Golden oldies

Every now and then, it is useful to be reminded that there is little new in the world. The most recent example for me was a pointer to a 1993 article by Peter Drucker in The Independent.

 

Drucker’s article presents, in the pithiest form possible, a clear denunciation of many commonly-held truths about managing businesses. These are the five sins.

  1. The worship of high profit margins and of ‘premium pricing’
  2. Mispricing a new product by charging ‘what the market will bear’
  3. Cost-driven pricing
  4. Slaughtering tomorrow’s opportunity on the allure of yesterday
  5. Feeding problems and starving opportunities

A couple of these really stood out for me. Cost-driven pricing is at the heart of many business models. Many law firms hear it from their suppliers, and they pass it on to their clients. Neither of these is sustainable. As Drucker puts it:

Most American and practically all European companies arrive at their prices by adding up costs and putting a profit margin on top. And then, as soon as they have introduced the product, they have to cut the price, redesign it at enormous expense, take losses and often drop a perfectly good product because it is priced incorrectly. Their argument? ‘We have to recover our costs and make a profit.’

This is true, but irrelevant. Customers do not see it as their job to ensure a profit for manufacturers. The only sound way to price is to start out with what the market is willing to pay – and thus, it must be assumed, what the competition will charge – and design to that price specification.

Cost-driven pricing is the reason there is no American consumer electronics industry any more. If Toyota and Nissan succeed in pushing the German luxury car makers out of the US market it will be a result of their using price-led costing.

Starting out with price and then whittling down costs is more work initially. But in the end it is much less work than to start out wrong and then spend loss-making years bringing costs into line.

Another sin is one that some KM activities mistakenly support and promote: “feeding problems and starving opportunities.” KM is often seen as a toolkit to improve problem-solving, but for Drucker, “All one can get by ‘problem-solving’ is damage containment. Only opportunities produce results and growth.”

What do we do in our knowledge work to feed opportunities, rather than dwell on problems?

A glimpse into the abyss

John Flood has published on his blog an article he co-wrote for The Lawyer. It is essentially a challenge to the traditional UK law-firm business model.

The context for the challenge is clearly the current economic crisis, coupled with the opportunities offered for different organisational structures by the Legal Services Act. In essence the suggestion is that law firms should stop ‘owning’ their stock (lawyers) and instead lease it as and when client demands dictate.

Although legal work has become more commoditised and an increasing proportion of it shipped offshore, it is perhaps lawyers themselves, both associates and partners, who are the commodities, traded and marketed by recruiters and head-hunters. New service models such as Axiom Legal, Rimon Law and Lawyers Direct are flourishing. One recruiter is now even advertising ‘pay as you go lawyers’. At the same time, the equity partnership prize is becoming ever harder to win, and even less sought after by today’s younger lawyers who are more mobile and happier than ever to migrate to newer opportunities.

Since a sufficiently large pool of high-quality and experienced lawyers is emerging from the crisis, why not rent lawyers for a specific period or task and then let them go again? The advantage of temporary resources is that they can be deployed as and when needed and released when not.

What would be the purpose of the firm in this model?

A smaller, tighter front-line team would oversee client relationships, supervise the work and manage the firm. Rather than constantly seeking merger partners, law firms could structure their growth in a more organic fashion which would build collegiality as well as returns.

I am not sure what this would look like. I think there are two (potentially competing) reasons why law firms are organised as they are. The first is that the current model has served private practice lawyers well so far. That is not to say that this will remain true. John Flood and his co-author, Peter Rouse, chief executive of 7 Bedford Row Chambers, have started to make a compelling case for change from this perspective. However, the current model has also grown up in response to client needs. It is at least arguable that clients play some part in designing law firms. There is compelling evidence (see Ron Friedmann and others, passim) that client pressure will define the law firm model to a much greater extent in years to come. The Flood/Rouse model may serve clients well, but it is not clear from the article how or why clients would prefer this approach to one of the many others on offer.

As they are currently organised, law firms can and should offer clients the security that individual lawyers are well-trained and -briefed so that they can apply more than basic legal knowledge. That is one of the functions of firms’ KM activities. How would that be replicated in a firm using the Flood/Rouse model? There is a real risk that clients would get little benefit from this approach. Yes, firms might find that their costs are lower and that this might translate into lower hourly rates (assuming that the billable hour still holds sway), but a poorly-briefed contract lawyer could take much longer to perform the tasks required to the standard required by the client. As a result, the client would see no financial benefit, and might even discern a distinct difference in the quality of the work done.

That is not to say that we should dismiss this approach. No organisation can assume that it will be allowed to remain in its current form forever. Likewise, those of us who work in a particular way because of the form of the organisation we support should also be mindful that change is inevitable and be constantly seeking ways of ensuring that the service we provide is still hitting the mark for our people and our clients.

If the Flood/Rouse model were pervasive, what would law firm KM and training look like?

People-whispering

Dave Snowden has reminded us that the English word “manage” is derived from manège (French: “the handling or training of a horse…”) and, ultimately, maneggiare: (Italian: “to handle”). The ways in which we work with those around us can be compared with different approaches to equine training.

Horses are, by nature, herd animals. Despite their suitability for the roles we have historically imposed on them — beasts of burden, carriage or draft — they do not take to those roles naturally or, sometimes, easily. They need to be accustomed to the harness, to the weight of a rider or pack, and to following instructions given by weight, pressure, whip, heel, hand or stick. That process of accustomisation is traditionally known as horse breaking.

Horse breaking can be a process by which the animal’s spirit is literally broken: it is driven to submission to the human’s need for a servant animal by being worn down and forced to comply. An alternative approach, exemplified by Monty Roberts’s techniques, is to work with the horse’s herd instincts. This effectively encourages the horse to think itself as part of the human’s herd. It can produce incredible results — trust, willingness, and human-equine communication.

I was reminded of this by Jack Vinson’s blogpost, “Messing the managers,” which concludes:

Management needs to “get out of the way,” but there is still plenty of facilitation and direction to be provided.  Having a completely open field can be just as problematic as attempting to put everyone on the same single-track path.

I think one key to effective facilitation and direction is to approach management in a similar way to horse breaking. A forceful approach is just going to rub people up the wrong way in the end, but if you find ways to work with people’s natural instincts it is more likely that everyone will trust you to find the right direction for the herd.

A key feature of the Monty Roberts approach is that the horse is encouraged to see the human as a fellow member of the herd. Traditional horse breaking depends on a relationship of inequality — the human and the horse occupy different places in the “system” — there is no herd. Jay Cross takes a similar view in his critique of the traditional approach to organisational learning.

In a knowledge society, learning is the work, and the work is learning. There is no separate reality in a classroom outside of the workplace. It’s time for less push and more pull, less topdown and more bottom-up, less going through the motions and more creating.

Being told to take a training course is like driving on a road with signs, stripes and bumps. If workers take a training course but don’t learn, what’s their reaction “The training wasn’t any good.”

Cross’s article compares this approach to learning with the work of the late Hans Monderman in the field of traffic engineering. Monderman’s basic rule was that streets are shared space for the use of all — pedestrians, cyclists, cars, lorries, old and young — all equally. The Wired article illustrates the result brilliantly.

Riding in his green Saab, we glide into Drachten, a 17th-century village that has grown into a bustling town of more than 40,000. We pass by the performing arts center, and suddenly, there it is: the Intersection. It’s the confluence of two busy two-lane roads that handle 20,000 cars a day, plus thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians. Several years ago, Monderman ripped out all the traditional instruments used by traffic engineers to influence driver behavior – traffic lights, road markings, and some pedestrian crossings – and in their place created a roundabout, or traffic circle. The circle is remarkable for what it doesn’t contain: signs or signals telling drivers how fast to go, who has the right-of-way, or how to behave. There are no lane markers or curbs separating street and sidewalk, so it’s unclear exactly where the car zone ends and the pedestrian zone begins. To an approaching driver, the intersection is utterly ambiguous – and that’s the point.

Monderman and I stand in silence by the side of the road a few minutes, watching the stream of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians make their way through the circle, a giant concrete mixing bowl of transport. Somehow it all works. The drivers slow to gauge the intentions of crossing bicyclists and walkers. Negotiations over right-of-way are made through fleeting eye contact. Remarkably, traffic moves smoothly around the circle with hardly a brake screeching, horn honking, or obscene gesture. “I love it!” Monderman says at last. “Pedestrians and cyclists used to avoid this place, but now, as you see, the cars look out for the cyclists, the cyclists look out for the pedestrians, and everyone looks out for each other. You can’t expect traffic signs and street markings to encourage that sort of behavior. You have to build it into the design of the road.”

There is a trend here — the equestrian world is turning its back on the more barbaric approaches to horse-training; traffic engineering is starting to recognise that a less controlling, more equal, approach to road use reaps real rewards in terms of accidents and injuries; organisational learning is starting to take notice of the need to treat people as adults — able to control their own learning experience. As Lee Bryant noted in his short presentation this week at Lift09, the need for control was an aberration of the 20th century, and led to the most appalling consequences. We need to use all the means at our disposal to reverse the trend and return to a more natural approach — based on basic human instincts like trust and empathy.

Defining the Millennial organisation

After a night’s sleep, it occurred to me that it might not have been clear what I meant by a “Millennial organisation” in my last post. Here are some thoughts.

We have heard a lot recently about people in Generation Y and how they feel about work. (Here, via David Gurteen, is an example from Teresa Wu that generated spectacular amounts of heat and little light — check some of the trackbacks, especially this rather grumpy one.) What if businesses change in the same way? What would a Generation Y organisation look like? Before suggesting some answers, it is worth briefly summarising why organisations might need to change.

  • Climate change is still with us. It may have been pushed off the front pages, but it is still a reality. It will affect many business models directly, and many more indirectly.
  • The economy is front page news. The collapse of many shared assumptions about growth and prosperity should make us take stock and possibly re-focus.
  • Technology is facilitating many more interesting interactions. 5-10 years ago businesses learnt that they could not survive without at least a brochure-ware website. Now it is becoming essential to identify where and how your market is conducting its conversations online, and join in.
  • People’s expectations are changing. This is not just a Generation Y thing — customers of all generations are challenging their suppliers in ways that were impossible to predict just a short time ago. Employee profiles are also changing — the products of the baby boom are starting to retire in large numbers, potentially leaving a significant gap in the workforce.

That’s a lot of potential for disruption, and there is probably more (I haven’t even touched on globalisation, for example). What will an organisation that deals effectively with all those challenges look like? How might it behave? I can see at least six things, which correspond roughly to the six points made by Teresa Wu.

  • Millennial organisations will support and promote talent, wherever it arises. In doing so, they will need to be able to identify it first.
  • They will take seriously the work started by Ted Levitt in asking the question “what business are you really in?” They will not be afraid to re-invent themselves. (Compare Ford’s and Toyota’s approach to diversification into prefabricated housing, and consider the health of those businesses now.)
  • They will generate a sense of community and common purpose in their people by encouraging them to share and communicate what they know.
  • They will tend to have a flatter hierarchy than traditional organisations, and the leadership will actively involve people from across the organisation in key decision-making processes.
  • They will engage more actively with their clients or customers, in whatever way best suits the client or customer. (Because, as Jordan Furlong makes clear, the market does not care: “You have no right to make money from every problem or opportunity clients face, and the humility that comes from approaching clients that way matters.”)
  • They will encourage their people to bring a sense of commitment to the work that they do, to create better-quality work and a better-quality workplace. This means that badly behaved high-achievers will be tolerated less than they are at present, as will clients who make people’s lives a misery. (Bob Sutton is the guru for this one.)

An organisation with these characteristics will not be frightened of unapproved chaotic information — instead it will recognise the inevitability of the existence of such fragments and seek ways of bringing them to wider attention. It will also be constantly aware of the need to respond to changing markets by changing itself as often as necessary. (I wonder whether this also means that they will have to be smaller in size than they are now.) It probably won’t behave like the firms in Jordan Furlong’s article “The failure of billable-hour compensation“, which describes with alarming clarity “an under-publicized way in which the billable hour poisons the [legal] profession.”

We can get through this together

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone by now that we are facing one of the most severe economic downturns ever (possibly the worst — history will tell). One response to this is to go on the defensive. This is a tactic that anyone can adopt. The whole business can decide that the best way to cope is to defend its existing position. Some of the investment banks have tried this and failed. The US auto industry has also adopted this strategy with little success so far. Individual business units or cost centres can also go down this route. Mary Abraham has a blog post showing us how KM teams might defend their position in the hope that they avoid the worst effects of cost-cutting.

Let’s rewind a bit. How do you know why you have been successful up until now (as a business, revenue stream or cost centre)? What if that success has been a product of factors outside your control — a buoyant economy or demand for your services driven by me-too purchasing or management, for example? If that is the case, you have no position to defend. Your business will fail, or your cost centre will be cut to the bone (or even removed entirely). If your firm has a large knowledge management function merely because everyone else does, it is unlikely that it will escape unscathed even if you can show that it makes a real difference to the bottom line. The only means of survival is to prove that without KM the firm is actually worse off.

How to do this? Joe Firestone has the key . His definition of knowledge management requires that it is used to inform and improve problem solving at all levels of the business. That includes strategic decision-making.

Strategy is a type of knowledge and is itself an outcome of knowledge processing. If the purpose of KM is to enhance knowledge processing, then KM precedes strategy and every other knowledge outcome. To argue the reverse is to grant strategy an exception that it does not deserve. Why should strategy be any less subject to knowledge-production processes than other knowledge outcomes? We call the idea that strategy comes first the ‘strategy exception error’. If KM is to have a future, we must eliminate this error and recognise strategy as just another set of knowledge claims that flow out of knowledge processing.

The most important form of strategy addresses an organisation’s capacity to learn and adapt. Strategies come and go, but in order to survive over the long haul, the quality of an organisation’s systemic capacity to learn and adapt must be high and sustainable. This is ‘sustainable innovation’, the fundamental strategy of every organisation wishing to survive and prosper.

Most of what currently passes for KM initiatives aligned with strategy are really IM (information-management) projects. Their focus is on capture and delivery of information required to support strategy. While valid and useful, these are not KM initiatives per se. The purpose of KM is to enhance knowledge processing, which, in turn, enhances an organisation’s capacity to produce strategies. It is IM that afterwards must be aligned with and support strategy, not KM.

If the leaders of the business are planning their way out of this crisis without using your knowledge management tools and techniques then one or both of the following propositions is probably true.

  • Your KM activities are not properly targeted on the business problems that make a difference
  • Your business leaders are taking the wrong approach to solving this problem

If either of these is true, the prognosis is not good for your KM team. It is probably more likely to be cast aside when cost-cutting starts to bite, or it will go down with the firm. If they are both true, then the firm is probably going to sink faster than its competitors.

Andrew McAfee shows us a way out of the morass. In “The Enterprise 2.0 Recovery Plan” he asks himself what he would do if he were put in charge of IT as part of the turnaround effort at a big US automaker. His approach would be guided by ten principles.

  1. The company ‘knows’ the answers to our questions
  2. Most people want to be helpful to each other, and to the company
  3. Expertise is emergent
  4. People are busy
  5. Weak ties are strong
  6. The ability to convert potential ties into actual ones is valuable
  7. Platforms are better than channels
  8. Search is the dominant navigation paradigm
  9. The mechanisms of emergence should be encouraged
  10. Anyone can learn the new tools

So what would adherence to these principles lead me to do? I’d roll out as quickly as possible a single integrated suite of emergent social software platforms (ESSPs) to all employees of the company. This suite would include blogs, wikis (including collaborative document production tools like Google Docs), discussion boards, SNS, a microblogging tool like Twitter or Yammer, a tagging utility, prediction markets, ways to vote on good content (a la Digg) and ways to give praise or good karma to particularly helpful colleagues.

This is a really interesting article, especially as it gathers together a number of strands that have permeated McAfee’s work into one location. These are not necessarily IT priorities either — for many businesses, the KM team has taken or should take a lead in driving these technologies that connect people and their knowledge to each other. If you still need proof that the defensive approach has merit, the New York Times has drawn some interesting parallels between Detroit’s demands today and those of the British motor industry in the 1970s and 1980s. (Incidentally, if you want to explore how Austin, Morris, Rover (and Land Rover), Jaguar, MG, Riley and Triumph (and a host of others) went from market leading innovators in the motor industry to a set of brands and factories owned by a mixture of Chinese, Indian and other foreign investors, AROnline has the potential to consume vast amounts of your time.) And if you think that the motor industry suffers from unique problems, you need to check in with Bruce MacEwen .

So, following McAfee’s lead, perhaps we should imagine how KM can help to lead our businesses out of this crisis in collaboration with our colleagues. At least we should bring this article to the attention of the leaders. Otherwise, we need to use our knowledge to locate the lifebelts.

Measuring maturity

There is a small number of meta-questions about knowledge management that people regularly grapple with. The most obvious is “what is knowledge management?” After that, the next most frequently asked must be “how do you measure KM success?” I have found at least 23 answers (or challenges) to that question, and there are undoubtedly more. I recently found an interesting commentary on the measurement game in a different context, which might shed some light on the matter.

I maintain a watching brief on the higher education sector in the UK. Partly for nostalgic reasons, partly to see trends that might affect our future lawyers, and partly because serendipity is part of this job and I think that only comes with practised observation. So I couldn’t miss Jonathan Wolff’s recent insight into the way in which the UK funding and quality agencies monitor universities.

Suppose you have applied for a job, any job. You are at one of those macho interviews where the panel members compete to see who can make you sweat the most. And this is the winning question: how do you plan to monitor and evaluate your own performance in the role? … 

Suppose your job is in business of some sort and, ultimately, you are employed to make the company money… In the end, the only thing that matters, then, is the profit you bring in. But it may take some time to build up a client base and to gather the dosh. It would be foolish to say that in the short term you should be judged on how much profit you make for the company. Rather you should monitor your activity: how many meetings you have taken, how many letters and emails you have sent, how many briefings you have been to. But, of course, that is only for openers. If the meetings don’t result in business, then you are wasting your time. So in the second phase of monitoring, you stop counting meetings and start counting things like contracts signed, goods shipped, turnover generated, or any other objective sign of real interaction.

But, once more, this is only an interim goal. You are there not to generate turnover, but profit. And once you have been around long enough that is the only thing that matters. In the third and final phase you count how much you make for the company, and stop worrying about meetings, letters or contracts signed. Who cares about how many of these there are if the bottom line stays juicy enough?

Pithily put, and accurate too. (Perhaps one should expect nothing less from a professor of philosophy at the institution inspired by Jeremy Bentham.) Unfortunately, Wolff’s tale does not end there. Our universities are stuck at the first stage — they can only monitor and measure the most obvious stuff they do. They haven’t worked out how to demonstrate how well they do at their core tasks: educating students and producing excellent research. They know that those are the bottom line (the profit equivalent), but they cannot measure how close they get to it.

The lesson from business is that over time, if you can’t count the right thing, counting the wrong thing isn’t a substitute. It isn’t even just a distraction. It is the road to ruin.

As a result, our universities are trapped in an immature relationship with their market and their paymasters. My memory of that relationship is that it was characterised (on both sides) by petulance, truculence and pedantry. I don’t think things have changed much in the last seven years.

Where does that leave KM? We go through the same phases. In the early days we demonstrate the value of our work by showing people the simple numbers — this many documents created, stored or accessed; that many people involved in knowledge sharing. Later on, we can look at the quality of this stuff — how good are these documents, is there good feedback on knowledge sharing. Ultimately, though, we need to work out what our bottom line is: what are we here for and how good are we at delivering that value. In any given organisation that may take a while, but if we stick at simple measures we shouldn’t be surprised if our paymasters and clients see us as an irrelevance. If we can show the impact of our work on profitability, we should always aim to do so (and loudly). Nobody is going to blow our trumpet for us.

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?

Dilemmas

Reading Tom Davenport’s brief polemic on the meaning of management (and the comments on it), I have realised that some of the things that I believe (and have promoted here) may be mutually contradictory.

Commenting on IBM’s explicit change in terminology from “knowledge management” to “knowledge sharing”, Davenport argues that (a) the equation of “management” with “command-and-control” is simplistic and misleading and (b) “sharing” as a concept is too unstructured to be useful in the enterprise (but equally, there is scope for tools of that nature).

I think this tension between the structure of a managed knowledge environment and vague knowledge sharing is symptomatic of the tension between what people want to do and what the business requires them to do. For example, people may be very keen to read widely to feed their creativity and improve the chances of innovation, but in order to perform their primary function they need to focus on the things that are more obviously related to the job. However, prioritisation of activities that are demonstrably valuable will result in a situation where people will only contemplate low-risk strategies. (As an aside, I think this might be particularly a problem in law firms: recording time in six-minute units is not conducive to activities that are not clearly relevant to client work.) As Bruce MacEwen has pointed out more than once, this is not a time to be concentrating on low-risk strategies.

So it is not sensible to encourage everyone to engage in what one of the comments on Davenport’s piece calls the “passive” activity of knowledge sharing. Equally there are dangers in insisting only on structured formal knowledge creation and capture. How do we manage our way around this dilemma?

I don’t know, but I think we need to be clear with people about the limitations of all the different approaches to knowledge in the enterprise, and the consequences of their over-use or misuse. By doing this, we can help them find a way that suits them and the business. Surely, that is knowledge management.

Lowering the sharing threshold

A common meme in knowledge management is that “people don’t share knowledge.” Here are a few examples:

The non-sharing statement is usually coupled with a set of purported justifications, and may also include a solution. However, I am not sure that the basic proposition is correct. In my experience, people are naturally willing to share what they know, except that some other factors might intervene. Some of those factors have their roots in professional habits, others in workplace politics. One of the core tasks of knowledge management is to investigate them and to demonstrate their falsity. If this is correct, non-sharing is a symptom, rather than the disease itself.

In a speech entitled “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus” at the Web 2.0 Expo (video | transcript), Clay Shirky identifies another obstacle to sharing: mother’s ruin. That is, the modern equivalent: television. In case this seems facile, consider Shirky’s argument. Referring to the argument of an unnamed historian, he proposes that just as excessive gin consumption was the way that British society coped with the societal and cultural rupture caused by the Industrial Revolution, with an eventual outpouring of civic energy when we sobered up, so we have dealt with the post-war lifestyle revolution by excessive consumption of television.

If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would’ve come off the whole enterprise, I’d say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened–rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before–free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

In this analysis, people are beginning to realise that instead of sinking time into television-watching, they could be doing other things — editing Wikipedia, making videos for Youtube, writing and commenting on blogs, and so on. 

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is…

There is another part to the jigsaw. It is not enough to realise that there is another way of spending this time — the activation energy to engage in this alternative has to be sufficiently low. That is the power of these social technologies — they lower the threshold of participation, and they draw people in:

I’m willing to raise that to a general principle. It’s better to do something than to do nothing. Even lolcats, even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter with the addition of cute captions, hold out an invitation to participation. When you see a lolcat, one of the things it says to the viewer is, “If you have some sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too.” And that’s [sic] message–I can do that, too–is a big change.

Not surprisingly, not everyone understands this.

This is something that people in the media world don’t understand. Media in the 20th century was run as a single race–consumption. How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you’ll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes. But media is actually a triathlon, it ‘s three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share.

[My emphasis.]

In my mind, this raises a challenge for people involved in knowledge management. Putting aside other excuses for not sharing knowledge (which we can deal with separately), it is inevitable that a range of displacement activities have grown up in businesses to create the illusion of busyness and thereby make it possible for people to argue that they have no time to share their knowledge. Here are three off the top of my head:

  • Meetings
  • E-mails
  • Self-justifying reports

Each of these can serve a useful purpose (just as gin and television have their place). Often, however, the production and consumption of meetings, e-mails and reports generates vanishingly small amounts of value for the enterprise. (Probably on a par with watching repeats of Friends.) At work, in blogs and on mailing lists, more and more people are declaring themselves to be fed up with these value-minimal activities. If we make it easier to share, collaborate, and engage meaningfully with our colleagues, then I think it will only take a small push to tip people into these new forms of interaction.

Who am I?

Patrick Lambe has neatly joined Dave Snowden’s challenge to the traditional MBA with a thoughtful piece by Olivier Amprimo of Headshift on the consequences of corporate specialisation. All of these are worthy of reading. For me, however, the post that brings everything into perspective makes no reference to any of these. It is Shawn Callahan’s summary of character — how we define it for ourselves, and how we really act in extremis.

Shawn uses an excerpt from Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting to illustrate how one’s perceptions of character (“who are you?”) are challenged and ultimately forged by crisis.

I would never wish this level of drama upon anyone in real life—remember, McKee is advising screenwriters— but it demonstrates that character is revealed under pressure. It’s probably one of the reasons we intuitively watch our leaders when a crises occurs to see what they do because their actions reflect under pressure their character.

When looking for ‘Who am I?’ stories you will need to seek out those times when you were under the pump, or it didn’t go the way you expected. What did you do? Alternatively find stories of when others were under pressure and you admired how they acted.

Taken together, these blog posts should cause anyone with a management or leadership position to think carefully about their own character. Does your approach to management depend heavily on the flawed and narrowly focussed thinking that Dave Snowden deplores in the typical MBA? Do you rely on technology to solve problems, rather than “thinking things through with people and implementing changes in practices and processes” as Patrick puts it? How would you behave in a crisis? Who are you?

There is even a knowledge management point to this. Shawn’s post finishes with a description of a project he ran for the Australian Geological Survey Organisation:

In 1996 I helped the Australian Geological Survey Organisation document their scientific datasets. We put a heap of effort into designing the database and then went to the scientists and asked them to describe their datasets. They scoffed at the suggestion, reminding us that they had a mountain of data and little motivation to do anything with it apart from publishing papers. We were stumped until we cottoned on to the fact that their culture was defined by the imperative to publish or perish. We revisited our project design and created the idea of a published dataset. It was linked to their performance management systems but most importantly each published dataset could be officially cited in their personal bibliographies. We went back to the scientists and asked whether they would like to publish their datasets and there was an instant line up.

Knowing what constitutes a crisis for the people around you can help to define the purposes and outcomes of a KM project.