Profiling and coaching a learning organization

An interesting issue- but as for the content, this post will be quite short (well, less than 1000 words).

Today I attended a seminar on the cooperation between South Africa (and, generally, Africa) and European Union on lasers.

I will publish my feed-back later this week- but, for the time being, it will be functional to something else that I had been drafting forever.

This morning, I was asked from somebody coming from The Netherlands why I was attending, if I am from South Africa and/or working in the laser industry.

I replied: no, I am here only for the science, and because I am interested on the cooperation aspect, as sharing a partnership on the laser industry is a long-term commitment, not the typical aid project.

It is funny- but I had few outlines for articles running in my head for few weeks (yes, there is plenty of space available), and all linked to sharing knowledge and cooperation, and I needed some “catalyst” to give examples and data that anybody can relate to.

I was lucky to receive an e-mail message referring to a series of seminars called “Science at the Summit”, organized by South Africa in Brussels- so, I decided, why not.

My interest is always the same: how do you create a knowledge transfer that generates a butterfly effect on each one of the parties involved?

I developed in the 1980s an habit- whenever I entered an environment through a knowledge transfer, my aim from day one was to “seed” change, and create the internal motivation to develop sustainable knowledge sharing and development- i.e. to be able to move onto something else, while keeping the customer happy.

Admittedly, was a strategy built out of practical constraints: having weeks with over 40 hours of overtime and no incentive in my employer to “clone” me was vexing my limited resources.

Profiling is the first step: with my customers, I wanted first to understand their culture, and I was often the one who tempered the “innovation zealots”- my aim was not the instant change, but setting change on firm footing.

Somebody called my approach “knowledge oasis”- but I aimed to create areas that would then act as internal champions, using their own success with the new knowledge, and ability to use their existing credibility due to their acknowledge expertise in their own domain, to “seed” the interest of their peers in other parts of the organization.

Today two of the laser technologies discussed were the “layering” of powder/material, to be finished by using the laser to “mould” (sorry for the lack of precision), or using a “laser-attracting” material to join together (at the micro level) different types of plastic, that usually both chemically and geometrically would not stick together: a virtual physical glue (as only the laser-attracting material “melts”).

I had finally found the metaphors I had been looking for- transposed in the physical world.

Actually, in my experience, in creating a learning organization you need both technologies.

Knowledge, as light, has a dual nature: it is both a “wave” that spreads across the organization and impacts on the existing knowledge, and a “particle”, that moves across and interacts, but does not change (well, if it is not used… eventually it becomes “shelf-knowledge”- expensive, maybe, but never used).

The obsession of importing best practices often creates something akin to a giant press holding together two bits of plastics that would never naturally stick together.

How much does it cost? Is it worth it? And how long can you sustain the pressure? And, when you remove the pressure keeping together, what will happen?

Usually, you will have added the cost of the new knowledge, the cost of the “pressure” (e.g. the impact on morale), and, probably, damaged the existing culture (e.g. by creating doubts without proposing any solution).

The first metaphor, the layering of powder, allows the organizational culture to “digest” external knowledge, using the “laser” (in the end, an highly concentrated beam) to “settle” the knowledge powder.

[For my non-Italian readers: my family name means “the lighthouse”: try working on change or project management with my surname- I lost count of how many times I was told about “showing the light” or my “laser-beam focus”; obviously, you have to laugh each time as if it were the most original joke]

Quite often if you disperse new knowledge inside an organization you risk missing the benefits of importing new knowledge: you know how to integrate it inside your existing organization, but can focus on what you need, while leaving all the research and update to somebody, of course, “laser-beam focused” on innovating that specific bit of knowledge- and then benefit from their innovation (and it applies to software as well as process/organizational innovation).

The second process often is more interesting as a metaphor: you can keep your culture and internal organization as is, except for the introduction of the “glue” that allows to keep the cohesiveness of you culture, while introducing the innovation.

Why should you keep the “external knowledge” separate? Gradually, you can shift to the “powder” approach- but that would require that you internalize in your own organizational culture the ability to “monitor” what is going on outside, and appreciate if and when a new “grain of knowledge” could be useful to your organization.

I first saw the issue of migrating approaches and knowledge when, in few large systems early on in my career, I observed some “silent boycott”- e.g. people using formally the new approach, but only by distorting its practice, to show that it did not work.

Often by omitting the bit of knowledge required to successfully adapt what was already in place (or embed the new knowledge in the existing culture)- as it had not been formally requested (it applies to sofware, processes, and… new bosses).

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