Friday, April 1, 2016

KM in the Jerkplace Postmortem: Crossing the Knowledge Divide

Installment Summary:  The series concludes with a reflection on the power of jerks and their confrontational relationship with us – the folks charged with transferring knowledge across cubicles, silos, business units, and generations of would-be collaborators. Those conflicts boil down to an irreconcilable difference between knowledge concentrators and distributors – a rift that favors coercion over dispersion. Ultimately the conflict cannot be resolved by placing knowledge in the corner office but by placing it in the corner of every change agent and meeting table across the organization.

crossing the KNOWLEDGE divide

Over the last seven installments we’ve visited four wildly diverging workplaces united by one thread besides a revenue model, a payroll, a services catalog, and a badging scanner at the front entrance – the decision to pay a smart person with the necessary blend of naiveté and self-confidence to include the term “knowledge” in their job title.

The arguments play out like this:

      Some organizations might say KM distills the essence of the meta-level inference: Who can plausibly oppose knowledge about knowledge?
         Who can argue with hiring smart people who consider ivy towers to be silos worth avoiding? Q: I wish we knew what we know? A: Hire a KM guy.

         Who can dispute the fact that the collective organizational brain is both overworked and underutilized – trapped in the hamster wheel of earning-one’s-keep justifications?

Beyond collaboration, efficiency, and shear speed-of-learning, KM is perceived as the bottomless cup of caffeinated process acceleration. It’s also looked at as a hedge against attrition as-in knowledge walking out the door. It’s a container of code; hence the fixation on system knowledge. And as the thesis of this blog series maintains, it’s a protection against the intellectual and emotional vandalism of jerks. That’s because it encourages reciprocity – not simply sharing for its own reward. It promotes transparency to gain trust. It codifies repeatable lessons so they don’t need to be relearned and so the successes they spawn can be reapplied. Is there really any place for jerk behavior to breed in such an empathic setting?

Well … yes.

The problem with this theory is that it crashes faster than the QA server entrusted with your gold-plated production assets. How is it that something that matches patterns as nimbly as it connects the strategic dots fold instantly at the jerk table? That is the looming doubt that shadows each ensuing KM program and the enterprise that failed to support it.

There are ways to fight the power. None of them land more than one separation degree from measurement. Measure the world in units of knowledge and …

·         No one suffers from an abundance of it.
·         If anything there’s a scarcity of it.

What would it take to close that deficit?

Knowledge Needs Know-How to Play Nice With Jerks

The hyphenated answer is know-how. There’s nothing sacred, value-based, or recoverable about knowledge in its static form. It’s a trophy piece – a collectible – until pressed into the service of problem-solving. What’s the most popular one-word definition of knowledge? It’s power. And we appreciate that before we even know what to do with our knowledge.

But here’s the rub. Information wants to be free and knowledge doesn’t aspire to anything. Power closes down dissent and debate. Knowledge is an open book. It’s a quality that many of us covet more than any capture-worthy material or ideal we could ever hope to possess. So here’s the question: How do we get from “free” to “power”? They’re not polar opposites but they’re not exactly complementary. 

Or are they?

If we work among peers who see knowledge as process, then aspirations like team-building, communities of excellence, and end-to-end transformations become a reality we create at work – a channel for reciprocity, a reward unto itself.

That transformation cannot be willed into operation through platitudes or imposed by knowledge czars looking to inflate their knowledge adoption metrics. If the organization sees knowledge as a destination, we’re sunk. Nothing corrupts the power of knowledge more absolutely than treating it like a product.

Closing Arguments

So what do we know about the split between knowledge hoarders and givers? We know that the battle is often a private one. The resolution isn’t decided by competency frameworks and social informatics. Mostly it boils down to proximity to power.

We know that impediments to pooling knowledge are rarely correlated to missing revenue targets. The intention of sharing is likelier to find its way to mission statements than actual boardroom conversation. Yet the transfer of knowledge impacts the downstream verdict on the ultimate workplace rationale: Are our employers anything more than the sum of our paystubs? From a KM perspective it’s not the size of the pay check where the answer lies. It’s an organization’s belief it holds the cards to its own fate.

Here’s now is the conclusion of the lessons learned from the jerkplace.

    6.       Don’t fetishize the look and feel
One of the great misuses of technology is that we get hung up on presentation over substance. Function follows form. We clean data without actually putting it to work. We don’t digest, absorb, or assimilate it into a series of actions or outcomes. That’s not to suggest we can’t have a pretty screen to tease the data patterns out of our work product. But most web design fixates on the interface – not on the interaction itself where the actual substance lives. It’s an uphill argument for KM folks who find themselves sequestered on intranet teams.

     7.       Show the how (and strive for imperfection)
There’s an endless supply of “what” matched with a finite number of “how.” The former is a near certain argue over definitions. The latter is an open invitation to gain interest, buy-in, and eventual leverage with your stakeholders. The difference can best be gauged as the distinction between the collecting of knowledge and the applying of know-how. That’s the cause-and-effect of operational KM. It’s not a static repository that requires data storage and system passwords. It’s a fluid transfer between practitioners trying to shorten the distance between the outcomes they desire and the actions required to trigger them. The imperfection of that process refers to the surprise that comes with the excitement of sharing – not a sure thing or an obvious answer but the corrections and adjustments necessary to match the demand for answers with a responsive supply of prior experience.

    8.       Never fall prey to the messenger’s ego
There is a bias in most news rooms that has little to do with your political bent and everything to do with your speed-to-market. Scooping the competition will not guarantee thoughtfulness or a responsive approach to the news you’re delivering. But it gives your audience the distinct impression of your connectedness to the news-making – even if you’re only collecting the dots and not actually connecting them. If this plays to a KMer advantage it’s that we’re arguing “why” this news flash is newsworthy. Not why it compromises the folks who may sit outside the news traveling circle. One example would be to say why we’re surprised and how it shifts our expectations as we take this new direction onboard with our earlier thinking.

    9.       Be the active observer
KMers are largely institutionalists. They see organizational struggles from the larger, shared perspective. They follow bottlenecks through to the boundaries of matrixed organizations where cross-functional incentives lag behind the need to think holistically. In such structures the interplay of internal divisions inspires uncontrolled layering, overlapping resources, and a lack of cohesion. Each of these shortcomings are sage opportunities for outside intervention. And from an insider view, the KMer is most poised to offer a more open alternative to these ingrained behaviors and parochial tendencies.   

    10.   Do not attempt to influence through threat-making
“OR ELSE …” is an argument that hangs itself when it comes to moving the needle that KM is supposed to thread and stitch into the fabric of how organizations: 1) coordinate internally, and 2) compete in the market. No one’s going to score points for helping the risk-averse to see the KM light or getting right with the knowledge gods. There are few punitive cards in play here, perhaps because there are few dedicated KM departments and even fewer protected from the rigors of quarterly profit-taking. Most KM influence is vested in accentuating the positive impacts of adoption – not the negative consequences of inaction. Regrettably, inaction is referred to life before KM; unfortunate because “before” transitions to “after” if those pilot programs aren’t more widely established.

    11.   11th Commandment – Know Thy Jerk

         Executive: insecure or boorish?
You would think that the arrival of executive status would usher away the insecurities which drive the promotional cycle. However, this romantic notion cools quickly once our selective company is on the hot seat for timely, specific results.

         Supervisor: protective or insular?
It would seem that one’s immediate superior is the most prevalent command chain positioning for picking fights of a rigged nature or the pulling of rank in the absence of group consensus. Look to expand the stakeholder pool when making the boss look good means being set up to fail by same boss. 

        Peer: controlling or off-the-handle? 
One could easily assume that peer relations inhabit neutral territory and not natural breeding grounds for jerkiness. Maintain the status quo of “doing more with less” is the common mantra of the mid-level manager and it behooves them to cooperate in support of this implicit understanding.

            Subordinate: passive-aggressive or risk averse?
      One might conclude that incalcitrant, immovable forces are not within province of the lower rungs of the pecking order. One could easily equate the junior status of the less experienced staff members as a more exploratory approach to conventional problem-solving. Maybe they tinker with technologies that intimidate their elders or a devil-may-care attitude for attacking chronic or seemingly intractable tech-leaning workplace glitches that KM is expected to resolve.

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