Archive for the ‘Learning’ Category

In the past month, all we have done is think about the KM forum conference. I’ve learned so much studying the speakers’ slides, reading their papers, and then writing about the topics on the blog.  Yet even though all that mental activity was intense and fascinating, it’s not until you actually feel the buzz in the room, hear the speakers bring their slides to life, and have the conversations with them and all the delegates that intellectual comprehension becomes impactful knowledge, which will shape my plans, or reactions in future.  Cognitive knowledge has nowhere near the same impact as the deep connection and resonance that lived experience brings.  It can be a real jolt.  Knowledge in the written word is weak, the spoken word in conversation is stronger, but experience has a more lasting effect on how knowledge changes our perspective and behaviour.  The huge power of experiential learning was something that seemed to crystallise for conference delegates too as the conference progressed.

Sparking ideas and colouring experience

A strong sense of its importance seems to have been sparked when David Gurteen shared his interest in Positive Deviance (How unlikely innovators solve the world’s toughest problems) over dinner on Wednesday!

The following morning, Professor Jean Bartunek fuelled the fire when she talked about how emotions colour experience either energising or de-energising peoples’ response to change. Feelings are contagious, which means change leaders have to work with a much more finely hued picture than rational analysis can outline.

These implications were brought to life in Nick Milton’s Bird Island Workshop. It was fabulous to watch 10 teams hand on, down on the floor building brick towers. Thanks to everyone who participated so enthusiastically. And thanks to Nick for the courage to venture into untried territory and work with so many groups. It was worth it.

Knowledge in Action building experience and relationships

The inspiring thing was to feel the buzz when so many people realised the difference between what a team can achieve and what an organisation could do when everyone has access to knowledge assets AND are inspired to extend themselves beyond their self imposed constraints. Eyes lit up and ambitions over what was achievable grew. But even more importantly much more was achieved.

In the afternoon, Tim Harford added a dose of realism with his stories about how complex the world is, how hard it is to unravel the real nature of a problem and how small events can have enormous unforeseen consequences as they cascade through highly connected economies and organisations.  It’s hubris to imagine we can control events.    The only way to navigate the turbulence is trial and error, refined by frequent feedback.  (Enjoy Tim’s views on the God Complex again here)

The problem is that trials always involve incomplete knowledge and error means failure. So experiential learning comes with an emotional health warning. Don’t get despondent, we just have to try, try, and try again, whilst, as far as humanly possible, taking care to ensure we and our organisations fail safe. That way you have the chance to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and take another learning trip!

Undaunted, In March, we set off into our 13th year of learning in the KM Forum. We hope it will be enlightening even with the ups and downs of trial and error.  Join us in the experience if you can.

If the conference experience inspired you to do something different or changed your perspective, then please do share below.  If you missed the experience, even though we know the written word is a poor substitute, we will be writing up the whole event in a report, so watch this space.

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David Gurteen’s blog on 23rdFebruary suggests that the aim of KM should be enabling better conversations.   He’s right, we shouldn’t muddle KM and IM. It’s not about sharing information, but helping people make sense of it. But I would argue it goes even further than that.  We have to help people work with what that means for them, so that feel more connected, know how they can contribute and can perform better.


Conversation spaces are places full of meaning

Meaning is a really important factor in engagement as this presentation by Professor Katie Truss shows (Katie is a highly respected researcher in the area).   Things that are meaningful to us, are far more likely to move us to do something about them, and the more connections we find to an idea the more meaningful it becomes.  Although of course really strong connections to singular issues can be very meaningful if they have had a  big impact on us, perhaps in a relationship or as a result of a highly emotional experience.  Maybe this is the source of Positive Deviance that David is going to encourage us to talk about over dinner.

I like the word conversation. It comes from the Latin word meaning to turn things around. It can be transformative.  Two way interaction is also vital, because the speaker can only know these things when they engage in a dialogue with the receiver, not when they push out information.  Which is why I also why I really love this timely if unsettling educational tweet from Donald Clark which David included in his newsletter.

 “Show me a Professor of Education … who lectures, and I’ll show you a hypocrite who doesn’t read the research

Donald Clark is right, interactivity is key to understanding and learning too.  I am somewhat sensitive to this in the run up to a conference, at which I will be ‘speaking’ about the results of this year’s research project for some 30 minutes. My excuse? We are trying to share a year’s worth of conversational learning within the research project group. I would add that I have always felt that KM Forum members get more from participating in the research projects than from just sitting and listening to the results presented at the conference, so I’ll take this chance to encourage you to suggest a topic and sign up for the next round of research.  In addition, for this year’s project, we will be running a much more interactive workshop on 29th May.  So the conference session is just a taster. Anyone who is really interested in developing knowledge driven leadership agility can really get to grips with what it all means for their organisation in this session.  In addition, I hope you will ask lots of questions of me and my co-presenters.

To be fair, most conferences have to contain a fair amount of lecturing. However, at Henley, we really do try to include plenty of “white space” for networking and lots of opportunity for conversations with peers and presenters.  If you decide you want to twitter and extend the conversation more widely then do please include the #HenleyKMF in your tweets.

Looking forward to two days of great conversation, lots of mental stimulation, and time to make sense of it all afterwards.

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Follow the red brick road to empowerment AND organisational learning?

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

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

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

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We are busy collecting props for Nick Milton’s session at the Henley KM Forum conference; We’ve also surmounted Henley’s quite natural resistance to plugging untested electrical equipment into our building circuits, and found ways to accommodate about 90 delegates all being active in one space together.  (The session will be fun, I promise you and there are lots of valuable lessons to learn, but I am not going to give the game away!) Nick is a regular blogger so I have been checking out his musings.  A couple of Nick recent Knoco stories focus on the role of asking in knowledge sharing, and the KM techniques that embody the mechanisms for encouraging pull rather than push.  So it was in that context, that I smiled when I saw his blog on the 20th  February.

funnyanimalpictures.netThere’s no text, just this well known picture:-  with the caption, Mother told me there would be days like this!  Nick I sympathise!  Why did it make me though smile? Because the animal that usually pulls the heaviest loads is an ass!    But the metaphor started me thinking about information overload and potential to make a dumb mistake, unless we take the time and energy in this fast paced, social media savvy world to sort the wheat from the chaff.   What stories are the ones that we really need to learn from one, and which are the ones that contain misleading messages for our own specific context?   They may well be valid in other contexts, but often it is the subtle variations shaping the context that make the difference between something that is worthwhile for us to learn from and something that would not make a dent in our own particular circumstances.

Transferability is one of the big issues for qualitative research, and one of the reasons why thinking before adoption is so important for appropriate adaptations. Can the ideas generated through research be readily applied across contexts?    Do we have enough understanding of the detail of the context to see how we can apply them to ours?  This is one of the reasons why networking face to face is so valuable. It’s the opportunity to meet with the experts, quiz them on the detail of their situation and decide how it relates to ours.

But, I’ll dare to suggest it also comes back to the spending some quality time in the slow thinking stream, which Daniel Kahneman talks about in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.   Kahnemann is credited with being the founder of behavioural economics, a field of thinking which brings understanding of real human behaviour and social psychology, to theories of rational economic man, that formed the foundation of economics for a long time.   Together with Amos Tversky he won a Nobel prize for their work on bias in decisions and choices.  Only by understanding the full detail of his work, will you see how to relate it to your KM problems, but those of you who heard Graham O’Connell’s opening session at the November KM Forum meeting will remember him talking about why slow reflective thinking helps us find the patterns, discriminate what is valuable through the extent of resonant connections, cross validate with other evidence and plan accordingly.  In addition there may be the weight of the moral, ethical angle to evaluate.  I have just come across an immediate example related of this last risk of decisions divorced from the detail of context, whilst listening to ‘The Stream’ on Al Jazeera. The issue for their attention was  When should police use Social media to solve crimes? The obvious ethical dimension of this problem is when might the activity affect innocent people’s lives and what protection are in place to ensure that the potential negative consequences of crowd sourcing the search for a suspect doesn’t outweigh the potential public good associated with taking a real criminal off the streets?  Could an innocent person be convicted based on perceptions of observers that may well be biased?  We know from research that people are often inaccurate witnesses.  We also know that weight of perception can be a strong influence on decision making; the risk is that the potential heavy weight attributed to the much larger number of potentially inaccurate sightings of a person, could lead to a wrongful conviction.  Of course it could equally well lead to faster justice.

It’s n


Think slowly when you summon the Social Media Genie

ot the sharing activity that is problematic, it’s whether we have the necessary checks and balances in place to ensure that information overload does not distort our thinking. You may like to download the white paper on Knowledge Sharing 2.0 and the Social Media Genie, which was produced as a result of research project in the Henley KM Forum last year.  In the case of police use of social media I’ve no doubt there are careful rules for when and where this is allowed, and there are certainly many benefits to be gained from a fast and agile response that social media can create.    However, I would also argue that some slow and care-full thinking about the how we use the social media are also vital.  Otherwise we run the risk that for some important decision an unreasonable weight of perception will sway our decisions and those pulling the cart end up without firm ground under their feet!

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Just a week to go to the conference, and we are getting excited, All the speakers slides are coming in, and we are starting to talk with them about writing a report about the conference afterwards. Then even if you miss a day, you’ll be able to get a good sense of the coverage and conversations around Organisational Learning and Leadership.   One person I have not mentioned in these blogs so far is Victor Newman.  He probably doesn’t need an introduction to our KM Forum members, because he has been involved in projects on innovation, presented at events and conferences and is always well received.  Anyone in KM who hasn’t encountered his Baton Passing techniques and his views on innovation is missing a vital part of their KM education.    He’s keen on the issue of Leadership Agility in the context of Innovation, as you can see from his recent blog. Agility for entrepreneurs and SME’s is critical when size affects you ability to absorb mistakes in sense-making, changes in the external conditions, when you have a smaller buffer between you and catastrophe in many areas of the supply chain, or in customer reach and loyalty.  Living closer to the edge of survival is likely to make you sharper.

I mentioned in an earlier blog, that I have been watching the Super Smart Animals series, and

A Chickadee in Canada

one experiment with Chickadees from Kansas and Canada is enlightening in this respect.  In episode 1 of the series, we learned that Chickadees are the same genetically all over the American continent. But Chickadees from Canada are smarter than their cousins from Kansas, simply because they have had to live closer to the edge.  Food is plentiful all year round in Kansas, but northern Chickadees have to cope with much more extreme weather conditions and making it harder to find food and survive.  As a result they explore and work things out for themselves. In one experiment a bird from each location was presented with a wooden panel in which tasty grubs sat in little holes.  Unfortunately the holes were covered with metal lids with a glass window in. So the birds could see the grub, but not reach it, without doing something unfamiliar.   Kansas chickadees spent time tapping on the window, looking longingly at the grub. Canadian Chickadees got down and used their claws to prise off the lids and reach underneath to get the prize.  Clever birds!  No-one had told them how to be innovative, but conditions had made them more agile.

We know that crisis is a catalyst for change, but if that is not a frequent occurrence, the learning can be limited.  This suggests that agility is something that requires constant practice; what makes us endure the discomfort of repeated practice?  Pressures on survival!

The Lion, The Scarecrow, Dorothy and the Tinman

On that basis, hopefully the current economic crisis will be good for the more complacent financial and political chickadees, who are no longer in Kansas with Dorothy, but on a journey that needs the courage of a lion, that  wisdom of the scarecrow’s brain and one that puts real heart in the Tin man!

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Many of you know Ditte Kolbaek from Oracle.  She will be joining us at Henley on 29th February. Many members will remember she presented her work on Proactive Reviews at the June meeting of the Henley KM Forum.  Members can download her slides from here

Proactive Review is a method of knowledge sharing, knowledge creation and knowledge implementation that results in learning at three levels: the learning of the individual, the learning of the team as well as organisational learning. The method is based on dialogue between the people who have completed a task together. A Proactive Review is a way of conducting a dialogue with a certain structure and a given time frame. Using this structure ensures that the group creates a result within the given time of the Proactive Review.


But if you missed it, then why not take a look at her book, which has just been published, or take the chance of talking with Ditte at the Henley KM Forum Conference.

Knowledge in Action Issue 15. Improving the Quality of Conversations

Having talked with Ditte myself, I know that the method really depends a lot on good facilitation skills in generating a very high quality of conversations within the group.  (If you haven’t already, then why not download the Knowledge in Action No 15. which focuses on improving the quality of conversations to enable effective knowledge sharing. It’s free on the Forum web site).   Ditte spends a lot of her time travelling the world and developing and enhancing people’s ability to facilitate high quality conversations in these Proactive Review sessions.

Facilitation is something that is often underplayed as a practice, and there is a lot of debate as to whether those who do it need to be experts in the subject area or not. Having expertise can predispose you to bias, whereas facilitating content free means you are a dispassionate observer and so more likely to be a supporter of the conversation, rather than colouring the process based on your own preferences.  The downside of this is that someone who doesn’t understand the topic may not pick up on the subtleties of the conversation or the critical turning points where the emotional state of the group changes because a particular element of discussion affects the tone or the sensibilities of participants.

One of the other interesting aspects of this is facilitating across cultures. If members of a conversation come from different backgrounds and cultures the assumptions that underpin the way they communicate are going to be very different, and a facilitator needs to be aware of these in order to pick up on the differences.   One of my DBA students is studying the adoption and absorption of certain Western techniques for facilitating and co-coaching. Some Japanese companies are adding training about these topics into their approach to management development because they want to encourage more creative thinking. They seem to feel that they should challenge some Japanese cultural traditions of learning by listening to the voice of age and experience.  Traditionally Japanese education is about absorbing from wise masters in the field.  So challenge and questioning has not been encouraged. It seems that many Japanese managers find our western approaches to management education quite alien. Our Western assumptions that adults learn best from their own experience, certainly can neglect the wisdom of age and experience, but it brings in the contribution of meaning and engagement. In an uncertain world where the past is not always a predictor of the future, there is benefit in learning from the experience of youth, too.  Performance comes from harnessing the diversity of relvant and valid experience and co-ordinating it so that it delivers on some coherent and worthwhile purpose for the business.  What we have to be careful to discriminate against is the tyranny of anecdotal evidence that is opinion without any repetitive pattern, whatever generation the view comes from.  Encouraging learning across generations rather than up and down generations is one way leadership can impact on a climate for knowledge and learning. It’s something which we need to investigate further in this era of social media. Possibly this might be something that comes into our action learning groups this year under the topic of mindsets. Alternatively it might be part of the research project we propose for 2012. Get your thinking hats on and consider what would be most useful for your practice in the coming year.


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

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

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

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

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

Apollo 13 deemed a successful failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lessons Earned?

I love this title, which is from Chris Collison’ssession at the Henley KM Forum conference.   It reminds me of an anecdote I heard a little while back about a very well known organisation that I won’t name and shame. They were frustrated because they had all the KM good practices under the sun, but still organisational learning wasn’t really happening as well as they hoped.  It was while listening to a presentation about knowledge work that the light bulb came on.  For all the effort they invested in collecting lessons learned, for all the fact that collection and dissemination was so deeply embedded into organisational routines, did they ever go back and look at what had changed as a result, did they ever deliberately drive through the consequences of these lessons into changes that improved results, or was it just a matter of serendipity that the lessons learned translated into lessons earned?  Lessons learned from someone else don’t have the same impact as lessons earned for yourself.  I suppose it’s the reality of the human condition.

Learn or teach? Who cares about your lessons?

Someone telling us from their experience what to avoid, has less impact that learning from our own experience.   We always say that in leadership development, 70% of the learning comes from experience, not from education and training.  Yet even experience doesn’t always make the lesson stick.  For example, if I shine this light back on myself as a parent, the experience of being hugely irritated and probably rudely irreverent in the face of my parent’s advice didn’t teach me enough of a lesson.  l know I knew much better. After all they didn’t understand the modern world.  Yet nowadays, I still find myself assuming my experience would be a helpful guide for son, who is 27 now and has had plenty of experience of his own! I haven’t learned and nor has he. So why bother?  I suppose if we care we want to share and prevent someone having to relive our own painful experiences. The most enduring lessons are often earned through personal failure.  But, collectively, as Tim Harford tells it in his book Adapt Why success always starts with failure, however much we pool our lessons earned and assemble many different experts for advice, when it comes down to it, the world we inhabit is too complex and constantly changing for us to be able to analyse it and find simple and accurate solutions to the problems we face.

So what can we do? Do we simply have to recognise that change emerges as a result of the collective set of adaptations over which we have no control, so our job in the organisation is simply to ensure that failure is survivable?  Well yes apparently, that’s what co-evolution is all about. We find our niche, thrive for a while, things change as a result of our collective contribution to conditions and either we adapt or become redundant.   But in organisation life that would make the KM task simply one of risk management.   Tim has other useful principles too, and I won’t steal his thunder here, because you need to read the book or come to the conference to hear what he has to say.  What I can say though is I learned a lesson from thinking about earning learning. For me and I imagine for many with years of experience, the fact that they know something well, doesn’t mean it translates into behaviour. I guess the impact of the failure must be stronger than the caring about what you know in order for if it to act as a stimulus to personal change. On a larger scale, history may identify some useful patterns, but its easy to be blind to the lessons they offer if they feel quite distant from your own reality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’ve just enjoyed a lovely lunch and an all expenses paid trip down the river at Henley Regatta. The price I paid was minimal. It was Journalists day at Henley, so to build everyone’s appetite faculty were asked to stand up and say something for five minutes before lunch. The general theme was improving, individuals, organisations and society. They asked me to say a bit about how knowledge affects decision- making.  I thought I’d share the extended version of what I said here.  

So, in Wimbledon fortnight and being a keen tennis player, I decided to tell a tennis ball story.

Last year, they used 54,250 Slazenger balls in Wimbledon fortnight. It was an odd year because of the marathon 11 hour Isner/Mahut match. But that only used 123 balls. Useful information if you’re ordering balls, trivia to a player. They change balls every 9 games, because of wear and tear. Someone must have done the cost, benefit calculation, to reach that conclusion. But, professional players inspect the balls at every serve and reject ones that don’t suit their needs. They know that choice affects their performance. I can’t say it would affect mine! Maybe their fussiness is simple superstition! But when you learn that a BLINDFOLDED professional tennis player can accurately tell whether tournament balls were used on clay, grass or hard surfaces, simply by feeling them, it starts to say something about how knowledge works in decision making.
In decisions about service performance, tennis pros combine knowledge of an opponent’s ability, ball placement, spin, the wear on the ball, how they work on the court surface, their own level of confidence, the score at the time. In a few seconds they make a judgement i.e. a knowledgeable decision.
I heard Dave Snowden at KM UK talk about the 4 E’s of knowledge which made me think how do they affect how anyone uses knowledge in decision making.
Knowledge is Embodied – We imagine decisions are rational. Input facts and evidence, reason through some analytical process and you get sound output. But neuroscience has shown knowledge is a whole body experience. It involves hormones and muscles as well as the brain. Researchers asked young men to walk across a rickety bridge. Afterwards a young woman approached them to ask them to fill out the questionnaire. She gave them her phone number under the pretext of doing more research. 65% of the men phoned her after to ask her for a date. When exactly the same woman approached men sat on a bench with the exactly the same spiel, only 30% of them phoned her later. Why? Because the former were energized by the rickety bridge and attributed their excitement to the woman who met them on the other side! A picture of a smiling woman has more effect than a 5% reduction in interest rates on male loan decisions!

You can’t blame them. All decisions have an emotional and a subconscious element. With damage to the emotional centres of their brain, people can’t make even the most basic decisions. Emotions sensitise us to the consequences in context; the subconscious allows us to read subtle signals to respond to good or bad situations. Without that sensitivity, we don’t recognise opportunities and risks quickly enough.
What does that mean for business decision making? People are profoundly influenced by context, so there are more biases in most individual decisions than we generally imagine.
Initial information biases behaviour. Read words like, Bingo Florida and old, to a group of people and when they leave the room they walk more slowly!
All judgement is relative to something else. Have you noticed web sites generally present products from highest to lowest price? Offer someone the most expensive option and work down to what they want and, on average, they spend more than if you show them the cheapest and work up. This is called anchoring.
How you frame something affects decisions. Patients told a surgical procedure has a 15% failure rate are more likely to decide against it than if they’re told it has is an 85% success rate.
People prefer to maintain the status quo if they can, so inertia affects decision making. People actively look for things that confirm their initial assessment; they avoid loss and won’t admit to being wrong part way through.
Some people have a strong aversion to loss. This can mean they adjust forecasts down to be on the safe side, but it also means that they can prevent radical new innovations progressing if it looks like it will mean they lose existing business. Experts are often overconfident about the accuracy of their predictions and forecasts suggesting outcomes that best fit the data without taking into account real probabilities

Unaware of these biases, decisions makers can fall into serious traps. No wonder Peter Drucker estimated that only a third of business decisions were right: a third were minimally effective and the rest, outright failures. That’s a 67% chance that business decisions won’t deliver. A study on decision making effectiveness found that 40% of decisions are never fully implemented.
Which brings me to the second E.
Knowledge is Enacted. Intelligence comes from acting in the physical world. Doing things changes the way the brain works. Experience is both the source of learning and the basis for expertise, but only if you reflect on its implications. If you keep repeating the same activity without examining how well it is working, you embed errors. Practice makes permanent as my old tennis coach used to say. Research suggests that in any field, top performers devote five times longer to becoming great, than average performers devote to becoming competent. Coaching helps them examine precisely what they are doing. Do we devote that sort of time to developing expert business decision makers?

Third E coming up. Knowledge is Embedded – We are the only species that can change our environment. We create ways to store knowledge and capability. Models and principles are mental scaffolding to support better judgements. Physical artefacts augment capability to manipulate our environment – the iPhone for example. Organisations are artefacts, knowledge stores with a unique identity that will exist long after we retire. They all shape possible decisions.
The last E is perhaps the most important. Knowledge is Extended. It brings results through collectives. We are social animals. For most of our genetic history we’ve lived in tribes. So the structure of our brain evolved to thrive in communities. Communities are sources of meaning. Knowledge per se is neutral; it can be used to the benefit or detriment of society. Meaning and value are the consequences of how it is used. In principle, organisations are economic tribes who integrate knowledge into something worthwhile for society – products, services, new inventions that we value in monetary terms to facilitate exchange. Organisations should be better at turning knowledge into value because the community context guides decisions towards something meaningful for those who belong. In a shared context, transactions costs are lower; Individuals can specialise. Specialisation delivers more bang for the buck in knowledge terms than being a jack of all trades. Collectively we should make less mistakes, so be more efficient. We can learn more so we can be more innovative. We can do more to combine expertise by creating the conditions for co-operating with other experts. More people are sensing changes in the outside world, which the collective needs to adapt to, making the community more responsive to change, more competitively distinctive and better able to contribute more value to help society grow and advance. Of course, collectives are prone to groupthink. Present satisfaction can obscure future prosperity. And over the past two years we’ve seen many examples of how major shifts in collective confidence, trust , fear and greed produce bubbles, crashes and global crises in the Middle east, Iraq, and across the financial world.

Decisions are part of organisational life. Knowledge should prevent the consequences of ill- informed decisions. Sound decision-making affects the value business contributes to society, so it has to become a core strategic capability. Organisations can give people responsibility and authority, assuming they can make sensible decisions simply because they have done so in the past, but in our volatile connected world, past experience is also becoming less of a predictor of future success. Key decisions are becoming more complex (they have to take into account more variables, are surrounded by uncertainty and much of the available information is highly ambiguous ). The dilemmas involved in competing through knowledge are hard to resolve because people take opposing positions in the decision making process. So what can we do about it.
So what can we make it happen?

It’s 11 years since I began exploring how knowledge affects organisational performance. Much of what we research in the Henley KM Forum is about strategy, innovation and change. How leadership creates the conditions for performance. How mobilising knowledge can improve efficiency, reduce waste, increase innovation. All involve decisions. Our research, much of which has been assembled in our book Knowledge Works, suggests that knowledge managers have a key role to play in supporting and improving organisational decision quality. Key aspects of their role which came out in the research we did on knowledge enabled decision making include
• Identifying valuable knowledge,
• Developing and retaining expertise, and bringing the diversity of thatr know-how to bear in significant decisions.
• Introducing technology to give easier access to expertise and extend the reach of expert knowledge.
• Developing the relationship capital of the organisation by introducing ways for people to collaborate more effectively internally AND externally with customers, suppliers, competitors and other stakeholders. Then the organisation has the intelligence that it needs to respond to change.
But most importantly knowledge managers have a key role to play in developing organisational capacity to learn how to make better decision. This requires two things: Institutionalising processes like coaching and mentoring that encourage mangers and leaders to reflect honestly and carefully on their approach to decision making and its successes and failures. And helping everyone collectively to review and learn from different types of decisions, to build an appropriate repertoire of responses to the various contexts.

Perhaps it’s overpaying the tennis metaphor, but I’ll leave you with a question. Why the deuce should we be satisfied with amateurs batting decisions back and forth? Shouldn’t we make a ‘racquet’ about developing expert leaders and managers who ace the decision making process so that organisations produce more value for society?

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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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 In the early part of the 20th Century Arthur C Clarke said

  Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  

 Business technologies seem to be advancing faster than we can grasp.  To the unsophisticated user like me, they are a bit like black magic, particularly when something goes wrong. The rate change and the system interdependencies are both very disruptive.  Still, they really do offer enormous potential to change the way we work in many positive ways.  It’s almost as good as waving a magic wand to transport you to where the action is, when you can  

  • Can access information from a cloud,
  • Are only 4 steps removed from anyone in the world now we have social computing, 
  • And can be as productive on the move as in the office

 Really getting the most from these technologies is going to mean some changes to the way we work, both as individuals and organisations.  Security is obviously a big consideration when we are so connected and we have digitised our identity.  Organisational structures will probably need changing to make best use of easy access and mobility. Decision making, learning, conversations, all key aspects of knowledge work, take on challenging new dimensions, when we rarely meet the people we work with and there is so much information available to work with.  It’s been said that drawing information from the internet is like trying to get a glass of water from Niagara Falls!  

So it’s worth thinking through how best to translate this overwhelming tide of opportunities into more productive knowledge work.   Yesterday morning,  at Unysis UK HQ,  I had the privilege of chairing a breakfast meeting designed to explore these issues (Twitter #HKMWorks). It was very thought provoking, because of three excellent speakers. 

 First up was Rob Chapman, Managing Director of Unysis UK.  In his years in the industry he’s seen lost of major shifts in technology.  The advent of the PC, Client-Server architectures, Open Source were certainly all major trends, which changed the way we worked.  But each had their own time – there was breathing space before the next one.  Today it is very different. Multiple trends are happening at the same time – trends that are influencing the way IT systems are designed and delivered.  Unisys has published its view on the convergence of 6 major trends that are reshaping the delivery of IT services to organizations.  You can read more about their predictions by downloading the briefing sheet from here .  Cyber security is the really scary issue.  Individuals are obviously concerned about identity theft, but organisations are facing attacks from sophisticated organised crime cartels, that target new financial opportunities the instant they are released.  The CIO has to become the Chief Information Security Officer too.

 It certainly made me reflect on how the risks and rewards of something that is simply an enabler, depend heavily on human intent and behaviour.  

 Next we heard from Dr Christine van Winkelen, from the Henley KM Forum.  She talked about how knowledge can be put to work more effectively by improving decision making process and joining up learning initiatives. Amongst other things improvement is very dependent on personal reflection (see an earlier entry on this blog).   One of the key messages was the importance of individuals knowing where they fit in terms of what they can do to put their knowledge to work.   They can only do this when they understand the business purpose. Then they see how they can contribute positively. Then they can align intent with behaviour.   To get that purposeful message across really requires “more communication than you can ever imagine”.  This is obviously where technology in the form of social media, can play a helpful role internally. It was good to hear that Rob finds his weekly blog is a great way to keep people in touch with senior team thinking and engage them in meaningful conversations about what matters to the business.   Christine’s slides are available here, and many of the detailed maturity models and coaching frameworks are also available on the same page.    

 The third speaker was Jim Downie. He has the delightful title of Knowledge Networker in Unisys Chief Technology Office.  Jim brought us back to the practicalities of life in organisations now.  His focus was the value of integrating the range of emerging technologies into the firm’s business processes in ways that helps individual’s do their jobs more easily. This really accelerates and enhances collaborative activity, and allows people to keep in touch wherever and whenever they need to.   Unysis are using social media as a one of a whole suite of tools for getting knowledge moving more effectively.   Starting with serendipitous conversations through instant messenger, request for help, status reviews and twitter to using Sharepoint for communities’ conversations and giving access to the latest learning about good practice from the experience of working with clients.   One thing that came across loud and clear from Jim’s session was that purposeful business activity was where Unysis started; people not technology were considered to be the key to success; simple and social were essential for engagement with the opportunities that so many disruptive technologies offer.  Jim’s slides are also available here

We had an interesting discussion with the audience around the keys to adoption of social media inside organisations. Was it age related or driven by the momentum of a trend that was too powerful to ignore?  The conclusion was that it there has to be


a powerful “what’s in it for me” factor for everyone, because that overrides the risks and disadvantages of not having face to face contact. That could be better career, improved reputation, greater recognition or simply fun and informal social involvement.  Probably it is not a monetary incentive, because that often drives the opposite behaviour.


 a “what’s in it for the business” factor.  If you are thinking of increasing the opportunities for conversation (which uses time and energy) it’s important that people have a sense of which conversations are worth having. They get that if they can relate their interactions to something that makes it easier for the organisation to achieve some beneficial purpose.  Then people work within a relevant set of boundaries.

When you can both sides get what they need, and you align the interests,  you get a win-win equation which keeps compounding.  It starts a virtuous circle of learning and change.  People get interest in being involved in sharing through social media, the experience and involvement lead to positive results, which further encourage interest and involvement.    

There are lots more questions we could have discussed

  • How technology is changing the relationship between the enterprise and the individual.
  • How mobile technologies are changing the way we work.
  • How we need to think differently about security as a consequence of technology developments.
  • How new approaches are needed to integrate information, knowledge and connections between people.
  • How learning is the basis for the organic evolution of organisations in dynamic environments.
  • How mindsets need to change to make individual and collective reflection part of how we work in knowledge-based environments.   


And there aren’t any easy answers to any of them.  Rob seemed to be suggesting that answers will emerge as people work with the technology trends.  The other message of the morning was that to realise technology’s productive potential takes a lot of deep and careful thinking about how to handle the darker side of the magic, alongside an ability to focus its magical properties on a worthwhile business purpose. This comes through thinking how to align individual human interests with mutual rewards from participating in a meaningful enterprise.        

 Time was against, and having consumed some excellent coffee and pastries everyone disappeared off to deliver some productive work in the office, or on the move.  I left thinking that it is an exciting time and we have many changes to look forward to, so the ability to adapt and learn is an even more important skill than it has ever been.

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The last blog was a bit frustrating, ending as it did without an answer to joined up decision making.   It hinted that people need to feel more connected to the consequences, but without a suggestion as to how.  

In 2009, A Demos report questioned the possibility of silver bullets, but offered some guidance for connecting the dots to address complex problems at the level of policy. The conclusion was that it is a mistake to define the problem too quickly or too narrowly.  Time to think is crucial for considering the interconnected risks; learning and adaptation in the actual decision making process is also vital to achieve a meaningful outcome for all the various stakeholders.   

 In our book, we define five factors that shape the quality of organisational decision making.  Practices for deploying expertise, technology and collaboration (internal and external) are three elements that bring rich and varied input to problem definition and exploration.  They are also the areas where knowledge management has made significant progress.  Through these channels, decision makers can frame the problem broadly and bring to bear a depth of understanding to the problem space. Relevant and diverse input is vital for well informed decisions.  Organisational learning is the fourth factor. This encourages collective evaluation of decision outcomes and processes. The critical relationship between learning, adaptation and agility means many firms give this attention, through techniques like after action reviews.   Yet, at root, the seeds of organisational learning lie in individual decision makers learning how to improve their personal practice.

Learning spirals and builds in repeated phases. Spiral text courtesy of Inkscape

The personal learning process is often explained as a four phase cycle of experience, reflection, mentally organising thoughts into meaningful concepts followed by trial actions to test existing understanding. This produces new experience on which to reflect and so it goes on.   Sad to say, practitioners in the KM Forum felt strongly that in the rush and pressure of high-paced business activities, reflection is the one thing that is often neglected.   Action is usually the priority.   Experience may be valued, but reflection gets squeezed out as a luxury. There is not enough time to think.    In my experience, in programmes of post graduate learning, reflection is always something that needs to be encouraged. Often programme members find it harder than absorbing theory or doing things.   Perhaps that’s because it can be uncomfortable to reflect on mistakes, perhaps because it feels more productive to be doing something rather than thinking. But more likely it seems a nebulous activity that feels less productive; some even think of it as time wasting.  In reality it is crucial to both relating new knowledge to past experience, changing mindsets, embedding understanding and imagining how to do things better.   All the after action reviews in the world won’t change behaviour unless individuals spend time reflecting on the meaning for them personally.   Jennifer Moon  calls it mental housekeeping.  The process of re-organising what we know to accommodate new input and experience.  Without it we don’t modify our practice, but we go around and around the learning cycle, spinning our wheels repeating the same mistakes without improving.  And practice makes permanent, as my old tennis coach used to say. Practice only makes perfect if we are open to thinking about how we need to adapt and change.  The problem is often management knowledge is tacit.  If something is hard to express, it’s going to be even harder to modify. Without reflection, all sorts of emotional filters, implicit sense-making, assumptions and judgements remain unexamined.  Reflection is a discipline you can explore in this short slide show.

 As Chris Collison points out it doesn’t really take much time. You can do it on an aircraft in that enforced break from the online buzz created by the need to switch off all electronic equipment.  Peer assists, in and after action reviews are collective versions of these learning principles. It’s really about questioning the known.  The advantage is that practice can ‘make deeper and better considered knowledge available” (Moon 2010).  

Journal writing is a well trodden route for reflecting.   The list of benefits is long.  It is a way of bringing into consciousness some of the tacit mental connections.  Getting thoughts down, they are more readily available for examination.    More than just recording experience, writing is an opportunity to be critical of one’s own thinking and approach to learning; it can increase personal ownership as the writer works with the meaning of what they write. Over the years, many people have argued that reflection improves problem solving skills, increases creativity, is therapeutic, helps behavioural change, and gives the writer a way to understand their own view of the world and get a sense of who they are becoming in the process of learning.   Writing is a different means of expression to speech and engages different emotions and parts of the brain.    Overall it has potential for helping people feel more connected to the consequences of their decisions.  

The modern day equivalent of journal writing is the blog.   Sadly, of all the social media tools it seems to be the least appreciated and used.   Of course there are risks with open publication and business decision makers are rightly nervous of over exposure.  But used judiciously, leadership blogs can offer a way for decision maker to simultaneously reflect on decisions before, during and after, and at the same time engage key stakeholders, gauge their views and opinions and influence their thinking.  This might prevent problems being defined too narrowly or too quickly leading to poor decisions and bad outcomes.    

Just a reflection!

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On Tuesday evening, I went to the Savoy.  Sounds impressive, and indeed  when you walk through the revolving doors it’s like entering another world. 

What I found more beguiling, though, was the conversation .  Hilary Austen, author of the “Artistry Unleashed. A guide to pursuing great performance in work and life.”  Tom Hulme, Design Director of IDEO, Daniel Weil of Pentagram, and Tyler Brûlé. Editor in Chief of Monocle were part of a penal discussion led by Roger Martin, Dean of the Rottman Business School and author of “The Opposable Mind”.

The discussion was largely about the limitations of an education that focuses on analysis, quantitative measures and facts, whilst neglecting or undervaluing the essential aspects of development associated with the creative arts and design.   Creative pursuits apparently develop the capacity the think and reason differently – to consider the world a more integrated, connected way, with deeper insight and more exploratorion of alternative perspectives.

At the heart of the argument is the premise that creative people focus on qualities rather than quantities, sharpen their sensitivity to sensory input rather than symbols, pay attention to nuances and attitudes rather than numbers.      

A world of ambiguity whicever way you look at it. (view of the world courtesy of Nasa)

It is not that we should abandon the quantitative.  It’s more a question of tempering a deeply imbued obsession with measurement to allow for  richer  perceptions and more evocative contextual understanding. If we accept that ambiguity and volatility are incontravertible qualities of modern business activity, then  we start to see the limits of quantitative evaluation. It’s often retrospective; it frequently over simplifies; outliers and anomalies tend to be ignored in statistical patterns; people become transactional in their drive to make the numbers, they are not motivated by mastery of their medium.    

 It seemed to me that the distinction between work and artistry lies in the beginning and end point of Austen’s model of a personal knowledge system:- the artist’s identity and motivation (crucially labelled Directional knowledge).  These profoundly personal qualities are intimately linked to the artists Conceptual knowledge (that is their understanding of the medium in which they work) and this is both informed by and guides their skill and awareness developed through practice and experience ( Experiential knowledge).   Deep experience of playing with qualities and creating both shape the way an artist views the world and shapes their perception of their own identity.

Writers, poets, painters, musicians, cooks, experience an intense sensory immersion in their work. Perseverance in the face of failure to meet their own personal standards is an unavoidable part of the creative journey.   The next creative act draws forth something that has to build from yet develop and improve on previous success.   Perhaps people in professions feel the same intensely personal identification with what they do,  but can managers and operatives?  If you are an intermediary in the organisng process, disconnected from the end product, if  the  primary source of feedback comes through quantitative measurement  and the primary incentives are the carrots and sticks implicit in performance management systems,  there is but a weak connection between effort and outcome. Then it’s easy to divorce one’s identity from the end result.   We’ve seen the consequences of that in all the managerial failures in companies like Enron and Tyco and the recent cascade of bank failures.

Unleashing artistry seems to me to be important considerations in the design of leadership development programmes and the process of talent management.   Future leaders, sensitised to qualitative input as well as quantitative evidence are likely to make better informed and more rounded decisions, create a culture that is more conducive to knowledge sharing, and be able to read the strategic landscape more perceptively.  One might hope that they would be less likely to take narrow, singular perspectives, follow formulae that worked historically, and blinker themselves  to the weak signals that presage major change.  

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