With a little help from my friends

Knowledge management activities in UK law firms depend very heavily on people power — being more reliant on Professional Support Lawyers (PSLs) than their US and continental European counterparts. Despite this, the recent Knowledge Management in Law Firms conference had a noticeable technology focus. I’m afraid I set the tone in the first session with a couple of case studies on KM/IT implementations, but in my defence I did concentrate on the people issues rather than the technology. After that we had many screenshots of systems, mashups, search tools, RSS blogs, wikis and more. All the time we kept telling ourselves that KM wasn’t all about technology, but I wonder whether the historically divergent US and UK law firm traditions are moving closer together. We are using more technology and they are using more PSLs (or KM lawyers).

And then the final question silenced us all. One of the two search engine suppliers at the conference mentioned that they were accustomed to hosting conferences with the IT directors of their main customers — to find out what keeps them up at night and to gather information to drive development of their products. Coming at the end of a panel discussion focusing on how we meet client needs for KM support, I think many of us expected this statement to be followed by a suggestion that law firms might do something along similar lines for their top clients. But no — instead the question was whether the suppliers of the IT tools that we had all been discussing for the previous two days should be speaking to us instead of our IT directors. And, more pointedly, how did we feel about our project spend being controlled by someone who did not necessarily know (or at least understand) the strategic objectives underpinning our KM projects?

The supplementary question was probably a bit provocative. I hope most IT directors do understand and buy into their firm’s KM strategies. However, there is a bit of truth in the assumption behind it. KM projects have to fight for IT time and resources along with everything else that the firm needs — from recurrent and inevitable hardware replacement to big infrastructural projects or change driven by other parts of the firm. How do we feel about that?

Actually, is that the right question? Like the lawyer-client relationship, the IT/KM relationship is just that — a relationship. In order to prevent it becoming disfunctional (or to rectify it if a breakdown has already happened), I think it is helpful to remember two key points. Neither of them refer directly to how we feel. The two points are these:

  1. If something is wrong in a relationship, you cannot change it by focusing on someone else’s behaviour. The only behaviour you can guarantee to change is your own.
  2. The changes you make will have most impact if you understand what preoccupies the other person and play to it.

Let’s elaborate these two points, using the IT-KM relationship as an example.

It’s not you, it’s me…

One of the things that we often forget to take account of in our relationships is that what is important to us in not necessarily a priority for the other person. Just as our jobs give us a full workload, and many challenges, those whose services we need to call on are equally burdened. If we are lucky, they may respond well to a simple plea for attention, but this is most likely when our needs are already important to them. If a simple plea does not work, it will not be any more successful if it is just repeated more loudly. The toddler having a tantrum on the supermarket because they have been refused the sweets they demanded has yet to learn this lesson.

If we change our approach, we may be more successful in getting attention and changed behaviour on the other side of the relationship. If our needs are not a priority for someone else, we might be able to get what we want by framing our request so that it appeals to them more. A demand for more IT resource for KM is likely to fall on deaf ears, but a suggestion that IT and KM (perhaps together with BD) might develop products for knowledge sharing with clients (for example) is likely to command more interest. That would allow IT to demonstrate alignment to the firm’s strategic objectives. This is a similar (although more finessed) approach to that adopted by the teenager who argues that use of the family car would give them a safer return from a late party than waiting for a night bus.

It is rare in a relationship that any difficulties are due solely to the behaviour of one party. There is usually a balance of responsibilities. If we accept that, and consciously change our own behaviour, we can swing the balance in our favour.

What do you want?

Bearing all this in mind, what should KM people know about their IT colleagues? What are the pressure points for technology in law firms? It is difficult to generalise — firms and culture differ — but here are some suggestions. Think scalability, robustness and support.

Scalability: What are the implications of your proposed KM solution for more than a handful of users? OK, you can knock up a quick blog or wiki installation on your home PC, but how does that compare to a platform to support the needs of a thousand or more users? Does your ‘free’ software actually come with significant costs when scaled up beyond more than handful of users?

Robustness: Law firms are not unique in needing high levels of IT security, but that does not mean that the demands of a resilient technology platform should be minimised. It takes time and effort to keep a system running 24/7. At the moment, you may be comfortable that your new system does not need that kind of resilience, but you probably want it to integrate with existing security systems so that users do not have to log in afresh. Likewise, IT will need to be comfortable that no harm is done to the existing critical systems.

Support: Are the technologies that your favoured solution depends on known or unknown within your IT team? It is easy to underestimate the challenges involved in supporting new things. Once your new system takes hold, your less technically-savvy colleagues will expect the same levels of personal support that they currently get for the firm’s established systems. Behind the scenes, your apparently simple blogging platform (for example) is probably actually quite complex. Without an established body of knowledge in the IT team, supporting that platform is expensive — either in training or external consultancy. Whose budget is that coming from?

Bearing those concerns in mind, it becomes easier to understand the IT professionals’ exasperation at comments like those of silicon.com’s resident devil’s advocate, the Naked CIO, when s/he refers to IT’s weasel words. This comment is particularly telling:

But the part of this article that us foot troops are most likely to disagree with is the idea that we are scared to tell the real story. Not scared, but fed up. Fed up with being told that we are making it deliberately complicated. Fed up with our words being distorted by those that don’t understand our jobs. Fed up with our senior managers not having the courage to fight our corner after those distortions.
It takes two to tango. If colleagues in other functions were prepared to treat IT with respect, long suffering troops wouldn’t be driven to evasive tactics. We obfuscate because non-IT colleagues are getting worse in their assumptions about what is and isn’t a simple problem in IT. “I’ve knocked something up in Access, how hard could it be to make it work for 1000 concurrent users in a distributed environment with no performance issues?” People don’t challenge how hard it is to construct a major building or manufacture a car. That’s because those things are tangible. They can see that it’s difficult. IT is almost invisible, so otherwise sensible people somehow equate invisible to simple “because I can imagine how to do it in my head”.
Until we find a way to address the almost wilful lack of trust and understanding of IT in non-IT colleagues, this situation will worsen.

So the ball is back in our court. Trust and understand your IT colleagues — cooperation and effective collaboration will follow.

(Having said all that, I still have no idea why Neil Richards’s experience of IT projects in a bank was so different from his previous life in a law firm.)

Oh good grief…

I think I am grateful to Mary Abraham for pointing me in the direction of Venkatesh Rao’s densely argued article opposing knowledge management and social media. In fact, it made me as despondent as Charlie Brown faced with yet another opportunity to kick Lucy’s football. This is not a generational war: it is a battle of the straw men. Mary has already dealt deftly with the supposed distinction between KM and Web2.0. What about the straw men?

Defining knowledge management

Venkat characterises KM as a “venerable IT-based social engineering discipline.” IT-based? Dave Snowden was right: we have lost the battle to define KM in other than technology terms. That said, many of us who take seriously the duty to define KM properly do so primarily by reference to people, rather than technology.

Venkat goes on to present a range of crude stereotypes of KM activities:

  • “KM is about ideology”
  • Expertise location is about a yearning for a “priestly elite”
  • “KM and SemWeb set a lot of store by controlled vocabularies and ontologies as drivers of IT architecture”

Some of the detail of Venkat’s argument is good, although he appears to have met some pretty scary knowledge managers. My response to some of his examples (and experiences) was to wonder how much was driven by particular corporate cultures. But Venkat attributes almost all of this stereotypical KM to the ultimate straw man: it’s generational.

Boomers, X and Y

For someone who is critical (albeit not ultimately so) of “systematic ontological engineering,” Venkat draws an unusually firm distinction between people of different ages. Apparently, as a result of being born in 1962, I am a Boomer. My wife and my sister, born within three days of each other in 1964, have the good fortune to be in Generation X. (Clearly 1963 was an annus mirabilis for reasons other than the one identified by Philip Larkin.) My children (all born in the 1990s) are of Generation Y. We are all products of our cultural history (which we have in common with others born at a similar time and brought up in similar cultures), but also our families (which are ours alone). Segregation into generational cohorts ignores this basic fact.

Date of birth does not determine a generation. Where you fit in the generations will depend on a range of personal factors — personal responsibilities (are you a carer or a parent, or are you fancy-free), political focus (do you tend to respect authority, or do you seek your own gurus), and age (not when you were born, but how old are you). Generation Y may well be less than enthusiastic about authority now, but are they rioting in the streets like their French counterparts 40 years ago? Danny the Red, one of the leading soixante-huitards is now part of the Establishment (albeit in a less mainstream party). The difference between then and now is more a question of age than generation.

All people, whether born after 1980 or not, can and do use social media. Inevitably, because they have more time and they were born and schooled in a world where IT prevailed (in the first world and parts of the second world, at least), the younger ones are in a position to make more of it. Of course, those of us who have had to fit into working life for over 20 years will find it harder to adapt to new things. Some of us will find it easier than others, just as some of Generation Y find technology harder.

Ironically, the one of my children who had the earliest acquaintance with the web (within hours of his birth in 1995), has a very different relationship with e-mail, SMS and MSN than his sisters (1993 and 1997). If I were minded to do so, I might draw conclusions about this about the way boys do social media. But I won’t because this single data point is irrelevant. I do not think that the stereotype peddled by adherents of Generation Y thinking is particularly helpful. Social media and related technologies do have the potential to change businesses. That change is not the personal prerogative of those born after 1980. I, and others in the Boomer and X generations, have our part to play. Don’t lump us together in these meaningless groups.

You can’t make me do it…

In an earlier post, I wrote briefly about incentives in KM initiatives. In what looks like a response to Dave Snowden’s assertion that story-telling can be manipulative (“I think story telling is the weakest, least effective and most dangerous form of narrative work”), Shawn Callahan points to a summary by David Maxfield of the distinction between influencing, persuading and manipulation.

Persuasion-related issues are usually more short-term and focus on getting a person’s honest verbal agreement or commitment. They can often be handled in a single conversation.

Influence issues are more long-term and involve entrenched habits. Getting the person’s honest agreement and commitment to change is usually just a starting point.

Here is my test for whether a skill is manipulative: “Would it lose its power if people knew exactly what you were doing and why?” If the answer is yes, if the technique loses its power in the light of day, then it’s manipulative and I don’t want any part of it.

I am less interested in the manipulation part of this trichotomy, and more in the question of influencing versus persuading. For me, Maxfield’s distinction explains why incentives don’t work. They appeal to people’s baser inclinations, and are persuasive, but they don’t change behaviours. A response to an incentive surely takes the form, “I am doing this because you want me to, and it is currently in my interests to do what you want,” whereas someone whose behaviour has been changed is effectively saying, “I am doing this because I want to.”

In my experience, KM activities that depend on persuasion may change some people’s behaviours, but their success depends on continuous engagement by someone (a PSL, a manager, or the central KM function). If we succeed in influencing (perhaps by demonstrating success through our own behaviours), we are relieved of the obligation to carry on supporting past KM endeavours — they become part of the flow. As a result, we are free to move on to new projects. Isn’t that a better place to be?

Collaboration and credit

One of my regular pleasures is getting my copy of The Word magazine every month. I bought every copy from its launch in 2003 until I finally got round to subscribing about 18 months ago. I have never subscribed to a magazine before, which is clearly an indication of its success with me. When the magazine launched it was clearly aimed at “£50 man;” although it concentrates on music, it also covers books and films intelligently.

There are two things that mark The Word out as a paragon in its field. The first has been in place since day one. It is led by two doyens of British music journalism: David Hepworth and Mark Ellen. The second is the way that Hepworth and Ellen have engaged with non-traditional media. For some time, the magazine’s website was clearly a Web 1.0 production. Indeed, it might cruelly but accurately have been described as “brochureware.” Later on, the site was developed to include a discussion forum, and now boasts a blogging facility, in which Word editors and writers engage directly with their readership. (In fairness, David Hepworth is much more attuned to technology than Mark Ellen, so he is probably the main driver of these developments.) Alongside this, Hepworth and Ellen lead a regular and hugely entertaining podcast. This started irregularly, but is now a weekly feature and there is even a spin-off podcast focusing on extended interviews. There is even a Facebook group for fans of the podcast.

In last week’s podcast, Messrs Ellen and Hepworth had an interesting discussion about the way in which bands structure their remuneration. (This grew out of an exchange of memories of the late Richard Wright.)

Here is a rough transcript starting at 10:24:

Ellen: I’ve always thought that the most interesting examples of these groups that don’t argue are the ones that have had the sense, early on, to go in collectively. Presumably because they had some idea of… of course the three best examples are Blur, REM and U2. All of them have exactly the same structure. There’s three musicians and a kind of singer/lyricist, if you like (although Damon Albarn obviously plays a lot of instruments as well). And they had a structure (I’m pretty sure I’m right in saying) where they divide the royalties five ways, which is that the lyricist gets 20%, then the four of them (including obviously the lyricist in his musicianly capacity) divide up the remaining 80% in terms of arrangement and composititon.

I think that’s really important. If you listen to, I was listening to “Walk on the Wild Side” the other day: if Herbie Flowers hadn’t brought his double-bass with him, what kind of song would that have been?

Hepworth: There is no record without the double-bass.

Ellen: There is no record at all. …

Ellen: Like “Come Together” by the Beatles. I have never heard… I don’t think any demo versions of that song exist. It’s a great lyric, but it’s basically just a four-four, old blues riff, but if you put in the bass drum part it absolutely and totally a million per cent transforms the song…

It must be a very very difficult business, because … it didn’t resolve in The Smiths, did it? I mean, The Smiths rhythm section felt that their arrangement and the colour and the intonations they brought to the songs deserved more credit. It probably did.

Hepworth: It is interesting, isn’t it, that the old traditional way of assessing contribution in music is composing. That was an idea that was formed in the days when there were two guys who sat in a cell in the Brill Building, or whatever, and one of them sat at the piano and the other stood up and sang. And they were knocking out tunes for musicals, weren’t they? You know, that was the way you did it. And they produced a piece of sheet music which then was given to someone else to sing and was sold as sheet music. Whereas, what’s involved in a hit record is everything that goes into a hit record. The song is only one part of it. The song has been written for a particular set of musicians to play at a particular time. So if you go back and listen to “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, well Brian Jones (who probably doesn’t have his name anywhere near it) probably contribuetd to that every bit as much as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. And Charlie Watts did also, and Bill Wyman. It was just a sound made by that bunch of musicians at that time.

Later on, describing how all contributions have some value (18:22):

Ellen: The Pet Shop Boys is a really good example of this. Neil Tennant is the main, I think, concept writer and chord-sequence writer, but recognises the fact that Chris Lowe is the guy who comes in at the end, often (as Neil once told me) having spent two days lying around the studio leafing through magazines, apparently not being completely engaged with the project, will suddenly go over to the keyboard and he’ll just play some tiny riff that could just go dah-dah, and that tiny signature completely transforms this whole thing into something that makes sense on the radio. I think that’s wonderful. It is just as crucial.

This music-focussed discussion prompted two thoughts about collaboration in a business context.

The first is that when engaging in new forms of collaboration and delivery, the existing mechanisms by which people get credit for their efforts may well not work any more. In extreme examples (like Pink Floyd or The Smiths), reliance on the wrong structures might be a trigger for failure. One of the features of so-called Enterprise 2.0 is that use of social software inside the firewall can have the effect of flattening the hierarchy. (Although there is an interesting counter-example of this effect in Wikipedia, where a new hierarchy appears to be developing, as Dave Snowden has pointed out.)

The second lesson is not linked to change. The Pet Shop Boys example underlines the fact that different people bring different skills and attributes to teams. It is impossible to say that either Neil Tennant or Chris Lowe embodies The Pet Shop Boys. The group only exists because of both of them. (Sporting teams would provide a wealth of similar examples.) Equally, a business needs a range of skills and talents in order to function at its highest, most profitable level. The challenge is to ensure that credit is given for people’s work in a way that properly values what they each do.

Some things about KM that we now know are wrong

There are a few things that act as talismans for traditional knowledge management. Here’s a couple of blog posts undermining commonly-held KM superstitions.

Superstition 1: We need an expertise directory

This sounds like a great idea. Clearly “know-who” is an essential part of good knowledge management. Without it, how can we justify David Weinberger’s claim that “A knowledge worker is someone whose job entails having really interesting conversations at work.” So what should we do? The obvious answer: get everyone to add their details to an expertise directory.

My instinct is that this approach is doomed to failure. In order for an expertise directory of this kind to work, a couple of things need to converge. First, we need to be able to identify what information might be useful to people in the future. This obligation might fall on the system designer — to build a taxonomy that encompasses all possible future eventualities. Or it might rest with each individual — to describe in free text what they do in a way that includes all the topics that might be relevant. That’s a challenge. The other thing is that the right people (as many people as possible) need to contribute.

My experience, and the reported experience of IBM (over a much larger, and therefore more authoritative, sample) is that this approach fails because neither of these factors is realistically achievable.

After almost 10 years of from-the-executives, repetitive, consistent pressure, only 60% of all IBM profiles are kept updated.(Note that Lotus Connections Profiles is the productized version of IBM BluePages, which has been around since 1998.) And that’s even with an automated email sent out every 3 months to remind people to update their profiles, plus a visual progress bar indicating how complete or incomplete a user’s profile is, plus people’s first-line managers constantly reminding them to update their profile.

So what should go in its place?

Once we gave Contributors the choice about how to share their knowledge and experience, we found that they were more likely to contribute using these social options, since they realized that the result would be fewer emails, IMs and phone calls asking for their basic expertise.

“Read my blog.”… “Check out my bookmarks.”… “Look at my activity templates.”… “Read my community forum.”

…became the new ‘RTFM‘, if you will.

Now, once Seekers find an expert via Profiles, they are able to consume some of their knowledge and expertise without disrupting them. The nature of the remaining email/IM/phone requests from Seekers were about their deeper experience, their knowledge that will always remain tacit.

In practice social bookmarking, internal blogging, communities and activity tracking (all “in the flow”) beats voluntary confession of expertise (“above the flow”). The tools? For (and by) IBM: Dogear for social bookmarking and Connections for blogging, communities and activities. Surely law firms (even those without social networking tools) should have a head start in this area. There is huge scope for leveraging the information about people’s work in existing databases: document management systems, billing and time-recording databases, CRM systems. If we get our systems to talk to each other, we can enable real human conversations.

(For those who prefer a visual approach, there is a video.)

Superstition 2: KM efforts need incentives

I think I have said before that I am not a fan of knowledge repositories and the Field of Dreams triumph of hope over experience. Received wisdom says that in order for such know-how systems to work well, people need to be encouraged to use them. Neil Richards was sceptical, and asked for people’s experiences. An unscientific approach, to be sure, but the anecdotal evidence is unequivocal. Incentives don’t work. Some quotes:

While an initial advocate of incentive programs for fee earner participation in KM programs, over time I found it tended to be the same fee earners participating each time and, in most cases, these fee earners informed me they would have participated in the program regardless of whether or not there had been an incentive program.

They decided to offer a bottle of wine to the person who made the most contributions. At the next annual meeting of the group, one of the team members indeed received a bottle for having made four or five contributions over the year. (The firm’s target was four a year.) And that was the end of the program! Never revived or spoken of again. The contribution rate, which was always fairly low, didn’t change, either during or after the contest.


We have tried incentives for KM participation, and I don’t want to go there again.  Our worst mistakes were done when we deployed our global Knowledge Management program for Customer support back in 2000.  One country unit decided to give away a Swiss army knife to every engineer that wrote 10 knowledge objects. This was one of our larger Country units, so we got >1000 knowledge objects written (and very armed and dangerous engineers…). Why did this fail: There was no incentive on writing anything useful, or to adhere to any of the internal format guidelines. These poor knowledge objects polluted the search for ALL country units for years.

I am looking forward to Neil’s promised further thoughts on incentives, because I think one of the real challenges for knowledge management is to embed good knowledge-related behaviours in the organisation.

(A footnote to the expertise directory issue: a comment on the blog post refers to people’s use of profiles on Myspace and Facebook. I have entries in Facebook and LinkedIn, amongst others, and I find it hard to keep them up to date. However, I also catalogue my library on Librarything, and iTunes synchronises my listening habits to last.fm. These information flows combine in Facebook to give people a picture of my interests without me having to lift a finger.)

Back again

There’s been another long gap in transmission. This time I can blame work followed by a holiday in Ireland and catching up with work again for the past week.

(I don’t know how some people manage to find the time to blog as much as they do. I only do this from home — because access wordpress.com is too slow at work and because this definitely isn’t about work, except tangentially — and I keep getting sucked into other stuff.)

Anyway, here are some random bits from the last few weeks.

We spent the last two weeks in August in Ireland — mostly wet, but with a glorious few days (including the day of the Connemara Pony Show, which was a blessing, given that most of the family wanted to spend the whole day there. Our base in Connemara was a cottage owned by Liz Kane, a local fiddle player. When we first arrived, she was still on tour in the USA, but when she got back she kindly dropped in and played for us. She also listened to the girls playing their violins, and talked about the way she teaches traditional fiddle to the local children.

What I found interesting was that in her teaching Liz said she concentrates on the sound. Rather than using formal written music, she uses a shorthand notation that is much easier for children to pick up, and her objective is to get them to play by ear. Along the way, some of them do learn formal notation, but that is incidental. Liz also looked at one of the music books that we had taken along, and was quite critical of it — not because the tunes were wrong, but because her understanding of the music and the practicalities of playing it led her to suggest some minor changes. In doing so, she amply demonstrated two things for me (and you should bear in mind that I am not musical, apart from enjoying other people’s playing). Firstly, her changes were clearly part of the tradition — just because one hears a tune played in a particular way, that does not mean that it is fixed that way. It is permissible, even encouraged, to seek alternatives that might sound better or suit one’s playing better. The second thing was that it made the poverty of explicit knowledge clear to me. A simple rendition of a musical score (an expression of the knowledge of the composer) will often be cold and lifeless. It is only when one can bring to the score a set of tacit understandings, opinions and traditions that real music results.

We spent the second week in a very different way. While the rest of the family rode every day (even the one recovering from a broken ankle), I tried being a tourist. However, it turns out that some parts of Ireland are truly short of interesting things to visit. (I think this is caused by a variety of things, but the island’s 20th century history doesn’t lend itself to the preservation of stately homes, which is one of the mainstays of Anglo-Scottish tourism.) As a result, I spent a lot of time in bookshops like Woulfe’s in Listowel and O’Mahony’s in Limerick. That’s my kind of holiday! I had gone with a stock of Irish-tinted books (such as Paul Muldoon’s survey of Irish literature, To Ireland, I, Gerard Donovan’s new collection of stories, Country of the Grand (a Librarything Early Reviewer’s copy), and At Swim-two-birds by Flann O’Brien), and I bought more, but the reading that made most impact on me was about France. 

Graham Robb’s book, The Discovery of France, is almost incredible. He gives a striking account of how rural France before (and in some instances after) 1900 was conventionally poverty-stricken and backward, but whose traditions and practices made perfect sense and probably produced a much more viable and sustainable community than the modern emphasis on commerce and constant economic improvement. His writing is beautifully lucid and often sheds light on modern issues as well as historic ones.

For example, in writing about the persecution of the cagots (a rootless tribe scattered throughout France), Robb illustrates the self-perpetuating truth of prejudice across the ages:

It finally became apparent that the real ‘mystery of the cagots’ was the fact that they had no distinguishing features at all. They spoke whichever dialect was spoken in the regions and their family names were not peculiar to the cagots. They did not, as the Bretons believed, bleed from the navel on Good Friday. The only difference was that, after eight centuries of persecution, they tended to be more skilful and resourceful than the surrounding populations, and more likely to emigrate to America. They were therefore feared because they were persecuted and might therefore seek revenge.

Then, referring to Flaubert’s fictional Yonville-l’Abbaye, home to Madame Bovary:

A progressive bourgeois like the town chemist, M. Homais, who is not directly dependent on the land, can afford to revel in the stupidity of peasants: ‘Would to heaven our farmers were trained chemists or at least lent a more attentive ear to the counsels of science!’ But improving land is expensive and animals are a comfort. A peasant might invest in fertilizer and increase the yield of grain, but why should she risk her livelihood in a volatile market? Grain prices are even less reliable than the weather. A pig in the paddock is worth more than the promise of a merchant in the city.

Only people who have more than one source of food would use the expression ‘stuck in their ways’ as an insult. The smallholders of Yonville had good reason to be cautious. At about the time when the novel takes place, in the little market town of Ry, which Flaubert appears to have used as a model for Yonville-l’Abbaye, a woman complained to the authorities that she and her children were starving to death.

If Yonville or Ry had been better connected to the city of Rouen, which in turn was connected by the river Seine to Paris and the Channel ports, they would have suffered more from shortages and unrest. In troubled times, towns and villages that lay within the supply zone of cities were sucked dry by military commissioners and the civilian population. Agricultural progress might create a surplus and encourage investment, but it could also create excessive demand and a transport network that would quickly pump out the region’s produce. Wheat growers and wine growers were more worldly but also more vulnerable to change. In the poorer parts of southern France, where the staple crop, the chestnut, was expensive to transport and not much in demand, winter supplies remained safely in the region.

There are pre-echoes of our flat world in this passage. As we have over-specialised ourselves, we have imposed similar specialisation on others. See the tragic irony in this report from Agence France-Press about the travails of Kenyan bean growers:


“Kenya strayed from sustainable farming and followed the temptation of exporting, when it’s clearly preferable to produce and consume locally,” says Claude-Marie Vadrot, an ecology expert with French weekly Politis.

“With subsistence farming, there’s more or less always a market for your products, but when French or European retailers no longer want beans, then Kenya will be left with nothing,” he explains.

Going back to Ireland, there is a link between this and the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century. It is claimed by many that one of the reasons why the potato blight had the impact that it did was that during this period Ireland remained a net exporter of food (grain and meat). The potato became the default foodstuff for the tenantry. When the crops failed, starvation was inevitable.

Who says we learn from history?

Getting a clue

A little while ago, Doug Cornelius posted a review of Groundswell. At the time, I looked at the book and the authors’ blog;* I wasn’t tempted to buy it, but something looked familiar. When a colleague recommended the book to me today, I took another look and realised where the resonance was: the Cluetrain Manifesto.

I remember when the Cluetrain Manifesto was all the rage. Nine years ago, I was working in a University, and was part of the group trying to plan for or avoid Y2K meltdown. For both those reasons, the significance of the Cluetrain passed me by at the time. Looking back at it recently, it made much more sense, and chimed with some of the things I think we should be doing (as part of KM or otherwise).

I wondered whether the Groundswell editors referred to Cluetrain. I still don’t know if they do so in the book itself, but Josh Bernoff has written a number of related posts in their blog. One of them (“Corporate social technology strategy, Purists, and Corporatists — why companies CAN participate“) is particularly insightful.

On the one side are the folks who say, “The social world is an emergent phenomenon generated by people connecting.” The original Cluetrain Manifesto rails against many aspects of the corporate world and basically posits that the right way for companies to get involved is for people inside those companies to connect to their customers. … For shorthand, let’s call these folks the Purists.

On the other side are companies who are looking at the social Internet and saying “how can we exploit this to do what we already do — PR and advertising, for example?” PR and advertising are mostly one-way, broadcast type communications, and these folks continue to try to adapt those one-way modes of thinking in the two-way, read-write world of social computing. I’ll caricature these folks as the Corporatists.

I’m here to stand up and proudly say, Purists and Corporatists, you’re both wrong.

Josh then goes on to provide reasons why they are both right. Then he gets to the heart of the matter:

As a corporate staffer, you have no business in the groundswell unless you know what you are trying to do there. You could be trying to increase awareness, generate word of mouth, surface leads, save on support costs, on tap into innovation. But regardless, no corporate activity should go forward without a measurable goal, and this is no different.

Looking back at the Cluetrain Manifesto, and at the list of case studies in Groundswell, I wonder what the typical law firm view would be. There is a clear bias in both publications towards examination of relationships between businesses and individual consumers. That is not to say that B2B relationships do not involve individuals, but those relationships are already conducted on a different level (in professional services firms, at least).

The first of the Cluetrain Manifesto’s 95 theses is:

Markets are conversations.

As far as I can tell, professional services cannot be provided effectively without conversations. However, this is often only true at the point of delivery. Looking at law firm newsletters, for example, we might reasonably conclude that firms have no interest in conversing with their clients. Adding that attitude to lawyers’ professional risk aversion, it is not surprising that very few firms have ventured into public engagement with their markets in the way that the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto or Groundswell might suggest.


* Coincidentally, it is Charlene Li’s last day at Forrester today. I don’t know whether the blog will survive her departure.

Going with the flow

I had a number of discussions with people last week that brought to mind Michael Idinopulos’s description of the relationship between wikis and work.

Wikis can be used for many different activities, which fall into two broad categories:

  • In-the-Flow wikis enable people do their day-to-day work in the wiki itself. These wikis are typically replacing email, virtual team rooms, and project management systems.
  • Above-the-Flow wikis invite users to step out of the daily flow of work and reflect, codify, and share something about what they do. These wikis are typically replacing knowledge management systems (or creating knowledge management systems for the first time).

When wiki champions complain that it’s hard to get people to use wikis, they’re usually thinking of above-the-flow wikis. Modeled on  Wikipedia, these wikis typically aspire to capture knowledge and insights that people collect in the course of their work. That’s a hard thing to get people to do.

Michael’s assertion is true for know-how systems generally. Too many appear to have been built on the Field of Dreams principle (“if you build it, they will come”). Even if that isn’t true, my impression (derived from reading articles and listening to conference presentations) is that many firms spend inordinate amounts of time devising elaborate systems of incentives and cajoling their people to contribute to the know-how database. Why do they have to do this? Because the capture and collection of knowledge is above the flow.

More importantly, the availability of rewards for know-how is not likely to make participation in the knowledge process part of the flow. In fact, I suspect that they make it easier for people to opt out of that process (or to become free-riders on the labours of those who support it). The challenge is not to get people to break out of their flow so that they engage with KM systems, but to change the flow so that those systems become part of the flow — a natural part of the daily routine.

That is easier said than done, of course. There is an upside, though. In essence, this is what we need  to do in order to create a knowledge culture. Expressed in those terms the problem becomes much more tangible and therefore potentially more manageable. If someone is asked to create or change the knowledge culture, the task looks (and probably is) insuperable. If it is defined as moving certain activities into mainstream processes, the task can be broken into smaller pieces that are less daunting.

The classic example of knowledge systems that fit in the flow must be the case of the Xerox photocopy engineers. As part of work developing an expert system for photocopier fault diagnosis, Xerox discovered that their engineers were less than impressed with the system because the hardest problems they encountered were not already documented and therefore outside the scope of the expert system.

We decided to spend more time observing what technicians actually did day to day. We started with US technicians, accompanying them on their service calls. Most of the time, they would look at the machine, talk to the customer, and know exactly what to do to put it in good working order. Occasionally, they ran into a problem that they hadn’t seen before and for which there was no documented answer. They would try to solve these problems based on their knowledge of the machine. This often worked, but sometimes they were stuck. They might call on a buddy for ideas, using their two-way radios, or turn to the experts—former technicians now serving as field engineers—who were part of the escalation process. When they solved unusual problems, they would often tell stories about these successes at meetings with their coworkers. The stories, now part of the community, could then be used at similar gatherings and further modified or elaborated.

The story-telling referred to actually took place informally as part of the daily routine. As these technicians travelled around their areas, they would meet their colleagues in coffee-shops or rest-stops. Their conversations — part of the daily flow — would probably cover the usual range of topics, as well as the tips they had learnt or developed to deal with previously unforeseen copier faults. In order to make the most of these interactions, the system that Xerox developed (named Eureka) had to expand on them, and keep the knowledge-sharing process in the flow. As their director of knowledge management for worldwide customer services, Tom Ruddy, put it:

When people hear about Eureka, they always want to see the software. But it’s really the environment that we are creating. We realized early on that technology wasn’t the solution-that if we didn’t work on the behavioral side of the equation, it wouldn’t be successful. We concentrated on understanding what would make people want to share solutions and take their personal time to enter stuff into the system.

Coincidentally, one of the hottest blog posts of the weekend touches on a similar cultural problem: how do you get people to share knowledge using blogs? Tim Leberecht’s solution: mandatory employee blogs. As Doug Cornelius points out, there is a strong tide of opinion against this choice. In part, this tide is driven by the desire to reflect people’s normal work patterns and habits in knowledge sharing and collaboration. In part, I think there is also a recognition that blogging is not yet mature enough to become a part of those work patterns and habits. (In a separate post, Doug refers to some work done by Forrester which suggests that only 13% of consumers would participate in social media to the extent of creating content (which covers blogging as well as uploading video to Youtube.)

Pollyanna-like, I have a tendency to see opportunities in problems. I don’t want to make blogging mandatory, but I am sure that there are people who would blog, but don’t share knowledge, just as there are people who would like an easier way to share knowledge as part of their work. I want to bring those people together (and then throw a few non-sharing non-bloggers into the mix) to see what kind of culture we can create. At the same time, I want to find as many ways as possible of bringing knowledge into the work-flow. (It looks like Mary Abraham and I have similar views.)

Beyond the Golden Rule

I am still catching up with unread blogs, but I want to add something to Mary Abraham’s commendation of the Golden Rule as the key to collaboration. As the Wikipedia entry on the Rule suggests (at the moment), it can be the cause of problems when there are differences in values or interests:

Shaw’s comment about differing tastes suggests that if your values are not shared with others, the way you want to be treated will not be the way they want to be treated. For example, it has been said that a sadist is just a masochist who follows the golden rule. Another often used example of this inconsistency is that of the man walking into a bar looking for a fight. It could also be used by a seducer to suggest that he should kiss an object of his affection because he wants that person to kiss him.

I was not alone in admiring the late Jon Postel, perhaps the quietest genius behind the creation and early management of the Internet. One of his lasting legacies, sometimes forgotten in the rush for innovation, is found in the heart of one of the basic definitions of the Internet’s Transmission Control Protocol, RFC 793:

TCP implementations will follow a general principle of robustness: be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.

I have found this a useful general principle for human communications too, even though I sometimes forget it myself. The wheels of collaboration run much more smoothly when one resists enforcing rules against others, whilst maintaining one’s own obedience to the same rules.

Bringing up baby

It’s been quiet here for a while — there are various reasons, some better than others…

Anyway, I thought it would be worth picking up the posts again with a comment on Edgar Tan’s equation of KM implementation with child rearing.

[W]hile KM roadmaps are usually linear from start to finish, actual KM implementation is far from so. It’s more like snake-and-ladder, where you sometimes have to go back a few steps before you can move forward.

It’s also like raising a child. There is a rough roadmap that parents follow – teach the kid basic survival skills; send the kid to kindergarten, primary school, secondary school, then university. Hopefully, at the end of all that effort, the kid will become a productive member of society. There is a logical progression to this broad roadmap, but wait. Just because a kid has entered into kindergarten doesn’t mean that he’s ready for it. Just because an undergrad has entered into university doesn’t mean that he’s mastered everything up to that point.

I like the analogy, but a couple of things about it make me uneasy. Edgar goes on to conclude: “The job of the KM Team is hence to make sure that the organization gets to the end of the KM journey, so that KM will become a valuable contributor to business success.”

In my experience, only the simplest journeys end up as intended. Bringing up a child, like knowledge management, is not one of those journeys. When I plan a trip to the shops, my journey to work, or a long hike, I can be confident that I will get where I intend to go. There are a few external factors (traffic jams, train delays, bad weather) that might cause a detour, or abandonment of the whole trip, but it is less common that I get a significant diversion. When that does happen (as it did to my wife last month when she broke her ankle and wrist in the Lake District) the intended journey becomes irrelevant — a new plan is necessary. (My wife’s new plan involved the fine volunteers of Penrith and Patterdale Mountain Rescue Teams — if you walk in the hills, supporting these people is truly important.)

So, as the proverb has it, “circumstances alter cases.” Crucially, this must mean that even the best plans may have to be abandoned. This is not quite what Edgar is arguing, I think. He is suggesting that the roadmap creates a kind of inexorable progression. Once we have decided what the destination should be, we should carry on with our plan to get there even if the way we intend to take is blocked.

Given that the destination might come at considerable cost, and that cost is likely to increase if we take a roundabout route, I am not sure that we should remain committed to it.

More significantly, the things that hold us back as knowledge managers or parents might actually be fundamental. If our markets change, our business needs to adapt to those changes. It would be foolish to carry on with a KM roadmap that leads to a destination fit for the previous situation, if it would not also fit the new one. Surely a better approach when faced with a child that is not quite ready for university is to allow it to develop in a way that best suits its abilities. Likewise, an organisation’s KM roadmap must surely also be susceptible to regular review and revision.