or Records Management or the business itself. This was a tool that was just sitting there for almost a year and in a blog post, a leader just made something legitimate that was, until that moment, completely underground.

This singular event forced the organization to finally have a constructive, valuable and real dialogue about social networking. In one thread of this greater dialogue, the president made it clear he was anxious to see employees take initiative, engage themselves in how business gets done and remove the organizational barriers that get in the way of great customer service. In the five weeks since its adoption, here are some examples of how that’s beginning to happen:

Server failure response and volunteering to monitor.

Swine Flu pandemic resource and stock re-allocations for customers

Ad-hoc discussions between IT, Enterprise Support and various business initiatives to quickly leverage the same online search and retail capabilities for other services.

Leveraging field experts for developing formal training as opposed to working with an assigned Subject Matter Expert

What I hoped for, and what we’re seeing a month past the seismic event, is what is getting the organization’s legal and security and document management people opening up about social networking. Social networking in the context of a Knowledge Exchange Cycle is where conversations, informal and formal, begin. Tools like Yammer or Twitter allow people to mingle with the entire population and have informal exchanges. They can also group up with groups they create themselves and hold slightly more focused discussion threads. The ability to identify with segmented groups is very important, because in social networking and especially in the workplace, groups tend to gather around causes and projects. A social networking medium like Twitter or Yammer is good for the individual to share with others the kind of knowledge that can best be described as “This is what works best for me.” The answers to any question, then can be quite varied. Helpful in the moment, no doubt — but fleeting.

To move solutions from “This is what works best for me” to “This is what works best for US,” we need tap the mind share of communities of practice. Let me explain.

There’s a book by NYU professor Clay Shirky (“Here Comes Everybody” @cshirky), and Shirky identifies three levels of group work: Sharing, Cooperation and its bigger sister, Collaboration and Collective Action.

Sharing creates the fewest demands on the participants — Twitter and Yammer are great examples of this. Sharing allows for a maximum amount of individual freedom while lowering the barrier to group participation. With only a few simple community-adopted practices built into the architecture of these systems, you can make public or private postings, you can reply openly or within your own inner circle of friends. You can tag messages with keywords of your choosing, just like Flickr’s folksonomies, and people can follow a stream of messages related directly to any given tag/keyword.

Cooperation is harder than just sharing. Cooperation requires you, as an actor, to change your behavior to synchronize with people who are changing their behavior to synchronize with you. Unlike sharing, where you could be exchanging with everybody and anybody in the network, when you cooperate with someone, you know whom you are cooperating with. Conversations are a form of cooperation. People who know each other like to talk. Instant messaging, discussion threads — these are all forms of cooperative exchanges.

Collaboration is more involving as a form of cooperation. Collaboration increases the tension between individual and group goals: no one person can take credit for what gets created, yet the ideas or projects could not exist without the participation of many. The real difference between sharing (as a form of knowledge exchange) and collaboration is that collaboration requires that at some point in the exchange, some decisions will be made.

Collaboration is where Communities of Practice fit, in Shirky’s levels. It is more structured than a sharing network. It is less structured than a Knowledge Management system which is a form of collective action.

In this way, I think Communities of Practice can funnel information to the Knowledge Managers or librarians in the organization. I’ll explain.

Think of your typical workplace group, coming together to determine the “best practices” for something as common as records retention. You need buy-in from everyone working on this effort for it to be successful. Not only do the participants in such an effort need to get on the same page, but they need to consider what’s best for the group above what might be best for each individual’s department. Individuals, representing themselves and maybe their departments, come together with wildly different expectations at the onset. They each carry with them specific needs. An individual’s needs might not align with others in the group; some needs and goals may work against another member.

Everyone can get what they need out of such exchanges, but there’s little guarantee that everyone can get what they want. As a group action, that’s why I think collaboration is harder to get right than sharing because decisions made in groups, by groups and for groups require negotiation. Therein lies the product of successful collaborations: making sure everyone gets what they need out of the exchange.

Now, whether in the workplace or for personal efforts, people collaborate through the tools they have at-hand to exchange information with each other. In the workplace, what are these tools?

Traditionally, meetings are the tools of groups of people; conference calls are employed. Email, instant messaging and shared network hard drives or servers are where the digital byproducts of cooperative work reside. These tools all get the job done, but not in a way that makes it easy for people to pull together all the information that relates to a domain of particular interest, let alone a specific piece of information in its original context. Why? Because each tool stores information in its own way. Unless you harness a unified communication tool like Lotus Notes or Microsoft Unified Messaging or (the new hotness) Google Wave — it’s up to the individual to make the connections for related messages in each tool. Desktop search only gets you so far.

The context in which knowledge is imparted is very important, and it clears up questions like “Who said what?” “What decisions were made?” “What did so-and-so actually mean?” These nuances are vital for groups to make good decisions with shared understanding about what was actually decided.

So, back to our groups forming in a “sharing” network, like Twitter or Yammer. When an informal group self-identifies (or gets identified) that its needs, goals, ambitions, scope, audience, etc are growing beyond the informal niceties of a larger social network, there needs to be a channel for these groups to mature. I see a natural progression beyond the informal groupings that happen in a “sharing” social network.

Collaboration Sites allow individuals to organize as Communities of Practice. Let me share with you what’s happening in this space…

In this organization of 16,000 people, there are roughly 1,800 leaders. These leaders are people managers — so anyone who has direct reports under them, for this purpose, is a “leader.”

Some of these leaders are in the same group, so those co-horts have a regular line-of-sight with each other. Maybe not too surprising, however, outside of their immediate peers, most of these leaders may not ever connect with leaders outside of their immediate group outside of when a project pulls them together. There are various types of field people — this organization has retail branch stores, distribution centers, traveling sales representatives, international sourcing agents — and each of these groups have leaders, too. Even as a sub-group of “field” leaders, they don’t have a way to connect with each other on similar issues.

What are some concerns all leaders, regardless of what market space you’re in — what are some concerns all leaders share?

I have a quick list that I threw together — not an inclusive one, but (probably) similar to your words:

How do I get the most out of the talent I have on my team?

How can I be a better coach?

How should I deal with “this” issue?

What can I do to leverage the diversity of my team?

Who can coach me?

A tool like Twitter or Yammer — “sharing” networks — would help leaders connect with each other to find peers who are sharing the same struggles. Leaders as a group might be able to facilitate richer conversation threads these tools. I see some challenges with using a sharing network in this scenario. For one, while I rally for transparency at all levels, there are undoubtedly sensitive personnel issues that no amount of generalizing will protect. Open discussion about strategies (like compensation, retention, bonuses, career development, etc) — talking about such things as they’re being developed in a company-wide forum would not be helpful. A Collaboration tool is needed.

Leadership development is a critical need. Traditionally, the organization I’m working with provides in-person, instructor-led training for Stephen Covey and Ken Blanchard – produced classes and many internally developed programs. This usually requires bringing in a group of leaders from the field for a week at a time and putting these participants up in a hotel. Every week a new batch of leaders, but we have, over the course of the year, 1800 leaders flying to and from the corporate headquarters to their field locations, several times in a year.

What I’m seeing this year is that this kind of leadership development simply isn’t sustainable.

From a cost perspective, in a down economy, an organization can’t afford to go without decision-makers for an entire week when every potentially customer-facing person is needed to compete in a very tight market.

From an effectiveness standpoint, there’s got to be more ways leaders of people can have a richer and deeper learning experience than the bubble that is classroom training.

From a green perspective, moving people around (and still paying to move people around) is impractical.

The three drivers — cost, effectiveness and green — are probably a solid enough business case. So let me add a little more drama, to keep this interesting.

You see, with the group of leaders I’m discussing — their development is critical; but it is not the only challenge this group of leaders must now face. This economy has forced senior leaders in many organizations to task learning professionals, like you and me, how all employees get developed.

Pushing E-Learning classes is not enough, and arguably E-learning, in the form of one hour slide shows that are delivered by a Learning Management System — that E-Learning hasn’t been enough, ever. In a good economy, I think the gaps in the quality and consistency in employee development are masked by good market conditions. It’s simply easy to make money and perform well enough if you have a market conditions that work in your favor, just like it’s easy to bike for 30 miles if the trail is paved and with a gentle slope. In a bad economy and a tight marketplace, the existing gaps in customer service, order accuracy and soft skills are highlighted, because the right time to fill these gaps isn’t now — it was a year ago, when there was a budget for such reinforcement. In a down economy, the training budget for employee development is always impacted first — just when the need is greatest.

So let’s sum up the challenges for these 1,800 leaders of people:

The need for employee development more critical than in any time since there was a formal, dedicated team for employee development

Traditional delivery vehicles, like E-Learning or Instructor-led Training, either don’t scale or can’t be sustained for a number of good reasons.

Constraints suggest that the best way left for employee development is for leaders to coach their teams, becoming responsible, as leaders, for the development of their team.

…All while these leaders develop as actual “leaders.”

So this organization has some compelling leadership challenges. To support them, the same players from around the organization who gathered collectively a month ago to tackle the challenge of social networking are the same actors who are, concurrently, tackling how to implement collaboration tools.

This organization is, at this very moment, piloting Microsoft Sharepoint to support its leaders as a Community of Practice. Sharepoint is a web-based tool built to help workgroups collaborate.

A typical Sharepoint site shared calendars, document libraries, wikis, blogs, surveys, and lists. While Sharepoint is marketed for collaboration, a trend I’m starting to see among my colleagues in other organizations is the use of Sharepoint as a tool for collaborative learning.

In the site we’re piloting, our 1,800 leaders will have a blend of formal instructional activity (coordinated events, facilitated discussions, links to launch E-Learning) with informal learning activity (open discussion threads, reading groups, video vignettes, user-added links) in the same space they’ll develop their own knowledge and guidance and share amongst each other.

The notion of collaborating virtually (maybe even just “collaborating”) is new for many of our leaders; collaboration is just hard. To onboard this group of leaders, activities that bring them to use the tools are required to build comfort and confidence — and eventually accountability and ownership.

Any audience new to working and/or learning virtually needs to learn how to share (group / self), how to collaborate (self = group) and how to lead or facilitate others (self / group) in virtual environments.

To onboard this group of leaders, the focus of the organization’s employee development function is transforming. Remember that these 1,800 leaders are assuming the responsibility to develop employees themselves, and not as a function of a Human Resources or Information Technology. This shift is happening because there isn’t a capacity to meet the demands the business has by a centralized training function.

So when the training people aren’t training… “people…” do they still have a place in the organization?

I think they do. By leveraging sharing tools, like in this case, Yammer, and collaborative tools, as is happening with Sharepoint, the group responsible for employee development is now becoming the group responsible for teaching the organization the skills with which to develop itself — and that is more than a full-time, ongoing job.