ABCs of KMFeatured StoriesKM in small & medium enterprises (SMEs)

Effective lessons learned capture for small & medium enterprises

This article is part of a series looking at knowledge management (KM) in small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

As highlighted in previous RealKM Magazine articles, “lessons learned” approaches are an important aspect of knowledge management (KM). These approaches facilitate learning from past mistakes or difficulties, with the aim of preventing such problems in the future.

However, as a conference paper1 presenting some of the findings from a research project funded by the UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) alerts, much of the KM attention has been focused on large organisations, rather than small & medium enterprises (SMEs). This is despite the KM constraints faced by SMEs, which include:

  • inability to fund long-term and risky knowledge management programs
  • weaknesses in specialized technological competencies
  • limited investment in training and education.

With the situation of SMEs in mind, the research project adopted a simple but robust approach to assist SMEs to capture their learning experiences. Two key lessons capture tools were identified and successfully trialed in a construction industry SME: storytelling through audio diaries, and debriefing. Both of these tools were supported by information technology (IT) infrastructure.

Storytelling through audio diaries

The researchers advise that knowledge transfer is ultimately a human-to-human process, and this process is inherently interactive and dynamic. Because of this, storytelling was chosen as the key form of knowledge transfer for the project, with stories conveying not only information but also meaning and knowledge.

The stories were captured using audio diaries. A diary is a record of events, maintained by someone over time, which can then be accessed and analyzed. In a SME, a diary provides an opportunity to record experiences, perceptions, and feelings about daily operations relatively soon after they have occurred. Diaries can be written or oral. Written diaries require writing skills and time for composition, which can act as barriers, especially to SME organisations. Audio dairies on the other hand can overcome these shortcomings and can be used in a manner similar to written diaries.

Debriefing

Debriefing was originally used in the military to question and examine people who had returned from mission or exercise, to establish what had occurred and then develop new strategies as a result of experiences. However, in the present day context, debriefing refers to a purposeful reflection which assists people to transform experiences into learning. Through debriefings, several individual lessons can also be aggregated, validated, and synthesized to produce organizational learning.

Debriefing is more straightforward for SMEs than other lessons learned review approaches such as the after action review (AAR).

IT infrastructure

IT infrastructure supported the audio diaries and debriefing. A website was created where users were able to record an event diary or conduct an online debriefing.

In the event diary section of the website, users were given the option to listen to events recorded by their colleagues, record an event orally using the audio diary, or key in an event which they have encountered in the process of their work. The audio diaries were created using the Rosoft Audio Recorder, but any mobile phone or computer voice recorder application could potentially be used. The audio diaries recorded by users were categorized under three broad areas: relational, technical, and operational. Users were able to click onto relevant topics to listen to an event recorded by their colleagues.

In the debriefing section of the website, users can engage in an online debriefing by answering a series of debriefing questions in text boxes. When submitted, the answers were added to a  database. As with the audio event diaries, the database can be queried.

Limitations

It needs to be noted that the reported research project findings have focused primarily on effective lesson capture for SMEs, and not how the captured learnings can then be effectively analyzed, accessed, and applied.

Because of this, it is recommended that these lesson capture research findings are considered in conjunction with the research findings summarized in the other articles in the RealKM Magazine series on knowledge management (KM) in small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Reference:

  1. Lee, C. C., Egbu, C. O., Boyd, D., Xiao, H., & Chinyo, E. (2005). Knowledge management for small medium enterprises: capturing and communicating learning and experiences. Paper presented at Triennial CIB W99 Safety Health Environment Quality Conference, 17–20 May 2005, Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
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Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes (www.bruceboyes.info) is editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (www.realkm.com), and a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and project management professional. He is a PhD candidate in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research, and holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction. His expertise and experience includes knowledge management (KM), environmental management, project management, stakeholder engagement, teaching and training, communications, research, and writing and editing. With a demonstrated ability to identify and implement innovative solutions to social and ecological complexity, Bruce's many career highlights include establishing RealKM Magazine as an award-winning resource, using agile and knowledge management approaches to oversee an award-winning $77.4 million western Sydney river recovery program, leading a knowledge strategy process for Australia's 56 natural resource management (NRM) regional organisations, pioneering collaborative learning and governance approaches to support the sustainable management of landscapes and catchments, and initiating and teaching two new knowledge management subjects at Shanxi University in China.

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