Bulletin of the World Health Organization

‘Learning to Fly’ in a world of information overload

The Bulletin interview with Geoff Parcell.

Geoff Parcell
(Credit: S. Parcell)
Geoff Parcell

Geoff Parcell graduated in physics at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom in 1972, and has been a Master Practitioner of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) for the last six years. He joined British Petroleum (BP) in 1974 as a geophysicist and explored for oil in many countries in Latin America, Asia and the Pacific. From 1990 to 1996 he was involved in managing change within BP by reducing IT spending and improving staff development and planning. In 1997 he joined BP’s Knowledge Management team whose work involved encouraging the sharing of knowledge in the workplace and creating the right collaborative environment. In 2003, he was seconded to UNAIDS for 18 months. He left BP this year to become an independent consultant.

Why can’t we use the knowledge we have more effectively? Why can’t we always find the knowledge we need for our work? If only employers could tap into and use the expertise of their staff better. These challenges are key to Geoff Parcell’s recent work with WHO as practitioner of knowledge management. Parcell, the co-author of a best-selling book on knowledge management called Learning to Fly, told the Bulletin that his work at WHO focuses on connecting people more than capturing knowledge. He believes that working in teams and creating new knowledge together can be a powerful way to work.

Q: What is knowledge management?

A: It’s mainly common sense. Every time we send an email, talk to one another or pick up the phone we are sharing knowledge with one another. Paradoxically, you can’t manage knowledge, but you can create an environment where knowledge flows easily. For me, it’s less important to capture all the knowledge we have and it’s more important to be connected to the people who have the knowledge. When I am planning a vacation, I can go to a travel agent and watch a TV programme. But if you talk to a person who has been there, you can ask them everything you need to know. That’s when knowledge flows easily because you get the knowledge you want.

Q: Why do we need help to make knowledge flow more easily? Why do you think staff at WHO are not communicating properly with each other?

A: Imagine what we could achieve if all of us knew what each of us knows. But people are driven by their own focus and priorities. Where you have a common goal it’s much easier to help one another get there. It’s like sailing. If a crew of people sailing are all going in different directions, they won’t get anywhere. If you are very clear on which port you are trying to reach, even when you have done your task you are quite happy to help someone achieve theirs. At WHO, on occasions it seems that some people have lost sight of the fact they are trying to improve world health and reduce mortality, and their publication or report becomes an end in itself.

Q: How do you change this mentality?

A: When working on the response to AIDS [at UNAIDS] I found that if we started with the assumption that local communities have strengths, and that if you listen to them you learn something from them, then they feel good about what they are doing and do more of it and they are more willing to learn from you. Some agencies go in thinking advocacy is the only tool. The private sector has had to train its leaders to move from a role of being answer man to someone who leads and facilitates the conversation. That shift is happening at WHO, but not fast enough.

Q: How can that shift take place faster and what are you doing to encourage it at WHO?

A: First to acknowledge that the shift needs to happen, then take yourself out of the role of expert and put yourself in the role of connector. If we start with the assumption that someone has already done what I am about to do, let’s talk and compare experiences, pool our ideas, learn from that and do something better than we have done before.

Q: At what level in the hierarchy should this process of change start?

A: At BP it started with country managers — a high level of acknowledgement that gave the signal to staff to spend time sharing knowledge. In BP business unit leaders were given 20% of their money for the overall results of the business not just to their business unit, so that drove them to spend up to 20% of their time helping other business units. Most people are rewarded by acknowledgement from their peers.

Q: How does this apply to WHO?

A: When we construct programmes at WHO, we can build on what has been done in the past: what are the lessons, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked and then move forward. There are lots of people in this organization who are keen to share and have something to share but feel their voice isn’t being heard. If they start sharing that creates a new pressure. Before access to computers, middle managers were the aggregators of knowledge and provided a summary to the boss. Perhaps WHO needs to reconsider whether there has to be a middle manager. That means the top managers are listening directly to those who know. In BP’s leadership philosophy, top managers give direction, set boundaries, provide space and offer support, but they don’t tell you what to do.

“It’s less important to capture all the knowledge we have and it’s more important to be connected to the people who have the knowledge.”