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.

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