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Mechanizing Knowledge

It is likely not necessary for the entire organization to learn from the same experiments or exploration. It is more likely that each area has its own strengths, challenges, and constraints. In this way, some lessons uniquely apply to a specific part or parts of the organization. Recall the lament from the manager, “it is okay to make mistakes, but can’t we make different ones.” This requires some sort of perpetuation of what is learned, moving past the immediate to future events.

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana

Life of Reason Volume 1

In addition to mechanizing the learnings so other parts of the organization can take some action, it is necessary to act upon what has been learned at some future date. It is not enough to go to training; it is only beneficial if that training is applied. This is just as true for on the job training or learning by doing the work. With a physical incarnation of the lessons our present team has learned, we have a way to demonstrate to any new team member how we have gotten where we are presently. This material can be used as part of the organization’s onboarding process. For those unfamiliar, the onboarding is the formal introduction of the new hire to the organization and its values and history.

In process driven organizations the things learned in these experiments should be used to adjust the process flow and process instructions. This is one way of moving

Learning, unlearning, amounts to spinning wheels not much progress

Figure 6.1 Learning, unlearning, amounts to spinning wheels not much progress.

what was learned and recorded in the database into actual practice. Updating processes and process documentation should not be taken lightly. In truly process driven organizations the work can have a level of formalism and that can be driven by legal, cost, or another environmental factor. In these instances, changes to the process must be well understood and that includes variation in inputs, process, and outputs.

It is similar for the communities of practice, what is known by these people, needs a clear and short route to the rest of the organization. The community of practice may issue guidance documentation or updates to the database based upon questions that are asked, building a frequently asked questions (FAQ) section of the database. Recording this expertise in process documentation is another way to ensure this knowledge from the community of practice.

In any of these cases or scenarios, it is important to enact what has been learned. Databases will not work if these are not used. If these are used, as in read but not applied, that too is a failure. The goal must be to create a habit out of both exploration and learning, as well as applying that learning. That is what is meant by mechanizing knowledge.

Prevent Unlearning Through Holistic Change

There is a term, backsliding, that is used at least here in the south, and it means to descend back into a previous, bad way of behaving or acting. It could just as easily apply to the change management initiatives of the organization and more specifically any learning. After all the work to get better or do better, it is possible that the organization will go back to performing and behaving as before the change. That prior way of behaving and acting was understood to be wrong, in error, or just plain bad. The goal of change is not to dither around some central point like some sign wave where the net effect is zero, but to make progress in such a way that the sum of these incremental progresses over time produce some great amount of progress and capability for the organization.

To prevent unlearning requires making a habit of this new way of doing the work. This sounds obvious, but experience suggests this to be not so easily achieved. The individual team members can help drive this behavior. It is not well for the individual nor the organization to spread inaccurate learning. A part of this change management initiative may be to develop the organization’s learning and distribution capacity. In this way meeting specific objectives via learning may not be the end. In fact, it should be our governing philosophy to be continuously learning.

How to Implement Lasting Performance Improvements through Aligned Contextual Changes

We have seen how important spreading the learning is to a team, department, and an organization. Spreading this learning throughout the organization is a nontrivial task. So what sorts of things can we do to help propagate what is learned throughout the organization? There are opportunities to use technology, structure the organization, and many other perhaps not so obvious mechanisms to move the organization toward the desired state.

This is a good time to discuss variables when it comes to experiments. There are two types of variables, independent and dependent. The independent variable is the variable that is controlled; any change to these variables is performed under strict controls, to test the impact on the depending variable. The despendent variable is that being tested and measured for impact.


Technology can help our organization to record and spread what is learned. Database updates can be used to send notifications to smart phones and email addresses of those interested in the topic area where the new information or learning is attached. For example, with configuration management, perhaps there is some interesting learning based upon some other part of the organization, some experiment that has been run, and some learning that originates from that. The teams or team members can post the things they learn from the experiments they attempt in the course of doing the work.

When it comes to product development, technology that helps us quickly build a version of the product from which we can explore is very helpful indeed. Long lead

Continuous and Embedded Learning for Organizations


Technology can help in many ways from learning the work gets done, to learning about the product

Figure 6.2 Technology can help in many ways from learning the work gets done, to learning about the product.

times mean long learning cycles and that runs contrary to a company that desires to get the product accurately to the market as quickly as possible. Interaction and experimentation by the project team and customers with the product will help drive the product to the desired result. In addition to interation with the product, interactions within the team. There are opportunities for technical learning in idea generation, exploration of alternative approaches, adaptations, and improvements can be great opportunites for exploration. These are opportunities for individual and team learning in product development.


The organization has an interest in creating an environment in which the team members grow. This may require investment in a formal education system, as well as but equally informal systems like coaching, mentoring, and other consultation types or exchanges. The level of organizational formalism will have implications on learning and distribution of that learning. In this regard, mechanizing the knowledge via organizational structures, or lack of strucutre, can be of service.

The organization structures that get in the way of mechanizing learning

Figure 6.3 The organization structures that get in the way of mechanizing learning.

The educational system of an organization should make training and technical assistance available to work teams for any aspects of the work in which members are not already sufficiently knowledgeable or skilled. Well structured teams have a good mix of task and interpersonal skills - a pool of talent that members can further expand by sharing their special expertise with one another and by learning together from team successes and failure. Even so, teamwork commonly requires members to handle work-related issues for which their existing knowledge and skill are insufficient. Outside help and expertise can help a team transcend the limits of members’ present expertise.

There is learning that happens in the everyday work. This type of learning does not require the organization to do much more than to provide an environment that is suitable for self-learning and team learning.

The organization creates an environment in which the members of the team can thrive. This begins when the organization hires the individuals and is advanced when the organization pours the collection of hired individuals into a group and casts them as a “team.” The biggest contribution to the employees learning is creating an environment in which the individuals want to learn, and more importantly want to learn from each other, and teach each other.


Creating a culture around continuous exploration, experimentation, and learning will help propel the organization down this continuous improvement road. The impact of culture on the way things are learned can be demonstrated from an excerpt from, What makes your brain happy and why you should do the opposite, mindful of sharks.[1]

In October of 1997, observers from the Point Reyes bird observatory witnessed a killer whale clashing with a great white shark near Farallon Island, twenty-six miles off the coast of San Francisco. Hie site made for salacious nature news. Speculation about what would happen if the apex predators met has always piqued curiosity.

Turns out, it was not much of a fight. The orca had little trouble dispatching her menacing opponent, and then proceeded to dine on its liver, leaving the carcass for seagulls to pick clean. This outcome may have disappointed many who expected a bloody, jaw to jaw battle between these titans of the deep, but it tickled the fancy of academia to the point of giddiness.

To understand why, we have to take a step back to examine how killer whales learn their namesake trade. Like humans, orcas have culture. But unlike most human cultures, orca cultures revolve around one thing: hunting behavior. Some orcas hunt herring, others seals, others stingrays and others - sharks. The observers on the ship had witnessed an orca conducting the business of its shark-hunting culture.

The next discovery was how the orca so handily defeated the shark. In every orca culture, a hunting technique is learned through demonstration and imitation. That’s a big part of what makes orcas such efficient predators - they learn the best, tried-and-true hunting techniques from each other. When one orca tries a killing method that works well, others take notice and copy it.

Scientists speculate that at some point an orca discovered that if it rammed a shark hard enough from the side, the shark would flip over and become motionless, unable to defend itself and inflict injury.

In effect, that pioneering orca induced “tonic immobility” in its adversary — a temporary state of paralysis many species of sharks fall into when turned on their backs. Human discovery of tonic immobility in sharks is relatively recent, making the orca’s behavior all the more remarkable.

The point to this is in killer whales, the culture drives the learning of the pod and the individuals, and that learning came from within the pod. Additionally, “experiments” that lead to a dead end are not continued. Specifically, if the first orca that tried to kill a shark in that way had failed, that behavior would not have propagated through the pod and ultimately to members of the future pod. Only successful hunting experiences will move through to the future. Orcas do not pass on errant hunting techniques; however, this is not true for humans.

No matter the effort, people will be the way things are successfully accomplished. We have all heard organizations profess, accurately, that people are the greatest asset of the corporation. This is true especially for creating an organization that has an effective learning system. The people will either support or take the effort, or they

There are many cultural variables that will impact the success of our knowledge management effort

Figure 6.4 There are many cultural variables that will impact the success of our knowledge management effort.

will not, and this is a part of mechanizing the work or creating a habit. One of the problems is when the organization hierarchy says these things are important but then pushes action to countermand this original direction we do not have time for doing it this way. Rather than explain why and that this course of action is an exception to our rules, the leadership rushes this exception. From experience, there are an abundance of examples of change initiatives that fail because of the organizational hierarchy saying one thing is important, followed hard with actions that run contrary to the original language about what is important.

Humans pass on information and methods that may not work; our brains are set up to see patterns, even when pattern may not be there. Couple this with the fact that our natures and our learned biases lead us to believe we are right whether or not we really are.[2] Neuroscience research on the human brain shows that people are not just uncomfortable with uncertainty, but our brains crave certainty. Our need to be right is actually a need to feel right, leading neurologist Robert Burton to coin the term “certainty bias” to describe this feeling and how it skews our thinking.[2]

Given this need to be right so we can feel right, it is a wonder that anything goes right! This is a fundamental reason for ensuring there are multiple eyes on the subject matter at hand, along with open mental models and voicing assumptions to make it possible to have those assumptions actively critiqued for veracity.

It may be easy to see how organizations may find it difficult to improve or grow into a learning organization. It is important for an organization to learn and spread that learning, but it is important that what was learned is understood, and not some supposed to be learning as the earlier quote from Mark Twain about the cat on the stove (though the cat on the stove sounds like a problem no matter the reason or if the stove is hot). Perpetuating something as knowledge means that something should have value and be, in fact, knowledge. Spreading other than knowledge is spreading supposition or wishes, [here is a difference between known things, and guesses.

Better Tools Make Better Products

Tools can help, but only under certain circumstances. From experience, a common mistake is to expect the tools to save the project, the department, or the company. The issue is a tool or collection of discrete tools that are not connected to the entirety of the work, do not help, and in some cases hinder the organizations progress or capabilities. Tools should not be the goal. The objective and goals of the organization are what is important, not the tools. From experience we have seen companies that rather than take a cohesive approach to tools, they take a discordant, discontinuous approach to how tools are used in the company.

How to Implement Technology Related Corrective Actions

Anecdotally, technology related corrective actions, or technical related corrective actions, are generally easier than social or cultural. Often the technical changes are easier to quantify the change needed as well as derive metrics that inform the progress toward implementing the changes. For example, consider a process change or a tool change in the organization. It is possible to set up metrics of the use of this tool. A specific example could be that of the bug reporting software tool that we are working on to get all projects to use. We can compare the projects that require testing, and see how many of those projects are putting the defects or fault reports into this new system. The same can be for other technical or process corrective actions.

Consider a process, wherein after monitoring output, and finding areas for improvement, we then want to distribute this proposed change to the process, or the resulting learning from this series of events, so others may either use or adopt a similar process. This may even apply to a company that may use less processes, as in formalized, and rely more upon the individual teams to understand the situation and determine the best way to meet the demands of that set of circumstances.

Better Teams Make Better Tools

Tools are not the savior of the organization, it is the talent. It takes more than gathering up the talent and putting them in a room and yea verily a team. A team can arise from this collection of individuals, but requires the environment be suitable. Have you ever worked at a place that had the tools to be used to do the work clearly defined, perhaps compartmentalized? Tools that are not interconnected with the rest of the organization reduce visibility of the work by dependent groups. Anybody experienced in projects will recognize one of the risks to project success is dependent or how the parts interconnect especially with regard to communication. Tools such as these only reinforce the a disparate approach to the work. Sometimes these disparate tools can be overcome by altering the organization’s strucure, or identifying communication improvements. The depenencies remain, however, these can become more clearly visible by the co-located team or group of people seeing the same information, and certainly a common set of tools.

Teams that learn together and across disciplines, for example software development, configuration management and software testing, are all inter-related or conected. There are product development life cycle tools that help soften the boundaries between departments.

Better Understanding Makes Better Teams

Teams are not formulaic; there are things that can happen to either drive the individuals apart or bring the individuals together. An environment of employee empowerment helps move things in the right direction, if the collection of individuals is converted to a team. Have you ever worked in an organization in which the tools are mandated from the executive or management arm of the company? How did this work out? Experience suggests there are at least two failure modes that happen. One is disparate unconnected tools; each department or competency area has their own tools. This lack of view into the work flow causes difficulty; for example, the test group reports defects in a tool that all developers cannot accesss or even project managers. The second is closely related to the previous, when the tools are selected by politics or organization competing interests rather than taking a system level approach, which often leads to communication challenges.

While not denying the inevitability of rough spots in the life of any group, I nonetheless do not count as effective any team for which the impact of a group experience on members’ learning and well-being is more negative than positive. If a group prevents members from doing what they want and need to do, if it compromises their personal learning, or if members’ main reactions to having been in the group are frustration and disillusionment, then the costs of generating the group product were too high.[4]

How to Implement Cultural Related Corrective Actions

Unfortunately, there is no script for achieving changes to the culture that arise out of corrective actions. In fact, cultural changes are largely emergent and attaching a specific set of actions to any culture change is nigh impossible at best. We can never know the range of variables and the magnitude nor combinations that produce a specific and desired cultural change. Does this mean all hope is lost? Not necessarily, there are some things we can do to influence the culture.

Those things that are valued, the things we believe are necessary to improve, should be experimented upon, and tested to see if what we believe to be good is in fact something desirable. Some things may be more obvious, for example, saying our people are empowered, while taking action that runs contrary to our beliefs. This is especially true for the mission, vision, values, and principle documentation. No matter the mechanism, to say one thing is important and act contrary creates confusion at best and at worst erodes levels of engagement.

  • [1] DiSalvo, D. (2018). What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should do the Opposite.Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books page 29-30.
  • [2] DiSalvo, D. (2018). What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should do the Opposite.Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books page 31 Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “On the Reality of Cognitive Illusions,” 103 (July 1996):582-591
  • [3] DiSalvo, D. (2018). What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should do the Opposite.Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books page 31 Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “On the Reality of Cognitive Illusions,” 103 (July 1996):582-591
  • [4] Hackman, J. R. (2006). Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances. Boston, Mass:Harvard Business School Press.
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