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Contact John Wyzalek editor of IT Performance Improvement.


Talk Trumps Text for Harnessing Hidden Know-How

Nancy Settle-Murphy and Kate Pugh

Let's say your team, which is scattered across several locations, has to produce a complex, time-consuming proposal, with little time to spare. The team scours the web for relevant content, and they discover that others in your organization have tackled similar proposals. How can they mine this hidden know-how, when they are running out of time, and don't know exactly what to ask, of whom, or how?

A "Knowledge Jam" is the answer to this situation. A Knowledge Jam is a streamlined, fast-paced process that brings together knowledge seekers or "brokers" (e.g., the team who needs to generate this proposal) and knowledge originators (those who have hold of some of the vital puzzle pieces in their heads) for a sharply-focused conversation aimed at sharing relevant knowledge within a very short period of time. Most knowledge jams are run virtually, and take no more than 90 minutes.

Here are some essential guidelines for a Knowledge Jam:

  • First, define the type of Know-How that's needed. In this case, the team might most need to learn more about how the others made a compelling business case, or how they devised the pricing for their proposed solution. For a project team rolling out a new business process, they may need to understand the areas of resistance similar rollouts have faced, or who the best change champions might be and how best to find them. To select the right combination of people, you need to know what know-how will be most important to reuse.
  • Err on the side of brevity. For people to stay focused and engaged, knowledge jams should be designed to take no more than 90 minutes at a time. Be strategic. You may need multiple sessions over time, with different sets of knowledge originators and knowledge seekers.
  • Select participants who are in the best position to share, and receive or translate, the needed knowledge. People must have a genuine desire to share or provide knowledge. If people don't see the value or feel forced, chances are they will participate minimally. Invite those who are receptive to participating in this exchange of ideas. If you find a bottleneck (a lone expert), try to work with them and their manager. Limit the jam session to no more than 10 or so people, to allow for full contributions by all.
  • Map out a list of topics and questions with a subgroup in advance. The knowledge jam facilitator (someone who's perceived as neutral and has excellent facilitation skills) collaborates with a subset of team members to map out an agenda, flow, and topic outline, along with initial questions to get the conversation flowing. Facilitators interview several representative participants in advance to help them understand the concept and their role. Next they convene a subgroup of originators and brokers to help shape the agenda and focus the conversation. For example, a team planning a new business process might want to learn how the experienced team scoped their process, and as a follow-on, how they kept scope-creep at bay.
  • Visualize the knowledge. During the jam, the facilitator or appointed scribe will type comments in a template, with the original agenda to the left of the comments, and with implications or "best practices to continue" on the right. For example, comments to our first question on scope above might be, "We established the scope through a series of stakeholder meetings," and another, "But we found out we'd missed a few and had to revise the scope." And then, in the summary column we might say, "Keep the scope statement flexible to incorporate missed viewpoints." Notes are visible to all participants throughout the session.
  • Have ground rules to live by. Important ground rules of the "discover/capture" conversation include maintaining "common curiosity," remaining open and transparent, including diverse viewpoints, and creating a safe environment for sharing ideas. For example, you need to draw out the succinct originator, invite the loquacious seeker to share the floor with others, and use the WebEx-projected template to slow down the flow and hold people's attention on what's being said. You may agree to hold the conversation confidential (concealing speakers' names) to create a safe environment.
  • Re-use knowledge by design. Prior to the knowledge jam, the brokers will have talked about problems they are solving that they hope the know-how from the jam can inform. Immediately after the jam session, facilitators work with brokers to put the knowledge to work on those problems. Brokers will have to summarize the ideas (leveraging that right-hand column of the template, of course) and explore how those ideas will fit with their home organization's plans, process designs, charters, protocols, and the like. The brokers act as change agents, and they may need help sizing up the change, mustering a coalition, and translating the new ideas from the jam into appropriate uses in their organization.

Finding a great way to share documents is one thing. Figuring out how to cross-pollinate the hidden knowledge that resides in the minds of a distributed team is quite another. Convening and facilitating a knowledge jam requires careful planning on the part of the facilitator, but a relatively small investment of time on the part of all participants. Imagine the ROI you'll reap when team members are able to quickly ferret out the exact knowledge they need from those most likely to have it, and can then apply it almost instantly to the task at hand. Priceless! ♦

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About the Authors

Nancy Settle-Murphy, Guided Insights founder and principal consultant, draws on an eclectic and varied combination of skills and expertise. She wears many hats, depending on the challenges she is helping clients to solve. She acts as meeting facilitator, virtual collaboration coach, change management leader, workshop designer, cross-cultural trainer, communications strategist and organizational development consultant.

Katrina (Kate) Pugh is a consultant, author, lecturer and the president of AlignConsulting, a firm that helps organizations harness untapped knowledge and channel insight into action. Drawing from more than 20 years of combined consulting and industry experience in the healthcare, energy, information technology and financial service sectors, Kate consults and lectures widely. She is also a lead benchmarker with the Intranet Benchmarking Forum, and a senior consultant with Earley and Associates.Her book, Sharing Hidden Know-How: How Managers Solve Thorny Problems with the Knowledge Jam serves as a practical guidebook for solving common business problems.