Knowledge Management: are you trying to capture Lionel Messi?

Knowledge Management: are you trying to capture Lionel Messi?

All Knowledge Management or Learning and Development programmes should be looking to capture, share, re-use and develop existing high-performance know-how for the greater good.

Sounds sensible, but, in my experience, there is one singular challenge that is missed by Knowledge Management and Learning & Development professionals; it isn’t about what the individual or team knows, it’s about the way that they apply what they know in a given situation. More than this, focusing on capturing singular know-how of the individual, in the hope of replicating high-performance is, arguably, a waste of time.

Knowledge Management: do KMers and Learning & development professionals set out to capture/share know-how when what they are really attracted to is 'skill'?

Think about someone you know who is an exceptional performer. She or he stands out because they do things differently, they are seen as ‘excellent’ and differentiate themselves from the norm through higher levels of operational efficiency/effectiveness. Knowledge Managers and Learning & Development professionals become attracted to people like this, seeing them as a target for improving the performance of those around them. Analysis is carried out to determine what this individual knows, what training they have had and how they do things, in the hope of replicating these attributes via development programmes or recruitment strategies. However, the challenge here is that the secret is not in what these high-performers know, it’s in the way that they do it (use/share/store/develop what they know).

Think about an exceptional sportsperson from any point in history – for me, it has to be Kenny Dalglish [yes, I’m a Liverpool fan…runs for cover]. For me, a modern example would be Lionel Messi. Many other players across the world will have the same situational (positional) requirements, the same level of base technical, psychological, tactical physiological requirements (acceptable levels of quality for entry to a given team in a given league) as Messi. However, the high-performance exception, the benchmark of excellence, Messi, can apply all of these factors under pressure (i.e. in a competitive situation), better than the vast majority of his peers.

Think about Messi’s level of excellence, how many others can compete at that level? Many could be revered as being high-quality, but only one other player with similar levels of excellence springs to mind, Cristiano Ronaldo. The skill they have is the limiting factor for all those who seek to emulate them. What I am talking about here is an exceptional level of skill (excellence over quality), but what is ‘skill’?

Skill = the application of knowledge under pressure

The problem for an organisational perspective is that people can learn from Messi, but they will never be Messi. Excellent high-performers, such as Messi, can influence and enrol people into a belief system (e.g. methods for improving efficiency/effectiveness). However, never mind how hard Knowledge Management or Learning & development professionals try, they will never get others to replicate the levels of performance being delivered by the outlier. Why, because others do not have the skill, the secret mix of competencies, required to apply the know-how and achieve the same level of ‘excellent’ performance. Put simply, their lack of ability to apply what they know under pressure limits their level of performance; the individual might improve their level of quality, but they will never become excellent.

Just to be clear, I am not for one minute suggesting that people can not learn from such outliers. But I do get concerned when I hear of development/Knowledge Management programmes that focus on replicating high-performance without realising that the secret is hidden in a holistic mix of skill that is generally hidden from view.  In other words, do Knowledge Managers and Learning & development professionals set out to capture/share know-how when what they are really attracted to is ‘skill’?

A closing thought for you to consider: If Lionel Messi was leaving your organisation what would you do?

  1. Would you spend an inordinate amount of time and expense capturing what he knows (e.g. a series of exit interviews and performance analysis) – much of what Messi knows being unknown to him (e.g. a high level of automaticity means that he wouldn’t even be aware of what he does under pressure, it just happens)?
  2. Or would you work with the people around him, giving them the time and scaffolding (e.g. learning frameworks) to observe, question and experiment, based their observations and limitations, in a safe-to-fail environment to marginally increase their own performance? The outcome being that marginal gains across a network amplify to exceed the sum of its parts, creating high-level output gains.

3 thoughts on “Knowledge Management: are you trying to capture Lionel Messi?

  1. I think this is an interesting comment that goes back to Polanyi’s ‘tacit knowledge’ concept that perhaps indicates the uniqueness of what you refer to as a combination of skills applied in specific contexts to the marvel of others! In terms of your final question… perhaps a realistic view of what is impartable / transferable / shareable / learnable is the key as to how to best tackle a ‘Messi leaving’ situation 🙂

  2. Excellent article. Reminds me of stories I tell around, linked to tacit knowledge e.g. a great chef can tell and show you how to prepare and cook something but the actual implementation or doing required skill. Likewise a martial artist may have studied techniques and sparring for many years, but implementing or effectively doing the techniques in a real fight situation requires skill. As David indicated, such skill is complex and cannot be easily replicated .

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