Knowledge Sharing & Collaboration 2015

Following is a recap and concatenation of my speeches to the C2: Connect & Collaborate conference and the CRKN annual conference (and welcome to attendees of these conferences):

I began by telling the story about how I came to be Canada’s first CKO, and the value propositions, strategy, and content format that most companies had adopted for Knowledge Management (KM) in the mid-1990’s:

1st Generation KM      

2nd Generation KM

KM Value


Reduce cost,

Improve customer relationships,

Accelerate employee learning,

Improve technology ROI,

Increase employee retention

Find, contact & contract with people more effectively,

Tap the wisdom of crowds (close info gaps, improve quality of decisions and accuracy of predictions, improve business processes, assess causalities),

Facilitate virtual collaboration,
Improve the context & understandability of information
Understand why things are the way they are
Improve K-worker effectiveness

KM Strategy:

Users contribute best practices to large central repositories for re-use to reduce costs

Stories and conversations automatically canvassed from shared personal repositories for learning and discovery

KM Content


Mostly text, organized by subject (taxonomy)

Graphic & multimedia, organized by application (ontology)

KM Model:

Acquire, store, add value, disseminate (Just in Case)

Connect, canvass, synthesize (Just in Time)

The graphic at the top of this post illustrates the old and new KM models.

Why did we largely fail to achieve the first-generation KM value propositions?:

    • We set unreasonably high expectations
    • We over-relied on voluntary user contributions to repositories
    • The content we harvested was largely context-poor 
    • The Tragedy of the Commons (no one took pride of ownership in shared repositories)
    • We allowed technology companies to co-opt the term KM for software, to the point many companies started to think that is all KM was about (“which KM solution software should we buy?”)

As a consequence, in recent years:

  • Many KM business conferences have been canceled for lack of interest
  • Some KM departments have been folded back into IT, HR or marketing
  • Private sector KM budgets, headcounts have been slashed in many companies
  • There has been a drop in new content, user satisfaction, and use in some companies
  • And online, the frequency of mention of KM peaked two years ago

I remain surprised at the number of companies that are just now taking the plunge into KM and seem fated to make the same mistakes — focusing on aggregating contributed content and ‘integrated solutions’, instead of on connection to people and on their knowledge in context in simple, intuitive, stand-alone apps.

In our rush to achieve illusory cost savings and productivity improvements from first-generation KM, we failed to take into account very human ‘information behaviours’ that impede the sharing of knowledge and collaboration. From the original list of a dozen or so such behaviours, my KM colleagues and blog readers have suggested many more, and the list now stands at 23:

  1. Bad news rarely travels upwards in organizations (shoot the messenger, and if you do tell the boss bad news, better have a plan to fix it already in motion)
  2. People share information generously peer-to-peer, but begrudgingly upwards (“more paperwork for the boss”), and sparingly downwards (“need to know”) in organizational hierarchy — it’s all about trust
  3. People find it easier and more satisfying to reinvent the wheel than re-use other people’s ‘stuff’
  4. People only accept and internalize information that fits with their mental models and frames (Lakoff’s rule)
  5. People cannot readily differentiate useful information from useless information, and feel overwhelmed with content volume and complex tools (info overload, and poverty of imagination)
  6. The true cost of acquiring information (time wasted looking for it) and the cost of not knowing (Katrina, 9/11, Poultry Flu etc.) are both greatly underestimated in most organizations
  7. People know more than they can tell (some experience you just have to show) & tell more than they can write down (composing takes a lot of time) (Snowden’s rule)
  8. People grasp graphic information more easily than text, and understand information conveyed through stories better than information presented analytically (we learn by analogy, and images and stories are better analogies to our real-life experiences than analyses are)
  9. Most people want friends and even strangers to succeed, and enemies to fail; this has a bearing on their information-sharing behaviour (office politics bites back)
  10. Managers are generally reluctant to admit they don’t know, or don’t understand, something (leads to oversimplifying, and rash decision-making)
  11. People are averse to sharing information orally, and even more averse to sharing it in written form, if they perceive any risk of it being misused or misinterpreted (the better safe than sorry principle)
  12. People don’t take care of shared information resources (Tragedy of the Commons again)
  13. Internal competition can mitigate against information sharing (if you reward individuals for outperforming peers, they won’t share what they know with peers)
  14. Some modest people underestimate the value of what they know so they donít share
  15. We all learn differently (some by reading, some by listening, some by writing down, some by hands-on), and people wonít internalize information that isnít in a format attuned to how they learn (one size training doesn’t fit all)
  16. Rewards for sharing knowledge don’t work for long
  17. People wonít (or canít) internalize information until they need it or recognize its value (most notably, information in e-newsletters is rarely absorbed because it rarely arrives just at the moment it’s needed)
  18. People donít know what others who they meet know, that they could benefit from knowing (a variant on the old “don’t know what we don’t know” — “we don’t know what we don’t know that they do”)
  19. The people with the most valuable knowledge have the least time to share it
  20. People seek out like minds who entrench their own thinking (leads to groupthink)
  21. Introverts are more comfortable wasting time looking for information rather than just asking (sometimes it’s just more fun spending 5 hours on secondary research, or doing the graphics for your powerpoint deck by trial and error, than getting your assistant to do it for you in 5 minutes)
  22. If important news is withheld or sugar-coated, people will ëfill in the blanksí with an ëanti-storyí worse than the truth
  23. People will find ways to work around imposed tools, processes and other resources that they don’t like or want to use (and then deny it if they’re called to account for it)

We’re just starting to identify some ways to compensate for these dysfunctional information behaviours (numbers in brackets refer to the behaviour numbers above, that these work-arounds address):

  • Flatten the organization, and devolve decision-making authority (1, 2, 13, 21)
  • Develop mechanisms for anonymously communicating bad news (1)
  • Use ëred/yellow/green cardí type mechanisms in meetings to convey disagreement and misunderstanding (1, 10)
  • Provide staff with informal places to meet and exchange information with peers (2)
  • Use templates to make reusing knowledge easy, and other mechanisms to make sharing knowledge exciting and fun (3)
  • Provide more information in graphic, dynamic model, mindmap, single-frame and story formats, and in weblogs and other context-rich ‘containersë (4, 5, 7, 8, 15)
  • Use stories and other formats that convey the facts but accommodate the usersí personal context and let them draw their own conclusions (4,15,20)
  • Develop better filters for information, and better ways of organizing/indexing/archiving it so it for later re-use (5)
  • Keep information tools simple and intuitive (5)
  • Find better ways of abstracting and canvassing for information (5, 17)
  • Expand risk management programs to assess the cost of not knowing (6)
  • Tap the ‘wisdom of crowds’ (10)
  • Study complexity theory to understand how oversimplification can lead to disastrous decisions (10)
  • Personal productivity and communication skills coaching (10, 18, 21)
  • Replace centralized repositories with mechanisms that securely search usersí hard drives (12)
  • Change reward systems to recognize group rather than individual contributions (13)
  • Find processes to draw out wallflowers whose voice is rarely heard in organizations (14)
  • Eliminate reward and performance evaluation processes that encourage people to hoard or fight over credit for information and ideas, or interfere with collaboration (16)
  • Use social network maps to pinpoint key knowledge connectors and info transfer bottlenecks (16, 19)
  • Employ ëknowledge stewardsí to transcribe knowledge of busy SMEs (19)
  • Develop mechanisms to record, index and archive conversations (19)
  • Err on the side of over-communicating rather than under-communicating (22)

The key message here:

The challenges we face today in getting people to share what they know and to collaborate effectively are not caused or cured by technologies, they are cultural impediments. It’s extremely difficult to change people’s behaviours (they usually exist for a reason), so the solutions we find have to accommodate these behaviours, and these cultures, rather than trying to ‘fix’ them.

As we strive to achieve second-generation KM value propositions we will need some very different types of knowledge resources (tools, techniques, processes) than the ones that are predominantly in use today. This table contrasts these resources (with links to more info, screenshots etc.):

1st Generation KM      

2nd Generation KM
Phone + e-mail VoIP + IM + e-mail
Videoconferencing Simple virtual presence
Whiteboarding MindMaps
Table/chart/written report “office” software Visualizations, Ecolanguage
Filing cabinets, MyDocs folders Next-generation Weblogs
PowerPoint decks Single frames
KBases with best practices Recorded stories
Decision support systems Wisdom of crowds capture tools
Surveys, secondary research tools Conversations, observations, primary research & other ëcultural anthropologyí tools
Content management systems Personal content management
e-Learning Personal productivity improvement
Community spaces, e-rooms Next-generation wikis
Directories, social network apps Expertise finders
Knowledge contribution processes and tools (just in case) Knowledge canvassing processes and tools (just in time)
Project management tools Open space

In short:

First-generation KM has vainly sought one-size fits-all integrated enterprise solutions, which are complicated to use and expensive to change, and which focus on content + collection; Second-generation KM must look instead to simple, lightweight, cheap, intuitive, stand-alone apps, which are easy to use, add or change, and which focus on context + connection. In the shift from first to second generation KM, the holy grail changes from cost savings to improvements in knowledge worker effectiveness.

I’d like to thank the C2 organizers and CRKN for the opportunity to speak at these events. I think the theme of improving collaboration in the workplace is a critical one for the future, and C2 is on the right track with this new program. And CRKN has demonstrated how effective a focused, well-coordinated KM program can be (improving access, especially electronic access, of academic and scientific researchers across Canada, to published scholarly content). I look forward to opportunities to work with them again in the future.

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3 Responses to Knowledge Sharing & Collaboration 2015

  1. Dave Pollard says:

    #24 from James Governor – People value information they paid for more highly than that they get free from their own people (thus the existence of the consulting industry).

  2. vincent says:

    …but it becomes more and more obvious that consulting industry is sometimes less efficient than “internal consultation” when innovation is needed. Innovation never starts as a reasonable, planified, behavior. Innovation is often led from the bottom to the top and involves informal and non official behaviors. Connect people and watch them improving their work “naturally” instead of telling them what to do.

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