Work in song

The modern workplace provides few opportunities for singing. (Although there is a growing tradition of choirs and bands within law firms — some competing with each other.) Older working environments often depended on song to regulate the pace of work. Many of these songs have found their way into the wider repertoire of folk and popular music. Alongside these, there is a strand of music celebrating (or bemoaning) work. On the whole, these say little about the most common jobs that people do today (apart from generic office work).

The older songs often suggest greater pride and joy in work than newer ones. This morning, I was listening to “Come All Ye Fisher Lassies” — one of my favourite musical celebrations of work. Despite the privations described in the song, it definitely sits on the joyful side. This may be because it was written by an observer, rather than a participant. Ewan MacColl wrote the song for Singing the Fishing, one of the radio ballads that he created with Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker in the early 1960s.

John Axon and John Creamer commemorated at Chapel-en-le-Frith stationAlong with Singing the Fishing, two other radio ballads looked at work — specifically roadbuilding and mining. The most well-known, The Ballad of John Axon, commemorated an engine driver and who died at work while trying to prevent his runaway train crashing into another train at Chapel-en-le-Frith when its brakes failed. Their melding of first-person testimony with new and traditional music provide a fascinating perspective on work and life in the first half of the twentieth century.

Singing the Fishing is particularly pertinent today, in that it describes a pattern of work that is now common again in the ‘gig economy.’ “Come All Ye Fisher Lassies” tells of young women travelling to various fishing ports around Scotland and Eastern England to work gutting fish as they are brought to shore.

Noo we’ve gutted fish in Lerwick and in Stornaway and Shields.
Worked all on the Humber ‘mongst the barrels and the creels.
Whitby, Grimsby, we’ve traivelled up and doon,
But the place to see the herring is the quay at Yarmouth Toon.

The gig economy was no more secure in the early twentieth century than it is now, but the pride in work suggested by this song can be seen in many of the newer occupations that form part of the modern version. Agile working also allows some participants in the new economy to do so without travelling for days on end. Nonethless, I don’t expect to see a new version of the song celebrating the work of lawyers at Axiom, Lawyers on Demand, Halebury or Obelisk, despite the fact that those professionals have more than they might think in common with the herring gutters.

Listen to the song on the Spotify playlist below, followed by songs about work drawn from lists compiled by The Pessimist and readers of the Guardian.

Stop being an artist

Embarked coinsBuried in a commentary on the success of Facebook, Bob Lefsetz writes a nugget of golden truth:

You never double-down on a loser. That’s what the techies have over the musicians. When musicians do something with little traction they keep imploring us to pay attention. If no one pays attention to the work of the techie, he changes it. Because no amount of marketing can sell that which the public does not want. You start with the marketing, and then word of mouth sustains you. If you’ve got no word of mouth, change.

Whether intentionally or not, Lefsetz has put his finger on a critical distinction between art and commerce. One of the hallmarks of an artist (whether a writer, musician, painter, sculptor or potter) is that they are driven to create their works without regard to the audience. In doing so, they run the risk of poverty. But they might also change the world.

By contrast, commerce depends on acceptance by someone else. Without that return, there is no point in the work.

That is not to say that artists cannot be commercial, nor that commerce is inimical to creativity. Sometimes both can align, and great things can result.

Commercial creativity requires a receptive audience. If you find yourself grumbling that your knowledge initiatives are falling on stony ground or that nobody comes to your training sessions or that your fancy new technology isn’t being used, you need to change your approach rather than doubling your persuasive efforts.

A little data (and emotion) about musical experience

One of the novelties of our connected world is the amount of data that can be collected. This may be a worry when the collector is unknown or untrusted, but it can also be an opportunity if one has access to the data oneself — especially when one might have no other record available. At the very least, it gives an insight into the way larger datasets might be used.

I signed up to ten years ago today. From that moment, almost every time I listened to a piece of the music, the fact was recorded by the service (a function they call ‘scribbling’). There are some gaps: I didn’t use it assiduously in the first few months, and the service itself didn’t timestamp scrobbles until later in 2005 (my first timestamped scrabble was on 18 December 2005, but music played before that is still included in the overall statistics). Apart from that, any music played on my iPod or in iTunes was captured. Also, as other services and devices became available (such as the iPhone and Spotify), they also sent data to However, I have no record of CDs played other than through iTunes, nor of music heard on YouTube.


So, I can say with a degree of certainty that in the last ten years, I have listened to over 134,000 tracks performed by over 5,000 different artists. I can also see which tracks, artists and albums I have heard most frequently.

There are some other things that I can do with the data, thanks to various tools  developed using the API. All this is very satisfying for the side of me that treasures useless information and therefore does quite well at general knowledge quizzes. I can even compare myself with others, and I am sure that information about patterns of listening could be useful to the music industry more generally. (That is one inference that can be drawn from the purchase of by CBS in May 2007.)

But, on reflection now, all this just leaves me cold. cannot tell you why I was listening to La Traviata, Leonard Cohen and Dave Brubeck in the week ending 21 May 2006, any more than it can say why this week last year resounded to Goldfrapp, Maria Callas and Sidney Bechet. Nor can I. There might be an interesting story there, but it cannot be told without additional prompts (such as might be found in my emails or notebook, and possibly not even then).

That is the problem. The real story — real knowledge — is as much emotional as analytical. And data cannot give access to the emotional truth. Given enough data, we might be able to see that something happened at a particular moment in time, and even what else was going on, but it cannot tell the truth of that moment.

This is the real challenge for data analytics (whether of ‘big data’ or otherwise). The analysis itself may be flawed because of the necessary exclusion of unmanageable information (the human factor). Even if perfect, the way a piece of analysis is received is also unpredictable (another human factor). Some people may react badly to what the data appears to be telling them. Some may react well, but act inappropriately.

I think this imposes a burden on those engaged in data collection and analysis to work carefully on understanding its limitations and its potential impact. I have read many excited articles and heard many breathless presentations about the power of data to make our lives better. I have rarely heard anyone refer to the corresponding responsibility to be sure that things won’t be made worse. That requires emotional intelligence, which is a purely human capability.

Data on its own will solve nothing.

Knowing how to be disruptive

If nothing else, the state of the economy must make us wonder what things are going to be like when it is all over. At a personal level, there are people whose careers have been forced in a direction they neither expected or wanted. Some household names (such as Woolworths in the UK) have already disappeared, and there will doubtless be others.

Mary Abraham has taken a look at what firms may need to do to see a clear way through the current economic crisis.

Rather than focusing on what doesn’t seem to be working, focus on your organization’s strengths. Ask yourself, what are we doing right? How can we do more of that? How can we do it better? Then, look at your mission. Is it the right mission for your organization? Does it line up with your organization’s core strengths? Are your colleagues and their activities aligned with that mission? Is all of this supported by your organizational culture?

In the midst of all this upheaval is a golden opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to create something new. The “Clean Sheet of Paper” exercise is just a tool to help you get started. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.

I commented on Mary’s post, but I want to develop some of those thoughts a bit further. My initial reaction to the post was to refer to something else I had read recently on a similar point.

The questions you suggest as part of the “Clean Sheet…” exercise leave out an important part of the equation. What do our clients want? What are people buying?

At the end of his recent long article (“The Great De-Leveraging“) Bruce MacEwen reminds us of Andy Grove of Intel’s reaction to a similar crisis:

Better yet, or more realistically yet, perform Andy Grove’s famous thought (and reality) experiment when Intel was a low-end maker of commodity DRAM chips, having their lunch eaten in the late 1970’s by the voracious and talented Japanese, threatening Intel’s very existence.

I paraphrase: Grove said to his top management team, “If we don’t turn things around in a very serious way, the Board will fire us. So why don’t we ‘fire’ ourselves. Let’s march out of this conference room and march back in assuming we’re the new team the Board has hired. What would we do then?”

They performed the exercise, decided to abandon DRAM’s and invest in microprocessors. The rest is history, and it’s history residing under your desk or in your lap.

I think the Andy Grove approach is an essential part of the clean sheet exercise.

There is a real problem for businesses that want to innovate their way out of the crisis. We are used to working with clients to identify what products and services they need. This symbiosis requires a degree of stability. Even if someone doesn’t know what they need until they see it (and who knew they needed an MP3 player with such minimal controls and so few features before Apple created the iPod?), disruptive innovation depends on people realising when they see it that the new product or service does actually fill a hole. The need, niche or desire is created in the same moment as it is fulfilled. At the moment, it is extremely difficult to know how the market will react to novelty. We can’t rely on understanding our clients’ needs to get us through this — we need to walk with them and discover together what is required. We cannot know what the outcome of this perambulation will be. In particular, I don’t think we can assume that the status quo ante will be any part of the future. As Seth Godin puts it:

It’s amazing that people have so much time to fret about today’s emergency but almost no time at all to avoid tomorrow’s.

A glimpse at the TV and internets shows one talking head after another angsting about today’s economy. These are the same people who needed to devote entire hours to mindless trivia nine months ago when they could have done an enormous amount of education about avoiding this mess in the first place.

His point is that we need to concentrate on what is coming, not what is happening now. In a business that depends heavily on the brain-power of its people, like a law firm, that means that we need to focus a significant part of our knowledge efforts on working our what we and our clients need in that future. Tending to our past knowledge needs will not get us safely out of this crisis.

There is another strand to this. Whose knowledge are we talking about? To what extent will the stresses and strains of the current economy affect firms themselves, especially when coupled with tools that could facilitate very different organisational forms. Consider John Roberts’s view of the firm, couched as an objection to a hypothesis that “the firm is simply ‘a nexus of contracts’ — a particularly dense collection of the sort of arrangements that characterise markets.”

While there are several objections to this argument, we focus on one. It is that, when a customer “fires” a butcher, the butcher keeps the inventory, tools, shop, and other customers she had previously. When an employee leaves a firm, in contrast, she is typically denied access to the firm’s resources. The employee cannot conduct business using the firm’s name; she cannot use its machinery or patents; and she probably has limited access to the people and networks in the firm, certainly for commercial purposes and perhaps even socially. (The Modern Firm (Oxford, 2004): 104) 

What does this mean for knowledge-intensive firms? The resources that Roberts refers to are less relevant — the machinery is either freely available (Google has a few useful tools on offer) or is located in the heads of the knowledge workers. The networks that he highlights as important are increasingly located outside the firm — in Facebook, LinkedIn or twitter, for example. One consequence of this may be that firms which fail to reinvent themselves or provide other compelling reasons for their existence could end up as empty shells — with their people relocated to other firms or new forms of self-organisation.

The brick building in the centre-right of the picture above was one of Manchester’s Victorian railway termini, opened in 1880 and closed in 1969. As the railways were rationalised and nationalised, and as passenger numbers fell, there was clearly no need for a city the size of Manchester to have six major railway stations. There are now just two. Of the others, one is at the heart of a museum, one is a car park, the one pictured is an exhibition hall, and one is derelict. The building on the left of the picture is the Bridgewater Hall, home of the Hallé Orchestra (Britain’s oldest symphony orchestra). The Hallé’s previous home, the Free Trade Hall, is now just a facade for a hotel. Rising above the old station is Manchester’s tallest building, the Beetham Tower. The solidity and apparent permanence of all these buildings was (is) no guarantee that they would always fulfil the same purpose. In fact, the longest-lasting thing in this tale is the orchestra — an excellent example of a group whose purpose cannot be separated from its form. A symphony needs to be played by a symphony orchestra: individual musicians cannot replicate the sound by playing on their own. As long as people are willing to pay to hear symphonies, the Hallé and orchestras like it will continue to exist.

Is your firm an orchestra or a collection of soloists? Is there still an audience for its repertoire?

Model KM — iTunes or Spotify?

The current craze amongst the UK musical digerati is a service based in Sweden called Spotify. Simply put, it is a legal way to play any music you could imagine (although there are the usual absences — The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, for example) without buying a copy of the CD or downloading a permanent digital version. Previously, when I thought about subscription-based music services, I was not sure what the attraction would be. I like to have my music with me wherever I am — in the car, on the train, walking to work. On reflection, however, that is just a habit that I developed when I first acquired an iPod. Prior to that, my music was something that belonged at home or (in limited quantities) in the car. 

Spotify has changed my outlook. I still have all my music to carry with me, but I also have a vast collection at my disposal when I am at the computer. As a result, I have renewed my acquaintance with music that I would never have bought in permanent form. It is like having a radio station with an amazingly large and personal playlist. I can also decide whether I like something enough to buy it to add to the portable permanent collection.

So why the KM connection in the title? It occurred to me that a personal collection of music (often housed in iTunes) could be likened to an organisational knowledge repository. By comparison, access to a remote and unimaginable database of music if replicated in the knowledge context could be so many things. For law firms there are online information and knowledge services, but they tend to be structured in the way that the service provider dictates. Spotify imposes no structure. Consider this “Spotification” of a domestic CD collection. It is effectively a visual mapping of a CD collection onto Spotify links. The physical asset (a CD) is used as a metaphor for a virtual one. At a more basic level, users can create playlists of the music they like (just as in iTunes, but a little more basic at present).

Another important distinction between iTunes and Spotify is that I don’t have to worry about uploading new content to Spotify. Someone else does that (just as they do in an online legal information service). So we can think of Spotify in the KM context as a place where anything one might want to hear (know about) is available, as opposed to the place where one can only hear (find out about) what one already knows. Surely that is a better position to be in?

There is also a social feature to Spotify. Playlists can be personal (here is all the music I like) or collaborative (let’s share all the tracks of a certain type that we like). That feature could be replicated in know-how systems as a form of joint research (here are the useful resources on a topic of mutual interest). As yet there is no tagging in the system, and it is tied to the internet and to computers (although I gather there is an iPhone client in the works, and rumour has it that a limited offline capability may also be forthcoming). The future looks interesting for music and for KM, but I wonder what will be the ultimate mortal wound for internal knowledge repositories.

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.