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Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Chief Knowledge Officer, The Knowledge Management Institute of Canada; Senior Advisor, Knowledge Management, Organizational Effectiveness, Husky Energy

Monday, 17 August 2015

What Toronto's Efforts to Control Traffic During the PamAm Games can Teach us about Change

Leading up to the start of the PanAm Games, Toronto city planners instituted temporary HOV lanes on all major highways in and out of the city. Nothing unusual - we are all familiar with the concept of HOV lanes. However what was different was the requirement to have 3+ passengers to use the HOV lane instead of the typical 2 person minimum. In Addition, taxis buses and motorcycles were also allowed to use the HOV lanes.

On The first Friday of the games I was planning on getting out of the city. Unfortunately as a result of meetings we were forced to delay leaving until 5:30 pm - smack dab in the middle of rush hour going north on arguably Toronto's worst artery - the Don Valley Parkway (aptly referred to by local residents as the "Don Valley Parking Lot") with a feeling of trepidation akin to having someone threaten to stab me in the eye with a pencil, I approached the Bloor street on ramp. Lo and behold I noticed the HOV lane was almost completely empty - some quick mental math told me I had 4 people in the car and I headed over. It took us a sum total of 10 minutes to reach the top of the DVP a feat I had been unable to accomplish since 1981. As we were whizzing by the "parking lot" on our right to the sultry overtones of my wife singing, "see you later sucksaars!" I realized someone in the city planning department had come up with, whether intentional or otherwise, a simple, cost effective,  short term solution to Toronto's mounting traffic problems .

Toronto has been grappling with ever increasing traffic congestion for the past 10 years. On one level the problem is simple, the city planners of yesteryear didn't anticipate the extent of growth the city is currently experiencing when they designed the highways.  On another, it's more complicated. The habit of driving alone, treating the car as a personal refuge, is part of the average driver's mindset and as we all know getting people to change their mindset is notoriously difficult. City planners and politicians have floated all kinds of different ideas for doing this from toll roads to increased public transit to increasing parking rates in the downtown core. None of which has produced the kind of change in behaviors necessary to dramatically alleviate the problem.

Any experienced KM practitioner knows  helping organization manage change is key to ensuring the success of any KM initiative. I have always believed In order for employees to embrace change they need a compelling reason to do so. Even so, getting employees to adopt a different mindset is extraordinarily difficult. First you need to get them to change their behaviors (habits)

We are all creatures of habit and typically we default to what is familiar and easiest when we make decisions about how to approach a particular task, like getting from point A to point B. The best way for new thinking to replace old habits is when doing the "familiar" becomes more difficult than changing.

People change when doing things the old way become more difficult than adopting the new

As I watched drivers fuming in their cars on the DVP that Friday afternoon while I zipped by in the HOV lane, it struck me that if Toronto City Council decided to keep the 3 Person HOV lanes post Games,  it wouldn't take long for drivers to see the advantage of having more passengers in their car  and start changing their driving habits and ultimately their mindset towards commuting - It certainly did for me for the duration of the Games as I had to make a number of trips across the city over the next two weeks and I made sure I had at least three people in the car, or I opted for public transit.

We can apply the same change strategy within organizations when we are attempting to get employees to change how they do things. Instead of simply introducing something new, along with the old and letting people choose (because we know most people will opt for the familiar) we need think about (and communicate) how the change(s) we are proposing will be better,  making the old way of doing things more difficult, less efficient, more time consuming etc.  Once employees see the advantages, it won't take them long to embrace the change.


Final Word 


Toronto City Council -  "keep the 3-person HOV lane in place!"


Sunday, 17 November 2013

Idea Diversity

Good Ideas Often Come From Unlikely Sources

Developing organizational supports for idea diversity is essential to advancing knowledge. In order to improve upon an idea it is necessary to understand the ideas which surround it and those which stand in contrast to it. Within our organization we want to create a culture where the importance idea diversity is prized. (core values, performance management, professional development, rewards and recognition etc.) - A rich environment for ideas to evolve into new and more refined forms and develop mechanisms for these ideas to be transformed into tangible outcomes and results which have value to employees and to the organization as a whole.

Idea Silos


It is not uncommon for organizations to have idea silos which reflect their functional silos (Management, Marketing, Engineering, HR, IT etc.), so when faced with a "Management" challenge, idea diversity is limited to those within this department. Organizations tend to limit their "reach" for good ideas according to perceived experience of their people, often determined by title or role. Rarely is a management challenge isolated to those within management and decisions made tend to have a cascading impact throughout the organization. The same would apply to all the functional areas noted above e.g. If IT decides to change a policy, procedure or procure new technology this would have an impact across all functional areas of the organization. Undoubtedly, the impact would be positive for IT, but might not be so positive for other functional areas, so it would make sense to want to solicit their input.

As we well know the experience of our people is not limited to their job description or the title on their business cards. Organizations need to tap into the breadth of experience and expertise of their people when faced with complex challenges. This is not as difficult to do as one might think.

Imagine if you will that management is building a new strategy for IT. Presumably in drafting the strategy they have consulted IT for their ideas. Typically this is where the consultative process might end. In order to create more idea diversity leading to better business outcome, try taking the ideas developed by IT and rolling them out to other departments to build upon and improve these ideas.

Where Critical Knowledge Resides - Idea Diversity - The Bigger Picture


The graphic below is my adaptation of the KSN model developed by Scardamalia and Bereiter. It illustrates where pockets of critical (and competitive) knowledge reside within organizations. Above I discussed how to increase idea diversity within your organization. Now we need to look at bringing the customer and the Industry at large into the mix.

The best businesses I know work hard to understand their customer's business, knowing that by doing so, they are able to anticipate their customer's present and future needs and align their products and services to address presen needs.

However fewer organizations solicit ideas from customers about how to improve their business, enhance the value of existing products and services and/or provide new products and services to address future needs.

Why is this important? - Capturing ideas from customers allows your organization to be pro-active rather than re-active; It helps you expand your sales/marketing pipeline while improving the accuracy of your forecasting and budgeting and most important, the customer's ideas will guide the continual improvement of  your existing products and services and energize your R&D program through the targeted development of new products and services, which you know the customers actually want and are willing to to pay for.

Disruptive Change - The Importance of Capturing Industry Knowledge


When planning your organization's knowledge strategy remember to develop mechanisms for capturing ideas and insights from across your industry as well as from other industries.

There are many industry sectors which have gone through disruptive change over the past 10 years e.g the Music Industry, the Video Industry and the Training industry to name just a few. I heard yesterday that Block Buster has closed their doors for good - who would have thought this might happen 10 years ago? Well, the answer is those individuals and companies who looked forward and sought to understand ideas from within their industry as well as ideas which were developing in other industries which might impact theirs.

When I was in the Aerospace simulator/simulation training business, we spent a great deal of time investigating what was going on in the gaming industry. Some very insightful people in the company observed that the gaming industry was beginning to evolve to the point where they were developing products which would soon challenge the market space held by companies that developed Simulators to train pilots, maintenance technicians etc. (think MS Flight Sim) and they were doing so at a significantly lower price point. To cite an example, when we were developing a virtual reality helicopter simulator, the cost of of VR helmet was approximately $200,000 dollars. The gamers were developing VR interfaces for less than $100.00 - were they comparable - no,  but the writing was on the wall and understanding what was happening in the gaming industry and the potential impact these developments might have on our business, gave us the ability to to proactively prepare for the advent of this disruptive technology; learn from others and improve our business as a result.

Nest Installment: Epistemic Agency

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Improvable Ideas

"Ideas Are Improved When Tested Through Action"


Everyone in the organization treats ideas as improvable objects


The Knowledge Building Principle of Improvable Ideas require individuals  and organizations to firstly value ideas as the means to advance knowledge and understanding, and secondly accept that ideas are subject to continual improvement by members of the organization.

Notionally I would think this makes sense to everyone, but what does this really mean to the development of an organization's knowledge strategy? How do we make this real and actionable for people within an organization?

Ideas at the Centre

I have to confess this is a bit of a mantra for me.  It really means that to become a knowledge centric organization (where the pursuit of new knowledge is considered the key to success and longevity) idea generation and improvement lie at the heart of the work for everyone in the organization.  This is very different from many organizations which place the completion of tasks as the central activity for employees.

Good ideas (ones which are valued by both individuals and the organization as a whole) typically emerge in context - e.g. to address a need, solve a problem, improve upon something we already do, or to launch something new. It is safe to say, "Ideas are the DNA of invention and innovation"

If ideas are valued as a source of continual improvement and innovation, then we must look to developing structures which support idea capture, idea improvement and idea transfer. Certainly technology can help with this, however what we are really after is to create the cultural conditions, where this principle (and practice)  becomes part of "how we do things around here"

 Some Strategies:

Below are a few strategies which I have found to work. 
  1. Idea Banks: A number of companies have instituted "Idea Banks" usually employing some form of technology (see Google) to capture ideas from employees across the organization. Depending on how well they are designed, idea banks can serve as an effective means to ensure good ideas are not lost (particularly where there is yet a context for these ideas) and can be improved upon by others. Many organizations allow employees to vote on the "best new ideas" of the month / quarter. Teams and individuals are recognized (and in some cases rewarded) for their contribution to advancing and improving on ideas which  advance the goals of the organization. Some companies also use idea banks to solicit input from their customers about their level of satisfaction with current products and services or to solicit ideas for improvement or new products and services. 
  2. Collaborative, Knowledge Building Environments - Virtual work spaces where employees advance ideas, build on the ideas of others in the course of  their daily work. Now the caveat here is you need an environment designed specifically to support the advancement of ideas (this will be the subject of a future post)
  3. Share your Organization Challenges - If your organization has challenges it needs to solve in order to grow, diversify etc. - create a mechanism for sharing these across the organization and for allowing people to collaborate with one another in an effort to improve them. If there are already ideas for addressing these challenges being considered, share these as well and provide the directive for people to improve upon them - you will be amazed at what can happen when you tap into the collective brainpower of your organization.
  4. Lunch & Learn Sessions -  Link your L&L sessions to company sponsored professional development programs. Create a form of social contract with your employees e.g. If we invest in your learning, you have a responsibility to give back by sharing what you've learned (new ideas and insights) with your co-workers. Have them host 2 lunch and learn sessions following the professional development event,  where they focus on explaining what they learned, how it changed their thinking,  and how this new knowledge could benefit the organization. It is also a good idea to have employees log a learning report in the idea bank or in your collaborative knowledge building environment, so these new ideas are accessible to everyone in the organization and in a form where they can be further improved and / or applied to address a different set of needs - often times good ideas can be used in multiple contexts.

Next Instalment:  Idea Diversity

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Blake's Blog: Real Ideas/Authentic Problems

Blake's Blog: Real Ideas/Authentic Problems: "Tacit Knowledge Emerges in Context"   Like expertise, tacit knowledge emerges in context - in other words when there is a re...

Real Ideas/Authentic Problems

"Tacit Knowledge Emerges in Context"


Like expertise, tacit knowledge emerges in context - in other words when there is a real need, challenge or problem to be solved requiring specific knowledge and expertise. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to assess the extent of a person's knowledge through general conversation or through artificial question and answer based interviews, as there is no authentic context (or motivation) for the individual to apply and demonstrate their knowledge.

When people are engaged in solving meaningful, authentic challenges they naturally draw upon their collective base of knowledge in order to find a solution.

What does this mean for organizations looking to advance their KM practice?

Integrate Learning and Work

Let me provide an example. A little over a year ago I was working with a client who was tasked to improve the project management discipline within his engineering firm. When I met him (let's call him "John"), he was struggling to create a Community of Practice (COP) between project managers across divisions of the Company located in different countries. It was John's plan to have experienced and inexperienced project managers come together to share their "best practices" with one another, and then use these insights to develop a formal project management training program and subsequently host this on the Company's Learning Management System. (LMS)

John expressed frustration that very little meaningful collaboration or knowledge exchange had taken place within the COP - Why? - No authentic context, no problem or challenge to be solved, and therefore no catalyst for bringing forth tacit knowledge let alone to motivate individuals to share knowledge.

I suggested that instead of separating the two activities (the COP and the training course) that he combine them. Use the LMS as the environment for managing a real client project. In this way experts and non-experts work together within an authentic context (the project).

With a shared goal and collective responsibility for the outcomes, you create the necessary context for tacit knowledge and expertise to emerge.

Adopting this integrated approach provides a snapshot of the full life cycle of the project (process. decision making, new ideas and outcomes etc.) Additionally, if you involve the client in the development process you not only extend accountability and capture valuable client knowledge, you begin to see how project team members adapt their processes to accommodate the needs of the client.

As each client is unique and the likelihood the team will face challenges they have never encountered before is great, new ideas will emerge and be captured as team members combine their collective knowledge to advance their understanding of the problem or challenge, and work towards a viable solution.

Through this "Window to the Workshop" approach, John will capture the tacit knowledge of experts and non-experts alike,  gain a clear picture of the strengths and weaknesses of his project management processes and his team -  how well they work together, who are the top performers, influencers etc. and best of all this will become a valuable part of institutional memory and can be referenced at any time in the future.

With these insights,  John is in a much better position to develop an effective, formal training program targeted to address shortcomings in his Company's  current project management processes; identify and align experts with non-experts to support effective knowledge transfer, and drive better training and improved performance outcomes.

The Next Installment: Improvable Ideas

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Does KM Need a Theory of Knowledge?

The next series of posts explore ideas which will be addressed during the Electricity Human Resource Council's Annual Conference on November 6, 2013 and the KM Workshop we will be hosting at Royal Roads University on November 27th and 28th.

Over the next few weeks I want to explore the idea that the discipline of Knowledge Management needs an underlying theory of knowledge to unify organizational practices in order to produce a cohesive Knowledge Management strategy which is actionable at all levels of the organization.

The practice (and thinking) around Knowledge Management has changed significantly over the past 15 years. It has moved :

  • Away from creating information stocks to encouraging knowledge flows
  • From a technology and content centric discipline to one focused on people and process
  • From a tactical discipline to a strategic one
  • From tasks at centre to ideas at the centre
  • From managing information to creating and harvesting knowledge

"Without Theory There is No Knowledge Building"


Around about 1999 in a meeting with a number of business professionals, Dr. Carl Berieter said this in response to a question along the lines of, "Why is understanding the theory of knowledge building so important?

Carl's comment continues to resonant with me to this day. Every time I'm at a conference with KM experts, I hear all kinds of great ideas and best practices around things like succession planning, on-boarding, change management, new technologies etc. and yet I'm always left with the uneasy feeling that these are simply practices common to many disciplines other than KM.

If we accept at a high level, that the reason for engaging in Knowledge Management is to create new knowledge, expertise and capability ( beyond what currently exists ) with the aim of improving performance across the organization, then it stands to reason that having a common theory which guides behaviors, attitudes and supports and sustains the activities of individuals and teams in their efforts to advance knowledge, would be desirable.

The Theory of Knowledge Building

Dr. Marlene Scardamalia and Dr. Carl Bereiter spent a good part of their careers researching experts and expertise trying to answer such important questions as, "What makes an expert?", Is specialization the same as expertise?", "Can there be specialists who are non-experts?"Are there patterns or behaviors, which when adopted,  lead people to become experts?" "Can we teach people (in particular young children) to become experts by having them model the practice and behaviors of experts?"


Twelve Principles of Knowledge Building 


Following years of research around the nature of expertise,  Scardamalia and Bereiter published the twelve principles of Knowledge Building in 2002 :


  1. Real ideas and authentic problems
  2. Improvable ideas
  3. Idea diversity
  4. Rise above
  5. Epistemic agency
  6. Community knowledge, collective responsibility
  7. Democratizing knowledge
  8. Symmetric knowledge advancement
  9. Pervasive Knowledge building
  10. Constructive uses of authoritative sources
  11. Knowledge building discourse
  12. Concurrent, embedded, and transformative assessment

As many readers of this Blog know, I have worked closely with Marlene and Carl for many years. however, where their focus was largely on Knowledge Building in the  K-12 classroom, mine was on adapting the Knowledge Building Principles to advance the practice of Knowledge Management within cross sector business organizations.

In the next series of posts I will discuss how organizations can apply some or all of these principles to improve their Knowledge Management strategy and drive better knowledge outcomes.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

MOOCs - The Beat Goes On

This is a re-post mash up of my comments from a discussion following a round table session sponsored by the Corporate Learning Network along with my responses to a series of questions posed by @Peter Smith, Communications Director at the Corporate Learning Network

Firstly - great discussion by members of the panel (Kevin Currie, executive director of Northeastern Online, Curtis Bonk, professor of education at Indiana University, and Craig Weiss, founder of E-Learning 24/7) -They covered a lot of territory and presented a broad perspective on the MOOC phenomena - Thank you.

I had a couple of general comments and one observation from the session.

General Comments

With regards to comments related to low completion rates. This is not uncommon for online learning in general. When I was teaching online courses in the 90’s drop-out rates hovered around 70% (I did find ways to flip this around through purposeful design, but that's another story for another day)

The very nature of the MOOC design does not demand completion of prescribed curriculum. This is perhaps one of the strongest arguments in favour of MOOCs -  They support learning for its’ own sake. Students take courses they are interested in. They make the choice to engage in areas of a course that are useful to their specific learning needs - They have the option of auditing the course, participating in individual activities and assignments or not. – This really places the student at the centre of the learning process.

Another reason for low completion rates is online learning requires self discipline and a proficiency with a myriad of technologies beyond what most people have been exposed to throughout their educational careers.
What would likely increase completion rates would be to have students who have never experienced online learning, take a pre-course, which helps them understand how to learn in online environments.

Finally, many MOOCs and online courses assume that people are comfortable immediately sharing their ideas in a open, public space. Consequently many of the learning environments lack support for learning and knowledge work at the individual and small group level. This can serve to discourage those new to MOOCs from being active participants.

I was a little confused about the comments and discussion related to MOOCs being predominantly focused on synchronous learning – e.g. The MOOCsoffered through Stanford are a good balance of the two and assignments typically do not require synchronous participation because of the issue of collaboration between students across different time zones.


Panelists seem to still view learning and work as separate activities. I see one of the biggest advantages of MOOCs is their ability to embed learning in the context of real, authentic work and meaningful problem solving designed to produce an outcome.

 Questions Posed By Peter Smith

1. Are MOOCs here to stay in higher education?

Absolutely! – They will change and improve over time, but they offer an authentic learning experience like no other
2. Do MOOCs have a future in the corporate sphere?

Again, yes. MOOCs provide a cost effective means for organizations to support their employees professional learning and development plans. There will be an increasing need in organizations for on the job, just in time and as needed training and learning. MOOCs will be especially useful for large, global matrix organizations (think KPMG, Deloitte etc.) They can be designed to enhance on-boarding programs, succession planning leadership development, product training etc.

3. What is the biggest challenge a traditional college or university faces when implementing a MOOC?

There are a number:

1. Role of the teacher and their ability to teach online (greater emphasis on being a good teacher, than on publishing research)
2. Maintaining relevancy and currency in the curriculum to reflect exponential change in the market and in the skills and competencies required by employers
3. High overheads associated with running brick and mortar institutions of higher learning
4. The need to do away with the “ivory tower” mindset and enter into partnerships with business to deliver learning programs which address the learning needs to students
5. The need to integrate learning with work in real time

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