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Conversations and communities

By Jane Dysart

Slated as a practitioner's forum, Braintrust International 2004 in Scottsdale, Ariz., in February focused on the people side of KM—conversations, personal interactions, collaboration and storytelling.

To accelerate focus on critical issues, Seth Kahan, an organizational community specialist, used a technique with participants that he called "jumpstart storytelling." The technique harnesses diverse ideas and fosters discussion about what's important—constructive conversations, as he described them.

Kahan effectively used the technique at the conference with a group of 100 to leverage their ideas about what's "uncertain, unknown and in need of a breakthrough in the knowledge management world." Within 30 minutes, some key themes emerged, such as how to deal with knowledge assets walking out the door as many in the work force retire. He also used the jumpstart storytelling technique with a small workshop of practitioners who identified and then discussed the following key issues:

  • Next-generation KM--What is world-class KM and what's next?

  • Globalization—How do we deal with language and culture issues?

  • Change management—How do we change our organizations into real learning organizations? How do we reuse our intellectual assets? How do we go beyond hoarding to sharing?

  • Knowledge champions—How do we foster both personal and organizational energy and passion? Develop KM champion networks? Learn from other evangelists?

Nancy Dixon, Common Knowledge Associates, discussed conversations that result in effective exchange of knowledge and understanding. She used a powerful example—the simulated O-ring discussion between NASA and Morton Thiokol before the Challenger disaster in 1986—to illustrate the challenge of making conversation work. She discussed strategies for building relationships and sharing the knowledge behind an individual's conclusions.

Steve Denning, author of a forthcoming book, "Squirrel Inc.—A Fable of Leadership and Storytelling," discussed the different types of stories you can use to stimulate conversations and actions, for instance, to communicate a complex idea, to get people working together, to share/transfer knowledge or to transmit values. The focus of the presentation was on meaningful dialogue and conversations.

Michael Kull, principal of Amplifi and a professor at The George Washington University, illustrated the power of digital video in storytelling by showing clips of KM gurus—such as Carla Odell, Verna Allee, Larry Prusak, David Weinberger and Sue Hanley—and their messages.

Through his study of 60 organizations over five years, Rob Cross confirmed that "informed networks drive performance." Cross is the author of a new book, "The Hidden Power of Social Networking—Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations," and an assistant professor in the management department of University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce.

Cross discussed social networking techniques for learning more about the communities and networks in organizations, as well as their communication, information and knowledge flows. He compared those techniques to an X-ray into the organization—a powerful tool that can look across divisional boundaries. He talked about ways to improve networks after you identify central and peripheral people in the network and those whom he calls "knowledge brokers." The knowledge brokers are boundary spanners—critical connectors between information sources and specific kinds of expertise.

Energizers or those people who create "buzz" also play important roles in communities and the network. They are engaged, good at engaging others, positive, optimistic and see opportunities. Cross said that this position in the energy network is a much higher predictor of performance—four times higher—than expertise, use of information networks or use of impersonal sources such as databases. People tied to energizers do a better job of raising the work of others, he says.

Greg Balestrero, CEO of the Project Management Institute (PMI), talked about the challenges to global associations and how communities are playing strategic roles in keeping them vibrant. He used PMI as an example of an organization that is pushing forward a transformation management agenda for change. It is based on creating a powerful, strategic leadership community, understanding strategic dialogue (conversation) and addressing communities of immediate need.

A number of practitioners discussed what their organizations have learned:

  • Judi Sandrock from Kumba Resources shared lessons learned by her organization as well as by other organizations based in South Africa.

  • Colin Cadas, team leader, Design Technology, Rolls Royce, explained his organization's KM strategy for capturing, retaining and sharing specialist knowledge using KAMP (Knowledge Acquisition and Modeling Processes).

  • Lynette Freese, senior program manager, Rockwell Collins, shared her organization's definition of KM, which is "linking people to people and people to information so that we can think together for better business results." She described the various initiatives used to achieve those results: communities of practice (CoPs); skills and competency management systems with self-assessment tools; the book of knowledge—the database where they capture the good stuff, the gold nuggets; and the explicit knowledge of intellectual property and patents.

  • -------;
David LeCore, KM solutions champion, Schlumberger, talked about his organization's CoPs, their intranet (The Hub) used for knowledge exchange, their InTouch knowledge action center for knowledge coupling for service delivery, and career management and e-learning initiatives.

Another practitioner, Victor Newman, chief learning officer at Pfizer and author of "The Knowledge Activist's Handbook," talked about knowledge and innovation. He described a practical technique, Box Logic, to help groups open up their operational space to creativity and innovation. He discussed innovating behaviors and the three types of people necessary to make innovation happen:

  • creators, who develop the ideas and create new market value;

  • stabilizers, who manage the system as a process to reduce variation and improve it and who create new efficiencies; and

  • implementers, who recognize opportunities, work with creators to stabilize the prototype and work with the stabilizers to develop workable systems.

Newman defined KM as the "deliberate management of knowledge to deliver specific outcomes." Much more than a collection of technologies and techniques, it is "a distinct way of thinking about means and ends," he said.


Jane Dysart, a consultant in the information and knowledge management field, is a partner with Dysart & Jones Associates, e-mail jane@dysartjones.com

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