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Archive for the ‘contradictions’ Category

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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forgetwyh.blogspot.com

Look forward now to the future of KM

One of the things that will be going on in the exhibition area of the Henley KM Forum conference is some progress sharing on the research that Victoria Ward and Paul Corney form SparkNow have been working on. It’s about the evolving role of the knowledge manager.     Paul’s recent blog about one of the stories may whet your appetite.  Having spent 11 years working in the field, Christine and I were also invited to participate in this project last year. I blogged about the Essay in Two voices method we used to write up our perspective.  I still find it an interesting and different way of using dialogue to create a more balanced story.   You will have a chance to add your perspective on where the knowledge manager will be in 20 years time, using postcards this time.

I wrote this blog to encourage you to look forward now! Then, when you get your chance to have a say about how KM can influence bigger issues and make a real difference, you’ll have had time to think.  After all, evolving the role of the knowledge manager is a subject dear to all our hearts; if we don’t evolve and adapt, we could be out of work!

Evolution is a big topic, often associated with survival of the fittest.  The New Scientist instant expert on evolution ( link above) defines co-evolution as

http://www.sepa.duq.edu/darwin/muralseries-posters.shtml

Spiral II. Plant and Animal Co-evolution. Centre for Image in Science and Art

When the evolutionary history of two species or groups of species is intimately intertwined. “

KM’s history is often linked with HR, and IT, but where is the future heading.  Dave Snowden (who has spoken many times at the KM Forum) and David Griffiths, who is speaking this year engaged in a little sparring about this very topic.  It all started because David was rather frustrated by yet more rumours that KM might be dead. Obviously it is not, but it will be evolving along with everything else!  KM is a big and complex topic as David’s Meta-model of KM shows. You might want to download the model and keep a copy on your wall, if you have a wall big enough. It’ll be an excellent reminder of all you have to achieve!  Maybe you might find there the leap for KM you need to make this year. It certainly got me thinking.

I am getting a sense of at present of a subtle shift in orientation for KM.  I’m hearing about KM people moving to head up change management programmes or teams, sit in corporate communications or start from more market facing roles. Either that or they are being subsumed by priorities like digital innovation, or something to do with strategic organisational development needs. Personally, I’m encouraged if the narrow ties with IT are diluted, because I think this association tends to cast some unhelpful shadows on the influencing ability of KM: e.g. it’s perceived as too closely related to information management, too much about knowledge capture and not enough about face to face and human behaviour, or it’s seen as a expensive infrastructure project that might not fit end user needs.

In reality, leadership in change is a role that KM practitioners should be well adapted for.  KM roles hone influencing skills, because practitioners have to achieve a lot with very limited resources. They succeed in making a difference by persuading others to think differently and adopt alternative ways of working.  People who do well in KM seem to have had very varied career paths, which have led them to operate in several different domains;  moving people around and exposing them to many different experiences is a well trodden development path for helping leaders learn to adapt their approach to suit the needs of the situation.

I was coaching a very impressive leader recently, whose career had been very varied, both in terms of the work he does and in terms of where in the world he has worked, and the organisations he has worked in.  His style was very enabling, very focused on listening and supporting knowledge sharing, quite transformational for his team, but in his organisation he was unusual. The general culture was far more command and control, which is often counterproductive for knowledge based activities.  We explored the evolutionary path from command and control, hierarchical organisations to more networked based organisations in a two year research project called Transformational KM. You can read more about it on the Henley KM Forum members website. If you are not a member of the Forum, then you can download an article called Knowledge Management (KM) for a Changing World: Challenges for Third Generation Knowledge Practice published in 2008 here.

Although KM has a whole toolkit of routines, techniques and technology that support learning and change, how well they work depend on how much buy-in they get from the broader constituency of management leadership. I’m not talking senior leadership, but leadership at the line management level, who are known to be the strongest influence on the climate for knowledge and learning.  To my mind the future of KM depends on bridging the communication and engagement gap created by differences in priorities – in other words resolving the paradoxes and tensions that make knowledge work so challenging.   For example, people in functional areas tend to have developed through specialist routes, which re-enforces depth rather than breadth.  They are trained to focus attention on detail, which for their contribution to be effective is more important that the connections in the big picture.  But when you are trying to make sense in uncertainty, and to adapt and change, you have to reconcile the tension between now and the future, and between what you have identified with as truth and priority, and what a new regime requires if it is to thrive in a changing world.  Tension is part of any healthy system. It can be creative. In is an important catalyst for adaptation and evolution.  But if it leaders don’t manage it well in organisational life, it translates into unproductive conflict, dysfunction and wasted energy.  That’s why this year’s project on developing knowledge driven leadership agility started by looking at all the tensions that affect KM activity. We will be sharing this on March the 1stat the conference.

The more leaders who know how to handle these, the more KM can support evolution and change in partnership with them!

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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.

Reference 

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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Today the word sinister has rather negative and discomforting connotations. But originally, in Latin, it just meant left rather than right. We use our right brain and our left brain for different things. Right brained activity is often thought of as creative, ironically for business, the sinister side of the brain is often associated with rational analytical activity! Most of us have a dominant side. You can get a sense of your personal orientation from this YouTube video.

Western educational systems have done much to develop my so called left brain capacity. In business, this analytical capacity is highly valued, but reductive and linear thinking only provides part of how anyone makes sense of the world.  With practice I can see the dancer turning both ways. In practice, both two sides of my brain can and need to work together. This is what helps me make sense of human behaviour, synthesise and integrate, learn and gain insight into the holistic nature of complex organisational knowledge based network.

People can learn to use both sides of their brain. Can organisaions, who have a sort of collective mind.  And anyway why should we go to all that effort? Well if you are leading an organisation, your responsibility is to get the most from the intellectual assets that are the engine of organisational growth. It makes for better performance, and more sustainable organisations.  One of the biggest contradictions in productive knowledge work ( the foundation for intellectual capital) is the fact that how we organise to encourage knowledge re-use and exploit its value can create conditions which are not conducive to creativity. Stability, repeatability, systematisation rely on embedded knowledge. They make it easier for lots of people to do the right thing. To improve the efficiency of the business, we develop management processes, systems and structures that channel activity so that what is known collectively gets to where it can be used. Better application of existing knowledge is the root of cost reduction, improving quality, learning and continuous improvement. People share good practices and when problems arise, others know where to access the expertise they need.

Leaders need to keep in mind both requirements

But conditions that encourage people to explore new ideas, learn, change and produce innovation tend to ignore existing knowledge and re-invent the wheel unnecessarily. For the organisation to have the capacity to change, innovate and do the right thing in response to market volatility, customer and client requirements, government directives, it needs new sources of ideas, divergent ways of looking things, more fluid routines, less structured channels for knowledge sharing, Changes in mindsets and perspective, are vital for innovation.

But most organisations tend towards efficiency, because they understand the strengths and competencies of the organisation and the basis for its current success. This creates norms and areas of comfort for those who belong, but can make them reluctant to change. New technologies, social changes, changes in political directions all mean that the way to deliver the purpose of the organisation needs to be continually re-invented, and constant change is quite uncomfortable. The balance is hard to achieve but essential for sustainability – current and future success. Yet in a volatile world, every organisation has to pay attention to BOTH these activities simultaneously. It has to become “ambidextrous”, in other words the left and right brain need to be more joined up. Neuroscience has found that left handed and ambidextrous people have more connections between their left and right hand side of their brain, through the corpus callosum. What does this tell us about the challenges of instilling ambidexterity into the organisation? Simply we have to get everyone to the point that they can be comfortable with both requirements co-existing and open to the expectation that as individuals they have to live with and fulfil the demands of both sides of the competitive dilemma.

At Henley we have been doing a lot of thinking about how to join things up, and it’s no easy task, because people get into comfort zones related to performance which mean they tread a path that ticks all the familiar boxes with respect to corporate expectations, but are nervous about venturing into new territory and taking a risk. We wrote a little about the role of knowledge managers in helping to join things up in the Essay in two voice. We have also just released a white paper on the Henley website, which explores what some organisations are doing in their journey towards ambidexterity, particularly in terms of leadership and human capital management. It’s a challenging journey and most businesses have just started, but it may give you some ideas as to what you can do to take a first step towards this vital organisational capability. One key message seems to be engagement really matters.

Knowledge workers are volunteers not conscripts. You can’t control whether they care, only create the conditions which inspire them to. People need to KNOW WHY they should do something in order to KNOW HOW to contribute their best. They have to be engaged and stimulated to go the extra mile, and KNOW WHO to share their knowledge with. So beyond the many systems, processes and procedural interventions, we have to start thinking more about how communication affects organisational capability, how relationships and social capital affect the foundation for trust and confidence, and how to develop leadership talent who feel comfortable with paradoxical thinking and pass F Scott Fitzgerald’s test of first class intelligence which is the

“ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”.

Organisations can’t be dynamic without a sinister side to offset chaos, they can’t be efficient without a dextrous side to offset rigidity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Music by JAMES McKENZIE

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