Achieving Knowledge Flow - The Performance Aspect of KM

A couple of days I go was watching the old movie “The First of the Few” which told the story of R.J. Mitchells’s development of the Spitfire fighter plane starring Leslie Howard as Mitchell and David Niven as his exuberant test pilot. The film is old, black and white and tells quite a story.

A key point is Mitchell’s view that previous planes were “of struts and spars” and certainly looked clumsy and contrived. They flew, but they didn’t appear natural, instead looking hard work and awkward. Wouldn’t they work better if they looked more natural, graceful, of one shapely & connected part much like birds? There is a scene in the film where Mitchell and his wife are watching seagulls at the coast in the late 1920s and he has a flash of insight.

Against some resistance, both technical and political, Mitchell and his team produced a breakthrough plane that looked beautiful and raised the bar. The Spitfire came out of instinct, intuition and emotional intelligence as well as clear technical foundations.

We see this in all walks of life. Sports people talk about “getting in the zone” when individually or as a team they “unstick” themselves from a heavy and burdened limited performance and reach a new level. You can see it in the current World Cup where some teams reach a point where the players connect, the ball flows, confidence rises, they seem invincible and goals follow - it’s a psychological thing even for the most technically gifted players and teams.

Other examples include the contrast between novels that are gripping & engaging versus those that are not, and an orchestra which takes individual players and sections and joins them up to produce music that at times seems other-worldly.

What has this got to do with Knowledge Management? I have seen this kind of breakthrough happen where KM changes from a seemingly disconnected, burdensome and dry & administrative process to an organic flow of knowledge between projects and functions with energy, inspiration and even fun. People get emotionally engaged.

Instead of isolated and disconnected tactical activities such as learning reviews, expert interviews and communities we have a joined up system using those same techniques with knowledge customers and suppliers energised to support knowledge flow in response to the organisation’s business need. People and teams can see how their knowledge is benefitting both themselves and others and this changes how they feel and respond.

How does this happen? The good news is that it is achievable with a KM vision that is practical and pragmatic and, crucially, attainable to staff. Living knowledge strategies & plans can quickly be made real, and communities of knowledge managers can meet to share what they have and need from others around the organisation. It’s energising and you can see the whole organisation starting to lift in response. “Why haven’t we always worked this way?” is a phrase that is indicative it’s starting to happen - individuals and teams find it engaging and job fulfilment increases.

Challenges come from things like seeing KM as a purely technical exercise, or as an IT system - or purely technical outlooks that don’t understand this is really about communications, inspiring people and emotional intelligence as well as technical content. This is absolutely not saying that technical content isn’t important – it clearly is, but it needs to be energised and motivated by the people side to work and flow.

Simply stated, KM is a people based thing so the approach needs to take into account human aspects to get this high performing flow and an organic response that can adapt and grow no matter how technical the content.