I just returned from a week’s holiday at Mossy Point in NSW and as usual I had a pile of books I was going to read and somehow managed to read a completely different set. This usually happens because my host often has a more compelling choice of reading or there’s a good second hand book store nearby (in this case Mogo has a fine example). I started with the following:
- “The Myths We Live By” (Mary Midgley)
- “Orality and Literacy (New Accents)” (Walter J. Ong)
- “A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought” (Stephen Kern)
And ended up reading,
- “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t” (Jim Collins)
- “Catch-22” (Joseph Heller)
- “The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell” (Bertrand Russell)
Good to Great captured my imagination. While I’m always a little sceptical of the approach, “let’s compare some companies that have done well and learn their secrets and let’s learn how we can apply those secrets to your company and also do well”, there were many unknowns and questions posed by Collins and his team of researchers. One of the points in the book was the supremacy of planning over the plan. While not a new idea in itself it came on the heels of another simple and fairly well known idea: what you measure will affect behaviour so think carefully about what you should measure (Collins was referring to the need to understand your economic driver).
This got me thinking. Why do so many organisations develop their knowledge strategies with a burst of energy over a short period of time? This puzzles me because we know that planning is more important than the plan. Understanding emerges over time through conversations. You can’t have a couple of workshops and run some interviews to develop a good grasp of what needs to be done, where the focus should be. Organisations require a process that engages people at different levels in conversations that matter about how knowledge can be best used.
So while chatting to Mark this afternoon I suggested the short, sharp approach (which will definitely create a strategy but can’t be the best way to strategize) might be partly due to how large consulting firms need to work in order to stay profitable. The large firms work on a profit per consultant basis. Within the firm this is called utilisation. The best way for a consultant to maintain high utilisation is to be billable five days a week. A project that’s divided and spread over a couple of months with a couple of days here and there is unsustainable for large firm. So over the years after an organisation receives proposal after proposal from the large firms the organisation begin to tacitly learn that strategies should be created intensely over short periods of time.
And guess what happens when you get together highly paid, smart professionals to deliver a strategy to a tight deadline? Most of the time it results in a hefty document detailing many factors and features to consider but often merely succeeds in bamboozling. Last week I was talking to a senior manager in a government agency and she said they’d just received their knowledge strategy and they feel it’s too complex and they’re not quite sure what to do. Imagine, on the other hand, a group of people within the organisation working together on their knowledge strategy and all agreeing that the essence of their strategy is captured in a simple sentence. Because they all have been part of the process this sentence means so much that action can be taken to make it a reality. Sure, you need the implementation plan and more importantly a process so actions that move the organisation toward their objectives bubble up from everyone.
One fact that stood out for me in Good to Great was that on average it took a ‘great’ company four years to define their essential strategy (their hedgehog concept). And the strategy evolved through vigourous debate, discussion and listening. It’s this type of process I’m advocating, and now large organisations are turning to specialists in small companies, they can served without the constraints of the large firm’s economic model.
I think our Three Journey Approach to knowledge strategy is a new way to orchestrate these essential conversations.
- The first journey is with the leadership team and the aim is to create a broad direction for everyone. Rather than having a single workshop and interviews we would facilitate four conversations (or more) around the nature of their business and the role knowledge plays. The result is a small set of objectives for the knowledge strategy.
- The second journey is where the rest of the staff get involved. Their job is to help work out how the objectives might be achieved in reality. We know, however, that asking people what they know is a futile exercise because we all need context to remember what we know. So we use anecdote circles and collect stories as a way to find out what’s happening and what could be done.
- The third journey is a simple improvement process whereby the knowledge strategy continues to adapt to the changing circumstances.
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About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: