Archive for the ‘Change’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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