Archive for the ‘dilemma’ Category


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


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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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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The Forum, a podcast  from the  BBC World Service, which claims to ”splice together the strands of disparate ideas”.  What a find for someone interested in connections and contradictions!  All I had to do, today, was to paint a bland line of balustrades, with unimaginative white gloss,  so imagine my delight. Here, I  had the chance to liven  up that plaster canvas by listening to the musings of an international line up of thinkers from the Nobel Laureate economist Prof. Amatya Sen on justice, the author Henning Mankell on imagination, and child campaigner Camila Batmanghelidjh founder of Kids Company, about how she works with violent teenagers to try to reshape their mental landscape by giving them the chance to imagine what society has been unable to give them, a connection with calm.   Listen for yourself; it’s an elegant trilogy of arguments, with some surprising moments, and the participants really do connect the disparate strands in all sorts of ways.     

 Three things stuck in my mind for the rest of the afternoon, which  probably aren’t the things that would excite anyone else, but a blog seems to be a great place for me to capture my thinking, however raw so that I can come back to it later. 

Overall, I liked the way the programme focused on the thinking of each of the people in turn, and gave them a chance to have their say, but each person came back to a common theme which was around a circle of tensions associated with between theory and practice, action and reflection.    A further lovely but unexpected connection was that Henning clearly was clearly taken with Camila’s ideas and wanted to build on the radio conversation, which prompted Camila to invite him round for a cup of tea in Peckham when he was next in the UK. 

  • Professor Sen’s arguments that by trying to define the ideal when it comes to justice, we too easily lose sight of the value of action in creating a better world. If we can progressively eliminate injustices as we find them, we keep moving towards a goal, even though we can’t define precisely what that is.   Action is certainly the priority of business. Perhaps. what we are currently dealing in in business, is the fall out of from the opposite approach to the dilemma?   Maybe the current economic crisis arose because some placed too much emphasis on practice and not enough on ideals in terms of sustainability.  I believe we should always have something to aspire to.  It seems to me that theoretical ideals and practice are so intricately connected that we neglect to keep both in mind at the same time at our peril.  
  • Henning Mankells point about the spaces in which we discuss moral issues started me thinking about how societies have changed. Despite the fact that we have so many opportunities to connect electronically, we often seem to be so much more disconnected from one another emotionally. The conversation circles and fora in which wise elders or caring communities came together to tell the stories about what matters to them, and debate different points of view have largely been lost in our modern world. Although they still exist in more intimately connected societies.  We can do things faster, but do we ponder them enough, I wonder?  Of course, anyone can have their say on anything through the blogosphere, so we have the benefit of so many more ideas and perspectives. Yet despite this option for more democratic voice, for creative input,  are we really influenced by wisdom and the connections to our communities or the volume of ill-informed and lemming like opinion?   It seems like quantity might compromise quality in some cases.           
  • Sadly, violence is a source of calm for some of the teennagers that Camila  Batmanghelidjh works with. Seems a contradiction in terms. Yet sadly no one has ever given these youngsters an alternative mental release valve.  The rewards of reflection and imagination are beyond their mindset.  Immediate action in response to their feelings is the way through.   Yet those elected to think through solutions to the problem often spend hours in democratic discussion without any practical solution emerging. I loved Camila’s provocative suggestion that politicians would be more imaginative if they thought on the move. (She suggested roller skates, but it really stretches the imagination to think of some members of our Government on blades!)  Upon reflection, I know activity definitely helps me make mental connections. I can speak more fluently while pacing the floor,  think more creatively while swimming, or remember more of the day if I physically meander while my mind does the same.  Apparently, research has shown that our theoretical apparatus works better when we are physically in motion.  Ultimately the link between theory and practice is embodied! Fascinating.

The painting got done, the activity proved to be more thought provoking than I had expected, and it provided some material to reflect on for my very first blog post.

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