knowledge management

Its not the same thing – the 3 types of collaboration

A year or so ago, i found myself in a (slightly heated) discussion around what the key enabling factors for collaboration were. Somewhere along the way, I discovered (as often happens when one is debating with ones spouse, or at least my spouse) that we were actually not talking about the same thing.

I was talking about helping teams to work together. He was talking about helping people who may not know one another connect as their expertise becomes relevant to one another. Oh. Well those are very different things, and while some enabling factors are similar, these two activities actually have rather different requirements both culturally, organizationally and technologically.

After working this issue for a while, I’ve labels the three major types of collaboration. This categorization seems to work for most people, and I’d love to hear what you think as well. I believe that it is critically important that we have a shared language to discuss and describe these different concepts if we are to make any progress toward enabling them in organizations. We cannot become sophisticated and make progress here if we cannot define the terms. So here is my take on this, and I look forward to your refining input.

Collaboration refers to a cluster of 3 types of activity – they are often interdependent and linked, but they are distinct in what they can achieve, and what is required to enable them.

1 Creative Collaboration.

Creative collaboration is collaboration that’s intended to create something. It is goal-oriented, and has a defined team (though stakeholders may come and go) that is responsible for delivering that product. Examples here are a product team, a legal team, a team responsible for an RFP, or a marketing launch, or developing a product, or a corporate acquisition.

The objective for this type of collaboration is to be able to achieve what an individual can not, either because its too much work for a single individual, or, as is more common, it requires a multitude of skills or perspectives to achieve.

The outcome that we’re concerned with is a factor of the team’s productivity. We want the outcome to happen as quickly, cheaply and with the highest possible quality, and collaboration has been shown to improve each of these dimensions. [citations]

What we need to do to encourage such collaboration is make it easy for teams to form, communicate, get organized, contribute, aggregate and iterate on work. I talk about this in depth in a recent post “Is Collaboration enough for Productivity.” Technology helps enormously here by providing shared workspaces, a variety of communications tools (wikis, document management, discussion forums, instant messages, etc), which, if you’re lucky enough to have well designed software, accelerates the rate at which people can get work done, and removes barriers like geographical and organizational distance.

The key cultural requirements for success for such teams are (and forgive me if you’ve heard this before) 1) a shared sense of mission 2) mutual respect 3) trust 4) a commitment to continual improvement. I’ve discussed these elements elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll spare you the details right now.

2. Connective Collaboration – its not the wisdom of crowds, its the aggregated wisdom of individuals.

This refers to connecting with a broader community – the organization as a whole, or even more broadly than than. You may not know most of the people in this community. The goal of this type of collaboration is to connect dots – find expertise and resources as you need them. Discover unexpected relevance, connections or insights, and maximize the chances that information, resources and expertise find the places that they’re meaningful or critical. (I’ve written about this in several places too – “Intel clear on ROI of Social Media” and “ Is collaboration enough to connect-the-dots?”). While there are examples of this type of requirement everywhere – science, healthcare, art, strategy, problem solving of nearly every kind – the most notable examples these days are from the intelligence community – is it possible that the intel community could have identified and connected the dots to warn them of the 9/11 attacks? The Christmas 09 underwear bomber? The answer is – maybe. There’s a lot involved in that problem, and I won’t get into all of it here, but recognizing patterns of droplets of  information and activity in an ocean of activity is not easy. The goal right now is to maximize the odds.

Connective Collaboration requires a broad, loosely connected community that can maintain awareness of activity, and ideally, technology that helps them find, discover or get pinged about relevant information, resources, insight and expertise –  that they may or may not have been aware of – elsewhere in the system. Status and microblogging have proven surprisingly useful here to build ambient awareness of what is going on  in the organization. It is also vital, however, to have communication and work indexed and searchable to be able to find those nuggets of connection. Semantic analysis, and statistics also have much to offer (and far to go) here.

3. Compounding Collaboration – Standing on the shoulders of giants.

The purpose of compounding collaboration is to ensure that whatever our endeavor, we are leveraging, to the greatest extent possible, the work that has been done already. Even if it is only to show us what to avoid. To the extent that we can do this, we can constantly compound and extend our capabilities, productivity and agility. There is nothing that can compete with this sort of dynamic, and it in competitive situations it trumps nearly any other dynamic (think of compound interest on your money – you cant catch up with an early, strong start).

To achieve this, we need to be able to capture work. Work is not only about documents. Work is what happens when you’re creating those documents (or other products) – what resources were used? What questions were asked? Who answered them? How did you overcome obstacles? What were the false starts or poor assumptions? What processes were followed?

The beauty is, that if you’re using technology to support Creative Collaboration, you should be capturing all this, so that the next people coming through can learn from what you achieved – or failed too. (cultural note – you need a culture where its ok to fail, and it is a respected part of the learning, discovery and continual improvement process).

The field of Knowledge Management was devised to support this type of efficiency and collaboration. But the trouble with KM as it was defined in the 1990s , is that knowledge capture and dissemination was separate from the work itself. It is something that must be undertaken and explicitly referred to. The implications of this are many, but it usually means that only the most formal, documented and recognized knowledge is captured. That a vast majority of insight is lost, and that what is captured is only found if someone explicitly thinks of looking there. In other words, because the prior generation of knowledge management techniques were largely divorced from the act of work itself, they were inefficient at both capture and dissemination of knowledge.

The new age of collaborative technologies should fix this, and make knowledge capture and transfer much, much easier.

There are other issues here as well – onboarding and training of new people.

I was recently part of a discussion where people were talking about the twin issues of senior people leaving and junior people coming up to speed. I’m a firm believer that one of the most tried, true and effective methods of transferring large amounts of knowledge is through apprenticeship – (try learning to make a pie crust from a book, vs doing it  with a friend or relative who already knows how). The transparency and team environments that good collaborative technologies can create enable apprenticeship on a broader scale than ever possible – and the beauty is that it goes both ways. The new kid can teach the old fart some new tricks too – without any loss of face on either side. Transparent environments are tricky and imperfect, and extremely sensitive to culture and organization – but they are also the most effective learning environments there are.

So there you have it. Deb’s basic taxonomy of collaboration. Thanks, Ken, for pointing out that I hadn’t pulled this together in a single post before. And thanks in advance to you, for your feedback so that this can be further refined and increasingly useful.


Is Collaboration Enough for Knowledge Management?

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve written (dashed-off is more accurate) about the relationship between collaboration and team productivity, and collaboration and the ability to connect the dots.

I’m working to ensure that we move the conversation away from collaboration per se, to what we’re actually trying to achieve –

  • We want to increase the productivity of knowledge work.
  • We want to solve hard problems.
  • We want to ensure that we can leverage the collective intelligence of our organizations.
  • We want to leverage the work, expertise and assets we have.

That last bullet there is what has traditionally been called Knowledge Management.

Knowledge Management has been in a tough spot for the last couple of decades. Its been identified both as a strategic imperative, and largely a failure.

There are three key reasons for this.

1. First generation knowledge management captured only formal, not tacit, knowledge.

I previously swore off using the term tacit knowledge because people don’t get it and think that its too abstract a concept. For the purposes of this discussion, lets just say that tacit knowledge is the stuff in the organization that people know, but haven’t written down in a formal, organized fashion. It its most basic form, this is the “does anyone know if we’ve ever had a customer who needed x?” or the “does anyone know where to get y” type of information.

It is well known that the vast majority of knowledge in the enterprise is tacit.

2. First generation knowledge is not part of any natural workflow, but an afterthought.

Its an additional chore. It doesn’t help me, so I don’t always practice perfect citizenship and take the extra time to ensure my work is properly catalogued.

3. Usability is poor. I can’t find what is useful for me when I need it.

Obviously defeating the purpose.

So – how does collaboration, or more specifically, social collaboration help solve the knowledge management problem?

1. Social collaboration puts more work and communication in shared, digital form.

By work, I don’t just mean documents. I mean discussion, question and answers, comments – the types of things that often either happen over the phone, or in the black hole, commonly known as email. Because these less formal, more fragmented items are captured, indexed and searchable in conjunction with the more formal knowledge captured in documents.

2. Knowledge capture becomes an organic part of work.

The greatest part of these systems is that I do not have to do anything extra to contribute to the knowledge base. The collaboration platform just absorbs what I do as the course of my work – comment on documents, ask and answer questions, revise, collect feedback, collect links and resources, etc. THIS is the critical point – knowledge capture – the key to knowledge management is organic and automatic.

3. Ease of Use

I’ve called social media in the enterprise a Trojan horse. Its raising the bar on usability for enterprise apps (and how we approach work – but that’s the next post). Social Collaboration tools (good ones!) are well designed so that people actually want to use them. The benefit far outweighs the trouble of using them. So they actually get used. Knowledge is actually captured, and can be meaningfully found.

4. Finding and connecting.

So what about the case when there’s knowledge and resources out there, but you don’t know it? See the last post on Connecting the Dots.

Even better – if your collaboration system is a good one (disclosure, this one is my baby right now), when you search, you’ll not only find the content, but the people who are most actively contributing content in that area.

Now the obvious issue – if I build it will they come? No. They won’t. To be successful in collaboration there must be a happy marriage between understanding your business objectives, the technology, and perhaps most importantly, the culture of your organization. That will be the topic of my next post. If you’re curious about some of my thoughts in this realm prior to my next post,  you can check out a little 10 minute  webinar on the culture of teams that I did (its not my finest – lots of uhms and ahhs, but it makes the point, consider it an early rehearsal) or this slideshare below:

turning my back on “tacit”

It all started in college when my friend, Maggie, whom i considered the unwitting victim of a charming linguistics prof, picked a fight with me ( one of those days-long undergrad debates). She claimed that all human thought was limited by language and that we couldn’t think about what we couldn’t express in words. Fooey, says I.

I’ve been “i wish I had said”-ing  that debate in my head for 25 years. (ouch).

I’ve long since lost touch with her ( I’ll look for her on facebook later), but the first argument I wish I’d offered was poetry. You might argue that poetry is language, and hence falls within her camp, but I would argue that poetry evokes rather than expresses meaning.

The next thing I thought about was Tacit Knowledge – the stuff you know before you “know” you know it. (Like the fact that I knew her argument was terrible, but I couldn’t say why). This definition of tacit knowledge is akin to what Malcom Gladwell is talking about in “Blink” – a great read, if you haven’t yet.

So later I started getting excited about knowledge management. But knowledge management of the 90’s was about documents. Documents are expressed knowledge – or explicit knowledge. Documented knowledge.

But you know what? Most knowledge is undocumented – even if it could be – it takes a ton of effort. Which means that in most companies people know a lot of stuff that they haven’t written down. And everyday they make tiny additions and refinements to that knowledge just by talking, emailing, getting to the next step, whatever. which means that even if they wanted to document it all they probably couldn’t.

This is another kind of tacit knowledge – and what it means is that probably 90% of the critical knowledge in an organization is Tacit.

One of the many reasons I love social media is that it provides a wonderful platform for sharing small things. Ideas, snippets, links. And those snippets, and links between those snippets end up being a much better representation of what a person knows than the list of documents that they’ve written. And an even better representation of what the organization as a whole knows.

This is the most interesting thing in the world to me – really. Geeky, yes, but true.

So – why have I turned my back on tacit? Well its this. Normal people don’t get tacit knowledge. Its not a term that’s understood in our culture. And I don’t think we can get from documents to tacit knowledge in a single step.

So – when I talk to people about the benefits of social-media supported collaboration, I don’t talk about tacit knowledge (well, I try not to, but sometimes I get kind of worked up.) Cause they either think I’m nuts, or that its like the semantic web – a weird concept that they don’t get and surely won’t invest in. Its like talking about shakras or something in a business meeting – just too weird.

So – I’m focusing on helping people understand the “first order” benefits of this kind of tech-mediated collaboration. The fact that things don’t get lost, that its easy for a group of people to gradually build on what’s there till you have something good, that everyone is always looking at the same set of material. That long email trails where all the good stuff is buried that you can never find again are becoming a thing of the past.

Then I talk about how you can search this stuff, finding not only the snippets, but how they fit together, and the people who’ve been contributing to them. So you can learn from all this stuff, in context. They start to see how this is valuable.

But as soon as you mention the word tacit – you see the wall go up. Its like a verbal fart. It makes people uncomfortable.

Maybe in a few years… but for no… I do not discuss Tacit Knowledge, I will not use the word Tacit. I won’t. Really.