Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, Colonel Steven Mains on Knowledge Management

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Executive Interviews: Interview with Colonel Steven Mains on Knowledge Management
July 2008 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary

Colonel Steven Mains
Colonel Steven Mains serves as the Director of the Center for Army Lessons Learned, part of the US Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth,

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  • Generally people like to share their success stories and they take pride when these success stories are converted into best practices and are emulated. However, the same very peoplemay not like to share their failures for the fear of ignominy, loss of credibility, etc. But failures do offer important lessons and therefore, how do you get people to share their failures so that failures are dissected and lessons are learnt?
    I'm not sure that people like to share success stories as much as we might expect. In my experience, people are more focused on getting to the next challenge than telling others how they did X, Y or Z.

    They often don't realize that others have not figured out what they have learnt or they are afraid of sharing because they want to maintain a competitive advantage inside the company. We do try to make people "heroes" by sharing their successes in order to gain buy in fromthe organization for our efforts. We share challenges by taking the approach that if an organization was unable to accomplish a task to the desired standard, it was because the Army did not provide them the required training, personnel, or materiel. With this approach, commanders often tell us they thank God thatwe came to document the needs about which they have been telling their commanders. They know the challenges better than anyone because they live it every day. When we can document challenges across many organizations, it makes an impact on the Army leadership. It isn't just a single commander whining about something, it is a number of commanders sending a message to the leadership.

  • In an increasingly globalized world, global corporations are locating in and operating out of multiple locales. How do you think such companies should foster knowledge collaboration, especially when the knowledge gained is country and culture specific?
    Collaboration has to be regular and systematic to be effective in an organization. The context in which knowledge is gained is important, of course, and that always has to be considered. There are some lessons that are universal how to build a better component, and many that rely on cultural or local context to be successful. When we capture lessons we put great effort into documenting the conditions under which they were successful. This allows others to quickly evaluate whether they want to adopt it. We try to leave that decision up to the lowest level manager we can so that the organization is as nimble as possible. Sometimes a manager will make the wrong decision or the lesson will turn out not to be transferable. That's a lesson too and, if we are honestly trying to learn, the experiment has to be underwritten by the management. Too many bad decisions and the manager has to go, of course, but we cannot operate in a zero defect environment. If we do, no one will do anything and we can guarantee that inaction will be the wrong action.

  • Theres an often repeated apprehension that, No doubt there are enormous benefits if KM initiatives are envisaged and executed effectively. But the problem is, it is prohibitively expensive. Do you agree with this? If yes, how should, those companies keen on benefiting from KM programs, go about overcoming this impediment?
    There is a cost in implementing a program, but there is a cost in not implementing one. My recommendation to an organization contemplating a knowledgemanagement programis to define some basic goals and start small in a way that targets those goals directly. Implement all three "legs of the stool"people, processes and technology because leaving one out for fiscal reasons dooms the project. Set a fixed period of time for the experiment and stick to it. If the program shows promise it can be expanded. The worst thing that someone could do is to start with a huge "enterprise solution" to knowledge which will fail almost by definition. There are just too many unknowns at the beginning of the project. Start with basic goals, one of which has to be extensibility, so that things can be added and grown later as more is learned. Support the successes and trash the failures. Use the system yourself at the highest levels so you know what it really does and does not do. Only then will a systemreally develop benefits for the company.

  • Who would decide what should be shared and what should not be shared? After all, there can be confidential, out of public domain information.
    Information sharing is a key issue, in the military and in business. I always lean more to the sharing than the hiding side. My view is that if we all know the information, we can operate at a level higher than our competitors who will never be able to piece a full picture. If we restrict our own knowledge we put shackles on ourselves, most times unnecessarily.There will always be some information that needs to be safeguarded. The decision should be with the originator of the information because he usually is the one that has the most invested in the value of that information. In other words, if a business unit develops information on amanufacturing process, they have the most to lose if a competitor learns the process because it involves their competitive advantage. They also know whether information is common knowledge in the industry or whether it is novel. What looks novel from the board room is actually fairly routine on the shop floor. Or the turnover of people has rendered safeguarding it insufficient to justify the cost. Thats not a decision that can be made at higher echelons. Keep it simple. Make decisions at as low a level as possible.

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