Managing Core Competency Knowledge

Rick Dove, Paradigm Shift International, www.parshift.com,

Knowledge is the heart of Agility - the driving force of both proactive and reactive change. New knowledge demands to be acted upon; and when one business acts upon new knowledge others have no choice but to follow.
    This human thing we are distinguishes itself from other life by generating and applying knowledge. Our increasing population is building upon an increasing body of past knowledge - which increases the frequency of new knowledge generation and speeds the decay of knowledge value - making the general business environment, which is built on knowledge, more unstable.
    Conscious knowledge management is the practice that will return general stability in the long run. Short term it will provide preemptive advantage to those who master it first. Core competency knowledge is just one aspect of the total picture - but an important place to start.
    We'll explore the design of a knowledge management practice here, in the context of the competency at the GM metal-fabrication plant we've studied in the previous three essays. This plant stamps and assembles after-model-year auto body parts. But we won't be talking about things unique to metal fabrication or even small-lot, high variety production - our business practice design will have application everywhere.
    In previous essays we saw that GM's Pittsburgh plant has a strong, unique, and evident competency at designing highly reconfigurable, highly flexible production systems.
    We took a Realsearch team there last May (
Jun 97). Its task: explore methods for identifying the key design rules the plant employs for making highly adaptable systems, and methods for articulating and packaging these rules for effective communication to employees. More specifically, when plant manager Al Hall invited us in, he wanted a training program for new hires, as well as existing employees, that would spread this competency quickly and effectively throughout the entire workforce - at the insightful visceral level rather than as a fixed set of rules to blindly follow.
    "When we look at a production system we look to see how it can be taken apart - not how it can be built up." A very insightful statement. They automatically look for ways to modularize a production configuration so that sub-units can be easily swapped or reconfigured for different assembly purposes.
    That was a good one - you could teach others to wield that concept as a productive design tool. But most of the other things they credit for their unique abilities are less instructive. "We'll do anything it takes to keep the doors open" is not very specific and not really true. "Time is always questioned", "Everything can always be improved", and "Presume that anything can be done - just find out how" are inspirational but not helpful with design direction.
    These quotations are from a group of very competent people thoughtfully describing the principles they follow when exercising that competency.
    "People are our most flexible tool", however, is another concept full of insightful value that can be employed effectively as a design rule. They won't consider automation if high variability is required and a person can do the task. A practical example: assembly people move and position the work piece because they'll set it right every time, even though their modular assembly systems are reconfigured somewhat differently every time. This concept can make sense outside of their unique high variety, low volume operation: it's used in a brand-new high volume semiconductor plant - where people transport work-in-process wafer cassettes from machine to machine to keep options open that automated conveyance would otherwise close - important options that let them add or re-locate production machinery to accommodate demand fluctuation and new technology.
    "Enjoy people, make them feel like winners", "Teaming at all levels is key" and "Recognize accomplishment" are less instructive people-related guidelines, however. Important in the background of core values, but not helpful in the engineering design sense.
    So we see the main issue has reveled itself: those with the competency can't seem to articulate it
instructively. They employ tacit knowledge at the intuitive level that even they are unaware of. That's pretty common everywhere - and only becomes an issue when you decide it's time to explicitly inventory this kind of knowledge and spread it around.
    There are more issues that must be addressed by the business practice we are designing. First and foremost, the knowledge management process itself must be highly adaptable - able to evolve and accept deeper and better competency understandings over time, able to accommodate new applications for that competency, and able to incorporate new knowledge developed elsewhere. A perfect application for the issue-focused, principle-based design methodology we've been exploring in this year's Realsearch discovery workshops.
    Issue-focused design means we want to understand our requirements objectively before we commit to a solution. Additional key issues on the proactive side include:
  • People must be interested and perceive value in order to learn effectively.
  •  The accuracy of knowledge, once it is captured, and the effectiveness of communicating it are both prime areas for constant improvement.
  • With time, the product and process technology will change, as will the nature of the knowledge and the knowledge focus.
  • Some knowledge pays dividends when understood by different types of employees: engineers, skilled trades, accountants, personnel, management, etc - each requiring a modified learning approach.
  • Insular knowledge is dangerous. An effective core competency renewal process must be aware of and able to incorporate relevant developments outside the local and greater-corporate environment.

Key issues on the reactive side include:

  • All knowledge is not necessarily good, e.g., knowing how to make a process highly adaptable when there is no value to the company to do so. A self healing process eliminates both incorrect and poor-value knowledge.
  • People in training are employees with front line jobs, and business priorities change daily. There's no longer a "time-out" for training. Key points: flexible scheduling, and the training time should look like job time.
  • A training procedure must accommodate large and small groups, from a few new hires to large groups of existing employees.
  • Technology and applications change with time, so fundamental knowledge must be reinterpreted.

In a prior essay (Oct 97) we introduced something we called a local metaphor model as a tool to represent and help transfer insights among people. The graphic part of such a metaphor model is shown below - providing a mental image of the main elements of the knowledge management practice we are designing. On the left are the key issues we have discussed here. On the right is an outline of the plug-and-play framework/module architecture that provides the resources and freedom to adapt the practice to the identified change issues. In the center is a graphic depiction of the modules that are manipulated and maintained by the designated responsible parties in order to easily construct a wide variety of knowledge capture/mobilization/renewal systems - which we have dubbed Insight Development Groups for need of a name.
    So far we've outlined design requirements. We'll begin exploring the design of this knowledge management practice in the next essay, discussing the framework/module architecture that is outlined in the diagram, and then finally the principle-based part of the design that is not yet shown. Save this - you'll need to refer to it then.


1997-1998 RKDove - Attributed Copies Permitted
Essay #036 - Originally Published 12/97 in Automotive Manufacturing & Production, Gardner Publications

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Last modified: April 25, 2005