For those of you who don’t follow US college sports, you might have missed an extraordinary event that happened this past week. Duke University men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski (pronounced “sha-SHEF-ski”), also known as “Coach K” passed 1,000 career wins in the top echelon of a highly competitive league.

What makes this achievement more interesting is that traditionally, his best athletes stayed for four years of college – enough time to improve their already impressive skills and make them gel as a team. With recent changes in rules, the best athletes only stay for a year before they jump to lucrative careers in the NBA – the so called ‘one and done’ system. Coach K (like all other coaches) had to adapt and adjust, but still manages to produce sustained excellence year after year in spite of lofty expectations and a team that turns over its best people every season.

Two things stand out for me.

First, how he was able to improve ‘time to proficiency‘. In case you didn’t know, this is one of the easiest, most powerful ways to see how well your team is sharing knowledge.

Second, in the knowledge management space, a 2014 survey by industry association TSIA shows that 48% of employee facing knowledge implementations are in their 3rd, 4th or 5th implementations in recent memory. The most commonc culprit? Fixating on technology alone.

Sustaining excellence in basketball doesn’t happen by fixating on the latest basketball shoe technology. People first then process then technology. For an interview about Coach K’s management philosophy, check out an excellent New York Times magazine article from 2006.

So, what does Coach K have to do with me?

While he doesn’t know me from Adam(!), his presence impacted me earlier in my career.

In early 1996, I was recruited to work at Duke University’s Office of Information Technology. As a new transplant from the northeastern US, I didn’t truly appreciate how big a deal college basketball was in this part of the world. Within a few weeks of arrival, I saw ‘K-Ville’. This is the tent city where smart, ambitious students camp out overnight during school nights – sometimes for nights at an end – in order to get tickets for key basketball games. It is sight to be seen and experienced.

So I wasn’t too surprised to learn a few months later that our department had partnered with a company to embed bleeding edge outdoor wireless equipment into the lampposts near K-Ville, so students could study. Yes, in 1997/98. Needless to say, our team was tasked with figuring out how to support this, even without a 24 hour staff.

No wonder, in early 1998 when we announced a groundbreaking (and still existing) knowledge base that was a collaboration with Duke’s Medical Center, we called itDUNK. Duke University Network Knowledge base. It had 27,000 articles and was one of the first web based help desks. It even got me on the front page of PC Week magazine. Yup, that’s me – with hair – in 1998 ‘dunking’ a basketball at center court at Duke.

So back to Coach K, where the attention should be. Congratulations!

Starting projects with great fanfare is easy. Making it stick is hard. (See One Size Fits All: Why a Peanut Butter Approach to Knowledge Doesn’t work.) Time to Proficiency – getting talented people to gel as a team and produce results as a team in a year is special.

What are you doing to sustain excellence year after year?

PS: There is an Adam at Klever. Our co-founder and Duke PhD.

Adam’s note: For students, Duke basketball under Coach K is always a must-see. Undergraduates camp out in front of Cameron Indoor Stadium for days to see the best games and longer for Carolina games. When I was at Duke, the camp-out rules required that one person from each tent be available for random tent checks. That meant that one of the students in each tent was missing classes at any given time.

Duke is a serious academic institution, so missing even one day while camping out for Michigan isn’t acceptable (even if Chris Webber and the Fab Five are playing). During these camping weeks, students invented ways to keep up on their classes. They set up tape recorders, shared notes, and recruited friends to help when they didn’t share sections. I was a teaching assistant at the time and often got apologies from students that they would be missing my discussion session “because it’s Wake and Tim Duncan is playing.”

The students—for the most part—made it work. They added a few knowledge-sharing practices to their two most important workflows – succeeding in their classes and watching some of the best basketball players ever.

Final Note:

If you have read this far, check out the following article on some of the excellent work enabled by fine leaders I had a chance to learn from – Betty (LeCompagnon) Leydon and Ginny Cake to name a few.

You can see how self-help and a knowledge base made us far more productive way back in 1997. What are you waiting for?

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