Patterns & Priorities in Lessons Learned - a Knowledge Management Case Study

I thought I’d share once again a story from a few years ago. It talks about how routine organisational learning can identify patterns and priorities in Lessons Learned.

I was providing Knowledge Management to a Humanitarian Aid Agency. Knowledge Planning was in its infancy at the time but the approach was being welcomed as a means to structure things across the Regional Desks. I was new to the sector and learning as I went – it was a steep learning curve!

It was a time of numerous problems & disasters around the world and I found myself facilitating several Learning Reviews to learn from how the organisation responded both in the field and at Head Office - and the interactions between them. Different groups of people were involved, with some overlap, and even though I was new to the sector I could see the same lessons coming up time and again. An individual called Tony (who was familiar with the sector) picked up on this and told me that when things calmed down he would look at the themes of repeat lessons.

True to his word, when it did calm down after 8 or 10 Learning Reviews and around 310 learning points identified, Tony spent half a day at home mapping the lessons. When he came back into the office he was quite excited and said, “Paul, many of these lessons have come up multiple times. If we focus only on those that have come up at least three times then we address about 80% of the learning.”

This meant focussing on about 25 key lessons. We met with the CEO & LT and explained what had happened. He gave the go ahead to do whatever it takes to embed the learning from the 25 lessons – eg changes to processes, procedures, terms of reference or job descriptions or whatever it took to make sure the learning was re-applied. Management supported us.

One lesson had come up no fewer than 6 times! This essentially said that when a disaster occurred that the organisation shouldn’t wait to see what the other agencies did but instead to trust its own judgment and move. The fact that 6 times it was identified that the organisation had hesitated in case it made a wrong call, and impacted its effectiveness, made a big impression.

All the changes were adopted - the next time a disaster occurred the learning was applied. Not long afterwards the International Director came to see me and showed me an article in a sector publication. He explained that normally it said something along the lines of the response being led by a major agency (eg Red Cross or World Vision) with others following on. This time it said it was their organisation that led the way. He said the LT were really chuffed!

The International Director also pointed out that the LT had noted how much smoother things had gone this time. “All those lessons we knew we were repeatedly re-learning we have actually applied now and it’s made such a difference”.

I learnt quite a lot from this period (about 10 months):

1/. As a KM person, you don’t need to be familiar with the content of the organisation’s business / operations – its transferable. Of course, you need the help of those who are familiar to understand the significance of lessons and get them applied – and of course you need to learn about the sector as you go.

2/. Support for KM & learning needs to come from the top – some support, expectation and investment from leadership makes a world of difference.

3/. I met some cultural resistance, not least because initially I had no experience in the sector. This has to be handled with care and persistence.

4/. Distributed KM roles (and Plans) make a huge difference, the central KM person / team needs people to engage with out in the business, and in a structured way.

5/. People out in the business really like it when you can help identify and resolve repeat patterns in lessons. In the story above we ignored all the lessons that came up only 1 or 2 times to focus solely on those that came up at least three times. There was some resistance to this but KM was new and we decided to take a pragmatic approach and address the fundamentals first. Perfection is the enemy of progress in cases like this.

Any comments welcome! Thank you.