Beauty, truth, modernity, tradition

I have just read a perfect summary by Stephen Bayley of one of the principles underpinning my thoughts on this blog.

For me, the debate was a chance to go rhetorical about the single cultural principle I hold most dear: that history and tradition are things you build on with pride and conviction, not resorts you scurry back to when you can think of nothing better to do. I believe that to deny the present is to shortchange the future. These things I learnt from Nikolaus Pevsner.

Bayley was reporting on the National Trust ‘Quality of Life’ debate, “Britain has become indifferent to beauty.”

In Bayley’s account, the debate sounds very stimulating. Supporting the motion were David Starkey and Roger Scruton. Bayley caricatures them thus:

Starkey and Scruton see culture as a serial that has been recorded in episodes and canned in perpetuity for posterity. The task, in their view, is not to augment architectural history with up-to-date improvements, but regularly to revisit the past for edification and instruction.

Bereft of optimism or enthusiasm, bloated with sly and knowing cynicism, they see no value in contemporary life.

Opposing the motion were Germaine Greer (“after Clive James, our Greatest Living Australian National Treasure”) and Bayley himself. The outcome of the debate? The motion was lost resoundingly. Clearly the audience was convinced by the notion that beauty was not fixed at some past time, but is still being made, albeit in a different tradition.

This was not because we were so very clever, but because Starkey and Scruton were so very wrong. And what was the turning point? One, Greer said what a beautiful spring day it was. Whose mood was not enhanced by sunshine and flowers and blue skies? No dissenters, there. Two, in despair at their negativism, cynicism and defeatism, I asked Starkey and Scruton: “Why is it I like what you like (which is to say: medieval, renaissance and Victorian), but why you are so limited and snitty and crabby you see no value in what I like?” No dissenters here, either.

Wonderful to prove that the British are not, indeed, indifferent to beauty.

Reading Bayley’s account, I felt that the traditionalists’ view was not just applicable to beauty. Many things, including language and weights and measures are held by some to be better in some historical form. On the other hand, I am not sure that the resistance to modernity is a related to fear of change, which is how it is often characterised.

The problem, I think, is that we see the past in a sanitised form. The things that are left from bygone eras tend to be the most beautiful. However, we forget this and assume that we see a true picture of what our forbears experienced. Keats’s grecian urn is a prime example.

Famously, Keats’s poem ends with an assertion that truth and beauty are inseparable. For me, however, the phrase before that is more interesting:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst…

Keats appears to be suggesting that the urn will always persist because of its beauty. Given the fragility of antique ceramics, this must be a forlorn hope. In general, however, the probability of survival of any given artefact must surely be proportional to its beauty: people are more likely to take care of such things than they are of their uglier counterparts. As a result, our view of the past is inevitably a sanitised one, containing only the good parts, with little of the bad.

By contrast, we experience all of the present — the good and the bad. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which is which. In the face of such uncertainty, it is not surprising that some people prefer to turn against the present and seek solace in the past. I think this is where Scruton and Starkey sit, whereas Greer and Bayley are happy to explore the present — risking the possibility that what they regard as worthwhile will turn out with the passage of time to be ugly and worthless.

I think they are right to take that risk. To do otherwise is to fail to take part in the process by which the things that are worthwhile are preserved for future generations. We need to remember to do the same in our organisations — not to hold on to repositories of old knowledge just because they are old, but to open our minds to the possibility of the creation of new knowledge by whatever means (and to risk some of that new knowledge being worthless).

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?


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.

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.

Prescriptivity and appropriateness

One of the links in my blogroll is to Language Log, which is home to some of the most rigorous blogging on the internet. As its name indicates, it deals with language and linguistics, but in the broadest possible sense. So its authors have taken on sex differences and biological determinism, science journalism, lolcats, and legal language. However, one of the best posting categories is “Prescriptivist Poppycock.” When you need a break from pedants whingeing about split infinitives and dangling prepositions, this is where to come.

David Crystal’s book, The Fight for English (subtitled “How language pundits ate, shot, and left”) is also an attack on prescriptivist poppycock. In it, he describes how language pedantry developed during the eighteenth century, and outlines how an understanding of appropriate language can help people to understand grammar and language generally. (A point completely lost on this Amazon reviewer.) This is why appropriateness matters:

One of the aims of education, whether by parents or teachers, is to instil appropriate behaviour. If we behave inappropriately, we risk social sanctions. Language is a form of social behaviour, and it is subject to these sanctions as is everything else. The main aim of language education has thus to be the instilling into children of a sense of linguistic appropriateness — when to use one variety or style rather than another, and when to appreciate the way in which other people have used one variety or style rather than another. This is what the eighteenth-century prescriptive approach patently did not do.

When he turns to the history of grammar teaching in the UK, Crystal’s reduces his argument to a simple analogy. (Until the mid-1960s, English language teaching in the UK depended heavily on prescriptive texts. After that point, virtually no grammar was taught as part of the school syllabus. From the 1990s, following a period of intense academic study of English language and grammar, the National Curriculum for English incorporated language teaching that (a) balanced the study of language structure and the study of language use, and (b) aimed to instil a sense of language awareness in children.) The balance is important:

The basic problem [with historic English teaching] was that there was no means of relating the analytical skills involved in doing grammar to the practical skills involved in speaking, listening, reading, and writing. The grammarians argued that there just had to be a connection — that any child who learned to parse would inevitably end up being a better user of its language. But there was nothing at all inevitable about it. And there was an obvious counter-argument, best summed up in an analogy. I have a friend who is a wonderful car mechanic, but he is a terrible driver.

The analogy is worth developing. To be a good driver takes a lot more than knowledge of how a car engine works. All kinds of fresh sensitivities and awarenesses are involved. Indeed, most of us learned to drive with next to no understanding of what goes on inside the bonnet. It is the same with language. …[S]omething else has to happen if children are to use a knowledge of grammar in order to become better speakers, listeners, readers, or writers. A connection has to be made — and, more to the point, demonstrated.

Reading this passage, I was reminded of something else I read today. In the Anecdote blog, Shawn Callahan quotes a passage from John Medina’s book, Brain Rules. Here are the first couple of sentences:

Any learning environment that deals with only the database instincts [our ability to memorise things] or only the improvisatory instincts [our ability to imagine things] ignores one half of our ability. It is doomed to fail.

I had intended to write about this anyway, because it struck me that an approach to legal education (and, by extension, KM) that focuses on things like transaction processes and prescribed documents (held in databases) does not help to develop the creative and improvisatory instinct in lawyers. I have a feeling that many lawyers find improvisation difficult (please excuse the generalisation), and so they are happiest with KM that creates know-how databases and precedent banks. Such an approach does not actually serve them as well as they think it does.

As for the legal education point: a story from my wife. She is a corporate partner, with 20 years experience. A couple of years ago she was leading a very complex transaction, but the other side was represented by a much more inexperienced lawyer. More significantly, it was clear that this lawyer had been taught some standard transaction processes and had not developed enough imagination to see that the clients’ goals could be more readily met by diverging from the standard. Because of this, my wife and both sets of clients were frustrated until the other lawyer finally gave up on her approach and caved in. At this point, I am not privy to the details, but my guess is that the result of this change of heart was not particularly beneficial her client. At the very least, her intransigence will have prolonged the deal and increased its cost to both parties.

Prescriptivism may be dying out in the British educational system, but it is alive and well in law firms. In the current climate, how long will clients stand for it? And what are we doing to connect lawyers’ database instincts with their improvisory instincts in order to give them the understanding to become better advisors?

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 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 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?

The new Glossators

Today I stumbled across Paul Maharg’s account of last April’s KM Legal conference (Day 1 | Day 2). I was glad I did: having helped the conference organiser to design the programme, I was very cross that I couldn’t get to it because of clashing commitments. In particular, I had wanted to see Paul again (one of my last commitments as an academic was to share a platform with him), as well as hearing Dave Snowden. Paul’s account of the conference was very good — not just a summary of the presentations, but a useful critique as well.

Paul’s own presentation, “The Future of KM” is available on Slideshare (as adapted for a subsequent occasion).

Like all good visions of the future, Paul’s is rooted in history. In particular, he links the current practice of KM in law firms (and more generally) with the mediæval glossators whose views on the basic legal texts effectively developed the law itself.

Browsing through the slides, I was reminded of two related tools that were first developed over ten years ago: CritLink and Harvard Law School’s Annotation Engine. These were designed to overlay external web pages published by others with locally-created annotations. They never really took off. I remember trying to get both of them to work, but my limited Perl skills weren’t up to it (and the fact that I was using a Windows server probably didn’t help). However, this is still a key area where Web 2.0 doesn’t quite hit the mark.

As slide 14 of Paul’s presentation says, blogs can be seen as glossed commentary, and wikis as glossae, but the problem with both of them is that they are usually remote from the material that they refer to. If one could read legislation or cases with a gloss attached, surely their usefulness would be improved? Perhaps this is something that someone could take on now that the UK’s government information is being opened up

In the meantime, I suspect that we will stick to guidance notes and know-how documents that refer selectively to legislation and cases, without being able to put them in a wider context. Paul suggests that legal knowledge managers might be Glossators, but I suspect that in fact we are Commentators.

The Commentators went beyond the glossators, who had had treated each text separately. The commentators instead wrote prose commentaries on the texts (rather like lectures,) working through, book by book, through the Digest.

I think there is merit in both approaches, but technology currently favours commentating.

Perspectives on different traditions

Reading Legal Week this morning, I was impressed by an article drawing on reports from a journalist embedded with the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team. Ben Hallman, who is a reporter with The American Lawyer, spent ten days looking at how Iraq’s civil justice system is being restored.

In the middle of his account, one sentence leapt out at me:

[An Iraqi] lawyer told me that Iraqi law students, for example, don’t read cases.

This failure to study cases may be a shock to lawyers working in the Anglo-American common law tradition, which is founded on the doctrine of stare decisis, but Iraq’s legal system is (still) part of the civil law tradition. As such, the judicial function is stereotypically to apply the law to the facts without reference to the way similar cases might have been determined in the past. (This stereotype is not as accurate as it used to be, but it will suffice for now.)

Without this understanding, Hallman assumes that a number of the things he sees in the Iraqi system are deficiencies. He is rightly critical of the standard of criminal investigation, but goes on to extend the same criticism to the system itself:

Criminal courts function somewhat better, to the extent that there are trials and judgments that are usually carried out — but they are hardly just. The Iraqi authorities regularly torture suspects until they confess and their justification is that the system for gathering evidence and presenting cases is in such a shambles that they wouldn’t win any cases otherwise.

Defense lawyers, meanwhile, are also undertrained. In Iraq there is no tradition of a lawyer serving as an advocate for their client. They don’t know how to cross-examine witnesses, how to challenge evidence at a trial and neither they nor the judge is accustomed to them playing an active role. Furthermore, they often meet their clients minutes before a trial is to begin.

The adversarial approach, on which advocacy and cross-examination is predicated, is one that belongs in common law systems. It is not present in the French and German legal systems, for example, but the investigatory process is markedly better. To conclude that investigation and presentation of cases could be improved is reasonable. To imply that the system precludes such improvement is not.

I don’t know what the end result of the reconstruction process will be, but I don’t think wholesale adoption of common law and adversarial techniques is appropriate if there is a long-standing alternative tradition in place. It is interesting to note that although General MacArthur promoted consitutional change in post-war Japan, the pre-war Civil and Criminal Codes were left largely untouched. (And, if Wikipedia is to be believed, the criminal justice process is closer to Iraq’s than to the United States’.)

On a more general point, this is a useful reminder that: more than one tradition is always possible; things that are different may not necessarily be worse; and, crucially, what you do is almost always less important than how you do it.

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.