Lessons Learned: Capturing Knowledge-Soup, is it a waste of time?

Knowledge Management says someone.  Go forth and capture knowledge says another.  Why?  Good question.  Why does the Knowledge management function not answer the question? Because KM has taken a ‘Solutionist’ approach in order to demonstrate worth.  Therein lies a problem…

Do you ever wonder if you are just wasting valuable energy and resources on solutions where there was never a problem in the first place?  No? Perhaps you should.

Knowledge Management is the perfect tool to develop context, sense or understanding of the present and, from that understanding, begin to probe and develop a path forward to the future. So, why do we spend so much time rear-facing?  Why do we spend so much energy and resource attempting to bottle the past, throwing it into a bank, and blindly hoping for it to be recycled into something new for the future?  Has anyone stopped to consider what is actually worth capturing in the first place?  What will actually be of use?  How many organisations actually look at what is stored in their Lessons Learned Information Systems (‘Information”…hmmm, thought the focus was on knowledge), what is accessed, what is recycled, what the results are, what the impact is upon the individual and the business and, finally, what the return is?

I’ve heard the argument that a lesson is only ‘learned’ if the lesson is taken and applied – the premise being that the whole idea of a Lessons Learned Information system is actually a misnomer.  I disagree.  The lesson learned that has been captured is actually the lesson learned by that individual, group or team at that time. Also, this is not where the true problem lies. Tackle the concept from an adult learning theory perspective and you gain insight into the real problems, beside the superficial one of whether a captured lesson learned is, in fact, a lesson learned in the first place.

First, context.  In a world where cause and effect is known and efficiency is King (or Queen) then best practice can exist and the potential the replication of practice is high.  No problem so far.  Take the ‘lesson learned’ by someone else and replicate it.  Perfect.  In a world of production or tight Standard Operating Procedures there is a case for capturing the lessons associated with process improvements, but, even here, unless you need to reset the process, what is the point?  Surely, after testing, once it is applied the process has evolved, why would you reset it to a less efficient state?

The problem is that the world has shifted to effectiveness and knowledge driven advantage – usually the real driver for capturing lessons learned.  One obvious question, if this competitive advantage can be externalised (written down or captured in a diagram) then how much of a competitive advantage was it in the first place?  The more complex, non-linear, the environment the less chance of replication.  Ponder this, the lessons learned by a specific group is specific to a certain time and place.  It is a mix of personal histories, cognitive styles, cultural context and previous learning experiences; to say nothing of the blend of knowledge, skills and work-based experience that mixes in the knowledge-soup made from unique ingredients to a specific time and place (does anyone ever consider randomness in a lesson learned?).  How would you set about capturing (externalising) the individual lessons, as well as the collective lesson, in a meaningful way, where there is a high probability of transference of learning?  Also, as part of your thinking, scope out the likelihood/amount of knowledge loss associated with your capture process.

Investing in a lessons learned programme is often about the same as trying to capture knowledge soup with a tea strainer.

Knowledge Internal:external continuumThe story the individual and the collective can tell is interesting (though often flawed by bias), it might provide the spark for the lessons to be learned by others, but don’t expect them to be accessed and replicated.  So, what are you doing it for?  Why invest energy and resources in capturing lessons learned that live in the cloud and are never accessed because people cannot relate to them or replicate them?

The more valuable lesson learned is a story, a conversation, a narrative, that provides insight.  Look at the business environment. Change is constantly accelerating. In a non-linear, knowledge-driven, service-driven environment, what use is a lessons learned document from 2008, from 2005 or 2002 today?  Do you have the time to search data/information systems that, because of the various taxonomies/folksonomies associated with layers upon layers of evolving KM/information technology solutions in many organisations, will never be found in the first place.

Are traditional Lessons Learned Information Systems relevant any more?

Is it more about making sense of today?  Is it more about connecting dynamic people who share and learn lessons together, cross-pollinating their learning through agile work groups.  Is it more about developing future-driven thinking?

Where should you invest your time and resources?

On the other hand, you can always keep trying to capture that knowledge soup.


  • http://Www.pmlessonslearned.info Stephen

    Interesting post on Lessons Learned David, always enjoy reading posts dedicated to this topic. This is very much a challenge for the Project Management community.

    • http://www.k3cubed.com David Griffiths

      Hi Stephen…always good to hear from you. I agree, in terms of the challenge, and I believe that it is going to take some fresh ideas to reveal how we can get more from the think-forward piece.

  • http://knowquestion.com.au Stephen Bounds

    Hi David,

    The problem with a lessons learned system is not the concept so much as implementation. There needs to be concrete, tangible incentives for people for contribute material *and* to incorporate the lessons captured into their day to day work. Otherwise it is not surprising that it goes unused.

    KM is much like recordkeeping in that it often has a vaguely superior attitude when setting up systems —

    KM: Here, use this system
    Business: Why?
    KM: Shush, just trust us, it’s good for you.

    When our whole discipline revolves around making business processes more effective, it’s almost criminal that we don’t spend more time ensuring that systems we set up have appropriate incentives in place for their use.

    You also touch on the question of whether a Lessons Learned database is an “IM system” or a “KM system”. There was a recent interesting discussion on the actKM mailing list (sign-up required to access) about the different. Here’s the bit of my contribution which is most germane to your post:

    Let’s try and define when something can legitimately be “KM” as compared to “IM”.

    We can do this as a 4 step process. First, let’s look at the knowledge contained in four different systems:

    (A) The knowledge held in a consulting knowledgebase solves the problem of “how can we quickly make information available for reuse in an environment where reuse is essential for providing similar solutions to lots of organisations at low cost?”

    (B) The Buckman model of knowledge sharing through posting written details of past issues solves the problem of “how have we solved similar technical problems in the past, and how likely is it that this will also apply to my problem?”

    (C) An executive’s diary solves the problem of “how do I make sure I do everything I need to do?”

    (D) A library solves the problem of “how can I efficiently find what others have written/recorded on a particular topic in the past?”

    Second, are they information systems? Well, they all capture and retrieve information, so yes.

    Third, are they knowledge systems? The first three all have the direct aim of transferring knowledge between parties, so yes. And libraries are now in the business of learning as well as pure capture/retrieval of information, so they get a tick as well.

    And fourth, does their implementation demonstrate an instance of knowledge *management*? ie. is their goal to improve the availability and quality of solutions selected when problem solving?

    Well, in my opinion:

    (A) – Maybe. It could be just an information management system if there’s no quality assurance, or feedback on success or failure when information is cribbed and reused is not possible.
    (B) – Yes. The Buckman model is designed around actively conversing and establishing the quality or otherwise of solutions tried.
    (C) – Probably not. Most diaries are purely for short-term information exchange. However, if the diary is used regularly to review past decisions and actively try to self-improve (cf Carnegie), then yes.
    (D) – Unfortunately not. A library isn’t in the business of making sure that people take the right lessons away, only that information is available to make learning possible.

    There are too many examples of IM systems being sold as KM. But that doesn’t mean that it is impossible for legitimate KM system to exist.

    • http://www.k3cubed.com David Griffiths

      Stephen, a thoughtful response, thank you.

      First, I totally agree with your observations (A-D) and the problem with IM being sold as KM….I also see our thinking converging around the idea expressed in, B “The Buckman model is designed around actively conversing”.

      More so, the missing element, for me, is often consideration for ‘lessons-forward’ (in isolation and as part of a meta analysis of lessons captured) – e.g. what are the implications for the future; where are the limitations; what does this mean in terms of development; how will this impact our ability to act? This, in my opinion, is where the real value lies, especially when considering the need for organisations to develop resilience-orientated systems/processes.

      All too often LLIS are nothing more than an information capture exercise that is then curated as part of a library function – this is further validated by the fact that many organisations focus on access metrics in their evaluation of their LLIS (as opposed to results and impact from access).

      Really hope we get the opportunity for a face-to-face chat sometime!



      • http://knowquestion.com.au Stephen Bounds

        Dave, I like your analysis and I agree. That’s the “hard” bit of KM, not least because often the answers may expose personality or cultural flaws that people don’t want to acknowledge.

        Just a thought bubble: I’ve often thought that the role of KM is very closely aligned to that of a “coach” in a sports situation. I mean, think about the modern coaching lifecycle:

        (1) Watch the performance of your team and the opposing team in recent games (= past performance)
        (2) Note strengths and weaknesses of both (= lessons learned)
        (3) “[Note] implications for the future … [identify] limitations … [determine what] development [is required] … [and build an] ability to act?” (= apply KM methods)

        It’s a close fit and an analogy people understand very well. So
        (a) why haven’t we (KMers) consciously appropriated that language of “organisational coach”?
        (b) secondly, how did coaches build their role into such a trusted position, and why are we struggling to do the same?

      • http://www.k3cubed.com David Griffiths

        We really do think about things in similar terms! I actually hold an “A’ license in football coaching – wrote a book on the topic a lifetime ago now…For example, many of my approaches to resilience and adaptability in KM are based on the physiological principle to describe muscle reaction to load (SAID Principle) – Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands.(really need to blog about this a bit more). The links between sports coaching, especially football, and management science, in terms of complexity management, I believe to be highly transferable. I also believe that some of the best complexity managers are actually football coaches…what a study that could be!