This blog follows on from Developing a learning culture in your SAP technology team – Part 1 where I described the challenge of reinvigorating an SAP technology team with a culture of learning.
Here I outline the most successful aspect of our efforts to confront this challenge .. the use of knowledge building sessions. Note the discussion here is in the context of a real life SAP development and integration team, however many of the concepts could be applied to other teams.
Not Brown Bags!
Let me say this upfront …. knowledge building sessions are NOT brown bags. I was introduced to the term ‘brown bags’ when I worked in San Francisco for a year in the mid-1990s. It described lunch time sessions (typically Fridays) when someone presented on some topic of interest. The ‘brown bags’ denoted that you would bring your own sandwich (presumably in a brown bag!) to the session and eat while the presentation was being conducted. That’s all great, but for reasons I will describe below I feel this is a sub-optimal way to build and share knowledge in a team.
Principles of Knowledge Building Sessions
So, what are knowledge building sessions? Firstly, let me state some principles upon which our knowledge building sessions were conceived and evolved in my team over time. These principles were refined as we learned from what worked, and what didn’t work, over a 3 year timespan.
- Hands-on sessions are FAR more effective for learning – it’s the old maxim of ‘learning by doing’; a natural consequence of this is the need for adequate facilities (laptops, networking, projector, sandpit systems).
- Act with discipline in holding to these sessions – schedule these sessions and facilities, in advance, for 1.5 hours EVERY fortnight; very rarely are these sessions cancelled (eg. over Xmas holidays).
- Provide the optimal hours for learning – we have found for our team that learning tends to be most focussed in the morning from 9AM – not at lunch time when people are intent on eating and hands-on sessions become problematic, and not in the middle of the day when work demands have a greater chance of swamping the time or providing distractions; the use of ‘business hours’ reflects the importance placed on this learning (note we are talking about only 1.5 hours every fortnight).
- Agree learning topics collaboratively with the team – for our team this is typically conducted on an annual basis.
- Each member of the team takes responsibility for owning a number of sessions and facilitating them – a consequence of this is you will get at least one person who understands the content.
- Focus on the application of learning content, not the creation of it – the focus is not on building learning content, but on applying it hands-on; so if a perfectly adequate tutorial on (say) forward error handling exists in SCN, then it is absolutely OK for the allocated team member to source it and use it in their workshop.
- Ideally tie the delivery of session materials to team performance KPIs – providing a natural incentive for team members to put their hand up, learn something new and facilitate sessions.
- Provide knowledge champions to jump-start the process – if possible engage role models who are passionate about an area of knowledge to deliver the early sessions to ‘set the benchmark’ for how sessions should be delivered.
- Keep expectations reasonable – do NOT expect experts from this process, but DO expect team members to become informed enough about a technology to research it more if they are interested in it, or to be informed enough to understand the pros, cons, and use cases for the technology and apply this thinking in real-life situations (eg. projects).
- Keep the process non-threatening, and most importantly allow the team to collaborate and have fun.
Clearly, reading the above there is no rocket science involved. The challenge is in the discipline and execution.
Planning of Knowledge Building Sessions
To collaboratively plan sessions, we use SAP Streamwork. A natural side benefit was to learn yet another SAP technology in our planning processes!
SAP Streamwork is used for collaboratively ranking and voting on desired topics for the year, setting the agenda for the year, and driving collaborative discussions and decisions on any tactical changes to the schedule (an example of this is that immediately after SAP TechEd 2010, we altered the schedule to include some topics gained from the event).
Here is an example of our planning and ranking from a year ago …
You can see that many of the learning channels described in Part 1 of my blog (eg. SCN, Twitter, SAP TechEd) can serve as feeders into this planning process. Those channels help to inform team members about what sessions they would like to focus on during the year. The knowledge gained from these sessions in turn helps to inform team members about what areas to explore in greater depth individually, and to apply to real-life project demands. Ideally, your team members will each tackle certain areas in depth and over time become experts in those areas. Collectively the team gains coverage across all technologies deemed useful.
Let’s have a look at the type of sessions that were planned and delivered by team members as knowledge sessions over the years (this is not a complete list) …
Some of these topics have spanned multiple sessions, and have been revisited in greater depth from one year to the next (eg. floorplan manager).
I should emphasize that a large proportion of the above sessions were conducted as hands-on workshops, using the principle that this delivery approach is far more effective. So for Mobile Web Development, each team member actually created a simple mobile web app using BSP. For NetWeaver Business Client, each team member actually installed the client on their laptop during the session, and configured a personal role for their login. Likewise for HCM forms, team members each constructed their own form hands-on. And so on …
Every 3 months we also conduct a ‘demo jam’. This is not a demo jam in the same style as TechEd. It is simply a scheduled knowledge building session where instead of focussing on a single topic, we look at many small topics. In these demo jams each team member demonstrates something of interest each with a time allotment of around 5 – 15 mins. Example topics might be how to create a custom login page for a SICF service, new ABAP debugging tricks, useful browser plugins for analyzing web traffic, looking at a short SAP YouTube clip of Project Holodeck etc.
Benefits and Outcomes of Knowledge Building Sessions
The success of a learning programme such as this can only be measured by the outcomes gained over time.
I think it would be fair to say that these knowledge building sessions evolved into an effective and successful learning channel. But it would also be fair to say this did not happen overnight. The team evolved the approach over time, experimenting with different approaches to document the planned sessions, shifting from presentation formats to more hands-on workshops, increasing the session times from (originally) 1 hour to 1.5 hours (and on some occasions we book extended sessions of 2.0 hours).
Here are some of the benefits drawn from this journey …
- Pro-active, consistent and visible learning – Knowledge building sessions are a very pro-active, visible and consistent learning vehicle for the team. Because sessions are held consistently every fortnight, it keeps the concept of learning in the minds of team members throughout the year, and therefore fosters a ‘culture’ of learning. Learning via projects is essential to gain expertise, but it is a reactive and haphazard approach because teams cannot typically control what projects are assigned to them.
- Team comradery and collaboration – sometimes these sessions are the only opportunity for the team to come together and work collaboratively.
- Mutual respect – team members developed great respect for each other’s capabilities, and were better informed about who the ‘go to’ expert is for any specific technology.
- Attracting new members to the team – in more than one instance the success of these sessions is shown out by persons being motivated to join the team partly because of these sessions.
- Topics of interest addressed in the knowledge sessions resulted in real solutions being delivered – in some cases solutions that would NOT HAVE BEEN CONSIDERED without having first looked at the technologies in a knowledge session.
There are many examples of real solutions delivered to the live systems that were a DIRECT consequence of learnings or activities from these knowledge building sessions. Examples are some Flex-based tools which are now being used productively (spawned from knowledge sessions for team members to learn Flex development); use of ABAP shared memory objects; use of XSLT; strong use of floorplan manager for WDA and personal object work lists (POWL); …. and so on.
For me, the personal proof of success in this learning programme was a knowledge building session held a few weeks ago. The team built a WebDynpro ABAP scenario using the new OVP (Overview Pattern) floorplan, which is new in NetWeaver ABAP 7.02. The discussion around the room, the comparison with other floorplans, the analysis of pros and cons. This level of discussion is something that I would never have imagined 3 years earlier (aside from the fact that OVP didn’t exist then, of course!).
Image: Sascha Wenninger kicking off a workshop on ‘REST’ principles.
Hopefully you can take the learnings from this journey and possibly apply them, either individually or to your own team. The intent here is to demonstrate that with some motivation and discipline, over time you can develop a sustainable a learning culture for yourself and your team. However, do not expect instant miracles. The benefits accumulate over time (remember the ‘compound interest’ analogy).
SAP has embarked on a journey of innovation, with technologies around in-memory and mobility calling for new skills and approaches. These may well be the growth areas for SAP technology professionals in the coming years. With this in mind I believe that an emphasis on learning is particularly relevant to our times. Try some of the approaches I have shared with you here … you have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.