Are White Knights Scalable? 5 Ways to Share the Knowledge (and Glory)

I am always surprised how work gets done. Sometimes teams have detailed implementation plans and follow them to the letter with proper resource management and contingencies built in. But, unfortunately, I see more and more work being accomplished on the backs of the few…the heroes…the white knights atop their horses coming to save the day as only they know how.

You know these people. They are the ones everyone calls. They serve on every cross-functional committee. They may be on the company’s HiPo list. They wear more hats than the Mad Hatter.

For Knowledge Management professionals, we like to identify these white knights and feverishly document what they know or how they approach problems in hopes of spreading that know-how to others so that we become less dependent on them and more productive across levels and departmental lines.

But, what happens when they don’t want to share because they love their “hero” status? Or, they are recognized and rewarded for being the best time and time again?  Or, what do you do when an organization grows dependent on their heroes and doesn’t know any other way of doing things?

  1. Put them center stage. Yes. You heard me correctly. Celebrate knighthood by recognizing them and asking them to share their stories and secrets. Some knights like to talk about themselves so put that PR skill to good use. Get them on video, on stage, on a webcast/podcast to talk about their keys to success.
  2. Change the game. Sometimes we reward our knights with more committees, more special projects. This has always confused me. Instead of burying them in more work, ask them what they would like to do or how they would like to contribute. You may be surprised. They may want to sit out a round and give someone else an opportunity. Or, they may want to pick the cross-functional efforts that they help. Or, they may want a weekend off.
  3. Share the love. We like to hold up our stars for high achievement, and we should. But, we should think about if the success we are rewarding was truly an individual effort. Did the best salesperson do this alone? There was no sales engineer behind her helping? Did the customer service manager turn his team around single-handedly? The answer might be yes but rewarding teams of people can be very effective to inspire great results and change the “hero” into “heroes”.
  4. Give someone else a chance. Next time you are staffing a committee, think about someone else other than the usual suspects. Who else could fulfill this role or stretch to fulfill the role? People get burnt out on committees. Even white knights get tired of coming to the rescue all the time. If you give someone else a chance, they may consider it a privilege, a reward in and of itself, and bring fresh energy….and knowledge!
  5. Go from knighthood to mentorship. Put your knights to work mentoring instead of sitting on the next task force. Ask them to share what they know. Allow them to pick 1 – 2 people they feel comfortable mentoring. This is a great way to share the knowledge of knights without the KM professional imposing on them with a camera or a notepad with a list of open-ended questions.

7 Questions for Minimum Governance

Implementing a new process or system without governance can lead to chaos. We all know this. But, do too many rules get in the way of adoption?

The answer? Yes, BUT.

Yes. Too many rules can turn people away. Too restrictive of a request or change process can kill any good feelings of a new system. BUT, zero governance can lead to messy system implementations or uneven process adoption, which usually does not meet the business objectives of the new initiative.

So, as in life, work, love and health, BALANCE must be the end goal.

How do you have just enough governance to save people from themselves but not turn them away at the front door of change?

To start a new process or system implementation, we should adopt Minimum Governance so the price of entry isn’t too high and we can show value out of the gates. This is not to say governance can’t be expanded, reduced or altered along the way – it should be. Minimum Governance should answer the following 7 questions:

1. What is the purpose and intended result of this process/system?
2. What human resources will manage and support this effort?
3. What are people supposed to do, specifically, and when?
4. How do people engage in the new process/system?
5. What are the baselines expectations of people (is there a policy to correlate)?
6. How are we going to hold people accountable for meeting expectations?
7. How/From whom do people get training and help?

There are other questions we can answer and should, especially for systems, like design, hierarchy and other tool, data and content standards. However, I caution to keep the standards “light” to start until you get buy-in. Then, people will more likely follow you toward more standardization down the road.

Documenting Processes…For Better or Worse

I recently had dinner with a colleague, and she commented on how she has made a living by documenting processes within companies. She is a training and computer interface designer yet she can’t do her job without documented processes. How do you create a training program without content? How can you configure a system to help automate a process if it’s not documented?

First step…always document. People don’t like to document. I don’t know if it conjures images of third grade grammar class where they had to stay after school to bang erasers if they couldn’t remember the difference between they’re, their and there. But, people don’t like to document. If it’s in their heads, they think they’re golden and don’t have to type anything on their PC over there. Mrs. Gorski would be so proud!

I think this is a key contribution a Knowledge Management professional can play if she chooses. Think about it…how can you improve what you don’t know how it operates today? How can you automate what is manual if you can’t see it? How can you share what is not known? It all starts with processes and the documentation of those processes.

Process documentation is a form knowledge management. Processes are artifacts and assets of a company. They don’t have to be complicated; they just have to be known to share, improve, automate and re-engineer. It is our baseline…our beginning.

We have an Idea! Now What?

Asking employees to think of the next big idea is a challenge because it takes many, many sparks to get to that golden innovation that will move the needle. Having an employee suggestion box is one way to solicit ideas from people but the age-old challenge becomes:

Who is going to sift through all those suggestions? How are they going to determine which ones are worth pursuing?

A lot of companies create idea or innovation committees to review ideas – no matter how small or how big, no matter how much information is provided. This ends up taking a lot of people’s time and spinning wheels that has resulted in a lot of process with little result.

The solution is to re-invent the process. There will still need to be reviewers of ideas but there is an easier path to travel. The key is to put the responsibility of researching and selling the idea on the shoulders of the person who suggested it. It’s too easy to suggest we should “give employees every other Friday off” with exploring and documenting its impact.

To challenge people more and minimize the reviewer’s time create an idea sheet (form) that describes…

  • WHAT the idea is
  • WHY it should be addressed
  • WHAT the costs in time, resources and money are
  • WHAT are our competitors doing
  • HOW this will move the financial needle
  • WHAT stakeholders should be involved

Answering these questions make review time more efficient and gives the idea person some ownership!

Moving From Full-Service to Self-Service KM

If you work with billable employees, you know there is a constant struggle between how much time they should spend searching for information vs. doing actual billable work. Finding and leveraging past work could increase the firm’s profitability if the re-use can drive down operational time and drive up margin.

From an expense standpoint, do you employ a full-time search specialist to search and retrieve content for consultants, or should the firm invest in technology to enable better, faster self-service?

The numbers are in and self-service should win. Why? Investing in technology does have an upfront investment component to make information more findable but relying on a search specialist leaves the organization vulnerable if that person should move on and take all the intimate knowledge of our work with him/her.

The more billable employees can get their hands directly on content, the more knowledge they have about our previous work, the better equipped they are to present our collective stories in a compelling manner to clients and the more connected they will be to other employees.

The former model connects them to one person; creating a self-service model connects them to many.

Moving from a full-service to a self-service model is a challenging exercise in change management. One that requires the following:

  • Visible sponsorship: A leader’s endorsement is appreciated but visibly promoting and expecting people to engage in new work models and tools goes above just a behind-closed-doors “good idea” compliment.
  • Easy technology: So many platforms exist to enable easy uploading, tagging, commenting and sharing of information. Whatever your platform, it must make people’s jobs easier. Remember that nothing is easier than emailing a search specialist to request they spend time finding and retrieving something you need. But, in the long run, self-service pays back in other ways so demonstrating the simplicity of the process is essential for adoption.
  • Courage (and support) to say “no”: It’s not easy telling someone that instead of searching for them that I will tell you how to do it yourself. Squeaky wheels get the grease, and leadership may be inclined to give in to that person who refuses to post or find information on their own. We must change our behavior to help them change theirs.
  • Reinforce Behavior (again and again and again): Dipping people into one training session and then releasing them into the new frontier doesn’t cut it when changing behavior. In addition to driving people one-on-one to new tools and processes, show success.
    • Try spotlighting a monthly search success to reinforce how easy it is on your intranet.
    • Get champions to live and breath and offer to help those who are having difficulty following the self-service model.
    • Equip managers to hold people accountable for adoption.
    • Be careful with incentives. Incentives sometimes require upping the ante every year to sustain and that, in and of itself, is unsustainable.
    • Appeal to emotion. This is a last resort if stubbornness prevails. Communicate that the new normal is connecting and sharing. If you don’t connect, you’ll be missing the bus!

Congratulations on your success! You’re no longer needed.

After a number of years in the knowledge management space, I have come to realize that I know I am successful when I am no longer needed in the role I was hired to play. KM professionals generally get hired to “fix” things – better content management or search capabilities; better processes for storytelling and sharing; better mechanisms to capture tacit knowledge or connect people to people.

Once these systems, processes and expectations have been communicated and integrated into the way people work, what then? The goal for every KM professional is to work yourself out of a job.

KM professionals are like organizational SWAT team members – they come in, assess the situation, set up culture-appropriate processes, measure success and move on to the next opportunity whether it be within the same organization or a different one.

This is a scary proposition in a down economy…the fact that if I do my job right, I won’t have one in the future. But, I think it is the true test of success. Having KM processes and systems part of a culture and a way of doing business really ought to be our ultimate goal.

Now, this can take years…especially if leadership desires change that may not be indicative of the current culture but of a future state they envision. So, we can probably relax a little as we all certainly have work to do. However, we should always be looking for future opportunities to fix and depart from.

When Things Go Wrong

woods-2-pathsI don’t know if I believe in superstitions….if Mercury is in retrograde, gremlins get in the system or “ghosts” have something to do with my keys always disappearing. All I do know is something is wrong.

Lately, nothing has cooperated. Technology is not working, plans are falling through and desired outcomes are getting delayed or eliminated. So, whether it’s the cosmos out of alignment or the creatures you’re not supposed to feed after midnight, I am stumped as to the bad fortune lately.

Instead of sulking at the number of mishaps, as a true KM professional, I turn to capturing lessons learned and trying to pinpoint items in my control to look toward the future.

Sometimes we learn that items are not in our control, like technology, so all we can do is communicate the current state, apologize for inconvenience and move to a solution, band-aid or take an alternate path. I find the alternate paths, while vexing at first, can lead to great fortune.

I keep reminding myself that rarely do things go 100% according to plan and we should expect the unexpected. So, mishaps can be good. Conflict can lead to learning. Forced alternatives can lead to a better solution that we never would have thought of!

As long as we take time to reflect and dissect with a clear head, “bad” things can be good, and “wrong” turns can lead to the right path.

Knowledge Management and Marketing: “Sharing” a Link

It used to be that Knowledge Management and Marketing are too very disparate functions with clear training and education needed to differentiate one professional from another. I think there is a lot of overlap between these two jobs, specifically in two areas:

  1. The use of social media to capture, share and create interaction over content
  2. One can directly feed the other

I’m not going to focus on social media so much in this entry but the second point. For consulting firms especially the process of internal knowledge management to capture and leverage intellectual capital can directly be reused for marketing purposes.

A large part of consulting firm’s Marketing/PR strategy is based on case studies – what have you done for XYZ company, what were the results and how can that help my company. A consulting firm’s KM strategy should focus a lot on story capturing and storytelling to help make selling more powerful and creation of client deliverables more efficient.

These same stories captured for internal use can be used for external marketing purposes provided you have permission from the client. Here is a potential flow of what I call the SHARE concept:

Storytelling to Help Acquire (our knowledge), Recognize (our employees) and Expand (our business)


“Switch” Your Thinking

Just recently, I attended a presentation by Dan Heath covering the tenets of his new book: Switch. Focused solely on how to make change happen, I was struck by the simplicity of the methods. Heath spoke about balancing appealing to the rational and emotional sides of the brain as well as ensuring one’s environment is clear of obstacles.

Simple but powerful. This got me to think about appealing to emotion in the workplace to inspire change. I agree with Heath that we make change decisions, generally, with our emotions not necessarily through logic.

If we were totally rational, then none of us would drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes because, logically, we know they are bad for us. My father is a borderline diabetic and when the doctor told him he was not allowed to eat doughnuts because of their lack of nutritional value, my father quickly countered with: “But, what about their emotional value.”

In the workplace, would appealing to emotion work on enterprise-wide changes, like technology implementations? How would we appeal to emotion to get people to submit stories to our knowledgebase?

I think for years I’ve been trying to rationally sell people on the benefits of sharing – reuse, saves time, better quality product, more collaborative, even increased sales but I wonder about selling on emotion. What would that look like?

Heath relayed a purchasing story where the company’s new head of procurement gathered all the 350 different kind of gloves their plants were independently buying and brought them to a leadership meeting. This was his argument for centralizing purchasing. When the leaders saw all the different gloves and the fact that they were paying different prices for the same glove, they make the switch.

COuld we do the same with storytelling and sharing content? Could we gather all the disparate selling techniques and products we produce to demonstrate how one could have benefited from the other? Would this convince people to start sharing? Hmmm….that might be something I try.

Can KM and AR work together?

I love to read – Harvard Business Review and Fast Company being my favorite business reads; FBI crime thrillers my favorite leisure read. Sandra Brown and Catherine Coulter really know how to write engaging dialogue! I used to just skim Fast Company for big ideas but I have been reading most of the articles now because while they may not be completely related to my profession as a communicator, I find that in every technology, innovation and green article, there is something I can take away about what the future may hold. And, I challenge myself to draw connections and be forward-thinking.

In November’s issue, an article on Augmented Reality (AR) caught my eye, and I put my futurist hat on to think about the link between Knowledge Management and AR. AR is the technology concept where you can be visiting Paris, walking by the Eiffel Tower and your device will know where you are based on GPS and display historical information about the Eiffel Tower. I would be nervous if I was a tour guide.

What an astounding concept for knowledge management! Imagine if we could retrieve information about people that way…the new augmented expertise locator! Or, embed information about a system, process or experience this way. It wouldn’t depend on GPS because these are not tangible items like the Eiffel Tower but if they could depend on simple inputs like voice instead of GPS.

I could say: “Close deal with UPS.” And, videos of people telling stories could be downloaded to my mobile device telling me how to do that, a screen listing hot buttons about UPS, bios of decision-makers, and the list goes on and on.

What we can’t avoid is even with the convenience of AR, there still has to be someone who creates content. The ease in which we access that information can be aided by mobile devices, cloud computing and other technology but content will continue to be king.