Archive for the ‘decision-making’ Category

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that the traditional paradigm of decision making – where an all-seeing and wise CEO ‘makes the call’ alone- is being superseded by more participative and data-intensive approaches”.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

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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!

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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.,

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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?

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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

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 In the early part of the 20th Century Arthur C Clarke said

  Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  

 Business technologies seem to be advancing faster than we can grasp.  To the unsophisticated user like me, they are a bit like black magic, particularly when something goes wrong. The rate change and the system interdependencies are both very disruptive.  Still, they really do offer enormous potential to change the way we work in many positive ways.  It’s almost as good as waving a magic wand to transport you to where the action is, when you can  

  • Can access information from a cloud,
  • Are only 4 steps removed from anyone in the world now we have social computing, 
  • And can be as productive on the move as in the office

 Really getting the most from these technologies is going to mean some changes to the way we work, both as individuals and organisations.  Security is obviously a big consideration when we are so connected and we have digitised our identity.  Organisational structures will probably need changing to make best use of easy access and mobility. Decision making, learning, conversations, all key aspects of knowledge work, take on challenging new dimensions, when we rarely meet the people we work with and there is so much information available to work with.  It’s been said that drawing information from the internet is like trying to get a glass of water from Niagara Falls!  

So it’s worth thinking through how best to translate this overwhelming tide of opportunities into more productive knowledge work.   Yesterday morning,  at Unysis UK HQ,  I had the privilege of chairing a breakfast meeting designed to explore these issues (Twitter #HKMWorks). It was very thought provoking, because of three excellent speakers. 

 First up was Rob Chapman, Managing Director of Unysis UK.  In his years in the industry he’s seen lost of major shifts in technology.  The advent of the PC, Client-Server architectures, Open Source were certainly all major trends, which changed the way we worked.  But each had their own time – there was breathing space before the next one.  Today it is very different. Multiple trends are happening at the same time – trends that are influencing the way IT systems are designed and delivered.  Unisys has published its view on the convergence of 6 major trends that are reshaping the delivery of IT services to organizations.  You can read more about their predictions by downloading the briefing sheet from here .  Cyber security is the really scary issue.  Individuals are obviously concerned about identity theft, but organisations are facing attacks from sophisticated organised crime cartels, that target new financial opportunities the instant they are released.  The CIO has to become the Chief Information Security Officer too.

 It certainly made me reflect on how the risks and rewards of something that is simply an enabler, depend heavily on human intent and behaviour.  

 Next we heard from Dr Christine van Winkelen, from the Henley KM Forum.  She talked about how knowledge can be put to work more effectively by improving decision making process and joining up learning initiatives. Amongst other things improvement is very dependent on personal reflection (see an earlier entry on this blog).   One of the key messages was the importance of individuals knowing where they fit in terms of what they can do to put their knowledge to work.   They can only do this when they understand the business purpose. Then they see how they can contribute positively. Then they can align intent with behaviour.   To get that purposeful message across really requires “more communication than you can ever imagine”.  This is obviously where technology in the form of social media, can play a helpful role internally. It was good to hear that Rob finds his weekly blog is a great way to keep people in touch with senior team thinking and engage them in meaningful conversations about what matters to the business.   Christine’s slides are available here, and many of the detailed maturity models and coaching frameworks are also available on the same page.    

 The third speaker was Jim Downie. He has the delightful title of Knowledge Networker in Unisys Chief Technology Office.  Jim brought us back to the practicalities of life in organisations now.  His focus was the value of integrating the range of emerging technologies into the firm’s business processes in ways that helps individual’s do their jobs more easily. This really accelerates and enhances collaborative activity, and allows people to keep in touch wherever and whenever they need to.   Unysis are using social media as a one of a whole suite of tools for getting knowledge moving more effectively.   Starting with serendipitous conversations through instant messenger, request for help, status reviews and twitter to using Sharepoint for communities’ conversations and giving access to the latest learning about good practice from the experience of working with clients.   One thing that came across loud and clear from Jim’s session was that purposeful business activity was where Unysis started; people not technology were considered to be the key to success; simple and social were essential for engagement with the opportunities that so many disruptive technologies offer.  Jim’s slides are also available here

We had an interesting discussion with the audience around the keys to adoption of social media inside organisations. Was it age related or driven by the momentum of a trend that was too powerful to ignore?  The conclusion was that it there has to be


a powerful “what’s in it for me” factor for everyone, because that overrides the risks and disadvantages of not having face to face contact. That could be better career, improved reputation, greater recognition or simply fun and informal social involvement.  Probably it is not a monetary incentive, because that often drives the opposite behaviour.


 a “what’s in it for the business” factor.  If you are thinking of increasing the opportunities for conversation (which uses time and energy) it’s important that people have a sense of which conversations are worth having. They get that if they can relate their interactions to something that makes it easier for the organisation to achieve some beneficial purpose.  Then people work within a relevant set of boundaries.

When you can both sides get what they need, and you align the interests,  you get a win-win equation which keeps compounding.  It starts a virtuous circle of learning and change.  People get interest in being involved in sharing through social media, the experience and involvement lead to positive results, which further encourage interest and involvement.    

There are lots more questions we could have discussed

  • How technology is changing the relationship between the enterprise and the individual.
  • How mobile technologies are changing the way we work.
  • How we need to think differently about security as a consequence of technology developments.
  • How new approaches are needed to integrate information, knowledge and connections between people.
  • How learning is the basis for the organic evolution of organisations in dynamic environments.
  • How mindsets need to change to make individual and collective reflection part of how we work in knowledge-based environments.   


And there aren’t any easy answers to any of them.  Rob seemed to be suggesting that answers will emerge as people work with the technology trends.  The other message of the morning was that to realise technology’s productive potential takes a lot of deep and careful thinking about how to handle the darker side of the magic, alongside an ability to focus its magical properties on a worthwhile business purpose. This comes through thinking how to align individual human interests with mutual rewards from participating in a meaningful enterprise.        

 Time was against, and having consumed some excellent coffee and pastries everyone disappeared off to deliver some productive work in the office, or on the move.  I left thinking that it is an exciting time and we have many changes to look forward to, so the ability to adapt and learn is an even more important skill than it has ever been.

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The last blog was a bit frustrating, ending as it did without an answer to joined up decision making.   It hinted that people need to feel more connected to the consequences, but without a suggestion as to how.  

In 2009, A Demos report questioned the possibility of silver bullets, but offered some guidance for connecting the dots to address complex problems at the level of policy. The conclusion was that it is a mistake to define the problem too quickly or too narrowly.  Time to think is crucial for considering the interconnected risks; learning and adaptation in the actual decision making process is also vital to achieve a meaningful outcome for all the various stakeholders.   

 In our book, we define five factors that shape the quality of organisational decision making.  Practices for deploying expertise, technology and collaboration (internal and external) are three elements that bring rich and varied input to problem definition and exploration.  They are also the areas where knowledge management has made significant progress.  Through these channels, decision makers can frame the problem broadly and bring to bear a depth of understanding to the problem space. Relevant and diverse input is vital for well informed decisions.  Organisational learning is the fourth factor. This encourages collective evaluation of decision outcomes and processes. The critical relationship between learning, adaptation and agility means many firms give this attention, through techniques like after action reviews.   Yet, at root, the seeds of organisational learning lie in individual decision makers learning how to improve their personal practice.

Learning spirals and builds in repeated phases. Spiral text courtesy of Inkscape

The personal learning process is often explained as a four phase cycle of experience, reflection, mentally organising thoughts into meaningful concepts followed by trial actions to test existing understanding. This produces new experience on which to reflect and so it goes on.   Sad to say, practitioners in the KM Forum felt strongly that in the rush and pressure of high-paced business activities, reflection is the one thing that is often neglected.   Action is usually the priority.   Experience may be valued, but reflection gets squeezed out as a luxury. There is not enough time to think.    In my experience, in programmes of post graduate learning, reflection is always something that needs to be encouraged. Often programme members find it harder than absorbing theory or doing things.   Perhaps that’s because it can be uncomfortable to reflect on mistakes, perhaps because it feels more productive to be doing something rather than thinking. But more likely it seems a nebulous activity that feels less productive; some even think of it as time wasting.  In reality it is crucial to both relating new knowledge to past experience, changing mindsets, embedding understanding and imagining how to do things better.   All the after action reviews in the world won’t change behaviour unless individuals spend time reflecting on the meaning for them personally.   Jennifer Moon  calls it mental housekeeping.  The process of re-organising what we know to accommodate new input and experience.  Without it we don’t modify our practice, but we go around and around the learning cycle, spinning our wheels repeating the same mistakes without improving.  And practice makes permanent, as my old tennis coach used to say. Practice only makes perfect if we are open to thinking about how we need to adapt and change.  The problem is often management knowledge is tacit.  If something is hard to express, it’s going to be even harder to modify. Without reflection, all sorts of emotional filters, implicit sense-making, assumptions and judgements remain unexamined.  Reflection is a discipline you can explore in this short slide show.

 As Chris Collison points out it doesn’t really take much time. You can do it on an aircraft in that enforced break from the online buzz created by the need to switch off all electronic equipment.  Peer assists, in and after action reviews are collective versions of these learning principles. It’s really about questioning the known.  The advantage is that practice can ‘make deeper and better considered knowledge available” (Moon 2010).  

Journal writing is a well trodden route for reflecting.   The list of benefits is long.  It is a way of bringing into consciousness some of the tacit mental connections.  Getting thoughts down, they are more readily available for examination.    More than just recording experience, writing is an opportunity to be critical of one’s own thinking and approach to learning; it can increase personal ownership as the writer works with the meaning of what they write. Over the years, many people have argued that reflection improves problem solving skills, increases creativity, is therapeutic, helps behavioural change, and gives the writer a way to understand their own view of the world and get a sense of who they are becoming in the process of learning.   Writing is a different means of expression to speech and engages different emotions and parts of the brain.    Overall it has potential for helping people feel more connected to the consequences of their decisions.  

The modern day equivalent of journal writing is the blog.   Sadly, of all the social media tools it seems to be the least appreciated and used.   Of course there are risks with open publication and business decision makers are rightly nervous of over exposure.  But used judiciously, leadership blogs can offer a way for decision maker to simultaneously reflect on decisions before, during and after, and at the same time engage key stakeholders, gauge their views and opinions and influence their thinking.  This might prevent problems being defined too narrowly or too quickly leading to poor decisions and bad outcomes.    

Just a reflection!

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On Tuesday evening, I went to the Savoy.  Sounds impressive, and indeed  when you walk through the revolving doors it’s like entering another world. 

What I found more beguiling, though, was the conversation .  Hilary Austen, author of the “Artistry Unleashed. A guide to pursuing great performance in work and life.”  Tom Hulme, Design Director of IDEO, Daniel Weil of Pentagram, and Tyler Brûlé. Editor in Chief of Monocle were part of a penal discussion led by Roger Martin, Dean of the Rottman Business School and author of “The Opposable Mind”.

The discussion was largely about the limitations of an education that focuses on analysis, quantitative measures and facts, whilst neglecting or undervaluing the essential aspects of development associated with the creative arts and design.   Creative pursuits apparently develop the capacity the think and reason differently – to consider the world a more integrated, connected way, with deeper insight and more exploratorion of alternative perspectives.

At the heart of the argument is the premise that creative people focus on qualities rather than quantities, sharpen their sensitivity to sensory input rather than symbols, pay attention to nuances and attitudes rather than numbers.      

A world of ambiguity whicever way you look at it. (view of the world courtesy of Nasa)

It is not that we should abandon the quantitative.  It’s more a question of tempering a deeply imbued obsession with measurement to allow for  richer  perceptions and more evocative contextual understanding. If we accept that ambiguity and volatility are incontravertible qualities of modern business activity, then  we start to see the limits of quantitative evaluation. It’s often retrospective; it frequently over simplifies; outliers and anomalies tend to be ignored in statistical patterns; people become transactional in their drive to make the numbers, they are not motivated by mastery of their medium.    

 It seemed to me that the distinction between work and artistry lies in the beginning and end point of Austen’s model of a personal knowledge system:- the artist’s identity and motivation (crucially labelled Directional knowledge).  These profoundly personal qualities are intimately linked to the artists Conceptual knowledge (that is their understanding of the medium in which they work) and this is both informed by and guides their skill and awareness developed through practice and experience ( Experiential knowledge).   Deep experience of playing with qualities and creating both shape the way an artist views the world and shapes their perception of their own identity.

Writers, poets, painters, musicians, cooks, experience an intense sensory immersion in their work. Perseverance in the face of failure to meet their own personal standards is an unavoidable part of the creative journey.   The next creative act draws forth something that has to build from yet develop and improve on previous success.   Perhaps people in professions feel the same intensely personal identification with what they do,  but can managers and operatives?  If you are an intermediary in the organisng process, disconnected from the end product, if  the  primary source of feedback comes through quantitative measurement  and the primary incentives are the carrots and sticks implicit in performance management systems,  there is but a weak connection between effort and outcome. Then it’s easy to divorce one’s identity from the end result.   We’ve seen the consequences of that in all the managerial failures in companies like Enron and Tyco and the recent cascade of bank failures.

Unleashing artistry seems to me to be important considerations in the design of leadership development programmes and the process of talent management.   Future leaders, sensitised to qualitative input as well as quantitative evidence are likely to make better informed and more rounded decisions, create a culture that is more conducive to knowledge sharing, and be able to read the strategic landscape more perceptively.  One might hope that they would be less likely to take narrow, singular perspectives, follow formulae that worked historically, and blinker themselves  to the weak signals that presage major change.  

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Informed decisions come from listening to lots of different points of view. At least that’s what we are told. Social media would seem to offer an ideal opportunity to extend the connections and gain a richer perspective. But human behaviour is such that people frequently don’t take advantage of the opportunity.  It seems we hate contradictions. Because, we all prefer a sense of belonging we are disturbed by difference.   According to Margaret Heffernan, this tendency produces wilful blindness. We connect to people with similar views.   So we follow blogs we agree with, we pick up on the tweets that resonate, and we surround ourselves with people like ourselves, who we feel most comfortable with.  It’s the best way to avoid conflict, and our brains don’t like conflict. Consequently, however much contradictory information is out there, (and with the range and reach of the internet, there is certainly plenty) it’s more natural to seek out those who confirm our own beliefs.  We instinctively blind ourselves to contradictory evidence, which can signal a crucial turning point for our decisions.     

Margaret’s book explains why we become ‘deliberately’ blind.  If being different means that we risk ostracism, we’re more likely to comply with the majority view or follow the rules despite the consequences.  The sub-prime mortgage catastrophe was a perfect example. Individually lots of people knew it was mad to keep selling mortgages to people who could not afford it, on the grounds that prices would always go up. But once it started, no-one dared stand out and be the ‘nay-sayer’.  It was easier both individually and corporately to justify risky financial investments by thinking others were doing it so they must know what they were doing, or by arguing that it would be stupid not to get on the bandwagon and miss a quick profit. So the whole fiasco mushroomed.  Interestingly the more competitive the environment got, the more people conformed and followed like lemmings over the cliff.  Belonging matters more than reason.    

Experiments show that people who feel excluded often feel their life is less meaningful.  Meaning comes from following some purpose that is bigger than ourselves, but the bigger it becomes the more disconnected we become from an empathetic response to individuals and personal consequences.  Our moral and ethical compass also fails.  Experiments also show that people will quickly develop faulty reasoning simply to avoid the distress of ‘dissonant data’; they may even abandon their own humanity and act cruelly in order not to be the odd one out. 

Poor decisions like the Iraq War, Enron, the failure of the music, the film and the TV industry to recognise the threat from free sharing, all these fiascos and more can be attributed in some way to wilful blindness.

If it is so hard to acknowledge knowledge that jars with established patterns of understanding, or to go against the grain of the group, what does this mean for strategic decision making? The risk is that it will always tend towards conformity, the norm, the way the rest of the industry is operating, and the courage to be contradict the trend will be hard to translate into concrete innovations.

 According to Heffernan, it is those who are deeply wedded to successful ways of working and powerful positions, who most need to be shaken by the ‘unfettered exploration of the ‘unvarnished truth’  They need  to be exposed  to those who challenge authority, and speak the inconvenient truths; encouraged to really listen to the whistleblowers and to empathise with the powerless.    Her suggestion is to introduce a thinking partner. Someone to think alongside the decision maker, who will encourage critical thinking, play devil’s advocate,  and deliberately provide the contradictory evidence that create dissonance which must be resolved to the satisfaction of all. Contradictory  mechanisms have to be embedded  into the structural capital of the organisation. The Indian company, Tata, capture this imperative in a corporate motto ‘question the unquestionable’.   Carol Vallone CEO of WebCT would insist that experts changed roles when contributing to strategy debates so that they were forced to take a different perspective. Large organisations tend to become insulated from critical dissent through hierarchies. The manufacturing giant, W. L Gore removes the insulation by a policy that no business unit can be larger than 100 people; difference is institutionalised through a modular structure that is small enough for people to feel that they can belong to and still have a voice.  At the Henley KM Forum, we embody the tension between theory and practice in our research projects, by having two project co-champions – An academic and a practitioner.  Some businesses adopt a similar organising principles. They work out which core dilemmas have the most influence on business performance, then deliberately give peers  shared responsibility  for the apparently contradictory requirements underpinning the tension, and give them shared targets, so that they are motivated to give each other mutual support.  The risk of course is that this produces stalemate or wastes time in much argument, but the real benefit is in appreciating how conflict can contribute to better decisions and not being blindsided by complacency and wilful ignorance of really important realities.

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