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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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Leap for KM

Leap for KM

In good KM fashion, I’m going to steal with pride. I want to adapt an idea I heard on Radio 4’s PM programme on Monday.  Eddie Mair has launched a ‘Leap for PM’ initiative. Listeners were asked share and commit to doing something with the extra day that leap year offers. The Henley KM forum Conference starts on the 29th February this year, so fortuitously you can spend it advancing your insights about organisational learning, without losing any of your normal working year in the office!

So, since you have all that extra time, I thought it would be good to start a Leap for KM initiative. With that extra day in 2012, what knowledge and learning challenge could you commit to which would help you do more with less.

2012 is a fascinating year As well as the Queens Jubilee and the London Olympics, it’s also the 200th Anniversary of Charles Dickens birth. As Mr Mickawber said in David Copperfield

“Never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time.”

Make a commitment to complete what you have been putting off, or plan to do to use the extra day to leap forward in your KM activities, by commenting on this blog, and we’ll see what a difference collective inspiration can make.

I’m going to make a commitment to blog about conference related themes between now and the 29th, rather than living with my blogger’s guilt, for not sharing enough of what I am learning.

By the way if you want to hear what PM listeners are planning, for the next few days only you can listen again to the episode on Monday 6th at 5pm. The item is 26.41 minutes into the programme.

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Getting up early to travel into London is not a favourite activity of mine. Still the compensation was my pleasure at hearing the KM community getting exercised about how to improve their strategic contribution to business performance and thinking about redefining KM as a business decision support activity. Yes, we have to pay some attention to knowledge capture and organised redistribution, but the energy invested in managing knowledge is always going to deliver more if the focus of activities is supporting a strategic imperative. Currently, given the volatility of business conditions, one imperative ought to be developing greater agility. KM is a crucial catalyst for organisational development and change, but often not positioned as such.

Another small reward for getting up early was Dave Snowden’s keynote. I’ve heard Dave speak many times, but for me this keynote really hit the spot. I’d recommend listening to the podcast. Unfortunately I am not a sci-fi officionado, so I probably missed some of the subtleties in the quotes from the Bene Gesserit, but I might be inclined now to explore the Dune saga and ponder its significance for KM. Still, the direct messages were right on the money for me.

We do expect too much of the rational, when it’s the illogical, emotional, messy human approach to decision making that is really what we need to understand. We are often too hopeful about technology solutions, too bound up in defining processes, best practices, which don’t deliver the intended outcomes.

The metaphor of a cook following a recipe vs a top chef provided a great starting point for distinguishing between the sort of results you get from a mechanistic approach vs flexible application of expertise.   I came across the KM as cooking metaphor several years ago.  

For a long time, at Henley, we have been asking programme members studying KM to create a poster that conveys the topic and captures the subtleties through a visual metaphor.  Visual metaphors get round some of the limitations of black and white words, particularly they allow people to bring richer associations into an interpretative blend (Christine and I wrote about this in a special issue of a Journal, earlier this year[1]

KM as cooking. Poster by Josef Bajada. 2008. Reproduced with permission

 Josef Bajada created this poster, which I think contains a lot of food for thought! I love the way it gives you a sense that ingredients can be combined in different ways, producing a fusion of flavours that is more than the sum of the parts. Following a recipe does not produce the same result each time (my efforts at cake making are strong evidence of that!). There’s judgement and flair involved and for the great chef years of expertise deeply embedded in their actions to create an enticing and flavoursome dish. The outcome is sensory, healthy, nourishing. All very evocative of KM in my view.


[1] McKenzie J and van Winkelen C. 2011 : “Beyond words: Visual metaphors that can demonstrate comprehension of KM as a paradoxical activity system” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 28, p138-149 . For a copy please email me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] McKenzie J and van Winkelen C. 2011 : “Beyond words: Visual metaphors that can demonstrate comprehension of KM as a paradoxical activity system” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 28, p138-149

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The day after our venture into dialogue, I ventured into another game of batting the ball back and forth across continents. This time a live game of tennis.

Abingdon are on the left of the picture.

Our tennis coach in Spain, Steve Durie, ( Yes, the brother of Jo Durie) organised a match between a team from Abingdon in Oxford, on holiday in Spain and a local club in Guardamar , that he coaches. They were short of ‘Spanish’ ladies, Yours truly, in the yellow on the right,  played 4 sets of doubles, two ladies and two mixed (and won two).  A nice contrast to the verbal tennis of the day before!

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Today was a today for celebration. The bride was beautiful and everyone had fun.  What struck me most was a message in the Archbishop of London’s sermon, which applies as much to business in a knowledge economy as to newly married couples.

We stand looking forward to a century which is full of promise and full of peril. Human beings are confronting the question of how to use wisely a power that has been given to us through the discoveries of the last century.  We shall not be converted to the promise of the future by more knowledge, but rather by an increase of loving wisdom and reverence, for life, for the earth and for one another.”

 Our ever increasing knowledge endows organisations with a power to make a difference to everyone’s lives. How it is applied is what distinguishes between results that benefit wider society or actions that satisfy only selfish local interests.  Markets and competition encourage survival of the fittest, but this is often achieved based on a drive to maximise short term profits or large personal incentives and bonuses.  Unfortunately, these singular objectives mean that advanced knowledge is more likely to be used in the service of ends that are not in the best interests of a broad spectrum of society.  The Archbishop makes a good point. In business, we will not realise the promise of the future simply by generating even more knowledge;  it will only happen when that knowledge is used with a wisdom that cares about the impact of outcomes on others and our wider environment.

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Change and communication

“You need more communication than you ever imagined”, said one Director skilled in leading change in a complex demanding organisation.

In relating the story of a difficult period of organisational change and downsizing, the HR Director of one firm that we talked to as part of the Henley KM Forum research activities emphasised how much effort had been put into communication. Her view was that the secret of maintaining morale through change was “communication, communication, communication”. Yet, when I then interviewed someone from the same organisation (in a middle management role and with an inherently positive outlook on life) about what the employee climate was like, she said, that the only criticism she would make was that more communication was needed through the change. Her line management was busy trying to get new business in and just didn’t take the few minutes that was needed to keep people informed.

I’ve recently seen the challenge of the message changing through the communication process at a more personal level too. Staying with family to help while one member was in hospital, I repeatedly saw the “story” of what was happening being rewritten in the telling and retelling. Crucial details and facts moved to fit the story that each person was comfortable with, also reflecting how they receive information and what they pay attention to.

The work that the Forum has done on “improving the quality of conversations” provides a framework for planning and reflecting on communication at work so that over time it can become more effective. The “moving from sell to buy” provides fascinating insights into our own biases and those of others in terms of the way that each of us has particular preferences and pays more attention to certain things.

Clear, consistent communication from all sources is ultimately a knowledge challenge. Have all the parties who need to convey the information received this in a consistent form and then made sense of it in the same way? It is in the transition from information to knowledge where inconsistencies can creep in through different interpretations and biases.

As we move to recognise and value knowledge in organisations, the engagement and commitment of individuals becomes ever more important. One of the pillars of engagement, in my view, is good quality communication. We all know that mixed messages breed uncertainty and discord, wasting valuable energy and effort.

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