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.





“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.

knowledge tours = knowledge transfer (understanding puffins and olefins)

Today under the ‘people I admire (and why) section of the site I posted an anecdote from a meeting I once had with the then Vice President of Mobil. It brought back recollections from a posting I made a year ago on Sparknow’s site about the value of knowledge tools  for encouraging good knowledge retention and transfer. Here’s that updated posting:

Ahead of a trip to the ECCI creativity & innovation event in Portugal I was looking for examples of good knowledge transfer from km practitioners. Let me share one anecdote from an interview with Barney Smith a former CKO and CIO and champion yachtsman in response to a question on measurement.

Barney: 80% staff have attended a knowledge tour. Oh yeah, we did knowledge tours. That was cool.

Sandra: What’s a knowledge tour?

Barney: They were great! Natural England owns and manages about 0.6%% of  England’s surface, its natural resource…we actually got people to leave their day job and come down literally. And rather than them doing job shadowing and things like that, we got them to build a day where staff could turn up and then could actually experience what that person does. And they could take 10-15 out. So if a person is responsible for monitoring environmental impacts around the Lundy islands, he would take people on a boat around Lundy island and looking at birds with a Lundy Warden.

Barney: Lundy (Norse for Puffin Island) is part of a Marine Conservation Zone managed by Natural England. The warden who lives on site managing it is actually an employee. We took our staff out to spend a day on the islands with the warden talking about puffins and things like that.

But the point was for those people sitting in finance or those people sitting advising farmers on agri-environment schemes or those people who are promoting or designating the  South Downs national park or New Forest national park, that’s what they’re doing at Lundy. And of course that was the pilot, great stuff. But we had the chief executives and senior staff who said everyone’s got 15 development days. One of those days must be knowledge tour.

And we even created one that’s virtual. So it was actually a guy walking land with a video camera, looking at things. And then he did a talk-over. It was done like a documentary.

It reminded me of a time long past when I was a lending banker managing a portfolio of energy clients.  I knew little about hydro crackers and cat crackers, even less about olefins, polyamides and bottoms all of which were about to become part of my expanding oil and petrochemical vocabulary.

My boss, a visionary and talented Yale educated and very well travelled American who could and did argue vociferously in Arabic, Cantonese and English reasoned that if I were to be of value I needed to understand the practices and language of the industry I was working alongside.  So courtesy of Mobil I attended a programme designed to educate financial people into the workings and economics of oil refining.

I never thought about that week at a refinery in Paulsboro New Jersey as a knowledge tour but now looking back I can see the connection and the importance of experiencing what others do in order to make better decisions. That this was a one off initiative and never replicated by the bank was regrettable since it gave me an insight into a world that would otherwise have been opaque and because I had a modicom of knowledge, the ability to have more meaningful dialogue with my clients.

Barney’s knowledge tours have become regular events, measurable as KPI’s and part of the knowledge charter used to mobilise and shape Natural England’s approach to knowledge management. That they are built into the calendar with compulsory attendance is key.

And finally and perhaps not unrelated the Lundy Puffin is no longer on the endangered list as a result of a programme to eradicate the island of rats.


one of the truly great presentations: implication for knowledge workers

I was in Turkey on July 6th 2005 when Sebastian (now Lord) Coe stood up to address the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Singapore at the start of what was to culminate in the games of the 30th Olympiad just ended in London. His speech was never shown on Turkish TV and as the ghastly events of July 7th were about to unfold in London, and I was dodging a bomb in Kusadasi at the same time, I missed it.

Seb Coe’s story, described by many as one of the truly great presentations given to the IOC is worth revisting now that London 2012 is a very vivid, fresh and warm memory.

I am indebted to Nick Davies who reminded me (and the audience at KMUK 12 back in June) of Seb’s words. Here’s an extract to give you a flavour:

When I was 12 ..I was marched into a large school hall with my classmates.
We sat in front of an ancient, black and white TV and watched grainy pictures from the Mexico Olympic Games.
Two athletes from our home town were competing. John Sherwood won a bronze medal in the 400m hurdles. His wife Sheila just narrowly missed gold in the long jump.
That day a window to a new world opened for me.
By the time I was back in my classroom, I knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be.
The following week I stood in line for hours at my local track just to catch a glimpse of the medals the Sherwoods had brought home.
It didn’t stop there. Two days later I joined their club.
Two years later Sheila gave me my first pair of racing spikes. 35 years on, I stand before you with those memories still fresh.  Still inspired by this great Movement.

The value of using images and stories as a presentational technique in business and especially knowledge management which often struggles with measurement and convincing sponsors of its relevance should not be underestimated.  The ability to inspire future generations by drawing on and bringing to life the experiences of others is at the heart of what is increasingly described as knowledge retention.

Let me know if this strikes a chord with you.