Sunday, May 18, 2008

Strategic Thinking Part 2

Continuing my earlier post on strategic investment choices over the next 10 years, here's another:

3. Corporate Memory (knowledge management in another context)

200805180454.jpgThe longer you stay in a role, the more you know. Trite but true. The corollary to that is, the longer you stay in a role, the more different people you will see around you. The further corollary is that if you are on the customer side for a long time, you will see significantly more turnover on the supplier side than on your own side, and the less they'll know about what's gone before. People come, people go. They work hard, for the most part, contribute to the overall project, programme or business operation, and then they leave with most of what they know safely and securely stored, at least for the short-term, in their heads. And then it's all gone.

For example, commercial deals are done by whole teams of people who work for months and sometimes years on the intricacies of operation. They write clauses with specific intent, sometimes misplaced but always designed to achieve something particular. As the writers of the clauses roll-off and go onto the next thing, the next company or into retirement, those conversations about intent and desire are forgotten. No one quite remembers what was meant. Worse, the supplier personnel have stayed consistent and they're sure they remember, but the customer has no corporate memory; or vice versa. It's just gone. Disputes happen, work is redone, tasks fall between the cracks, delays occur, people fall out and projects suffer.

The hi-technology solution to losing corporate memory was alway the shared folder. Didn't work back at the beginning, doesn't work now. But it's in widespread use. It's just a dumping ground. Huge numbers of files are dumped in extensive hierarchies of folders that few understand beyond those who set them up originally. Primitive search capability is put on top of the folders in the hope that people will find what they need. People don't. New documents replicating old ones are created. New procedures are developed. New controls are put on top of old controls. The supposedly shared folder is written to and rarely read.

Worse, some companies rely entirely on e-mail - the most silo'd form of storage yet created - once the two ends holding the conversation have moved on, the knowledge is lost; or, more likely, bizarre limits on the ability to store email on the central server mean that regular archiving becomes deleting vast chunks of email to ensure that you can send and receive new email. Some companies that I've worked in have had policies that meant I was killing email on a weekly basis, trying to stay within my quota.

Corporate memory is poor, even nonexistent in places - it varies from job to job, project to project. But overall, there is little harnessing of that memory.

Many departments, companies and agencies I meet and work with are deploying Microsoft Sharepoint as a solution to this; some have used earlier versions for years, some have used Lotus Notes instead (but many stick with the shared folder - the fabled "network drive"). There are some stand-out Sharepoint implementations that have really made a big impact on collaboration and cross-working on projects; there are some poor versions that are just souped up shared folders. The trick is to figure out now how to be the former, and how to embed it in all the projects you have underway or are about to start (thinking again about the intercept strategy listed in point 1 in the previous post).

So the strategic investment choice to make is to decide whether what you do now is right, enough and will take you through the next ten years. I'd bet, for most, it isn't and it won't. So you should choose then to invest in a way of working and a set of tools that deliver you an enhanced corporate memory. Modafinil for your operation.

With a significant portion of staff in most government organisations retiring over the next 10 years (as much as 40 or 50% I believe), the rate of loss of memory will accelerate. Likewise, with a wave of big projects starting in many countries - whether they be preparation for World Cups, Olympics, electronic border control, ID cards or new phases of e-government - the need to set up the projects correctly - with inbuilt memory - is more essential. i spoke to a guy a few weeks ago who said there was little point in corporate memory - as soon as something was written down, the market had moved on and it was no longer useful to anyone (I believe a related quote is that such things "have the shelf life of a banana").

So if you're in the project business, which I suppose everyone is in some way, why wouldn't you set up an initiative to preserve Corporate Memory - to retain the details of projects, programmes and operations so that everything that's needed is stored for later retrieval, analysis, dispute resolution or lessons learned? At the same time, the very best such initiatives will ensure that the day to day operation of the programme is more efficient, because duplication will be reduced.

It doesn't matter whether it's Sharepoint, Groove, a variety of google-enhanced tools or some other bit of software that underpins your corporate memory. But it does matter that you have a consistent way of setting up the memory for a project, within and across your organisation; One that contains all the standards and disciplines that you want a project to follow, one that is easy to index and that makes that indexing as simple as possible for the participants, one that has a search engine that means people can find what they need, one that encourages emails to be stored and available to everyone on an agreed list (and provides all the space you'll ever need - if google/yahoo/hotmail can do it, I'm sure the big outsourcers can do it for their clients), that prompts and facilitates discussion and interaction. And it does matter that you have a plan for how you're going to keep hold of this data and manage it over the next 10 or 20 years. Worry about this in the same way that you might worry about data retention periods for tax records or investigations or whatever.

Why is this important?

Because you're signing outsourcing deals with 10 year or longer durations; you're putting in place systems that will still be there 10 years, even 20 years from now; you're losing people faster than you've ever lost them before; you're bringing in consultants to do work for you who, one day, are going to leave quicker than you can transition the knowledge; you're firing up new projects as fast as you ever have and you need them to get off to a flying start with the base information that they need at their fingertips;

Are there any downsides?

Sure. You'll be prescribing a systematic process that your teams will have to follow - that will take time to adopt, will be a burden at the beginning even. You'll have another tool to worry about and manage - one that eats diskspace at an insatiable rate (show me an application that doesn't!). You'll need an intercept strategy (see earlier post, item number 1) that lets you figure out whether you apply this to new projects only, or try and retrofit to ones underway.

But all worth living with for the bigger prize.

7 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:11 pm

    Wishful thinking, but nice to dream about it for a moment.

    This is your wake up comment.

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  2. Anonymous4:14 pm

    didn't someone smart once say if you can dream it, you can create it? this isn't wishful thinking, that's just what is said when something seems hard to do. achieving a corporate memory is really, really hard. but the point is that the do-nothing world is even harder to live in.

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  3. words to dream about anon(2) ... don't let the cynics get you (or me) down. 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.

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  4. Anonymous11:31 pm

    Hey New Age blogging! Get the Dreamcatchers up over the desks and put posters up in the tea room about corporate knowledge management.

    Come on, we have read Fad Surfing in the Boardroom, we are in the trough of disillusionment about KMS, you ain't perspiring over a new light bulb here.

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  5. The anthropomorphic view you have of the corporation is interesting. That the corporation has a memory which would enable the behaviors of the entity as a corporation to be more in tune with the end goals you seek appears to fall down due to the fact that the 'corporation' as an entity is invented rather than real. The corporation is made up of individuals and surely to think of the corporation as a real entity with memory and behaviors in itself is where the problem is.

    The reason the public folders fail is not due to the tool or the method of search but the fact that corporate behavior is emergent rather than created. You will always deal with individuals who collectively give the corporation the personality, not the other way around. So the memory will be impossible to achieve IMHO.

    The goal is a valid one though. In terms of contracts maybe the route is not to store the motivations separate from the contract to be searched for later but to include more in the contract in terms of the 'spirit' as well as the terms. I think we lose too much in contracts. Originally designed so that everything is agreed up front without issues of interpretation have largely been proved ineffective (just check your lawyers bill). Perhaps if we did not just put the clauses into legalese but also put in some English 'intention' in the contract we would not need the corporate memory or at least the relevant information would be kept in context without the need to search.

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  6. Ah ... fish ... you so nearly lost me but i agree with your end point: intention versus absolutes. interpretation long after the fact is a losing game for both sides.

    but i hadn't really planned to limit the thinking to contracts. after all the guy that knows how a certain pump behaves in a water plant knows something that others need to know. today he likely has no vehicle to put that knowledge other than in his own head. so why wouldn't it make sense to give him a place to put the information - and, better still, a place where such information was aggregated so that others, or even the same guy, could wonder why all the pumps from that supplier spread around the country or the county operate in the same way - perhaps badly or well - and therefore make some supply chain decisions based on that?

    for pump, read: server, ladder, component, conveyor belt, elevator, escalator or whatever

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  7. I get the wider implications of knowledge examples but I still have reservations.

    We are dealing with individuals. Nobody sets out to screw up projects or do a bad job and many of the government problems are not down to the lack of available techniques or processes or a lack of available lessons.

    I think what it comes down to is that people do not go out and obtain the best set of available info which is out there. How many projects have failed due to poor requirements? Lots I would imagine but if the guy writing them does not understand his weakness (false confidence) then it is unlikely that they will seek to fill a hole in knowledge that they do not know they have. So they will not seek to fill that knowledge hole from any source.

    Is there a set of categories of knowledge gap?

    On a subject someone:

    1) Knows everything (expert)
    2) Knows somethings and knows the gap in knowledge
    3) Knows somethings and does not know the gap in knowledge
    4) Knows nothing.

    1) What you want to capture and fear losing the most.
    2) Probably where you want the ideal worker
    3) I suspect this is where the majority of people are
    4) Generally not a problem and easy to train.

    So how do you move the majority in 3 to either 2 or 1 using corporate memory. How do you educate people about something when they do not realize they have that gap.

    There must be a culture of self improvement in the workers to make any captured knowledge useful. Capturing it in a tool must surely be half the battle.

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