‘…education, education, education…’ and the role of critical knowledge in government as seen from Whitehall

Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people.

Prime Minister Blair, ahead of the 2001 General Election

Paul at Cabinet Office 1It was an interesting and Westminster focused week. A chance to see first hand whether more than a decade on the aspiration of making Britain a learning society had been realised.

Monday, I was a guest at a Cabinet Office Knowledge Cafe facilitated by David Gurteen; Thursday, I ran a workshop* at the Department for Education on knowledge capture and retention.

At the Knowledge Cafe there was a nice mix of people from across the Civil Service. The 40 or so, assembled by Susan Chan of The Cabinet Office and hosted by Roger Smethurst, Deputy Director and Head of Knowledge and Information Management at the Cabinet Office were discussing:

How can we more actively share knowledge in the workplace?

The Knowledge Cafe format encourages conversation (it’s David Gurteen’s mantra) asking as it does for three rounds of conversation after an opening round of 2 minute introductions. For some the lack of any obvious outcomes is a source of frustration, for others its a liberating way of discussing a topic of interest and testing your own hypotheses.

I found myself in conversation about the diametrically opposed tasks of promoting voluntary transparency across government while protecting the exemptions of the Freedom of Information Act.

We discussed the difficulties of establishing Twitter dialogue and of being tied to SharePoint.   Everyone had a tale to tell about lack of handover time when being faced with a new assignment. Few seemed to have heard of Collaborate the internal government social media/chatline.  To a man (and woman) there was disquiet over the abandonment of the Local Government Agencies Community Network.

Yet the vast majority had concerns about potential loss of knowledge when organisations downsize and move to more flexible and generalist working.  This was a theme that was to resurface on Thursday.

‘I spent the morning waiting for a login…’

The dozen or so people who attended the 2nd of 3 knowledge management expert sessions held at the Department for Education were drawn from Policy, Administration and Delivery. My topic:

capturing and exploiting critical knowledge in Department for Education

An exercise I’ve found works really well when trying to get to the bottom of what critical knowledge looks and feels like is to ask people to think about a time when they needed to know…. Often mundane administrative issues (a good handover/briefing pack being rendered ineffective by lack of access to a system) get in the way!

Introductions SlideThis slide gives you the narrative.

A variety of frustrations were aired as well as great examples of good knowledge sharing practices. And yet so much revolved around the need for signposts and people acting as knowledge hubs – knowing who to go to being as important as knowing where to look.

If I didn't come back tomorrow                                                           The discussion really came alive when the delegates split into three groups to work through one of these questions.  Some of the learnings:

  • Critical knowledge is often held at Grade 6 & 7 and these are neglected when it comes to knowledge capture. While Directors and Deputy Directors are adroit at managing, their domain knowledge is unlikely to be as detailed.
  • The narrative (context) surrounding critical knowledge is hugely important. By focusing on events and decisions it’s easier for this to emerge.
  • As the propensity for greater disclosure (authorised and unauthorised) increases so does the need for informal discussion – ‘An audience with..‘ sessions increases.
  • Reputation risk (from not drawing on previous experience) is viewed as a core issue.

takeaways from Westminster

Revision of the Government Knowledge & Information Strategy has sharpened the focus on the need for effective knowledge capture and retention.  That needs the active support and participation in the business areas (not just in the Knowledge and Information Management Professionals across government) for this to happen and for continuous knowledge harvesting to become ingrained behaviour.

There is still some way to go before Tony Blair’s vision is realised!

* informed by a programme run by knowledge et al and Sparknow for HMRC


“True tacit knowledge can’t be passed on when people leave”: embedding knowledge capture & retention

On Wednesday I had the pleasure of meeting and listening to Karen McFarlane who is Head of Profession, Knowledge & Information Management (KIM) for the UK Government’s Civil Service. I’d been invited as a guest by NetIKX as a precursor to a talk I am giving there early in 2014. And with due permission (Karen’s ‘day job’ is quite sensitive) I posted a few Tweets on what I heard which you can find on their twitter feed for the event #netikx63.

The Knowledge Council – setting frameworks and strategy for the KIM Profession

Karen outlined the work that has taken place over 18 months at the Knowledge Council to develop a framework and a new Government Knowledge & Information Strategy (GKIS). Her aim is to ensure people in KIM roles have KIM qualifications with good succession planning. A profession (currently 1,000 people across government are considered KIM professionals) that will attract and maintain talent and create an environment where KIM civil servants can move across roles equipped to do so.

These comments (which I am paraphrasing) stood out:

There is a real concern about loss of knowledge when people leave which is why a lot of effort has gone into building a knowledge harvesting toolkit for the KIM community….

One of the techniques is a Mastermind Chair; another, getting people to ask ‘what questions do you wish you’d asked…Try and identify the critical people… many departments use social media to share knowledge…

...True tacit knowledge can’t be passed on when people leave, you need a strategy to ensure you don’t get to that point…

Some organisations are now making use of Alumni networks to keep access to people who’ve left…

And finally… Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) are now sharing stories on their intranet…

an accredited career pathway

Karen painted a backdrop wherein the topic of knowledge & information management is higher up the agenda in government than it has been for more than two decades. All of which is really positive as is the work being done with external bodies such as CILIP on accreditation and training and career pathways for KIM professionals in government.  Its impressive progress which the soon to be released GKIS will place into context.

This brings me back to the capturing and exploiting corporate knowledge’ pilot we* have been running for HMRC’s businesses under the supervision of their KIM professionals.

HMRC’s Pilot Programme: Setting Up and Capturing: Modules 2 & 3

My previous postings looked at why HMRC had set up the pilot programme, what critical knowledge is, how to identify it and why it is important.  Modules 2 & 3 of the programme focused on:

Setting up how to identify and approach the knowledge holders & networks how to design a knowledge capturing approach
Capturing develop an understanding of different capture techniques benchmark against existing approaches

‘Our’ delegates recognised:

  • not everyone who changes jobs or leaves has critical knowledge whose loss will severely damage the organisation.  Its important to be proactive to identify where it resides and with whom – the knowledge holder.
  • everyone is different. Each person who partially retires will feel differently about what they want to give back. Some people might initiate. Approach each person differently in order to find out how they feel about knowledge capture.

In Module 2 we looked at the setting, preparation and clarity of purpose which are all key to successful capturing of knowledge.  A key task is to think seriously about how a request for time with a knowledge holder is likely to be received.

A typical Knowledge Holder?

A typical Knowledge Holder?

Profiling and Archetype Mapping are used extensively in design, it is even more important when dealing with intangibles to have identified and acknowledged likely preferences of the person you are approaching?

A large exhibit in Asia

A large exhibit in Asia that sought to identify major events in the life of an institution. Passers by were asked to note on a timeline events that were of interest to them.  This helped to target key players for future interviews and the subject areas to be covered.

Focusing on the individual is just one aspect of knowledge capture & retention: it’s vital to focus in addition on decisions, events and processes (documented as well as practiced) to see what knowledge is called upon in the first place and from where and then what is produced during the process.

Another key aspect is to create the right environment for the discussion/interview/observational session.  This is especially important when the intervention is to be recorded or a large response is sought.

The delegates spent time thinking about the right form of consent, how they might craft the invitation to participate and the mechanism they’d use to capture material.

Module 3 was very much about trying out. The delegates looked at:

  • Sketchbooks
  • Interviewing
  • Recording
  • Group Elicitation
  • Reverse thinking

Types of interviewsThey discussed a variety of approaches to interviewing, comparing those with the checklist already developed for HMRC.

And they worked on interviewing (and listening) skills comparing and contrasting experiences.

As part of the benchmarking exercise we encouraged delegates to look at the 47 step knowledge capture process as articulated in Professor Nicholas Milton’s book Knowledge Acquisition in Practice which was very successfully adapted by John Day, at Sellafield that in itself drew on work done by Shell on its Retention of Critical Knowledge (ROCK) programme.

As in the previous modules offsite work involved listening to audios developed exclusively for this programme including a clip on Baton Passing, a technique used by the British Council adapted for their use by Professor Victor Newman.

importance and danger of Knowledge Harvesting

To return to the beginning. The Knowledge Council’s focus on equipping KIM Professionals with tools and techniques in Knowledge Harvesting is admirable. Yet I felt there is a missing skill from the training ‘suite’ shown by Karen McFarlane at the NetIKX meeting, namely that of facilitation which for me is critical.

If knowledge harvesting (what I might call knowledge capture and retention) is to become an ingrained ‘way of working’ across government then people in the business need to be equipped with those skills as well. KIM professionals must have the skills to facilitate others in Knowledge Harvesting not just conduct them.

Last minute captureThe alternative scenario is that the KIM professional gets called in to do a last minute ‘tell us what you know’ knowledge harvesting session with a prominent person and the resultant  ‘pearls of wisdom’ are placed on a database that few look at or listen to.

*Sparknow and Knowledge et al worked in partnership to deliver this programme.

capturing & exploiting corporate knowledge in HMRC: bombs, cakes and critical knowledge

The impending release of the UK Government’s Knowledge & Information Strategy has shone a spotlight on the need for all areas of government to capture, effectively manage and share the knowledge and information they create and receive…if they are to deliver a world class and publically accountable digital public service.

I wonder how many UK taxpayers associate HMRC with being at the leading edge of government practice? Yet a few months back 14 senior business people gathered for the first modules ran by Victoria Ward and I of a Civil Service Learning pilot programme* entitled capturing and exploiting corporate knowledge. 

The venue was Whitehall, London yet the delegates came from around the country and represented a wide variety of disciplines from across HMRC: VAT Directorate; Anti Money Laundering; Large Businesses Service; Corporation Tax, International and Anti-Avoidance (CTIAA); Specialist Investigations; Local Business Comliance: and Excise, Customs, Stamps & Money Services (ECSM).

in advance

We asked the delegates to:

…bring along an object. An image, document or small artifact that illustrates a memorable event with which you were involved during your last couple of years in the business. It might be a decision, a new piece of policy or a transaction.  We are going to ask you to talk about the object and use it during the exercises so please think carefully about what you might choose.

Here’s why: Objects stimulate conversations; people feel comfortable talking about them in environments where otherwise they might not open up. They reveal insights other techniques fail to unearth and so are effective as icebreakers and as triggers for more in-depth discussions on events and projects.

One of the core beliefs I’ve developed working with Sparknow is that, to be effective and valued, knowledge management has to be about helping to improve the decision making capacity of individuals, teams and organisations. Indeed it features in the opening sentence of the World Bank’s definition of KM:

…Knowledge provides insight for decision making…

So, much of early stage investigation into critical knowledge has to be around events and decisions and how knowledge has (or has not) informed them. Objects have proved to be a good way of facilitating those early dialogues and feature prominently in the work we do.

By combining timelines and objects to examine an event or decision in an Anecdote Circle we imagined this would act as a real stimulus in helping to place clarity around the concept of critical knowledge.

module one: Positioning


  • understand the importance of critical knowledge to HMRC


  • able to identify critical knowledge
  • see how and why others identify and capture critical knowledge

Reassuringly people were prepared and had an object, an image or something in mind (this is often not the case). Here’s an extract from Victoria’s fieldnotes taken during the plenary debrief on the memorable objects session:

My object wasn’t that helpful, it was just a document…But it was a conversation starter, very simple very plain, a trigger… It brought a story to life and helped with focus

The Anecdote Circle helped the delegates identify the event or decision they wished to examine in more detail.

For that we invited them to use a tool, (worksheet) for conducting a more in depth (Deep Dive) type of discussion, Sparknow has christened the Narrative Grid.

Narrative Grid Worksheet

Narrative Grid Worksheet

Comments were broadly favourable and the Narrative Grid was to feature later in the programme by which time they were more attuned to its benefit and skilled in its application.

From looking at critical knowledge from an internal perspective we shifted to the external environment drawing on examples from the nuclear industry, the health industry and the regulatory industry to illustrate how they had set about identifying what critical knowledge was in their business and why they set about capturing it. A common theme running through each example, with which the HMRC delegates were able to empathise, was the need to mitigate risk especially around the departure of staff with considerable expertise and experience.

There was broad agreement that critical knowledge:

‘It’s the knowledge HMRC would struggle without if it lost’

And in working through examples the delegates were able to identify two compelling metaphors: bomb defusing and cake makingcolored_wires_bomb_cutter_3268

  • In defusing bombs the precise critical knowledge is knowing what wire to cut.
  • For recipes, it’s not just the recipe, ingredients, marinading, but how hot is my oven?

    Flower Bomb Cake by Madeline Ellis

    Flower Bomb Cake by Madeline Ellis






Module One ended with us providing the delegates with a set of references and reading. We also provided a link to an interview I’d conducted with Gordon Vala-Webb a promiment KM’er in Canada who was in charge of a project to capture and retain knowledge for a regulator at a time when many of its most experienced staff were about to retire and would impact them operationally. Gordon gives an eloquent explanation of how a large govenrment organisation tackled this and determined the knowledge they could least afford to lose. Here are a few snippets:

…we took a risk management approach and got each of the branches to fill in a risk assessment form as part of the annual business planning process… a high score would have resulted in the branch developing a risk mitigation plan… we provided guidance on different approaches which included videoing, interviewing, expanding procedure manuals…in some cases they kept the retiring staff on call…

…I believe if we had not had this program people would have been scrambling to keep operating…

More to follow on Modules 2 through 6 over the next few weeks.


*Sparknow and Knowledge et al worked in partnership to deliver this programme.

why the UK Government is seeking to capture and retain critical knowledge

As I write this an updated Government knowledge & information Strategy is being crafted.

Following the recognition of knowledge & information management (KIM) as one of the professions of government and building on Information Matters published in 2008 it represents another important milestone in the journey towards a more flexible workforce able to recognise, capture and retain that knowledge & information critical for its current and future business.

More on that in due course once the Strategy has been released.

turning the km & i vison into reality

Recently HMRC (through Civil Service Learning) commissioned Sparknow and I to run a set of pilot programmes on capturing and exploiting corporate knowledge. HMRC like all areas of governement face the threefold challenge of:

  • equipping new joiners with sufficient knowledge and information that they are able to hit the ground running (while making the most of the knowledge they are bringing to the organisation)
  • ensuring that when staff are reassigned they have sufficient time and access to the knowledge they need to transition into the new role
  • capturing the huge experience and knowledge (often tacit) from staff who are coming up for retirement, whose job may be dissapearing or who are leaving to pursue a career elsewhere.

In welcoming the participants our sponsor said:

This proposed programme…aims to make knowledge retention part of the engrained behavior and the way ‘we’ work. It should be a continuous process fuelled by the belief that everyone has something to contribute and much to learn from sharing knowledge.

Our challenge then: to develop an informative, participative and enjoyable set of interlinked modules that gives exposure to a dozen or so tools and techniques that will help to identify, capture and reuse what are often termed ‘critical knowledge assets. And find a measurement (we used Dr Donald Kirkpatrick’s Learning Evaluation Model) to assess the success of this capacity building initiative.

View from first training room

The view from the venue for modules one and two.
Picture by Victoria Ward

Over the next month I am going to be taking a more in depth look at the modules we ran and the areas that stimulated most interest among the dozen or so senior HMRC staff from different areas of the business around the UK.  So as ‘they’ say: ‘watch this space’!

when knowledge & information  flow

As part of the discussions leading up to the programme we developed a vision (a future story) of what an knowledge & information friendly environment might look like:

I’ve just returned from ‘an audience with…’ session with  John who is about to retire. It was different from the usual breakfast briefing – we got to learn about topics and events we’d identified as being of interest. Hearing those described by someone who’d been through it all was really insightful for a relative newcomer.

I relocated this year: thanks to Agnieska who’d built a bridge between my predecessor and me there were few surprises and I still see Jane for a regular catch up. I am much more aware of things that are going on, who I can go to and ask a question. Most importantly I now have a set of useful questions and the confidence to ask them in any situation.

I am keeping my Decision Journal: who’d have thought it but it’s  been immensely valuable as a prompt when having conversations.  And I am now a timeline convert and shocked my Director when I  used postcards on a timeline to share my regular update.

I do feel that should I leave it would be easier to pass on what I’ve learned in a more illuminating way. If only I’d begun it earlier – using objects as prompts has made sharing experiences intuitive.

The business has benefited: an idea brought in by a new staff member resulted in process improvements that improved collection rates; when Roger transferred to East Kilbride the transition time was much shorter as he was able to tap into the networks of his predecessor and the insights that emerged from the sessions with Priyanga prior to her departure helped shape the new set up in Southend. Whereas before we may have lost touch, now she still feels a sense of attachment and was at one of the recent breakfast events that are now open to alumni.