Archive for the ‘Communities of influence’ Category

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


How do we receive information?

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


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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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