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Balancing Act: Capturing Knowledge Without Killing It

Process-based reengineering and practice-based knowledge management are profoundly different, say Xerox PARC's John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. But rather than choose between them, successful managers need to strike a balance. It's a delicate art, they say; one that begins with "knowing what you know."

Balancing Act

"Process and practice," write John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, "do not represent rival views of the organization. Rather, they reflect the creative tension at the center of innovative organizations."

The manager's challenge, they say, is to keep both approaches in view at the same time. "For in the delicate art of balancing practice and process lies the means both to foster invention—by allowing new ideas to spark—and to further it—by implementing those same ideas."

Here, Brown and Duguid show how processes that support how people work can benefit from new perspectives on what they already know.

Knowing What You Know
Identifying a company's best practices is not easy, for a couple of reasons. First, there's a large gap between what a task looks like in a process manual and what it looks like in reality. Second, there's a gap between what people think they do and what they really do. Actual work practices are full of tacit improvisations that the employees who carry them out would have trouble articulating. The manager who wishes to understand the company's best practices must bridge both of those gaps.

To illustrate the difficulty of identifying best practices, we'll look at the customer service representatives who fix Xerox machines. From the process perspective, a rep's work can be described quickly. Customers having difficulty call the Customer Service Center. The center, in turn, notifies a rep. He or she then goes to the customer's site. With the help of error codes, which report the machine's state, and documentation, which says what those codes mean, the rep diagnoses the problem and follows instructions for fixing it. Practice here would seem to involve little more than following the map you are given and doing whatever it tells you to do.

It would seem that way, if someone hadn't bothered to look more closely. Julian Orr, formerly an anthropologist at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), studied what reps actually did, not what they were assumed to do. And what they actually did turned out to be quite different from the process we've just described. The reps' work is organized by business processes, without a doubt. But they succeed primarily by departing from formal processes; those processes followed to the letter would soon bring their work (and their clients' work) to a halt.

For example, the company's documented repair processes assume that machines work predictably. Yet large machines, made up of multiple subsystems, are not so predictable. Each reflects the age and condition of its parts, the particular way it's used, and the environment in which it sits, which may be hot, cold, damp, dry, clean, dusty, secluded, in traffic, or otherwise. Any single machine may have profound idiosyncrasies. Reps know the machines they work with, Orr suggests, as shepherds know their sheep. While everyone else assumes one machine is like the next, a rep knows each by its peculiarities and sorts out general failings from particular ones.

Consequently, although the documentation gives the reps a map, the critical question for them is what to do when they fall off the map—which they do all the time. Orr found a simple answer to that question. When the path leads off the map, the reps go . . . to breakfast.

When the Going Gets Tough.
Orr began his account of the reps' day not where the process view begins—at nine o'clock, when the first call comes in—but at breakfast beforehand, where the reps share and even generate new insights into these difficult machines. Orr found that a quick breakfast can be worth hours of training. While eating, playing cribbage, and gossiping, the reps talked work, and talked it continually. They posed questions, raised problems, offered solutions, constructed answers, laughed at mistakes, and discussed changes in their work, the machines, and customer relations. Both directly and indirectly, they kept one another up to date about what they knew, what they'd learned, and what they were doing.

The reps' group breakfast shows that work goes on that formal processes don't capture. But it shows more. It demonstrates that a job that seems highly independent on paper is in reality remarkably social. Reps get together not only at the parts drop and the customer service center but also on their own time for breakfast, at lunch, for coffee, or at the end of the day—and sometimes at all of those times. This sociability is not just a retreat from the loneliness of an isolating job. The constant chatting is similar to the background updating that goes on all the time in any ordinary work site.

There, too, chatting usually passes unnoticed unless someone objects to it as a waste of time. But it's not. Orr showed that the reps use one another as their most critical resources. In the course of socializing, the reps develop a collective pool of practical knowledge that any one of them can draw upon. That pool transcends any individual member's knowledge, and it certainly transcends the corporation's documentation. Each rep contributes to the pool, drawing from his or her own particular strengths, which the others recognize and rely on. Collectively, the local groups constitute a community of practice. (For a detailed description, see "Communities of Practice: The Organizational Frontier," HBR January-February 2000.)

Storytelling. Much of the knowledge that exists within working groups like the one formed by our Xerox reps comes from their war stories. The constant storytelling about problems and solutions, about disasters and triumphs over breakfast, lunch, and coffee serves a number of overlapping purposes. Stories are good at presenting things sequentially (this happened, then that). Stories also present things causally (this happened because of that). Thus stories are a powerful way to understand what happened (the sequence of events) and why (the causes and effects of those events). Storytelling is particularly useful for the reps, for whom "what" and "why" are critical but often hard matters to discern.

We all tell stories this way. Economists tell stories in their models. Scientists tell stories in their experiments. Executives tell stories in their business plans (see "Strategic Stories: How 3M Is Rewriting Business Planning," HBR May-June 1998). Storytelling helps us discover something new about the world. It allows us to pass that discovery on to others. And finally, it helps the people who share the story develop a common outlook. Orr found that war stories give the reps a shared framework for interpretation that allows them to collaborate even though the formal processes assume they are working independently.

Improvisation. Not all of the reps' problems can be solved over breakfast or by storytelling alone. Experimentation and improvisation are essential, too. One day, Orr observed a rep working with a particularly difficult machine. It had been installed recently, but it had never worked satisfactorily. Each time it failed, it produced a different error message. Following the established process for each particular message—replacing or adjusting parts—didn't fix the overall problem. And collectively the messages made no sense.

Having reached his limits, the rep summoned a specialist. The specialist could not understand what was going on, either. So the two spent the afternoon cycling the machine again and again, waiting for its intermittent crashes and recording its state when it did. At the same time, they cycled stories about similar-looking problems round and round until they, too, crashed up against this particular machine. The afternoon resembled a series of alternating improvisational jazz solos, as each man took the lead, ran with it for a little while, then handed it off to the other, this all against the bass-line continuo of the rumbling machine.

In the course of this practice, the two gradually brought their separate ideas closer together toward a shared understanding of the machine. Eventually, late in the day, everything clicked. The machine's erratic behavior, the experience of the two technicians, and the stories they told finally formed a single, coherent account. They made sense of the machine and worked out how to fix it. And the solution quickly became part of the community lore, passed around for others in their group to use if they encountered the same problem.

As Orr's study shows, executives who want to identify and foster best practices must pay very close attention to the practices as they occur in reality rather than as they are represented in documentation or process designs. Otherwise, they will miss the tacit knowledge produced in improvisation, shared through storytelling, and embedded in the communities that form around those activities. Does that mean process has no importance in this context? Of course not. But the processes that support how people work should be deeply informed by how they already work—not imposed from above by process designers who imagine they understand the work better than they actually do. Armed with a sense of what really happens on the ground, it's possible to design processes that prompt improvisation rather than ones that are blindly prescriptive.

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Excerpted from the article "Balancing Act: How to Capture Knowledge Without Killing It" in the Harvard Business Review, May-June 2000.

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John Seely Brown is chief scientist at Xerox and director of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Paul Duguid is a historian and social theorist affiliated with the University of California at Berkeley and Xerox PARC. This article is adapted from their book The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business School Press, March 2000).

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