Category Archives: Culture

Thinking about the future

Blogging here has had to take a bit of a backseat while some other things take priority. Occasionally, I do manage to post some links to Twitter, or some longer quotes and notes to Posterous (and I am always adding interesting stuff to Delicious). Today, there was a bit of a theme in the things I saved to Delicious, which I wanted to capture here.

Canal boats, Pontcysyllte

First, the always insightful Jordan Furlong, writing at Slaw:

For many … firms, though, the challenges are extremely serious. The prospect that emerges from all this is a legal services marketplace in which many law firms are simply irrelevant — they’re not structured in ways that deliver maximum value to clients and they can’t compete with rivals that are. There was a lot of talk at the Georgetown event about whether “BigLaw is dead,” and I have to agree with those managing partners who dismissed the notion: these firms are obviously up and about and making a great deal of money, and it’s absurd to pretend they’re dead men walking.

The worry, for me, is that many firms, of all sizes, aren’t ready for the radical ways in which the playing field is about to change. Their focus is either straight ahead, on their clients, or internal, on their own condition and competitiveness. They’re like a quarterback whose gaze is either locked downfield on his receivers or focused dead ahead on the defenders in his path. As a result, he never sees the hit coming, from his blind side, that flattens him and turns the ball over to the other team. It’s not just lawyers and clients who matter anymore. New players, with an unprecedented combination of size and speed, are charging onto the playing field like a storm and rewriting the rules of the game as they come.

This new post reminds me of another of Jordan’s that I have linked to previously: “The Market Doesn’t Care.” As the new post makes clear, the market for legal services in the UK (and elsewhere as well) has changed irrevocably. Even without the impact on ownership structures and legal practice brought by the Legal Services Act 2007, the legal profession has not been immune from the effects of the economic crisis. More importantly, clients have not been immune, and they have also had their eyes opened to new ways of delivering legal services (Richard Susskind lists 12 of these in The End of Lawyers, so don’t assume it is all about legal process outsourcing). Likewise both sides of the relationship need to be aware of the potential for disruptive legal technologies (again, Susskind identifies ten of these). In the face of these pressures, no individual firm and no business model can take the view that it has a market-defying right to continue unchanged.

Another quote, this time (via Jack Vinson) an encapsulation of a thought of Clay Shirky’s by Kevin Kelly:

“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” — Clay Shirky

I think this observation is brilliant. It reminds me of the clarity of the Peter Principle, which says that a person in an organization will be promoted to the level of their incompetence. At which point their past achievements will prevent them from being fired, but their incompetence at this new level will prevent them from being promoted again, so they stagnate in their incompetence.

The Shirky Principle declares that complex solutions (like a company, or an industry) can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem.

The Shirky Principle offers one explanation as to why law firms have managed to get as far as they have without encountering serious disruption to their basic business models. Athough some practice areas have had to fight off competition from management and HR consultancies or tax accountants, the core business has been protected by an assumption of a symbiotic relationship by lawyers and their clients. As new entrants with challenging business models have set their sights on the legal market and as businesses look much more carefully at their legal costs, this assumption can no longer hold.

So where do law firms go from here? I offer no advice — the question needs an answer rooted in each firm’s culture, traditions, client needs and market. However, a summary of the Theory of Constraints to which Jack Vinson points is instructive:

Think of your system — your organization — in terms of a chain . . .

If you care about the capacity and capability of the chain, strengthening any link other than the weakest is a waste of time and effort. Identifying and strengthening the weakest link — the system’s constraint — is the only way to strengthen the chain itself.

In a similar vein, John Tropea alerted me to a series of guest posts by Boudewijn Bertsch on the Cognitive Edge site (published two years ago, but still insightful). One of those posts draws together a thought of Russell Ackoff’s (“Improvement must be focused on what you want, not on what you don’t want.”) and the Cynefin approach to complexity.

Another sin I often see in companies, is that executives focus improvements on what they don’t want, rather than what they do want. There are two reasons why this is wrong. First, if you eliminate what you don’t want, you don’t necessarily get what you do want. Second, by focusing on what you don’t want, your solution space is much smaller compared to when you focus on what you do want.

Many companies that are engaged in formal improvement initiatives like lean six sigma or operational excellence, are focused on elimination of defects and waste. Their executives mistakenly believe that if they remove defects and waste they improve the performance of their company. Not true. A case in point is Motorola who tried to apply six sigma to improving customer satisfaction by focusing on reducing defects in the late 1980s. While they succeeded in improving their manufacturing through six sigma, a much more ordered and stable environment than the market place for products – they failed when they tried to apply six sigma to improving customer satisfaction. Their assumption was that as long as you would reduce defects (“something we don’t want”) it would improve customer satisfaction. However, no matter how hard they tried, their own customer research proved them wrong. We can explain their failure using the Cynefin framework.

At some point I want to pick up the Cynefin point (especially as I became a Cognitive Edge practitioner in February), but for now the challenge for law firms is to work out where their weaknesses are, what kind of inertia prevents them from fixing those weaknesses, and what they want instead.

That thought process alone must take account of actors as varied as employees, partners, clients, other external agents, the regulatory environment, and so on. Even without considering the variations within those groupings (which may be immense) that feels like a complex system to me.

Transplanting practices between organisations

It is time to revisit the best practices meme again. Over the past few months I have been struck by the way the term is sometimes used in an all-encompassing way, without necessarily clarifying its scope.

Lamb House, Rye

One relatively recent post of this type “Innovation Builds on Best Practice” was written by Tom Young of Knoco, and refers to their intriguing Bird Island exercise. Over the last ten years, Knoco have been running workshops in which the participants build a tower with a given set of materials, then improve their designs following a number of KM interventions. The decade of experience has been documented in a set of ‘best practices’ which are used as part of the exercise. As the exercise progresses, tower heights increase significantly, and the maximum heights have also grown over the ten year period. (There is a longer account of the exercise in the April 2009 issue of Inside Knowledge magazine.)

Tom defines ‘best practice’ by reference to work done with BP:

A recognised way of [raising productivity or quality level across the board] is to identify a good example of how to do it and replicate that in other locations. We used the term ‘good practice’ in the BP Operations Excellence programme. After we had identified several ‘good practices’, we developed from them, the ‘best practice’. It was only after the ‘best practice’ was identified (and agreed by the practitioners) that it was rolled out and all plants encouraged to implement that method. After all if there was an agreed ‘best practice’ to do an activity, why would you not want to use it? Learning was captured on an ongoing basis and the ‘best practice’ updated periodically.

If I understand him correctly, Tom is comparing performance in an activity, process or task in one part of an organisation with the same activity, process or task elsewhere in the same organisation. In this context, I can see that practices may well be comparable and replicable across silos. (Although, to answer his rhetorical question, I can easily envisage situations where the context may well require a ‘best practice’ to be ignored. Offshore oil extraction will be very different in the different climatic conditions of the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea.)

However, greater problems arise in attempts to transfer ‘best practice’ between organisations, or even within organisations where more processes or activities are at stake.

More years ago than it is comfortable to recall, I studied Comparative Law. (I even taught it briefly at a later stage.) One of the key readings was an article by Otto Kahn-Freund, “On Use and Misuse of Comparative Law” (1974) 37 Modern Law Review 1. (The article is not online, but I found a very good summary of its key points, together with a later piece by Gunther Teubner.) Kahn-Freund’s argument is that a law or legal principle cannot be separated from the culture or society that created it, and so even when there is a common objective, transplanting the law from elsewhere will rarely work. There is a useful example in the criminal law. The way in which criminal investigations and prosecutions proceed varies wildly between countries. It would make little sense to take a rule of evidence from the adversarial system used in England and transplant it into the French inquisitorial system. William Twining has elaborated considerably on this argument in an interesting lecture given in 2000 (PDF).

The problem that I have with much of the ‘best practice’ discourse is that it often strays into assertions or assumptions that such practices can readily be transplanted. However, like the law, such transplants will often be rejected.

The other aspect of Tom Young’s post that, frankly, confuses me is his treatment of innovation. Here’s an extended quote.

Now I hear some mention the words like ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’. Perhaps you are thinking that the use of best practice will inhibit innovation and creativity. For me this is where context is vital.

In some situations, you don’t want innovation or creativity, you just want it done in a standard, consistant fashion.

If you are running a chemical plant, you don’t want the operator to innovate. If you are manufacturing microchips, you don’t want the technicians to innovate. If you are launching a new product into a target market, you perhaps don’t want innovation but standardisation. If you are decommissioning a nuclear power plant, perhaps you don’t want innovation during the work phase.

I am comfortable with this so far. Where things are working well, we should carry on. However, there is always room for improvement, even in simple systems.

Innovation should be built on current best practice. One of the key lessons from the Knoco Bird Island exercise is that if you ask people to do something, they will frequently start based on their own experience. When you illustrate the current best practice that has been achieved by several hundred people before them, they are frequently overwhelmed as to how poor they achievement was compared to what has already been established. 

Where appropriate give them the best practice and ask them to innovate from there. For example if by the introduction of AAR’s the time to change filters has been reduced from 240 hours per screen to 75 hours and a best practice created illustrating how this is achieved, innovate from the best practice figure of 75 hours, not the previous figure of 240 hours but only if it is safe to do so. In some instances innovation must be done in test area, ideas thought out, prototypes created and tested before the agreed modification is installed in the main plant.

My problem here is that I don’t think Tom is describing innovation. These are improvements in existing processes, rather than adaptations to new scenarios where adherence to the current way of doing things would be counter-productive. In a comment to Tom’s post, Rex Lee refers to kaizen. This is something that is often associated with Toyota. To be sure, the lean production processes in Toyota’s main, automotive, division are partly responsible for its continuing viability. However, another critical aspect is the way in which the company has diversified into other areas such as prefabricated housing, which it has been building since the mid-1970s. This response to crisis is an innovation, and goes beyond process improvement. Toyota encourages both through its well-documented suggestion system.

Going back to the Bird Island, it is certainly correct that no sensible business would expect people to embark on tasks or activities without guidance as to the ways in which they have successfully been done before. However, if the business needs a different way to achieve the same outcome, or a different outcome altogether, getting better at doing the same thing isn’t going to cut it.

Back to basics

Recently I have caught up with two Ur-texts that I really should have read before. However, the lessons learned are two-fold: the content (in both cases) is still worthy of note, and one should not judge a work by the way it is used.

Recycling in Volterra

In late 1991, the Harvard Business Review published an article by Ikujiro Nonaka containing some key concepts that would be used and abused in the name of knowledge management for the next 18 years (and probably beyond). In “The Knowledge-Creating Company” (reprinted in 2007) Nonaka described a number of practices used by Japanese companies to use their employees’ and others’ tacit knowledge to create new or improved products.

Nonaka starts where a number of KM vendors still are:

…despite all the talk about “brain-power” and “intellectual capital,” few managers grasp the true nature of the knowledge-creating company — let alone know how to manage it. The reason: they misunderstand what knowledge is and what companies must do to exploit it.

Deeply ingrained in the traditions of Western management, from Frederick Taylor to Herbert Simon, is a view of the organisation as a machine for “information processing.” According to this view, the only useful knowledge is formal and systematic — hard (read: quantifiable) data, codified procedures, universal principles. And the key metrics for measuring the value of new knowledge are similarly hard and quantifiable — increased efficiency, lower costs, improved return on investment.

Nonaka contrasts this with an approach that is exemplified by a number of Japanese companies, where managing the creation of new knowledge drives fast responses to customer needs, the creation of new markets and innovative products, and dominance in emergent technologies. In some respects, what he describes presages what we now call Enterprise 2.0 (although, tellingly, Nonaka never suggests that knowledge creation should involve technology):

Making personal knowledge available to others is the central activity of the knowledge-creating company. It takes place continuously and at all levels of the organization. And … sometimes it can take unexpected forms.

One of those unexpected forms is the development of a bread-making machine by the Matsushita Electric Company. This example of tacit knowledge converted into explicit has become unrecognisable in its repetition in numerous KM articles, fora, courses, and so on. Critically, there is no actual conversion — the tacit knowledge of how to knead bread dough is not captured as an instruction manual for bread making. What actually happens is that the insight gained by the software developer Ikuko Tanaka by observing the work of the head baker at the Osaka International Hotel was converted into a simple improvement in the way that an existing bread maker kneaded dough prior to baking. The expression of this observation was a piece of explicit knowledge — the design of a new bread maker, to be sold as an improved product.

That is where the critical difference is. To have any value at all in an organisation, peoples’ tacit knowledge must be able to inform new products, services, or ways of doing business. Until tacit knowledge finds such expression, it is worthless. However, that is not to say that all tacit knowledge must be documented to be useful. That interpretation is a travesty of what Nonaka has to say.

Tacit knowledge is highly personal. It is hard to formalize and, therefore, difficult to communicate to others. Or, in the words of philosopher Michael Polanyi, “We know more than we can tell.” Tacit knowledge is also deeply rooted in action and in an individual’s commitment to a specific context — a craft or profession, a particular technology or product market, or the activities of a work group or team.

Nonaka then explores the interactions between the two aspects of knowledge: tacit-tacit, exlpicit-explicit, tacit-explicit, and explicit-tacit. From this he posits what is now known as the SECI model. In this original article, he describes four stages: socialisation, articulation, combination and internalisation. Later, “articulation” became “externalisation.” It is this stage where technology vendors and those who allowed themselves to be led by them decided that tacit knowledge could somehow be converted into explicit as a business or technology process divorced from context or commitment. This is in direct contrast to Nonaka’s original position.

Articulation (converting tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge) and internalization (using that explicit knowledge to extend one’s own tacit knowledge base) are the critical steps in this spiral of knowledge. The reason is that both require the active involvement of the self — that is, personal commitment. …

Indeed, because tacit knowledge includes mental models and beliefs in addition to know-how, moving from the tacit to the explicit is really a process of articulating one’s vision of the world — what it is and what it ought to be. When employees invent new knowledge, they are also reinventing themselves, the company, and even the world.

The rest of Nonaka’s article is rarely referred to in the literature. However, it contains some really powerful material about the use of metaphor , analogy and mental models to generate new insights and trigger valuable opportunities to articulate tacit knowledge. He then turns to organisational design and the ways in which one should manage the knowledge-creating company.

The fundamental principle of organizational design at the Japanese companies I have studied is redundancy — the conscious overlapping of company information, business activities, and managerial responsibilities. …

Redundancy is important because it encourages frequent dialogue and communication. This helps create a “common cognitive ground” among employees and thus facilitates the transfer of tacit knowledge. Since members of the organization share overlapping information, they can sense what others are struggling to articulate. Redundancy also spreads new explicit knowledge through the organization so it can be internalized by employees.

This silo-busting approach is also at the heart of what has now become known as Enterprise 2.0 — the use of social software within organisations. What Nonaka described as a natural form for Japanese organisations was difficult for Western companies to emulate. The legacy of Taylorism has proved too hard to shake off, and traditional enterprise technology has not helped.

Which is where we come to the second text: Andrew McAfee’s Spring 2006 article in the MIT Sloan Management Review: “Enterprise 2.0:The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration.” This is where the use of Web 2.0 technologies started to hit the mainstream. In reading this for the first time today — already having an an understanding and experience of the use of blogs and wikis in the workplace — it was interesting to see a different, almost historical, perspective. One of the most important things, which we sometimes forget, is McAfee’s starting point. He refers to a study of knowledge workers’ practices by Thomas Davenport.

Most of the information technologies that knowledge workers currently use for communication fall into two categories. The first comprises channels — such as e-mail and person-to-person instant messaging — where digital information can be created and distributed by anyone, but the degree of commonality of this information is low (even if everyone’s e-mail sits on the same server, it’s only viewable by the few people who are part of the thread). The second category includes platforms like intranets, corporate Web sites and information portals. These are, in a way, the opposite of channels in that their content is generated, or at least approved, by a small group, but then is widely visible — production is centralized, and commonality is high.

So, what is the problem with this basic dichotomy?

[Davenport’s survey] shows that channels are used more than platforms, but this is to be expected. Knowledge workers are paid to produce, not to browse the intranet, so it makes sense for them to heavily use the tools that let them generate information. So what’s wrong with the status quo?

One problem is that many users aren’t happy with the channels and platforms available to them. Davenport found that while all knowledge workers surveyed used e-mail, 26% felt it was overused in their organizations, 21% felt overwhelmed by it and 15% felt that it actually diminished their productivity.In a survey by Forrester Research, only 44% of respondents agreed that it was easy to find what they were looking for on their intranet.

A second, more fundamental problem is that current technologies for knowledge workers aren’t doing a good job of capturing their knowledge.

In the practice of doing their jobs, knowledge workers use channels all the time and frequently visit both internal and external platforms (intranet and Internet). The channels,however, can’t be accessed or searched by anyone else, and visits to platforms leave no traces. Furthermore,only a small percentage of most people’s output winds up on a common platform.

So the promise of Enterprise 2.0 is to blend the channel with the platform: to use the content of the communication channel to create (almost without the users knowing it) a content-rich platform. McAfee goes on to describe in more detail how this was achieved within some examplar organisations — notably Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein. He also derives a set of key features (Search, Links, Authorship, Tagging, Extensions and Signals (SLATES) to describe the immanent nature of Enterprise 2.0 applications as distinct from traditional enterprise technology.

What interests me about McAfee’s original article is (a) how little has changed in the intervening three years (thereby undermining the call to the Harvard Business Press to rush his book to press earlier than scheduled), and (b) which of the SLATES elements still persist as critical issues in organisations. Effective search will always be a challenge for organisational information bases — the algorithms that underpin Google are effectively unavailable, and so something else needs to be simulated. Tagging is still clearly at the heart of any worthwhile Enterprise 2.0 implementation, but it is not clear to me with experience that users understand the importance of this at the outset (or even at all). The bit that is often missing is “extensions” — few applications deliver the smartness that McAfee sought.

However, the real challenge is to work out the extent to which organisations have really blurred the channel/platform distinction by using Enterprise 2.0 tools. Two things suggest to me that this will not be a slow process: e-mail overload is still a significant complaint; and the 90-9-1 rule of participation inequality seems not to be significantly diluted inside the firewall.

Coincidentally, McAfee has posted on his blog today, asking for suggestions for a new article on Enterprise 2.0, as well as explaining some of the delay with his book.

Between now and the publication date the first chapter of the book, which describes its genesis, goals, and structure, is available for download. I’m also going to write an article about Enterprise 2.0 in Harvard Business Review this fall. While I’ve got you here, let me ask a question: what would you like to have covered in the article?  Which topics related to Enterprise 2.0 should it discuss? Leave a comment, please, and let us know — I’d like to crowdsource the article a bit. And if you have any questions or comments about the book, I’d love to hear them.

I have made my suggestions above, Andy. I’ll comment on your blog as well.

Navigating the seven Cs of knowledge

It dawned on me today that a lot of our knowledge-related activities reflect, depend upon or contribute to things beginning with ‘C’. In that spirit, today’s post is brought to you by the letter C and the number 7.

On the rocks near Kilkee

In no particular order, here are the things I had in mind. Feel free to add more (or detract from these) in the comments. (And I apologise for inadvertently stealing a idea.)

Conversation. As mentioned in my last post, this is a critical part of knowledge sharing. Be aware, though, that this realisation is not enough:

simply being smarter isn’t the whole story. Clever people still do stupid things, often on a regular (or worse, repeated) basis. Wise people, on the other hand, change their ways.

Collaboration. Good collaboration may be a product of good knowledge sharing. It may even produce it. We need to be confident that what we think is collaboration really is that

So what is collaboration then? It’s when a group of people come together, driven by mutual self–interest, to constructively explore new possibilities and create something that they couldn’t do on their own. Imagine you’re absolutely passionate about the role that performance reviews play in company effectiveness. You team up with two colleagues to re-conceptualise how performance reviews should be done for maximum impact. You trust each other implicitly and share all your good ideas in the effort to create an outstanding result. You and your colleagues share the recognition and praise equally for the innovative work.

The important factor is mutual self-interest. When people create things they really want to create, and it is also good for the company, it energises and engages people like nothing else.

Communication. Don’t forget that this is not something you can judge for yourself. Good communication comes when someone else can understand what you say. They will judge whether you are communicating well. Empathy is required.

One way of talking that inhibits the exchange of knowledge is speaking with conviction. That may seem contrary to what we’ve all learned in communication and leadership workshops, where one of the lessons often taught is to speak with confidence- “sound like you mean it”. Yet, as I examine conversations in the work setting, stating an idea with conviction tends to send a signal to others that the speaker is closed to new ideas. When speaking with conviction people sound as though no other idea is possible, as though the answer is, or should be, obvious.

Connection. I can’t decide if this flows from the points above, or if it is a necessary pre-condition for them. The fact is, it is pervasive. Without good connections, we cannot function properly as good knowledge workers.

As the economy has worsened, there’s been some talk about eliminating “nice to have” functions such as KM.  Think again.  Without good matchmakers, it’s hard to have good matches.  Without good matches, it’s hard to have much productivity.

Creativity. This is not something that is reserved to highly-strung artists. We all need to think in interesting ways about the problems that we face. Unless we do so, we will just come up with the same old answers. And in many cases the same old answers are what created the problems in the first place.

…we need two processes, one to generate things we can’t think of in advance, and another to figure out which of the things we generate are valuable and are worth keeping and building upon. In science, the arts, and other creative activities, the ability to know what to throw away and what to keep seems to arise from experience, from study, from command of fundamentals, and—interestingly—from being a bit skeptical of preset intentions and plans that commit you too firmly to the endpoints you can envision in advance. Knowing too clearly where you are going, focusing too hard on a predefined objective, can cause you to miss value that might lie in a different direction.

Culture. We can use this as an easy escape: “I am doing what I can, but the culture doesn’t support me.” Yes, there are dysfunctional organisations which cannot accept that the world around them is changing. But we have a part to play in bringing a realisation that the wrong culture is wrong.

…the magic of the corporation (and the thing that makes the corporation the best problem-solving machine we have at our disposal) is that it can be all things to all people. Anthropology can help here because it understands that the intelligence of this complicated creature exists not just in the formal procedures and divisions of labor of the organization, but in also in the less official ideas and practices that make up the corporation. Once again, anthropology is about culture, but in this case the culture is the particular ideas and practices of a particular organization. Anthropology can help senior managers re-engineer their organizations.

Clients/customers. Why do we do this? It is easy to forget that the organisation does not exist for its own reasons. It exists to fulfil a purpose, and that purpose often means that there are consumers, customers or clients. When we know what they need, we are in a better position to understand what the business should deliver. That may hurt. Things would obviously run better if we didn’t have to worry about client demands, but that is just facetious.

This is a hard lesson for marketers, particularly technical marketers, to learn. You don’t get to decide what’s better. I do.

If you look at the decisions you’ve made about features, benefits, pricing, timing, hiring, etc., how many of them are obviously ‘better’ from your point of view, and how many people might disagree? There are very few markets where majority rule is the best way to grow.

Five continents

There are some additional things that are often linked to knowledge activities. I am not entirely sure about some of these. 

Change. This is often linked with culture. In addition, some knowledge management activities bring change with them. Doesn’t it seem odd (and a serious risk) that one project is supposed to bring about significant organisational change? Surely we should try and fit with what people are already doing?

Why won’t this work for you?

Capture/conversion. Traditionally, KM projects have focused on squeezing knowledge out of past actions, or in converting so-called tacit knowledge to explicit. John Bordeaux torpedoes both of these.

Lessons learned programs don’t work because they don’t align with how we think, how we decide, or even an accurate history of what happened.  Other than that – totally worth the investment. 


…it should now be evident that relating what we know via conversation or writing or other means of “making explicit” removes integral context, and therefore content.  Explicit knowledge is simply information – lacking the human context necessary to qualify it as knowledge.  Sharing human knowledge is a misnomer, the most we can do is help others embed inputs as we have done so that they may approach the world as we do based on our experience.  This sharing is done on many levels, in many media, and in contexts as close to the original ones so that the experience can approximate the original. 

Content. Otherwise known as “never mind the quality, feel the width.” Need I say more? We shouldn’t have been surprised by the Wharton/INSEAD research, but in case people still are:

The advice to derive from this research? Shut down your expensive document databases; they tend to do more harm than good. They are a nuisance, impossible to navigate, and you can’t really store anything meaningful in them anyway, since real knowledge is quite impossible to put onto a piece of paper. Yet, do maintain your systems that help people identify and contact experts in your firm, because that can be beneficial, at least for people who lack experience. Therefore, make sure to only give your rookies the password.

Control. David Jabbari nailed this one:

This trend is closely related to the shift from knowledge capture to knowledge creation. If you see knowledge as an inert ‘thing’ that can be captured, edited and distributed, there is a danger that your KM effort will gravitate to the rather boring, back-office work preoccupied with indexes and IT systems. This will be accompanied by a ritualized nagging of senior lawyers to contribute more knowledge to online systems.

If, however, you see knowledge as a creative and collaborative activity, your interest will be the way in which distinctive insights can be created and deployed to deepen client relationships. You will tend to be more interested in connecting people than in building perfect knowledge repositories.

Before we leave the alphabet, a quick word about ‘M’. If we dispose of the continental Cs above, what happens to measurement and management? That is probably enough in itself for another post, but for now a quick link to a comment of Nick Milton’s on the KIN blog will suffice:

Personally I think that dropping the M-word is a cop-out. Not as far as branding is concerned – you could call it “bicycle sandwich” as far as I am concerned, so long as it contained the same elements – but because it takes your attention away from the management component, and taking attention away from the management component is where many KM failures stem from.

Management is how we organise work in companies, and if we don’t organise it with knowledge in mind, we lose huge value. What doesn’t get managed, doesn’t get done, and that’s true for KM as much as anything else. See for more details.

Book Review: Generation Blend

I have already voiced my scepticism about Generation Y, so it may seem odd that I chose to buy Rob Salkowitz’s book Generation Blend: Managing Across the Technology Age Gap. However, there is a lot in this book that does not depend on an uncritical acceptance of the “generations” thesis. It provides a sound practical basis for any business that wants to, in Salkowitz’s words, “develop practices and deploy technology to attract, motivate, and empower workers of all ages.”

As one might expect, underpinning Generation Blend is the thesis that there are clear generational (not age-related) differences that affect how people approach and use technology. In this, Salkowitz builds on Neil Howe and William Strauss’s book, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. However, generational differences are not the starting point for the book. Instead, Salkowitz begins by showing how technology itself has changed the working environment irrevocably. In doing so, he establishes the purpose of the book: to allow organisations to develop the most suitable strategy to help their people to cope with those changes (and the many more to come).

Organizations invest in succeeding waves of new technology — and thus subject their workers to waves of changes in their lives and workstyles — to increase their productivity and competitiveness. Historically, productivity has increased when new technology replaced labor-intensive processes, first with mechanical machinery, and now electronic information systems. (p. 24)

Dave Snowden has started an interesting analysis of these waves of change, and Andrew McAfee’s research shows that IT makes a difference for organisations. What Salkowitz does in Generation Blend is to provide real, practical, insights into the way in which organisations can make the most of the abilities of all generations when faced with new technology. When he does discuss the generations, it is important to remember that his perspective is entirely a US-centric one. That said, the rest of the book is generally applicable. This is Salkowitz’s strength — he recognises that there are real exceptions to the broad brush of generational study, and his guidance focuses on clear issues with which it is difficult to disagree. As one of the section headings puts it, “software complexity restricts the talent pool,” so the target is to accommodate different generational approaches in order to loosen that restriction. Chapter 3 of the book closes with a set of tables outlining different generational attributes. I found these very useful in that they focused the mind on the behaviours and attitudes affecting people’s approach to technology, rather than as a hard-and-fast description of the different generations.

Salkowitz’s approach can be illuminated by comparing three passages on blogging.

The open, unsupervised quality of blogs can be deeply unsettling to people who have internalized the notion that good information comes only from trusted institutions, credentialed individuals, or valid ideological perspectives. (p. 82)

On the other hand:

Blogs and wikis create an environment where unofficial and uncredentialed contributors stand at eye level with traditionally authoritative sources of knowledge. This is perfectly natural to GenXers, who believe that performance and competence should be the sole criteria for authority. (p. 147)

And, quoting Dave Pollard with approval:

“I’d always expected that the younger and more tech-savvy people in any organization would be able to show (not tell) the older and more tech-wary people how to use new tools easily and effectively. But in thirty years in business, I’ve almost never seen this happen. Generation Millennium will use IM, blogs, and personal web pages (internal or on public sites like LinkedIn, MySpace and FaceBook) whether they’re officially sanctioned or not, but they won’t be evangelists for these tools.” (p. 216)

 There is here, I think, a sense of Salkowitz’s desire to engage older workers as well as his concern that unwarranted assumptions about younger people’s affinity with technology could lead businesses towards the wrong courses of action.

At the heart of Generation Blend is a critique of existing technology, in which Salkowitz points out that current business software has a number of common characteristics:

  • It tends to be complex and overladen with features
  • It focuses on efficiency
  • It is driven by the need to perform tasks
  • It supports a work/life balance that is “essentially a one-way flow of work into life” (p. 147)

These characteristics have come about, Salkowitz argues, because the technology has largely been produced by and for programmers whose values and culture:

…independence, obsession with efficiency as a way to save personal time and effort, low priority on interpersonal communication skills, focus on outcomes rather than process (such as meetings or showing up on a regular schedule), seeing risk in a positive light, desire to dominate through competence — sound like the thumbnail descriptions of Generation X tossed out by management analysts. (p. 149)

Since this group is clearly comfortable with technology, and is also increasingly moving into leadership and management roles, Salkowitz provides them with guidance on making technology accessible to older workers and on making the most of the skills and insights of younger workers. He does this in general terms throughout the book, but most convincingly in the final three chapters. Two of these use narrative to show how (a) the fear can be taken out of technology for older people and (b) the younger generation can be involved directly in defining organisational strategy.

In the first of these chapters, Salkowitz describes a non-profit New York initiative, OATS (Older Adults Technology Services), which trains older people in newer technologies, so that they can comfortably move into roles where those skills are needed. OATS has found that understanding the learning style of these people allows them to pick up software skills much more quickly than is commonly assumed.

While younger people learn technology by handson experimentation and trial and error, [Thomas] Kamber [OATS founder] and his team find that older learners prefer information in step-by-step instructions and value written documentation. (p. 167)

At the other end of the generational scale, Salkowitz starts with a statement that almost reads like a manifesto:

Millennials may be objects of study, but they are also, increasingly, participants in the dialogue, and it is silly (and rude) for organizations to talk about them as if they are not already in the room. (p. 190)

He goes on to illustrate the point with an account of Microsoft’s Information Worker Board of the Future, which was a “structured weeklong exercise around the future of work,” which the company used to help it understand how its strategy should develop in the future. It was judged to be a success by bringing new perspectives to the company as well as showing Microsoft to be a thought leader in this area.

…the organizational commitment to engage with Millennials as partners in the formation of a strategic vision can be as valuable as the direct knowledge gained from the engagement. Strategic planning is a crucial discipline for organizations operating in an uncertain world. When it is a closed process, conducted by experts and senior people (who inevitably bring their generational biases with them), it runs a greater risk of missing emergent trends or misjudging the potential for discontinuities that could disrupt the entire global environment. Opening up the planning process to younger perspectives as a matter of course rather than novelty hedges against the risks of generational myopia and also sends a strong positive signal to members of the rising generation. (p. 209)

Generation Blend ends with a clear exposition of the key issues that organisations need to address in order to make the most of their workers of all ages and the technology they use.

Organizations looking to effectively manage across the age gap in an increasingly sophisticated connected information workplace should ask themselves five questions:

  1. Are you clearly explaining the benefits of technology?
  2. Are you providing a business context for your technology policies?
  3. Are you making technology accessible to different workstyles?
  4. Does your organizational culture support your technology strategy?
  5. Are you building bridges instead of walls? (p. 212)

The last two of these are particularly interesting. In discussing organisational culture, Salkowitz includes careful consideration of knowledge management activities, especially using Web 2.0 tools. He is confident that workers of all generations will adapt to this approach to KM at a personal level, but points to real challenges: “[t]he real difficulties… are rooted in the business model and in the way that individual people see their jobs.” (p. 229) For Salkowitz, the solution is for the organisation to make a real and visible investment in knowledge activities — he points to the use of PSLs in UK law firms as one example of this approach. Given the tension between social and market norms that I commented on yesterday, I wonder how far this approach can be pushed successfully.

Running through Generation Blend is a thread of involvement and engagement. Salkowitz consistently advocates management approaches that accommodate different ways of extracting value from technology at work. This thread emerges in the final section of the book as an exhortation to use the best of all generations to work together for the organisation — building bridges rather than walls.

Left to themselves, workers of different ages will apply their own preconceptions and experiences of technology at work, sometimes leading to conflict and misunderstanding when generational priorities diverge. But when management demonstrates a commitment to respecting both the expectations of younger workers and the concerns of more experienced workers around technology, organizations can effectively combine the tech-savvy of the young with the knowledge and wisdom of the old in ways that make the organization more competitive, more resilient to external change, more efficient, and more open. (p. 231)

I think he is right in this, but it will be a challenge for many organizations to do this effectively, especially when they are distracted by seismic changes outside. My gut feeling is that those businesses that work hard at the internal stuff will find that their workforce is better able to deal with those external forces.

Social norms and knowledge sharing

Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, is a really eye-opening read. He deconstructs a number of traditional economic constructs with humour and insight. Most importantly, he uses careful experimentation to demonstrate exactly how irrational we are.

In the video above, Ariely talks about the difference between people’s behaviour in a situation governed by social norms by comparison with market norms. He examines this difference in Chapter 4 of the book: “The Cost of Social Norms.” Reading this chapter, I thought I had found the answer to why incentives do not work in knowledge management initiatives.

Ariely’s argument is that in a situation governed by social norms, people will help without thought of a financial reward. On the other hand, interactions governed by market norms are very different.

The exchanges are sharp-edged: wages, prices, rents, interest, and costs-and-benefits. Such market relationships are not necessarily evil or mean — in fact, they also include self-reliance, inventiveness, and individualism — but they do imply comparable benefits and prompt payments. When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for — that’s just the way it is. (p. 68)

The trouble is that whilst knowledge sharing is at its heart a social activity, it takes place in an environment governed by market norms — the workplace. Naturally enough, there is an inclination to want to recognise good knowledge behaviours in the only way that an employer knows: financially. As Neil Richards has explained, this just does not work. Ariely describes an experiment in which people were asked to perform a mundane and fruitless task on a computer. One group was paid $5 for the task, another group just 50¢, and a third was asked to do it as a favour. The productivity of the $5 group was slightly lower than the ‘favour’ group, but the 50¢ group was over 50% less productive than the others.

Perhaps we should have anticipated this. There are many examples to show that people will work much more for a cause than for cash. A few years ago, for instance, the AARP asked some lawyers if they would offer less expensive services to needy retirees, at something like $30 an hour. The lawyers said no. Then the program manager at AARP had a brilliant idea: he asked the lawyers if they would offer free services to needy retirees. Overwhelmingly, the lawyers said yes.

What was going on here? How could zero dollars be more attractive than $30? When money was mentioned, the lawyers used market norms and found the offer lacking, relative to their market salary. When no money was mentioned they used social norms and were willing to volunteer their time. Why didn’t they just accept $30, thinking of themselves as volunteers who received $30? Because once market norms enter our considerations, social norms depart. (p. 71, my emphasis)

It is possible to use gifts to thank people for their efforts, and still stay inside the social norms. However, if one suggests that the gift has a monetary value, the market norms reassert themselves. Although Ariely doesn’t say so, I suspect that using small-scale rewards on a regular basis (such as a box of chocolates for the best contribution to know-how every month) would also be regarded as market-related. Gifts need to be a surprise to be valued as part of a social interaction.

Later in this chapter, Ariely describes how a social situation can take a long time to recover from being drawn into the market. He tells a story of a childrens’ nursery that had previously used social sanctions (guit, mainly) to control parents who picked their children up late. When the nursery started to impose fines for lateness instead, parents applied market thinking and the incidences of lateness increased. When the fines were removed, the parents continued to pick up late as they had done in the fines era — guilt no longer worked as a sanction.

One problem for some law firms is that they have given knowledge management responsibilities to a specific group of people (Professional Support Lawyers, or equivalent). Because those people (rewarded according to the market) have a defined role, it can be difficult to motivate others in the firm to share knowledge as a social obligation. Unfortunately, the market value of effective knowledge sharing is almost certainly more than most employers could afford. “Money, as it turns out, is very often the most expensive way to motivate people. Social norms are not only cheaper, but often more effective as well.” (p. 86)

Having established that the balance between social and market norms is a very senstive one, Ariely is still convinced that there is a real place for social norms in the workplace.

If corporations started thinking in terms of social norms, they would realize that these norms build loyalty and — more important — make people want to extend themselves to the degree that corporations need today: to be flexible, concerned, and willing to pitch in. That’s what a social relatinonship delivers. (p. 83)

As well as these thoughts on knowledge sharing in the enterprise, Ariely’s chapter explains much to me about the success of so-called social computing tools (and also why they are well-named). They play on the genuine human desire to comply with social norms of exchange, assistance, generosity and collaboration. The challenge is to import this desire into the organisational context, without running into market norms.

Beauty, truth, modernity, tradition

I have just read a perfect summary by Stephen Bayley of one of the principles underpinning my thoughts on this blog.

For me, the debate was a chance to go rhetorical about the single cultural principle I hold most dear: that history and tradition are things you build on with pride and conviction, not resorts you scurry back to when you can think of nothing better to do. I believe that to deny the present is to shortchange the future. These things I learnt from Nikolaus Pevsner.

Bayley was reporting on the National Trust ‘Quality of Life’ debate, “Britain has become indifferent to beauty.”

In Bayley’s account, the debate sounds very stimulating. Supporting the motion were David Starkey and Roger Scruton. Bayley caricatures them thus:

Starkey and Scruton see culture as a serial that has been recorded in episodes and canned in perpetuity for posterity. The task, in their view, is not to augment architectural history with up-to-date improvements, but regularly to revisit the past for edification and instruction.

Bereft of optimism or enthusiasm, bloated with sly and knowing cynicism, they see no value in contemporary life.

Opposing the motion were Germaine Greer (“after Clive James, our Greatest Living Australian National Treasure”) and Bayley himself. The outcome of the debate? The motion was lost resoundingly. Clearly the audience was convinced by the notion that beauty was not fixed at some past time, but is still being made, albeit in a different tradition.

This was not because we were so very clever, but because Starkey and Scruton were so very wrong. And what was the turning point? One, Greer said what a beautiful spring day it was. Whose mood was not enhanced by sunshine and flowers and blue skies? No dissenters, there. Two, in despair at their negativism, cynicism and defeatism, I asked Starkey and Scruton: “Why is it I like what you like (which is to say: medieval, renaissance and Victorian), but why you are so limited and snitty and crabby you see no value in what I like?” No dissenters here, either.

Wonderful to prove that the British are not, indeed, indifferent to beauty.

Reading Bayley’s account, I felt that the traditionalists’ view was not just applicable to beauty. Many things, including language and weights and measures are held by some to be better in some historical form. On the other hand, I am not sure that the resistance to modernity is a related to fear of change, which is how it is often characterised.

The problem, I think, is that we see the past in a sanitised form. The things that are left from bygone eras tend to be the most beautiful. However, we forget this and assume that we see a true picture of what our forbears experienced. Keats’s grecian urn is a prime example.

Famously, Keats’s poem ends with an assertion that truth and beauty are inseparable. For me, however, the phrase before that is more interesting:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst…

Keats appears to be suggesting that the urn will always persist because of its beauty. Given the fragility of antique ceramics, this must be a forlorn hope. In general, however, the probability of survival of any given artefact must surely be proportional to its beauty: people are more likely to take care of such things than they are of their uglier counterparts. As a result, our view of the past is inevitably a sanitised one, containing only the good parts, with little of the bad.

By contrast, we experience all of the present — the good and the bad. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which is which. In the face of such uncertainty, it is not surprising that some people prefer to turn against the present and seek solace in the past. I think this is where Scruton and Starkey sit, whereas Greer and Bayley are happy to explore the present — risking the possibility that what they regard as worthwhile will turn out with the passage of time to be ugly and worthless.

I think they are right to take that risk. To do otherwise is to fail to take part in the process by which the things that are worthwhile are preserved for future generations. We need to remember to do the same in our organisations — not to hold on to repositories of old knowledge just because they are old, but to open our minds to the possibility of the creation of new knowledge by whatever means (and to risk some of that new knowledge being worthless).

The millennial organisation

I can’t remember how I found it, but there is a snappy presentation by Sacha Chua on Slideshare entitled “The Gen Y Guide to Web 2.0 at Work.” I think it is misnamed — it is actually a valuable guide to Web 2.0 for people of any generation. See what you think:

Slide 5 is the best:

Here’s how to wow with Web 2.0:

  1. Read
  2. Write
  3. Reach out
  4. Rock
  5. Repeat from #1

So true. Almost everything I try and do (and encourage others to try and do) comes down to one or more of these things.

However, there is something else buried in the presentation which I found just as interesting. I thought this was an internal presentation for people at IBM (where Sacha works), and so when I saw a link to their blogging guidelines I assumed they might be behind the IBM firewall. In fact they are on public view, and are well worth reading. Apart from the content, which is balanced and intelligent, this statement caught my eye:

In the spring of 2005, IBMers used a wiki to create a set of guidelines for all IBMers who wanted to blog. These guidelines aimed to provide helpful, practical advice—and also to protect both IBM bloggers and IBM itself, as the company sought to embrace the blogosphere. Since then, many new forms of social media have emerged. So we turned to IBMers again to re-examine our guidelines and determine what needed to be modified. The effort has broadened the scope of the existing guidelines to include all forms of social computing.

So that is why the guidelines are balanced and intelligent — the people they affect have collaborated to create something that serves IBM well, in addition to taking account of the reality of engagement with social media.

IBM is clearly a company that understands the positive impact of social media on its business. I don’t think this is solely because part of the business is actually to develop products for collaboration.

Compare this approach with a comment in an article in the Financial Times last week: ” Law firms are at the cutting edge of internet tools.” We’ll ignore the verity or otherwise of the headline — maybe that’s a topic for another day. No — something curious was buried in the middle of the article:

Enterprises often let the beast out of the cage by introducing Web 2.0 and are faced with the ramifications of clogging the enterprise with unapproved, chaotic information.

Who said this? A fuddy-duddy technophobic managing partner? A stereotypically controlling CIO? No. It is a direct quote from Dr Michael Lynch, OBE, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Autonomy Corporation plc. I find this really odd. Here is Autonomy’s vision:

Autonomy was founded upon a vision to dramatically change the way in which we interact with information and computers, ensuring that computers map to our world, rather than the other way round.

Human-friendly or unstructured information is not naturally found in the rows and columns of a database, but in documents, presentations, videos, phone conversations, emails and IMs. We are facing an increasing deluge of unstructured information, with 80% now falling into this category and, according to Gartner, the volume of this data doubling every month. As the amount of unstructured information multiplies, the challenge for the modern enterprise is trying to understand and extract the value that lies within this vast sea of data.

I suspect that Lynch’s full comment has been cut short by the FT. Surely he meant to go on to say that his company could undo this chaos? As reported, however, the statement is more likely to be used by more risk-averse firms to avoid adoption of social software inside the firewall. In doing so, they will miss one of the key points of this kind of technology.

As Andrew McAfee puts it (building on a 1973 article, “The Strength of Weak Ties” by Mark Granovetter), the use of social software inside the firewall creates opportunities for innovation and value-creation. (Strong ties are found between colleagues who work closely together, while weak ties are found in a wider, more casual, network.)

A tidy summary of SWT’s conclusion is that strong ties are unlikely to be bridges between networks, while weak ties are good bridges. Bridges help solve problems, gather information, and import unfamiliar ideas. They help get work done quicker and better. The ideal network for a knowledge worker probably consists of a core of strong ties and a large periphery of weak ones. Because weak ties by definition don’t require a lot of effort to maintain, there’s no reason not to form a lot of them (as long as they don’t come at the expense of strong ties).

Information in the network of weak ties can surface by a variety of means — especially tagging and search. Information only exists in that network if people adopt an approach like Sacha Chua’s — read, write, reach out. If a business fails to provide opportunities for its people to build and contribute to networks of weak ties, they make a serious mistake.

Tom Davenport has asked “Can Millennials Really Change the Workplace?” Maybe we should looking not at Millennial individuals, but at whether our businesses are themselves behaving millennially, and facilitating Generation Y approaches for all our people. Frederic Baud is sceptical :

Enterprise 2.0 represents a real paradigm shift for process oriented organizations.

I hate to use the term “paradigm shift”, because it has been used so many times, and for quite common situations. But in this case, I’m starting to wonder if there is not indeed a very distinctive approach between the two modes that would require organization to adopt very different ways to think about their internal dynamics.

This may be true, but now is surely an obvious time to think about those internal dynamics. Competition between enterprises in all markets is becoming increasingly close. Businesses worrying about coping with “unapproved chaotic information” may well find that their unsinkable ship has the tidiest set of deck-chairs at the bottom of the ocean. Those who start thinking creatively about the power of these disruptive technologies will probably find that they are first in line for the life-rafts.

If your organisation is thinking of getting serious about becoming Millennial, you will find few better summaries of the practical issues than Lee Bryant’s “Getting started with enterprise social networking.” (And if the sinking ship metaphor is too brutal for you, try Jack Vinson’s porch.)

With a little help from my friends

Knowledge management activities in UK law firms depend very heavily on people power — being more reliant on Professional Support Lawyers (PSLs) than their US and continental European counterparts. Despite this, the recent Knowledge Management in Law Firms conference had a noticeable technology focus. I’m afraid I set the tone in the first session with a couple of case studies on KM/IT implementations, but in my defence I did concentrate on the people issues rather than the technology. After that we had many screenshots of systems, mashups, search tools, RSS blogs, wikis and more. All the time we kept telling ourselves that KM wasn’t all about technology, but I wonder whether the historically divergent US and UK law firm traditions are moving closer together. We are using more technology and they are using more PSLs (or KM lawyers).

And then the final question silenced us all. One of the two search engine suppliers at the conference mentioned that they were accustomed to hosting conferences with the IT directors of their main customers — to find out what keeps them up at night and to gather information to drive development of their products. Coming at the end of a panel discussion focusing on how we meet client needs for KM support, I think many of us expected this statement to be followed by a suggestion that law firms might do something along similar lines for their top clients. But no — instead the question was whether the suppliers of the IT tools that we had all been discussing for the previous two days should be speaking to us instead of our IT directors. And, more pointedly, how did we feel about our project spend being controlled by someone who did not necessarily know (or at least understand) the strategic objectives underpinning our KM projects?

The supplementary question was probably a bit provocative. I hope most IT directors do understand and buy into their firm’s KM strategies. However, there is a bit of truth in the assumption behind it. KM projects have to fight for IT time and resources along with everything else that the firm needs — from recurrent and inevitable hardware replacement to big infrastructural projects or change driven by other parts of the firm. How do we feel about that?

Actually, is that the right question? Like the lawyer-client relationship, the IT/KM relationship is just that — a relationship. In order to prevent it becoming disfunctional (or to rectify it if a breakdown has already happened), I think it is helpful to remember two key points. Neither of them refer directly to how we feel. The two points are these:

  1. If something is wrong in a relationship, you cannot change it by focusing on someone else’s behaviour. The only behaviour you can guarantee to change is your own.
  2. The changes you make will have most impact if you understand what preoccupies the other person and play to it.

Let’s elaborate these two points, using the IT-KM relationship as an example.

It’s not you, it’s me…

One of the things that we often forget to take account of in our relationships is that what is important to us in not necessarily a priority for the other person. Just as our jobs give us a full workload, and many challenges, those whose services we need to call on are equally burdened. If we are lucky, they may respond well to a simple plea for attention, but this is most likely when our needs are already important to them. If a simple plea does not work, it will not be any more successful if it is just repeated more loudly. The toddler having a tantrum on the supermarket because they have been refused the sweets they demanded has yet to learn this lesson.

If we change our approach, we may be more successful in getting attention and changed behaviour on the other side of the relationship. If our needs are not a priority for someone else, we might be able to get what we want by framing our request so that it appeals to them more. A demand for more IT resource for KM is likely to fall on deaf ears, but a suggestion that IT and KM (perhaps together with BD) might develop products for knowledge sharing with clients (for example) is likely to command more interest. That would allow IT to demonstrate alignment to the firm’s strategic objectives. This is a similar (although more finessed) approach to that adopted by the teenager who argues that use of the family car would give them a safer return from a late party than waiting for a night bus.

It is rare in a relationship that any difficulties are due solely to the behaviour of one party. There is usually a balance of responsibilities. If we accept that, and consciously change our own behaviour, we can swing the balance in our favour.

What do you want?

Bearing all this in mind, what should KM people know about their IT colleagues? What are the pressure points for technology in law firms? It is difficult to generalise — firms and culture differ — but here are some suggestions. Think scalability, robustness and support.

Scalability: What are the implications of your proposed KM solution for more than a handful of users? OK, you can knock up a quick blog or wiki installation on your home PC, but how does that compare to a platform to support the needs of a thousand or more users? Does your ‘free’ software actually come with significant costs when scaled up beyond more than handful of users?

Robustness: Law firms are not unique in needing high levels of IT security, but that does not mean that the demands of a resilient technology platform should be minimised. It takes time and effort to keep a system running 24/7. At the moment, you may be comfortable that your new system does not need that kind of resilience, but you probably want it to integrate with existing security systems so that users do not have to log in afresh. Likewise, IT will need to be comfortable that no harm is done to the existing critical systems.

Support: Are the technologies that your favoured solution depends on known or unknown within your IT team? It is easy to underestimate the challenges involved in supporting new things. Once your new system takes hold, your less technically-savvy colleagues will expect the same levels of personal support that they currently get for the firm’s established systems. Behind the scenes, your apparently simple blogging platform (for example) is probably actually quite complex. Without an established body of knowledge in the IT team, supporting that platform is expensive — either in training or external consultancy. Whose budget is that coming from?

Bearing those concerns in mind, it becomes easier to understand the IT professionals’ exasperation at comments like those of’s resident devil’s advocate, the Naked CIO, when s/he refers to IT’s weasel words. This comment is particularly telling:

But the part of this article that us foot troops are most likely to disagree with is the idea that we are scared to tell the real story. Not scared, but fed up. Fed up with being told that we are making it deliberately complicated. Fed up with our words being distorted by those that don’t understand our jobs. Fed up with our senior managers not having the courage to fight our corner after those distortions.
It takes two to tango. If colleagues in other functions were prepared to treat IT with respect, long suffering troops wouldn’t be driven to evasive tactics. We obfuscate because non-IT colleagues are getting worse in their assumptions about what is and isn’t a simple problem in IT. “I’ve knocked something up in Access, how hard could it be to make it work for 1000 concurrent users in a distributed environment with no performance issues?” People don’t challenge how hard it is to construct a major building or manufacture a car. That’s because those things are tangible. They can see that it’s difficult. IT is almost invisible, so otherwise sensible people somehow equate invisible to simple “because I can imagine how to do it in my head”.
Until we find a way to address the almost wilful lack of trust and understanding of IT in non-IT colleagues, this situation will worsen.

So the ball is back in our court. Trust and understand your IT colleagues — cooperation and effective collaboration will follow.

(Having said all that, I still have no idea why Neil Richards’s experience of IT projects in a bank was so different from his previous life in a law firm.)

Oh good grief…

I think I am grateful to Mary Abraham for pointing me in the direction of Venkatesh Rao’s densely argued article opposing knowledge management and social media. In fact, it made me as despondent as Charlie Brown faced with yet another opportunity to kick Lucy’s football. This is not a generational war: it is a battle of the straw men. Mary has already dealt deftly with the supposed distinction between KM and Web2.0. What about the straw men?

Defining knowledge management

Venkat characterises KM as a “venerable IT-based social engineering discipline.” IT-based? Dave Snowden was right: we have lost the battle to define KM in other than technology terms. That said, many of us who take seriously the duty to define KM properly do so primarily by reference to people, rather than technology.

Venkat goes on to present a range of crude stereotypes of KM activities:

  • “KM is about ideology”
  • Expertise location is about a yearning for a “priestly elite”
  • “KM and SemWeb set a lot of store by controlled vocabularies and ontologies as drivers of IT architecture”

Some of the detail of Venkat’s argument is good, although he appears to have met some pretty scary knowledge managers. My response to some of his examples (and experiences) was to wonder how much was driven by particular corporate cultures. But Venkat attributes almost all of this stereotypical KM to the ultimate straw man: it’s generational.

Boomers, X and Y

For someone who is critical (albeit not ultimately so) of “systematic ontological engineering,” Venkat draws an unusually firm distinction between people of different ages. Apparently, as a result of being born in 1962, I am a Boomer. My wife and my sister, born within three days of each other in 1964, have the good fortune to be in Generation X. (Clearly 1963 was an annus mirabilis for reasons other than the one identified by Philip Larkin.) My children (all born in the 1990s) are of Generation Y. We are all products of our cultural history (which we have in common with others born at a similar time and brought up in similar cultures), but also our families (which are ours alone). Segregation into generational cohorts ignores this basic fact.

Date of birth does not determine a generation. Where you fit in the generations will depend on a range of personal factors — personal responsibilities (are you a carer or a parent, or are you fancy-free), political focus (do you tend to respect authority, or do you seek your own gurus), and age (not when you were born, but how old are you). Generation Y may well be less than enthusiastic about authority now, but are they rioting in the streets like their French counterparts 40 years ago? Danny the Red, one of the leading soixante-huitards is now part of the Establishment (albeit in a less mainstream party). The difference between then and now is more a question of age than generation.

All people, whether born after 1980 or not, can and do use social media. Inevitably, because they have more time and they were born and schooled in a world where IT prevailed (in the first world and parts of the second world, at least), the younger ones are in a position to make more of it. Of course, those of us who have had to fit into working life for over 20 years will find it harder to adapt to new things. Some of us will find it easier than others, just as some of Generation Y find technology harder.

Ironically, the one of my children who had the earliest acquaintance with the web (within hours of his birth in 1995), has a very different relationship with e-mail, SMS and MSN than his sisters (1993 and 1997). If I were minded to do so, I might draw conclusions about this about the way boys do social media. But I won’t because this single data point is irrelevant. I do not think that the stereotype peddled by adherents of Generation Y thinking is particularly helpful. Social media and related technologies do have the potential to change businesses. That change is not the personal prerogative of those born after 1980. I, and others in the Boomer and X generations, have our part to play. Don’t lump us together in these meaningless groups.