Originally published on April 16, 2018
This is the 16th article in the Profiles in Knowledge series featuring thought leaders in knowledge management. Carla O’Dell founded APQC along with her late husband, Jack Grayson. She is one of the leading luminaries in the KM field.
I first encountered Carla at DCI’s Knowledge Management Conference in Boston in 1998. She was one of the speakers, and I was very impressed with her talk, The Ten Enduring Truths in Knowledge Management. I bought her book, If Only We Knew What We Know, and found it useful as I led Digital Equipment Corporation’s first knowledge management program. In 2000, when working on Compaq Computer Corporation’s corporate KM strategy, I initiated the use of APQC’s advisory services, and I got to know Carla during this effort.
I presented at the APQC KM Conference in 2005, 2011, and 2018. In 2007, HP was an APQC KM Best Practice Partner. As the leader of HP’s KM program, I accepted an award from Carla at the concluding meeting of this initiative.
- Considered one of the world’s leading experts in using knowledge to drive productivity and competitiveness, Chairman Dr. Carla O’Dell leads the APQC Board of Directors in it governance and oversight responsibilities. Often dubbed “a practical visionary,” she plays a strong role in APQC’s game-changing research daily. She works to inspire the next generation of ideas, research, and people so that APQC remains true to its mission: to research and embrace advances that make us more productive and enrich our work life.
- Over her 40-year career with APQC, O’Dell has launched many of APQC’s signature research areas and tools. In 1995, under her direction, APQC launched its first knowledge management (KM) best practices consortium. Since then, APQC has worked with more than 500 organizations and produced the world’s largest body of actionable best practices in designing and implementing KM strategies, and measuring the impact of KM.
- Carla is an active author, contributor to APQC’s knowledge management blog, and frequent interviewee for national and industry press. Her popular Big Thinkers, Big Ideas interview series captures new insights on learning, knowledge, innovation, and leadership from some of the top business minds. She was the executive champion for the formation of APQC’s Open Standards Benchmarking® database, which standardized the processes and measurements that global organizations use to benchmark and improve performance.
- Previously, O’Dell served as APQC’s CEO from 2012 to 2018, president from 1994–2012, and in leadership roles since joining in 1978. She has a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University, a master’s degree from the University of Oregon, and a doctorate in organizational psychology from the University of Houston.
- Cognitive computing — Part 1 Cognitive computing and the evolution of knowledge work
- Cognitive Computing — Part 2 Applying cognitive computing to KM
- Cognitive Computing — Part 3 Challenges and lessons in cognitive computing
- Using KM to Leverage and Develop Experts
- A Knowledge Strategy Senior Leaders Can Get Behind
- KM is Back, Baby by Andy Moore
5. Overcoming cultural barriers to sharing knowledge with Richard McDermott
6. Knowledge transfer: Discover your value proposition with Jack Grayson
Carla O’Dell is the president of APQC an, internationally recognized, not-for-profit organization dedicated to process and performance improvement. She joined APQC in 1978 as an adviser and researcher. Over the years, her fields of expertise and research have included knowledge management (KM), benchmarking, total quality systems, re-engineering, organization design, team-based reward systems, and assessment and improvement using the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award criteria. Currently, O’Dell is a key driver in the formation of the Open Standards Benchmarking Collaborative (OSBC) research, which seeks to standardize the processes and measures that global organizations use to benchmark and improve performance.
O’Dell has a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University, a master’s from the University of Oregon, and a doctorate in organizational psychology from the University of Houston. She is co-author with APQC Chairman C. Jackson Grayson and Nilly Essaides of If Only We Knew What We Know: The Transfer of Internal Knowledge and Best Practice and previously the co-author with Grayson of American Business: A Two Minute Warning.
Q: Please provide a briefing on APQC’s background, mission, and current activities.
O’Dell: In 2007, APQC is celebrating 30 years of helping organizations improve by discovering and adopting best practices. People come to APQC for three things: data and best practices, frameworks to make sense of the world and guide future action, and the opportunity to network with others facing the same issues. APQC’s roots lie in process improvement and benchmarking. We have conducted over 150 multi-client “consortium” projects to discover best practices on hot issues, over 6,000 individual benchmarking studies, and more than 3,000 sites are participating in our Open Standard Benchmarking Collaborative (OSBC), launched in 2004. APQC is an exciting place to be; we are always innovating and working on something new.
Q: During the years since APQC’s founding in 1977, which developments do you think have had the greatest impact on our understanding of quality and productivity?
O’Dell: There are many, but I think the three paradigm shifts — and the methodologies they spawned — that have made the greatest impact are 1) understanding that all work is a process that can be measured, benchmarked, and improved (TQM, reengineering, Six Sigma, and business process management all were possible because of this insight); 2) being able to “see” and “manage” knowledge that is both the raw material and the engine that drives innovation, productivity, and growth, leading to knowledge management, virtual collaboration, and all the Internet search and retrieval capabilities we now take for granted; and 3) that organizing around teams and communities of practice is a very productive way to work.
We take the concepts of “process management”, “knowledge management”, and team-based projects and working environments as givens now; but not so long ago, these were radical, even threatening, concepts. Now there are robust, repeatable and scalable methodologies and best practices for all three.
Q: Many of the best business books seem to have been written to answer an important question. Is that also true of If Only We Knew What We Know that you wrote with C. Jackson Grayson?
O’Dell: Absolutely. Jack and I, as well as our colleagues at APQC, kept seeing the same phenomenon over and over again. A firm would contact us and say they were looking for best practice in something, for example, in the area of customer retention and the ability to predict customer-purchasing behavior. It was not uncommon to find that one of the best-practice organizations in the field was another division of the same company that had asked us to do the research.
Why didn’t they know about this already? And if they did know, why hadn’t the practices transferred? In the mid-Nineties we set to investigate why best practices didn’t transfer; why organizations didn’t learn from experience and why knowledge held in one part of a company did not flow to other divisions in the same organization. Those answers, based on eighteen major multi-client studies and dozens of individual projects became APQC’s knowledge management (KM) practice and the basis for the book. We continue that research today.
Q: Based on your experience, what seem to be the best ways to identify, locate, and then “mine” what you call “beds of knowledge,” “hidden reservoirs of intelligence,” that exist in almost every organization?
O’Dell: There is no question in my mind that communities of practice — groups of people in organizations linked together because they are working on similar issues or serving similar markets — are KM’s “killer app”. These groups — linked together across time and space and organizational boundaries — can solve problems faster, draw on collective knowledge, and identify and adopt best practices faster and better than any other mechanism we have in organizations today. They have become ubiquitous in modern global organizations.
Q: What are the issues on the minds of executives right now?
O’Dell: In addition to making money and the price of oil, they worry about global sourcing. Executives spend their time thinking about three aspects: parts, people, and knowledge.
The most familiar is the global sourcing of parts. Companies are searching the world for the lowest-cost, highest-quality products and components. This has been underway for decades — nothing too new here.
The second, and far more pressing opportunity is the global sourcing of people. An amazing statistic is that by 2020, 90 percent of the world’s scientists and engineers will reside in Asia. American universities used to turn out a lot of scientists and engineers, many of who were not U.S. citizens but who stayed here to work. Now, however, these graduates are either being trained in universities at home, or are returning to their exciting, fast growing countries, especially in Asia. A recent Mercer study found that knowledge workers in India were by far the most excited and enthusiastic in the world. Thus, a big question facing many executives is where they will find their scientific and engineering talent in the years ahead.
Finally, the global sourcing of knowledge is probably the one that rocks Americans at their core. Some media pundits are making a good living (and high ratings) decrying outsourcing, but if you don’t have the people here able to do the work, what’s the option? Knowledge work is now 50 percent of the world’s GDP. Knowledge, because of the tremendous revolutions in the Internet and in education around the world, can be sourced from almost anywhere. Organizations are looking at supplier and partners around the world for their knowledge-based innovation. Chindia (China and India) are hotbeds of innovation.
Q: One final question. Looking ahead, let’s say, to the next 3–5 years, what do you expect to be the greatest opportunities for organizations to improve?
O’Dell: KM will continue to be important. It is part of the largest global transformation in the history of the world. Connectivity, collaboration, and common standards have enabled people to communicate and share knowledge and information like never before. (Even the “bad guys”.) Getting better at it is almost a survival issue for organizations. Who has the time or money to constantly reinvent what we already know?
Secondly, the process of how innovation is managed and measured is ripe for a breakthrough. Innovation is still at the stage of evolution that process improvement was, thirty years ago: treating it like magic. It’s not just about light bulbs going off or the “Great Man” myth of invention. I think commonly agreed-to definitions, measures, and standards will help drive widespread innovation and productivity in the years ahead. We saw it in software and electronics, and now it is happening in management.
In 1992, APQC created a common language for describing and measuring business processes, called the Process Classification Framework (PCF). Think of it as the Esperanto, the universal language of business process. The OSBC is built on the PCF and the benchmarking Code of Conduct, created at the same time to govern the exchange of information between firms. Both have been updated over the years and are perhaps the most widely used frameworks for benchmarking in the world. They are the basis of our Open Standards and free to anyone to use.
So we are applying this to the innovation process. We have an OSBC project underway to develop standard yardsticks for measuring the process and outcomes of innovation. The research addresses four aspects of innovation: products and services, process innovation, business model innovation (including partnering and outsourcing), and the enablers such as structure and culture.
This research should help firms predict their capability to be innovative.
- Do they have a climate for creativity?
- Is there a vision and agenda for innovation?
- What is the appropriate level of innovation in the organization?
- What is the right structure for innovation, for ideas to flow then action to occur?
- Are you spending your innovation dollars well?
- How quickly does your company turn good ideas into money?
- How does your organization’s innovative capabilities compare against your competitors’?
The third arena for improvement is the ability to collaborate across organizational boundaries. Most of the innovation and best practice can be found outside your organization, but to benefit you have to be able to collaborate across cultures, time zones, competing business models and so forth.
10. KM Overview
Lesson 1. Secure Senior Management Support for KM by Building a Strong Business Case
Knowledge management is a systematic process designed to connect people with one another and with the knowledge and information they need to achieve results, through the identification, capture, validation, and transfer of knowledge.
When embarking on a KM strategy or initiative, most organizations faced the typical business questions that any good senior executive should ask about a new initiative, such as “why should we do this (i.e., What is the business case?), who is going to be responsible (i.e., What roles and resources are necessary?), and how will we know if it makes a difference (i.e., How do you measure the results?).”
Executives often have a vision of how solving their knowledge problem will enhance the future success of the organization. Link KM to their needs and vision, not some general plan to “make it easy for employees to share knowledge.”
Lesson 2: Move Beyond “Knowledge for Knowledge’s Sake”
The goal of KM is not to share knowledge for its own sake, although that is a valuable byproduct of the process. Start with the business problems or opportunities, and identify the processes that seem to be the source of the “knowledge” problem. For example, we’ve seen problems ranging from repeated customer complaints about a process that doesn’t get fixed, making the same mistake across business units, loss of knowledge due to retirement of key people, bringing new people on board, or a lack of access to experts by sales people trying to make a complex sale.
Pick no more than three major projects to start. Build a business case or case for action based on measurable results. And for heaven’s sake, don’t build an IT platform until you have a KM process that works. It’s a waste of money and creates a scorched earth legacy where future KM may have a hard time growing. Make the process work, before you try to enable it with IT.
Lesson 3: Determine What Knowledge is Critical
Organizations are typically swimming in enormous amounts of tacit and explicit knowledge, only some of which is valuable and durable enough to offer future competitive advantage and justify the costs of retaining and transferring it. Building large repositories and content management systems to house all possible knowledge is a fruitless endeavor.
Knowledge comes in two basic varieties: explicit and tacit, also known as formal/codified and informal/uncodified knowledge. Explicit knowledge comes in the form of books and documents, formulas, project reports, contracts, process diagrams, lists of lessons learned, case studies, white papers, policy manuals, and so on. Explicit knowledge may also not be useful without the context provided by experience.
Tacit knowledge, by contrast, can be found in interactions with employees and customers. Tacit knowledge is hard to catalog, highly experiential, difficult to document in detail, ephemeral, and transitory. It is also the basis for judgment and informed action. Organizations concerned about knowledge loss fear that tacit knowledge has not been captured (made explicit) or transferred so that others may benefit from it.
The KM approaches for managing explicit knowledge may be more mechanical; tacit knowledge is more difficult to capture and reuse. Some approaches, such as well-designed communities of practice, may address both types of knowledge and recipients. The trick is to determine exactly what and where that information and knowledge is and by what means it can be “captured” and transferred.
Lesson 4. Knowledge is Sticky
Knowledge is sticky: Without a systematic process, dedicated people, an a robust infrastructure, it will not flow. It is a mistake to adopt a KM approach (like communities of practice or a expertise location systems) without first understanding the flow you are trying to enable. The first step in any KM initiative is to understand the desired knowledge flow before you create KM approaches to enable it (see figure above). After you understand how and what knowledge needs to flow (and from and to whom), then you can enable the process with standard KM approaches such as communities of practice, transfer of best practices, mitigating the risk of knowledge loss due to retirement or turnover, sharing lessons learned, etc.
Lesson 5. If You Build It, They Will Not Necessarily Come
Technology applications do not, in themselves, motivate people to share knowledge or to change behavior. Technology is indispensable to KM in modern organizations, but the road to effective KM is littered with abandoned “KM solutions” that were implemented too early. These vehicles quickly run out of gas, if they start at all. It is critical to select and implement technology as part of a larger, systematic KM change initiative, enabling a proven knowledge flow among people who are intrinsically motivated to share and learn from others.
Having said that, there are wonderful tools to enable collaboration and help maintain corporate memory and knowledge, from enterprise collaboration software to Web 2.0 applications such as wikis, blogs and social networking. Use them wisely.
Lesson 6: Focus on breaking down structural barriers to the flow of knowledge between people who have it and those who need it — not changing the “culture”
Knowledge management is about enabling what most people want to do naturally: share what they know and learn from others. The barriers to sharing are often structural: there is not enough time, the process is cumbersome, they do not know the source or the recipients and are not sure they can trust the information, and they know instinctively that tacit knowledge is richer than documented explicit knowledge.
To ensure the success of KM initiatives, work on these barriers, rather than on the psychological makeup of your employees or your “culture.”
Whenever possible, embed knowledge sharing, capture, and reuse into the work itself and provide value to those who participate in KM initiatives. Employees should experience greater professional development and an easier time getting their work done. Rewards and recognition are important, but they will not take the place of creating knowledge-sharing approaches that work and provide value to the people who use them.
Creating a knowledge-sharing culture is the result, rather than the prerequisite, of a successful KM strategy.
Lesson 7: Measure
APQC stresses the importance of beginning with the business’ measures of success; in other words, understand the desired business outcomes and then worked backward to design KM activities and measures that focused on those outcomes.
APQC suggests measuring along the value chain continuum: starting with the inputs or costs, then measuring the participation and activity, and correlating that with outputs and business outcomes. The APQC measurement framework shows the relationship among inputs (investments), process (KM-related activities and behaviors), and outcomes (organization objectives). Examples of inputs include time, salaries, and IT costs. Process changes might include cycle time, participation, and contribution to a body of knowledge. Examples of outcomes important to the organization might include employee and customer retention, reduced costs per transaction, or increased revenue.
Measures also need to be appropriate to the particular KM approach, its objectives, and its stage of development. A KM approach primarily focused on communities of practice would measure the costs and impact differently than one focused on using a content management system. A KM initiative focused on improving sales force effectiveness would measure proposals and sales. Such measures would be irrelevant to a KM initiative focused on building new knowledge in an engineering discipline. APQC maintains a list of standard KM measures.
In addition to quantitative measures, organizations need success stories that illustrate the knowledge flow in human terms, and from which they can justify past and future investments and give their management a vision of what is possible.
- People and organizations learn differently — Benedict Carey: How We Learn
- You have learned something when you are able to recall it when you need it.
- People will remember the first thing you tell them and the last thing you tell them
- Knowledge management is how organizations learn and remember
- Organizations often create business rules as a result of something that went wrong
- KM can help people learn by alerting them when something has changed: more dynamic than formal training — & at the teachable moment
- KM should be there at the teachable moment. Avoid dead ends, empty shelves and desert islands.
- Communities are still KM’s killer app — members’ allegiance to group makes it possible for them to help others
- Members of the group bring outside ideas to the group, which are vetted by the group, leading to improvement and innovation
- People approaches make system approaches work. Technology matters, but change management to implement it is more important
- 2013 Keynote: Transforming the Way We Collaborate — Slides
- 2011 Keynote: Let Your Networks Be Your Guide: Search in a 2.0 World — Slides
- 2009 Envisioning the Enterprise of the Future — Slides
- 2004 Keynote: Driving Performance with Knowledge Management — Slides
- 2001 Keynote: Successfully Implementing KM — Slides
- February 2013: Trends in knowledge management — with Cindy Hubert — Slides
- December 2018: High-Touch KM for a High-Tech World — with Lauren Trees — Slides
2. If Only We Knew What We Know: The Transfer of Internal Knowledge and Best Practicewith C. Jackson Grayson
4. The Executive’s Role in Knowledge Management with Paige Leavitt
- Book Review by Bill Ives — The Executive’s Role in Knowledge Management — Carla O’Dell has been a leader in knowledge management throughout its life cycle and I have enjoyed her previous books. This book continues her practice of writing extremely useful practical guides. In this case the primary intended readers are senior managers who want their investments in knowledge management to be successful and provide real business value.
5. Stages of Implementation: A Guide for Your Journey to Knowledge Management Best Practices with Cindy Hubert and Susan Elliot
6. Knowledge Management: A Guide for Your Journey to Best-Practice Processes with Cindy Hubert and Susan Elliot
8. American Business — A Two Minute Warning: 10 Changes Managers Must Make to Survive Into the 21st Century with C. Jackson Grayson
9. Handbook of Knowledge Management Vol. 1 edited by Clyde Holsapple
- CHAPTER 31 Identifying and Transferring Internal Best Practices — with C. Jackson Grayson
10. Handbook of Knowledge Management Vol. 2 edited by Clyde Holsapple
- CHAPTER 44 Achieving Knowledge Management Outcomes — with Susan Elliot and Cindy Hubert
- CHAPTER 51 Successful KM Implementations: A Study of Best Practice Organizations — with FariDa Hasanali, Cindy Hubert, Kimberly Lopez, Peggy Odem, and Cynthia Raybourn
11. Knowledge Management Lessons Learned: What Works and What Doesn’t edited by Michael E. D. Koenig and T. Kanti Srikantaiah — Chapter 5: Successfully Implementing Knowledge Management: Lessons Learned and Best Practices with Cindy Hubert