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Learning to Fly - Book Review

1 April 2007
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

Prominent figures such as Nonaka, Davenport, Prusak, David, and Snowden are frequently cited in the knowledge management discipline. Collison and Purcell, former colleagues in the knowledge management team at British Petroleum (BP), have authored a book deserving careful examination and reading despite the authors' anonymity.

The duo outlines practical methodologies for knowledge management in a well-written and easily understandable book enriched with examples from their experiences at BP and other organizations. The first edition, along with additional content in the second edition published in 2004, presents their doctrines on balancing the development of new knowledge and sharing existing knowledge, managing individuals with knowledge versus managing knowledge items, and more. This article will explore the methodologies, focusing on those with a distinctive implementation approach. We highly recommend delving into the complete book, which provides method descriptions, practical tips, and demonstrations. Here are glimpses of the topics covered in the book:


When faced with a business problem, the authors propose two crucial questions:

  1. What do others know?

  2. What information is available?

These questions guide the exploration of both human and computerized networks, working in tandem to provide pertinent knowledge. Written information serves as a foundation, leveraging existing knowledge, while the human network complements the shared information, capturing nuances and valuable insights between the lines. The approach transcends managing knowledge items or knowledgeable individuals, advocating for a continuous integration of both aspects.


Understanding Knowledge and Knowledge Management

To grasp the essence of knowledge management, the authors turn to the definition of knowledge in the Oxford English Dictionary: "Knowledge is a sense of familiarity and closeness achieved through experience." In some instances, personal experience is necessary to acquire knowledge, while in others, we are content with someone else sharing their experienced insights. Leveraging another's knowledge depends on our familiarity and trust with them. Trust is a pivotal concept for successful knowledge management, resonating throughout the book, particularly in discussions about knowledge management tools.

  • Know-how is the compilation of actions, processes, methods, and tools used to execute an action.

  • Know-Why encompasses strategic insights, delving into the rationale behind values guiding our actions.

  • What involves the facts essential for completing a task?

  • Knowing entails understanding connections, contacts, communication authority, and who to contact for assistance.

  • Know-where is the ability some possess to navigate, orient, and locate the correct information.

  • Know refers to the sense of time – understanding when the timing is right to take action, decide, or cease an existing activity.

Knowledge management revolves around the reuse and learning of knowledge. Utilizing knowledge requires comprehending the necessary information and determining the optimal way to make it accessible to employees. Knowledge creation, a more intricate process, involves learning before, during, and after actions, serving as a tool for achieving business results.

Preparation of the Infrastructure

What are the five essential keys to success in establishing the environment for change management?

  1. Secure management's commitment by planning to achieve and maintain commitment, creating visibility.

  2. Analyze sponsorship and develop an intra-organizational communication plan (marketing).

  3. Attain "quick victories" that are tangible, symbolic, and enduring.

  4. Establish a balanced set of metrics and goals guiding progress toward the vision and desired outcomes.

  5. Plan knowledge management activities to effect real change and integrate them into the organization's operational routine.

Where and how do you initiate knowledge management?

  1. Where? At the core of the business.

  2. How?

    a.Begin with a simple task.

    b. Plan the subsequent steps, focusing on actual knowledge management tools.

    c. Prioritize.

Collison and Purcell share seven practical rules employed in managing BP's knowledge. This summary provides an overview, and the book and the accompanying CD contain additional valuable materials elucidating the implementation process.

Mapping Knowledge Needs – a Self-Assessment Tool for Identifying Potential Knowledge Sharers

Self-Assessment Process:

  1. Document the skills (practices) comprising roles in various units, fostering a common language.

  2. Evaluate each unit for each skill on a scale from 1 (limited knowledge) to 5 (extensive knowledge).

  3. Define prioritized goals for improvement based on skill relevance, outlining desired knowledge levels.

  4. Visually present the results using a river graph.

The outcomes include:

  1. Identifying areas requiring knowledge management in each unit through voting.

  2. Recognizing collaboration opportunities between units, highlighting strengths.

Note: This process can also be conducted within a unit, not solely between units.

Learning Before: Peer Assistance

Peer assistance, as the name implies, is a tool that encourages colleagues from different units within the organization to share knowledge derived from their past experiences in a specific knowledge domain. Peer Assistance involves a team seeking knowledge support, particularly when embarking on a new project or activity. The effective use of this tool requires careful planning, including:


  1. Clarification of purpose and communication.

  2. Examination of whether another unit or team has previously addressed the issue.

  3. Identifying a liaison and coordinator to lead the peer assistance process, ensuring goal achievement.

  4. Decision on the appropriate timing and scheduling of a peer assistance meeting (often done belatedly).

  5. The selection of assistants, often identified through the Self-Assessment process mentioned earlier, indicates units with complementary knowledge.

  6. Coordination of expectations with those providing assistance to define the desired outputs.

  7. Socialization between partners (facilitators and facilitators) to foster trust and openness to learning.

The Meeting Itself (typically a two-day session divided into four equal segments):

  1. Introduction: Goal setting and establishment of etiquette/conduct.

  2. Sunday/Half Sunday: The group seeking assistance narrates the activity's story, covering its history, context, and plans.

  3. Sunday/Half Monday: Helpful colleagues ask questions and provide feedback.

  4. Monday/Half Sunday: Analysis and reflection on the learned aspects, led by assisting colleagues.

  5. Monday/Half Monday: Presentation of peer feedback and consensus on the steps to be taken.

Learning as You Go

After Action Review (AAR)

The After Action Review (AAR) is a widely accepted learning and lesson-learning technique originating in the US military, despite its name suggesting a post-event approach. This method stands out for its simplicity and flexibility, allowing for reviews during the process and not just afterward. Its beauty lies in its adaptability to different groups and needs. The method involves addressing four main questions:

  1. What was supposed to happen (what did we expect)?

  2. What happened?

  3. Why were there gaps?

  4. What can we learn from here for the future?

It is highly recommended that AAR scans be conducted close to the occurrence or, in the case of events spanning several days, even at the end of each day.

Learning After: A Second Look – Retrospect

A Second Look is a post-event learning approach that focuses on extracting lessons. In contrast to AAR, which occurs at the end of a stage, a Second Look takes place after the entire process, whether it's a project, war, or another comprehensive activity. Learning unfolds through a meeting, lasting from a few hours to a few days, with critical components including:

  1. Re-examination of the goals and outputs of the activity.

  2. What went well? Why? Repeatedly probing this question.

  3. What could have gone better? Why? Repeatedly exploring this question.

The book provides insights on conducting such a meeting, covering aspects such as summoning participants and selecting a moderator, allocating time for each participant, encouraging participation, and documenting the meeting.

Knowledge Management Owners

Expert Map - Who's Who

The significance of managing lists of knowledgeable individuals cannot be overstated. Knowledge bases are inherently limited in scope and relevance. To successfully establish an expert map, the authors highlight several key points:

  1. Emphasize that the system complements personnel systems rather than replacing them.

  2. Include personal information such as hobbies, motto, informal image, etc.

  3. Create personal pages for each knowledgeable person, blending structured and open elements.

  4. Assist those interested and facing difficulties in writing.

  5. Integrate the system into work processes.

  6. Link information items to the knowledge holders who created them.

Linking the Knowledgeable:


Networking can take various forms, including mapping knowledge partners and utilizing tools mentioned in this article. Another essential tool for connecting knowledge holders is the community, which can be human (face-to-face meetings) and virtual (collaborative knowledge sites).

Establishing trust among community members is crucial for success, and the authors delve into supporting tools for building trust. This includes selecting a common name for the team, reinforcing the sense of belonging ("club"), and facilitating discussions. The authors stress the importance of establishing and preserving the community.

Success factors for communities encompass:

  1. Appointing a leader to manage the community.

  2. Ensuring sponsorship.

  3. Demarcating subjects where expertise is decentralized but related.

  4. Implementing computerized mechanisms for simple and continuous connection.

  5. Conducting face-to-face meetings to foster mutual acquaintance among community members.

  6. Defining guidelines and rules for community conduct, including performance expectations.

  7. Managing an autonomous, proactive community that adds value and saves time.

Managing Knowledge Details:

Capturing Knowledge Assets

At first glance, capturing knowledge may seem tied to comprehensive documentation and document management, but this tool presents a nuanced difference. The objective is to identify each section's 10-20 critical knowledge assets. The significance of this process is exemplified in the book through a story involving a general from an elite unit in the US Army. Faced with an unprecedented challenge, the general efficiently gathered all required information within four hours, effectively addressing the crisis.

The library of knowledge pockets can be organized as local stories, constituting the ten crucial pieces of knowledge for each topic and a global layer above them, based on similar patterns from local stories.

Guidelines for constructing the knowledge asset database include:

  1. Assessing the need: determining if there is a knowledge consumer.

  2. Defining the property: focused, business-related, and well-defined.

  3. Linking to a knowledge community for ongoing updates.

  4. Locating ready-made initial materials.

  5. Creating context to understand the "big picture" and facilitate use.

  6. Building a checklist for item collection.

  7. Connecting to knowledgeable individuals (e.g., from an expert map).

  8. Validating the constructed content.

  9. Promoting the knowledge asset.

  10. Regular maintenance, receiving feedback on quality, and defining supporting processes.

Manage Your Knowledge Items:

Capture Knowledge Before Individual Departure

Capturing knowledge from individuals is crucial, especially during retirement processes and role transitions. The authors outline five critical steps for knowledge capture from individuals:

  1. Identification of the knowledge to be transferred.

  2. Development of a plan for capturing and transmitting knowledge.

  3. Conducting interviews with knowledgeable individuals.

  4. Publishing the personal knowledge asset.

  5. Providing contact information for the knowledgeable.


Knowledge management is a complex field, challenging to initiate within a new group and equally challenging to transition responsibility for knowledge management. While many tools in this book may be familiar, there are innovative approaches, some of which have already succeeded in specific organizations. The book not only describes the tools but also provides valuable implementation tips. This comprehensive model facilitates the integration of tools for managing knowledge items with those for managing knowledgeable individuals, emphasizing the connection between them.

The book has received acclaim from prominent figures in knowledge management, reinforcing its significance in the field. In our humble position, we join the list of those praising the book and recommend reading it. Happy reading!

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