April 17, 2008

Staffing is a KM Issue

We've been told for years that half of the battle of management (of any sort) is to ensure that you hire the right people for the right jobs. When you do, there's no need to supervise them obsessively or breathe down their necks. This is because they generally know what needs to be done and, more importantly, want to do what needs to be done. So your objectives and theirs are perfectly aligned.

Now we have a stunning example of what happens when a particular job is perfectly matched to the skills and temperament of an employee. The case in point has to do with software testing -- a task that few creative genius code writers like to do. As a result, we're told that far too much software gets implemented before the bugs are found and fixed. This results in unnecessary cost and unnecessary end-user abuse.

The Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge has published a summary of a fascinating case study, entitled "A Surprising Right Fit for Software Testing," focusing on an innovative Danish company, Specialisterne. This company carries out software testing on behalf of other organizations that have written the code and need to be sure it is ready to implement. The company undertakes testing that its clients cannot do simply or inexpensively using available automated testing methods. Specialisterne's strength is that unlike most IT organizations, its employees have a special gift that allows them to excel at testing: 75% of its employees have Asperger's syndrome or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Software testing involves tasks code writers might describe as repetitive or tedious. Their prejudice aside, these tasks in fact require "high intelligence, precision-oriented skills, deep concentration, and patience" all of which sometimes accompany Asperger's or ASD.

The study, Specialisterne: Sense & Details, is a wonderful example of how careful hiring and staffing can have an enormously positive impact on the quality of the work done. Specialisterne's testing is more thorough than that undertaken half-heartedly by code writers or other software specialists who would rather be doing anything other than testing. Moreover, through careful hiring and staffing, Specialisterne is able to deploy people who have a predisposition to enjoy the work they do.

So why is this a KM issue? To be fair, it's an issue for every discipline. However, knowledge management seems particularly prone to failure in this regard given the wide range of KM job descriptions, and the fact that KM jobs often shapeshift mid course. Further, very few KM jobs involve conveyor-belt type tasks. Often they require deep substantive knowledge, flexibility, a willingness to operate in ambiguity, the ability to absorb, process and connect seemingly unconnected information, the gift of establishing order from chaos, and superior interpersonal skills. And if you hire someone who doesn't have the right skills and temperament, they either don't last or they stay and compromise your knowledge management systems by their deficiencies.

Drawing on the experience of Specialisterne, I wonder what type of person makes the best knowledge manager?

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