Tuesday, March 11, 2003

But what did you do wrong?

Come On, Share Your Mistakes. During last year’s Energy Law Institute, Christian E. Liipfert, Managing Attorney, Special Projects and Transactions, at BP America Inc., presented his paper “Knowledge Management within a Multi-location, Multi-discipline Legal Function.” As in-house counsel, Mr. Liipfert knows all too well the problems inherent in managing knowledge among lawyers within a multinational corporation like BP.

One of Liipfert’s most important points is the importance of not only making mistakes, but also sharing mistakes with colleagues. Knowledge sharing is successful when partners point out the “mistakes” of inexperienced associates. Difficulty arises, however, when a partnership hires lateral partners. In this situation, a newly hired lateral partner will be less receptive to hearing an existing partner point out his mistakes. [excited utterances]

Before commenting, let me just say that Joy is on a roll. Not sure who her sources are, but she is consistently finding better links to critical scholarship on KM in services firms than I’ve seen anywhere else. Hope she’s getting paid well at her new gig…

Anyway, I had a real-word example of this last month. I’m in the process of finishing my basement. (For those that know me: yes, this is, um, surprising. My family is a lot of things. Friendly with power tools was not one of those things.) I’ve never worked on a project of this scope – when completed, it will add about 700 square feet to our house.

Fortunately, a friend of mine is a contractor in town. He came over on a Saturday morning and took me to Home Depot. Showed me which supplies I’d need, helped me pick out the metal studs, track, etc. He lent me some tools, including the .22 caliber Remington nailgun for driving the track into the cement foundation – and then proceeded to teach me what I needed to know to get started. He showed me just enough to be self-sufficient. And I figure he saved me about three weeks of frustration in the process.

Because he shared with me mistakes he’d made throughout his experience, he was able to help me figure out how to develop my own style without having to make the same mistakes. My work was the better for it – all because I wasn’t afraid to make a mistake and because I knew which ones to avoid.

It seems to me that’s a basic element of successfully transferring knowledge.

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