knowledge capture & retention: don’t forget the returnees from overseas assignments

I am again indebted to Strategy & Business magazine. In a thought provoking article The Untapped Value of Overeas Experience‘, Dan Wang of Columbia University draws on extensive research carried out with over 4k people representing 81 countries who had spent between 3 months and 2 years working in the US.

It found that:

Only 48% of employees returning from overseas assignments reported having shared knowledge and then having seen it implemented.

And itf you think this issue will be dissapear as a result of technological advances such as improved Video Conferencing, think again, PWC’s Talent Mobility 2020 Report notes that international assignments will increase by 50%.

This phrase stood out

Not all knowledge is created equal.
The traditional model of sending workers abroad or of hiring
workers with international work experience has focused on technical
skills. The idea is that people will acquire technical knowledge about
the procedures needed to perform a specialized task, whether it’s testing
a new pharmaceutical drug or developing components for an aircraft,
that might otherwise be unattainable in their home country. My survey, however, showed that the currency of international talent mobility lies not in these types of skills but rather in realizable practices. Returnees were more likely to transfer nontechnical knowledge about managing relationships and coordinating work among employees than asset or industry-specific technical knowledge and they placed a much
higher value on the former, as well.
Workflow knowledge tends to be tacit, difficult to demonstrate or
describe. This is why the returnee is valuable. Respondents who were effective at transferring such workflow practices were also skilled at adapting them to local environments.

If Dan’s premise is correct (and I believe, from work previously undertaken on the value of missions and knowledge tours, it is) then organisations are going to have to think more about how such temporary relocations or secondments are managed and Knowledge Managers (together with HR profesionals) need to plan ‘before, during and after’.

So thanks again Dan, I have updated the slide I use to illustrate the need for a continuous knowledge capture and retention cycle throughout the employment life of an employee.


Pattern language writeshops, gamification and the importance of passion: a chairman’s perspective of KMUK

“Very stimulating couple of days at – insights into gamification, perspectives on engagement & mulling over global individual concept”

This quote from one of the presenters was a great way to end what was a really enjoyable and rewarding couple of days at the 11th KMUK held a few weeks back.  Despite sharing chairing duties with David Gurteen I managed to capture much of the social media activity on Day One and publish a series of Storify accounts.  On Day Two I upped the informality and attempted to broaden the gamification debate with Andrzej Marzcewski.

A lot of ‘Operational KM’ activities emerged but I will focus on presentations from Alim Khan who outlined a very interesting technique in co-creating a report (writeshops), gamification session with Andrzej and an energetic performance from Patricia Eng on the US Nuclear industry’s knowledge capture and retention programme.

Knowledge Capture & Retention in the US Nuclear Industry – a story of passion!

So Ladies first, here’s a few of the comments Patricia made:Bp1_bVNIgAAwPu-

You have to make the exec management think you are serving them but you are serving the workforce

Don’t worry if you don’t have much money, what you need is PASSION, hang about the cafe. Replaces the old smokers room.

KM metrics? Ask the problem owner, help them develop the tools, go back and see if things are better

IMG_2171The slide that caught my eye though was this one. Apart from the fact that Patricia’s efforts save $37m she rightly focused on the pain points one of which was around departing knowledge. It was a theme that came back a number of times and Patricia’s work inspired a similar exercise at Lloyds Register.

Patricia believes people who leave have different motivations for sharing what they know before the leave even if their departure is involuntary.  I would group them into the following categories:

  • Legacy/Notoriety: I want what I’ve done in the organisation to be remembered and passed on;
  • Avarice: I want my cv to reflect what I’ve done and I see this process and the stories it generates helping me as a freelancer.

In fact this ‘What’s in it for me’ motivational issue is often overlooked by many KM’ers and is one of the core foundations of the work I am doing in Iran with Ron Young. And here’s where I disagree with many in the KM community who are convinced that if you get the culture right then knowledge sharing naturally occurs: There has to be something in it for people to be willing to share what they know.

A study in collaboration at the World Health Organisation

Dr Alim Khan is an incredibly well educated individual who thrives on complexity and with whom I had the good fortune of spending two weeks in Darfur as part of a mission to see how KM might be grounded in a humanitarian crisis. It was therefore not a surprise to see him presenting on the topic of how to accelerate completion of a project report and findings using a wiki based on Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language work.

The idea of a pattern language appears to apply to any complex engineering task, and has been applied to some of them. It has been especially influential in software engineering where patterns have been used to document collective knowledge in the field.

This was a great example of non routine content aggregation via the coordinating mechanism of a wiki -from workshop to writeshop. ‘Building a collaborative knowledge product at the WHO’ was a session that showcased new thinking.

It’s only a game!

The previous week Andrzej led a Knowledge Cafe session on Gamification in a KM Environment. Once again this was an entertaining talk focusing on the psychology behind the use of games and especially the variety of user types (stakeholders) an organisation needs to consider and their motivations (the ‘\what”s in it for me’ again) for participating.

IMG_2185Andrzej and I then led a working session where the delegates were asked this question:

what role (if any) do you see for gamification in KM?

The discussions were wide ranging: many were sceptical; some were Gamification Ideas KMUK 2014converts; others saw no role.  But when asked to note down their top  ideas this is what emerged:

I was particularly drawn to the idea of surfacing expertise (which is how CapGemini where Andrzej is the Intranet supremo uses the technique) and the idea of using Gamification to demystify KM.

My take: Gamification is a big leap to make for senior executives who have not grown up in an online interactive environment. As Andrzej points out each one of us who uses LinkedIn is engaged in Gamification; ditto those of us with loyalty point cards. Its about how the technique is introduced that matters and where it is targeted.

A word or two from Dave Snowden

A few quotes from Dave’s opening address which I thought were spot on:

Danger of Community of Practice – correlation doesn’t give rise to causation.

@snowded prefers to talk about ‘decision support’ rather than ‘knowledge management’ – it describes what it does

Understanding the history of the organisation is a key to understanding its culture.

The idea of creating a big database of lessons (identified) only works if those are then fed back into the workings of the organisation – then they can be described as ‘Lessons Learned’! Most aren’t which is why the idea of a pool of case studies is often also a waste of time.  Its rare for two cases in one organisation to be the same so why would you expect something that happens someone else to be a perfect fit for your own organisation.

And finally

Future of KM is facilitation, not management. Needs to be part of the how we natively work & relate.
The new world of the Knowledge Managers- moving from managing knowledge repositories to facilitating communities #kmuk



“four legs bad two legs better”: when people leave they take their knowledge with them…

One of the big topics that comes up time and again in conversations with businesses is how to handle the loss of knowledge when people leave or get relocated. I took these notes during an interview a couple of months back with a former CEO about how he felt having exited the business after 8 years at the helm:

Too often an outgoing official feels let down by the process: using an analogy from Animal Farm, he described the environment in the aftermath of his departure as being ‘four legs bad two legs better’. The new team had little interest in understanding how decisions had been reached and maintaining the networks he considered it vital to maintain.

I remember reading Animal Farm a couple of times: the pigs take control and the mantra changes from ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ to ‘four legs good, two legs better’ as they adopt the practices of the old regime they’d previously rubbished.  It was a vivid illustration of how damaging a process leaving a business can be.

It’s not just about suddenly making provision to capture knowledge for people about to leave. Effective knowledge retention starts when a new member of staff joins: they bring fresh ideas and in many cases experiences that can be valuable additions to an organization’s corporate memory. It continues throughout their tenure (when they are involved in projects, have to make decisions, handle difficult situations, engage with stakeholders, develop policy, etc) and beyond – when they leave to become part of the alumni network.

As part of my ongoing association with Sparknow we are going to be running a knowledge retention masterclass in Singapore. To find out more about that and look at the latest blog on this subject posted today on Sparknow’s site please go to ‘knowledge retention in Asia’

It promises to be an exciting few months.