What can practitioners do to gain an understanding of their organization’s knowledge or improve its knowledge practices? Here are some suggestions.
Pick a unit of analysis that corresponds to places or structures that can be identified as knowledge hubs or hot spots that have an impact on business outcomes or strategy. There is usually some focused aggregate, such as a team, network, community, branch, division, or department. It is helpful to limit the unit to no more than 150 people, since that is the number of people any individual can know well socially.
Identify critical knowledge, keeping in mind that knowledge is social and intangible rather than a “thing” that can be captured. These questions can serve as a starting point for discussion:
- Strengths: What gives us a competitive advantage?
- Gaps: What opportunities and vulnerabilities can we see?
- Development: How do we develop new knowledge?
- Innovation: Where do new ideas come from?
- Learning: How well does the organization support learning?
- Problem-solving: How well does the organization solve unexpected problems?
- Retention: How do we embed what we know in order to keep it?
- Transfer: How do we share what we know across the organization?
Identify a governance model for knowledge that reflects the structure of your organization. Federated models are increasingly the norm in large, decentralized organizations. Centralized models (e.g., “monarchies”) can work in settings where it’s impossible to reach the consensus needed in a federated model as long as the culture and incentives foster open sharing. Above all, the governance model should align with and reflect the organization’s culture.
Remember that ideas don’t speak for themselves. Organizations are not meritocracies when it comes to adopting ideas. The decision makers in a hierarchy make the decisions, and their motives are almost always more complex than the pure potential value of the idea. Even before an idea reaches the C-suite, it needs to be sold. (Yes, sold.) This happens through conversation and influence. People who package ideas successfully know that the messenger is as important as the message. Identifying and cultivating champions with good reputations and strong networks is a crucial part of the process. So is knowing how to connect an idea to your audience’s most pressing concerns and interests. Persuasion, like knowledge, is inherently social.
What can organizations do to promote learning at all levels? Here are some suggestions.
The NASA project academy always invited executives, engineers, and scientists to present at events ranging from training courses and knowledge forums to conferences. These speakers believed they were there to teach, but they also learned from and connected with practitioners. The visibility of having leaders as teachers signals to the workforce that learning matters.
Establish reflective leadership as a clear goal. In the NASA project academy’s strategy for knowledge sharing, creating more reflective leaders and practitioners was the first goal. This was really about convincing people that reflection was an activity worthy of their most treasured resource: time. A documented and verbalized commitment to reflective leadership should clearly indicate that there is a responsibility for each practitioner and leader to take time for reflection and learning.
Approach training as a conversation that makes productive use of argument and dissent. Training often turns off smart people. Asking people to share their own experiences and perspective gives them a voice and helps to foster inclusion and appreciation.
Create spaces and places where learning takes place. NASA provided many places where people would come together for the purpose of learning, sharing, and growing. In recent years, young professionals at NASA have solicited leadership support to establish workspaces that enable co-creation, collaboration, sharing, and networking.
Learn in small gatherings and communities. When people learn together, they get better at working together. This goes beyond intelligence to social capital. Spending significant time together in a learning environment will lead to profound work relationships for life if the event has been designed correctly. This includes providing opportunities for eating, drinking, and socializing together.
When asked about the most effective tool for changing the culture of an organization, NASA recommends stories. There are many ways that teams can bring stories to an organization.
- Be clear about the goals for using stories.
- Start every project by telling your story. Every project starts with a story. Projects are always about delivering value through products or services. The journey to arrive at that value is the story. Like projects, stories start with a problem. When you begin a project, ask the question, “What is the story we are hoping to tell on completion?” Note where the discussion goes. Is there agreement on the goals? Are there subplots? What different stories emerge? What are we learning about the project? Do all team members give voice to the story?
- Make room for presentations as stories. Many organizations train people to provide formal slide presentations that are organized by logical thinking. Create places and spaces for presentations that are structured as stories as well. During knowledge-sharing forums at NASA, they would often ask presenters to tell a brief story about a success or failure without any slides in fifteen minutes or less. The practitioners quickly understood how to spell out the problem, context, approach to problem-solving, and outcome. The attendees would then extrapolate lessons from the story, which often differed from those of the presenter. This process encouraged practitioners to share perspectives rather than sell a viewpoint.
- Offer storytelling workshops. Although telling stories can be natural and easy for many people, it is also a great skill to develop. Today there are many professionals with expertise in storytelling.
- Stories can be oral, written, or visual. Some storytellers are more comfortable expressing their ideas in writing. And at some NASA knowledge forums hired visual storytellers to illustrate the stories that were shared. The enduring popularity of graphic novels over the past several decades has made it clear that stories with pictures aren’t just for kids.
- Run experiments and iterate. There are many ways to bring story into an organization. If a first attempt doesn’t work, try a different approach. The key is to realize that stories are an essential tool to stimulate conversation, encourage reflection and learning, promote diverse voices, and inspire purpose. Some of the best organizations in the world understand this and take the time to build this powerful capability
Since culture is mostly defined by collective behaviors and beliefs, it is a difficult intangible to change effectively. With that caveat in mind, here are some mechanisms that NASA has seen work in organizations that have deliberately shifted their cultures.
- Signals and messages. Some of the strongest messages that managers and leaders send out are through hiring and promotion. These actions tell employees a story about the beliefs and behaviors that the organization values. This is particularly important when trying to build a collaborative culture: it is impossible to do so while promoting noncollaborative people.
- Social infrastructure. The way an organization uses and allocates physical space speaks to its attitudes about who matters and how work gets done. Spaces can be designed to encourage conversations and serendipitous encounters by providing simple signals for social interactions, such as coffee and snacks.
- Valuing learning and ideas. By subsidizing subscriptions to publications, encouraging conference attendance, and developing knowledge networks, an organization demonstrates its commitment to acquiring new knowledge and ideas. Much like hiring and promotion, the ways that an organization recognizes and shares new ideas also lets employees know what really matters.
- Shared mission and purpose. Through stories, examples, and cases, organizations can define their mission and create a sense of common purpose necessary for mission success. This is an important step in becoming a smart organization: a common understanding of the mission eliminates a great deal of noise, conflict, and transaction costs.
- Eliminate mechanist metaphors for the organization. The image of the organization as a machine of ever-increasing efficiency needs to be eliminated to foster a culture that prizes learning and knowledge. A more human and organic metaphor should replace it, such as the organization as a living entity that feeds on ideas and a passion for the mission, and that reaches outside itself for sustenance as well as relying on internal sources of energy.
People first. Project teams are about people. It sounds simple enough, but it is rare for leaders and organizations to think like this. Focus on creating a sense of appreciation and inclusion for team members. Let them know they have an opportunity to do and be part of something special. At the start of a project, take time to acknowledge and introduce all of the team members. Ask them to discuss what they most appreciate about the opportunity to work on the assignment. A short gratitude activity like that can have a powerful impact by reminding team members about the benefits of the journey they are beginning. These conversations also allow team members to identify shared experiences and build rapport quickly.
Growth and learning mindset. Most professional development focuses on the individual. It is a good thing to build individual competence, capability, confidence, and resilience. But since project work is accomplished through team performance, the team should be the unit of measure for learning and knowledge.
NASA has seen numerous teams composed of highly competent practitioners fail spectacularly because they didn’t account for the human element of collaboration. One way to ensure this does not happen is to establish a team charter that explicitly identifies growth learning as part of the team’s purpose. Team members should be encouraged to plan for their own development and to think about how each project can improve their ability to work effectively in a team setting.
Focus on key goals and outcomes. Teams get frustrated by two things. First, people don’t like to be considered “resources,” “assets,” or “capital.” Second, teams get frustrated when they don’t know where to focus. A very common plea is for leadership to simply commit to clearly defined priorities. If everything is important, nothing is important.
Smart and safe failure. No one wants to fail, but there is no way to learn without making mistakes. Successful teams have conversations around acceptable risk, and create conditions for sharing insights from mistakes, mishaps, and failures. Resilience often comes from developing capabilities in response to past failures.