Table of Contents:
Enhancement to Communication
We see the complications with communications and those things that can degrade communications. Fortunately, there are things that improve communications or make clear communications possible. Our corporate culture can be an enhancement to the communication within the company. A corporate environment that fosters or holds clear communication in high regard improves the possibility of effective communication happening, ’[hat does not countermand earlier observation where the corporate environment could be an inhibitor to communications.
To Dyadic or Not (weak ties)
A large portion of corporate communication can be considered dyadic, that is between two people within the organization. However, when we think about knowledge and the organization, it is only as good as the distribution network that pushes what has been learned throughout the organization. “It turns out that most useful information comes from the individuals in a person’s extended networks, casual acquaintances and friends of friends. This information is the most useful precisely because it comes from infrequent or weak contacts. Strong contacts are likely to be people with whom there is a constant sharing of the same information. As a result, individuals within these groupings have come to have the same information base and similar perspectives. However, information from outside this base gives unique perspectives, and in some instances, strategic advantages over competitors in a persons immediate network.”*
Communities of Practices
The organization can create an atmosphere in which communities of practice can organically spawn, worse case, set about developing these communities within the organization. Communities of practice can bring about an accretion of our team members or key skill sets of the organization. This gathering of common interests can create an atmosphere of learning along with distribution of that learning throughout the organization. Knowledge of these collections of skills are a resource for the rest of the organization - provided others know this. In addition, this collection of expertise is now in a position to share what each of the individuals know with each other, increasing the expertise and capability of this group’s ability to be of service for the rest of the organization. This will be discussed at length in the book. At this point is suffices to write that a single point source of knowledge then becomes a single point of failure. To that end communities of practices can help in developing or cultivating and nurturing specific knowledge that can be advantageous to the organization.
Figure 1.6 There are many ways to learn.
Johnson, J. (2009). Managing knowledge networks. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, p.36.
Types of Knowledge
Now that we have looked at learning we need to define a few more terms, such as knowledge. Knowledge is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association, the fact or condition of being aware of something, the circumstance or condition of apprehending truth or fact through reasoning, the fact or condition of having information or of being learned.” Learning and knowledge share a commonality, experience, that will be instrumental throughout our discussions. This explains why two people can see the same situation and arrive at different conclusions with this information. They also differ with the use of the terms “truth or fact.” Learning does not use these terms, but knowledge does. This would make it seem that knowledge is a concrete concept. We know from the test of time that this is not always the case as knowledge of many things are constantly evolving. It is to this end that we will say that learning is how we gain knowledge and that knowledge is the logical application of what we have learned. This makes these two concepts just sub-sections of one project: development. There are two categories of knowledge, explicit and tacit, as noted by scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi. Tacit knowledge is embedded in the human mind through experiences and jobs and explicit knowledge is codified and digitized in books, documents, memos, etc
Explicit knowledge is knowledge that is captured in some form: a book, a procedure, a process, etc. Its capturing of knowledge gives it strength because it can be shared freely. However, it is also the weakness of explicit knowledge, in that it has been codified in some manner, its global evolution can and commonly is constrained in one way or another, additionally, it is not possible to ask questions of the documentation. Since we know that no single process fits every situation and even when repeating a task, it may not unfold exactly as it has int he past. To have a ridged structure can be self-defeating, and since we know that knowledge (understanding) is ever evolving explicit knowledge is best employed as a guidepost to shed light on the constraints. Since explicit knowledge is written or captured in some manner it allows for a review of its evolution over time, if we have been exploring and recording. This review can show trends which can be used to develop growth and development of plans and provide process and procedural lessons learned.
There are some instances where explicit knowledge, solely by its nature, best fits a situation. An example of these types of situations would be the specifications of an item, or the testing requirements to validate those specifications. However, as alluded to earlier, this is not always the best fit for a project in that a rigid structure “MAY” not allow for development of an approach that fits the range of variations to which a project may be subjected. To provide an example let us look at a multi-divisional or departmental instruction. For the sake of discussion, we will say that 4 department heads have approved (signed) the instruction and one of those departments decides to modify one of its processes contained within the instruction. They must obtain the approval of the remaining three department heads prior to that instruction modification. This delay could be both good and bad: bad because it may not occur in sufficient time to apply to a specific project, or good because the initiating department may not have thought out the effect of their desired change on the other departments. This type of situation can be minimized by the use of a “Living Document or Procedure.” An example of a living document is The Constitution of the United States because it was written knowing that it would have to be continuously updated. When we write a procedure or process guide we should keep in mind that it will not be able to apply to every situation and will require changes as our people, processes, and organization develop and write and maintain it as a living document, subjected to the rules of configuration management. Writing a document in this manner will require more time and attention to the details, but in the long run will shorten the revision or modification process.
Tacit (Tribal Knowledge)
Tacit knowledge being embedded in the mind and not written and is sometimes referred to as tribal knowledge as it is often specific to an organization (tribe as opposed to industry). By that we mean that there are things that are not written down or are contrary to the written guidance that are done to complete a task. This knowledge is sometimes passed from one individual to another, but may also be held by its owner. This could be an example of stage three of tribal leadership, I’m great— you’re not,* or it could be a function of the individual attempting to feel needed. For as long as the individual is the sole source of the information, they hold some power within the team and feel needed. This false sense of need erodes the team structure and promotes the same action within others. When this “I” mentality is overcome the tacit knowledge can become explicit knowledge and used for further development. Since tacit knowledge is acquired through experience it can also be related to lessons learned, even when informal. WE will elaborate on lessons learned in the next section.
To take this idea a step further let us look at the words thought or think. Merriam-Webster defines think as “to form or have in the mind; to have as intention; to have as an opinion, to regard as; to devise by; to have as an expectation.”1 If we take our previous two definitions, learning and knowledge, and relate them to think and thought we can see that they are predecessors to our first two. This concept can be related to the first phase or project development: initiating. All of these definitions leave room for subjectivity from the individual’s (group) participation in that activity. It is this subjectivity that is a common source of confusion when allowed to remain open to further subjectivity from others involved within the project. This is one reason we will be discussing communication and expectation management later in this book.
Common Lessons learned Mistakes
There are many reasons for failure of the company to learn from the work. The corporate culture influences the ability of the organization to make the most of these mistakes. We hear people in the company say things like “it is okay to make mistakes, but can’t we make new ones” in our organization. In fact, that was directly from a senior manager at a place I once worked.
■ No organizational plans for learning (not a priority)
■ Failure to exploit opportunities
■ Silo and other communications challenges not addressed
■ Errant proximity and cause
■ Corporate culture
■ Complex lessons learned program(s)
No Plans for Learning
Many organizations have some form of plan for learning, the priority is commonly the bottom line. While few to no organizations are more concerned about learning to become better over making a profit, it is this very mentality that can and usually does have a drastic effect on profit. The improvement of processes that will allow an organization’s people to more effectively achieve their goal will assist in increasing the profit margin. While this is usually the type of issue that is a longer-term return on investment it is still a return on investment. A lesson learned program will not achieve its true value until something more than window dressing has been invested. It is this very approach that commonly condemn the lesson learned programs.
Tlie complexity of the databases associated with lessons learned programs is legendary. The complexity of data entry is most only surpassed by the complexity of how to retrieve the information from the program in a useful manner. While there is no one best way (must be a tailored fit for the situation, personnel, group, or organization) to set up a lesson learned database, minimizing the main topics and more veneering the second and third topic lines can be most useful. Some lessons learned will fit into more than one category or are and most commonly do. Where they differ is what the assorted explorers garner from the lesson learned. If something different was learned by let’s say the three disparate department involved, all three items should be linked in such a manner that each department can see the other departments lesson learned because it could and commonly will affect the actions or plan of the other.
Let’s go back to the tribal mentality for a second (I’m great and you’re not).* Another issue that weakens the lesson learned program(s) is who does what from a lesson. Most lessons learned have some form of follow on corrective action to attempt to prevent reoccurrence and the action may or may not be directed toward the group that noted the lesson learned. When a root cause analysis or causal mapping are associated with a lesson learned it may branch beyond what is may be considered the lead department. When an item branches beyond to other groups the response is quite often “that’s not my issue.” This is commonly referred to as “my rice bowl mentality” and shows a lack of systems thinking/understanding in most cases.
Failure to Exploit
Going in hand with no plans for learning failure, comes the failure to exploit. The hyper focus on the bottom line impacts the actions that can restrict some of the actions that are deemed appropriate, allowable, or even prudent. Failure to exploit are times when there are opportunities for the team to learn but rather than take that learning possibility, and the risk, a safe approach is taken, that fits within what is already known by the team. This is effectively passing on the opportunity to extend what is known, which is learning. In the agile community (a form of project management for software) there is a saying, fail fast, and fail often. There are many variants of this saying, the point being that nothing new can be learned without risk, and we should not fear failure, but take calculated risks that advance learning and not let failure erode the possibility of learning. This learning mindset is influenced by the corporate culture.
This book will constantly bring up the corporate culture. The culture of the company will set the environment for how people treat each other and how and what the management values in the employees. The corporate culture defines what behaviors are acceptable and this will impact the learning that may be possible an example of which is described in the previous section. Another example, is a command and control culture, from experience, will impact the learning in ways, starting with exclusion of those doing the work or not be actively involved in the learning, rather will receive direction from the management and leadership functions.
Why Organizations Fail to Exploit Opportunities
We can sum most of the failures to exploit learning opportunities as the corporate culture and prioritization of learning and distribution of that learning. Learning
Logan, D„ King, J. P., & Fischer-Wright, H. (2011). Tribal leadership: Leveraging natural groups to build a thriving organization. New York: Harper Business.
takes time, and distribution of that learning likewise takes some time. It is not just the time and effort to draw out what has been learned, but also time to distribute that learning not just to the immediate team, but to the entirety of the organization that could benefit of this learning.
While most organizations understand that in today’s environment change is inevitable, they do not relate this change to what is being learned or the need for learning, but to what new technology is available. Technology is not necessarily the savior of the organization. Organizational development is a manner to bring about planned change.- This would seem to be contrary to what we obtain from lessons learned because most lessons learned are not planned, but the response to some failure. However, what we do with the lesson learned should be both planned and new; not the same action that taught us the lesson to start with expecting a different result.
Yet another possible reason that an organization fails to use lessons learned to their fullest opportunity could be they have an existing lessons learned program that they believe works. While this may seem to contradict itself maybe you have seen this type of lessons learned program. While the program is great for helping solve short term problems the solutions it provides do not meet their long term objective. Since this type of setup commonly provides a quick return to the task at hand and the long term objectives will not be seen (missed) for some time it meets the goal of getting the project back on schedule. This getting back on schedule for the one part of a project becomes the price of another part or project being delayed by the same or similar lesson learned.
All in all, most organizations fail to exploit their lessons learned because their focus is on the now instead of the long term fix. This could be because they believe the situation will continually evolve and the answer for the first lesson learned will not fix the next extended lesson learned. This assumption is flawed in its inception because any new change will not be based upon a firm starting point if past issues (lessons learned) are not fully understood. These things are nuanced and have many variables that interact.
Proximity and Cause
Any discussion of lessons learned will need to include things like root cause analysis or determination of the true cause of the observable symptom. In our experience, there is a tendency for humans to see the immediate preceding action as the cause of the observable symptom. Seldom is that the real cause of the disturbance. Hanging all of your business resources on this supposition as the root cause, in our experience, is a waste of time as we solve the thing that had nothing to do with the resulting observation. There are many things wrong with this approach besides the wasting of time solving minor problems that likely had no impact, but this rush to judgment
Cummings, T. G., & Worley, C. G. (2016). Organization development and change. Toronto: Nelson Education.
Figure 1.7 The sky is the limit if we open our mind and collaborate.
can reduce the learning. With a rush to determining the cause we reduce the time available to evoke the possible causes of malady from the team, which is opportunity for learning and sharing knowledge from within the team members. This type of decision making commonly leads to one of the archetypes we will discuss later in this chapter: unintended consequences.