We had such a great response to the Spot Check case study from David Stokes that we’ve embarked on a campaign to identify more members of our community willing to contribute one. These stories help those considering Rapid Learning Cycles to envision what it might look like in their own organizations.
We know that if the other members of the Rapid Learning Cycles community are going to benefit from this effort, it won’t be enough to write a report. We need to make sure that the case studies have all the elements of extensible knowledge.
What Is Extensible Knowledge?
Extensible knowledge is explicit knowledge that one person has created and captured in one situation so that another person may apply the knowledge in a similar situation, and develop the knowledge further. The knowledge must be explicit – that is, it must be written down – so that the presence of the person who created the knowledge is not required. Tacit knowledge — experience-based knowledge — is usually not directly reusable or extensible. Here are some examples of documents that capture reusable knowledge in product development:
- Technical whitepapers and briefings
- Knowledge Gap and Key Decision Reports
- Templates and Checklists
- Platform Designs and Code Libraries
We create all of these documents to share the things that we have learned so that the readers don’t have to learn things the way others did — the hard way.
The Elements of Extensible Knowledge
Sometimes it seems like people insist upon ignoring reusable knowledge — so they have to learn everything the hard way. While this may seem like a personnel or process issue at the point of reuse, the root cause is usually that the knowledge is not as reusable as it looks. One of the elements of reusable knowledge is missing, and therefore the individual does not trust the knowledge enough to reuse it. The elements of reusable knowledge ensure that the person receiving the knowledge has all the pieces to decide whether or not the knowledge applies and how far it can be trusted:
- Understandable: clear, comprehensive and concise enough to be easily digested.
- Believable: from a trustworthy source and/or known to be accurate.
- Actionable: includes reuse instructions, procedures or recommendations so that the receiver knows what he or she can do.
- Generalized: provides a full range of results, including both successes and failures, presented with the contextual information about decision criteria, methodology and links to supporting data, so that the next person can evaluate the applicability of the data and the conclusions to his or her specific situation.
If any of these elements are missing, the knowledge won’t be reused or extended as fully as it could be. If the documentation is too complex or too long, it will take less time to recreate the knowledge than to reuse it. If the source is not trustworthy, the knowledge will be discounted or ignored. If there are no reuse instructions or guidelines, the receiver may not understand how to reuse the knowledge and if the knowledge is too specific or there is no context, the receiver will not have confidence that the knowledge applies to the problem at hand and may not be able to see the connection at all.
Knowledge Capture for Reuse and Extension
The first step in encouraging knowledge reuse is to ensure that the knowledge is captured so that it can be reused and extended. Any template for knowledge capture, whether it is a Knowledge Gap report or a form to capture knowledge in a database should include this information:
- Author’s name and full contact information, including email address, phone number, chat handle, etc.
- The original purpose of the reusable knowledge: what question the researchers attempted to answer, or what problem they wanted to solve and why that was important to their project.
- Methods used to develop the knowledge: experimental procedures, machine configuration settings, etc. Some of this can be placed in supporting documents connected with links so that the details don’t obscure the main results, conclusions and recommendations.
- The author’s recommendations and guidelines for reuse and extension. For some types of reusable knowledge, such as code libraries or templates, one may need detailed instructions.
- References to external sources the author used for developing the knowledge.
Some organizations go further to try to verify the accuracy of reusable knowledge through expert reviews or tests. However, the author’s credibility is the single most important factor to predict believability: if the individual is known to be a technical leader who delivers great stuff, the knowledge he or she captures is much more likely to be reused and extended.
Three Ways to Encourage Knowledge Reuse and Extension
Once you have all this knowledge, how do you make sure that teams use it to accelerate their progress? Here are three ways to encourage new development teams to leverage the knowledge you’ve built:
- Organize it into a Knowledge Supermarket. An effective Knowledge Supermarket functions as a “pull system” for the organization’s reusable knowledge: it is easy to access, searchable and browsable. Authors have access to templates, examples and mentoring to help them capture all of the elements of reusable knowledge.
- Encourage teams to go on a Knowledge Treasure Hunt before they kick off their programs. It’s much easier to find the Key Decisions and Knowledge Gaps if your teams already know about the Known Solutions that have already been developed, and how large of a gap they have to close to extend this knowledge into a new product. Ask your teams to prepare a “concept paper” that describes where the team will leverage available knowledge, and where the knowledge they need doesn’t yet exist. This should not take a lot of time — a week’s timebox is enough to search the Knowledge Library, interview experts and summarize the findings in a short paper of no more than five pages.
- Build professional networks. Professional networks, like internal “Birds of a Feather” groups, bring together experts working in related areas to support the creation, capture and use of reusable knowledge. These groups build trusted relationships that help individuals identify opportunities to leverage knowledge — and as the members gain trust, they give each others’ reusable knowledge more credit. They provide a forum where members can share their knowledge to boost all four elements of reusability, and the discussions generate ideas for specific ways that the knowledge could be leveraged.
It’s Easier to Leverage Knowledge Within a Community of Professionals
Everything we’ve described here is a lot easier if you are working within a community of your peers. You have the opportunity to build relationships that make it easier to reach out to the people who have the knowledge you need, and the community gains the ability to recognize the knowledge that needs to be built, and the areas where knowledge from one place can be extended into another.
If you have a good story about Rapid Learning Cycles — whether it worked, didn’t work, or needed adaptation — I hope you consider contributing a case study to share what you’ve learned about Rapid Learning Cycles. All of the teams using Rapid Learning Cycles now will be able to learn from these stories via the Rapid Learning Cycles Certified™ Professionals community, and all future users will benefit from improvements to our training and support materials.
That will only happen if we ensure that all of the elements are there to support reuse and extension: understandable, believable, actionable and generalized. We’ll do our part to ensure that your story delivers value through extensible knowledge.
- Spot Check: Rapid Learning Cycles for Deep Tech and Early-Stage Startups
- Effective Knowledge Creation Requires Trust
- Too Many Key Decisions or Knowledge Gaps?