Category Archives: Knowledge

Is knowledge work what we think it is?

When we talk about knowledge work, I think many of us probably focus on desk-bound paper-shufflers of some kind. Here’s a man who disagrees.

more about “Is knowledge work what we think it is?“, posted with vodpod

Matthew Crawford has an academic and work history that could mark him out as an intellectual — perhaps the ultimate knowledge worker. He has a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, after which he held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University’s Committee on Social Thought. After that, he was executive director at a Washington policy organisation. Between his master’s degree and his doctorate he worked writing summaries of academic journal articles for library CD-ROMs. His current vocation, however, is to run a motorcycle repair shop. This change in direction is the subject of a book, which is touted in a New York Times article and the appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show that you can see above.

Crawford’s argument is that what we commonly think of as knowledge work is most often in fact just mindless following of process, whereas manual tasks may often pose some difficult mental challenges.

There probably aren’t many jobs that can be reduced to rule-following and still be done well. But in many jobs there is an attempt to do just this, and the perversity of it may go unnoticed by those who design the work process. Mechanics face something like this problem in the factory service manuals that we use. These manuals tell you to be systematic in eliminating variables, presenting an idealized image of diagnostic work. But they never take into account the risks of working on old machines. So you put the manual away and consider the facts before you. You do this because ultimately you are responsible to the motorcycle and its owner, not to some procedure.

Some diagnostic situations contain a lot of variables. Any given symptom may have several possible causes, and further, these causes may interact with one another and therefore be difficult to isolate. In deciding how to proceed, there often comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt. Have a cigarette and walk around the lift. The gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of you, and this is where it gets interesting. What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.

By comparison, Crawford sees remoteness and a lack of responsibility pervading much of our knowledge work.

The visceral experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the career trajectories of gifted students. It stands to reason, then, that those who end up making big decisions that affect all of us don’t seem to have much sense of their own fallibility, and of how badly things can go wrong even with the best of intentions …

There is good reason to suppose that responsibility has to be installed in the foundation of your mental equipment — at the level of perception and habit. There is an ethic of paying attention that develops in the trades through hard experience. It inflects your perception of the world and your habitual responses to it. This is due to the immediate feedback you get from material objects and to the fact that the work is typically situated in face-to-face interactions between tradesman and customer.

An economy that is more entrepreneurial, less managerial, would be less subject to the kind of distortions that occur when corporate managers’ compensation is tied to the short-term profit of distant shareholders.

I think one of our primary challenges in management (and especially knowledge management) is to instil a culture of paying attention. To some extent, much of 20th century management drove people into places where they did not need to pay attention: they were forced into silos of specialisation where they did not need to worry about what anyone else was doing. The result of this can be seen in many modern workplaces. For example, consider this description of life in a global accounting firm, from Steve Denning’s review of Alain de Botton’s book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

He zeroes in on the HR director and her activities which include promoting day care centers and animatedly asking subordinates at monthly get-togethers how they are enjoying their jobs; organizing competitions in landscape painting and karaoke to stimulate creativity; and “Employee of the Month” schemes which reward the winners with river cruises and lunches with the chairman. (p.248)

“For most of human history, the only instruments needed to induce employees to complete their duties energetically and adroitly was the whip… Once it became evident that someone who was expected to remove brain tumors, draw up binding legal documents or sell condominiums with convincing energy could not be profitably sullen or resentful, morose or angry, the mental well being of employees commenced to be an object of supreme concern.” (p.244)

Thus it would be plausible but wrong, de Botton says, to judge the HR Director as “an unnecessary sickness”. This would be “to misconstrue the sheer distinctiveness of the contemporary office” as “a factory of ideas”. The HR Director plays a key role in maintaining the mask of shallow cheerfulness that keeps the office running smoothly. It is “the very artificiality of her activities that guarantee their success”, like a party game at a house party that initially invite mockery but, as the game gets under way, participants are surprised to find that the game enables them to “channel their hostilities, identify their affections and escape the agony of insincere chatter”. (p.246)

Yet the success is relative. He notes, tellingly, how little time, amid these systematic efforts at contrived conviviality, is actually spent on real work, and how much is devoted to “daydreams and recuperation”. (p.258)

Perhaps knowledge work is actually too easy for people to engage with it properly. By documenting processes in excruciating detail, organisations have simultaneously suppressed creativity and innovation, and created the conditions for inadvertent (but inevitable) error and failure.

From bureaucracy to agility

Last year, I referred to a post by Olivier Amprimo, who was then at Headshift. He is now working at the National Library Board in Singapore, and is still sharing really interesting thoughts. The latest is a presentation he gave to the Information and Knowledge Management Society in Singapore on “The Adaptation of Organisations to a Knowledge Economy and the Contribution of Social Computing“. I have embedded it below.

For me, the interesting facet of what Olivier describes is the transition from bureaucratic organisations to agile ones, and what that means for KM. Traditional KM reflects what Olivier isolates in the bureaucratic organisation, especially the problem he describes as the confusion between administrative work and intellectual work. In doing traditional KM (repositories of knowledge, backed up with metrics based on volume) we run the risk that administrative work is enshrined as the only work of value. However, it is the intellectual work where agility can be generated, and where real value resides.

Olivier describes the agile organisation as one where the focus is on rationalisation of design.

What is important is how the individual forms and is conditioned by work. The work is the facilitator. This is the first time that the individual has been in this position. This is where the knowledge economy really starts.

I found an example of the kind of agility that Olivier refers to in an unexpected place: a short account of the work of Jeff Jonas, who is the chief scientist of IBM’s Entity Analytics group. His work with data means that he is an expert in manipulating it and getting answers to security-related questions for governmental agencies and Las Vegas casinos. For example, he describes how he discussed data needs with a US intelligence analyst:

“What do you wish you could have if you could have anything?” Jonas asked her. Answers to my questions faster, she said. “It sounds reasonable,” Jonas told the audience, “but then I realized it was insane.” Insane, because “What if the question was not a smart question today, but it’s a smart question on Thursday?” Jonas says.

The point is, we cannot assume that data needed to answer the query existed and been recorded before the query was asked. In other words, it’s a timing problem.

Jonas works with data and technology, but what he says resonates for people too. When we store documents and information in big repositories and point search engines at them, we don’t create the possibility of intelligent knowledge use. The only thing we get is faster access to old (and possibly dead) information.

According to Jonas, organizations need to be asking questions constantly if they want to get smarter. If you don’t query your data and test your previous assumptions with each new piece of data that you get, then you’re not getting smarter.

Jonas related an example of a financial scam at a bank. An outside perpetrator is arrested, but investigators suspect he may have been working with somebody inside the bank. Six months later, one of the employees changes their home address in payroll system to the same address as in the case. How would they know that occurred, Jonas asked. “They wouldn’t know. There’s not a company out there that would have known, unless they’re playing the game of data finds data and the relevance finds the user.”

This led Jonas to expound his first principle. “If you do not treat new data in your enterprise as part of a question, you will never know the patterns, unless someone asks.”

Constantly asking questions and evaluating new pieces of data can help an organization overcome what Jonas calls enterprise amnesia. “The smartest your organization can be is the net sum of its perceptions,” Jonas told COMMON attendees.

And:

Getting smarter by asking questions with every new piece of data is the same as putting a picture puzzle together, Jonas said. This is something that Jonas calls persistent context. “You find one piece that’s simply blades of grass, but this is the piece that connects the windmill scene to the alligator scene,” he says. “Without this one piece that you asked about, you’d have no way of knowing these two scenes are connected.”

Sometimes, new pieces reverse earlier assertions. “The moment you process a new transaction (a new puzzle piece) it has the chance of changing the shape of the puzzle, and right before you go to the next piece, you ask yourself, ‘Did I learn something that matters?'” he asks. “The smartest your organization is going to be is considering the importance right when the data is being stitched together.”

Very like humans, then? A characteristic of what we do in making sense of the world around us is drawing analogies between events and situations: finding matching patterns. This can only be done if we have a constant awareness of what we already know coupled with a desire to use new information to create a new perspective on that. That sounds like an intellectual exercise to me.

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. 

and

…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 http://www.nickmilton.com/2009/03/knowledge-management-in-defence-of-m.html for more details.

Why are we doing this KM thing?

I was reading Strategic Intuition (there will be more on this fascinating book at a later date) on the train home yesterday, and was prompted to ask myself an odd question: “why are we doing knowledge management? What will be different, and for whom?”

The passage that made me ask this question was a description of a firefighter’s decision-making process.

Never once did he set a goal, list options, weigh the options, and decide among them. First he applied pressure, then he picked the strongest but newest crew member to bear the greatest weight of the stretcher, and then in the truck they put the victim into the inflatable pants. Formal protocol or normal procedure certainly gave him other options — examine the victim for other wounds before moving him, put the victim into the inflatable pants right away, and assign someone experienced to bear the greatest weight of the stretcher — but Lieutenant M never considered them.

The researcher whose work is described here (Gary Klein) started out with the hypothesis that the decision-making process would conform to the model of a defined goal, followed by iterative consideration of a series of options. However, he rapidly discovered that this model was wrong. Instead, what he saw in the experts that he studied (not only firefighters, but soldiers in battle, nurses, and other professionals) was overwhelmingly intuitive weighing of single options. (There is more in the book about why this is.)

We often talk about decision-making processes, and one of the goals of knowledge management is often to improve those processes by, for example, ensuring better access to information, or by honing the processes themselves (the HBR article by Dave Snowden and Mary Boone on “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” is an excellent example of the latter). Although these activities may well improve decision-making, those decisions are ultimately made by people — not processes. The question I posed for myself, then, was: what impact does KM have on people? Exactly how will they be better at decision-making as a result of our work?

My instinctive answer is that I want them to become experts (and therefore able to act swiftly and correctly in an emergency) in whatever field they work in. That means that we should always return our focus to the people in our organisations, and respond to their needs (taking into account the organisation’s direction and focus), rather than thinking solely about building organisational edifices. The more time that is spent on repositories, processes, structures, or documentation, the less is available for working with people. In becoming experts in our own field, we also need to be more instinctive.

Coincidentally, I read two blog posts about experts over the weekend. The first was Arnold Zwicky bringing some linguistic sanity to counter fevered journalistic criticism of ‘experts’ and ‘expertise’.

Kristof is undercutting one set of “experts”, people who propose to predict the future. Lord knows, such people are sitting ducks, especially in financial matters (though I believe they do better in some other domains), and it’s scarcely a surprise that so many of them get it wrong.

Other “experts” offer aesthetic judgments… and still others exhibit competence in diagnosis and treatment…, and stlll others simply possess extensive knowledge about some domain…

The links between these different sorts of expert/expertise are tenuous, though not negligible. Meanings radiate in different directions from earlier meanings, but the (phonological/orthographic shapes of the) words remain. The result is the mildly Whorfian one that people are inclined to view the different meanings as subtypes of a single meaning, just because they are manifested in the same phonological/orthographic shapes. So experts of one sort are tainted with the misdeeds of another.

Expertise that results from real experience, study, insight, rationality and knowledge does not deserve to be shunned as mere pontification. It can save lives.

The other blog post, by Duncan Work, is a commentary on a New Scientist report about how people react to advice they believe to be expert. It appears that key areas in their brains simply turn off — they surrender the decision-making process to the expert.

This phenomenon has both adaptive and non-adaptive effects.

It is evolutionarily adaptive by being a “conformity-enforcing” phenomenon that can kick in when a large group needs to quickly move in the same direction in order to survive a big threat.   It’s also adaptive when the issues are extremely complex and most members of the population don’t have the knowledge or experience to really evaluate the risks and make a good decision.

It is evolutionarily non-adaptive when there is still a lot of confusion around the issue, when the experts themselves don’t agree, and when many experts are guided by narrow interests that don’t serve the group (like increasing and protecting their own personal prestige and wealth).

The real problem is not just that many of the crises now facing businesses are founded in actions, decisions and behaviours that few people understand. It is that we make no distinction between different categories of expert, and so we follow them all blindly. At the same time, as the New York Times op-ed piece critiqued by Zwicky illustrates, many of us do not actually respect experts. In fact, what we don’t respect are people who style themselves experts, but who are actually driven by other interests (as Work points out).

So if our KM work is at least in part to make people into experts, we probably need to rescue the word from the clutches of people who profess expertise without actually having any.

Knowing how to be disruptive

If nothing else, the state of the economy must make us wonder what things are going to be like when it is all over. At a personal level, there are people whose careers have been forced in a direction they neither expected or wanted. Some household names (such as Woolworths in the UK) have already disappeared, and there will doubtless be others.

Mary Abraham has taken a look at what firms may need to do to see a clear way through the current economic crisis.

Rather than focusing on what doesn’t seem to be working, focus on your organization’s strengths. Ask yourself, what are we doing right? How can we do more of that? How can we do it better? Then, look at your mission. Is it the right mission for your organization? Does it line up with your organization’s core strengths? Are your colleagues and their activities aligned with that mission? Is all of this supported by your organizational culture?

In the midst of all this upheaval is a golden opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to create something new. The “Clean Sheet of Paper” exercise is just a tool to help you get started. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.

I commented on Mary’s post, but I want to develop some of those thoughts a bit further. My initial reaction to the post was to refer to something else I had read recently on a similar point.

The questions you suggest as part of the “Clean Sheet…” exercise leave out an important part of the equation. What do our clients want? What are people buying?

At the end of his recent long article (“The Great De-Leveraging“) Bruce MacEwen reminds us of Andy Grove of Intel’s reaction to a similar crisis:

Better yet, or more realistically yet, perform Andy Grove’s famous thought (and reality) experiment when Intel was a low-end maker of commodity DRAM chips, having their lunch eaten in the late 1970’s by the voracious and talented Japanese, threatening Intel’s very existence.

I paraphrase: Grove said to his top management team, “If we don’t turn things around in a very serious way, the Board will fire us. So why don’t we ‘fire’ ourselves. Let’s march out of this conference room and march back in assuming we’re the new team the Board has hired. What would we do then?”

They performed the exercise, decided to abandon DRAM’s and invest in microprocessors. The rest is history, and it’s history residing under your desk or in your lap.

I think the Andy Grove approach is an essential part of the clean sheet exercise.

There is a real problem for businesses that want to innovate their way out of the crisis. We are used to working with clients to identify what products and services they need. This symbiosis requires a degree of stability. Even if someone doesn’t know what they need until they see it (and who knew they needed an MP3 player with such minimal controls and so few features before Apple created the iPod?), disruptive innovation depends on people realising when they see it that the new product or service does actually fill a hole. The need, niche or desire is created in the same moment as it is fulfilled. At the moment, it is extremely difficult to know how the market will react to novelty. We can’t rely on understanding our clients’ needs to get us through this — we need to walk with them and discover together what is required. We cannot know what the outcome of this perambulation will be. In particular, I don’t think we can assume that the status quo ante will be any part of the future. As Seth Godin puts it:

It’s amazing that people have so much time to fret about today’s emergency but almost no time at all to avoid tomorrow’s.

A glimpse at the TV and internets shows one talking head after another angsting about today’s economy. These are the same people who needed to devote entire hours to mindless trivia nine months ago when they could have done an enormous amount of education about avoiding this mess in the first place.

His point is that we need to concentrate on what is coming, not what is happening now. In a business that depends heavily on the brain-power of its people, like a law firm, that means that we need to focus a significant part of our knowledge efforts on working our what we and our clients need in that future. Tending to our past knowledge needs will not get us safely out of this crisis.

There is another strand to this. Whose knowledge are we talking about? To what extent will the stresses and strains of the current economy affect firms themselves, especially when coupled with tools that could facilitate very different organisational forms. Consider John Roberts’s view of the firm, couched as an objection to a hypothesis that “the firm is simply ‘a nexus of contracts’ — a particularly dense collection of the sort of arrangements that characterise markets.”

While there are several objections to this argument, we focus on one. It is that, when a customer “fires” a butcher, the butcher keeps the inventory, tools, shop, and other customers she had previously. When an employee leaves a firm, in contrast, she is typically denied access to the firm’s resources. The employee cannot conduct business using the firm’s name; she cannot use its machinery or patents; and she probably has limited access to the people and networks in the firm, certainly for commercial purposes and perhaps even socially. (The Modern Firm (Oxford, 2004): 104) 

What does this mean for knowledge-intensive firms? The resources that Roberts refers to are less relevant — the machinery is either freely available (Google has a few useful tools on offer) or is located in the heads of the knowledge workers. The networks that he highlights as important are increasingly located outside the firm — in Facebook, LinkedIn or twitter, for example. One consequence of this may be that firms which fail to reinvent themselves or provide other compelling reasons for their existence could end up as empty shells — with their people relocated to other firms or new forms of self-organisation.

The brick building in the centre-right of the picture above was one of Manchester’s Victorian railway termini, opened in 1880 and closed in 1969. As the railways were rationalised and nationalised, and as passenger numbers fell, there was clearly no need for a city the size of Manchester to have six major railway stations. There are now just two. Of the others, one is at the heart of a museum, one is a car park, the one pictured is an exhibition hall, and one is derelict. The building on the left of the picture is the Bridgewater Hall, home of the Hallé Orchestra (Britain’s oldest symphony orchestra). The Hallé’s previous home, the Free Trade Hall, is now just a facade for a hotel. Rising above the old station is Manchester’s tallest building, the Beetham Tower. The solidity and apparent permanence of all these buildings was (is) no guarantee that they would always fulfil the same purpose. In fact, the longest-lasting thing in this tale is the orchestra — an excellent example of a group whose purpose cannot be separated from its form. A symphony needs to be played by a symphony orchestra: individual musicians cannot replicate the sound by playing on their own. As long as people are willing to pay to hear symphonies, the Hallé and orchestras like it will continue to exist.

Is your firm an orchestra or a collection of soloists? Is there still an audience for its repertoire?

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.)

Measuring maturity

There is a small number of meta-questions about knowledge management that people regularly grapple with. The most obvious is “what is knowledge management?” After that, the next most frequently asked must be “how do you measure KM success?” I have found at least 23 answers (or challenges) to that question, and there are undoubtedly more. I recently found an interesting commentary on the measurement game in a different context, which might shed some light on the matter.

I maintain a watching brief on the higher education sector in the UK. Partly for nostalgic reasons, partly to see trends that might affect our future lawyers, and partly because serendipity is part of this job and I think that only comes with practised observation. So I couldn’t miss Jonathan Wolff’s recent insight into the way in which the UK funding and quality agencies monitor universities.

Suppose you have applied for a job, any job. You are at one of those macho interviews where the panel members compete to see who can make you sweat the most. And this is the winning question: how do you plan to monitor and evaluate your own performance in the role? … 

Suppose your job is in business of some sort and, ultimately, you are employed to make the company money… In the end, the only thing that matters, then, is the profit you bring in. But it may take some time to build up a client base and to gather the dosh. It would be foolish to say that in the short term you should be judged on how much profit you make for the company. Rather you should monitor your activity: how many meetings you have taken, how many letters and emails you have sent, how many briefings you have been to. But, of course, that is only for openers. If the meetings don’t result in business, then you are wasting your time. So in the second phase of monitoring, you stop counting meetings and start counting things like contracts signed, goods shipped, turnover generated, or any other objective sign of real interaction.

But, once more, this is only an interim goal. You are there not to generate turnover, but profit. And once you have been around long enough that is the only thing that matters. In the third and final phase you count how much you make for the company, and stop worrying about meetings, letters or contracts signed. Who cares about how many of these there are if the bottom line stays juicy enough?

Pithily put, and accurate too. (Perhaps one should expect nothing less from a professor of philosophy at the institution inspired by Jeremy Bentham.) Unfortunately, Wolff’s tale does not end there. Our universities are stuck at the first stage — they can only monitor and measure the most obvious stuff they do. They haven’t worked out how to demonstrate how well they do at their core tasks: educating students and producing excellent research. They know that those are the bottom line (the profit equivalent), but they cannot measure how close they get to it.

The lesson from business is that over time, if you can’t count the right thing, counting the wrong thing isn’t a substitute. It isn’t even just a distraction. It is the road to ruin.

As a result, our universities are trapped in an immature relationship with their market and their paymasters. My memory of that relationship is that it was characterised (on both sides) by petulance, truculence and pedantry. I don’t think things have changed much in the last seven years.

Where does that leave KM? We go through the same phases. In the early days we demonstrate the value of our work by showing people the simple numbers — this many documents created, stored or accessed; that many people involved in knowledge sharing. Later on, we can look at the quality of this stuff — how good are these documents, is there good feedback on knowledge sharing. Ultimately, though, we need to work out what our bottom line is: what are we here for and how good are we at delivering that value. In any given organisation that may take a while, but if we stick at simple measures we shouldn’t be surprised if our paymasters and clients see us as an irrelevance. If we can show the impact of our work on profitability, we should always aim to do so (and loudly). Nobody is going to blow our trumpet for us.

Prescriptivity and appropriateness

One of the links in my blogroll is to Language Log, which is home to some of the most rigorous blogging on the internet. As its name indicates, it deals with language and linguistics, but in the broadest possible sense. So its authors have taken on sex differences and biological determinism, science journalism, lolcats, and legal language. However, one of the best posting categories is “Prescriptivist Poppycock.” When you need a break from pedants whingeing about split infinitives and dangling prepositions, this is where to come.

David Crystal’s book, The Fight for English (subtitled “How language pundits ate, shot, and left”) is also an attack on prescriptivist poppycock. In it, he describes how language pedantry developed during the eighteenth century, and outlines how an understanding of appropriate language can help people to understand grammar and language generally. (A point completely lost on this Amazon reviewer.) This is why appropriateness matters:

One of the aims of education, whether by parents or teachers, is to instil appropriate behaviour. If we behave inappropriately, we risk social sanctions. Language is a form of social behaviour, and it is subject to these sanctions as is everything else. The main aim of language education has thus to be the instilling into children of a sense of linguistic appropriateness — when to use one variety or style rather than another, and when to appreciate the way in which other people have used one variety or style rather than another. This is what the eighteenth-century prescriptive approach patently did not do.

When he turns to the history of grammar teaching in the UK, Crystal’s reduces his argument to a simple analogy. (Until the mid-1960s, English language teaching in the UK depended heavily on prescriptive texts. After that point, virtually no grammar was taught as part of the school syllabus. From the 1990s, following a period of intense academic study of English language and grammar, the National Curriculum for English incorporated language teaching that (a) balanced the study of language structure and the study of language use, and (b) aimed to instil a sense of language awareness in children.) The balance is important:

The basic problem [with historic English teaching] was that there was no means of relating the analytical skills involved in doing grammar to the practical skills involved in speaking, listening, reading, and writing. The grammarians argued that there just had to be a connection — that any child who learned to parse would inevitably end up being a better user of its language. But there was nothing at all inevitable about it. And there was an obvious counter-argument, best summed up in an analogy. I have a friend who is a wonderful car mechanic, but he is a terrible driver.

The analogy is worth developing. To be a good driver takes a lot more than knowledge of how a car engine works. All kinds of fresh sensitivities and awarenesses are involved. Indeed, most of us learned to drive with next to no understanding of what goes on inside the bonnet. It is the same with language. …[S]omething else has to happen if children are to use a knowledge of grammar in order to become better speakers, listeners, readers, or writers. A connection has to be made — and, more to the point, demonstrated.

Reading this passage, I was reminded of something else I read today. In the Anecdote blog, Shawn Callahan quotes a passage from John Medina’s book, Brain Rules. Here are the first couple of sentences:

Any learning environment that deals with only the database instincts [our ability to memorise things] or only the improvisatory instincts [our ability to imagine things] ignores one half of our ability. It is doomed to fail.

I had intended to write about this anyway, because it struck me that an approach to legal education (and, by extension, KM) that focuses on things like transaction processes and prescribed documents (held in databases) does not help to develop the creative and improvisatory instinct in lawyers. I have a feeling that many lawyers find improvisation difficult (please excuse the generalisation), and so they are happiest with KM that creates know-how databases and precedent banks. Such an approach does not actually serve them as well as they think it does.

As for the legal education point: a story from my wife. She is a corporate partner, with 20 years experience. A couple of years ago she was leading a very complex transaction, but the other side was represented by a much more inexperienced lawyer. More significantly, it was clear that this lawyer had been taught some standard transaction processes and had not developed enough imagination to see that the clients’ goals could be more readily met by diverging from the standard. Because of this, my wife and both sets of clients were frustrated until the other lawyer finally gave up on her approach and caved in. At this point, I am not privy to the details, but my guess is that the result of this change of heart was not particularly beneficial her client. At the very least, her intransigence will have prolonged the deal and increased its cost to both parties.

Prescriptivism may be dying out in the British educational system, but it is alive and well in law firms. In the current climate, how long will clients stand for it? And what are we doing to connect lawyers’ database instincts with their improvisory instincts in order to give them the understanding to become better advisors?

How we see it

Charles Arthur comments on the journalism vs new media debate, and in doing so explains his one rule for writing a blog post.

The rule is this: when I write the post, I know more about that particular topic than the average person who’s going to read it. But I don’t know more about the particular topic than some of the people reading it – so if I can get them to contribute then everyone (me and the other readers) will have benefited. (And of course if I don’t know more, or suspect I don’t know more, than the average reader, I should go away and find out some more until I do.)

Journalists are not especially different in this respect from lawyers. Sometimes we may have clients who know more about the law in question than their advisors. Only a handful of people (out of a population of thousands) get to be the undisputed experts in their fields. The rest of us have to hope that we know enough to be helpful to the client and to allow the possibility that the client might help us. Charles has a view on this too.

The trick is in writing it in a way that will get those people who do know more to contribute it. That’s tricky. Takes practise. Maybe that’s what the new journalism is about: writing in a way that raises the amount of knowledge in the average reader’s head, while encouraging the reader further up the bell curve of knowledge to pitch in too.

Those of us who are interested in opening up knowledge sharing within law fims (or anywhere, I suspect) can learn from this. The best examples of knowledge sharing arise when people who know a little feel empowered enough to communicate what they know and confident enough to accept correction or clarification from those who know — and all this can occur in an open environment so that those on the sidelines also learn. That is why carefully managed Web2.0 technologies inside the firewall can offer real KM benefits — they show how knowledge flows around the business.

Ceci n’est pas un pipe

A story in the New York Times about Nokia’s work on human behaviour illustrates beautifully how things we create often end up being used for very different purposes.

Someone working in Kampala, for instance, who wishes to send the equivalent of $5 back to his mother in a village will buy a $5 prepaid airtime card, but rather than entering the code into his own phone, he will call the village phone operator (“phone ladies” often run their businesses from small kiosks) and read the code to her. She then uses the airtime for her phone and completes the transaction by giving the man’s mother the money, minus a small commission. “It’s a rather ingenious practice,” Chipchase says, “an example of grass-roots innovation, in which people create new uses for technology based on need.”

Rather than ignoring this innovation, Nokia employs people (like Jan Chipchase, quoted in the snippet above) who explore how their phones are used in the wider world. And Nokia acts on what they find.

Influenced by Chipchase’s study on the practice of sharing cellphones inside of families or neighborhoods, Nokia has started producing phones with multiple address books for as many as seven users per phone. To enhance the phone’s usefulness to illiterate customers, the company has designed software that cues users with icons in addition to words.

For me, this is an example of how our knowledge needs to step beyond the temporary boundaries that we have set for it. Nokia is a really interesting company. It started as a paper company, but diversified very early — into electricity generation. The other two companies that merged into the Nokia Corporation in 1968 operated in the rubber industry and in cable and electronics. With such a hybrid background, it is not especially surprising that Nokia moved so well into telecommunications.

This link between diversity of influences and innovation has been made in the context of law firms as well: Law Firm Innovation out of Purposeful Imagination. A quote:

Opportunities are also created by events. But those at the right place at the right time usually didn’t get there just by accident. As the French scientist Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” Purposeful imagination should include thinking about things that could happen and then imagining how they could happen differently. It is about doing so with an eye toward the opportunities those events would present for the firm.

In case one might think that this is something one can pick up from a book, Dave Snowden puts us right (“..sapping the vigor of the mind”):

There is a huge difference between a chef and a user of recipe books. The recipe book user (for which read the manufacturing model of consultancy) uses best practice to assemble the same ingredients in the same context to produce the same meal, time and time again. If they come into your kitchen, it will have to be re-engineered to confirm with the requirements of the recipe before they start to work (and you will pay in many ways for that). The Chef in contrast can work with whatever ingredients and utensils you happen to have to hand and create a great meal.

It is all about preparedness, imagination, ideas, innovation and expertise.

If books were valued according to their price per page, A Technique for Producing Ideas would be one of the most valuable that I own. In fact, its real value is entirely consistent with its cost of 10 pence per page. The book outlines a simple technique to generate ideas. Although it dates from the 1940s and is directed at people working in advertising, it contains insights that we can all still benefit from. (The author, James Webb Young, is ranked above Rupert Murdoch in a list of the top 100 players in advertising history.)

It feels a bit strange to summarise a book that is already very concise, but I’ll give it a go, using quotations from the text.

The starting point is one that should be familiar to people working in knowledge management:

In learning any art the important things to learn are, first, Principles, and second, Method. This is true of the art of producing ideas.

Particular bits of knowledge are nothing, because they are made up of what Dr. Robert Hutchins once called rapidly aging facts. Principles and method are everything.

So with the art of producing ideas. What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced and how to grasp the principles which are at the source of all ideas.

So what are the principles and method?

There are two principles:

  • An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements
  • The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships

The way these principles work can be seen by looking at the method, which has five stages (as summarised by Anecdote):

  1. Gather raw material
    You need to collect specific and the general information about the issue you are working on. It’s important to be a maven and get interested in the peripheral areas and keep saying to yourself, “this might be useful.”
  2. Digest the material
    “This part of the process is harder to describe in concrete terms because it goes on entirely inside your head.” Play with the material you’ve collected. Look at it from different angles and perspectives. Don’t be too literal, use metaphors and most importantly jot down partial ideas as they come to you, regardless of how crazy they seem. Keep going until you get to the hopeless stage and everything seems like a jumble.
  3. Put the issue out of your mind completely—an incubation period
    Forget about the problem and just like Sherlock Holmes, abruptly drop the case mid-way through and got to a concert. Do anything that keeps you mind off the issue at hand and engages your emotions.
  4. An idea will appear
    At some point the “ah ha!” moment happens. Don’t let it slide past. Write down the idea immediately.
  5. Expose the idea to reality
    The idea is likely to need work. So now is the time to build it up, think about the practicalities, and work out how it might really work in practice. Test the idea with colleagues and clients and be ready to adapt.

The more widely one reads and digests, the better the source material for ideas (in any walk of life). This is an area where knowledge management can help. When talking about the first and second stages of idea generation James Webb Young refers to his habit of keeping a scrapbook of things that occur to him, and a set of index cards to help categorise the things he sees and likes, so that they can readily be brought back to mind when necessary. These are tools for personal knowledge management.

Nowadays, however, we can do better than this. Del.icio.us is a kind of digital scrapbook, consisting of things that people see on the web that might be of interest at some point. Rather than index cards, users can use tags to classify things in a way that makes sense to them. Because the ’scrapbook’ is online, anyone else can see it too. (Although it is possible to mark it as private.) You can see my things at http://del.icio.us/innominate_lex.

The final stage in the ideas process is probably the hardest one. This is where Nokia’s experience shows. They take the insights from their research and create prototypes and examples of potential designs. Those are then tested out with potential users, generating new ideas and insights. Nothing could more clearly demonstrate how development is never static. Our knowledge should also be dynamic, and therefore any systems we design and use to improve that knowledge must reflect that dynamism.