Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…
Why are we interested in lessons learned? So many organisations capture and catagorise these aretefacts, but, in our experience, not many actually know how to best use these potentially rich sources of information.
First, the common-sense stuff…we know that knowledge and expertise informs our strategic and operational processes, that it stimulates the decision-making process and, ultimately, better decision lead to improved services, products, customer satisfaction, competitive advantage etc. etc. etc. [old ground here]. It therefore makes perfect sense to want to learn lessons from the past and, hey presto, we arrive at the concept of lessons learned.
Lessons learned is an old concept…The Guilds, Apprenticeships? The problem is, what is the critical, or limiting, element in any given lesson learned; how do we know; what did we put in place to capture it; how will we store it; and how will we share and reuse it – after all, a lesson learned is only as useful as the information contained within it and our ability to re-use it?
Let’s start with the capture and our ability to remember. I’ve talked a lot in the past about setting KM strategy and HR process to enable that strategy. I would suggest that the same applies here. A good lesson learned is built upon what we call the ‘3 Rs’ (Rehearsal – Retention – Reconstruction). A person’s ability to accurately remember an event is directly dependent upon whether the recall is incidental or intentional. In the incidental mode, there is no cue for the person to remember the event, beyond the sub/conscious significance of the event. Psychologists have demonstrated that incidental recall is not ‘rehearsed’ within the mind, which limits retention and impacts reconstruction. Tests have demonstrated that reconstruction through incidental memory recall/reconstruction, where the subjects are not aware of an impending event or the need to remember it, are subject to a 26-80% error rate; this increases by 15% if it is a highly emotional event. This compared to, intentional recall, where people are aware of the need to reconstruct an event in the future; this results in an increased probability of accuracy as the subject rehearses the event to retain it, knowing that they need to reconstruct it at a later date. This links to our thinking on systems design, where organisations need to look at where knowledge sits within their strategy, in relation to the knowledge intensity of the operations/outputs, and, from there, the design processes to better contribute to their outcomes.
The other significant problem with lessons learned, is the single narrative view. People naturally build models, or schema, to reinforce their view of the world. Disturbances, or events, are separated into cues, which are time coded as part of the reconstruction process. The problem, going back to incidental recall, is that where there are gaps in the model, we, as human beings, tend to fill in the blanks – this is unintentional and allows the mind to overcome cue conflict or ambiguity, substituting the gap with patterns from existing knowledge or understanding; bringing a view of the world that is not necessarily true, though we believe it to be true. So, before we go any further, ask yourself, how reliable is the single narrative in a lesson learned?
Taking this a step further. The lesson learned is subject to information attenuation, a selection bias on the part of the storyteller, that will impact the value of the experience to others. The ‘limiting’ piece of data/information/knowledge/knowing/expertise might not even be broadcast in the lesson captured; the impact being that the lesson transfer and reuse is inhibited by the availability heuristic. So, doesn’t it make sense to capture multiple views, to then use meta techniques to construct the fullest, riches, picture possible?
Not only that, but what about content…
A friend of mine who is a Chief Inspector in a Scottish Constabulary was reflecting on their case study/lessons learned processes and recognised that the ‘what’ is often clear, but the ‘why’ and ‘how’ are perhaps weak or not considered. For example, in a murder investigation, they might have a lesson that states that the investigating team decided to revisit the victims girlfriend on day two of the investigation. The process is captured, in terms of what they did in terms of procedure, but, actually elements of how and why are not as rich. The actual reason for the decision, or the experience/expertise that informed that decision, is often lost. Whereas a richer process could peel back the layers to analyse, for example, how the decisions were actually made or what training or experience assisting in enabling that decision-making process. That information could be used to develop learning and development processes that improve the efficiency/effectiveness of investigating officers in the future through replication and/or transfer of training/experience.
Ultimately, it is about stimulating the 3Rs to improve individual and organisational performance, as well as the performance of the processes that bind the two together. For that, you need to recognise the value and weaknesses of the process; design capture techniques that minimise bias and increase the potential for transfer and reuse; and give your staff the time to reflect and elicit the richest artefacts possible. From there, know how to use them to their fullest potential!