The opening gambit

This is a bit more sudden than I expected it to be. I have been thinking of blogging outside the firewall for some time, and had hoped to be able to build up a body of posts before putting my head above the parapet. One of the reasons for reticence is that I hadn’t identified a comfortable focus for a blog. There are too blogs that already cover topics that are close to my interests for me to be confident of adding anything significant to the online conversation.

However, in a post on the KnowledgeThoughtsBlog, Ian Rodwell has touched on a couple of issues that helped a number of things fall into a sharper focus for me. He describes (beautifully) a visit to Lloyd’s of London.

You may know the building: a Richard Rogers masterpiece which really does look like nothing else in the city and which famously displays its insides on the outside, so to speak. You might think that such a modern exterior cloaks a similarly modern business within: sleek, flashing terminals perhaps, solitary workers murmuring into headsets with blackberries twirled like sixshooters in either hand. Mmm..not quite. And that’s what made the experience so intriguing, enjoyable and peculiarly relevant to this whole knowledge thing of ours. You see, I found it a jarringly exciting combination of the profoundly modern and the, well, the Dickensian if I’m perfectly honest. The Lutine bell guarded by an assistant in his Victorian red jacket and top hat, a cabinet of Nelson memorabilia, a huge log recording ship losses in perfect ink calligraphy (one only last week) and around this museum-like core a series of huge trading floors full of underwriters’ booths where brokers queue to place their risks face to face (or rather eyeball to nose as brokers sit two inches below underwriters to ensure the underwriters’ eye level is above that of the broker…!). You will see people carrying unfeasibly large bundles of paper (indeed, the more astute wheel suitcases of the stuff) and risks are recorded not on a laptop but written, yes written, on a chit of paper. And by the way, don’t think of leaving your jacket and tie at home as you won’t be allowed in. And ensure you call a male underwriter “Sir” and a female underwriter “Madam”. Oh, and braces and black shoes, although not compulsory, do, dear boy, make a difference.

Ian goes on to link this deep tradition (the Lloyd’s ‘brand’, if you like) with knowledge management through close human interaction. This is something I have been interested in for a while. How much do we know because of who we know and what they tell us? How important are the unofficial channels of communication? Isn’t gossip the life-blood of a healthy and vibrant organisation?

Yes, but…

These ideas are intuitively powerful, but are our intuitions borne out by the evidence? Is gossip more harmful than not? Is tradition really a rational approach to business organisation and knowledge management? Is “we have always done it like this” ever a justifiable response? How disruptive should knowledge management and related initiatives be? Should we always aim to fit our activities to existing ways of working? Is the received wisdom right? Is it even tested (or testable)? How did we get into these habits, and can we (should we) shrug them off? How do personal attitudes affect the enterprise? Which should take precedence? What can we learn from other views of the business and its impact?

These are all interesting (and probably unfathomable) questions. From now on, I want to use this blog to try and shine some light on them, and related topics. It may be a searchlight or a candle, direct illumination or filtered. Let’s see what happens.