Thursday, December 30, 2010

Do You Hear the People Sing? - Les Mis as a lesson for SM

I have always been reassured to discover that I am not the only person to have little benchmarks that we use to assess new acquaintances. Stuart Maconie revealed in the magnificent Cider with Roadies that he doesn’t really trust anyone that doesn’t dance. I read with glee how David Niven was tested at helm of Humphrey Bogart’s boat in The Moon's a Balloon, and my dad’s gruff maxim “Never trust a man in white shoes.” has never let me down. But last night I was reminded of one of my own unconscious bell weathers when Matt Lucas revealed his love of Les Miserable when he performed in the anniversary show at the O2 in Les Mis at 25: Mat Lucas Dreams the Dream

And that measure is? "Be wary if anyone that doesn’t find Les Mis moving – as they are probably already dead."

I have had the pleasure of seeing the stage show many many times and I remember well when it arrived in Melbourne when I lived there in the late eighties. The blokeish culture of Australia might not seem to be the most fertile location for such a show to thrive, and my evangelism of the merits of teh production I had already seen several times in London first fell on deaf ears. But I shouldnt have worried. The trams were duly plastered with a smart advertising slogan – “Les Mis – moves more people than the Met.” The Met being the colloquial term for the metropolitan transport system. The show was a sell out

But at the risk of sounding like I am trying to twist this into something relevant there is another reason why I love Les Mis. To me it is an excellent example of two very powerful lessons. These are firstly that gatekeepers are often wrong, and secondly that it is possible to overcome them. Today the internet and social media tools give us extremely powerful mechanisms to do that.

They provide us with a mechanism to burst open many of the gates so firmly closed by gatekeepers in the past, and they allow for popular feeling to not go unheard, to connect and find its voice. The democratising potential of these tools has application in so many fields and we have seen many barriers fall as a result of their invention.

How does the analogy work? Well Les Mis was not a success when it opened. I remember it well when it was at the Barbican and last nights programme had stark reminders of how cruelly dismissive the critics were of its initial opening. But these self appointed gatekeepers were wrong – evidenced by the fact that the show is now the worlds longest running musical. People loved it and its success was driven by word of mouth recommendation generated by the passion and emotion of the production. Of course simple popularity is not the only metric of success but I think you would have a hard time convincing me that Les Mis is not a success on other levels as well.

Of course this happened before the web and twitter, my point is that the principles apply and this type of viral success is so much more accessible and possible now with tools available to us.

So all together now “Do you hear the people sing…..?”

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Save me from the airport whingers

Now call me a curmudgeon if you wish but...I am getting tired of airport whingers. I am as exercised as anyone about the usual and predictable collapse of the transport infrastructure in the face of a bit of snow. Shouldn't happen and there is no excuse. For those saying it would cost soooo much to procure the necessary equipment to prevent this I say – actually no it wouldn't, and secondly we do seem to be able to find enough money to fight unnecessary and illegal wars don't we. But I digress.

What really irked me was the interview with a woman on the news describing how she had been forced to spend the night at an airport with her children, and how her husband had found it necessary to walk a mile (yes a whole mile) in the snow (yes real snow) in order to get a taxi to take them home. She described her children as being “traumatised” by the experience.

Okay, lets get a bit of perspective here. I see bright young things in stilettos and not much else walk a mile in the grey Glasgow snow for a taxi on Saturday night. Now I wouldn't recommend that but unless your hubby is a right Jessie I am not truly sympathetic. A mile – poor love. At least he got a cab! I guess she must be the type of person that drives the 200 yards to the local supermarket and parks in a disabled parking space because it is just tooo much effort to walk.

But children “traumatised”!!!??? Nah, sorry. Traumatised is where you see daddy run down by the snow plough and ends up as a red smear in a snow drift. Or maybe when you lose a figure or two to frostbite as you are held in the freezing airport security queue. Or even when the plane skids on the snow and berths itself through the terminal window causing mass casualties. That might be classed as a traumatising experience. Spending the night at an airport albeit cold and hungry would have been the best fun I could ever have had as a kid, it would have been a real adventure. Bit like being locked in a department store overnight! True I might have got myself arrested but even that wouldn't have been that traumatising ( well its just a case or familiarity and practise I guess.) And my folks clearly went to a different parenting school to this ridiculous woman because they would have made it an adventure for us.

Kids of today eh. Tchh! I blame the parents.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Snow, Disruption and Social Knowledge. Do you know the connection?

Knowledge is not information. Never has been, never will be. But information is often one of a number of inputs to a knowledge activity, and finding ways of making that information resource as good as it can be is challenging, particularly in complex environments. Many KM projects fail because of too much emphasis on information management, and that part itself often fails because the technical tools they use to underpin that aspect of the project are much to rigid, mechanistic and rules based to be of use to knowledge activities in complex environments. Lets not get into the failure to recognize when we are in complex environments!

This has been very apparent in the recent snow falls in the UK. The disruption caused by the snow is immense and very very costly and all the usual debates about lack of preparedness begin again. The debate typically runs along the lines of why we don't have enough gritt, snowploughs, why do we fail where other more climatically challenged countries cope etc etc etc.

These are all important considerations but for me the biggest problem is the collapse of information provision. So many of the journeys we take are regular ones and we are lured into the sense that this is a simple environment where routes are known, timings set routines established. The number of knowledge activities are typically decreased, there are not so many decisions to be made when all is well. But, as soon as there is disruption, caused on this occasion by snow, the complexity of the situation is revealed. Knowledge activities, decision points, are legion and in order to make those activities as effective as possible one of the resources that is needed is accurate timely information. Wherever you look people want information, and the usual sources are in utter disarray. In fact they are usually very misleading, so our ability to complete knowledge activities, that is make decisions and judgements, is seriously reduced. This is applicable to all but as a public transport user a typical example is the utter collapse of train information. Indicator boards show trains on time that never arrive, announce cancellations when the train roles though and no one from the train staff seems to know anything. This scenario can be replayed in almost any travel environment. Staff are not empowered to undertake knowledge activities – regulations the other brake to knowledge effectiveness – and if and when they do the information about that is often hidden, not shared, or shrouded in secrecy.

The fascinating thing in the last few days is to watch the twitter traffic. People reach out to these mechanisms to self organize and share real time insight from multiple parties. People ask questions, anyone on this train, anyone know if this road is open and often the answer is from someone on the ground, on the train looking at the scene. Its is not perfect by any means but the information available is generally far more accurate than the rubbish on offer from, in this case the train operating companies.

This emergent, community generated and, importantly, live and timely information sharing is just one example of how Social Media tools have such great application in knowledge intensive and complex environments, and why Social Knowledge is in fact the only game in town from a KM perspective at present.

If there is to be a government led review of the disruption caused by this latest cold snap I hope that whoever leads it takes note of this insight and looks at establishing very simple cost effective flexible information sharing techniques that are open to all as one part of a more complete approach to dealing with extreme weather. It would not be difficult or costly but the pay off would be immense.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Path a way from Linked In

I am a great advocate of Social Media and its power to unleash what I refer to as Social Knowledge. I am also constantly reminded of how you can count on its emergent properties to evolve ever new, rapid and exciting developments, even if it road there can be a bit bumpy sometimes. A fantastic example of that has come to my attention just today with the news of a new service called Path a service that sounds like it might go some way to overcoming the limitations of some of the SM tools that have grown out of their usefulness for some specific purposes.

I also thought Linked In would be as good. I loved it at first, thinking that the way people to open their key networks up for sharing seemed a superb tool. Technology was underpinning and expanding a well used tried and tested idea of personal recommendation. Personal recommendation works on the basis of trust tagging – that is to say if you trust the person that is making the recommendation a bit of that trust is handed on to the person they are recommending. There is judgement there is a knowledge activity involved.

Great ideas. But for me Linked In was scuppered as a knowledge tools when it became apparent that some felt that a public demonstration of huge numbers of links was a metric of success thereby launching a to my mind ridiculous expansion where people linked to pretty much anyone they met meaning that their ability to judge trust and tag was useless. Similarly the mutual recommendation became viral and so, from a knowledge perspective, in the way I imagined it to be used, Linked In became useless. A number of SM tools have gone this way where their success means that there is too much noise for them to be useful in the way I originally envisioned them. However must I confess that meeting the highly insightful Adam Gordon of Winning Work really was an eye opener where he demonstrated tremendous knowledge value from Linked in – but in a quiet different application of the tool from the way ion which I had originally welcomed it.

But for my original wants it remained useless and I argues that Linked In needed to introduce a new service that reflected Dunbar's Numbers and allowed you to express a real trusted core of links that was constrained and validated.

As is the way with Social Media – wait a little while and something comes along and Path it is. Sounds brilliant, not least because it is based on Dunbar’s thinking. Only problem is it requires an iphone, something I don’t have or want. Ah well wait a while and an Android equivalent will come along – it’s just the way of things! You can read more about it here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Lets unleash the power of market forces

It is so entertaining to hear that banks are in “secret talks” about reigning in bonuses from £7bn to £4bn amid concerns that any precipitate action might drive “star performers overseas” as if this is some kind of crisis and that we should be concerned about it. The usual media campaign to try to convince us the City is somehow populated by “special” people.

I say – Let em go! There are plenty more to replace them!

If the financial crisis that befell us a couple of years ago taught us anything at all it taught us that this cosy club of financial “star performers” are not quite as stellar as they think. For those of us who have had the dubious pleasure of mixing with these types it rapidly becomes obvious that, far from being special or particularly gifted, they are in fact a bunch of lucky Joes who by chance, privileged, happenstance, greed (select as appropriate, multiple selection permitted) who found themselves in the fortunate position to enter into their self delusion because it is financially beneficial for to them to do so. Eventually they do actually start believing their own publicity and the emperor changes clothes regularly.

I have always felt that whilst Gorden Geko got most of the best lines in Wall Street the absolute cracker was that of Carl Fox – as played by Martin Sheen when he said “What you see is a guy who never measured a man's success by the size of his wallet!” a guide to life we should all adopt.

In much the same way the Beeb needs to happily wave bye bye to presenters with high opinions of themselves and exaggerated salary demands because the actual truth is they ain’t that special and frankly there are plenty of people queuing up to do the same thing for a lot less.

So to these advocates of the free market and market forces generally I say this – Go! Move along. I am confident that plenty of others will fill your space thereby flooding the market with so called “star performers” and, by your own logic, this will drive down the price you can command. In the words of software geeks let the banks “eat their own dog food.”

Think of it, lines of fund managers lining up at the bank gates to be picked for day work every morning, having boot polished their frayed cuffs to look presentable. Now there is a thought.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Price, Choice and Cost

Its national “Get On Line week” and it is aimed at encouraging the 9 million UK people who don't have access to the internet and so are “missing out” on public services at lower cost. We even have The Archers being harnessed for Big Brothers propaganda. Such tosh and a monumental con, and I say this as someone who is a fan of the online world. It is another example of the obsession with price whilst ignorant of cost. We see this approach increasingly, I recall someone trying to walk into a Job Centre and look for work to be told they could only do that if they first registered and that you could only register by phone. Absurd. Taking services away from Sub Post Offices to purely online modes erodes the viability of these social hubs which have an impact on the integrity of communities.

Its slightly ironic when today we have a “revelatory” announcement that Cyber Terrorism ranks as a major threat to National Security.

But its not just the public sector. Supermarkets tell us they are giving us “choice” and “meeting customer need” by providing self service checkouts. The reality is that manned check-outs close, choice is reduced and most importantly someone loses at job all for what? The illusory benefit of lower prices at the ignorance of the greater longer term cost.

I recall working in a Public Library in London many years ago. It was striking that so many people came to the library as a social event, away of meeting people, the chance of some human interaction, the reason for a walk. Borrowing or returning books was entirely secondary to this group, but the service we provided was absolutely essential.

Doing things online to the exclusion of other means, and self service everything, is a progressive attack on personal interaction and a mechanism of introducing exclusion and reducing choice. The end result is that we have to put up with fatuous initiatives such as “Get On Line Week” to try to twist the arm of many who simply do not want, and should not need, to.

We must never under estimate the value of social, and I mean face to face, interaction. The very simple solution to the concerns of bureaucrats behind “Get On line Week” is to ensure that ALL public services are available at the same cost in off line mode to everyone.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Knowledge Aware Management

I have had the good fortune to read 'Farmers – Your Store for 100 years' (ISBN 9781869507633) which is Ian Hunters book on the Farmers stores in New Zealand. Ian’s team at The University of Auckland’s Business School were commissioned to write the history of Farmers to celebrate the 100 years of trading since its founding in 1909, and whilst this might sound a little dry it is in fact a terrific read.

What is particularly striking is how the store grew rapidly through its adoption of what was then a very innovative retailing approach, and that is the catalogue based retailing model. It has many parallels with the online retailing phenomenon in that customers are remote, select items from a brochure and it is then despatched directly to them from a central store. The impact was as profound then as it has been in more recent times and Farmers grew to be a major retailer in New Zealand. It has gone through a number of incarnations and suffered through some poor strategic decisions in the late eighties which saw its ownership shift between groups that were often not New Zealand based. I have little doubt that much of the poor decision making would have come about from flawed thinking on the part of professional service firms happily advising that the firm follow management trends without ever thinking through the implications for the social capital and intangible knowledge based assets in the organisation, and basing judgement purely on balance sheet based rationales. Happily the firm is back in New Zealand ownership and under the guidance of David and Anne Norman and with 4000 staff and over 50 stores it is clearly on the up again.

What I found particularly striking and particularly encouraging were the words of these entrepreneurial owners. I quote from the book

“Over the past three or so decades, Anne and I have been fortunate to participate in the recovery of several iconic brands....In almost every situation we have found that the heritage within these organisation has produced a pool of talent that for some reason has been ignored by the previous owners who had tried to fix an organisation that was far from broken! What has been achieved in our short ownership period has not so much been through our own efforts but through empowering existing people within the organisation.”

If anyone wants to know what knowledge aware management is – that is a definition of it in practise.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Shared Concerns

I read these words with interest the other day.

"Today, more than never before, the economic battle is the main task , because it is on this work that the sustainability and the preservation of our social system rest.

Without a sound and dynamic economy and without the removal of superfluous expenses and waste, it will neither be possible to improve the living standard of the population nor to preserve and improve the high levels of education and healthcare ensured to every citizen free of charge.

If the people do not feel the need to work for a living because they are covered by extremely paternalistic and irrational regulations, we will never be able to stimulate love for work or resolve the chronic lack of workers; teachers, police and other indispensable trades.

If we do not build a firm and systematic rejection of illegal activities and different expressions of corruption, more than a few will continue to make fortunes at the expense of the majority.

If we keep the inflated payrolls in nearly every sector of national life and pay salaries that fail to correspond with the result of work we cannot expect the prices to cease climbing constantly or prevent the deterioration of the people’s purchasing power."

Now these don't come from Manchester or Liverpool and are not a sneak preview of what's to come in Birmingham. But the sentiment and general thrust of it could be used, I suggest, at anyone of them.

I have always been struck more by the similarities between peoples across history, geographies, and ideologies than the differences. Reading Chaucer I find behind the Germanic language characters that are readily identifiable to me today. Travelling the world you meet people whose concerns and aspirations are much the same as ours. Looking at early business history I see the same concerns and issues being grappled with as modern entrepreneurs face, albeit mediated through different technology. It is that belief that we have more in common than we often give credit to that I think is both hopeful and positive. I also believe that Social Media, when used well and appropriately is a wonderful tool to help us to nurture and tap into shared enthusiasm, shared innovation and shared prosperity.

Oh and who said those words – General Raul Castro Ruz.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Emergent Reporting

Maybe it is the ghastly weather in Glasgow that makes me cast my mind back to that lovely balmy evening in Matera that I mentioned in my Blog after the IFKAD 2010 conference. I had a conversation with Rob McLean of Matrix Links on what we described as “emergent reporting” and promised to elaborate on it. Well better late than never here it is.

Rob is a leading thinker on financial reporting and valuation of intangibles and we were considering how the use of Social Media (SM) could influence financial reporting as it has already affected Marketing and Communications. One of the most profound impacts of SM is how it changes the dynamic in communications. Traditionally Communications has been a case of establishing the message and then managing the channels that carry that consistent message to the eager and waiting public. The theory being that if you manage it enough and are consistent enough the message will eventually get home.

The rise of SM and its viral power and emergent nature means that it is simply not possible to manage it in the traditional way. It is by definition unmanageable. Communications are democratised to the extent that it has become essential for communicators to listen and then respond to the emerging view and in this way the exchange becomes a conversation and the dynamic of the relationship is completely changed. The benefit is that by listening to this complex environment previously invisible insight can be made visible, and in so doing it can open up new possibilities and opportunities that would otherwise have remained hidden.

How might this effect financial reporting? Well Rob and I considered and agreed that reporting is, in its current mode, a communications exercise. It has an agenda to present a particular view of the financial position of an organisation to a variety of stakeholder groups.

Now this leads to debate and varied interpretations. In some cases it has implications in markets, and brand value from a CSR perspective. Part of the challenge is that these different stakeholders have different needs and interests, and will be looking at different things in the figures. It is difficult to prepare a statement that will please all parties.

So, our idea was how about putting raw data out there and let the various parties derive their own reports. So the deal is, you can have the data as long as you provide us with the report back. We can then analyse your reports. The dynamic is entirely changed and as a result the organisation would gain deep insight into what each group was looking for by the way it used the raw data, and be able to respond directly to each groups concerns. This type of emergent reporting would be underpinned by social media tools and create a completely new reporting model.

I don’t expect it to happen in the short term, but it is, in my view, an interesting idea. And for those that say it will never happen, I say that I recall people saying how communications and marketing weren’t going to be changed by SM.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Howzat?! Knowledge and Emergence in Cricket

Anyone that knows me knows that I love the game of Cricket . One of its great fascinations, in particular Test Cricket, is its complexity and so the temptation to find parallels between the game and business is very tempting. But its easy to get carried away with this and to address every business issue with a cricketing metaphor. The current brouhaha around allegations of corrupt practice and spot betting is a case in point. It would be entirely possible to find myriad opportunities to spark a discussion about issues like ethics and CSR, poor regulation by moribund money centred administrators, failure to maintain boundaries – you can see where this might go. The problem with this is that too often the person drawing the parallel can be drawn into extending the similarity to a point where the comparison between sport and business is unsustainable and so meaningless.

But both business and sport, in this case cricket, are it seems to me subject to certain common principles and phenomenon because both involve concern human behaviour and cognition. For example it has been possible for me to apply KM techniques in top level sport – notably rugby - and use some of those same principles back in a business environment. IF we approach it from the point of view of those principles there might be something of value to reflect on. So in that spirit I wanted to just identify two things that struck me as interesting without getting into how the third umpire might be applied in the financial sector.

Firstly I was struck by the demonstration of the necessity and power of human intervention for knowledge disclosure. Let me explain. I am a committed listener to the BBC's Test Match Special . For those that don't know this is a radio commentary of five day test matches. It sounds incredible to the uninitiated but believe me it is not only possible to do but it is absolutely compulsive listening. The format is that the commentator covers the action – such as it is – whilst having a more speculative, ruminative and forensic conversation about the game with an accompanying “expert summariser”. There is also a statistician on hand as well. The result can be funny, thoughtful, provocative even infuriating but always entertaining. The amount of cricketing insight and experience on display at this point is formidable and as an exercise in the disclosure of knowledge of the game it is almost without comparison. So it was fascinating that when the controversial no-balls were actually bowled this team immediately felt something was not quite right in what was a wonderful demonstration of a knowledge disclosure points (KDP). Of course they made no accusations but there was an unease about what had happened based on the evaluation of a complex event by the Mk1 brain and we could, if we so wished use Dave Snowden's excellent ASHEN framework to perhaps better understand how that assessment was done. But to me it was just another example of how human cognition is the best judge of action and risk in a complex environment.

The second interesting point of observation for me – particularly so in an age of Social Media - was the role of the players – past and present – and the supporters in forcing some action. The emergent outrage shown by these parties, expressed typically through quick media distribution, and the aggregate effect of that has already forced some action form a range of groups, politicians administrators etc. who had up to that point begun to fall back on the old “head in sand approach” of “No comment”, “the matter is in police hands”, “cant interfere” etc.

So whilst I am not saying business is cricket or vice versa I am saying we are all subject to similar forces and opportunities that can, if managed and harnessed correctly, can be very beneficial.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Like, its like, you know, init?

The English language in its written form is a wonderful thing. In the hands of an expert it can provide the most accurate and precise descriptions and alternatively it can be used to convey subtle nuance and intentional ambiguity. That potential for both laser like precisions and rich layers of meaning provides both authors and scholars with a powerful tool for both communication and analysis in a complex world. It is at that interface between understanding and articulation that knowledge exists as it is at that point that human cognition comes into play and it is that brain action that is the knowledge. Without it the words are passive, the most sophisticated encyclopaedia just a collection of words and the the most complex play much the same. In the hands of a talented actor or actress a script can be rendered into spoken words in almost infinite variety, with each interpretation offering different meaning and emphasis.

Being in command of both the understanding and use of language must surely be one of the most important aspects of education, and a measure of educational attainment must be the ability of a student to both understand the question and to articulate an answer based on their interpretation. The sophistication of the answer will also reflect the ability of that student to accumulate other material and insight and compile and synthesize it in the process of analysing the question and forming an answer in the Mk1 brain. In all of this there is subtly, ambiguity, complexity and judgement.

It concerns me when you hear people representing major examining bodies – in this case Edexcel – explain, with a certain smugness, that they will re write questions that, to an unsophisticated reader, might seem confusing, and even rewrite historical or literary quotes to remove ambiguity so as to make exams “more accessible”.

If a question uses a word that has more than one meaning when used in different contexts but the question requires you to understand that the word is being used in only one of those contexts then that should be fine. This is emphatically so if that reading of the word is the only way the question make any grammatical sense. That is not the same as being ambiguous. Not to Edexcel apparently. If it uses a word that is more than two syllables but has a precise meaning that is also entirely acceptable. I recall as a child that ones “reading Age “ was determined partly by the vocabulary in use. It is hard to believe that a student will have gleaned a great deal from other sources if their vocabulary is so limited that a text more complicated than Janet and John is beyond them. But again not to Edexcell apparently. Personally I am even happy with ambiguity in questions if the subject of the question is open to interpretation. Demonstrating an understanding of competing views is a sound test.

To rewrite quotes is at best disturbing and at worst sinister and deceitful. I have always loathed revisionism that seeks to make facts more palatable to contemporary tastes as I do think this is dangerously reminiscent of the principles of conformity required by Orwell's infamous thought police. I also despise its reductionism and attempts to render events to a monochrome and binary interpretation as I don't see the world being anything less than complex.

This attitude exam paper construction came to my attention in the context of a debate about dumbing down prior to A Level results being announced last week. The examining body, which seems to have a very clear conflict of interest when it states it wants to effectively increase pass rates, is making a profound and dangerous error in “making exams more accessible”. These methods are simply misunderstanding the nature of knowledge and seeing the knowledge creation process as being a simple binary transaction. It is encouragement of this type of approach which can only compound the problem we have with general literacy levels, and inarticulate conversations punctuated with the persistent use of ”like” and “you know?”

I get exercised by this as it is symptomatic of what lies at the heart of many a failed KM program in business where an unwillingness to engage with an understanding of the knowledge generating process as being a complex one and desiring instead to force it into a simple transactional based model.

Its bad enough when this harms business success, but it is worrying when the flawed thinking begins to damage educational standards. With such twisted standards and low expectation is it any wonder 20% 0f children leave school functionaly illiterate!

The point of an exam is to test and challenge not to be accessible.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Are you some kind of communist?!

Here in Glasgow the funeral of Jimmy Reid yesterday has been cause for much reflection. Over a drink a colleague and I shared our views of him as a man and his political journey from his communist days through his support for the Labour party to his later Nationalist allegiance. We all agreed that he was a fine orator and that his willingness to adjust his standpoint without giving up his fundamental humanity and social conscience was a tribute to his honesty and sincerity. His inauguration speech as Rector of Glasgow University is a fine piece where he speaks of alienation and the fact that we are not “rats.” The fact that people see that his work was grounded in his social conscience and that his creed was not bounded by casually applied labels reminded me of a conversation I had recently after presenting to a group of MBA students on the nature of KM and how it is actually a philosophy rather than a discipline and that philosophy does often require an adjustment to traditional and commonly held management perspectives. I had shared with the students a few examples of successful business leaders and social innovators who had bucked the trend or taken unconventional approaches to problems with remarkable and positive results. It was an eclectic mix. Hans Monderman sat alongside Ricardo Semler, and Dr Egon Zehnder rubbed shoulders with Muhammad Yunus. The point I wanted to make was that the organisations they were going to work for during their careers are made up of people and the challenges they face as managers are complex. So the recipe based models trotted out by many business schools and gobbled up by many of the less critical students are not simple answers that they should mechanistically apply and expect results. I wanted them to understand there are alternatives, that innovation is important, and that knowledge is in fact a verb and is inextricably tied into the application of the human mind to decision making. As such there was a great deal of emphasis placed on how KM is a philosophical approach to management and that often a key part of success in complex environments is providing people with the freedom to act. Now this message was not as welcome to some who had perhaps a more Taylorist understanding of management and a less enlightened view of KM and at one point someone asked “Are you a Communist?” I couldn’t help but smile as it has been a commonly used expression in my life that whenever someone suggests, particularly in a business context and generally in a frustrated environment, a common sense solution to a business issue colleagues would often react in mock horror “Are you some kind of communist?” they would joke, communism clearly being the metaphor for radicalism.

I think that it is wonderful that KM could be viewed afresh as being so radical and it rather made my point that in fact generally KM is very misunderstood, and as a result is often mis applied. But at its heart, regardless of all its labels, true KM is founded in the belief that the most important asset in an organisation is the people associated with it and deriving value from that asset must involve respecting it. There are so many ways we can approach this and the rise of social media tools and their widening use in the workplace is one tremendous opportunity in helping liberate the virtual organisation to greater and greater success.

So, farewell to Jimmy Reid and, as you said mate, we are not rats and the sooner we see our key business assets as not being rats the better for all concerned.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Lets hear it for the Banks

There is still a good deal of bank bashing going on at the moment. Excessive profits, excessive bonuses – you know the stuff. However the main criticism being levelled at them at present Fleet St, politicians and society generally is that they are “not lending” most notably to small businesses. Now, far be it for me to defend the banks. I have a well known and very vocal disregard for most of those institutions but….I do think some of this is a bit tough and unfair at present. The reason for my unlikely defence of the banks lies in the idea that maybe, just maybe, they have woken up to what I have been telling them for the last few years. And that is that much of the financial crisis and the exposure of the banks was a result of the failure to understand the nature of knowledge in their business. Could it be that they have finally realised this?

Anyone that has attended one of my “Let me explain KM” presentations for the past few years are familiar with one of the metaphorical examples I use involving banks and my experience of using them over the past 40 years. I use samples of my correspondence with my banks to demonstrate how my relationship with these institutions has changed over that time and how their knowledge of me has declined to a point where it is simply not possible for them to:
a) offer a decent service and more importantly in this context
b) judge my potential as a risk.

In brief I demonstrate how the retail bank has sought to commoditise the relationship and reduce it to a simple transactional based relationship where the aim is to systematise and drive down cost as if the banking industry were some kind of Taylorist dream of simple causality.

My contention is that this is fundamentally un sound as this industry, and our interaction with it is, if I use the Cynefin framework, a Complex relationship. My early correspondence with the bank showed a real bank manager in place at my branch who knew me, knew my circumstances and could make decisions on my credit worthiness and how the bank could build loyalty by responding to me specific and individual needs. Fast forward to a point where I have no branch, the staff there are administrators with little or no autonomy to act, and so are left with blunt un satisfactory and in flexible transactional based interfaces. They don’t know me, can’t offer a service and, most importantly, can’t judge my risk.

The model can be extended to the commercial banks – with systematised lightning fast trading that is not intelligent enough to cope with the unexpected, and credit rating methods that are both flawed mechanistic tools run by organisations with very conflicted business models.

All a recipe for disaster and disaster naturally struck. Add to this an environment where personal debt was outright encouraged to fuel an artificial boom through consumer spend, and a business environment still foolishly wedded to the “wisdom” of running businesses on geared debt it is a potent mix.

Now that these models have been shown to be flawed and frankly dangerous we should hope that one outcome of the financial crisis would be a return to more human cognition in the banks when judging the risk profile of borrowers as a minimum.

But reintroducing a knowledge led environment in a bank – that is to say one routed in the intervention and application of the Mk1 brain - cannot be done quickly. Whilst proper KM practitioners can help here, developing the intuition, heuristics, and experience necessary to make this effective takes time. So perhaps caution being shown on the part of the banks is a good sign. Perhaps they have recognised that caution is a good thing and that they do need to develop more sophisticated approaches and that the process of doing that will take time. Weaning businesses with poor debt demanding business models will take a bit longer, but requirements on the banks to be less exposed and have greater capital seems also to be having an effect.

Reflective learning is all part of KM as well so I could even be encouraged to think that perhaps these mighty “masters of the universe” might have the humility to acknowledge their mistake and learn from it.

Perhaps I am just being naïve. Leopards rarely change their spots but can we not be hopeful that this caution on lending is actually a good sign?

Friday, August 6, 2010

You mean you made a mistake!

What is this “misspoke” nonsense? It annoys me on a number of levels, as you would expect. For one I see it as a ridiculous Americanism coined by Bilary to cover for the fact that, if we are charitable, she fell into that common transatlantic problem of ignoring the truth, or if we are unkind, she lied. So the charitable could call it The Hollywoodisation of History – you know how it works, when the truth isn’t quiet as palatable or PC enough the ominous phrase “Based on real events” comes up on the opening credits and you are subjected to a couple of hours of total fantasy. As I am not that charitable and because recounting your role in a truly dreadful piece of history involving real death and horror isn’t a “movie” then I tend to call it lying

However, as my opinion of politicians and their propensity to lie is well known this does not surprise me but the most recent use of the “misspoke” word was when a Cameron aid used it to explain away a statement by the PM that Iran “HAS” a nuclear weapon (He got the “I” country wrong by the way he meant Israel of course – but that is a whole different story). And so we come to my second objection to the word and that is that its use is symptomatic of deep seated cultural issues in organisations – and possibly our society – our inability and un willingness to admit mistakes.

In too many organisations to admit a mistake is seen as, well, a mistake. That somehow to admit ones human frailty is to open up a chasm of failure into which one cannot fail to fall. A machismo thing? Maybe. The result of working in a blame culture? Almost certainly. Demonstration of poor trust bonds? Often. The cultural rock on which many KM initiatives founder? Absolutely without question. Whilst such a culture persists it will cause a great deal of procrastination and be a barrier to innovation and action because of the fear of failure and the inevitable subsequent admonition – read blame. It is also a barrier to the ability to learn from mistakes. As we all know we actually learn a great deal more from our mistakes than our successes and as Dave Snowden rightly says in complex environments where there is uncertainty of outcome from interventions we should be seeking to create environments of safe failure rather than fail safe.

I have a good friend who works in a large public sector organisation and his tales of failure to act, endless procrastination, and unwillingness to innovate echo many of my experiences of working with similar groups. None is prepared to put their head above the parapet and actually “do” anything for fear that if it goes wrong the gun sights will swing round to zero in on them. Worse still this unwillingness to actually adopt a position on anything leads to the endless use of vacuous, bland and ultimately meaningless management speak in useless communications which, in turn, simply depress and de-motivate staff who can see through its inanity.

Now there is a great deal that can be done to change this – but it’s tough - and a great deal of what I call KM is concerned with either addressing this directly or introducing approaches that can if not change the culture, finds ways of getting around the barriers that it creates.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that governments are shot through with this type of behaviour given the prevalence of spin, but Cameron to his credit did admit that he got the junior partner quote wrong regarding WWII (too many of those “movies” no doubt) so he is not averse to admitting mistakes apparently. Lets hope the outcome is that the government lexicon has “misspoke” erased and counsel that the word “mistake” is both permissible and human.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

IFKAD 2010

Back from Italy and reflecting on what was a terrific IFKAD Conference, which seems to get better year on year. Seeing old friends and meeting new ones, fantastic conversations and presentations, all set in the beautiful town of Matera – what more could you ask for? Well the beautiful full moon over the Sassi at the reception at Baccanti was a bonus, the thought provoking key notes (who could believe accounting could be so enthralling), and that sensational pecorino cheese also helped. Staying in a cave as a hotel room adds a little something, and the fascinating creative contributions of the MAP consortium cascading through the events all combine to make it a memorable trip. Tampere has a challenge on its hands to top that next year.

On a more specific note I had a series of particularly interesting conversation with Rob McLean about the similarities of the challenge with CSR reporting and IA reporting and the possibility of using his Value Stream concepts as an alternative to Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line. We also considered the application of Social Media tools to introduce a concept of what we described as “emergent reporting”, a method not only of satisfying reporting demands through genuine transparency but also a method of generating fantastically deep insight to stakeholder issues. More on all of this in some later bloggs.

It was interesting to hear talk in one of the plenary sessions around the progressively constrained publishing of academics and it strikes me as an interesting bifurcation with the potential opportunities for mavericks in business made possible by what are increasingly described as “portfolio” careers. The tension in this it seems to me is that if academics are not supplying some innovation to transfer into business will they be progressively compelled to take a passive reporting stance as opposed to a proactive or initiating stance on business innovation?

As always JC Spender was one of the most thought provoking speakers and conversationalists. As someone who very early on saw the limitations of the generally applied information bound KM paradigm you can always rely on JC to push the debate forward. I was particularly pleased to find that we have a shared interest in the historical perspective of business and particularly in the origins of trading companies, and what can be learned from their experience, which have many contemporary parallels. Again some more bloggs to come on this over the next week or so.

The Stream of papers I co chaired with my colleague Daniela Castrataro of the IA Centre on the implications of Social Media on IA/IC and KM had some fascinating papers and, as we expected, proved to be a very fertile field for study.

So thanks to Giovanni and the team from University Basilicata for hosting us so well, and we look forward to next year.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Barcamp Glasgow June 2010

On Friday my colleague Daniela Castrataro, of the IA Centre, and I made a brief presentation of the preliminary findings of our Social Media Usage in the Workplace survey. The slide pack for that is available here.

We will be presenting more detailed findings at both the IFKAD 2010 Conference in Matera, Italy 24-25 June and at ECKM in Famalicão, Portugal 2-3 September 2010

Friday, June 18, 2010

Stewardship in Investments

With all the chat about the break up of the FSA you might have missed that The Financial Reporting Council will be launching its Stewardship Code for Institutional Investors soon, a document that is traced back to Sir David Walkers November 09 report on governance at banks and financial institutions. The aim is to provide greater transparency and accountability for investors particularly in relation to pension schemes. Its an interesting one because I have been somewhat queezy about some of the recent comment around BP that amounts to the suggestion we should turn a blind eye to poor corporate behaviour for the sake of “all our pension”. Well not mine mate.

The imminent launch prompted a short but nevertheless interesting debate on “You and Yours” yesterday between Richard Northedge and Penny Shepherd of the UK Sustainable Investment Association

I have fairly firm views on ethical investment and shareholder activism, but it is always interesting to hear what others feel. As you may know I also have firm views on the phrase “Best Practice” so I was a bit disappointed to see it as part of the aims of the code but hey you cant get everything in life. Didn't hear any mention of “going forward” though so have to be thankful for that.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Don't blame the software

Now I usually maintain that the only technology that KM relies on is a kettle. But lots of people still make the mistake of making direct links between KM and IT, and this is very common at conferences. With that in mind and as I have to put up with it for the foreseeable future I thought I would share an eye rolling moment I came across the other day

I will spare them the embarrassment by not naming them but I was reading comments by a conference speaker who was deriding Microsoft Sharepoint as being responsible for increasing the number of “silos” in his organisation after it had specifically been deployed to counter that.

Now I don't want to get into a debate about the relative merits of particular software packages, and I certainly don't want to be seen as recommending any particular product. But lets face it Sharepoint is a common whipping boy. Now anyone that knows me will know I am an advocate of open source options and so I have no particular fondness for proprietary products but Sharepoint cant be without some merit.

However... I think this habit of blaming the product is a little unfair. It is common but it is a cop out and those doing the blaming should perhaps have a look at themselves - after all the software itself is relatively benign.

Its is how it is chosen, specified, deployed, configured and used that causes the problem, and the cultural pressures that influence those processes.

Some of the common traps for products in the business collaboration arena is that there is often an expectation that one product will do pretty much everything. It wont. Of course the vendors will tell you it does and every generic function you are looking for you will be told it will do – but it will do them in its own way. This is not a good thing and will hamper adoption and use. It is also an easy path to losing site of what you want to achieve because the focus is drawn to the product rather than the objective. Better to find a core application that majors on a core function and then add other familiar specialist tools for the more esoteric needs. Don't be taken in by the promise of “better integration of products all coming from the same house” – its rarely true or preferable.

The other common fault in these large scale deployments is that they are built to reflect the published version of the organisation model and structure. This will rarely reflect the real nature of the structure of the organisation and will also have the effect of hampering attempts to flex and change will will almost certainly be necessary if the organisation is to prosper.

The other common issue is that typically the deployment of “collaboration tools” frighten many as it promises a level of open access that is not what they are used to and typically viewed as a threat to the power held by gatekeepers. This means the promise of openness will often have a inverse effect and the resulting model, after much blood has been shed, is more highly constrained access than existed before – hence more silos.

But all of these things are avoidable problems and it doesn't have to be like that. Much more iterative and emergent approaches will yield better results and hopefully no one will need to blame the software.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Too Big to Succeed?

Governments continue to ponder the introduction of measures aimed at avoiding a repeat of the “too big to fail” scenario of insolvent financial institutions and It will be challenging to bring any such measure in. Lots of compelling argument will be introduced to oppose it and many vested intersts will lobby to stymie such changes.

The arguments for and against are relatively well rehearsed with the exception of one. What about the idea that in actual fact they are too big to succeed?

Now this might seem rather an odd suggestion given that some of the “too big too fail” banks were on the face of it “big” and big tends to be regarded as successful in a business context. But I have long argued that, in knowledge based industries – and I believe banking and finance is a knowledge based industry - big is not necessarily better. I have also argued on a number of occasions that the financial crisis was a failure of those industries in understanding the nature of knowledge management and knowledge based business generally.

I remember working with a professional services firm that had extremely strong social and trust networks in it. It worked very hard on these bonds with rigorous recruitment practices, unusual reward schemes and extensive reinforcement and encouragement programs to maintain them.

But they had a problem. As they competed in an increasingly global market they had expanded in both headcount and geographical spread and these bonds, this community, was becoming strained and threatened. As a KM engagement we were looking at ways to try to retain that key cultural plank as the company grew. It was a challenge, but it was inspiring to encounter a firm that recognised how important this human relationship model was and is to their success, and believe me this was a successful firm. Scale was a problem.

The advantage that “small” can bring to knowledge based firms by embedding trust and enhancing pooled human cognition is, in my view, enormous. And I am not alone in saying this. Gor-Tex for example apparently try to limit office sizes to 150.

Much of this ties into the so called Dunbar numbers and to try to ignore it would be to fly in the face of many thousands of years of evolution. Of course there are many things that can be done to allow companies to grow, but I do think there is a limit.

Bujt it seems to me that too often as companies in knowledge based industries choose to scale up there is a tendency to try to commoditise what they do and to try to systematise complex decision making away from what is required – i.e. the application of the human brain. They seem to be applying management models of simply analysing and reducing transaction costs that were useful in a previous industrial but are less relevant in a knowledge based value adding environment.

So I say lets chop the banks into bits not only to avoid the “too big to fail” dilemma, but because they will probably perform better.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

No Way BA

The right to withdraw labour, or call a strike in its more pejorative description, is, I believe, a right. The current dispute between the UNITE union and BA has drawn attention to this with commentators weighing in on the rights and wrongs of the actual dispute and the stance of the judiciary in ruling on the legality or otherwise of the ballot. I have views on all of these things but I feel that to focus on these issues about the dispute itself is to actually miss the main point.

Now I don’t want to sound like a class warrior here but what I find most interesting is the fact that BA has sought to simply deny the right of the union to call a strike by combing the procedural aspects of the ballot process for any perceived technical breach. So this is not challenging the subject of the dispute and defending their position what it is is simply wrecking tactics to deny, what I see as, a right.

Of course there will be those that say the rules are there to protect union members (they would say that wouldn’t they) but let us be honest here. Gone are the days of open meetings and “shows of hands” and the extent of coercion and deceit that could occur in those circumstances. No this is another ballot which has shown pretty overwhelming support for a call to withdraw labour. If we were to apply such rigorous standards to our parliamentary elections then I think Gordon Brown would still be in power and we would be looking at a re run off of a flawed and unlawful general election.

No this is, IMHO, a CSR issue. Airlines are often taken to task on their green credentials and too often CSR is reduced to an ecological impact issue. As I have often argued CSR is much much broader than that and organisations need to consider their role, responsibilities and impact as part of society in both the short and longer term.

So, in my book, BA you failed the test. You cannot seek to deny people a fundamental right and claim any Social Responsibility.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Are you really doing it right?

I was in a meeting the other day with and the subject of looking at learning from experience in a business context came up. We talked about some of the approaches that are commonly used and someone mentioned After Action Reviews came up. “Oh yes we do all that.” was the response, but I couldn't help feeling that in the way it was said that what he really meant was “Yes we do that but really its a waste of time.” It seemed to me that maybe it just wasn't being done right for that organisation.

One of the most important lessons I have learned is that attempts to cookie cut solutions and jemmy them into every instance where a similar issue appears to be present are almost always doomed to failure. That's not to say it is not a popular approach with some professional service firms that seek to commoditise “knowledge” and churn out templates of work client to client. Its little more than snake oil sales IMHO.

But that is not to say you can't reuse techniques it just means that doing so is usually much harder to do than you imagine, and that every single instance is unique and needs to respond appropriately to each particular circumstance if you are going to get value from it. By taking the harder route the approach evolves and develops richness.

AAR, Learning Review, Lessons Learned, call it what you will, (and you may well have to change the name to make it palatable) is one such technique and it does have a place in the KM canon but it is by no means easy. David Gurteen made me aware of this article by Nancy Dixon that summarises some of the challenges and has some interesting thoughts on how to approach it.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Kitchen Sink Economics?

Once again it seems that those who wish to deny the fundamentals and buck the obvious are being found out. The scorn of the powerful for simple truths has always irritated me.

A couple of years ago now I gave a lecture at my old business school where I talked about the financial crisis as a demonstration of the failure by the financial sector to understand Knowledge Management. To illustrate this I described my own personal experience or retail banking and how it had changed, and what that told me about the industries perception of, and approach to, risk and how I had expected, and predicted, the implosion. You cannot beat the mark one brain for bringing contextual insight and judgement to the complexity of risk. The would be Masters of the Universe in finance are just one more common example in business of those wearing the emperors new clothes. The only difference being is that in many cases I think some are aware they are naked (making their crime all the worse in my book), and there are some who are simply unwilling to listen to the lone voice that tells them they are.

Alas it seems to be happening again. Many people, me included, expressed considerable doubt about EMU and the launch of the Euro on the basis that it denied the existence of some fundamental flaws. Those being in this case - you cannot bring together economies that are radically out of step, remove the ability to respond locally to issues by effectively removing financial levers and expect it all to go well. Add to that the fact that you cant live beyond your means indefinitely as an individual or as a nation without consequences. Of course the powers that be said that this was not so, some how these basic rules didn't really apply in their new freakonomics world, and in any case the checks and balances were there that ensured that the economies were sufficiently converged to make this no problem. Yea right – obviously.

The other day there was a news report describing how modern attitudes to debt is different to the baby boomers attitude. Different to the extent that people now take on debt with little or no intention of ever paying it off, just spinning the financial plates. Well, let me say for the record – I don't agree and I tweeted it as a council of despair. Well, it seems that some nations and organisations seem to believe they can adopt the same notion and perhaps a nation actually defaulting on its debt is seen as not too important. I take no great pleasure in saying this or seeing the problems amount in Europe, but the situation with Greece will get worse. The situation in Germany will also get worse as it becomes increasingly obvious that many of the bail outs of the PIGS are flawed and going to land at the door of the German tax payer. Look at NAMA in Ireland as a perfect example.

Sometimes it is worth cutting through the crap that gets trotted out as the wisdom of the rich and powerful men in suits and remind them that many of the things necessary in life and business are learnt at kindergarten and basic economics is included.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The revenge of the machines

I love this. For all the acolytes of technology and AI in particular, here is a salutary reminder of why human cognition is the key to solving complex business issues.

Robot folds a towel.

Making those knowledge disclosure points as effective, accurate and as timely as possible is the aim of KM or KAM (Knowledge Aware Management) as I sometime like to refer to it. That is very distinct from a) information management, or b) installing search engines.

For the record it actually took the robot around 25 minutes to fold the towel.