NASA training ... tough to follow _these_ guys around.
NASA training ... tough to follow _these_ guys around.

Capturing Knowledge: A “New” Critical Requirement for Business Projects

Summary: As we dive into questions like “how do I get information required to run my business?”, we inevitably get to capturing knowledge and passing it along. Why is this so difficult? We are thinking backwards ... (First in a series)

As we continue the deep dive into the process of digital transformation, we inevitably get to training – more specifically, training on …

  1. … the business / functional domain, and [your company’s] self-image and self-awareness in that domain (who we are, and how we talk)
  2. process & deliverables expected out of recurring and ad hoc information requests (what info, when do you need it, and what format?)
  3. … the technical skills required to access & manipulate data and the reporting solutions that currently exist (where is the data and how do I get at it?)
  4. … the softer skills – asking better questions, anticipating response and follow-up questions, and delivering simple, insightful, elegant answers

Most organizations will jump to #3, and devote a lot of time, energy, experimentation and opinions on building a destination (portal?) that aggregates and presents all of your existing information in a “user friendly” way. Unfortunately, this is too often perceived as the easiest item to solve (just buy [something] to make our problem go away), but still complicated enough to make people conclude that the lack of such a place (information repository?) is the root cause of their inability to use information effectively.

Ok, there is typically some truth in this idea, but the reality is that documentation for / knowledge of your reports and data is simply not captured well. It’s tough to locate, difficult to read, and tries to communicate complex topics with soundbites & PowerPoint slides. This is why most organizations opt for On the Job training (aka Follow That Guy Around); background information and training material are helpful, but they must be delivered to you in person, by the author.

Capturing Knowledge

The “magic” is not the environment that brings us the content – it’s the creation (and maintenance) of the content itself. Unfortunately, some organizations don’t equate the value of knowledge capture with the value of the business outcomes the system delivers; a project that delivers sustainable success will deliver both. All too often, creating and maintaining effective training documentation, and capturing knowledge about how things work, is typically not in the team’s job description or performance objectives.

A related topic – Super Users. Many organizations have some folks that are “go to” people, who know the systems and interactions intimately – but only because they have a self-motivated and altruistic interest in knowing and sharing. It can be difficult to create such a community of support unless the duties, tasks, and knowledge sharing done by the Super Users is clearly spelled out as part of their performance objectives. The result – knowledge transfer takes place only when there is time available. When the ToDo list gets too big, these folks are actually incented to not do the knowledge transfer; get the job done quickly, but not necessarily sustainably.

The root issue: we have to teach the organization the value of content, as well as the skills to create effective content. Effective content communicates understanding and gets the reader up to speed and productive without the author / Super User having to be physically there to explain.

Unfortunately, when someone wants to pitch in and create this level of documentation, but doesn’t understand how to effectively communicate, they may overcomplicate the process they are trying to teach. Actually, I think it’s a bit of human nature, encouraged by the power of Google. Everyone wants to consume data analytics, visuals, and excellently formatted, easy to read, helpful training and reference material – but no one wants to create these things. Just like everybody wants an expert on the payroll, but no one wants to train / develop / pay for that expertise; everyone wants the ability to call a Super User, but no one wants to be a Super User.

Consciously or not, organizations are hoping people will raise their hand, and out of the goodness of their heart will put in the time and attention to be a Super User or write effective documentation. This is where the internet tricks us – this kind of thing happens out there all the time. So, if you had a fraction of 1% of the folks out their capturing their knowledge, you would have a document that benefits from the thousands of authors. Unfortunately, that doesn’t scale to the typical business – a fraction of one percent of your population probably translates to 1 person in every location (plant, office, warehouse) for your business.

I call this the Law of Large Numbers –  yes, I know that’s not strictly correct

Another unfortunate strike – typically, when someone wants to help but doesn’t understand how to effectively communicate, they may overcomplicate the process they are trying to “teach”. Simply put, the fact that the stuff doesn’t exist, and we don’t have stuff to share, is symptomatic of more fundamental issues …

  • We don’t know how to build effective material
  • We reward the act of building, not the effectiveness of the build (by rewarding reuse)

In the rest of this series, I will dive into solutions for these challenges, but for now – what do you think? Have you seen effective ways to combat this challenge?

# 20 May, 2010

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.