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Archive for the ‘Energy’ 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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It makes your hair stand on end

As a species we tend to be quite sensitive to subtle signals that surround us. At the June Forum Meeting many of us heard Bernd Vogel talk about organisational energy. He was tackling the issue of how collective emotions affect the energy of groups, communities and organisations. Obviously energy is going to affect the momentum of learning and change activities. If you missed Bernd’s session you can listen to Bernd talk about how organisations can assess the predominant energy type, and read about the strategies that you can adopt to help change them.

What struck me is how challenging it could be to both sense and influence energy levels in distributed organisational settings. How can you notice the signals of corrosive energy when the people you are working with, are on the move, have a home office or maybe even sit on a different continent, and perhaps have different cultural responses? We may have to wait for the next phase of Bernd’s research to dig up some new virtual energy fields.

But for now there are some pointers. Technology is helpful in maintaining the communication channels, but it doesn’t give us a real sense of what goes on behind the scenes in networks, on the move and when there is no focal point of belonging. Peter Thompson will be talking about the importance of changing the way we co-ordinate, inspire and organise in the new world of work on the 29th February at the KM Forum conference. In his recent book Future Work with Alison Maitland, they talk to Gary Kildare the global VP of HR at IBM. Gary is faced with this very problem. He talks about the fact that however technically capable someone is, the focus on people is important ‘ or it will hold you back as a leader.’

Relationships and a heightened sensitivity to the collective feelings make a difference to what anyone can achieve. But as Gary says,

‘It can take longer to build trusting relationships because you don’t always have face-face contact with people. Leaders and managers must take time to understand how individuals are performing if they don’t get to observe the directly every day in an office setting. It’s about setting very clear goals and objectives and expectations and measuring the outcome.’

Communication is an obvious priority, but not all one way. There’s going to have to be a lot of listening too, even though the richness of conversational cues is depleted in conference calls, and the disaffected can hide easily in virtual meetings. According to Julia Kotlarsky, what companies like SAP and Le Croy do is try to make people can overcome their perceptions of distance and the constraints imposed by time and being virtual. Leaders pay extra attention to helping team members sharpen their knowledge of the channels, the topic relevance, their co-participants, and what the problem means to the organisation.

What particularly interested me about Gary at IBM was his concern for setting a schedule of conference calls well in advance and really sticking to it. The commitment to the routine communicates something without words. People respond to the rhythm of activities: the pattern makes them feel more included. Can we learn from that sense of rhythm and pattern in finding ways to embed KM activities? Where else can we develop subtle ways of communicating to maintain energy and momentum for change? Visual imagery and metaphorical language can be one way of encouraging emotional connections. I remember interviewing someone for KM forum research project about better knowledge sharing across organisational boundaries (Download Knowledge in Action series 8 to learn more). He recommended creating a project brand, a logo that people feel captures what an inter-organisational project team is all about. It creates a sense of belonging to something. Internally too I’ve heard leaders talk about creating a logo for their teams. Associating with an icon that represents something with positive associations can re-enforce an emotional connection as all advertisers know. We love the nature and animal pictures on the front of the Knowledge in Action series for that very reason.

Share with us your ideas for creating positive emotional energy in distributed organisations by commenting on this blog. The outcome may help us co-create a learning culture, which is another of the leadership practices that we will be talking about at the conference, when we share the findings of our research project on developing leadership agility to sustain the knowledgeable organisation.

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