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Archive for the ‘communication’ 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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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.

http://public-domain-photos.com/search/campfire

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.

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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.

http://www.mostinterestingfacts.com/art/top-10-most-famous-paintings-in-the-world-ever.html

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.

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Astounding ! The top news story of today was the Twitter furor about which footballer took out a super injunction to block news of his affair. The topic of conversation at my tennis club on Saturday was the same. Whilst there are clearly profound issues of personal privacy and international law that need to be resolved, I find it worrying that surrounded by the serious and intractable world problems of recent times, so many people are fixated on something that really matters mainly to the families involved. Perhaps it’s easier to be distracted by lives of the rich and famous than to think about the far more challenging problems of economic crisis and human suffering.

Of course, I know that Twitter has also helped people to come together for more important conversations. The demands for democracy in countries like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria arose because suddenly oppressed people have a broad band freedom to speak collectively about something that matters to them. I started to ask myself what is it that attracts people to these radically different topics? What gives these themes momentum? I wonder if it comes down to what seems meaningful at the time?

Recently I read a book called the Pursuit of Meaning, by Joseph Fabry. I started to worry about the consequences of the freedom Twitter brings, when I read statements like

“‘the meanings of today become the values of tomorrow.’

Twitter gives people a voice and freedom to speak. That conversation becomes meaningful to vast swathes of people. Should we value freedom to simply to have a say, or should we using that democratic freedom for something more constructive? Is freedom from restraint without responsibility for the consequences good for us collectively? Ill informed, or unreflective use of freedom can be a dangerous thing. We live in an age where knowledge is multiplying faster than we can keep up with it. Universities are doing an excellent job of developing scientific knowledge in the fields of physics, chemistry, engineering, medicine. All that knowledge makes so many more things possible. So we gain more and more degrees of freedom. But we also live in an age where the disruption of many traditional values have left many individuals feeling isolated , insecure, confused and dare I say empty if their inclinations are to focus energy on the trials and tribulations of the rich and famous, rather than more meaningful activities.

Generally it seems that humans find deep meaning in three things,

  •  Creative activities – Doing something worthwhile at work, in our hobbies, tasks that we are passionate about
  • Experiences that are valued– relationships with other human beings, connections to art, nature or something that resonates with a fundamental value that touches us
  •  Attitudes – the freedom to take a stand against some fateful or momentous issues.

 Plato suggested that the purpose of education was to ensure that rulers were the well informed sensitive to the needs of the day and responsive to conscience. Effective democracy relies on everyone who is going to given a say meeting the same standards of care. It seems to me that our educational system which is good at delivering facts and technical knowledge and analysis also has a responsibility to develop people who care about the way they use their freedom for something worthwhile and more meaningful than twittering about other people’s private lives.

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Just recently, I’ve had quite a lot of experience caring for elderly parents. It’s caused me to reflect a lot on the challenge of joined up approaches to problem solving in organisations.

Imagine the scenario. From the family’s perspective, a sick relative is a whole person. They don’t turn into a bag of disconnected bits, just because one part isn’t functioning well. When you care for a whole person, it’s natural to consider how basic needs like eating, drinking, personal safety interact with their medical conditions. Yet, the structure of the support systems actively discourages that sort of joined up thinking. The divisions in the system lead to fragmented judgements that put the patient at risk. Each specialism focuses on a different aspect of the patient needs. Doctors and nurses respond to immediate medical problems, social workers support social care needs, occupational therapists provide mobility aids and equipment for easier living, assisted technology experts provide alarms and fancy gadgetry. Then there are the physiotherapists, podiatrists, pharmacists, and paramedics, moving and handling specialists, mobile oxygen suppliers, meals on wheels and individual carers who are under pressure to care for a whole range of complex conditions that beset the elderly, with only limited knowledge. Lots of care available, but all of them have different aims and objectives, different targets to meet, and different policies to comply with. Most of them seem to have only a superficial connection with one other, and little agreement about what is possible. If you compound that problem by allowing your relative to fall ill away from their home community, then you are in deep trouble! No-one knows who to speak to and procedures prohibit the delivery of service in other locations. So joining up the various procedures and rules between different councils and spending areas becomes nigh on impossible. For example, the rules say care can’t be provided until the nurses and social services have assessed the needs in the patient’s home, but the patient is unsafe to go home until care is in place!

Of course, each of them has the interests of the patient at heart. Yet they system as a whole has more holes that a piece of Swiss cheese!

When the holes line up catastrophes can happen

What has this to do with knowledge work you might ask. Everything, I would argue. Similar scenarios arise in a business context too. If I replace the word patient with client or customer, the words health with well-being or satisfaction, and health services with value chain, we have the same complex problems involving hand over from one area of expertise to another.

It’s not much of a stretch to think of the customer as a whole person and the international business as the organisation dedicated to their well being. The same problems of joining up interests and intent relative to incentives and procedures apply to commercial activity as well as public sector service. Knowledge work is simply people, processes and technology working together to deliver end results. Processes and technology only work well if people apply them appropriately and in concert with one another to solve the real problem, rather than satisfy the narrow targets or singular objectives in their own little niche. The key is in the judgement of the individuals and how effectively people work together and communicate across a complex system that has to adapt to changes in context.

A visualisation of Crossan Lane and Whites 1999 perspective on organisational learning

Holes exist due to poor communication. More holes arise because contradictory targets and conflicting policies constrain flexibility and responsiveness. Further holes occur where processes are incompatible. Human error is unavoidable however tightly one specifies procedures. Perhaps tighter specifications even encourage mistakes, because they detract from the fact that people may care about a meaningful outcome Any of these problems happening in isolation may not be life threatening, but as Professor James Reason argues, when the holes are aligned the consequences for the patient or the customer can be significant, even life threatening. Risk is compounded and catastrophes happen. This is the basis of his analysis of Professor Reason’s many major catastrophes like the Columbia Space disaster, Chernobyl and other major disasters. Recent bank failures may also be in the same league.

The biggest problem seems to be the lack of incentive to focus on the big picture outcome that matters. Professor Reason’s recent book places more emphasis on the Human Contribution, the behaviour of heroes who are able to adapt to context because they are mindful of the consequences of their actions not only for their singular targets and objectives, but also for the more interconnected results of collective action. Processes and procedures can be useful guides, technology can solve many problems but ultimately it is human care and judgement that makes use of knowledge in a way that is truly beneficial for the end user. Surely that sense of being connected to the larger implications of one’s actions and the care for the consequences is what we have to get back into organisational life for knowledge to really work effectively and for organisations in their role as knowledge integrators, to create real value?

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