Knowing together, better

I am a bit of an e-mail hoarder, so occasionally I go back into the store and find an apparently random message that strikes a new chord. So it was when I stumbled across a message from Kaye Vivian to the ActKM mailing list dating back to July 2008. Her e-mail simply drew attention to an article by Richard McDermott on communities of practice (CoPs). More significantly, Richard had listed six characteristics shared by CoPs that successfully matured into dynamic entities (rather than withering away).

Cloister, Canterbury Cathedral

To date, I have not explored the potential benefits of CoPs for knowledge purposes. Within law firms, self-organised or mandated groups are the norm. At one extreme, there is the practice group or client team, and at the other there may be groups of like-minded individuals with a common interest (such as trainee solicitors) who cluster together for support when necessary. Some of these groups work as CoPs by sharing knowledge and learning incidental to their main purpose. Reading Richard McDermott’s article, however, I thought his conclusion probably had wider resonance than just for CoPs.

So what are Richard’s six characteristics? Kaye’s e-mail referred to a post of Stan Garfield’s in which he summarised this part of the article, but Richard actually started by pointing to factors inhibiting flourishing CoPs:

When starting, communities often need to build momentum as they discover what knowledge is useful to share. Once they’ve been going for a few years, three other problems often inhibit communities’ ability to maintain the spark they had during their early years — loss of momentum, loss of attention and localism.

Once these problems are overcome, six factors are evident in successful CoPs:

Not all communities at mid-life suffer these limitations. Some are vital, full of energy and add value to both their members and the company. The most vital of the communities we reviewed shared six characteristics — clear purpose, active leadership, critical mass of engaged members, sense of accomplishment, high management expectations and real time.

Whilst I have no experience with CoPs, I think these characteristics also hold good for successful collaboration of many different types. For example, organisational wiki use works well and adds value when we see the factors manifested in the following ways.

  1. Clear purpose: A wiki which has a defined purpose (creating a resource, for example, or managing a project) flourishes where unfocussed efforts fail.
  2. Active leadership: As Stuart Mader points out in his book, Wikipatterns, a number of key roles have grown up around good wiki use. One of those is the wiki champion: “A passionate, enthusiastic champion is essential to the success of wiki…”
  3. Critical mass of engaged members: Because of the 90:9:1 principle, a significant number of people is necessary to generate valuable wiki contributions.
  4. Sense of accomplishment: One of the advantages of good wikis over traditional CoPs is that as they grow the contributions of members naturally accrete and can provide a real sense of accomplishment. By the same token, if nothing is happening with the wiki people will see it and are unlikely to be encouraged to turn it round.
  5. High management expectations: Whilst many wikis are established as grass-roots activities, they can still benefit from interest being shown by senior people in the organisation. Whilst there is an argument that Enterprise 2.0 might result in less hierarchical organisations, it is still the case that people respond to traditional management and leadership.
  6. Real time: This is where wikis can score over traditional CoPs. Whereas CoPs may require additional time (McDermott refers to one organisation where there was an expectation that 10% of people’s time was dedicated to community activities), wikis can be the place where some aspects of work actually take place (in preference to e-mail, for example). This success factor is probably better worded as real commitment.

And what does success look like? For Richard McDermott, CoPs are successful when they achieve a significant level of influence in the organisation.

But to play this role effectively, communities need to be more than informal discussion groups. They need to be empowered to be full-fledged elements of the organization, legitimately exercising influence without formal authority.

The same is probably true of wikis.

Learning from failure or success

In a round up following KM Australia, back in August, Shawn Callahan has challenged the notion that we learn best from failure. I think he has a point — the important thing is learning, not failure.

Harris Hawk missing the quarry

Here’s Shawn’s critique.

During the conference I heard a some speakers recount the meme, “we learn best from failure.” I’m not sure this is entirely true. Anecdotally I remember distantly when I read about the Ritz Carlton approach to conveying values using stories and I’m now delivering a similar approach to a client on the topic of innovation. Here I’ve learned from a good practice. As Bob Dickman once told me, “you remember what you feel.” I can imagine memory being a key first step to learning. And some research shows it’s more complex than just learning from failure. Take this example. The researchers take two groups who have never done ten pin bowling and get them bowling for a couple of hours. Then one group is taken aside and coached on what they were doing wrong and how they could improve. The other group merely watches an edited video of what they were doing right. The second group did better than the first. However there was no difference with experienced groups.

I wish I could access the linked study — Shawn’s summary and the abstract sound very interesting. Here’s the abstract.

On the basis of laboratory research on self-regulation, it was hypothesized that positive self-monitoring, more than negative self-monitoring or comparison and control procedures, would improve the bowling averages of unskilled league bowlers (N =60). Conversely, negative self-monitoring was expected to produce the best outcome for relatively skillful league bowlers (N =67). In partial support of these hypotheses, positive self-monitors significantly improved their bowling averages from the 90-game baseline to the 9- to 15-game postintervention assessment (X improvement = 11 pins) more than all other groups of low-skilled bowlers; higher skilled bowlers’ groups did not change differentially. In conjunction with other findings in cognitive behavior therapy and sports psychology, the implications of these results for delineating the circumstances under which positive self-monitoring facilitates self-regulation are discussed.

Based on these summaries, I would draw a slightly different conclusion from Shawn’s. I think there is a difference between learning as a novice and learning when experienced. Similarly, the things that we learn range from the simple to the complex. (Has anyone applied the Cynefin framework to learning processes? My instinct suggests that learning must run out when we get to the chaotic or disordered domains. I think we can only learn when there is a possibility of repeatability, which is clearly the case in the simple and complicated domains, and may be a factor in moving situations from the complex to one of the other domains.)

The example Dave Snowden gives of learning from failure is actually a distinction between learning from being told and learning by experience.

Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success. When my young son burnt his finger on a match he learnt more about the dangers of fire than any amount of parental instruction cold provide. All human cultures have developed forms that allow stories of failure to spread without attribution of blame. Avoidance of failure has greater evolutionary advantage than imitation of success. It follows that attempting to impose best practice systems is flying in the face of over a hundred thousand years of evolution that says it is a bad thing.

In the burned finder scenario, success (not touching a burning match) is equivalent to lack of experience. Clearly learning from a lack of experience will be less effective than learning from (even a painful) experience. By contrast, the bowling example provides people with a new experience (bowling) and then gives them an opportunity to contemplate their performance (which was almost certainly poor). However, whatever the state of their performance, it is clear what the object of the activity is and therefore ‘success’ can be easily defined — ensure that this heavy ball leaves your hand in such a way that it knocks down as many pins as possible by the time it reaches the far end of the lane. As the natural tendency of learners at early stages in the learning process is to concentrate on the negative aspects of their performance (I can’t throw the ball hard enough to get to the end of the lane, or it keeps going in the gutter), it is understandable that a learning strategy which focuses on success could have better results than one that merely explains why the bad things happen.

In the bowling experiment, no difference was found between the negative and positive approaches when experienced bowlers were studied. All this suggests to me is that we need more work in this area, especially considering learning in the complicated or complex domains. Even for experienced bowlers, the set of variables that affect the passage of a bowling ball from one end of the lane to the other is a predictable one. There is not just one cause and effect, but the laws of physics dictate that the relationships between all the causes should have predictable outcomes. By contrast, much of what interests us with regard to knowledge and learning in organisational environments does not depend on simple causal relationships.

In those complicated or complex organisational situations, I think we can learn more from our own failures than other people’s successes (which I think is the point that Dave Snowden is making). I think Shawn is also right to suggest that we can learn from our own successes too. However, that can only be the case if we take the time to analyse exactly what was the cause of the success. So we need a commitment to learning (which brings us back to deliberate practice, amongst other things) and we need the insight into our actions and activities that allows us to analyse them effectively. I think the will to learn is often present, but insight is often missing when we consider successful initiatives, possibly because the greater distance between cause and effect means that we cannot be confident that success is a product of any given cause. On the other hand, it is usually easier to identify causes of failure, and the process of failure also provides an incentive to work out what went wrong.

As for the quality of the lessons learned from failure or success, I am doubtful that any firm conclusion could be drawn that as a general rule we learn better from failure or from success. However, as we become more experienced and when we deal with fewer simple situations, we will inevitably learn more from failure than success — we will have more experience of failure than success, and other people’s successes are of limited or no value. So, although we can learn from our successes, my guess is that more of our learning flows from failure.

It feels like there is more research to do into these questions.

Do we want success or failure?

Reading this interview of Steve Ballmer, I was struck by his answer to the question, “How do you assess job candidates?”:

If they come from inside the business, the best predictor of future success is past success. It’s not 100 percent, but it’s a reasonable predictor.

This “success breeds success” mindset is, I think, mistaken. It is a relation of the thought process that leads to books like Good to Great. Just because a person or business has been successful does not mean that we know why they have been successful. Their previous success may just be a question of luck, rather than good judgment. Correlation does not imply causation — that is just sloppy thinking. (Unsurprisingly, Ballmer recommends one of Jim Collins’s books as a particularly useful text.)

An example of a better approach is provided in this Edutopia video by Randy Nelson of Pixar, talking about the way that NASA selected its astronauts.

Their first search was this depth-based search, and what they found was there are far too many people who were deep — who were very good. They couldn’t use that as a filter. They realised what they wanted was not merely people who were successful, and in fact maybe that was what they couldn’t afford, in their depth-based search. They needed to find people who had failed and recovered.

Those who had failed and hadn’t recovered were not applying — they weren’t around any more (we’re talking about test pilots, for the most part) — that filters out one group!

So that ended up being the way that the astronaut corps was chosen — they were looking for people who had not simply avoided failure, but rather those who had seen failure and had figured out how to turn it into something. The core skill of innovators is error-recovery, not failure-avoidance.

The whole video is not very long, and is full of little gems like this one. It is certainly a much more thoughtful approach to the problem than Steve Ballmer’s.