Category Archives: Tradition

The risks of change

The series of posts on the legal environment will continue, but this is a quick post about change and risk.

I recently met Richard Martin, who is a film and cycling aficionado as well as being a member of Change Agents Worldwide. He wrote a fantastic series of blog posts exploring the idea of the cycling peloton as a metaphor for an agile and adaptive company, but today he wrote about stage 9 of last year’s Tour de France in which the Garmin-Sharp team rode in a way that had never been seen before — taking the other teams by surprise and helping one of their riders, Dan Martin, to win the stage. The story is also told in this video, which is worth watching even for those who aren’t fans of the sport.

There is a passage in the video that particularly struck me. Charly Wegelius, the Garmin-Sharp director sportif comments on how the sport has become a bit predictable (at 9′ 13″).

A lot of people who work in cycling have got so much experience that they go to sleep in a way, and they stick to their own plans that they’ve done, you know, for many years. They can get caught by surprise because they don’t think differently very often.

I am sure that resonates for people in many organisations. I can certainly see it in many parts of the legal sector.

The downside of being as adventurous as Garmin-Sharp were is that catching people by surprise is high-risk. Rather than getting a stage winner, the team could have completely burned out and been dropped to the back of the race — and possibly even outside the cut-off time for participation in later stages. There was no middle ground. To make this change, they had to take an incredible risk.

It is not surprising that, faced with such risks, organisations avoid making significant changes.

But elsewhere in Richard’s blog post, he describes all the things that have to come together to make a stage of the Tour de France work (informed by watching the third stage of the race this year as it sped through the Olympic Park in London). This interconnectedness — organisers, local communities, police forces, the teams, the spectators, the weather, potentially malicious elements — makes it impossible to predict the outcome even of  a familiar plan. A radical change may be obviously risky, but doing what has always been done could be riskier.

As Richard puts it:

It is this very interconnectedness, this interplay of multiple systems, that reinforces my belief in the peloton formation as an apt metaphor for a modern, agile, adaptive and responsive organisation. One that has to operate under loose frameworks, tolerating risk, constrained by Government and regulatory policy, responding to shifting market conditions, seeking to evolve, transform, succeed, survive.

I think there is another element, which is that different members of the organisation need to have the autonomy to do what is necessary to deal with things as they arise. The Garmin-Sharp team did that. Jonathan Vaughters (the team manager) set the goal and made it clear that the most risky approach was permissible. Charly Wegelius outlined a possible plan of action with the riders, as well as being on the course in the team car giving instructions over the radio. But most importantly, each rider was trusted to do whatever he thought necessary to play his part in delivering the result — each playing to his own strengths and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the rest of the team (and the other teams) as well as the nature of the terrain.

I am not sure that many organisations can work as well as that.

 

 

Improving yield: an agricultural metaphor for organisations

An old way, overgrown As a schoolchild, despite my mother’s agricultural ancestry, my understanding of farming was as basic as the writer of the classic hymn, “We Plough the Fields and Scatter.” The hymn suggests that all one needs for a plentiful harvest are some good seeds, a ploughed field, and a beneficent god to bring the right weather.

Nowadays, I know better. Although plants and animals may be capable of reproducing and growing naturally, the science of agriculture has allowed farmers to improve yields hugely. As an example, drawn from the FAO’s database, the following graph shows the increase in cereals production in Europe over the last 50 years. (Not shown is the fact that the area under cultivation has actually fallen over the same period.)

Cereals

This scientific approach is merely the culmination of millennia of human development, from the Neolithic period onwards. As we learn more about how other species can be manipulated, or the earth itself can be nurtured to support greater yields, it is possible to feed a growing population.

Modern farming therefore depends on the advances in techniques and materials that are available. Cereal crops are now planted by GPS-guided seed drills that allow the farmer to ensure that as little seed as possible is wasted — no longer is it scattered wantonly. Plant and animal species have been bred for improved yield over centuries. A modern farm is as far from natural growth as it is possible to be.

By comparison, many aspects of our human organisations depend heavily on trusting people to work effectively. Worse, where we aim to make improvements, there is often little science behind them to show that they will actually increase productivity. As a result, people often struggle with poorly designed systems that obstruct their efforts to work better.

I keep coming back to agriculture as a metaphor for the way we manage organisations. I think it is especially relevant for knowledge management. In order to improve the yield of the organisation (by whatever measure is appropriate), managers need to enhance people’s natural capabilities (fertilising for growth), while reducing the impact of adverse conditions (sheltering crops from bad weather). That isn’t possible without a deep understanding of the environment within which the organisation works, the natural capabilities of the people within the organisation, and the value of whatever the organisation produces.

A manager armed with that understanding (and an awareness of how the different factors change over time) can test different approaches to improving productivity, based on the factors that are known to make a difference. Managing in this way means that time isn’t wasted on things that won’t make a difference (even if the organisation next door is using them). Testing different techniques allows success to be observed — unsuccessful interventions can be stopped without significant loss.

In fact, many business interventions are more like cargo-cult science. They are often copied wholesale from other organisations (where they may or may not have been successful). They often fail because they don’t fit the way people want to work. (This is especially the case with KM systems.) But when they fail, the blame falls on the people who failed to change to fit. Too often the cry goes up, “how can we make people use the system?”

I have never heard a farmer blame the wheat for not growing properly when they try out a new cultivation technique, or the cows for a reduced milk yield when the feed mix is changed. Farmers often complain, but they know to change the right things when they can. Organisational leaders too often complain about the wrong things and therefore make the wrong changes. Poor organisational productivity is as often a product of a badly managed environment as improved agricultural yields are of painstaking land management.

KM in law firms: rising to a challenge

Spurred on by a disappointing conference experience, Greg Lambert has challenged law firm KMers to justify their existence.

He starts:

I have to tell you that coming away from the ARK conference on Knowledge Management, I was a little disappointed with the direction that many of the law firms are taking with the idea of Knowledge Management (KM). Some of the presenters were showing products that were very “flashy” and useful, but weren’t really what I would consider “KM” resources.

Many of them were “Client Services” products… or were fancy dashboards attached to accounting or time and billing resources, but not really what I would think of when it came to capturing “knowledge” at a firm.

And finishes:

The entire conference seemed to be about keeping KM relevant, by expanding the definition of KM and taking it in the direction of Law Practice Management, or Alternative Fees, Accounting and Financial Interfaces, or Client Development Resources. All noble things for a law firm to do… but again, completely outside the scope of what KM was meant to bring to the firm. As Mary Abraham put it in a tweet:

“Why is #KM obsessed with PM? Because desperate knowledge managers are searching for a raison d’être.”

As you can probably tell, I am a little depressed after hearing everyone basically say that in order to stay relevant, you need to abandon most of your objectives and principles and turn KM into something else. I’m hoping that I’m wrong.

There is a lot bundled into Greg’s succinct post, and I want to try and unpack and deal with as much of it as I can here. (I’ll probably fail, but that’s what the comments are for, no?)

The first thing to note is that Greg is absolutely right to crtiticise the use of the ‘knowledge management’ label for activities that are properly the province of other management disciplines. I have always taken the view that there is a place for KM to improve business support functions in law firms (as well as the work of the lawyers themselves). However, if firms’ BD, HR or finance functions find better ways of presenting the information that people need to operate properly, that doesn’t feel to me like a KM project — it feels like an improvement in HR or finance.

The test for ‘KM-ness’ is, I think, similar to a piece of advice for CEOs that I read in one of the HBR blogs a couple of weeks ago.

Top executives usually say they set their priorities and then figure out how to implement them. But in this process many executives make a critical mistake. I’ve noticed this when I’ve mentored new CEOs. They say, “Here are the top five priorities for the company. Who would be the best at carrying out each priority?” Then they come up with themselves as the answer in all five areas. It might be the correct answer, but it’s the wrong question.

The question is not who’s best at performing high-priority functions, but which things can you and only you as the CEO get done? If you don’t ask yourself that question, your time allocations are bound to be wrong. …

…[Y]ou really have to hold yourself back from taking on other functions or tasks even if you might excel at performing them.

The same is true for non-CEOs. So what is it that KM (and only KM) can do? That is the proper focus. So if KMers (from law firms or elsewhere) find themselves presenting at conferences, their material must, I think, be something that could not reasonably fit at a BD, HR, finance, or IT conference.

On the other hand, Greg’s perspective on KM may be a little limited. It isn’t clear from this posting exactly what his definition of proper law firm KM is, but there is a hint in the statement,

these projects were very cool, they were very useful for getting information in the hands of clients or attorneys, but to call them knowledge management resources would be stretching the truth a little bit because they didn’t really capture and reuse existing firm knowledge in the traditional meaning of knowledge management.

This isn’t the place for a debate about the definition of KM, but I think it is important to recognise that ‘capture and re-use of existing knowledge’ doesn’t do justice to the breadth of possible (and justifiable) KM activities. For me, Dave Snowden’s draft definition captures this fairly well:

The purpose of knowledge management is to provide support for improved decision making and innovation throughout the organization. This is achieved through the effective management of human intuition and experience augmented by the provision of information, processes and technology together with training and mentoring programmes.

(As an aside, the comments on Dave’s definition repay close study and reflection, as does the blog post that precedes it.)

However, Greg’s approach to KM is not an unusual one (especially in law firms), and I think there is something to explore here. The conference he attended, “Knowledge Management in the Legal Profession” is a regular event in the Ark Group calendar (as is the equivalent in the UK). Whilst there are similar events that concentrate on KM in specific sectors (notably the public sector), it appears that legal KMers (deliberately or accidentally) tend to dissociate themselves from KM developments in other types of organisation. When I have attended general KM conferences, I have often been noted as a rare legal delegate. If my impression is correct, it is a great shame — I have learned much from my colleagues in law firms, but even more from those in government, industry, commerce and banking. (Sometimes this is a process of learning by distinction — industrial KM is necessarily very different from that in professional services. It is still valuable though.) I think another consequence of a narrow focus could be that conferences on legal KM may run out of clearly KM-related topics so that they start to rely on presentations such as the ones disappointed Greg.

Interestingly, Richard Susskind has a parallel complaint to Greg’s complaint in The End of Lawyers? Susskind remarks at one point in the book (unfortunately, one of my colleagues is reading my copy, so I can’t give a proper quote or reference) that lawyers often talk about the work they do as a form of project management or similar non-legal skill. Susskind finds this odd — why do some lawyers apparently lack confidence in the value of their legal skills? Why, equally, do they think that clients might be interested in paying over the odds for a gifted amateur project manager (albeit with legal skills) rather than a professional project manager who would do a better job (and allow lawyers to focus on their own professional specialisms). Just as some practising lawyers feel they can turn their hands to many different activities, so do many legal KMers. The result is a lack of clarity about what they should actually be specialising in.

A final point. Greg refers to a specific comment that “caught my attention, and made me wonder if KM just needs to be scrapped at law firms altogether.”

When asked about “who” creates the documentation behind a firm’s model documents resource, the answer was that this would be a good opportunity for those in KM who were former practicing attorneys. (Translated: “You’ll need to have someone in KM do this, because no one else in the firm will.”)

I am not sure whether this is a reflection of the lack of value placed on KM, rather than the choices firms make. (And possibly a difference of approach on either side of the Atlantic.) In the UK, at least, law firms have long relied on model documents (otherwise known as precedents or standards). Before we had dedicated KM lawyers, those precedents were drafted by the most experienced (and expert) lawyers in the relevant field. In some teams that is still the case, but now many firms depend on their Professional Support Lawyers to create at least the first draft of the key documents. That is not because the firm values those documents less, but because they have found a more cost-effective way of producing a key resource. I am not sure that US firms have the same dependence on precedents, so they have yet to prove their worth. If that is the case, I imagine that it is probably right for the KM team to take the lead and show the practising lawyers why there is value in model documents. (There is, however, a good case for saying that everyone has a responsibility for KM, just as Larry Hawes recently argued for collaboration and Enterprise 2.0.)

Overall, then I am sympathetic to Greg’s challenge (and we should never be complacent that what we do is unassailable), but I think things may be more complex than he asserts.

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.

Making time

One of the things that can prevent us from getting things done is time, and how we manage it. Even without anyone else’s help (or hindrance), the average worker has to deal with procrastination and thinker’s block.

Montepulciano

When those challenges are added to the need to work with colleagues and clients in a managed environment, things can get even more difficult. It is easy to get carried with the flow of life and work without really thinking about how best to use one’s time. Clients have demands to which lawyers are keen to respond, and most firms have financial imperatives that require particular approaches to work management. One consequence is that it can be hard to find time to do other things. In fact, in many organisations, this is intended. Tony Quinlan highlights the problem:

The drive for efficiency and perfect accounting for time is a constant anachronism — and far too much attention goes there, with added implications that activities like lunchbreaks and socialising were wasting time or somehow detrimental to the organisation. It’s often the implication that a work contract indicates a straight exchange of salary for workhours, and that any hours used at work for non-efficient work purposes is time stolen from the organisation. A very dangerous mindset to get into — and one that I’ve challenged more than a few times at conferences (typically, someone talking about email and spam and how many hours can be saved, with a spurious figure of what that means on the bottom line. Spare me.)

The contractual exchange of time for money is absolutely explicit in a law firm, where fee-earners record time in six-minute blocks, which then get converted into bills for clients. (I know many firms are moving away from the extreme version of that model, but very few of them have actually done away with the need to record time.) This can have a corrosive effect on any activities (including knowledge sharing) that are not “fee-earning” or which make it harder to reach time-related targets. Tony goes on to recall life in a more relaxed working environment.

I remember the tea trolley at Racal, back in the 1980s when I was testing radar systems.  It was actually a very useful social space — a specified point in the day when a bunch of people from different areas and specialisms met and talked as we waited to buy anything that I’d probably not allow my children to have today.

There’s a serious denigration of such social spaces these days, usually on efficiency or bottom-line grounds but (as in the case of smoking rooms) health ones too.  The value was in building cross-functional networks and communication channels and talking in non-formal environments.  And non-policed too, which made them more powerful for sharing problems or warnings of potential future issues.

Like Tony, I think the social aspect of work is crucial. If we make it harder for people to interact casually, we lose a real opportunity for creativity, change and insight. Gossip (of the non-malicious kind) almost always conveys more useful and actionable information than the formal corporate communications channels. (We need those too.)

[I]f the smoking room, the tea trolley, the staff canteen (and lunch hour) are all disappearing, where do we meet other parts of the organisation except in meetings?

A good question, Tony, and one which would frighten many people.

Do we have too many meetings? Possibly, and they may well be poorly focused as well. However, Paul Graham puts his finger on a more subtle issue. Different people are affected by meetings in different ways.

One reason programmers dislike meetings so much is that they’re on a different type of schedule from other people. Meetings cost them more.

There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour.

When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.

Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

Where do lawyers fit into this model? Are they makers or managers? And clients — where do they fit? I don’t think there is a simple answer. However, it is a question we should always ask. Will this meeting that feels innocuous to me actually disrupt another person’s day to such an extent that they feel unable to spare the time to do something that might deliver more value instead (like chatting to someone as they make a cup of coffee)? Or, alternatively, is this meeting actually the time when something critical gets done — like finding out from a client exactly what their commercial objectives are?

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.

A glimpse into the abyss

John Flood has published on his blog an article he co-wrote for The Lawyer. It is essentially a challenge to the traditional UK law-firm business model.

The context for the challenge is clearly the current economic crisis, coupled with the opportunities offered for different organisational structures by the Legal Services Act. In essence the suggestion is that law firms should stop ‘owning’ their stock (lawyers) and instead lease it as and when client demands dictate.

Although legal work has become more commoditised and an increasing proportion of it shipped offshore, it is perhaps lawyers themselves, both associates and partners, who are the commodities, traded and marketed by recruiters and head-hunters. New service models such as Axiom Legal, Rimon Law and Lawyers Direct are flourishing. One recruiter is now even advertising ‘pay as you go lawyers’. At the same time, the equity partnership prize is becoming ever harder to win, and even less sought after by today’s younger lawyers who are more mobile and happier than ever to migrate to newer opportunities.

Since a sufficiently large pool of high-quality and experienced lawyers is emerging from the crisis, why not rent lawyers for a specific period or task and then let them go again? The advantage of temporary resources is that they can be deployed as and when needed and released when not.

What would be the purpose of the firm in this model?

A smaller, tighter front-line team would oversee client relationships, supervise the work and manage the firm. Rather than constantly seeking merger partners, law firms could structure their growth in a more organic fashion which would build collegiality as well as returns.

I am not sure what this would look like. I think there are two (potentially competing) reasons why law firms are organised as they are. The first is that the current model has served private practice lawyers well so far. That is not to say that this will remain true. John Flood and his co-author, Peter Rouse, chief executive of 7 Bedford Row Chambers, have started to make a compelling case for change from this perspective. However, the current model has also grown up in response to client needs. It is at least arguable that clients play some part in designing law firms. There is compelling evidence (see Ron Friedmann and others, passim) that client pressure will define the law firm model to a much greater extent in years to come. The Flood/Rouse model may serve clients well, but it is not clear from the article how or why clients would prefer this approach to one of the many others on offer.

As they are currently organised, law firms can and should offer clients the security that individual lawyers are well-trained and -briefed so that they can apply more than basic legal knowledge. That is one of the functions of firms’ KM activities. How would that be replicated in a firm using the Flood/Rouse model? There is a real risk that clients would get little benefit from this approach. Yes, firms might find that their costs are lower and that this might translate into lower hourly rates (assuming that the billable hour still holds sway), but a poorly-briefed contract lawyer could take much longer to perform the tasks required to the standard required by the client. As a result, the client would see no financial benefit, and might even discern a distinct difference in the quality of the work done.

That is not to say that we should dismiss this approach. No organisation can assume that it will be allowed to remain in its current form forever. Likewise, those of us who work in a particular way because of the form of the organisation we support should also be mindful that change is inevitable and be constantly seeking ways of ensuring that the service we provide is still hitting the mark for our people and our clients.

If the Flood/Rouse model were pervasive, what would law firm KM and training look like?

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).

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?

People-whispering

Dave Snowden has reminded us that the English word “manage” is derived from manège (French: “the handling or training of a horse…”) and, ultimately, maneggiare: (Italian: “to handle”). The ways in which we work with those around us can be compared with different approaches to equine training.

Horses are, by nature, herd animals. Despite their suitability for the roles we have historically imposed on them — beasts of burden, carriage or draft — they do not take to those roles naturally or, sometimes, easily. They need to be accustomed to the harness, to the weight of a rider or pack, and to following instructions given by weight, pressure, whip, heel, hand or stick. That process of accustomisation is traditionally known as horse breaking. 

Horse breaking can be a process by which the animal’s spirit is literally broken: it is driven to submission to the human’s need for a servant animal by being worn down and forced to comply. An alternative approach, exemplified by Monty Roberts’s techniques, is to work with the horse’s herd instincts. This effectively encourages the horse to think itself as part of the human’s herd. It can produce incredible results — trust, willingness, and human-equine communication.

I was reminded of this by Jack Vinson’s blogpost, “Messing the managers,” which concludes:

Management needs to “get out of the way,” but there is still plenty of facilitation and direction to be provided.  Having a completely open field can be just as problematic as attempting to put everyone on the same single-track path.

I think one key to effective facilitation and direction is to approach management in a similar way to horse breaking. A forceful approach is just going to rub people up the wrong way in the end, but if you find ways to work with people’s natural instincts it is more likely that everyone will trust you to find the right direction for the herd.

A key feature of the Monty Roberts approach is that the horse is encouraged to see the human as a fellow member of the herd. Traditional horse breaking depends on a relationship of inequality — the human and the horse occupy different places in the “system” — there is no herd. Jay Cross takes a similar view in his critique of the traditional approach to organisational learning.

In a knowledge society, learning is the work, and the work is learning. There is no separate reality in a classroom outside of the workplace. It’s time for less push and more pull, less topdown and more bottom-up, less going through the motions and more creating.

Being told to take a training course is like driving on a road with signs, stripes and bumps. If workers take a training course but don’t learn, what’s their reaction “The training wasn’t any good.”

Cross’s article compares this approach to learning with the work of the late Hans Monderman in the field of traffic engineering. Monderman’s basic rule was that streets are shared space for the use of all — pedestrians, cyclists, cars, lorries, old and young — all equally. The Wired article illustrates the result brilliantly.

Riding in his green Saab, we glide into Drachten, a 17th-century village that has grown into a bustling town of more than 40,000. We pass by the performing arts center, and suddenly, there it is: the Intersection. It’s the confluence of two busy two-lane roads that handle 20,000 cars a day, plus thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians. Several years ago, Monderman ripped out all the traditional instruments used by traffic engineers to influence driver behavior – traffic lights, road markings, and some pedestrian crossings – and in their place created a roundabout, or traffic circle. The circle is remarkable for what it doesn’t contain: signs or signals telling drivers how fast to go, who has the right-of-way, or how to behave. There are no lane markers or curbs separating street and sidewalk, so it’s unclear exactly where the car zone ends and the pedestrian zone begins. To an approaching driver, the intersection is utterly ambiguous – and that’s the point.

Monderman and I stand in silence by the side of the road a few minutes, watching the stream of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians make their way through the circle, a giant concrete mixing bowl of transport. Somehow it all works. The drivers slow to gauge the intentions of crossing bicyclists and walkers. Negotiations over right-of-way are made through fleeting eye contact. Remarkably, traffic moves smoothly around the circle with hardly a brake screeching, horn honking, or obscene gesture. “I love it!” Monderman says at last. “Pedestrians and cyclists used to avoid this place, but now, as you see, the cars look out for the cyclists, the cyclists look out for the pedestrians, and everyone looks out for each other. You can’t expect traffic signs and street markings to encourage that sort of behavior. You have to build it into the design of the road.”

There is a trend here — the equestrian world is turning its back on the more barbaric approaches to horse-training; traffic engineering is starting to recognise that a less controlling, more equal, approach to road use reaps real rewards in terms of accidents and injuries; organisational learning is starting to take notice of the need to treat people as adults — able to control their own learning experience. As Lee Bryant noted in his short presentation this week at Lift09, the need for control was an aberration of the 20th century, and led to the most appalling consequences. We need to use all the means at our disposal to reverse the trend and return to a more natural approach — based on basic human instincts like trust and empathy.