Knowledge Management Road Map – Dealing with complexity

End of month reflections are here:

I set the clock for roughly 30 days in order to complete the KM audit.  It has been a titanic race but finally we´ve got the information required. One of the key points was the lessons learned procedure. From this, I was able to spot the main reasons why LL were not generating value. I shared some of these issues earlier this month. What I didn’t expect were the myriad responses I´ve got from other experts. Specifically, Gurteen´s Group in Linkedin was the one that ignited the most interesting (and almost heated) discussions. 

Complexity was placed on the table as one of the main issues surrounding KM. This has to do with the fact that KM must ensure quality returns by avoiding the low hanging fruit. A detective like work is required in order to analyze the organizations requirements and then develop the following steps that have to with deployment.  I recommend checking out David Griffith´s blog on the subject in order to learn more. 

“Read today’s management journals and you will find them promoting problems associated with complexity and the struggle to close the complexity gap. What they are speaking of is a need to understand the consequences of the connections and interdependencies that produce the ambiguity and flux that impact them – sensemaking.” (taken from David´s latest post)

Some argued that in the case of lessons learned, sometimes not all of them revolve around complex issues and that implementation requires simple actions. I consider this to be true. Besides, we have to be conscious that not all organizations are at the same maturity point. Some will demand foundation. We can´t look beyond this if the organization is lacking processes, doesn’t have an adequate value chain, metrics are not in place, client satisfaction is going down, etc. We have to be able to develop KM in a way that it complements actual business goals.

For example, at the office we have three main business units. Their services differ quite a lot and their maturity levels are also different. Even the type of worker that is required in each unit encompasses various competencies and studies.  So I’m treating each business unit like separate clients. From the audit I was able to spot major concerns and tendencies. And complexity? I think only one unit is ready to enter this domain. For the rest, I´m planning a step by step solution. We might not reach complexity in near time but we can surely help productivity and value generation.

As part of the discussion I explained that we’ve already deployed a Lesson Learned. These were the steps taken (they are not discussed in detail):

  •          Identification and Capture
  •          Validation with business leaders (nominated by senior staff)
  •          Kick off-Strategic committee: since it was determined that the LL would generate a reasonable impact on business it was decided that the solution had to be standardized in other projects.
  •          Adaptation: since we were dealing with a technology issue, we needed to appoint a team to supervise and adapt the tool which came up as part of the solution described in the LL. Pilots were finally undertaken and in no more than 30 days we were able to measure impact in terms of hours saved.

This is an example of a LL that made it through the whole cycle. It didn’t just stay on the documentation part. Even if someone doesn’t read it, the solution has already been implemented. Training was also provided in order to generate awareness and to explain how the tool works.

I wouldn´t say that this particular LL is part of a complex issue. In fact I would tag it as medium, since the adaptation part required consulting people outside the company. Nevertheless, it´s currently generating an impact. As we speak, other teams are already applying the LL. Isn’t this what we look for in KM? or do we just avoid these not so complex issues?

Furthermore, I can’t say that we should discard complexity. It exists and when it comes up, KM has to deal with. We have to play both sides of the coin.

KM strategist, Geert Williams, also abided to this. He referred to Eric Berlow´s talk on TED. He describes how undoubtedly a complex issue becomes a simple one.  I normally use the talk as an example when KM is portrayed in all its glory (And clients don´t really have to understand everything, or do they?). At the end of the day we travel miles in order to grasp the essence of KM and eventually forget to deploy the landing wheels.

In this sense, I abide with simplicity. Don’t talk to business managers or clients in terms of KM. Use the business jargon and bring to the table problems and solutions which they can understand: it’s like explaining a knowledge expert map using strict theory. It won’t work.  Portray the outcome in a different way. Remember you’re not selling the toolbox: you are providing solutions for real problems. It´s different.

In order to sum up, have a look at what Chris Collinson has to say about this:

Some are in so much of a hurry to try out their Swiss army knife that they forget to apply Occam’s razor.

True or false? I´ll let you decide that one.

Start small, then build big. 

 © Jose Carlos Tenorio Favero

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2 responses to “Knowledge Management Road Map – Dealing with complexity

  1. Hi Jose, good blog. A couple of things:

    First, Occam’s Razor states, “one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything” or “a principle that states that the simplest explanation that explains the greatest number of observations is preferred to more complex explanations” (Fastovsky and Weishampel, 1996, p. 437) – this does not mean that we can make a complex problem a simple one.

    KM in the complex domain, which is what we were originally discussing, means understanding the number of entities (e.g. management constructs) that impact the whole decision/problem/process/system. Chris was attempting to use Occam’s Razor to suggest that it could be used to ‘simply’ point toward Lessons Learned over a broader approach to KM activity, which is incorrect – I say this with utmost confidence as our KM model actually won an Emerald award for research excellence in this area ( To understand problems with complexity you have to understand the whole and to not do so will amplify errors.

    This idea of simplicity being a response to complexity is a misinterpretation of what is being discussed. You can see this in various statements such as, Einstein “everything should be as simple as possible, not simpler” or Ashby, “variety absorbs variety.” Basically, if you want to understand how to work in a complex environment you can need to understand that “Variety requires variety, but no more than is necessary to sync a system with the external environment”.

    To not do so means that KM audits miss critical aspects of the whole that limit the results and impact of KM work. This is where a misuse/misinterpretation of Occam’s Razor can be dangerous.

    Second, the context of our conversation was initially about your info-diagram on KM and my response that there was an aspect being missed. I have never disagreed that Lessons Learned can bring value to the organisation. The problem is where people attempt to use traditional lessons learned approaches in the complex domain. In this space transactional, authority led, training-based, compliance-based ‘best’ practice is inappropriate and does not work, regardless of how hard people try to force ‘simple’ approaches upon a complex problem.

  2. Pingback: Knowledge Management Road Map - Dealing with co...·

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