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.