HARNESSing knowledge

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This is my second opportunity to be a CE Guest Blogger – having just returned from a week’s vacation, I’m finding it quite a challenge to get back into the blogging swing of things, so bear with me! I thought to share with you some of the projects we’ve been busy with (or are working on getting started) here in South Africa. In a developing country there is no shortage of intractable problems, so we find ourselves involved in many interesting challenges.

A current project we (The Narrative Lab) are busy with involves a large banking client who needs effective knowledge transfer between what they call “the graybeards” and the “newbies” in an area where key decisions are made largely based on gut feel (that comes from years of experience) and not simply following rules (which can actually get you into trouble when followed blindly).

This is quite a universal problem that companies around the world are faced with, so it’s by no means an SA-specific issue, it does impact on our country quite severely however as we’ve lost many critical skills such as engineers in critical areas such as water management. This banking project has given us an opportunity to really stress-test our KM method called HARNESS (our adaptation of Dave’s ASHEN method – we think it has a bit more of a “ring” to it smile).

Everyone familiar with ASHEN will be familiar with most of HARNESS, so in short (with the new elements in bold):
H=heuristics; A=artifacts; R=relationships; N=natural ability/talent; E=experience; S=skills; S=story

So why the added R and S? One of the questions we asked in this project was “What do you know now, that you wish you knew when you started out in this department?” – 8 out of 10 times, the answer was: “My network” or “Who knows what”. People seem to store a lot of knowledge in other people, i.e. I don’t have to know everything about everything, I just need to know who does know and have access to this person. So networking or building key relationships emerged as a key skill that is required in this group.

As to the “S” – stories seem to be the only mechanism to get a grip on “gut feel”. In fact all of the other HARNESS elements are contained in the final S, in the stories that people tell. During a 2 week period we conducted 5 anecdote circles and around 12 2 hour interviews with a sample of the so-called “graybeards” – we’ve collected hundreds of stories and even more Heuristics that they use when making decisions. This information in invaluable to the bank. The challenge now, is for us to find effective ways to disseminate the knowledge back into the system in a way that is usable.

A key metaphor that emerged through this process is that gut feel is developed as people “climb the staircase”, there are experiences you have to have and mistakes you have to make along the way to get to a place where you can operate in an intuitive way as the graybeards do. You cannot just parachute someone onto the top of the staircase. So I guess the challenge for us is, how do we enable someone to climb the staircase, but get to the top faster?

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