Lee Bryant interview: the importance of socialising knowledge

The MD of Postshift believes that companies have spent too much time and money on databases to store documents rather than developing the tools and behaviours necessary to spread knowledge.

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by Marc Wright

Lee Bryant has always been at the forefront of applying knowledge management through social tools. First with the iconoclastic agency Headshift and now as MD of Postshift he believes that companies have spent too much time and money on databases to store knowledge rather than developing the tools and behaviours necessary to spread knowledge into the living processes of their businesses.

“I believe that the ideas behind knowledge sharing got hijacked by technology in the 1990s and in the Noughties. It was a rapidly developing field and we started off with lots of academic research but soon the conferences held on the subject just became software exhibitions, and the subject suffered because of that. It became a very explicit approach – a simplistic belief that we can capture everything and store knowledge in a database and use it again and again.

“What happened later was that social tools and platforms were not set up explicitly for Knowledge Management. They were introduced for more informal sharing of content rather than storing. But now we are seeing a resurgence in social tools as a better way to do KM. It is emerging from practice rather than from theory, and while social tools have revived the field of KM they have also changed it. But there are still many challenges around behaviour and discovery in complex organisations depending on context and the practical application. There is a range of tools out there but no simple solutions.”

In the flow

Lee believes that one of the underlying problems of Knowledge Management has been the mismatch of cost and benefit. Classically people build an intranet, but the way they are designed means that people have to stop what they are doing if they want to share. It’s a key distinction. If you are tying up knowledge in policy documents on a SharePoint intranet they are no use unless you then do the further task of telling others about them. It is this second part of the job that has no budget and few tools – so it tends not to get done.

“If we work in a wiki on a project we are creating content. A side effect is that everyone else gets updates. It happens automatically in the background. Working in Word and uploading documents creates that extra step which kills Knowledge Management. People are lazy; that really inhibits sharing.

“Social tools have been more successful. They are simple and they are part of natural working behaviours and natural working behaviours. ‘In the flow collaboration’, which requires no extra step to share content because sharing is a by-product of work, will always work better than ‘above the flow collaboration’.”

This idea of ‘in the flow collaboration’ comes from Michael Idinopulos of McKinsey, who has pointed out before that 70% of workplace learnings come from informal interactions. Idinopulos argues this is fine when we are working side by side in an open plan office. But the problem is of course that today although everything may be open plan everyone is wired into their individual worlds; in fact many have headphones on.

Email also keeps us in a digital world that is very private – rather like the old separate offices of yore. We work in a way that is highly transactional rather than interactive. Idinopulos argues that while the technology is getting smarter the people are getting dumber. Yet as the work world has become more transactional, the consumer world has become more social and it is this level of interaction that needs to happen in the workplace for knowledge to flow.

Social learning in the workplace remains something that Lee Bryant and his team at Postshift focus on as part of their mission to create agile, Twenty-First Century organisational structures based on new social and digital technologies.

“We have to challenge the perception that you need to retain knowledge to make it powerful rather than socialising it. Modern theory is all about socialising knowledge but in sectors such as finance and law, this can still be a minority opinion.

“One of the most successful early KM projects we did was in 2005 with the law firm, Allen & Overy. We put together a basic social network, a wiki and blog based around an analysis of how professional support lawyers worked and reacted to information requests. It was wonderfully successful; we got over half of the law firm to adopt knowledge sharing using a simple, social system that was very cheap to implement. The secret to its success was understanding the motivation of lawyers to share. They would reckon ‘If I know this it take 60 seconds to share my knowledge, then I can claim other knowledge back in return that is worth considerably more 60 seconds of my time. It was a simple investment decision to help others.

“There was a regular blog of requests for information and people could respond asynchronously in a wiki page, which would then be topped and tailed in a document when it was about 70% done, and pushed out on the doc store and on the blog. It was a quite transformative process that saved a lot of time compared to e-mail / document tennis.”

Lee Bryant points to engineering companies as leaders in this field.

“We have done a lot of work in industry and manufacturing. Communities of engineers use social business platform to share and gather best practice and then socialise it and feed it back into training. We find very high adoption levels among the community of engineers – pretty much they are all working this way. We are currently working in Germany with Bosch where the potential for knowledge sharing in plants is really interesting. And it is not just human-to-human but also information from the machinery. Imagine you have a factory and each of your main machine feeds out status and error messages. Rather than just show these on the machine, they can feed that data into IBM connections or other social platforms so all the engineers can interpret that data together. It can make a lovely combination of very chatty machines with small communities of humans.”

Lee explains that most knowledge creation is pre-document knowledge were people are having ideas and discussing a problem. At a certain point that conversation passes over into documentation, but until the advent of social tools, we really lacked ways of doing this using technology.

“Then we have the sharing of that and storage, so you can find it again. In the early stages of Knowledge Management there was too much focus on knowledge storage and not the social behaviours. A classic scenario is a company investing zero in tools for creation and far too much for storing data. Most of the value of Knowledge Management is fingertip, implicit knowledge in a team, information that we need and can use today.

“It does not matter how the repository is organised if you can use an intelligent search engine like IBM Watson to offer up knowledge precisely at the point when we need it – even without asking. If you consider the sheer volume of information in medicine and law it is clear that only powerful tools like AI can make sense of the vast swathes of knowledge doctors or lawyers have accumulated. In the future, Artificial Intelligence will do the basics. You as a professional will do the smart stuff on top. We are definitely heading in that direction, where machines will take the knowledge ‘leg work’ away leaving human beings more time to share, socialise and interpret. We have it already when Google Maps tells us to leave early for our next meeting because the traffic is heavy.

Geological layers of stupid IT decision-making

“Companies where knowledge gets stuck in IT-led projects are falling behind as they don’t really think in terms of business value. We have to get away from features and functions; we have to have conversations about Organisational capabilities.”

Lee is keen on tech solutions that target changes in behaviour, rather than just another repository or database:

“I think something very specific and targeted like Knowledge Plaza is potentially very useful. If you look at the life cycles of platform development, many companies are still doing intranet projects. They did not get the memo that shows that an intranet is not really the way to go. But where generic platforms are poor, there is a strong case in Knowledge Management firms to use tools like Knowledge Plaza instead. We have got Slack and messaging that do the conversation part well – that frees up a Knowledge Plaza to do what it does best, which is knowledge sharing and socialisation rather than being all thing to all people.”

“It’s a hard conversation to have as people have grown up solving problems just by buying new platforms – often the poor, lowest common denominator products like Sharepoint. That’s why we see these software elephant graveyards: geological layers of stupid IT decision-making. We spend so much on a document repository that we forget to spend on training and changing behaviours that don’t create value.”