E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

Why Lessons Learned Will Be Critical for Enterprise 2.0 to Succeed

Gran Canaria - Puerto de Mogan in the SpringA few days back, my good friend, KM extraordinnaire and always insightful, Bill Ives, put together a couple of blog posts under the titles of "Are There Best Practices for Enterprise 2.0 Adoption?" and "Are Enterprise 2.0 Adoption Best Practices Useful?" (The latter one over at The FASTFoward Blog) where he was reflecting on a recent article that I wrote on that same subject under the heading "Why Best Practices Don’t Work for Knowledge Work". In those two entries Bill comes to build further up on the notion that, perhaps, "best practices" are probably not something every business should be pursuing very consistently in the long run. Instead, we should probably be focusing on capturing Lessons Learned. And I couldn’t have agreed more with him on that one! When was the last time your business had a "formal" (or informal) process for capturing them?

To illustrate his point, Bill puts it, rather nicely, in this quote:

"[…] best practices can do more harm that good. This does not mean that there cannot be lessons learned and some starting points to keep in mind as you move to new work. There are great benefits to doing something the second time. The German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote, “nothing more can be attempted that to establish the beginning and the direction of an infinitely long road. The pretension of any systematic and definitive completeness would be, at least, a self-illusion. Perfection can here be obtained by the student only in the subjective sense that he communicates everything he has been able to see""

I think he is spot on when he states that the future of "best practices" is actually focusing on capturing lessons learned, as perhaps the most powerful method of improving whatever practices may well be available out there and already in place. More than anything else, because our brain seems to have been designed to learn plenty more from what didn’t work (Lessons Learned) than from what did work (Best Practices). So eventually no matter how good those best practices are, it seems like we are only tuning in to those instances of things that didn’t work out all right, as we try to learn from those mistakes, apply the new knowledge learned and, hopefully, progress further into achieving a particular task.

This is something that Bill describes as well with a very nice example, which is actually a short story, that I thought I would quote over here as well, since it surely brings in forward that aspect of how powerful lessons learned can well be used for the right purpose, in the right context:

"Post script: When I coached my daughter’s soccer (aka football) team during her elementary school years, I created a guide book of plays for the girls (e.g., try to throw the inbound pass up field). However, I found what worked best was to hold practice games and frequently stop the action and call the girls’ attention to what just happen, the results, and what to think about next time. Part of the guidance was to keep things moving in the right direction but look and think before you act. This was simply what worked for me and I am certainly not an expert in soccer. In hindsight it followed the approach offered above"

I am not sure what you would think about such an approach, but he surely proves it worked for his daughter’s soccer team. Interestingly enough, if you would look into the corporate world today, examples like that one on applying lessons learned don’t seem to be having the same positive reinforcement. Rather the opposite! That’s why perhaps for businesses out there to succeed with implementations of lessons learned programmes we may first need to get rid of those negative connotations that they seem to have been having for a good number of years. Something that doesn’t seem to be happening with best practices, interestingly enough. And overuse of the concept? Probably.

That’s right! It looks like both of them are opposites of the same equation, yet, one couldn’t probably survive without the other and, in my opinion, that’s the one for best practices. They say that 70% of today’s Enterprise 2.0 initiatives will eventually fail. And I’m actually thinking that the main reason why there is this huge % of failure on those Enterprise 2.0 initiatives is probably because most businesses will focus on identifying best practices for social software, instead of working their way through key learnings gathered from lessons learned on why some things worked and why some others didn’t. But since we all seem to have that negative connotation about those lessons learned I’m thinking that extra focus on best practices surely is going to prove that high % to be rather accurate. Scary!

I think we are actually still on time to change that way of thinking and instead of focusing on what did work, we should probably start focusing on what didn’t work, evaluate why not, what are some of the key learnings, try again and keep moving further on. I think it would be essential to think that for Enterprise 2.0 to survive within the corporate world there needs to be involved a continuous learning process of constantly trying to improve things, something that, I am afraid, we won’t get from applying best practices. Remember, our brains are not design to learn anything new from what works…

But what will businesses need to do to change that negative perception of lessons learned and instead change their reputation into a more positive one where making mistakes, and taking risks, is a good behaviour (Actually, it’s one that should be encouraged all the way through!)? Where learning from those mistakes is very much encouraged with knowledge workers as a method of engagement to share their knowledge and experiences, and collaborate in an open environment where those very same mistakes are acknowledged and addressed to prevent them come back in the near future.

Better than me here are two quotes from smart folks that I think capture rather nicely the main big challenge that organisations face nowadays if they don’t embrace fully the adoption of lessons learned strategies across the board. "An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field" by Niels Bohr or, even better, "Making mistakes simply means you are learning faster" by Weston H. Agor.

Time will tell whether that high % of failure within the Enterprise 2.0 space would become a reality in 2010 or not. I’m surely hoping it doesn’t. I certainly hope the corporate world will wake up and start paying more attention, in a rather positive way, to what didn’t work. More than anything else, because if we are already doing that in our day to day lives, and we seem to be doing pretty well so far, what’s stopping businesses from following that same path? Anyone? Are we too late already? … Goodness, I hope not!

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