Key Knowledge Management Activities

Rick Dove, Paradigm Shift International,,

We're in the middle of a business-practice design exercise that started a few essays ago (Dec '97). Our context is GM's Pittsburgh plant with low-volume, high-variety metal fabrication expertise. The plant's goal is to capture the knowledge of this expertise, to spread it through a training program among all current and new employees, and to nurture it into a proactive strategic advantage.
A word about words: We call our training environment a workshop rather than a class - as the students are responsible for discovering the knowledge that they will be teaching to themselves, and their core activity is the design of a real solution to a real problem. We do call the workshop participants students, however. If the word student is belittling to you get over it, that's how the rest-of-your-life game gets played now.
In the prior two essays we have established and discussed a) the contextual focus for this core-competency knowledge management system, b) the major issues faced by it, c) its key system modules, and d) the framework that will constrain and enable module interaction. In reference, the accompanying table shows the module/framework architectural elements of our design.
Now we will discuss the seven functional activities (Jan '98) that are the heart of this business practice - keeping in mind that the objective of this exercise is to employ RRS design principles (Oct '97) in order to ensure the practice remains highly adaptable in a continually changing knowledge-value environment.
Activities define the interactions among system modules, the actions of the parties responsible for system reconfiguration, and the interactions between elements of the system and the external world. This is the meat for the framework/module architecture we've built.
1) Establish Personal Values - If he's not thirsty, you can't make a horse drink. Jack Stack at Springfield Remanufacturing taught his people to read the corporate balance sheet by showing them how this skill could help them manage their personal finances better; maybe even start a home-based jelly or muffin business. Learning happens when the mind is interested.
These training workshops will focus on what makes production processes highly adaptable. To create personal value from this knowledge the workshop will first look at some of the adaptability issues that people face in their personal lives. For instance, major purchases like a home computer to grow with the kids or a new entertainment system - both lose value quickly if they cannot be upgraded or adapted to technological change. Another example: school and curriculum choices for children can either dead-end or maximize the options in a fast changing world, as can continuing education and skill-training choices for adults.
Workshop students lead here - each choosing a personal interest area to examine for change issues and potential benefits if change-proficiency is realized. The library contains examples and analyses by past students to help in making a choice. Workshop mentors guide the selection process and the subsequent analysis exercise - which focuses on change-proficiency performance metrics, e.g., how valuable is it to extend the useful life of your sound and video system by five additional years, to be able to accommodate DAT and DVD without replacing the entire system, to grow into 3D sound; and what features of a base system maximize the options for someone with minimal technical expertise?
Students present their examples to each other and solicit suggestions for greater flexibility and identification of cost/value issues. Mentors guide the group through an exercise that helps each individual capture the key points of their example in a simplified metaphor model format (Oct '97) - preparation for more formal modeling later. These early personal-value-examples are improved later in the workshop as homework; and after final presentations students decide which ones get libraried to help future students.
2) Analyze External Case for Ideas - Students lead this activity by identifying pertinent candidate case stories in the existing library of outside cases, in the general literature, and in potential plant tours within a day's drive. Mentors assist in the final selection to ensure that cases chosen for analysis will shed light on the application problem the workshop will attack later. A student led discussion informally analyzes and identifies salient and novel features of what has been seen or read about. To the extent that a case deals explicitly with change, a more formal analysis will catalog the change issues, the enabling factors for change proficiency, and any readily available change-proficiency performance metrics. New cases that prove to be instructive are added to the library for future students to reuse.
3) Analyze Local Case for Principles - This is the primary mechanism for capturing core-competency knowledge, and uses the students to analyze and describe the features and underlying principles of an existing highly adaptable system. Typically the original designers
of these existing systems employ techniques that they are unable to articulate to others sufficient for duplicating the expertise. The purpose of this analysis is twofold: first, it turns tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, and second, it is a warm-up exercise for the group which subsequently employs what they have learned to solve the workshop application problem. Students choose the subject for analysis from candidates suggested by mentors. The fact that the subject may have been analyzed by previous workshops and already exists in the library as a case model is of no consequence - a new perspective may well result. Mentors provide process guidance, aiming the group toward the eventual descriptive requirements for consistent knowledge representation.
4) Design a Business Practice - Here is the crux of the workshop. The problem being attacked may well have been worked on by prior workshop groups who failed to gain an implementation recommendation. The workshop group is broken into small teams when possible in order to have multiple perspectives vie for group appreciation. Mentors schedule periodic group reviews and provide process guidance. Student teams schedule their own team and individual task assignments spread over four-to-eight weeks, interspersed with frequent group progress review meetings. They remain employed at a reduced time-commitment in their normal job function during this period. This activity culminates when the group, with mentor guidance, agrees upon a comprehensive design approach and is ready to package the result as a metaphor model.
5) Package Knowledge as Metaphor Models -The metaphor model format (Oct '97) is used to capture and convey the salient features of both the analyzed local case and the designed problem solution, as well as the individual personal value examples developed by each student. It is both a descriptive discipline and an effective insight conveyance tool. It ensures that adaptable systems are consistently described in terms of the RRS principles and framework/module architecture that enable their adaptability, and catalogs the key change issues addressed by the system. These models are built by the students as a group while mentors provide process guidance. When a workshop group is large it is broken into sub-groups for collective work.
6) Rotate Student and Mentor Roles - The HR/OD function at the plant is responsible for scheduling workshops and designating the mentor and student roles. Individuals may be mentors in one workshop and students in another. Mentoring is process-guidance focused, studenting is workshop-product focused - and an individual gains knowledge and insight in both roles. Mentors assist in the identification of issues and in the interpretation of principles by exposing students to past work and by guiding students through a process - not by providing or judging answers. Every application exercise is a chance for a student to solve a very important problem in a very valuable way - and every mentoring opportunity is a chance to improve one's understanding of the tools and the concepts.
7) Review and Select for Quality - We cannot let the fact that we have students developing new knowledge result in a random process. A QA committee ensures that real problems of real value get targeted by workshop groups, and also ensures that marginal value results do not become institutionalized as part of the corporate long term memory. The QA Committee has an important role to play as they provide the ultimate value judgement on both old and new knowledge. They do not, however, interfere in the process of new knowledge development; but rather provide the objective up front and the evaluation in the end. In this way the plant reaps the benefit of new thinking and new perspectives. The committee offers worthy candidate problems to a workshop, and may also approve a problem suggested by a workshop group. At workshop completion the QA committee evaluates the results of key workshop deliverables: the local metaphor model developed while analyzing something that already exists, and the suggested solution to the application problem. Instructive local metaphor models are both admitted into the library and published within the plant, and good problem solutions are recommended for implementation.
There is another important committee as well. It has ownership of the entire knowledge management process and the evolution of the process framework. It is staffed by selected top management in recognition of the strategic importance of the plant's core competency, and staff members are personally accountable for maintaining an effective system at all times.
In the next essay we will look at the explicit relationship between the RRS design principles and activities, and between activities and the change issues we identified as design requirements. At that time we will also look at the tools and the process steps employed behind the scenes during this design exercise.

1998 RKDove - Attributed Copies Permitted
Essay #038 - Originally Published 2/98 in Automotive Manufacturing & Production, Gardner Publications

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