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Archive for the ‘difference’ Category

I often take a walk and while I do I listen to podcasts to pass the time.  The movement also helps me think. Following my last blog, I was pondering communication elements which gain traction by permeating a discourse, and catching up with some of Melvyn Bragg’s ‘In our Time’ podcasts. I came across one on metaphor.  The experts weren’t directly exploring the  business application of metaphor; the conversation was about the history of metaphor in literature.  Yet it struck me that we can learn some valuable lessons for leading change when we examine the power of metaphor in our cultural history, because it they have a lasting impact. Here are just a few of the ideas that emerged as I listened,

  • Metaphor energises people an emotional level. They work by establishing a connection between the circumstances we want people to engage with and something else that resembles it, which that may be more familiar and accessible.  Pick the right metaphor, with positive associations and it could be a way to the unknown and the uncertain more palatable during change communications.  In KM we often talk about knowledge flows, and so the metaphors of water, waves, hydro electricity, are powerful in helping people understand the possible benefits of making knowledge more fluid and less sticky are all useful associations.

    A watery knowledge ecology, courtesy of Sergej Todeush

    Here’s an image from a poster prepared by Sergej Todeush, a past MBA student, which shows where you can take a water metaphor, because water exists in many forms, is part of a larger ecology, can create force when harnessed by dams pipes, build structures when frozen, and be deconstructed into its elements.

  •   Metaphors are often related to natural phenomena. Historically, in the Henley MBA, we have asked people studying Knowledge Management to describe it to a lay person by using a visual metaphor and preparing a poster to convey it’s essence to others.  We did an analysis of the metaphor’s they used, and the ones that seemed to arise frequently, be most evocative and encapsulate more dimensions of KM, were those based on ecologies and natural phenomena.   (If you want to read more you can get a copy of the paper here.)  What I hadn’t realised was why natural systems metaphors might be so prevalent, but Brian Arthur’s book about how technology evolves explains it quite powerfully. Humans instinctively trust natural phenomena, from experience we know the consequences and can relate to them through experience. But we are less trustful of man-made technologies. They are as complex nowadays as natural phenomena but we don’t instinctively understand the consequences.  Technology is rapidly shaping our lives and our economies but the changes can feel alienating, or disruptive.  When Brian Arthur talks of technology he also includes management processes, and economic systems, so KM would fit into his definition of technology within organisational life. Instinctively we may not trust its complexity.
  •  Metaphor resonates at the local level, but they also encourage people to consider the big picture, so it simultaneously captures context and the detail that matters to the individual. That is important for change, when the individual needs to be able to see how they fit into the organisational change process.
  • Metaphors can be generative. Help us be creative. They can help us look at the domain we apply them to in different ways. We can unpack and unpick our understanding of the source of the metaphor and apply that to the new domain so that we get a different perspective on it.  That can help us reframe long established assumptions of the way the world is. Some time ago we ran a KM forum day using jazz as a metaphor for management. How would it be if we started to describe management as improvisation and what can we learn from jazz musicians? If that seems to haphazard to you, then can you think about the management as orchestration, the ability to interpret and conduct a symphony from the expertise available amongst your key players? How does that affect leadership of change?
  • Metaphorical associations can also be shocking, but more safely so.  Wallace Simpson said that reality is a cliché that metaphor helps us escape from.  We know that often change needs a shock or a crisis to propel people out of their comfort zone, and start to re-envisage how reality could be different. We think of organisations as legal entities that have an existence independent of the individuals within it. Much of our management thinking evolved out of the Industrial Revolution, so we think of organisations as machines, so people become cogs, and the aim is to leverage their knowledge. As, Alison Donaldson said to me at the conference, it’s worth being more sensitive to the consequences of the language we use, because it shapes our reality. Otherwise, we can unwittingly perpetuate many of the old clichés about management which may be dysfunctional for knowledge related activities.  What if we were to talk about organisations as galaxies or constellations of planets, suns and stars and black holes? How would this alter our more bounded rational  view of supply chains, alliances, and mergers?  Would it change assumptions about how easy it is to integrate to cultures or to communication between partners?  Metaphors can hint at a sense of something without making it concrete so encourages us to explore a risky context indirectly, which can be less immediately threatening and a more comfortable way to stimulate change.
  • Metaphors can be more encompassing. Much of management is focused on analysis and reason, evidence and facts, and whilst these are still necessary and helpful, evidence and facts refer to what exists only.  Reason uses the language of distinctiveness, precision, more refined and determined categories of ideas which can actually put boundaries and limits on the opportunities and possibilities of change. Analysis breaks things down into smaller parts to give us insights, but if we aren’t dealing with a machine, but a living system,  re-assembling the pieces from the dissection doesn’t regenerate all the properties of that system. So we lose something that is tacit in the interactions between the parts.  Don’t get me wrong, analysis makes a valuable contribution. But its worth thinking about using the right tool for the job.   Metaphors tend to look at wholes within contexts, so they give us a different perspective. By not classifying and deconstructing, they create links, open up connections and ideas, (here’s another possibility in previous blog KM as cooking); granted those links may be transient, and inherently unstable, but feelings and sensations are not grounded in permanent thought either. The potential is that they help trigger timely associations that help people shift perspective whilst holding on to the things that matter to them.

Henley KM Forum conference 2007

Over the years we have used many metaphors in the KM Forum activities. Vanessa Randle’s pictures that we used to capture the conference themes were full of metaphors – bridges that spanned rifts, journeys, reaching for the stars. The small pictures don’t show the detail, but click on them to get the full screen view and you’ll see what I mean.

KM in a changing world Henley KM Forum conference 2008

Why not share the metaphors that you have found useful in conversations about change, so others can learn from them? It would be interesting to make a collection of them, particularly if you have stories associated with them.

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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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Last Thursday was a quiet day, devoted to a dialogue in which no word was spoken. Christine and I had agreed to contribute “an Essay in Two Voices”, as part of a research project that Victoria Ward of Sparknow initiated. The aim is to explore the Evolution of the Knowledge Manager.

In the words of one of the researchers Sandra Higgison:

“Sparknow has observed and played a part in the evolution of the knowledge manager since the mid-1990s. To map this journey, we have embarked on a project to collect the words, experiences and artefacts of the practitioners who have lived it. “

It will be a fascinating project, when complete, because the end result will be a collection of stories that

“ will connect knowledge managers to the experiences of their peers and illustrate how narrative research provides the colour, flavour and texture that make knowledge transfer real.”

Why not take a look at the posts so far on the Sparknow blog.

I guess you could say Christine and I have lived the practitioners’ journey a bit vicariously through our conversations and interactions with KM Forum members since 2000, and through the research we have done, but anyway we set aside the day to try to create one of those artefacts that Sandra mentions. I sat in the sun in Spain. Sadly, Christine had her head down in her home office in the UK.

The Essay in Two Voices (or Ei2V for short) technique was developed by Madelyn Blair. It involves two people in a structured process of writing together, apart on a previously agreed topic. 

Our contribution was

If a knowledge manager’s role is to help join up the organisation, what does it require?

There are six rounds in the dialogue. Each participant has an equal voice, because for each round they have a fixed word allowance. At the end of each round participants exchange what they have written, and without discussion, read, respond and develop their views on the topic further. The final twist in the process is that the word allowance is cut by half each time. We started with 500 words in the first round and finished with a 140 characters. (I suppose you could tweet the outcome if you wanted, although I think we cheated a bit because we each counted 140 characters without spaces, and for twitter we would have had to count spaces).

Being academics, we realised before we started that we would want to refer to some of the big thinkers in the field, but the word count could be blown out of the water by referencing, (on the web all it takes is a hyperlink to acknowledge others’ ideas, but bibliographies consume hundreds of words!) So we were given special license not to include references in the wordcount and to be ourselves. We also chose to operate according to a timetable, so we were writing simultaneously and exchanged at a pre-agreed time. A structured timetable wasn’t part of the requirements, but personally I found it helpful. Once I got started, I was keen to see how Christine would tackle each round, and what would emerge in each response. Dedicating time to concentrate only on the topic at hand helped me keep focus and make the mental connections between the elements. The side effect of timing it was to give us both equal thinking and typing time. I can see this could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who is involved. If you’re a slow typist, or you find it hard to write, (fortunately neither apply to us) it could be a stumbling block. If you are deep thinker you may find the time pressures and then need to focus on word count is a little inhibiting. We both agreed that for a complex topic the simplification process needed care, if it was going to remain meaningful. Christine thought that it would be important to pick a topic you really cared about in order to really get the most from the exercise.

The experience provoked different responses in each of us. Of course we know each other’s thinking reasonably well, having worked together for around 11 years, and published books and articles together. But we still have different views on things. Christine is intrigued by how different people absorb knowledge in different ways, and reflecting on the experience, she felt it was harder to relate to what I was ‘saying’ when it was textual rather than verbal, whereas I don’t absorb verbal material so easily, but I enjoy playing with the written word. Both of us found that in the middle our thinking diverged, as we homed in on different things, and surprisingly, by the end, we had reached separate views. I found that towards the end, the requirement to keep reducing the word count was quite tricky to handle. First I had to decide when to stop adding in ideas, and secondly it was harder to relate to the Christine’s thinking without simply repeating it. Plus, it was at this point that we started to find our points of difference, but we’d run out of words to explore them. As always, our points of difference provide a basis for a further discussion. With the conversation conveniently captured, we will have something to refer back to, when we want to explore further. That’s quite helpful.

To me the process is a good reflective discipline for distilling a significant amount of thinking, without excessive verbiage. It’s something others can refer to. I did feel that the final artefact covered quite more territory, in under 2000 words than we would have face to face. See what you think, Essay in two voices CVW and JMCK final

It would certainly be a very different experience if you did not know your conversational partner, I’d like to try that too. I’d also be interested to hear from others what they think about the process and the results. If you want to know more and read some other examples, then Madelyn has published a book  which is available through Amazon. SHe will be blogging about the process and I’ll add that to the blogroll when she starts.

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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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