Coaching the 21st Century Workforce

For Michael Hill, there’s no puzzle he hasn’t wanted to solve. From his twenty-five year career doing systems interoperability in the Navy, to his work teaching knowledge management to organizations, being able to find the heart of a problem motivates him to succeed. Michael blends decades of theory and practice to dig into the complexity of knowledge management while keeping the human element at the top of his mind.

When People and Machines Come Together

Knowledge management is often thought of as a process of storing records, content, and data, but Michael is most passionate about helping people find ways to effectively transfer deep expertise and develop ways to explore for new knowledge. He bases his teaching on theory and practice, then uses it to guide his instruction based on unique needs of a group. A particular challenge is finding ways to make knowledge transfer "sticky," but his systems interoperability background comes in handy. Technology and infrastructure may intend to work together a certain way, but when you add people into the mix things become more complex.

“I’ve come to see that most knowledge management programs fail because they’re interested in codifying content,” Michael says. “You often don’t know what you know until you’re in need of the context for you to know it.” Simply put, even if people wanted to they can’t dump knowledge into a database because they often don’t know what they know without being in the context where they need to know it. The best they may do, with practice and assistance, is develop and refine a mental model of how they apply their expertise. When training, people learn the model best if they ‘build it’, so finding the right way for people to gain experiences faster, building and applying it themselves, is a more powerful method for the complicated and complex types of knowledge needed by most organizations.

Coalition Building

In order to assist others with knowledge management, Michael first had to gain a deeper understanding of himself. Michael is an introvert and the social aspect of teaching is something he’s had to overcome. He modifies his approach depending on the group, attending to one person at a time to form rapport and help himself focus. Michael brings that same mindset when instructing leaders on how to solve the human aspect of knowledge management. “When you add people into your interoperability or knowledge management, you can’t change the people, but you can change the connections between people to change how they interact.”

To build a coalition, Michael recommends respecting the individuality of each team member and changing the environment in which a problem exists. He says leaders should include indirect and naive approaches to complex issues, probing to look for better emergent patterns, then amplify those patterns. For complex problems, allowing a person to explain their difficulties can open an opportunity to learn from one another. Instead of trying to tackle a complex, inter-related problem all at once, altering little elements of it can move you closer to your goals while you observe for new possibilities. To do that, you have to understand the granular details of your organization, people, and systems.

Technology as a Tool, Not a Replacement

Technology has lifted some of the burden of manual knowledge management, but Michael cautions against letting the machine do all the work. Most organizations start with automation but forget to include and really think through the impact on their employees in the process. These two things must work together for success. This can be especially tricky when it comes to knowledge sharing in the digital age. Michael compares most automation efforts to removing the middle rungs on a ladder.

If an organization follows an old way of doing things, they may have automated the skills needed to move novices up the ladder. As older workers retire, they take their knowledge with them, leaving less experienced workers stranded with no way to reach mastery. In the same way, he credits many others who have helped him up the ladder in interoperability and knowledge management. Along his knowledge management journey, he would particularly credit the work of Dave Snowden, Simon Sinek, Stephen Denning, Dan Roam, and Sidney Dekker. Training, transparency, and a shared language all help everyone work together toward common milestones.

Defining the New Normal

Michael sees the present disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic as a chance to get thinkers together and challenge how we stay organized in this chaotic domain. Although there is a desire to return to normal, he recommends not using the status quo as a business model for the future. With the addition of elements like working from home and using new technologies to the way we operate, people must work toward where they want to be instead of looking back on where they’ve been.

To learn more about Michael, visit his LinkedIn page.

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