Lawyers, roles and identity

While I was tweeting from Reinvent Law London last Friday, Chris Atherton laid down a challenge:

This is an attempt to rise to the challenge.

Most of last week was spent on a Cognitive Edge course on Cynefin and sense-making. Despite having done a similar accreditation course in 2010, there was a lot to process. I am still doing so, and a few blog posts may emerge as a result. However, a couple of concepts are relevant here.

My memories of The West Wing are sketchy, but one aspect of it does stick in my mind. Apart from the necessary confusions that drive the plot forward, each character has a clearly defined role within the White House. Most importantly, although he is by some measures the most important person, President Bartlett doesn’t get to decide everything. In particular, crisis situations see him take leadership from one or other of his staff members (depending on their particular expertise).

This model fits the notion of a crew (as distinct from a team) [update: this quote is taken from a glossary entry that seems to have vanished from the Cognitive Edge website]:

One of the radical alternatives I and others are working on here is the concept of crews as a way of ritualizing, and formalizing cross silo activity.

A crew works because its members take up roles for which they are trained, and where their expectations of the other roles in the crew is also trained and to a large extent ritualised. This means that people can assemble into a crew without the common forming, norming, storming & performing cycle.

A crew has cognitive capacity beyond the sum of its members, members occupy their roles for limited time periods, with people swapping between roles to allow for continuity. In addition crews can delegate power in context outside of the normal hierarchies.

Crews are commonly seen in crisis situations, but confusion can arise when there is inadequate preparation for the arrangement. Another TV drama provides an example here. In the most recent series of Wallander, the eponymous police inspector accidentally leaves his gun in a bar. On his return from suspension for this breach, his team is told that he will remain in charge of investigations but his colleague Martinsson will be responsible for team admin and HR issues. Inevitably this produces some tensions as the two work their way around these directives (apparently without discussing them openly).

An effective crew often demands that people take orders from people who are notionally below them in the hierarchy. This is helped when we look to identities rather than individuals. Identities can be seen as context-sensitive parts one plays as an individual. As Dave Snowden puts it:

Within a family I may have many roles such as father, cook, picker up of cat sick, humane disposer of spiders, fault bearer (just keep adding them) which I or others perform at different times. The family has a coherence that is more that the aggregate of its parts or its roles. An identity does not have rigid boundaries, nor is it susceptible of precise definition. When does one’s daughter’s boy friend become a part of the family? A cousin twice removed may be an intimate of one family and an unknown relative in another.

A crew, then, depends on people recognising that their identity (the part they are playing now) is more important than their role in the organisation. That is what allows a nurse in an operating theatre to require a surgeon to count all the swabs that have been used, to make sure there are none left in the patient.

So where is the law firm link?

One angle is that for too long, the traditional law firm partner role has encompassed too many identities at the expense of using non-legal expertise effectively. Bruce MacEwen wrote a couple of compelling articles which make the case much better than I could.

Another angle is provided by a conversation I had with Jeremy Hopkins of Riverview Law last Friday. It was fascinating to learn about what Riverview do, and the part that Jeremy (not a lawyer, as if it matters) plays in their work for clients. Whilst law firms have conditioned themselves to think that the lawyer has to be at the heart of the client relationship, Jeremy described work that he has managed for clients where few, if any, Riverview lawyers were involved. The point is that clients get exactly what they need, provided by people who came together as a crew to do just what they are best at, efficiently and without having to worry about soothing the ego of an overstretched law firm partner. I am sure this model will work well for Riverview and its clients.

So, law firms, what’s next?

Asking better questions, getting better insight

Over the past few months I have been using a model that Nick Milton shared on his blog, to help people understand that the knowledge activities they have traditionally espoused only tell half the story.

I have reservationas about the tacit/explicit distinction, but that is irrelevant for now. The key thing for me is that there is a clear and meaningful difference between systems and tools that push knowledge to people and the activities that develop people’s ability to pull knowledge at the moment of need.

In another post, Nick describes advising an organisation which had over-emphasised the push side of the table. I think many law firms are in this position now. We have developed vast banks of precedents, practice notes, process guides, checklists and so on; and we have encouraged in our lawyers a dependency on these things. To a point, this is all good. These tools help people to dispose efficiently of the work that should not require great thought. But what about those areas where great thought is required. How do we build people’s capability to get to the insight and expertise that will help them solve the trickier problems that clients bring?

We can throw technology at the problem again — search engines will allow people to draw on the vast pool of work that has already been done. Sometimes that will disclose a really useful document that contains just the right information to help the lawyer arrive at a suitable answer. More often, though, it will produce nothing at all or many documents none of which actually help directly. Those many documents may, however, help to identify the right people to ask for help.

So it comes back to asking. Nick Milton has made this point in a couple of posts on his blog this week. The more recent post, “Asking in KM, when and how?”, identifies a number of situations in which asking might be institutionalised: communities of practice, after action reviews, and retrospects; but it doesn’t get to the heart of the question. What does good asking look like?

Fortunately, help is at hand. (The topic must be in the air at the moment for some reason.) Ron Ashkenas, in an HBR blog post, “When the Help You Get Isn’t Helpful“, explores what happens when someone shares their knowledge in a way that is actually useless.

Consider John, an account executive who is contemplating how to expand into a new market segment — one that is wrought with regulatory challenges. With a puzzled look on his face, he walks past Samantha, who asks, “Are you okay?” John responds, “Not really, I’m trying to figure out how to gain access for more of our products into Latin America.” Samantha immediately runs to her office and returns with a 100-page analytical report detailing the region. She then spends the next ten minutes going over a how-to guide on conducting market research. Out of respect to Samantha, John patiently listens. But despite her good intentions, Samantha’s input is counterproductive. John might have benefited from Samantha’s time if she had focused on solving his regulatory conundrum. Instead, John walks away feeling even more frustrated and perplexed.

What happened here? John presented Samantha with a problem, and she offered help. I suspect this kind of unfocused response is common. I know I have been guilty of it in the past, and I suspect I will be again in the future. The difficulty is that people are actually very poor at asking questions. Why that might be is a conundrum for a different time. Fortunately, Ron Ashkenas has some guidance to get better at asking.

Target your requests. Instead of asking whoever is available, intentionally target certain individuals. Create a list of people who have access to resources, information, and relevant experience about your problem. Expand your list to include friends and colleagues who tend to challenge the norm and see the world differently. Make a point of including people who are likely to have useful views but you might hesitate to approach because you think they are too busy or wouldn’t be interested.

Frame your question. Before asking for input, figure out what you really need: What kind of advice are you looking for? What information would be useful? Are there gaps in your thinking? Then consider how to frame your question so that you solicit the right advice.

Redirect the conversation. If the person offering advice jumps to conclusions, be prepared to redirect them. Most people will not be offended if you politely refocus them. For instance, had John interrupted Samantha’s lecture on market research by saying, “The issue isn’t our understanding of the market, it’s how to deal with the area’s regulatory restrictions. That’s where I could use some help,” Samantha could have spent the next ten minutes firing off some useful ideas.

This doesn’t feel like rocket science. Frequently, however, I see people asking quite open-ended questions in the hope that something useful will pop up. I suspect that what actually happens is that those with the knowledge to assist don’t answer precisely because the question is too vague. Yet again, the key to good a outcome here is the same as it is in many other contexts. Careful preparation and clarity of scope will generate the answer you need. (It is also important to be comfortable with the possibility that there is no answer. If you are precise and clear, the fact that no answer is forthcoming is much more likely to be an accurate reflection of there being no answer available at all.)

I think this is an iterative process:

  • Work out exactly what you need to know. What is the gap in your understanding that needs to be filled in order to resolve the issue raised by your client?
  • Who is the best person to answer that question? Do you know that person already, or will you need to seek advice from others? Plan how to ask the right question to identify that person.

Repeat until satisfied…

Where do we find creativity?

My former colleague, Melanie Hatton, was the subject of a Twitter interview a couple of weeks ago. When asked what advice she would give lawyers starting out today, she responded that they should find an unrelated interest in addition to the law, to make themselves stand out. She has elaborated on that answer in a blog post, which draws on the commencement address that Steve Jobs gave at Stanford University in June 2005.

As Melanie summarises it:

Simply put, the more broad your experience and interests, the more opportunities there are in your life to connect the dots and bring a fresh and creative perspective to the table.

Law is no different, and some would argue more in need of creative energy: the best patent attorneys usually have a background in science and chemistry and a passion for photography might fuel a leading copyright lawyer’s quest to represent image right-holders.

I have made a similar point in the past here, and also in a long comment on a post by Jordan Furlong about legal education. But on reflection, I fear I may have overstated the case for breadth of interests.

Steven Johnson (whose book The Invention of Air was one of my fascinating reads of last year) has just published a study of scientific creativity, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. His publisher has created a neat animated summary of the book, embedded below.

In the summary, Johnson says “the great driver of scientific innovation and technological innovation has been the historic increase in connectivity and our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people, and to borrow other people’s hunches and combine them with our hunches and turn them into something new.”

This is where the difference lies. The route to insight, creativity, or innovation depends only partly on being personally committed to an open-minded quest for different perspectives. It also requires connection and collaboration with other people. And the balance between the two constantly shifts. For some people, or some problems, the right response is to look at alternative disciplines or ideas. For others, wider connections might be a better answer.

Over the Summer, I read The Strangest Man — a biography of Paul Dirac, who was probably Britain’s least well-known most influential physicist. Dirac was born in Bristol of a Cornish mother and Swiss father. Even allowing for the fact that his father was an overbearing bully, Dirac’s communications with his family were sketchy at best. He would send his mother a postcard every week, but it would usually only refer to the weather in Cambridge. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1933, his parents only found out when they read a report in the newspaper.

By contrast, Dirac clearly engaged deeply with his fellow physicists. He travelled widely and made connections in his own fashion — he tended to listen only as long as he was interested and speak only when he had clear (almost brusque) contributions to make. He was no conversationalist, but he is regarded as a real link between Einstein and Richard Feynman. So he made connections as well as he could, and he also drew on talents beyond theoretical physics. As a boy, he had been educated in a technical school: his perspective on atomic physics was therefore different from many of his contemporaries because he always sought elegantly calculated solutions.

Today’s Financial Times contained its annual survey of innovative lawyers. I don’t make a regular study of this publication, but I was struck this year by the fact that many of the instances of innovation embodied some form of connection or collaboration. It is just the beginning, but perhaps the trend is set for lawyers as it has been for scientists for many years. As Isaac Newton, Dirac’s predecessor as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, put it: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Speaking of social software and KM

Last week, Headshift hosted an “insight event” to showcase the report on social software for law firms written by Penny Edwards and Lee Bryant. I was honoured to be asked to present, along with Sam Dimond of Clifford Chance and Steve Perry of Freshfields.

Nick Holmes wrote a great summary of the event on his blog, Binary Law, and I intended to post the notes for my session here, but Penny has now done a really impressive job of transcribing our three presentations, together with Lee’s opening remarks. I am particularly impressed because she was listening into the event from Amsterdam, and I gather the sound quality was not particularly good.

Penny’s four posts on the Headshift blog are as follows:

As well as the presentations, we had some great questions from the audience and an opportunity for offline social networking. I only wish we could have had longer to discuss all the issues that people raised. Many thanks to Penny for putting the event together, and to Lars Plougmann for hosting it. (By the way, I think the term “insight event” is a really good one.)

Learning from experience?

I find it useful to keep an eye on developments in our universities. Two reasons: our future lawyers are seeing and using teaching and learning techniques that they might expect to find replicated in the firms they join as trainees; and just knowing what is going on elsewhere can give us insights into new possibilities.


With that in mind, I was interested (in catching up with Paul Maharg’s blog) to see that he has been developing his work on professional legal education at the Glasgow Graduate School of Law.

Over a period of years Paul and his colleagues have developed an online simulation-based learning system to support professional education at the GGSL. This requires students to engage with realistic legal problems at to solve them individually and collaboratively, through “transactional learning.” This requires, in Paul’s words:

  • active learning
  • through performance in authentic transactions
  • involving reflection in & on learning,
  • deep collaborative learning, and
  • holistic or process learning,
  • with relevant professional assessment
  • that includes ethical standards

The presentation from which this is taken (embedded below) provides a tangible overview of the system, and there is a more detailed paper to go with it, as well as the site itself.

Having read all of this, I was particularly struck by one of the concluding slides (slide 41) in the presentation, which is headed “there’s no such thing as experiential learning.” Citing Schratz and Walker, Research as Social Change: New Opportunities for Qualitative Research, Paul claims the following:

  • We don’t learn from experience
  • We learn by working to interpret experience, given that, when learning:
  • we have different prior knowledge
  • our aims are always different in subtle ways
  • we learn different things from the same resources
  • ‘resources’ means symbolic objects like books & web pages, but also people, including ourselves
  • we can learn intimately and deeply from any resource, given a suitable context
  • Teachers and students need to encode those interpretations as complex memories, habits, skills, attitudes or knowledge objects if they are to re-use them

 That first bullet point is a real challenge to the attitude of many practising lawyers. “Learning on the job” is a classic response to the question, “How do you maintain your knowledge of law and practice?” I am not sure that this approach typically includes “working to interpret experience.” Nor will it often include a formal opportunity for feedback and assessment (of the learning, not the work).

Turning to a recipe for the future, Paul suggests a move away from the current traditional model (in workplaces as well as educational institutions, although his focus is primarily on the latter) (slide 43):

Still focused on:

  • Organisations, ie LMSs, silos of knowledge
  • Products, ie handbooks, CDs, closely-guarded downloads
  • Content, ie modules, instruction, transmissive content
  • Snapshot assessment of taught substantive content

The replacement will require a rather different emphasis (slide 44):

Focus shifts to:

  • Organisation has weak boundaries, strong presence through resource-based, integrated learning networks, with open access (open courseware initiatives, etc)
  • Focus not on static content but on web-based, aggregated content
  • E-learning as integrated understanding & conversation, just-in-time learning
  • Assessment of situated learning

Coincidentally, I have just finished reading Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. It is a fascinating and accessible introduction to the art of communicating messages so that they really make a difference. Towards the end of the book, the Heaths look at the power of narrative and how it is linked to simulations. (I have been interested in this for a while, but have really caught the story-telling bug since attending a workshop led by Shawn Callahan last month.) It appears that good stories allow listeners to participate by picturing in their minds the sequence of events, the emotions, the situations and reactions, and so on. This process of imagining (or imaging) actually invokes the same areas of the brain as performing the actions or experiencing the emotions described. I have long been familiar with physical simulators that are used to train pilots and astronauts, but I hadn’t realised that mental simulation can be nearly as good at building skills. As the Heaths explain:

A review of thirty-five studies featuring 3,214 participants showed that mental practice alone — sitting quietly, without moving, and picturing yourself performing a task successfully from start to finish — improves performance significantly. The results were borne out over a number of tasks: Mental simulation helped people weld better and throw darts better. Trombonists improved their playing and figure skaters improved their skating. Not surprisingly, mental practice is more effective when a task involves more mental activity (e.g., trombone playing) as opposed to physical activity (e.g., balancing), but the magnitude of gains from mental practice is large on average: Overall, mental practice alone produced about two thirds of the benefits of actual physical practice.

For me, this also links to the theme of deliberative practice, which I have touched on a couple of times in the past, and which Shawn has also picked up on during his trip to the UK. In his second post, he responds to a comment on the first which suggests that we might not have time to be experts in a business context.

To put the effort in to be bloody good requires time and dedication. Consequently we need to pick our desired expertise carefully. Here are some things to consider:

  • do you love the skill that much that it doesn’t seem like work to you?
  • is it a skill you can use in any job?
  • will people value and recognise your expertise and therefore motivate your ongoing efforts?
  • can practice feel like play? If so then there is much more chance you will keep practising.

We will always need content experts. Your social network should help you connect to these valuable folk. What will also need are people who can thrive in complexity and the skills we’ll need to deliberately practice will include designing, leading, managing, innovating, storytelling, strategizing, implementing, sensemaking, and engaging (I’m sure you can think of others). These skills will be helpful in any job and so feel free to dedicate 10,000+ hours to any one of them and know you haven’t wasted your time.

The key, yet again, is to focus and prioritise. And visualise…

Using expertise — a survey

I recently participated in a survey on how expertise is leveraged and managed in organisations. This is part of an open research project where the results of the research are made available to the KM community as they are finalised. The project blog is at, and there is also a wiki showing the outcomes of project workshops at

If you have time to complete the survey as well, please do add your perspective. The survey is at, and when you have completed it, you will see the results of the survey collected so far. This has the potential to be a really useful resource and source of learning, especially if as many people as possible share their experiences.

Navigating the seven Cs of knowledge

It dawned on me today that a lot of our knowledge-related activities reflect, depend upon or contribute to things beginning with ‘C’. In that spirit, today’s post is brought to you by the letter C and the number 7.

On the rocks near Kilkee

In no particular order, here are the things I had in mind. Feel free to add more (or detract from these) in the comments. (And I apologise for inadvertently stealing a idea.)

Conversation. As mentioned in my last post, this is a critical part of knowledge sharing. Be aware, though, that this realisation is not enough:

simply being smarter isn’t the whole story. Clever people still do stupid things, often on a regular (or worse, repeated) basis. Wise people, on the other hand, change their ways.

Collaboration. Good collaboration may be a product of good knowledge sharing. It may even produce it. We need to be confident that what we think is collaboration really is that

So what is collaboration then? It’s when a group of people come together, driven by mutual self–interest, to constructively explore new possibilities and create something that they couldn’t do on their own. Imagine you’re absolutely passionate about the role that performance reviews play in company effectiveness. You team up with two colleagues to re-conceptualise how performance reviews should be done for maximum impact. You trust each other implicitly and share all your good ideas in the effort to create an outstanding result. You and your colleagues share the recognition and praise equally for the innovative work.

The important factor is mutual self-interest. When people create things they really want to create, and it is also good for the company, it energises and engages people like nothing else.

Communication. Don’t forget that this is not something you can judge for yourself. Good communication comes when someone else can understand what you say. They will judge whether you are communicating well. Empathy is required.

One way of talking that inhibits the exchange of knowledge is speaking with conviction. That may seem contrary to what we’ve all learned in communication and leadership workshops, where one of the lessons often taught is to speak with confidence- “sound like you mean it”. Yet, as I examine conversations in the work setting, stating an idea with conviction tends to send a signal to others that the speaker is closed to new ideas. When speaking with conviction people sound as though no other idea is possible, as though the answer is, or should be, obvious.

Connection. I can’t decide if this flows from the points above, or if it is a necessary pre-condition for them. The fact is, it is pervasive. Without good connections, we cannot function properly as good knowledge workers.

As the economy has worsened, there’s been some talk about eliminating “nice to have” functions such as KM.  Think again.  Without good matchmakers, it’s hard to have good matches.  Without good matches, it’s hard to have much productivity.

Creativity. This is not something that is reserved to highly-strung artists. We all need to think in interesting ways about the problems that we face. Unless we do so, we will just come up with the same old answers. And in many cases the same old answers are what created the problems in the first place.

…we need two processes, one to generate things we can’t think of in advance, and another to figure out which of the things we generate are valuable and are worth keeping and building upon. In science, the arts, and other creative activities, the ability to know what to throw away and what to keep seems to arise from experience, from study, from command of fundamentals, and—interestingly—from being a bit skeptical of preset intentions and plans that commit you too firmly to the endpoints you can envision in advance. Knowing too clearly where you are going, focusing too hard on a predefined objective, can cause you to miss value that might lie in a different direction.

Culture. We can use this as an easy escape: “I am doing what I can, but the culture doesn’t support me.” Yes, there are dysfunctional organisations which cannot accept that the world around them is changing. But we have a part to play in bringing a realisation that the wrong culture is wrong.

…the magic of the corporation (and the thing that makes the corporation the best problem-solving machine we have at our disposal) is that it can be all things to all people. Anthropology can help here because it understands that the intelligence of this complicated creature exists not just in the formal procedures and divisions of labor of the organization, but in also in the less official ideas and practices that make up the corporation. Once again, anthropology is about culture, but in this case the culture is the particular ideas and practices of a particular organization. Anthropology can help senior managers re-engineer their organizations.

Clients/customers. Why do we do this? It is easy to forget that the organisation does not exist for its own reasons. It exists to fulfil a purpose, and that purpose often means that there are consumers, customers or clients. When we know what they need, we are in a better position to understand what the business should deliver. That may hurt. Things would obviously run better if we didn’t have to worry about client demands, but that is just facetious.

This is a hard lesson for marketers, particularly technical marketers, to learn. You don’t get to decide what’s better. I do.

If you look at the decisions you’ve made about features, benefits, pricing, timing, hiring, etc., how many of them are obviously ‘better’ from your point of view, and how many people might disagree? There are very few markets where majority rule is the best way to grow.

Five continents

There are some additional things that are often linked to knowledge activities. I am not entirely sure about some of these. 

Change. This is often linked with culture. In addition, some knowledge management activities bring change with them. Doesn’t it seem odd (and a serious risk) that one project is supposed to bring about significant organisational change? Surely we should try and fit with what people are already doing?

Why won’t this work for you?

Capture/conversion. Traditionally, KM projects have focused on squeezing knowledge out of past actions, or in converting so-called tacit knowledge to explicit. John Bordeaux torpedoes both of these.

Lessons learned programs don’t work because they don’t align with how we think, how we decide, or even an accurate history of what happened.  Other than that – totally worth the investment. 


…it should now be evident that relating what we know via conversation or writing or other means of “making explicit” removes integral context, and therefore content.  Explicit knowledge is simply information – lacking the human context necessary to qualify it as knowledge.  Sharing human knowledge is a misnomer, the most we can do is help others embed inputs as we have done so that they may approach the world as we do based on our experience.  This sharing is done on many levels, in many media, and in contexts as close to the original ones so that the experience can approximate the original. 

Content. Otherwise known as “never mind the quality, feel the width.” Need I say more? We shouldn’t have been surprised by the Wharton/INSEAD research, but in case people still are:

The advice to derive from this research? Shut down your expensive document databases; they tend to do more harm than good. They are a nuisance, impossible to navigate, and you can’t really store anything meaningful in them anyway, since real knowledge is quite impossible to put onto a piece of paper. Yet, do maintain your systems that help people identify and contact experts in your firm, because that can be beneficial, at least for people who lack experience. Therefore, make sure to only give your rookies the password.

Control. David Jabbari nailed this one:

This trend is closely related to the shift from knowledge capture to knowledge creation. If you see knowledge as an inert ‘thing’ that can be captured, edited and distributed, there is a danger that your KM effort will gravitate to the rather boring, back-office work preoccupied with indexes and IT systems. This will be accompanied by a ritualized nagging of senior lawyers to contribute more knowledge to online systems.

If, however, you see knowledge as a creative and collaborative activity, your interest will be the way in which distinctive insights can be created and deployed to deepen client relationships. You will tend to be more interested in connecting people than in building perfect knowledge repositories.

Before we leave the alphabet, a quick word about ‘M’. If we dispose of the continental Cs above, what happens to measurement and management? That is probably enough in itself for another post, but for now a quick link to a comment of Nick Milton’s on the KIN blog will suffice:

Personally I think that dropping the M-word is a cop-out. Not as far as branding is concerned – you could call it “bicycle sandwich” as far as I am concerned, so long as it contained the same elements – but because it takes your attention away from the management component, and taking attention away from the management component is where many KM failures stem from.

Management is how we organise work in companies, and if we don’t organise it with knowledge in mind, we lose huge value. What doesn’t get managed, doesn’t get done, and that’s true for KM as much as anything else. See for more details.

It’s just this thing, you know?

We are on our way towards a place where some of the technologies that currently astound us will be so commonplace as to be boring. This is a truism. It was true of the spinning mule in the 1780s, and it is true of Web 2.0 software today. The longer we are astounded, the less likely we are to prepare for this inevitability, and therefore the worse prepared we will be.

James Dellow makes this point in his blog post, “Time for an upgrade? Wiki 2.0” and Luis Suarez drives it home with a pointer to a really engaging video on the impact of these technologies on learning (and therefore on business).

One of the interesting people speaking in the video is Stephen Heppell, who has been an educational innovator in the UK for what seems like decades (I certainly first encountered him in the early 1990s).

Children are living now in a different space. They are living in what I call a “nearly now”. Nearly now is that space that they text in, the space that they update their Facebook entries in, the space that they twitter in, you know, the space that is not quite synchronous. It’s a really interesting space because it’s not adversarial, it’s not pressured. It’s a space where people can — it’s all the R-words — they can reflect, and retract, and research, and repeat. It’s a very gentle world. I tell you what: it’s a great world for learning. (1’14”-1’45”)

Now we’re looking at a whole different range of schools. We are looking at schools that produce ingenious, collaborative, gregarious and brave children who care about stuff — like their culture. To build schools that do that is a whole other challenge. And around the world, you know, people are testing out the ingredients of what makes that work. Those ingredients are being assembled into some just stunning recipes in different places. It’s a very exciting time for learning. It’s the death of education, but it’s the dawn of learning. That makes me very happy! (4’31”-5’00”)

This idea of the pervasive “nearly now” is implicit in James Dellow’s post, and some of the things he links to. One of those things is an article by by Matthew C. Clarke, “Control and Community: A Case Study of Enterprise Wiki Usage“. He concludes as follows:

I predict that Wikis will disappear over the next 5 to 10 years. This is not because they will fail but precisely because they will succeed. The best technologies disappear from view because they become so common-place that nobody notices them. Wiki-style functionality will become embedded within other software – within portals, web design tools, word processors, and content management systems. Our children may not learn the word “Wiki,” but they will be surprised when we tell them that there was a time when you couldn’t just edit a web page to build the content collaboratively.

As James Dellow puts it: the wiki will become more of a verb than a noun. This is the future that Stephen Heppell sees, and will come more quickly than the mechanisation of the textile industry. We need to be prepared for it, not by resisting it like the destroyers of the spinning mule, but by being open to the opportunities it offers. As Clarke puts it in his penultimate paragraph:

By putting minimal central control in place an enterprise can gain significant benefit from this simple technology, including improved knowledge capture, reduced time to build complex knowledge-based web sites, and increased collaboration. Although enterprise Wiki use requires a greater degree of centralized control than public Wikis, this need not impinge on the freedom to contribute that is the hallmark of a Wiki approach. The balance of power is different in an enterprise context, but fear of anarchy should not prohibit Wiki adoption.

James Dellow is not quite so starry-eyed, but his note of caution is not a Luddite one.

I’m not sure its good enough to add wiki-like page editing functionality to an information tool and expect it to behave like a social computing tool suddenly (if that’s your intent). I think what’s more interesting is the evolution of enterprise wikis, as they add other types of social computing features. Other social computing platforms may also threaten these wiki-based solutions by adding the capability to manage pages and documents.

The key thing here is that we need to blend our corporate demands with the opportunities that working and collaborating in the “nearly now” will bring. The result of that blend will inevitably mean that the technologies will develop in slightly different ways. Modern textile machinery is very different from Crompton’s mule, if only because a modern health and safety regime requires it. Similarly, the openness of some of our current social networking and collaboration tools will need to be toned down in a corporate environment, to allow for the right level of knowledge and information sharing consistent with regulatory and ethical compliance.

As we tread the path that will lead us towards that future, I agree with David Gurteen that it is our responsibility to engage with the new technologies to help work out what the future will look like. As David puts it in the introduction to his latest Knowledge Letter, “I am surprised at just how many people especially knowledge managers are not using social tools (not necessarily internally but on the web for personal use) and consequently do not really understand their power as knowledge sharing and informal learning tools.” It surprises me too. David drives home the link with learning.

…when I ask people why they do not do the same the answer is always “Oh I’d love to but I am too busy. I just do not have the time.” But I think in reality the truth is that in our busy lives we never have enough time to do all the things we would like to do. So we prioritise things and taking the time to learn tends to fall off the bottom of the list.

I think that many people are so busy they have got out of the habit of informal learning – maybe they never got into it. Its not seen as a priority. So can I make a suggestion – if you are one of those people who are not keeping up with your with new developments and thinking in your field of endeavour then take a few minutes to think about how important is it to you compared with everything else that you do. And if you decide it is important then commit to doing it.

As the video above makes clear, the world of learning is changing fast. Our world of work will change to follow it. We owe it to ourselves, our colleagues and our organisations not to sit back and wait for the changes to overwhelm us. The tide is coming in — swim out to meet it.

Social norms and knowledge sharing

Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, is a really eye-opening read. He deconstructs a number of traditional economic constructs with humour and insight. Most importantly, he uses careful experimentation to demonstrate exactly how irrational we are.

In the video above, Ariely talks about the difference between people’s behaviour in a situation governed by social norms by comparison with market norms. He examines this difference in Chapter 4 of the book: “The Cost of Social Norms.” Reading this chapter, I thought I had found the answer to why incentives do not work in knowledge management initiatives.

Ariely’s argument is that in a situation governed by social norms, people will help without thought of a financial reward. On the other hand, interactions governed by market norms are very different.

The exchanges are sharp-edged: wages, prices, rents, interest, and costs-and-benefits. Such market relationships are not necessarily evil or mean — in fact, they also include self-reliance, inventiveness, and individualism — but they do imply comparable benefits and prompt payments. When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for — that’s just the way it is. (p. 68)

The trouble is that whilst knowledge sharing is at its heart a social activity, it takes place in an environment governed by market norms — the workplace. Naturally enough, there is an inclination to want to recognise good knowledge behaviours in the only way that an employer knows: financially. As Neil Richards has explained, this just does not work. Ariely describes an experiment in which people were asked to perform a mundane and fruitless task on a computer. One group was paid $5 for the task, another group just 50¢, and a third was asked to do it as a favour. The productivity of the $5 group was slightly lower than the ‘favour’ group, but the 50¢ group was over 50% less productive than the others.

Perhaps we should have anticipated this. There are many examples to show that people will work much more for a cause than for cash. A few years ago, for instance, the AARP asked some lawyers if they would offer less expensive services to needy retirees, at something like $30 an hour. The lawyers said no. Then the program manager at AARP had a brilliant idea: he asked the lawyers if they would offer free services to needy retirees. Overwhelmingly, the lawyers said yes.

What was going on here? How could zero dollars be more attractive than $30? When money was mentioned, the lawyers used market norms and found the offer lacking, relative to their market salary. When no money was mentioned they used social norms and were willing to volunteer their time. Why didn’t they just accept $30, thinking of themselves as volunteers who received $30? Because once market norms enter our considerations, social norms depart. (p. 71, my emphasis)

It is possible to use gifts to thank people for their efforts, and still stay inside the social norms. However, if one suggests that the gift has a monetary value, the market norms reassert themselves. Although Ariely doesn’t say so, I suspect that using small-scale rewards on a regular basis (such as a box of chocolates for the best contribution to know-how every month) would also be regarded as market-related. Gifts need to be a surprise to be valued as part of a social interaction.

Later in this chapter, Ariely describes how a social situation can take a long time to recover from being drawn into the market. He tells a story of a childrens’ nursery that had previously used social sanctions (guit, mainly) to control parents who picked their children up late. When the nursery started to impose fines for lateness instead, parents applied market thinking and the incidences of lateness increased. When the fines were removed, the parents continued to pick up late as they had done in the fines era — guilt no longer worked as a sanction.

One problem for some law firms is that they have given knowledge management responsibilities to a specific group of people (Professional Support Lawyers, or equivalent). Because those people (rewarded according to the market) have a defined role, it can be difficult to motivate others in the firm to share knowledge as a social obligation. Unfortunately, the market value of effective knowledge sharing is almost certainly more than most employers could afford. “Money, as it turns out, is very often the most expensive way to motivate people. Social norms are not only cheaper, but often more effective as well.” (p. 86)

Having established that the balance between social and market norms is a very senstive one, Ariely is still convinced that there is a real place for social norms in the workplace.

If corporations started thinking in terms of social norms, they would realize that these norms build loyalty and — more important — make people want to extend themselves to the degree that corporations need today: to be flexible, concerned, and willing to pitch in. That’s what a social relatinonship delivers. (p. 83)

As well as these thoughts on knowledge sharing in the enterprise, Ariely’s chapter explains much to me about the success of so-called social computing tools (and also why they are well-named). They play on the genuine human desire to comply with social norms of exchange, assistance, generosity and collaboration. The challenge is to import this desire into the organisational context, without running into market norms.

Ten tips

Andrew McAfee lost a bet, so today he is tweeting at least 100 times. So far, he has asked ten baseball-related questions (all way over my head), and posted links to 20 poems that are available online. Now he has listed the ten things he has learned from teaching.

  1. Don’t be afraid of silence in the classroom
  2. Ask clear questions
  3. Trust your students
  4. Be the person who most wants to be in the room
  5. Start on time, end on time
  6. Check your fly
  7. Be more concerned with the destination than the journey
  8. We get smarter via respectful disputation
  9. It’s better to be well-rested than well-prepared
  10. Most students appreciate being held to high standards

These are excellent tenets for all sorts of interactions, not just teaching. Sometimes the relationship between lawyers and their clients has many similarities to the teacher-student relationship. The same is true for internal consultants (like KM people) and their internal clients. In case they need translation, here is my gloss on Andy’s ten points.

  1. Silence is not bad — so long as it signifies that people are thinking about what you are saying.
  2. If you are clear what you want from people, you have to have understood it better, and they will know why it is important.
  3. Internal consultancy is a kind of leadership — the organisation has trusted you to take it somewhere new, so you owe it to those you are leading to trust them too.
  4. If you don’t care deeply about what you are doing (and show it), everyone will know, and take their cue from you.
  5. At the most basic level, punctuality is respectful — but it also shows that you have made a plan and have stuck to it. If you can do that with the small things, people will believe that you can do the same with the big ones.
  6. There is always something obvious to remember to do. Remember to do it, otherwise people will notice.
  7. If there is agreement about what the outcome should be, that is what is most important. If you start to quibble about the route-plan, you run the risk that you lose internal clients along the way.
  8. If there are differences of opinion, they only fester if left unspoken. Clearly-expressed alternative perspectives can lead to a much better outcome — be open to them.
  9. Do the best preparation that you can, but an alert mind can overcome gaps in that preparation (and there will always be gaps).
  10. Just because you have been asked to advise on something, don’t let the client (internal or otherwise) get away without doing their bit — the outcome will be better and will be better implemented if they engage properly.

Thanks for the thought-provoking tweets, Andy! (He has ten good things about Boston coming up, so I’m off to enjoy those. It’s one of my favourite American cities.)