Archive for the ‘connections’ Category

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

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

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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.


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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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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Follow the red brick road to empowerment AND organisational learning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apollo 13 deemed a successful failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valencia City of Arts and Sciences

Creating new spaces for community building

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

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

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

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

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

A modern version of the Agora in Valencia

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

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

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

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

What happens when two black swans come along at once?

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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You might wonder why this blog is called Connections and Contradictions. I suppose the idea came to me when I had to do my inaugural lecture. People expect such an event to be a reflection on your work todate. It struck me as I was searching for a theme, that my whole life could be summed up in four words – Making Connections and Embracing Contradictions. That’s what I enjoy doing. It’s fascinating to explore how connections and contradictions work at a societal level, how they affect relationships between organisations, groups or or individuals, or how they affect our mental agility and the way we approach problems, use knowledge and learn. The outcome in all cases can be intelligent interaction or narrow-minded inertia and disagreement.  It all depends on how open we are to integrating new connections and rising above the contradictions. To me, making connections and embracing contradictions is  key to the whole management enigma. Personally, they affect motivation, memory, and meaning.  Connections and relationships are the way people and organisations gain intelligence, innovate, achieve results and leverage knowledge for business purposes.  For groups and organisations this sort of collaborative activity  is the mechanism for bringing together knowledge and expertise from various silos and translating it into coherent and purposeful action. Dilemmas/tensions/contradictions abound in that process. They create turbulence whenever we make choices between apparently conflicting demands, rather than trying to make decisions that are inclusive. Embracing contradictions involves trying not to immediately exclude options through either/or choices, but seeking new options that rise above the dilemma, steps outside of our instinctive preferences to encompass more diversity and integrate more perspectives into both/and solutions.

 The date of the lecture sticks in my mind  because, had he lived the 29th November 2007  would have been my father’s 80th birthday. That was an quick fire mental connection.  Undoubtedly connections and contradictions affect memory.  We often filter out anything that contradicts our well founded view of the world.We simply don’t notice it. Family connections are often very influential in our thinking, as are the contradictions between rational facts and emotional responses to past experiences.

If you would like a copy of the lecture slides and text, please email me. I’m happy to share.  However as a simple summary, I composed this poem to try to integrate all of the themes into a memorable format.


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Life is full of co-incidences. Last week, we journeyed an hour into the mountains to visit a spa bath in Fortuna, and then a restaurant called El Paraiso, to be recommended for anyone travelling that way. A year ago we had spent a pleasant summer evening listening to a chap do a tribute to Elvis and Neil Diamond, so we went back to check it out again. The restaurant had been updated and the performer no longer worked there, but we were told by his neice that he now worked in Benimar, which is right on our doorstep in Spain. We went down to Benimar today to find a freebie local paper, and asked where we could find it. Someone pointed us to a bar we had never visited before and lo and behold there on the wall for that evening was the very person we had seen up in Fortuna. Just another example of small world connections. We did go and listen to the guy, but actually he was not as good as we had remembered. Somehow the setting wasn’t as good and he didn’t sing as well. Or looking back made it seem better than it was. I wonder how that process affects the quality of our reflections in business?

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