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

Started by David Griffiths on
24 Feb 2013 at 06:13

Knowledge Management says someone.  Go forth and capture knowledge says another.  Why?

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 t 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 person 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.

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.  Connecting dynamic people who share and learn lessons together, cross-pollinating their learning through agile work groups.  Where should you invest your time and resources?   On the other hand, you can always keep trying to capture that knowledge soup.

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