Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today I was intrigued by a programme on inspiration and genius.  Intuition is often mistaken for inspiration because it is that fast recognition of a connection between one thing and another, a couple of ideas, or notions.  But most people agree with Einstein: Intuition is simply the sum of all your experiences. As the Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman points out in his recent book , intuition is fast thinking. It evolved so that we could respond without delay to threats, but it can be very misleading, and needs to be used carefully in conjunction with our slower thinking processes, to double check the evidence. But inspiration is different from intuition. Certainly , it always comes to people who are well prepared, who have spent hours and weeks, even months pondering a problem. So the idea that it is 99% perspiration is probably valid. It’s not just a fast response based on past experience either.  When people try to study others who have been inspired, they also find that the unconscious plays a big part in effective processing. Why because often that is where we reframe the way we understand  the world. To cope with the world  on a day to day basis, we have to put boundaries around events, ideas, abstractions, concepts.  We grasp what is important about situations and have a sense of the limitations. But if we change the shape of those boundaries, new connections and possibilities have a chance to emerge. We see things in a different light, look at them through a different lens, figure them in a novel way.  We make connections ACROSS categories, and go beyond previously understood constraints.  That’s why dreams are often a helpful process for inspiration. Another alternative path to inspiration is a change in context combined with a change in the type of mental activity you are engaged in.   Some scientists get break throughs when, after hours of mental focus, pondering, researching and examining a problem, they change state. That can involve sitting peaceably in a garden or in the countryside. Marcus de Sautoy in one of the recent BBC TV programmes called the Story of Maths admitted that he often solved apparently intractable mathematical puzzles as a result of talking a walk.  All of that seems within the bounds of possibility, for many of us.  We can certainly imagine how all the detailed information and stimulus to thought, the multiple alternative perspectives, challenges to boundaries, opportunities for distraction offered via the social media would do a good job of supporting these aspects of inspiration.

But that isn’t all, apparently. A powerful driver for the inspiration behind genius seems to be something akin to extreme introversion – the desire to spend long periods in intense and singular concentration, in isolation with one’s own thoughts. This is often combined with the ability to tolerate the deep anxiety associated with uncertainty and searching for something unknown.  Creative people often pursues their interests alone, they have the courage to see the world differently and look for ways to challenge accepted beliefs and boundaries. Some may feel that the associated sensations are almost the edge of madness.  Certainly great inventors admit to being so devoted to their search that they drive themselves almost to the point of illness, working with such focus that everything else becomes inconsequential.  However, I wonder if these final pre-conditions for inspiration and genius are damaged by continuous participation in the social media?  In these times where being social seems to have become an essential facet of identity, where constant activity is valued more than slow thinking, intensely pondering a problem, will societies produce less inspiration? Will genius be even more rare?  If you read Nicholas Carr,’s book the Shallows, perhaps the answer is yes. Carr’s argument is that the internet is rewiring our brains, so that we are excited by continuous new input, but less able to concentrate for long periods of time; more disposed to follow prevailing opinion, but less interested in marginal ideas; we prefer to externalize problem solving, rather than internalise the anxiety; we spend hours socialising with others on line, but less time close to nature or in quiet contemplation with lack of stimulus.  Daniel Wegner’s research suggests that dependence on computers is affecting our memory (thanks to Susan Frost for that link). One can only imagine the long term consequences for knowledge economies that do not invest time and effort in encouraging contemplation, spending less time with the computer and more in physical activity.

Something that is pre-occupying all universities at present is impact. Does the knowledge which academics generate in their research translate into something valuable for society? It’s a worthy challenge to evaluate whether public money is being spent wisely. For universities it can have a significant impact on their future, because some portion of government funding will be allocated based on each institutions ability to demonstrate that they have invested previous research money wisely and produced ideas that are useful and worthwhile.
Of course, in the KM world we know that judging the contribution of knowledge is fraught with difficulty. For example, a finding in some scientific domain, maybe maths, or physics may contribute to thinking, but ultimately has to be combined with other findings and the process of translating it into a commercially useful invention may longer than the period in which the assessment. There’s issues of conversion from lab to commercial product. I used to work for Porton International, a biotech company with the rights to commercialise research from Porton Down. The company faced enormous difficulties because the protocols for research development may have been different to those required to commercialise the results. In addition the interests and motivations of the researchers were totally different to those of a business. And that is in a science subject where the findings are evidence based and related to physical or biological phenomena. If you turn your attention to research in business and management and more particularly knowledge management, . As a domain of practice, Knowledge Management (KM) is fragmented, cross disciplinary, diffuse in impact and highly context specific. One size does not fit all. So how can you isolate and evidence the contribution of research in a topic like that.

As Daan Andriessen, someone who has long been studying “Weightless Wealth” value is in the eye of the beholder, and a lot depends on context and timing. The Intellectual Capital world has been trying to come up with metrics to improve judgement about the value of knowledge and still not solved it. The result is an enormous number of mechanisms which all produce an array of different evaluations, depending on why they are used, how they are used and who the end user is.
However, after many hours of careful thought and discussion with all the different knowledge domains in Universities the assessment process is here. So one thing is for sure, we will all need to get better at the knowledge transfer process. Christine’s research project in 2011 had some valuable insights about why it is hard to bridge the gap between different domains of practice, and hence why effective knowledge sharing needs considerable work.

  • It depends on whether people see knowledge as abstract so codification is enough for the transfer or whether it is situational and context specific, so hard to capture and largely transferable only through conversation and person-to-person dialogue.
  • Then there’s the question of how much knowledge is enough? What do you need to know to make a decision and take action? Different domains have different views on what it means to ‘think about things properly’. Are experts giving definitive answers, or are they offering well informed opinion? I was listening to someone in Forensic Scientist Angela Gallop talk about the presentation of evidence to a jury. Often juries see scientific evidence as incontrovertible and definitive but the forensic scientist knows how complex and judgement based it can be.
  • Finally we all have a different view of what ‘evidence’ means, which means we expect different mechanisms for approval and evaluation. This affects how willingly we learn lessons from others. For some the evaluation depends on the credibility of the evidence for other it’s about whether it feels relevant to the current context.

Being in a more subjective and context specific domain, in the KM Forum, we believe in conversation, deepening know-how through practice, experimentation and feedback, and relevance to context are key criteria.

So one tool we use to support knowledge mobilisation, (we don’t expect pure knowledge transfer) is action learning. It’s a way of relating various research outputs to real life business problems, and facilitating peer learning discussions about the application of insights as people are going through the process of formulating problem solving ideas, experimenting with them and refining them through feedback. On the 17th April we will kick off this year’s Action Learning Groups. Two themes emerged as areas our members want to focus. The first is “Changing behaviours, mindsets, motivation, commitment and customer service”, the second “Creating, growing and sustaining connections”. Clearly of the 43 research projects completed in the Forum so far, there will be several that fit into each heading, and it will be interesting to see the challenges which the various delegates set themselves under each heading. I imagine social media will come into the latter, but relationships, partnering and mental connections for creativity and innovation could equally well fit under that heading. As always we will have a meeting in January 2013, where everyone can learn what sort of impact the Action Learning groups have had, and hopefully we’ll also learn more about how the research has translated into useful thinking. Our Action Learning Leaflet will give you a flavour of past projects and the potential value of this approach.

On reflection it's a fine balance

Good judgement is more in demand than ever before. In our intricately connected technologically advanced society where information travels faster than we do, but expert knowledge about its implications may take years of experience to interpret, for most of us certainty is hard to come by. So most decisions involve some element of judgement.  Take today for instance.  I got up and opened my hall cupboard to get out my yoga mat. For the first time in 7 years living here I smelt gas.  I called my husband. He couldn’t smell a thing! Shrugged and walked away.  Now I have to make a judgement. Call the emergency helpline? Or is my nose just over sensitive? So I shut the door, do my yoga, go back and repeat the process, half an hour later. To me the smell is stronger:  my husband still can’t smell a thing.  Having just read the book Being Wrong by Kathryn Shulz, I know my brain could be am bias. Our brains leap quickly to assumptions when fear is involved, their designed to. We have a natural confirmation bias, to confirm our own beliefs.  But I know my husband is far better at practical things than I am, and he was an engineer before he retired, so he’s more likely to be right.  Then I remember the smoke filled room experiment!   If I call National Grid, will they think I am wasting their time? What constitutes a leak worth reporting? If I don’t do anything will I be able to sleep tonight? It’s coming up to Easter and weather is getting colder, so I want my heating working. How quickly can National Grid fix a leak?  Will I just end up with gas shut off and a miserable Easter?  No-idea of the answer to any of those questions! How can I assess risk when I’ve never faced this situation before?  Simple example, but poor judgement could have relatively small or relatively large consequences.  Inevitably I weigh the risk of being cold against going up in flames and decide to err on the side of caution.  The gas man cometh!

We expect sound judgement from leaders in business, politics, the legal system, public institutions; we hope parents, teachers, members of society will exercise sound judgement.

According to Tom Davenport (an early KM guru) and Brook Manville, (forward by Larry Prusak) in their new book on Judgement Calls ,

“…the belief that the traditional paradigm of decision making – where an all-seeing and wise CEO ‘makes the call’ alone- is being superseded by more participative and data-intensive approaches”.

About 18 months ago, we ran a KM Forum themed day on these data-intensive approaches, inspired by Tom Davenport’s books Competing on Analytics and Analytics at work. It certainly plays an important part in providing evidence to support sound judgement. But of course you have to have the data to look at before you can find the patterns, or identify the insights on which to base your judgement.   But the mathematics of probability, normal distribution and the like, only work when you have a large enough sample and the anomalies aren’t paradigm breaking.  If you listen to this Analysis, 10 Downing Street appears to be influenced by Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s counter arguments about the impact of the highly improbable.

Of course, it may not have been concerns over the impact of the highly improbable that encouraged the government to make suggestions about topping up your tank to create a petrol shortage before any strike ever got off the ground?  Maybe it was an insight from the Nudge Unit?  Who knows, but to my mind that experience certainly leads you to think twice about the Wisdom of Crowds where self interest is concerned.  I listened to the news in dismay as people said how it was madness that everyone was rushing to fill up, were irritated at the chaos, and then admitted that they wanted to be sure they could get around!

Collective judgement is a tricky issue as Tom Davenport’s final chapter suggests. It’s a knowledge issue at heart.

“The great advantage of a more collective information and knowledge intensive approach is that done well, it offsets the litany of pitfalls one person making a decision can fall into “Chapter 13

That is provided we can

  • Learn from success, but then recognise situations where the lessons no longer hold true
  • Reframe the rather concrete notion of decisions instead think about an ongoing collaborative process of evolving a solution to a problem, through small experiments and frequent feedback.
  • Invest in developing collective leadership judgement through experience with real problems and repeated practice, with some time for reflection on lesson learned, and some coaching on how to improve.

Members of the Henley KM Forum can access our guide to better organisational decision making produced in 2009, from the members’ website. There is also a complementary publication on coaching for better decision making. Those who are not members may want to download free our Knowledge in Action brochures Issue 21 and 22.

Just in case you are worried about my status over Easter, the gas man arrived, used his analytics (a neat little sniffer machine) found a leak – yes my nose was right, replaced the regulator, and all for free. Great service, lesson learned, rely on my judgement and ignore my husband’s sense of smell which is clearly not helpful in this small collective of marital bliss!

Language often makes things quite concrete, but I think at times it’s worth reflecting on the plasticity of language. It evolves over time, and as it evolves meanings change, subtly, but with quite large consequences.  Information is an everyday case in point. We all understand what it means, or do we? Relative to data, it’s more structured, more analysed, less raw (or more cooked?). Some experts argue that explicit knowledge is simply information, because it becomes detached from the richness of context and know-how about how it is usefully applied. Even though I was once a Latin scholar, I often neglect the underlying roots of the word. I was reminded of that the other day. It was one of those serendipitous light bulb moments because as words were spoken, I happened to be thinking about information as evidence. Some-one was talking about doing things in formation. Of course they meant in a regimented, structured way, like flying or marching in formation. Even though I know very well that the Latin verb ‘informare’ means to give form and shape to something, (maybe an idea, a conception of some sort or a disposition that shapes something else) I was still falling into the trap of viewing information as something more objective, permanent, solid and reliable than I should be. There is no suggestion that in forming something it becomes set in concrete, in the original meaning of informare. ‘In formation’ means under development, ie forming, tentative. The word conform comes from the same root, but has more permanent implications, perhaps because conform is about forming together with others and over time, the meaning gets agreed and so becomes more permanent. When more people together have considered the information, evaluated its relevance and utility in context, then perhaps there might be more reason to conform. Still, not a certainty for me though, as I rail against conformity much of the time!


How do we receive information?

Quite simply though, if we thought more about information as potential knowledge in formation, would we be so obsessed with capturing it, storing it, protecting it? For some information, yes, we still would. For example, where it has enduring personal value – my bank details, mother’s maiden name, birth date and address are a package of information, I would expect businesses to protect very carefully. The consequences of not doing so are obvious and expensive. But that’s because the formation of those particular items together has a very specific, repeatable use in many contexts related to my identity. But there are many, many situations, where the information we capture in reports has been formulated into an argument, but the argument is still formative. In other words it is subject to change, refinement, interpretation. As Alison Donaldson points out in the chapter on the social life of documents, in this book about communities of influence they are important as stimuli for conversation and dialogue, and to represent ones reasoning at a particular moment in time. Unfortunately once the words are on the paper, often we neglect that social life, and they become set in stone (a historical metaphor that probably explains a lot about why information is NOT seen as in formation).

I often take a walk and while I do I listen to podcasts to pass the time.  The movement also helps me think. Following my last blog, I was pondering communication elements which gain traction by permeating a discourse, and catching up with some of Melvyn Bragg’s ‘In our Time’ podcasts. I came across one on metaphor.  The experts weren’t directly exploring the  business application of metaphor; the conversation was about the history of metaphor in literature.  Yet it struck me that we can learn some valuable lessons for leading change when we examine the power of metaphor in our cultural history, because it they have a lasting impact. Here are just a few of the ideas that emerged as I listened,

  • Metaphor energises people an emotional level. They work by establishing a connection between the circumstances we want people to engage with and something else that resembles it, which that may be more familiar and accessible.  Pick the right metaphor, with positive associations and it could be a way to the unknown and the uncertain more palatable during change communications.  In KM we often talk about knowledge flows, and so the metaphors of water, waves, hydro electricity, are powerful in helping people understand the possible benefits of making knowledge more fluid and less sticky are all useful associations.

    A watery knowledge ecology, courtesy of Sergej Todeush

    Here’s an image from a poster prepared by Sergej Todeush, a past MBA student, which shows where you can take a water metaphor, because water exists in many forms, is part of a larger ecology, can create force when harnessed by dams pipes, build structures when frozen, and be deconstructed into its elements.

  •   Metaphors are often related to natural phenomena. Historically, in the Henley MBA, we have asked people studying Knowledge Management to describe it to a lay person by using a visual metaphor and preparing a poster to convey it’s essence to others.  We did an analysis of the metaphor’s they used, and the ones that seemed to arise frequently, be most evocative and encapsulate more dimensions of KM, were those based on ecologies and natural phenomena.   (If you want to read more you can get a copy of the paper here.)  What I hadn’t realised was why natural systems metaphors might be so prevalent, but Brian Arthur’s book about how technology evolves explains it quite powerfully. Humans instinctively trust natural phenomena, from experience we know the consequences and can relate to them through experience. But we are less trustful of man-made technologies. They are as complex nowadays as natural phenomena but we don’t instinctively understand the consequences.  Technology is rapidly shaping our lives and our economies but the changes can feel alienating, or disruptive.  When Brian Arthur talks of technology he also includes management processes, and economic systems, so KM would fit into his definition of technology within organisational life. Instinctively we may not trust its complexity.
  •  Metaphor resonates at the local level, but they also encourage people to consider the big picture, so it simultaneously captures context and the detail that matters to the individual. That is important for change, when the individual needs to be able to see how they fit into the organisational change process.
  • Metaphors can be generative. Help us be creative. They can help us look at the domain we apply them to in different ways. We can unpack and unpick our understanding of the source of the metaphor and apply that to the new domain so that we get a different perspective on it.  That can help us reframe long established assumptions of the way the world is. Some time ago we ran a KM forum day using jazz as a metaphor for management. How would it be if we started to describe management as improvisation and what can we learn from jazz musicians? If that seems to haphazard to you, then can you think about the management as orchestration, the ability to interpret and conduct a symphony from the expertise available amongst your key players? How does that affect leadership of change?
  • Metaphorical associations can also be shocking, but more safely so.  Wallace Simpson said that reality is a cliché that metaphor helps us escape from.  We know that often change needs a shock or a crisis to propel people out of their comfort zone, and start to re-envisage how reality could be different. We think of organisations as legal entities that have an existence independent of the individuals within it. Much of our management thinking evolved out of the Industrial Revolution, so we think of organisations as machines, so people become cogs, and the aim is to leverage their knowledge. As, Alison Donaldson said to me at the conference, it’s worth being more sensitive to the consequences of the language we use, because it shapes our reality. Otherwise, we can unwittingly perpetuate many of the old clichés about management which may be dysfunctional for knowledge related activities.  What if we were to talk about organisations as galaxies or constellations of planets, suns and stars and black holes? How would this alter our more bounded rational  view of supply chains, alliances, and mergers?  Would it change assumptions about how easy it is to integrate to cultures or to communication between partners?  Metaphors can hint at a sense of something without making it concrete so encourages us to explore a risky context indirectly, which can be less immediately threatening and a more comfortable way to stimulate change.
  • Metaphors can be more encompassing. Much of management is focused on analysis and reason, evidence and facts, and whilst these are still necessary and helpful, evidence and facts refer to what exists only.  Reason uses the language of distinctiveness, precision, more refined and determined categories of ideas which can actually put boundaries and limits on the opportunities and possibilities of change. Analysis breaks things down into smaller parts to give us insights, but if we aren’t dealing with a machine, but a living system,  re-assembling the pieces from the dissection doesn’t regenerate all the properties of that system. So we lose something that is tacit in the interactions between the parts.  Don’t get me wrong, analysis makes a valuable contribution. But its worth thinking about using the right tool for the job.   Metaphors tend to look at wholes within contexts, so they give us a different perspective. By not classifying and deconstructing, they create links, open up connections and ideas, (here’s another possibility in previous blog KM as cooking); granted those links may be transient, and inherently unstable, but feelings and sensations are not grounded in permanent thought either. The potential is that they help trigger timely associations that help people shift perspective whilst holding on to the things that matter to them.

Henley KM Forum conference 2007

Over the years we have used many metaphors in the KM Forum activities. Vanessa Randle’s pictures that we used to capture the conference themes were full of metaphors – bridges that spanned rifts, journeys, reaching for the stars. The small pictures don’t show the detail, but click on them to get the full screen view and you’ll see what I mean.

KM in a changing world Henley KM Forum conference 2008

Why not share the metaphors that you have found useful in conversations about change, so others can learn from them? It would be interesting to make a collection of them, particularly if you have stories associated with them.

Inspirational Relationships?Image: tungphoto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

Relationships are a core concern for anyone interested in knowledge and learning.  The word relating is interesting in that it can mean connecting with others in a way that is meaningful for each party, or it can mean verbally telling or explaining an experience or a set of events via the medium of story.  What’s common to both is a concern for communicating meaning.  I think what is different is the depth of meaning each type of relating achieves.   Relationships create meaningful bonds between people, relating stories helps sense-making, but the meaning derived may not be shared. A fine distinction; but just as meaningful as the distinction between information and knowledge, if you are thinking about the quality of KM activities, and their impact on community.

As an aside, it’s ironic that John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s book was called the Social Life of Information.  It’s one of the few instances when blurring the distinction between information and knowledge made good sense.  (Connecting to Amazon to create the hyperlink above, I was reminded that I bought the book on the 13th March 2001, just in case I had forgotten!) By challenging to the glory of IT storing and shifting information, at the turn of the millennium, Seely Brown and Duguid seemed to presage something of shift in the KM world.   Relationship capital became more prominent in the Intellectual Capital arena. The priority of people relating and Nahapiet and Goshal’s concept of social capital became of practical interest to organisations. Although some people still confuse information management and knowledge management, many organisations are shifting from capture to collaborate and accept the limitations of the ‘if you build it they will come’ mentality.  Probably just co-incidental timing, as the web became more ubiquitous, social media started to develop.  We started to hear about Web 2.0 around 2002, and Stanley Milgram’s six degrees of separation quickly became four or less. This you tube social psychology lecture from Yale explains the principles at about 3 minutes into the video and goes on to explore the foundations of social network analysis.  If you want to read more the Duncan Watts also published an relative easy read on this important topic.

People relate to one another in many ways. We all have a mixture of close connections and loose associations in our relationship network. From a knowledge perspective, each serves a different purpose; the former give us a strong sense of belonging, deep tacit knowledge sharing opportunities, and more meaningful feedback, the latter provide timely access to ideas, insights and trending topics, better responsiveness to external dynamics and greater reach.  In the    All of the ties that bind need some form of maintenance, it is up to us as individuals to decide what proportion of our time we invest in networking compared to revitalising community bonds.

We talked a lot about relating stories at the KM forum conference; they are a popular means of conveying ideas in a way that others can relate to. But it is worth asking, by relating stories do we cement our relationships? Historically, perhaps.


The campfire was the 'Ba' space for storytelling

Before the written word, stories were a form of knowledge sharing that bound the community together, and helped them survive. They were crafted and distilled from the best of collective experience and the telling was associated with times of safety and warmth– you don’t tell a story when a sabre tooth tiger is bearing down on you, shouted instructions are far more useful!  Culturally, the campfire is the equivalent of Nonaka’s ‘Ba’ space for story telling. That image resonates across many cultures.  A collection of stories was a wellspring of learning, and an oral history that gave the community a sense of identity and purpose, re-enforcing principles and values that mattered. That makes them powerful.

Nowadays stories are still good for finding points of connection. But in modern society community ties are much more fragmented, and stories can be interpreted outside of the context of belonging to some collective that assures our survival.  A well crafted story can be the communique of choice for gifted politicians, influential speakers and educators; it grounds concepts in real life challenges and adds human interest.  Taken out of the intimate context of a community, stories can have a different side to them. Undoubtedly, it’s human nature to relate instinctively to stories, which means that once recognised, this can become a tool of deliberate influence. I’m not saying this is a bad thing.  Just that story tellers have choices. Stories can be used care-fully or manipulatively. Until it became too expensive, advertisers loved ‘serials’, stories around a theme – remember Beatty and the BT phone ads that ran for years?   If you have to convince someone of your ideas, and can get a quick win with a story told with integrity, then, why not follow the principles of different types of story-telling and use them to achieve results?  Two books worth studying are Tell to Win  or Steve Dennings book the Leaders guide to Storytelling. Stories are memorable, emotive packages of words that do an effective job of conveying context with fact and interpretation. But in my view we have to think beyond one off stories and consider how stories become ongoing and evolving narratives – connected, purposeful and thematic. Steve Denning talks of narratives as a secret language of leadership

It is the patterns of discourse which are interesting if we are trying to effect durable change.  Isolated stories make relatively simply points. In some ways they are blunt instruments; to effect lasting change in organisations they have to become narratives to spread and as they spread they evolve.  Discourse, -the ongoing stream of dialogue, debate and conversational dynamics over time is what shapes how organisations either adapt and change or stagnate and die.   It is this we in the KM profession need to be aware of.  I would argue that we need to study this more than stories in the future if we are going to understand how to increase the agility.  Shifts in discourse are subtle signs of collective mood swings, they will signal how tensions are affecting groups, highlight the emotional resonances in the tensions which may become contagious, and so give us a sense of emerging trends.

In the past month, all we have done is think about the KM forum conference. I’ve learned so much studying the speakers’ slides, reading their papers, and then writing about the topics on the blog.  Yet even though all that mental activity was intense and fascinating, it’s not until you actually feel the buzz in the room, hear the speakers bring their slides to life, and have the conversations with them and all the delegates that intellectual comprehension becomes impactful knowledge, which will shape my plans, or reactions in future.  Cognitive knowledge has nowhere near the same impact as the deep connection and resonance that lived experience brings.  It can be a real jolt.  Knowledge in the written word is weak, the spoken word in conversation is stronger, but experience has a more lasting effect on how knowledge changes our perspective and behaviour.  The huge power of experiential learning was something that seemed to crystallise for conference delegates too as the conference progressed.

Sparking ideas and colouring experience

A strong sense of its importance seems to have been sparked when David Gurteen shared his interest in Positive Deviance (How unlikely innovators solve the world’s toughest problems) over dinner on Wednesday!

The following morning, Professor Jean Bartunek fuelled the fire when she talked about how emotions colour experience either energising or de-energising peoples’ response to change. Feelings are contagious, which means change leaders have to work with a much more finely hued picture than rational analysis can outline.

These implications were brought to life in Nick Milton’s Bird Island Workshop. It was fabulous to watch 10 teams hand on, down on the floor building brick towers. Thanks to everyone who participated so enthusiastically. And thanks to Nick for the courage to venture into untried territory and work with so many groups. It was worth it.

Knowledge in Action building experience and relationships

The inspiring thing was to feel the buzz when so many people realised the difference between what a team can achieve and what an organisation could do when everyone has access to knowledge assets AND are inspired to extend themselves beyond their self imposed constraints. Eyes lit up and ambitions over what was achievable grew. But even more importantly much more was achieved.

In the afternoon, Tim Harford added a dose of realism with his stories about how complex the world is, how hard it is to unravel the real nature of a problem and how small events can have enormous unforeseen consequences as they cascade through highly connected economies and organisations.  It’s hubris to imagine we can control events.    The only way to navigate the turbulence is trial and error, refined by frequent feedback.  (Enjoy Tim’s views on the God Complex again here)

The problem is that trials always involve incomplete knowledge and error means failure. So experiential learning comes with an emotional health warning. Don’t get despondent, we just have to try, try, and try again, whilst, as far as humanly possible, taking care to ensure we and our organisations fail safe. That way you have the chance to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and take another learning trip!

Undaunted, In March, we set off into our 13th year of learning in the KM Forum. We hope it will be enlightening even with the ups and downs of trial and error.  Join us in the experience if you can.

If the conference experience inspired you to do something different or changed your perspective, then please do share below.  If you missed the experience, even though we know the written word is a poor substitute, we will be writing up the whole event in a report, so watch this space.

David Gurteen’s blog on 23rdFebruary suggests that the aim of KM should be enabling better conversations.   He’s right, we shouldn’t muddle KM and IM. It’s not about sharing information, but helping people make sense of it. But I would argue it goes even further than that.  We have to help people work with what that means for them, so that feel more connected, know how they can contribute and can perform better.


Conversation spaces are places full of meaning

Meaning is a really important factor in engagement as this presentation by Professor Katie Truss shows (Katie is a highly respected researcher in the area).   Things that are meaningful to us, are far more likely to move us to do something about them, and the more connections we find to an idea the more meaningful it becomes.  Although of course really strong connections to singular issues can be very meaningful if they have had a  big impact on us, perhaps in a relationship or as a result of a highly emotional experience.  Maybe this is the source of Positive Deviance that David is going to encourage us to talk about over dinner.

I like the word conversation. It comes from the Latin word meaning to turn things around. It can be transformative.  Two way interaction is also vital, because the speaker can only know these things when they engage in a dialogue with the receiver, not when they push out information.  Which is why I also why I really love this timely if unsettling educational tweet from Donald Clark which David included in his newsletter.

 “Show me a Professor of Education … who lectures, and I’ll show you a hypocrite who doesn’t read the research

Donald Clark is right, interactivity is key to understanding and learning too.  I am somewhat sensitive to this in the run up to a conference, at which I will be ‘speaking’ about the results of this year’s research project for some 30 minutes. My excuse? We are trying to share a year’s worth of conversational learning within the research project group. I would add that I have always felt that KM Forum members get more from participating in the research projects than from just sitting and listening to the results presented at the conference, so I’ll take this chance to encourage you to suggest a topic and sign up for the next round of research.  In addition, for this year’s project, we will be running a much more interactive workshop on 29th May.  So the conference session is just a taster. Anyone who is really interested in developing knowledge driven leadership agility can really get to grips with what it all means for their organisation in this session.  In addition, I hope you will ask lots of questions of me and my co-presenters.

To be fair, most conferences have to contain a fair amount of lecturing. However, at Henley, we really do try to include plenty of “white space” for networking and lots of opportunity for conversations with peers and presenters.  If you decide you want to twitter and extend the conversation more widely then do please include the #HenleyKMF in your tweets.

Looking forward to two days of great conversation, lots of mental stimulation, and time to make sense of it all afterwards.

Follow the red brick road to empowerment AND organisational learning?

After from my throwaway comment at the end of Thursday’s blog,   it struck me that embedding courage, wisdom and heart into the fabric of the organisation is a good recipe for managing risk and essential ingredients for agility. But it will be a long journey, because the attributes have to move from the intuition of the individual, which is the mental spark that something needs to change right through to an institutionalised wisdom that is readily accepted by groups across the organisation.   Clearly learning has to happen at several levels, individual, group, across groups to finally become part of the organisational DNA.  There are both psychological and socio-political influences on this process, which become more and more difficult to negotiate the larger the organisation grows.  This article is very academic, but it does outline some of the issues. You may not want to read it in detail, but Figure 1 offers a useful diagram that captures what I mean and Table 1 shows a useful summary of the politics of organisational learning and the dynamics of power as they impact on organisational evolution. On a more practical note, the case study which Louse Montgomery and Julia Montgomery will share at the conference seems to address this challenge head on through the idea of making the learning pathways of Investment Bankers explicit.  Again I don’t want to steal their thunder, but I do think it is worth provoking interest in why recording progress en route to knowledge excellence could do more than just help the individual in their reflections and development. As Victoria Wardtold us, when she proposed this session for the conference, negotiating a pathway, creates a change in the contract between the individual, their line manager and their organisation, it provides a reference point that stays stable while everything around is changing, and makes an important and demonstrable connection between the individual’s commitment to learning and development and the organisation’s commitment to refreshing knowledge and skills. So it’s not just about isolated learning interventions, but about how they connect to the business performance, and strategy.   That does not do justice to the richness of the process and how it addresses the social and political forces identified in the article above, so I will have to come back to this topic after the conference.  For now, I just want to flag the idea of tailoring learning and development to strategic business conditions and then linking it to emerging individual needs as a great way of translating learning at the individual into organisational learning.  By recognising

 “the individual needs of people throughout their careers, with the aim of building capability from the moment they join a business to the point that they achieve peak performance.

such programmes, designed to achieve knowledge excellence in the beleaguered Investment Banking community,  are most encouraging

We are busy collecting props for Nick Milton’s session at the Henley KM Forum conference; We’ve also surmounted Henley’s quite natural resistance to plugging untested electrical equipment into our building circuits, and found ways to accommodate about 90 delegates all being active in one space together.  (The session will be fun, I promise you and there are lots of valuable lessons to learn, but I am not going to give the game away!) Nick is a regular blogger so I have been checking out his musings.  A couple of Nick recent Knoco stories focus on the role of asking in knowledge sharing, and the KM techniques that embody the mechanisms for encouraging pull rather than push.  So it was in that context, that I smiled when I saw his blog on the 20th  February.

funnyanimalpictures.netThere’s no text, just this well known picture:-  with the caption, Mother told me there would be days like this!  Nick I sympathise!  Why did it make me though smile? Because the animal that usually pulls the heaviest loads is an ass!    But the metaphor started me thinking about information overload and potential to make a dumb mistake, unless we take the time and energy in this fast paced, social media savvy world to sort the wheat from the chaff.   What stories are the ones that we really need to learn from one, and which are the ones that contain misleading messages for our own specific context?   They may well be valid in other contexts, but often it is the subtle variations shaping the context that make the difference between something that is worthwhile for us to learn from and something that would not make a dent in our own particular circumstances.

Transferability is one of the big issues for qualitative research, and one of the reasons why thinking before adoption is so important for appropriate adaptations. Can the ideas generated through research be readily applied across contexts?    Do we have enough understanding of the detail of the context to see how we can apply them to ours?  This is one of the reasons why networking face to face is so valuable. It’s the opportunity to meet with the experts, quiz them on the detail of their situation and decide how it relates to ours.

But, I’ll dare to suggest it also comes back to the spending some quality time in the slow thinking stream, which Daniel Kahneman talks about in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.   Kahnemann is credited with being the founder of behavioural economics, a field of thinking which brings understanding of real human behaviour and social psychology, to theories of rational economic man, that formed the foundation of economics for a long time.   Together with Amos Tversky he won a Nobel prize for their work on bias in decisions and choices.  Only by understanding the full detail of his work, will you see how to relate it to your KM problems, but those of you who heard Graham O’Connell’s opening session at the November KM Forum meeting will remember him talking about why slow reflective thinking helps us find the patterns, discriminate what is valuable through the extent of resonant connections, cross validate with other evidence and plan accordingly.  In addition there may be the weight of the moral, ethical angle to evaluate.  I have just come across an immediate example related of this last risk of decisions divorced from the detail of context, whilst listening to ‘The Stream’ on Al Jazeera. The issue for their attention was  When should police use Social media to solve crimes? The obvious ethical dimension of this problem is when might the activity affect innocent people’s lives and what protection are in place to ensure that the potential negative consequences of crowd sourcing the search for a suspect doesn’t outweigh the potential public good associated with taking a real criminal off the streets?  Could an innocent person be convicted based on perceptions of observers that may well be biased?  We know from research that people are often inaccurate witnesses.  We also know that weight of perception can be a strong influence on decision making; the risk is that the potential heavy weight attributed to the much larger number of potentially inaccurate sightings of a person, could lead to a wrongful conviction.  Of course it could equally well lead to faster justice.

It’s n


Think slowly when you summon the Social Media Genie

ot the sharing activity that is problematic, it’s whether we have the necessary checks and balances in place to ensure that information overload does not distort our thinking. You may like to download the white paper on Knowledge Sharing 2.0 and the Social Media Genie, which was produced as a result of research project in the Henley KM Forum last year.  In the case of police use of social media I’ve no doubt there are careful rules for when and where this is allowed, and there are certainly many benefits to be gained from a fast and agile response that social media can create.    However, I would also argue that some slow and care-full thinking about the how we use the social media are also vital.  Otherwise we run the risk that for some important decision an unreasonable weight of perception will sway our decisions and those pulling the cart end up without firm ground under their feet!

Just a week to go to the conference, and we are getting excited, All the speakers slides are coming in, and we are starting to talk with them about writing a report about the conference afterwards. Then even if you miss a day, you’ll be able to get a good sense of the coverage and conversations around Organisational Learning and Leadership.   One person I have not mentioned in these blogs so far is Victor Newman.  He probably doesn’t need an introduction to our KM Forum members, because he has been involved in projects on innovation, presented at events and conferences and is always well received.  Anyone in KM who hasn’t encountered his Baton Passing techniques and his views on innovation is missing a vital part of their KM education.    He’s keen on the issue of Leadership Agility in the context of Innovation, as you can see from his recent blog. Agility for entrepreneurs and SME’s is critical when size affects you ability to absorb mistakes in sense-making, changes in the external conditions, when you have a smaller buffer between you and catastrophe in many areas of the supply chain, or in customer reach and loyalty.  Living closer to the edge of survival is likely to make you sharper.

I mentioned in an earlier blog, that I have been watching the Super Smart Animals series, and

A Chickadee in Canada

one experiment with Chickadees from Kansas and Canada is enlightening in this respect.  In episode 1 of the series, we learned that Chickadees are the same genetically all over the American continent. But Chickadees from Canada are smarter than their cousins from Kansas, simply because they have had to live closer to the edge.  Food is plentiful all year round in Kansas, but northern Chickadees have to cope with much more extreme weather conditions and making it harder to find food and survive.  As a result they explore and work things out for themselves. In one experiment a bird from each location was presented with a wooden panel in which tasty grubs sat in little holes.  Unfortunately the holes were covered with metal lids with a glass window in. So the birds could see the grub, but not reach it, without doing something unfamiliar.   Kansas chickadees spent time tapping on the window, looking longingly at the grub. Canadian Chickadees got down and used their claws to prise off the lids and reach underneath to get the prize.  Clever birds!  No-one had told them how to be innovative, but conditions had made them more agile.

We know that crisis is a catalyst for change, but if that is not a frequent occurrence, the learning can be limited.  This suggests that agility is something that requires constant practice; what makes us endure the discomfort of repeated practice?  Pressures on survival!

The Lion, The Scarecrow, Dorothy and the Tinman

On that basis, hopefully the current economic crisis will be good for the more complacent financial and political chickadees, who are no longer in Kansas with Dorothy, but on a journey that needs the courage of a lion, that  wisdom of the scarecrow’s brain and one that puts real heart in the Tin man!

Co-evolving KM


Look forward now to the future of KM

One of the things that will be going on in the exhibition area of the Henley KM Forum conference is some progress sharing on the research that Victoria Ward and Paul Corney form SparkNow have been working on. It’s about the evolving role of the knowledge manager.     Paul’s recent blog about one of the stories may whet your appetite.  Having spent 11 years working in the field, Christine and I were also invited to participate in this project last year. I blogged about the Essay in Two voices method we used to write up our perspective.  I still find it an interesting and different way of using dialogue to create a more balanced story.   You will have a chance to add your perspective on where the knowledge manager will be in 20 years time, using postcards this time.

I wrote this blog to encourage you to look forward now! Then, when you get your chance to have a say about how KM can influence bigger issues and make a real difference, you’ll have had time to think.  After all, evolving the role of the knowledge manager is a subject dear to all our hearts; if we don’t evolve and adapt, we could be out of work!

Evolution is a big topic, often associated with survival of the fittest.  The New Scientist instant expert on evolution ( link above) defines co-evolution as


Spiral II. Plant and Animal Co-evolution. Centre for Image in Science and Art

When the evolutionary history of two species or groups of species is intimately intertwined. “

KM’s history is often linked with HR, and IT, but where is the future heading.  Dave Snowden (who has spoken many times at the KM Forum) and David Griffiths, who is speaking this year engaged in a little sparring about this very topic.  It all started because David was rather frustrated by yet more rumours that KM might be dead. Obviously it is not, but it will be evolving along with everything else!  KM is a big and complex topic as David’s Meta-model of KM shows. You might want to download the model and keep a copy on your wall, if you have a wall big enough. It’ll be an excellent reminder of all you have to achieve!  Maybe you might find there the leap for KM you need to make this year. It certainly got me thinking.

I am getting a sense of at present of a subtle shift in orientation for KM.  I’m hearing about KM people moving to head up change management programmes or teams, sit in corporate communications or start from more market facing roles. Either that or they are being subsumed by priorities like digital innovation, or something to do with strategic organisational development needs. Personally, I’m encouraged if the narrow ties with IT are diluted, because I think this association tends to cast some unhelpful shadows on the influencing ability of KM: e.g. it’s perceived as too closely related to information management, too much about knowledge capture and not enough about face to face and human behaviour, or it’s seen as a expensive infrastructure project that might not fit end user needs.

In reality, leadership in change is a role that KM practitioners should be well adapted for.  KM roles hone influencing skills, because practitioners have to achieve a lot with very limited resources. They succeed in making a difference by persuading others to think differently and adopt alternative ways of working.  People who do well in KM seem to have had very varied career paths, which have led them to operate in several different domains;  moving people around and exposing them to many different experiences is a well trodden development path for helping leaders learn to adapt their approach to suit the needs of the situation.

I was coaching a very impressive leader recently, whose career had been very varied, both in terms of the work he does and in terms of where in the world he has worked, and the organisations he has worked in.  His style was very enabling, very focused on listening and supporting knowledge sharing, quite transformational for his team, but in his organisation he was unusual. The general culture was far more command and control, which is often counterproductive for knowledge based activities.  We explored the evolutionary path from command and control, hierarchical organisations to more networked based organisations in a two year research project called Transformational KM. You can read more about it on the Henley KM Forum members website. If you are not a member of the Forum, then you can download an article called Knowledge Management (KM) for a Changing World: Challenges for Third Generation Knowledge Practice published in 2008 here.

Although KM has a whole toolkit of routines, techniques and technology that support learning and change, how well they work depend on how much buy-in they get from the broader constituency of management leadership. I’m not talking senior leadership, but leadership at the line management level, who are known to be the strongest influence on the climate for knowledge and learning.  To my mind the future of KM depends on bridging the communication and engagement gap created by differences in priorities – in other words resolving the paradoxes and tensions that make knowledge work so challenging.   For example, people in functional areas tend to have developed through specialist routes, which re-enforces depth rather than breadth.  They are trained to focus attention on detail, which for their contribution to be effective is more important that the connections in the big picture.  But when you are trying to make sense in uncertainty, and to adapt and change, you have to reconcile the tension between now and the future, and between what you have identified with as truth and priority, and what a new regime requires if it is to thrive in a changing world.  Tension is part of any healthy system. It can be creative. In is an important catalyst for adaptation and evolution.  But if it leaders don’t manage it well in organisational life, it translates into unproductive conflict, dysfunction and wasted energy.  That’s why this year’s project on developing knowledge driven leadership agility started by looking at all the tensions that affect KM activity. We will be sharing this on March the 1stat the conference.

The more leaders who know how to handle these, the more KM can support evolution and change in partnership with them!

Many of you know Ditte Kolbaek from Oracle.  She will be joining us at Henley on 29th February. Many members will remember she presented her work on Proactive Reviews at the June meeting of the Henley KM Forum.  Members can download her slides from here

Proactive Review is a method of knowledge sharing, knowledge creation and knowledge implementation that results in learning at three levels: the learning of the individual, the learning of the team as well as organisational learning. The method is based on dialogue between the people who have completed a task together. A Proactive Review is a way of conducting a dialogue with a certain structure and a given time frame. Using this structure ensures that the group creates a result within the given time of the Proactive Review.


But if you missed it, then why not take a look at her book, which has just been published, or take the chance of talking with Ditte at the Henley KM Forum Conference.

Knowledge in Action Issue 15. Improving the Quality of Conversations

Having talked with Ditte myself, I know that the method really depends a lot on good facilitation skills in generating a very high quality of conversations within the group.  (If you haven’t already, then why not download the Knowledge in Action No 15. which focuses on improving the quality of conversations to enable effective knowledge sharing. It’s free on the Forum web site).   Ditte spends a lot of her time travelling the world and developing and enhancing people’s ability to facilitate high quality conversations in these Proactive Review sessions.

Facilitation is something that is often underplayed as a practice, and there is a lot of debate as to whether those who do it need to be experts in the subject area or not. Having expertise can predispose you to bias, whereas facilitating content free means you are a dispassionate observer and so more likely to be a supporter of the conversation, rather than colouring the process based on your own preferences.  The downside of this is that someone who doesn’t understand the topic may not pick up on the subtleties of the conversation or the critical turning points where the emotional state of the group changes because a particular element of discussion affects the tone or the sensibilities of participants.

One of the other interesting aspects of this is facilitating across cultures. If members of a conversation come from different backgrounds and cultures the assumptions that underpin the way they communicate are going to be very different, and a facilitator needs to be aware of these in order to pick up on the differences.   One of my DBA students is studying the adoption and absorption of certain Western techniques for facilitating and co-coaching. Some Japanese companies are adding training about these topics into their approach to management development because they want to encourage more creative thinking. They seem to feel that they should challenge some Japanese cultural traditions of learning by listening to the voice of age and experience.  Traditionally Japanese education is about absorbing from wise masters in the field.  So challenge and questioning has not been encouraged. It seems that many Japanese managers find our western approaches to management education quite alien. Our Western assumptions that adults learn best from their own experience, certainly can neglect the wisdom of age and experience, but it brings in the contribution of meaning and engagement. In an uncertain world where the past is not always a predictor of the future, there is benefit in learning from the experience of youth, too.  Performance comes from harnessing the diversity of relvant and valid experience and co-ordinating it so that it delivers on some coherent and worthwhile purpose for the business.  What we have to be careful to discriminate against is the tyranny of anecdotal evidence that is opinion without any repetitive pattern, whatever generation the view comes from.  Encouraging learning across generations rather than up and down generations is one way leadership can impact on a climate for knowledge and learning. It’s something which we need to investigate further in this era of social media. Possibly this might be something that comes into our action learning groups this year under the topic of mindsets. Alternatively it might be part of the research project we propose for 2012. Get your thinking hats on and consider what would be most useful for your practice in the coming year.


Serengeti Serendipity?

Serendipity is a wonderful thing, when you are thinking about topics for blogs. In one weekend I got three lucky breaks.   Last night, I was catching up on the BBC I player with the second instalment of Super Smart Animals.  One item struck me as very relevant to KM.  Nine minutes into the programme we meet  Dr Mike Chase who has spent a decade using GPRS to track African elephants in a bid to learn from them about what is important in their habitats.  Such an understanding would help us reduce the havoc an expanding human population can wreak on these magnificent and intelligent animals.   Elephants need 200 litres of water and 150kg of food a day. Protected areas like the Serengeti National Park are not enough. To survive elephants  have to know where to find food and water in vast landscapes where borders and human structures may affect territory that they learned about decades ago. Elephants are social animals; their survival depends on the matriarch of the herd, the oldest wisest female in the tribe, using her memory to lead them to sites where food or water may have existed over a decade ago. This sort of long term memory has evolved to overcome problems of annual and seasonal variations, though not man-made climate change.  The astounding thing is that, at certain times, 1000’s of elephants from many different tribes congregate at a single water hole simultaneously. You can see them coming in this you tube video below (The video is apt, but I suspect the contributor hasn’t ‘herd’ of a dictionary!)

Elephants may trek over 100 miles to come together at this particular spot, and somehow they know when to arrive. It appears that these are meeting points for knowledge sharing and communication, a place to update and spread new insights that might keep them alive as a species, as well as a place to build the bonds and ties that unite family groups.   Mike Chase’s maps of elephants trekking patterns show that watering holes for elephants are just like water coolers for humans.

Having just made the connection between elephants and KM, I had another stroke of luck.  I was delighted to find that David Griffiths, who is speaking at the Henley KM Forum conference, has just written a fascinating blog about the importance of legitimising water cooler conversations.

Then the third connection was even more fortuitous. The writer of the article David is citing went from a discussion of research about how proximity improves the quality of knowledge sharing to some reflections on Steve Job’s reconfiguration of workspace at Pixar.  Paul Aitken, Bill Rainey and I are presenting the outcome of this year’s research on Developing Knowledge Driven Leadership Agility. The project set out to identify which leadership practices contributed critically to a conduce climate for knowledge sharing and learning, and then design a leadership challenge to help more people in the organisation understand what sort of social and organising behaviours are required for effective knowledge work.  We decided two weeks ago to use the Steve Jobs story as an example to illustrate some of the leadership practices in the conference presentation.  Three relevant connections in two days!  Synchronicity? Serendipity? Or simply sensitivity to surroundings spurred by my specific situation?  I think the latter, but it’s amazing how valuable those close encounters at the water cooler can be.

A successful failure?

Following on from yesterday’s musing, I was further reminded of the title of Tim Harford’s book Adapt: Why success always starts with failure, when I visited the National Space Museum in Leicester and saw this picture.

Apollo 13 deemed a successful failure

The Apollo 13 mission was considered a successful failure in the overall timeline of Space Exploration.  There certainly were some hard lessons earned when the three astronauts said “Houston we have a problem!”  Yet the spirit of innovation and determination that got these men home did not endure as NASA changed its orientation from space exploration to space exploitation.  With the developments of the space shuttle and the space station, the notion of what space flight meant changed from novel and exploratory to routine and repeatable.  What people identified as NASA’s purpose changed with it. These collective assumptions resulted in disaster when Columbia lost a tile on take-off and blew up on re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere.

The findings of the inquiry into the Columbia disaster concluded that despite the successful failure of Apollo 13 and despite the O ring disaster that resulted in the explosion of the Challenger shuttle, when the tiles fell off on this Columbia mission, organisational learning failed.   One could argue that NASA’s change of identity contributed to a change in focus by all the members of the team.  An analysis of the leadership behaviours exhibited by the mission managers could lead you to conclude, that individuals did not create conducive conditions for listening and learning, yet the inquiry did not blame any one person. They considered it a systemic failure.  Yet all the necessary knowledge sharing and learning processes were well established and designed to surface the different perspectives on the problem. Different teams with different expertise and responsibilities reported into the mission manager on a regular basis, but somehow the different levels of concern were sublimated in the complexity of all the day to day management of this particular shuttle mission and the pressures to keep up with the schedule of future shuttle missions.

In fact the collective learning dynamics in any system can be inherently myopic.  As we are thinking a lot about organisational learning at the Henley KM forum conference, I thought it would be worth revisiting this classic article by Levinthal and March. They identify three sources of myopia.

When faced with complexity, unless we deliberately and intelligently deal with the problems of uncertainty, conflict and ambiguity, learning in organisations will tend to

  1.  Ignore the long run and privilege what works in the short term; by simplifying and specialising we assure short term survival, yet the very learning we gain can be a constraint when external conditions change. It may even compromise the organisation’s ability to adapt because distinctive competencies create traps by defining where it can exert influence or decreasing awareness of the need for adaptation
  2. Neglect the big picture; for example components in the system fight for survival but their success may not help the system as a whole thrive. Components could be organisations in an economy or competing projects within an organisation. The health of the system depends on collective fitness, and fitness means adaptability.  Overall the economic returns to knowledge are higher, the higher the knowledge development activity of the components. The more generative the system conditions the more it attracts further knowledge generating activity in a self re-enforcing spiral. Conversely, the more sparsely distributed  innovation is, the more likely that knowledge seeking will be lower; improvements that only refine existing knowledge ultimately become less valuable and the organisation stagnates because it loses the capability to search and the confidence to manage the risk. We also tend to ignore distant events in favour of nearer lessons and experience.
  3. Overlook failures. Organisation learning is naturally biased towards what worked in the past. The successes from past learning generate confidence in dealing with particular situations, so they become self confirming. But this may be a poor predictor of future success when dealing with rare events.  People are more likely to think it was ability that produced success but luck which produced single failures.   It is only persistent failures that lead us to revise our assessment of risk; persistent successes tend to mean we underestimate risk.

Those of you who came to the KM Forum day, that Mike Palmer ran, will remember we  explored the knowledge implications of the Columbia disaster. Perhaps you recognise examples of all three types of blinker in NASA’s organisational learning system. The strongest elements for me were the fact that NASA started to think of the Shuttle as a routine transport between earth and space. They simplified and specialised which privileged the short term mission management but ignored the fact that in larger scheme of things NASA were still working with many unknowns that they had never experienced in the past. Over time they lost the exploratory, innovative mindset that was the hall mark of the Apollo missions. Having completed many transport missions to space and back, gave them confidence in their routines, so they overlooked the lessons to be learned from the failure of Challenger. They had also seen tiles fall off the space shuttle before without the Shuttle breaking up on re-entry, so past success led them to categorise this incident as an ‘in family’ problem rather than a serious anomaly that needed more attention.  Overconfidence in past learning and knowledge meant they under estimated the risk.

So what’s the lesson here?   Success often comes from failure, but unless leaders keep in mind and offset the traps that cause myopia, over time lessons learned can also become lessons lost.  In the long term, the knock on effect of myopia is that exploration and risk taking is harder to sustain and organisation capacity to adapt to unfamiliar and unpredictable events is compromised.   The Levinthal and March article suggests it is important to offset myopic tendencies with a compensating increase in resources to encourage exploration. Incentives, structures, managing beliefs and perceptions about risk and internally selection of mavericks or people who have failed in the past are typical levers to balance the fact that organisational learning naturally tends to be biased towards repeating past successes and neglecting future risks.

Lessons Earned?

I love this title, which is from Chris Collison’ssession at the Henley KM Forum conference.   It reminds me of an anecdote I heard a little while back about a very well known organisation that I won’t name and shame. They were frustrated because they had all the KM good practices under the sun, but still organisational learning wasn’t really happening as well as they hoped.  It was while listening to a presentation about knowledge work that the light bulb came on.  For all the effort they invested in collecting lessons learned, for all the fact that collection and dissemination was so deeply embedded into organisational routines, did they ever go back and look at what had changed as a result, did they ever deliberately drive through the consequences of these lessons into changes that improved results, or was it just a matter of serendipity that the lessons learned translated into lessons earned?  Lessons learned from someone else don’t have the same impact as lessons earned for yourself.  I suppose it’s the reality of the human condition.

Learn or teach? Who cares about your lessons?

Someone telling us from their experience what to avoid, has less impact that learning from our own experience.   We always say that in leadership development, 70% of the learning comes from experience, not from education and training.  Yet even experience doesn’t always make the lesson stick.  For example, if I shine this light back on myself as a parent, the experience of being hugely irritated and probably rudely irreverent in the face of my parent’s advice didn’t teach me enough of a lesson.  l know I knew much better. After all they didn’t understand the modern world.  Yet nowadays, I still find myself assuming my experience would be a helpful guide for son, who is 27 now and has had plenty of experience of his own! I haven’t learned and nor has he. So why bother?  I suppose if we care we want to share and prevent someone having to relive our own painful experiences. The most enduring lessons are often earned through personal failure.  But, collectively, as Tim Harford tells it in his book Adapt Why success always starts with failure, however much we pool our lessons earned and assemble many different experts for advice, when it comes down to it, the world we inhabit is too complex and constantly changing for us to be able to analyse it and find simple and accurate solutions to the problems we face.

So what can we do? Do we simply have to recognise that change emerges as a result of the collective set of adaptations over which we have no control, so our job in the organisation is simply to ensure that failure is survivable?  Well yes apparently, that’s what co-evolution is all about. We find our niche, thrive for a while, things change as a result of our collective contribution to conditions and either we adapt or become redundant.   But in organisation life that would make the KM task simply one of risk management.   Tim has other useful principles too, and I won’t steal his thunder here, because you need to read the book or come to the conference to hear what he has to say.  What I can say though is I learned a lesson from thinking about earning learning. For me and I imagine for many with years of experience, the fact that they know something well, doesn’t mean it translates into behaviour. I guess the impact of the failure must be stronger than the caring about what you know in order for if it to act as a stimulus to personal change. On a larger scale, history may identify some useful patterns, but its easy to be blind to the lessons they offer if they feel quite distant from your own reality.

Sense-making is one a key leadership practice that gives the organisation agility. But it is a tricky one, when we are bombarded with so many different stimuli.  As Sarah Grimwood the practitioner co-champion for the research on building agile leadership capability told me

 “Organisations need leaders that can adapt to a rapidly changing world (and can take others with them).   The volume of information that we can now access instantly online, including on social media sites, requires leaders to be able to quickly assimilate what is really important and to communicate this to their teams.”

Sarah is KM Lead at MWH and is also talking about communities as the basis of organisational learning at the conference.

Co-ordinating different leadership activities

The issue is what is required to co-ordinate all the sense-making of all the leaders of communities, projects and cultures so that they feel connected to a direction that keeps the organisation competitive and flexible?  As long as the organisational identity is defined sufficiently broadly it can offer a meaningful collective purpose for a whole range of dynamic capabilities.  Community can also mitigate risks associated with communities of practice becoming so strong that they won’t let go of what they know.  After a while the emotional reward of being in a successful and close knit group, can create blinkers to accepting new ways of framing what people do. Dynamism is lost.  We often argue that communities have a life. But if they don’t disband naturally, they can keep refining knowledge beyond what adds value; they become so invested in the specialist knowledge that made them distinctive, that unlearning is not considered. With no external market pressures the organisation is at risk of stagnation, despite the evident value of communities as learning mechanisms.  This is where diversity pays dividends in challenging thinking. It is also why senior leaders have an important role to play in asking questions about where renewal will come from.  Structurally this may be a good time to introduce some inter group competition to challenge the value of existing know-how for the future, it may be when mergers and acquisitions create a different rhythm for renewal.  Obviously that creates all sorts of discomfort and tension for change recipients. In a world where it is easy to become overwhelmed by new ideas, innovation and change, bounding the possible with bonds of collective identity that make sense to all involved provides a stake the ground that helps people adapt and decide how to integrate new regimes with what is valuable from the organisational knowledge bank and the historical legacy of reputation. Coaching is another context specific integrating mechanism, but depends heavily on the quality of the people acting as coaches, and their ability to both recognise and deal with the tensions that arise and communicate well with others one to one and one to many.

The concept of a community of influence is a novel development that also works across boundaries to use knowledge diversity. Organised as a set of loose association of other organisations and key stakeholders, it offers a fluid mechanism for adaptation that takes into account multiple voices and uses them to accumulate learning and change through practice in very large scale problems. By connecting smaller communities, that retain their specific identity and purpose, but can work from different perspectives on a common cause, a powerful body for influencing decision making emerges at the societal level. The network then can influence the particular external conditions which limit each smaller organisation’s ability to create the necessary change.  It is harnessing difference, beyond the focus of the specific collectives that contribute.  I am looking forward to hearing more at the Henley KM Forum conference about how MacMillan Cancer Care have overcome the challenges of making this work across different interests to realise a more joined up and innovative approach to this very important form of healthcare.  If you are coming to the conference you’ll get the chance to really explore the challenges of creating and sustaining communities of influence.  If you are not attending, then Alison Donaldson, Elizabeth Lank and Jane Maher have written a book, which tells the story of how these relative loose associations of professionals, specialists and patients can over a long period of time produce durable learning and change through conversations and relationships.

Better relationships and more productive energy strengthen vital bonds of community. Our opening Key Note speaker, Hubert Saint-Onge is a big advocate of community as the source of speed, innovation and agility, so we’ll learn more about the challenges of building community on the 29th March. But what does it mean?

Community is not another word for communities, which are a core part of any KM toolkit. Of course they are related, but the distinction is important. Business enthusiasm for communities is strong because they are spaces for people with a shared passion or concern to get together to share what they know, learn and improve. This fairly comprehensive summary of their origin, purpose and value, boils down to the fact that communities are social situations for collective learning but the important point is that learning is around a common knowledge domain. Community is about collective being. It is about how individuals find a collective identity despite their differences. That’s much harder, but also much more important. Community provides that sense of connectedness and belonging, which is so often missing in our fragmented, hectic and mobile world. Sounds a bit new age? The hard business value of community is that it facilitates knowledge combination and integration, which is the primary source of innovation.

Valencia City of Arts and Sciences

Creating new spaces for community building

Nonaka warned us 12 years ago that of the importance of creating suitable spaces for knowledge combinations in the knowledge creating company. He called them ‘Ba’ spaces.

They don’t have to be physical spaces, they can be virtual, but in reality they more like a sort of places with different energies that support various alternative knowledge sharing priorities.

Nonaka suggested that the process of creation is a spiral of movement between different spaces:-

a continuous, self-transcending process through which one transcends the boundary of the old self into a new self by acquiring a new context, a new view of the world, and new knowledge. In short, it is a journey “from being to becoming”. One also transcends the boundary between self and other, as knowledge is created through the interactions amongst individuals or between individuals and their environment.’

The beautiful new City of Arts and Sciences  built in the old Spanish city of Valencia is a wonder of different sorts of spaces for knowledge sharing. The architecture is inspiring, and the spaces all have a different feel to them.  One example is shown above.  There is also an Agora,  a modern version of the ancient Greek market place for knowledge sharing and community building. For the Greeks, the Agora was a place for open debate and discussion to further knowledge.

A modern version of the Agora in Valencia

You can’t get to community by sublimating difference; that just pushes negative energy underground to create wasteful tension in relationships and emotional stress on the individual.   Community comes when people identify meaningful connections that surmount their differences; they also have to discover how to bridge the self defining knowledge production systems that evolve as people develop deep specialist knowledge either in community or through education, training and development. In 2011 one of the KM Forum research projects considered this topic. What it is about deep expertise that divides intelligent people. Things like tacit assumptions about what knowledge to value; how we come to know what we know establishes deeply held biases for either objective or subjective knowledge: The language of specialisms which has deep resonance within communities, but is often meaningless outside the close knit bonds of expertise, which have their own epistemic cultures, otherwise known as knowledge production systems. The project then went on to consider how KM techniques could bridge some of the barriers to knowledge sharing created by assumptions about objective and subjective knowledge which are fundamental in different epistemic cultures . Members of the Forum have the guidance document we produced, but anyone who comes along to our the Henley ‘Knowledge Market’  will receive a copy as part of the conference proceedings.

It makes your hair stand on end

As a species we tend to be quite sensitive to subtle signals that surround us. At the June Forum Meeting many of us heard Bernd Vogel talk about organisational energy. He was tackling the issue of how collective emotions affect the energy of groups, communities and organisations. Obviously energy is going to affect the momentum of learning and change activities. If you missed Bernd’s session you can listen to Bernd talk about how organisations can assess the predominant energy type, and read about the strategies that you can adopt to help change them.

What struck me is how challenging it could be to both sense and influence energy levels in distributed organisational settings. How can you notice the signals of corrosive energy when the people you are working with, are on the move, have a home office or maybe even sit on a different continent, and perhaps have different cultural responses? We may have to wait for the next phase of Bernd’s research to dig up some new virtual energy fields.

But for now there are some pointers. Technology is helpful in maintaining the communication channels, but it doesn’t give us a real sense of what goes on behind the scenes in networks, on the move and when there is no focal point of belonging. Peter Thompson will be talking about the importance of changing the way we co-ordinate, inspire and organise in the new world of work on the 29th February at the KM Forum conference. In his recent book Future Work with Alison Maitland, they talk to Gary Kildare the global VP of HR at IBM. Gary is faced with this very problem. He talks about the fact that however technically capable someone is, the focus on people is important ‘ or it will hold you back as a leader.’

Relationships and a heightened sensitivity to the collective feelings make a difference to what anyone can achieve. But as Gary says,

‘It can take longer to build trusting relationships because you don’t always have face-face contact with people. Leaders and managers must take time to understand how individuals are performing if they don’t get to observe the directly every day in an office setting. It’s about setting very clear goals and objectives and expectations and measuring the outcome.’

Communication is an obvious priority, but not all one way. There’s going to have to be a lot of listening too, even though the richness of conversational cues is depleted in conference calls, and the disaffected can hide easily in virtual meetings. According to Julia Kotlarsky, what companies like SAP and Le Croy do is try to make people can overcome their perceptions of distance and the constraints imposed by time and being virtual. Leaders pay extra attention to helping team members sharpen their knowledge of the channels, the topic relevance, their co-participants, and what the problem means to the organisation.

What particularly interested me about Gary at IBM was his concern for setting a schedule of conference calls well in advance and really sticking to it. The commitment to the routine communicates something without words. People respond to the rhythm of activities: the pattern makes them feel more included. Can we learn from that sense of rhythm and pattern in finding ways to embed KM activities? Where else can we develop subtle ways of communicating to maintain energy and momentum for change? Visual imagery and metaphorical language can be one way of encouraging emotional connections. I remember interviewing someone for KM forum research project about better knowledge sharing across organisational boundaries (Download Knowledge in Action series 8 to learn more). He recommended creating a project brand, a logo that people feel captures what an inter-organisational project team is all about. It creates a sense of belonging to something. Internally too I’ve heard leaders talk about creating a logo for their teams. Associating with an icon that represents something with positive associations can re-enforce an emotional connection as all advertisers know. We love the nature and animal pictures on the front of the Knowledge in Action series for that very reason.

Share with us your ideas for creating positive emotional energy in distributed organisations by commenting on this blog. The outcome may help us co-create a learning culture, which is another of the leadership practices that we will be talking about at the conference, when we share the findings of our research project on developing leadership agility to sustain the knowledgeable organisation.

Trying to live up to yesterday’s commitment to get back to blogging and explore the conference themes, today I am going to focus on emotions and how they affect responses to change. It’s not my intention to give away what the speakers are going to say, but more to start some thinking about why these themes are relevant to our KM practice.

Organisational learning helps change and makes it stick. In KM we can’t make it happen directly, we have to work through influence. It’s the leadership in all the different areas of expertise that have to implement it and keep people motivated to deliver and learn at the same time.

But learning and change create all sorts of emotional responses for those involved. Some people thrive on it, some people fear it. To some extent, it depends on whether people feel confident that they can turn change into an opportunity, or whether they are happier with working in well know territory with familiar routines and expertise. A leader’s mood is highly contagious. It can have an enormous influence on that balance, as well as how well the KM techniques and technologies we know and love get adopted in practice. So for me the quote below[1] captures what we need from leadership across the board, in projects, teams divisions and departments.

Be positive

“Effective leaders prime good feelings in those they lead. They create emotional resonance – a reservoir of positivity that frees the best in people” 

That would really improve knowledge flow. The best in people from a KM and a business perspective means people using their skills and expertise and capabilities to their full potential to deliver results.

From personal experience, I know that when I’ve worked with someone   who has innate emotional intelligence, it makes a difference to how valued I feel, affects whether I get a strong sense of belonging to something worthwhile, and changes my levels of engagement. In a high pressure business environment, acknowledging and dealing with the feelings that affect how well we exercise our capabilities is as important as dealing with the task, but it’s easy for the former to get overlooked, with detrimental effect on knowledge work. Perhaps because it’s easier to manage tasks than emotions, perhaps because we feel we achieve more by concentrating on the task, or perhaps because we are not sensitised to the emotional climate.

I’m not suggesting leadership is about being soft and cuddly all the time. In the March/April 2000 edition of Harvard Business Review[2] Goleman reviewed some research conducted by Hay McBer. They found that leaders who get results move seamlessly between six familiar leadership styles, some much harder than others. The interesting thing was that they use all six flexibly rather than relying on just a few of them. You’ll recognise the six styles in people you know, but think about how many leaders you know who feel comfortable using the full range.

“Coercive leaders demand immediate compliance. Authoritative leaders mobilize people toward a vision. Affiliative leaders create emotional bonds and harmony. Democratic leaders build consensus through participation. Pacesetting leaders expect excellence and self-direction. And coaching leaders develop people for the future. “

Leading for results means knowing how to match style to context so that followers feel supported and are not floundering in situations where they feel they don’t belong. To do this leaders need to be able to connect with their own, and others fears, hopes anxieties, dreams and potential, whilst also setting clear boundaries and expectations that support a level of emotional resilience to change, personal commitment to the organization and continuous self management and well-being. That sort of emotional intelligence comes from four quite distinct personal sensitivities: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and social skill.

With these, leaders gain the capacity to vary their style, and so get the best from those who follow them. Increasing emotional intelligence should amplify the impact of knowledge and learning activities. This is one reason why we have included it as one of the leadership practices in our 46th Henley KM Forum research project. We were exploring what it takes to develop knowledge driven leadership agility. Conference delegates will learn more about the full set of practices and the development challenge we have created to raise awareness of the sort of leadership capability that really supports knowledge work. If you aren’t coming, I will be referring to them in my blogs up until the conference. So watch this space.

In the next blog, I’m going to talk more about what happens when the collective emotional undercurrent becomes negative overall. That puts me in mind of Daan Andriessen’s presentation at the 2010 KM Forum conference. Those of you who belong to the Henley KM Forum can download his slides from the members’ website. Those of you who don’t belong, can learn what you are missing, by visiting Daan’s website. You’ll find the presentation in the Knowledge Management part of his presentations area Look for “The Unconscious at Work; How hidden patterns in organisations may hamper KM” Presentation given at the Henley KM Forum 2010.

[1] Goleman, D Boyatzis, RE and McKee, A (2009) Primal Leadership. Leadership Excellence  vol 26 (iss) 10: 9-10.

[2] Goleman, D (2000) Leadership that gets results. Harvard Business Review  vol 78 (iss) 2: 78-90.

Leap for KM

Leap for KM

In good KM fashion, I’m going to steal with pride. I want to adapt an idea I heard on Radio 4’s PM programme on Monday.  Eddie Mair has launched a ‘Leap for PM’ initiative. Listeners were asked share and commit to doing something with the extra day that leap year offers. The Henley KM forum Conference starts on the 29th February this year, so fortuitously you can spend it advancing your insights about organisational learning, without losing any of your normal working year in the office!

So, since you have all that extra time, I thought it would be good to start a Leap for KM initiative. With that extra day in 2012, what knowledge and learning challenge could you commit to which would help you do more with less.

2012 is a fascinating year As well as the Queens Jubilee and the London Olympics, it’s also the 200th Anniversary of Charles Dickens birth. As Mr Mickawber said in David Copperfield

“Never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time.”

Make a commitment to complete what you have been putting off, or plan to do to use the extra day to leap forward in your KM activities, by commenting on this blog, and we’ll see what a difference collective inspiration can make.

I’m going to make a commitment to blog about conference related themes between now and the 29th, rather than living with my blogger’s guilt, for not sharing enough of what I am learning.

By the way if you want to hear what PM listeners are planning, for the next few days only you can listen again to the episode on Monday 6th at 5pm. The item is 26.41 minutes into the programme.

Lighting up the day for me

Light-bulb moments are precious things.   How you get to them is often a bit of luck, usually something to do with synchronicity.  When timing helps you make the connection between different areas of knowledge and mentally put two and two together.

Yesterday I was blessed with some of that good luck. At lunch time, I gave a webinar on knowledge in decision making. I was sharing some research we’d completed in 2009 with a very diverse audience sitting as far apart as South Africa, USA and the Middle East. Being filmed talking to myself was a new experienced, but it was interactive and actually good  fun. If you feel inclined you can watch a recording of the webinar,  just register via this link.  Immediately after that I went home to prepare for a Breakfast Briefing event that Christine and I are doing in London on 20th October (sorry the event is full, but you can get details of future events in the Leadership@ henley series here). The topic for the 20th is is Developing ambidexterity: How leaders create the conditions to engage both sides of the organisational brain.

To prepare for the webinar I was revisiting some well established research on decision biases, and also some work by Dave Snowden on how decision makers need to change the way they respond according to whether they are facing a complex, complicated, chaotic or simple problem situation. One of the biases in any situation is the fact that how something is communicated has a strong influence on the recipient’s decisions, simply because we feel as well as a reason. I used the example of patients being told about a major operation. If you try to give them confidence by telling that the operation only has a 15% failure rate, they are much less likely to go for the operation, that if you tell them it has an 85% success rate.

Then I came home a started to think about some ideas from a Harvard Business Review article called The Ambidextrous CEO ( Tushman et al 2011 full reference at the end), and how they might relate to the research we did on organisational ambidexterity. Ambidextrous organisations are those which know how to manage their performance in the short term through efficiencies and cost control, whilst at the same time looking forward to where the organisation needs to be in the future by maintaining their focus on innovation. It sounds straightforward. But the process of exploiting current knowledge and optimising its value generation relies on repetition, reducing risk and structures which tend to introduce rigidity, whereas exploration of unfamiliar ways of doing things as the basis for innovation needs flexibility, determination in the face of uncertainty and entrepreneurial judgement. That in itself creates several tensions around organisational priorities. One is around identity, what is the organisation all about. If you define it too narrowly as the authors of the article explain, you limit perspective on what is possible. If you define it too broadly the decision making boundaries about what is included and what is excluded from organisational capabilities become fuzzy, decisions are more complex, and efficiency goes down. And what is more, people don’t feel they belong to something coherent. Another tension arises around timing: what matters now and what will matter in the future in terms of knowledge and expertise that support business capabilities. How do we reconcile the pressures of meeting targets now and giving resources to something that only promises of some future ill-defined returns? A third is learning, or more specifically unlearning, when do you turn away from the knowledge that has been the source of your success and put your faith in knowledge that is fresh but untested The article suggests is that often the CEO is the only ‘friend’ of innovation, yet may end up with trade-offs between core business and innovation by default, because they delegate responsibility to unit heads and the unit heads are focused on performance targets. Far better to ensure the top team is targeted to deal explicitly with the tensions inherent in the dual demands, both in terms of their personal responsibilities and their procedures for negotiating solutions. Even then, if times are tough and the pressure is on to deliver quarterly results, often the potential failure rate of new innovations can loom large. A quote from the article illustrates the enormity of the challenge

“As Cray Computer’s Pete Ungaro told us, “We had to convince ourselves that spending 50% of our time on something that is delivering 5% of the company’s revenues was worth the effort.” Nonetheless, the results speak for themselves. Once near death, Cray has fought back to profitability, and in 2010, revenues grew by more than 6%.”

So what was my insight? Well it was small, but maybe useful. If decision makers are generally better disposed to the positive messages – the 85% success rate communication, rather than the potential of 15% failure, then even if they structure the top team to hold and examine the tension, conversations about the contradictory demands of efficiency and innovation will always have an inherent bias towards efficiency, because top team members will have much more experience of success compared to innovation. In addition the ambient economic climate at present is full of pessimism rather than optimism. Consequently, because of the timing, learning, resources and structuring challenges, the exploration of risk probabilities will probably be seen as compounding. Still it is important not to shy away from innovation to fuel future economic growth. To overcome the negative bias, it seemed to me that it might be worthwhile adopting a discipline in top team negotiations focused on the ambidexterity paradox, which requires everyone to pay particular attention to the successful risk mitigation strategies from previous innovation projects. By considering what they can learn and apply from positive events in the past, perhaps the temptation to can another innovation project in the face of immediate performance pressures, will be lessened and the top team may feel more comfortable holding the tension.


TUSHMAN, M.L. SMITH, W.K. and BINNS, A. (2011). The Ambidextrous CEO. Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business School Publication Corp.,

Should we think differently about how we manage businesses? Gary Hamel and Julian Birkinshaw from London Business School would certainly answer with a resounding yes. A moment’s reflection and you can see why.

When we operate in a world that is so intimately interconnected and financially interdependent, local ’dis-ease’ (be that lack of confidence or disruption to ‘normal’ operating parameters) in any part of the value chain quickly becomes a pandemic that disrupts the planned pattern of business activities. Think of the ripple effects of Greek debt, the Japanese Tsunami, the Arab Spring, the European E-Coli scare, the Icelandic Ash cloud, and now the prospect of the American debt crisis. Each of these events has had some significant impact on business and the economy, whether in terms of increasing oil prices, damaging confidence in the financial markets, or disrupting supplies and business travel. They’ve all happened this year, and we’re only in August. Whilst in the past management has been about creating stability and security, now the search is on for the source of agility and resilience. There are so many angles that need to be though through, so in 2009, Gary Hamel assembled a self styled Renegade Brigade of big thinkers from industry and academia to start the exploration. They came up with a set of Management Moonshots and you can join the ongoing conversation and contribute your thoughts. Those of you who are members of the KM Forum will remember Julian Birkinshaw speaking about his ideas on Re-Inventing Management, and if you missed it, you can always download his slides from the members website ( sorry to those of you who are not members this is a private area, which only becomes accessible if you join the Henley KM Forum

Clearly knowledge and learning are going to play a big part in the process of re-inventing management, so in 2010, in our own small way, the Henley KM Forum conducted a similar experiment to Gary Hamel. We assembled a group of 14 well known thinkers in the knowledge and learning world and asked them what they thought would help business thrive in a volatile world. This produced some interesting complementary ideas. You can read more about who was involved and learn from over 200 years of collective intelligence that was in the room that afternoon. It is summarised in a short article here,  You can also think about how you can follow the same sort of process by downloading Issue 17 of our Knowledge in Action Series, called Swarm Creativity.

What happens when two black swans come along at once?

Then we might all be better prepared for the arrival of those Black Swans !



July has been a big month for adventurous take-offs. We saw the launch of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 2, the final film in the series, with epic battles between good and evil, and characters disapparating and re-appearing all over Muggle territory as well as across the wizarding world. (If you have no idea, what I am talking about, you’ve missed out on a some fantastic flights of fancy in the last 10 years!). Back in the real world at 11.29am EDT on July 8th, NASA launched STS-135 – the launch of the final flight in the Space Shuttle programme.

Where’s the connection you might ask? Well for me the magic took place in virtual space; in the Eddie Obeng’s Qube. This is where I learned to fly through walls. Disapparating and re-appearing in another place became reality for the first time in my life. It was quite an adventure. (Many of you who participate in MMORPG’s, may find it more mundane, but I usually play tennis and bowls so this was new territory for me). In more down to earth terms, the Qube is where I attended a conference on Innovation without boundaries, without leaving the comfort of my own armchair.

It was just like any conference you would attend in the physical world, except I was an avatar, with a Henley logo on my tummy! (Some people had mastered the process of getting their face on the head of the avatar, and really expert users could produce body language with a few keystrokes of their left hand, which really helped the realism.) As you would expect, there was delegate registration, time to network, a big auditorium (very grandly decorated like a room in Versaille) with some great live speakers making dynamic powerpoint presentations, and smaller rooms with table discussions between delegates. Q & A was catered for through live voice over IP discussion, and conversations with your fellow delegates happened through an online chat function. In between sessions, we could explore the exhibition area, chat or post ideas on sticky notes on walls. The only downside was the virtual champagne, which doesn’t give you the same buzz as the real stuff.

There were delegates coming in from all over the world and speakers from their office, but the technology held up well. It was robust, even with many people using the system. I thought the sound zones were clever. So when you were sitting at a table talking with others, those voices were the loudest, and the background noise of other conversations was muted but clearly present. That made it a very realistic experience.

Initially I found two aspects hard to acclimatise to
1. Turning around to orient myself in the space either in the exhibition area, or when we did exercises to post sticky notes in three different spaces on walls; It made me feel physically sick. (I guess I probably turned too fast and too far, and on occasions I ended up facing a grey wall, which was quite claustrophobic until I worked out how to escape!) If you are used to online gaming in virtual worlds I’m sure you’d get your e-legs much quicker than I did!
2. The lack of peripheral vision. When people started talking to you, and they could see you, but you could not see them, it was hard to know which way to turn to find them (more turning required, so again more potential for e-sickness in my case). However, once I learned that a backward roll of the mouse allowed me to pan out take the helicopter view, rather than looking directly out of my avatar’s eyes, that problem was resolved too.

That aside, once you got used to moving your avatar around using the key board, and once I discovered a very useful compass at the bottom of the screen to help me orient myself, I really found I became quite involved in the conference interactions. Being virtual was less of a boundary than I thought, because I could hear real voices, and see a live presentation. You might say, well we can do that through conventional webinar technology or Skype conferences, or all sorts of other technology. Undeniably yes, but there is something about the visual manifestation of yourself in a space that makes you feel in some way more present with the other people. You don’t feel so inclined to email or text or do other things. – It would be difficult anyway because you have headphones and a microphone on, and the keyboard is your mechanism for navigating. That combined with the visualisation of a space to work collectively in, means all your senses are engaged in focusing on the interaction in the Qube. That gives you a stronger sense of connection to the action. It does make it tiring though, and it certainly means that you need short sessions, and lots of breaks to go and get a cup of real coffee, or stretch your legs. But the team at Pentacle seem to have a most of those things worked out. Excellent, facilitation skills seem to be essential for making this work well, but since the Pentacle team use the Qube to run their own business and meet together as well as using it as an extension of their own training venue, they have learned how to master this.

Overall my first magical adventure was really a great experience. The Qube is a well thought out space which has infinite possibilities for learning and development, events, and collaboration. If you get a chance to join another of Eddies conferences then I would recommend you try it. And one of the other advantages is that you can go back to the future and revisit the space. Everything will still be there as you left it, with the same colours, positions, and visual triggers to help you remember and reflect on the experience.

And my experience of disapparating? Well this was actually when I disappeared suddenly from the registration session because I was only an afternoon delegate. I had started to relate a little with the other delegates, through my avatar, so it had a real feeling of instantaneously leaving the room, and I felt quite out of it until I could return.

I’ve just enjoyed a lovely lunch and an all expenses paid trip down the river at Henley Regatta. The price I paid was minimal. It was Journalists day at Henley, so to build everyone’s appetite faculty were asked to stand up and say something for five minutes before lunch. The general theme was improving, individuals, organisations and society. They asked me to say a bit about how knowledge affects decision- making.  I thought I’d share the extended version of what I said here.  

So, in Wimbledon fortnight and being a keen tennis player, I decided to tell a tennis ball story.

Last year, they used 54,250 Slazenger balls in Wimbledon fortnight. It was an odd year because of the marathon 11 hour Isner/Mahut match. But that only used 123 balls. Useful information if you’re ordering balls, trivia to a player. They change balls every 9 games, because of wear and tear. Someone must have done the cost, benefit calculation, to reach that conclusion. But, professional players inspect the balls at every serve and reject ones that don’t suit their needs. They know that choice affects their performance. I can’t say it would affect mine! Maybe their fussiness is simple superstition! But when you learn that a BLINDFOLDED professional tennis player can accurately tell whether tournament balls were used on clay, grass or hard surfaces, simply by feeling them, it starts to say something about how knowledge works in decision making.
In decisions about service performance, tennis pros combine knowledge of an opponent’s ability, ball placement, spin, the wear on the ball, how they work on the court surface, their own level of confidence, the score at the time. In a few seconds they make a judgement i.e. a knowledgeable decision.
I heard Dave Snowden at KM UK talk about the 4 E’s of knowledge which made me think how do they affect how anyone uses knowledge in decision making.
Knowledge is Embodied – We imagine decisions are rational. Input facts and evidence, reason through some analytical process and you get sound output. But neuroscience has shown knowledge is a whole body experience. It involves hormones and muscles as well as the brain. Researchers asked young men to walk across a rickety bridge. Afterwards a young woman approached them to ask them to fill out the questionnaire. She gave them her phone number under the pretext of doing more research. 65% of the men phoned her after to ask her for a date. When exactly the same woman approached men sat on a bench with the exactly the same spiel, only 30% of them phoned her later. Why? Because the former were energized by the rickety bridge and attributed their excitement to the woman who met them on the other side! A picture of a smiling woman has more effect than a 5% reduction in interest rates on male loan decisions!

You can’t blame them. All decisions have an emotional and a subconscious element. With damage to the emotional centres of their brain, people can’t make even the most basic decisions. Emotions sensitise us to the consequences in context; the subconscious allows us to read subtle signals to respond to good or bad situations. Without that sensitivity, we don’t recognise opportunities and risks quickly enough.
What does that mean for business decision making? People are profoundly influenced by context, so there are more biases in most individual decisions than we generally imagine.
Initial information biases behaviour. Read words like, Bingo Florida and old, to a group of people and when they leave the room they walk more slowly!
All judgement is relative to something else. Have you noticed web sites generally present products from highest to lowest price? Offer someone the most expensive option and work down to what they want and, on average, they spend more than if you show them the cheapest and work up. This is called anchoring.
How you frame something affects decisions. Patients told a surgical procedure has a 15% failure rate are more likely to decide against it than if they’re told it has is an 85% success rate.
People prefer to maintain the status quo if they can, so inertia affects decision making. People actively look for things that confirm their initial assessment; they avoid loss and won’t admit to being wrong part way through.
Some people have a strong aversion to loss. This can mean they adjust forecasts down to be on the safe side, but it also means that they can prevent radical new innovations progressing if it looks like it will mean they lose existing business. Experts are often overconfident about the accuracy of their predictions and forecasts suggesting outcomes that best fit the data without taking into account real probabilities

Unaware of these biases, decisions makers can fall into serious traps. No wonder Peter Drucker estimated that only a third of business decisions were right: a third were minimally effective and the rest, outright failures. That’s a 67% chance that business decisions won’t deliver. A study on decision making effectiveness found that 40% of decisions are never fully implemented.
Which brings me to the second E.
Knowledge is Enacted. Intelligence comes from acting in the physical world. Doing things changes the way the brain works. Experience is both the source of learning and the basis for expertise, but only if you reflect on its implications. If you keep repeating the same activity without examining how well it is working, you embed errors. Practice makes permanent as my old tennis coach used to say. Research suggests that in any field, top performers devote five times longer to becoming great, than average performers devote to becoming competent. Coaching helps them examine precisely what they are doing. Do we devote that sort of time to developing expert business decision makers?

Third E coming up. Knowledge is Embedded – We are the only species that can change our environment. We create ways to store knowledge and capability. Models and principles are mental scaffolding to support better judgements. Physical artefacts augment capability to manipulate our environment – the iPhone for example. Organisations are artefacts, knowledge stores with a unique identity that will exist long after we retire. They all shape possible decisions.
The last E is perhaps the most important. Knowledge is Extended. It brings results through collectives. We are social animals. For most of our genetic history we’ve lived in tribes. So the structure of our brain evolved to thrive in communities. Communities are sources of meaning. Knowledge per se is neutral; it can be used to the benefit or detriment of society. Meaning and value are the consequences of how it is used. In principle, organisations are economic tribes who integrate knowledge into something worthwhile for society – products, services, new inventions that we value in monetary terms to facilitate exchange. Organisations should be better at turning knowledge into value because the community context guides decisions towards something meaningful for those who belong. In a shared context, transactions costs are lower; Individuals can specialise. Specialisation delivers more bang for the buck in knowledge terms than being a jack of all trades. Collectively we should make less mistakes, so be more efficient. We can learn more so we can be more innovative. We can do more to combine expertise by creating the conditions for co-operating with other experts. More people are sensing changes in the outside world, which the collective needs to adapt to, making the community more responsive to change, more competitively distinctive and better able to contribute more value to help society grow and advance. Of course, collectives are prone to groupthink. Present satisfaction can obscure future prosperity. And over the past two years we’ve seen many examples of how major shifts in collective confidence, trust , fear and greed produce bubbles, crashes and global crises in the Middle east, Iraq, and across the financial world.

Decisions are part of organisational life. Knowledge should prevent the consequences of ill- informed decisions. Sound decision-making affects the value business contributes to society, so it has to become a core strategic capability. Organisations can give people responsibility and authority, assuming they can make sensible decisions simply because they have done so in the past, but in our volatile connected world, past experience is also becoming less of a predictor of future success. Key decisions are becoming more complex (they have to take into account more variables, are surrounded by uncertainty and much of the available information is highly ambiguous ). The dilemmas involved in competing through knowledge are hard to resolve because people take opposing positions in the decision making process. So what can we do about it.
So what can we make it happen?

It’s 11 years since I began exploring how knowledge affects organisational performance. Much of what we research in the Henley KM Forum is about strategy, innovation and change. How leadership creates the conditions for performance. How mobilising knowledge can improve efficiency, reduce waste, increase innovation. All involve decisions. Our research, much of which has been assembled in our book Knowledge Works, suggests that knowledge managers have a key role to play in supporting and improving organisational decision quality. Key aspects of their role which came out in the research we did on knowledge enabled decision making include
• Identifying valuable knowledge,
• Developing and retaining expertise, and bringing the diversity of thatr know-how to bear in significant decisions.
• Introducing technology to give easier access to expertise and extend the reach of expert knowledge.
• Developing the relationship capital of the organisation by introducing ways for people to collaborate more effectively internally AND externally with customers, suppliers, competitors and other stakeholders. Then the organisation has the intelligence that it needs to respond to change.
But most importantly knowledge managers have a key role to play in developing organisational capacity to learn how to make better decision. This requires two things: Institutionalising processes like coaching and mentoring that encourage mangers and leaders to reflect honestly and carefully on their approach to decision making and its successes and failures. And helping everyone collectively to review and learn from different types of decisions, to build an appropriate repertoire of responses to the various contexts.

Perhaps it’s overpaying the tennis metaphor, but I’ll leave you with a question. Why the deuce should we be satisfied with amateurs batting decisions back and forth? Shouldn’t we make a ‘racquet’ about developing expert leaders and managers who ace the decision making process so that organisations produce more value for society?

Getting up early to travel into London is not a favourite activity of mine. Still the compensation was my pleasure at hearing the KM community getting exercised about how to improve their strategic contribution to business performance and thinking about redefining KM as a business decision support activity. Yes, we have to pay some attention to knowledge capture and organised redistribution, but the energy invested in managing knowledge is always going to deliver more if the focus of activities is supporting a strategic imperative. Currently, given the volatility of business conditions, one imperative ought to be developing greater agility. KM is a crucial catalyst for organisational development and change, but often not positioned as such.

Another small reward for getting up early was Dave Snowden’s keynote. I’ve heard Dave speak many times, but for me this keynote really hit the spot. I’d recommend listening to the podcast. Unfortunately I am not a sci-fi officionado, so I probably missed some of the subtleties in the quotes from the Bene Gesserit, but I might be inclined now to explore the Dune saga and ponder its significance for KM. Still, the direct messages were right on the money for me.

We do expect too much of the rational, when it’s the illogical, emotional, messy human approach to decision making that is really what we need to understand. We are often too hopeful about technology solutions, too bound up in defining processes, best practices, which don’t deliver the intended outcomes.

The metaphor of a cook following a recipe vs a top chef provided a great starting point for distinguishing between the sort of results you get from a mechanistic approach vs flexible application of expertise.   I came across the KM as cooking metaphor several years ago.  

For a long time, at Henley, we have been asking programme members studying KM to create a poster that conveys the topic and captures the subtleties through a visual metaphor.  Visual metaphors get round some of the limitations of black and white words, particularly they allow people to bring richer associations into an interpretative blend (Christine and I wrote about this in a special issue of a Journal, earlier this year[1]

KM as cooking. Poster by Josef Bajada. 2008. Reproduced with permission

 Josef Bajada created this poster, which I think contains a lot of food for thought! I love the way it gives you a sense that ingredients can be combined in different ways, producing a fusion of flavours that is more than the sum of the parts. Following a recipe does not produce the same result each time (my efforts at cake making are strong evidence of that!). There’s judgement and flair involved and for the great chef years of expertise deeply embedded in their actions to create an enticing and flavoursome dish. The outcome is sensory, healthy, nourishing. All very evocative of KM in my view.

[1] McKenzie J and van Winkelen C. 2011 : “Beyond words: Visual metaphors that can demonstrate comprehension of KM as a paradoxical activity system” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 28, p138-149 . For a copy please email me








[1] McKenzie J and van Winkelen C. 2011 : “Beyond words: Visual metaphors that can demonstrate comprehension of KM as a paradoxical activity system” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 28, p138-149

Bridging the old and the new. Between the old and new town of Nicosia

Last week I went to Cyprus for a couple of days. I’d been invited to give an after-lunch talk about Knowledge Works. My hosts were the chair of the Henley Alumni Association, Neophytos Karamanos and Kyriakos Kokkinos, the Chairman of the Cyprus Association of Directors (CyAd). Kyriakos is also IBM’s General Manager for Cyprus.

Cyprus is an interesting country; so much history, but much is changing. As Evegenios Evegeniou, the new managing partner of PWC in Cyprus explained, the country is moving away from its economic roots in agriculture towards a knowledge-based economy – finance, health tourism, regular tourism etc. But many local businesses are not thinking hard about knowledge as something that can affect their performance. Of course, they are not alone, in these economically tough times KM is often neglected or downsized.

One member of the audience certainly showed significant reservations about my propositions. At the time I am not sure I answered his question well, but I’m pleased to say it set me thinking.

It all started with a question from the Chair. He asked if I thought knowledge should have a seat at Board level, in the form of a Chief Knowledge Officer. Naturally, I said yes. Knowledge is a strategic resource so there should be someone thinking about how the asset can benefit the business. Ian McRoy challenged that view, because I had already said that knowledge sharing should be everyone’s responsibility. Surely, if one person heads knowledge activity, there’s a risk that knowledge activity becomes a silo-ed responsibility, rather than everyone taking up the baton. Personally I think there are many reasons why that doesn’t happen. In my experience, senior KM people, tend to see the world as connected and interdependent rather than divided functionally, so they are good a boundary spanning. Generally there are only a few people in the KM team so they have to work through others to achieve anything. KM practitioners have often worked in different parts of the business, have good relationship/networking skills and are broad and complex thinkers. In addition, KM interventions are supporting processes designed to create the conditions that encourage others to collaborate and pool their knowledge. The task focus comes from the business problems and opportunities. Having a place at the top table allows the Chief Knowledge Officer to keep intangibles at the forefront of the Board’s mind, but overall it’s a top down bottom up combination that works best. Without the top down influence, knowledge becomes less of a priority. Without the knowledge activists from bottom up, momentum is hard to maintain.

What pushed me to think a bit more deeply was the challenge from someone at the back of the room. In essence he was saying, why bother to pay attention to knowledge. Isn’t it just change management in another guise? So why not create a strategy for change and plan a purposeful implementation and people will start sharing their knowledge to achieve that result? My rather pat answer was yes in many respects it is change management. It just has a knowledge lens. Strategically, knowledge management is the mechanism for converting intellectual capital into something that customers and society find valuable. If we don’t focus on knowledge, embedded in human, structural and relationship capital, and give it the same attention as we do inventory, buildings, machinery and money, we miss the opportunity to get the most from the imagination, intellect and insight of the talent engaged in the work of the organisation.
The gentleman came up to me later and apologised for being so forceful in his challenge. I’m glad he was. He explained that his view came from experience at BAT. He’d seen that company change, when tobacco became a sufficiently antisocial product to threaten the company’s future, without an emphasis on knowledge. I immediately responded yes, but that was a crisis, and people change more readily in a crisis. Thinking about that now, that’s a vital point. We know that concern, urgency, some sort of imperative unfreezes patterned behaviour, encourages people to revisit and question the norms that keep them doing things in the same old way. So if we want to people to adopt knowledge practices, it’s got to be better to pitch the ideas in the context of a real business imperative, rather than selling it as a helpful general intervention. Most people and organisations are keen to avoid the pain of crisis. KM is a way to prevent the avoidable crises created by unnecessary waste, poor quality or insufficient innovation, because it can be a proactive way to uncover what people know but don’t say is not working well, or sense but can’t articulate needs changing. But people are more likely to do something about it, if stimulated by a meaningful sense of urgency.

Today the word sinister has rather negative and discomforting connotations. But originally, in Latin, it just meant left rather than right. We use our right brain and our left brain for different things. Right brained activity is often thought of as creative, ironically for business, the sinister side of the brain is often associated with rational analytical activity! Most of us have a dominant side. You can get a sense of your personal orientation from this YouTube video.

Western educational systems have done much to develop my so called left brain capacity. In business, this analytical capacity is highly valued, but reductive and linear thinking only provides part of how anyone makes sense of the world.  With practice I can see the dancer turning both ways. In practice, both two sides of my brain can and need to work together. This is what helps me make sense of human behaviour, synthesise and integrate, learn and gain insight into the holistic nature of complex organisational knowledge based network.

People can learn to use both sides of their brain. Can organisaions, who have a sort of collective mind.  And anyway why should we go to all that effort? Well if you are leading an organisation, your responsibility is to get the most from the intellectual assets that are the engine of organisational growth. It makes for better performance, and more sustainable organisations.  One of the biggest contradictions in productive knowledge work ( the foundation for intellectual capital) is the fact that how we organise to encourage knowledge re-use and exploit its value can create conditions which are not conducive to creativity. Stability, repeatability, systematisation rely on embedded knowledge. They make it easier for lots of people to do the right thing. To improve the efficiency of the business, we develop management processes, systems and structures that channel activity so that what is known collectively gets to where it can be used. Better application of existing knowledge is the root of cost reduction, improving quality, learning and continuous improvement. People share good practices and when problems arise, others know where to access the expertise they need.

Leaders need to keep in mind both requirements

But conditions that encourage people to explore new ideas, learn, change and produce innovation tend to ignore existing knowledge and re-invent the wheel unnecessarily. For the organisation to have the capacity to change, innovate and do the right thing in response to market volatility, customer and client requirements, government directives, it needs new sources of ideas, divergent ways of looking things, more fluid routines, less structured channels for knowledge sharing, Changes in mindsets and perspective, are vital for innovation.

But most organisations tend towards efficiency, because they understand the strengths and competencies of the organisation and the basis for its current success. This creates norms and areas of comfort for those who belong, but can make them reluctant to change. New technologies, social changes, changes in political directions all mean that the way to deliver the purpose of the organisation needs to be continually re-invented, and constant change is quite uncomfortable. The balance is hard to achieve but essential for sustainability – current and future success. Yet in a volatile world, every organisation has to pay attention to BOTH these activities simultaneously. It has to become “ambidextrous”, in other words the left and right brain need to be more joined up. Neuroscience has found that left handed and ambidextrous people have more connections between their left and right hand side of their brain, through the corpus callosum. What does this tell us about the challenges of instilling ambidexterity into the organisation? Simply we have to get everyone to the point that they can be comfortable with both requirements co-existing and open to the expectation that as individuals they have to live with and fulfil the demands of both sides of the competitive dilemma.

At Henley we have been doing a lot of thinking about how to join things up, and it’s no easy task, because people get into comfort zones related to performance which mean they tread a path that ticks all the familiar boxes with respect to corporate expectations, but are nervous about venturing into new territory and taking a risk. We wrote a little about the role of knowledge managers in helping to join things up in the Essay in two voice. We have also just released a white paper on the Henley website, which explores what some organisations are doing in their journey towards ambidexterity, particularly in terms of leadership and human capital management. It’s a challenging journey and most businesses have just started, but it may give you some ideas as to what you can do to take a first step towards this vital organisational capability. One key message seems to be engagement really matters.

Knowledge workers are volunteers not conscripts. You can’t control whether they care, only create the conditions which inspire them to. People need to KNOW WHY they should do something in order to KNOW HOW to contribute their best. They have to be engaged and stimulated to go the extra mile, and KNOW WHO to share their knowledge with. So beyond the many systems, processes and procedural interventions, we have to start thinking more about how communication affects organisational capability, how relationships and social capital affect the foundation for trust and confidence, and how to develop leadership talent who feel comfortable with paradoxical thinking and pass F Scott Fitzgerald’s test of first class intelligence which is the

“ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”.

Organisations can’t be dynamic without a sinister side to offset chaos, they can’t be efficient without a dextrous side to offset rigidity.

The day after our venture into dialogue, I ventured into another game of batting the ball back and forth across continents. This time a live game of tennis.

Abingdon are on the left of the picture.

Our tennis coach in Spain, Steve Durie, ( Yes, the brother of Jo Durie) organised a match between a team from Abingdon in Oxford, on holiday in Spain and a local club in Guardamar , that he coaches. They were short of ‘Spanish’ ladies, Yours truly, in the yellow on the right,  played 4 sets of doubles, two ladies and two mixed (and won two).  A nice contrast to the verbal tennis of the day before!

Last Thursday was a quiet day, devoted to a dialogue in which no word was spoken. Christine and I had agreed to contribute “an Essay in Two Voices”, as part of a research project that Victoria Ward of Sparknow initiated. The aim is to explore the Evolution of the Knowledge Manager.

In the words of one of the researchers Sandra Higgison:

“Sparknow has observed and played a part in the evolution of the knowledge manager since the mid-1990s. To map this journey, we have embarked on a project to collect the words, experiences and artefacts of the practitioners who have lived it. “

It will be a fascinating project, when complete, because the end result will be a collection of stories that

“ will connect knowledge managers to the experiences of their peers and illustrate how narrative research provides the colour, flavour and texture that make knowledge transfer real.”

Why not take a look at the posts so far on the Sparknow blog.

I guess you could say Christine and I have lived the practitioners’ journey a bit vicariously through our conversations and interactions with KM Forum members since 2000, and through the research we have done, but anyway we set aside the day to try to create one of those artefacts that Sandra mentions. I sat in the sun in Spain. Sadly, Christine had her head down in her home office in the UK.

The Essay in Two Voices (or Ei2V for short) technique was developed by Madelyn Blair. It involves two people in a structured process of writing together, apart on a previously agreed topic. 

Our contribution was

If a knowledge manager’s role is to help join up the organisation, what does it require?

There are six rounds in the dialogue. Each participant has an equal voice, because for each round they have a fixed word allowance. At the end of each round participants exchange what they have written, and without discussion, read, respond and develop their views on the topic further. The final twist in the process is that the word allowance is cut by half each time. We started with 500 words in the first round and finished with a 140 characters. (I suppose you could tweet the outcome if you wanted, although I think we cheated a bit because we each counted 140 characters without spaces, and for twitter we would have had to count spaces).

Being academics, we realised before we started that we would want to refer to some of the big thinkers in the field, but the word count could be blown out of the water by referencing, (on the web all it takes is a hyperlink to acknowledge others’ ideas, but bibliographies consume hundreds of words!) So we were given special license not to include references in the wordcount and to be ourselves. We also chose to operate according to a timetable, so we were writing simultaneously and exchanged at a pre-agreed time. A structured timetable wasn’t part of the requirements, but personally I found it helpful. Once I got started, I was keen to see how Christine would tackle each round, and what would emerge in each response. Dedicating time to concentrate only on the topic at hand helped me keep focus and make the mental connections between the elements. The side effect of timing it was to give us both equal thinking and typing time. I can see this could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who is involved. If you’re a slow typist, or you find it hard to write, (fortunately neither apply to us) it could be a stumbling block. If you are deep thinker you may find the time pressures and then need to focus on word count is a little inhibiting. We both agreed that for a complex topic the simplification process needed care, if it was going to remain meaningful. Christine thought that it would be important to pick a topic you really cared about in order to really get the most from the exercise.

The experience provoked different responses in each of us. Of course we know each other’s thinking reasonably well, having worked together for around 11 years, and published books and articles together. But we still have different views on things. Christine is intrigued by how different people absorb knowledge in different ways, and reflecting on the experience, she felt it was harder to relate to what I was ‘saying’ when it was textual rather than verbal, whereas I don’t absorb verbal material so easily, but I enjoy playing with the written word. Both of us found that in the middle our thinking diverged, as we homed in on different things, and surprisingly, by the end, we had reached separate views. I found that towards the end, the requirement to keep reducing the word count was quite tricky to handle. First I had to decide when to stop adding in ideas, and secondly it was harder to relate to the Christine’s thinking without simply repeating it. Plus, it was at this point that we started to find our points of difference, but we’d run out of words to explore them. As always, our points of difference provide a basis for a further discussion. With the conversation conveniently captured, we will have something to refer back to, when we want to explore further. That’s quite helpful.

To me the process is a good reflective discipline for distilling a significant amount of thinking, without excessive verbiage. It’s something others can refer to. I did feel that the final artefact covered quite more territory, in under 2000 words than we would have face to face. See what you think, Essay in two voices CVW and JMCK final

It would certainly be a very different experience if you did not know your conversational partner, I’d like to try that too. I’d also be interested to hear from others what they think about the process and the results. If you want to know more and read some other examples, then Madelyn has published a book  which is available through Amazon. SHe will be blogging about the process and I’ll add that to the blogroll when she starts.