Harvesting insights (3): Agile KM, between stealth and big bang

A few days before summer holidays in ‘la douce France’, here’s a post that summarises a number of insights from working around knowledge management and my later interest in ‘agile KM’ – for the sake of simplicity I will just talk about KM but for myself care about agile KM. This post is about how to bring about KM in an environment where there is little to build around, at least at first sight.

The temptation of Big Bang is always great (Photo credits: Pranav / FlickR)
The temptation of Big Bang is always great (Photo credits: Pranav / FlickR)

This post is inspired by various conversations with colleagues who are struggling to get their communication work done for lack of recognition of the importance of communication, what that work entails and how it feeds off others’ inputs. The KM challenge is very similar to the communication challenge… And I recently started with a series of recommendations and ideas to improve this already. So in this post I just go one step further and try to package it neatly, focusing on (agile) KM.

Why stealth and big bang?
In an article (unfortunately not open access but ask me for copies), I wrote a while back now with Sarah Cummings, we looked at a number of KM strategies from various development organisations.
What we found out is that many of them had opted for ‘big bang’ approaches, i.e. with a strong ‘KM’ branding and promotion campaign about it to let everyone know that KM was going to be implemented in the company, usually around a formalised KM strategy (most often in the form of a written document).
Other organisations opted for a ‘stealth’ approach where they basically decided to ‘do KM’ without calling it this way and without any formalised strategy, just building on will and capacities available.

This is one of the first key questions in developing agile KM: do you want to go for a big bang or a stealth approach? This will affect how you will effectively implement KM.

Whatever approach you follow, various principles will get you further:

  • Walk your talk – shine as an example of the ideal behaviour you recommend;
  • Talk their talk – rise up to the challenge, challenge yourself to not use your jargon, but to use the jargon of the people that you want to influence;
  • Dim the dire, double the dope – Build upon existing good practices and address or mitigate bad practices. Show that it works early, and explain what it takes to work in the longer run;
  • Shine the light on darkness – In the process, explain what KM is really all about, show that it works and show that one of the keys behind that success is to steer away from the comfort of certainty and to embrace enthusiasm for confusion as an engine for learning and dynamic effectiveness;
  • Keep your edge sharp – keep questioning your work and your network to remain relevant.

Walk your talk – Start with yourself
“Be the change that you want to see” as Mahatma Gandhi would say. You need to lead by example. If you make a compelling case for KM, others might follow suit. Well, maybe not, but if you don’t shine by your own example, why would others bother? Develop simple learning and KM processes (after action review, exit interviews etc.) that bring early benefits, show how you use social media and why it might positively improve others’ work, facilitate meetings effectively and document them to show how useful it is… Your example is about the best example that you can give because it’s first hand experience. Whether you are the best qualified to share examples is another matter…

Talk their talk – Rise up and reach out to the challenge
The next step, aside from showing a great example, is to reach out to the people that you want to influence positively (or inspire to change). This means you need to get close to them, understand their perspective, their challenges, their questions, use their language etc. It also means that you should step out of your comfort zone (and out of your network of like-minded peers) and mingle with two different kinds of people:

  • Those that you know will be critical of your work – which arguably are the main people you want to influence to change;
  • Those that perhaps you don’t know so well but feel or see that they are sympathetic to your work and the changes it entails. They might become the champions you will need…
How to find the balance between what's a healthy practice and what's not (Photo credits: Neaton Jr. / FlickR)
How to find the balance between what’s a healthy practice and what’s not (Photo credits: Neaton Jr. / FlickR)

Of course keeping in touch with your kin helps you ‘keep the fire’ and energy and you should use that energy to convince others but manage your energy at the same time, to avoid ending up frustrated and tired.

Dim the dire, double the dope
Use existing safe spaces and action champions, don’t come up with new chores, empty ‘socialocations’ (ghost social media platforms and empty intranets) and inadequate advocates. Although the temptation is sometimes big to reinvent the wheel – and that can also be ok sometimes, in any organisation there is a lot happening, that can be related to KM. So you don’t start a KM initiative from scratch. The point is to build upon the good stuff and expand it if possible, and to deter, address or mitigate the bad stuff.

Find the conversations – of water coolers, effective meetings and online
The starting point, for agile KM, is conversations (at least that’s what I think KM is all about) – so you need to identify where conversations take place in the organisation. Perhaps at the water cooler, informally, perhaps in meetings (though most organisations don’t hold effective meetings, at least at the start), perhaps on line. Celebrate these spaces and branch onto them to feel the conversation that is going on, and expand good practices from those spaces. Champions are not always humans, they can also be venues, moments, opportunities such as a share fair… Show that you appreciate these spaces and think that perhaps they could go even further…

Find the learning curves and reflection spaces
Much like people discuss, whether they are invited to do so or not, people learn and reflect as well. Perhaps in the same spaces as they chat, perhaps elsewhere. Find those spaces, appreciate them, question them and if you can expand them.
Progressively, the idea is that you help people systematically reflect on what they do and on what their organisation does. This means questioning, questioning and questioning… It also means they should embrace chaos, uncertainty, doubt and safe-fail approaches to try things out. And this comes with trust.

Identify the effective naturals
There are people who are naturally good at what they do. They are naturally effective and effectively natural. Perhaps it’s the fruit of experience and expertise, but the result is that they don’t really pay attention to learning – they just do it. Find, in your company, who is naturally effective and find out from them what their secrets are (this is what I planned to do with the personal effectiveness survey). These people can be powerful role models for others, and if you manage to sell KM to them (e.g. as in working in smarter ways etc.) they could also be your champions who will influence others to adopt new processes, approaches and tools.

Pushing the KM agenda, one step at a time (Photo credits: Lachlan Hardy / FlickR)
Pushing the KM agenda, one step at a time (Photo credits: Lachlan Hardy / FlickR)

Bring about KM in a sensible and progressive way
Most people do KM without realising it: when they talk with others and question their work, when they document their meetings, when they publish a document, when they share it on the intranet or at a conference… The point is: the label (’KM’) doesn’t matter here, so long as the practices support this. So this point entails two important aspects:

  • Use the local language to avoid a ‘not invented here syndrom’ where people would reject your ideas as foreign;
  • Bring about, in conversations you have, the ideal/image of what agile KM is about, the importance of working out loud, of reflecting on your work, of sharing it, of working together and of titillating your comfort zone. People need to know what is an ideal behaviour for themselves, their teams, their organisation…

Once again, they will be all the more receptive that they trust you.

Stimulate structured learning
You have ‘action champions’ (the aforementioned naturals), you also have ‘learning champions’. You need a mix of both – ideally people that combine the two aptitudes – to champion your ideas for KM. Especially if those people have strong connections in different pockets of the organisation, they can help push the domino effect of (behaviour) change and model ideal KM behaviours. Without champions you find yourself easily sidelined, ignored, misunderstood, and exhausted. If the organisation is not ready for big change, some people inside it sure will be. Find them, work with them, understand what they tell you about the rest of the organisation too.
This point is also about questioning, personally and collectively. It’s about reflecting, listening, giving feedback (to yourself and others) in order to understand and expand what is going well and to mitigate what is not working out well.

But this point is also that it takes time to structure learning and you need to manage expectations about how KM works. This is where you need to show that KM (regardless of what you call it) works.

Shine the light on darkness: Co-create a compelling case for KM
Lots of people are wary of the time it takes to develop a KM approach and they also don’t easily see its benefits, as we know it’s diffuse, difficult to attribute etc. It’s perhaps unjustified and you will always come across x reasons not to change and not to learn. It might be irritating, but if you don’t address their fears and concerns, you will never win them over.
So think for yourself about ways to demonstrate that agile KM helps. I can think of four complementary approaches:

  • Provide some evidence that would be regarded as relevant by people who question agile KM. Quantitative indicators, statistics, downloads etc. that will keep them happy to start with;
  • Show the small successes and early wins that they don’t expect or count on: comments gathered, change in discourse, community of followers and interactions, appreciation after events and activities (through our after action reviews) etc. In fact you should focus on activities that will generate such early wins if you want to convince your crowd;
  • Involve your nay-sayers in your activities and let them experience the potential and limitations (and e.g. long lag time) of agile KM – co-create a case for KM with them;
  • In the process, work towards more complex ways to demonstrate success of agile KM: through increased success rate for some work processes, time saved, effective use of information shared, change of behaviour at institutional level etc.
Sharpen the saw - keep yourself and your network on the cutting edge (Photo credits: Jay Pettitt / FlickR)
Sharpen the saw – keep yourself and your network on the cutting edge (Photo credits: Jay Pettitt / FlickR)

Sharpen the saw – keep your edge and your network edge sharp
One of the seven principles of Stephen R. Covey’s infamous book ‘the seven habits of highly effective people’ is to sharpen the saw, that is to look critically at your progress and to keep wanting more. Well, with agile KM supposedly that should happen naturally, but it’s always better to take the time to reflect at yourself, your gaps, where you are keeping learning and KM at a sound level, and to what extent you are taking advantage of your network too. It’s about personal learning, personal knowledge management and it’s no longer contradictory with your organisation’s objectives and priorities, it potentially reinforces them through the sound ‘checks and balances’ that your personal external network brings…

Your external network, if well ‘gardened’, provides you with a sounding board that looks beyond your organisational glasses and biases. Your virtual gang provides a source of ‘fresh thinking’ available on tap. Make use of it and encourage other teams in your organisation to tap into those existing networks. There’s a good chance most employees already make use of their personal network, but perhaps in a hidden or unconscious way. Show that it is an engine for dynamic relevance (i.e. to remain relevant over time). At the same time, keep looking critically at your network to fine-tune it to your needs.

So, can you afford to go for big bang?
There is no right or wrong between big bang and stealth, but there are things to keep in mind:

  • Going for big bang means you will raise expectations from many employees and managers – this is perhaps one of the main reasons why KM has sometimes failed spectacularly;
  • If you are ready to raise expectations, make sure you have the following mechanisms in place:
    • A management that embraces your ideal and vision and is ready to show good behaviour too;
    • Some champions that will spread the message and are influential enough to speed up the knock-on domino effect;
    • Some ideas for how you are going to demonstrate success in early wins and longer term gains;
  • It probably makes a lot of sense to gradually develop your KM approach – if you have nothing in place, don’t try to fly too high straight away. You also wouldn’t enroll for the Olympics having driven a couple of amateur 100m races…
  • And as mentioned in another post of this series, ‘quick and dirty’ is a sure way to collect quick feedback about what works or what doesn’t, the ‘safe fail’ approach that will reveal what works and what is flawed in your approach.

If you have all of this in place, you can decide to go for a big bang approach and probably achieve something, although you won’t be spared the doubts, mockery and anxiety of those that do not believe in KM.

Good luck, keep the focus, gather your feedback and have some fun, you will need that energy: It’s a struggle ahead, but if it works out, it will liberate a lot of energy and results further down the line too…

Related blog posts:

Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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