My mate, not yours

In my last post, I said that I wanted to refer constructively to something that Doug Cornelius wrote in his series of blog posts on Household KM. Here it is.

Doug’s posts are an interesting review of the tools available to manage domestic calendars, contacts, libraries and information. I found his take on contact management particularly insightful. As Doug puts it, “the contacts issue is still a knowledge management failure.” I don’t think this is unique to household contact management, and Doug pinpoints the problem:

the line between personal and business contacts is very gray. With the calendar it was easier to develop the taxonomy between personal time and business time based on the time of the appointment. With contacts I have not found a meaningful way to distinguish between contacts. Some contacts are clearly personal. My mother for instance. But what about my college roommates? After many nights of [drunken fraternity parties] serious studying, many of them have become respectable and should be part of my professional contacts. The same is true for my law school classmates.

There is also a big overlap of contacts with The Wife. There is not a clear distinction of who “owns” some of the contacts and therefore who has the better information.

I think there are some tricky underlying issues here that resonate with contact management within a business too.

In professional services firms, the client relationship must necessarily be at the heart of the business. This is not always well-managed, but CRM technology is a side-issue. These are personal relationships as much as commercial ones. There is immediately a tension between what the firm needs — as much accurate information about its clients as possible — and what people are prepared to share.  When lawyers, architects or accountants share knowledge about their work, they can be reasonably confident that someone else’s use of that knowledge will not adversely affect either the object shared or the sharer. For example, a lawyer who writes a briefing note about issues arising out of a novel transaction will not find when that note is used by one of their colleagues that their status is diminished as a consequence, or that the transaction itself is affected. However, the same is not true when information about people and relationships is shared.

When I tell the firm about the people I know, I run the risk that this information may be used in ways that could reflect badly on me, harm the relationship that I have with those people, or even cause the relationship to cease. Given this risk, it is not surprising that people are often reluctant to engage fully with their firm’s CRM systems. Paradoxically, the better a relationship that someone has with their client, the less likely it may be that detailed information about that client is provided to the firm. Imagine someone in Doug’s position — some of his law school friends may have become senior in-house counsel. Potentially, those relationships could generate real benefits for the firm. However, allowing the firm access to the information that could produce those benefits may also jeopardise the personal relationship. Which would you put first?

When firms were smaller, and technology was not a driving force, client relationships could be managed with much more respect to the personal relationship. People within the firm could have more confidence that they could control the use made of their contact information, because they could monitor either the people using the information, or the use itself. As firms grow, the distances between the owner of contact information and the user become too great to allow that monitoring. When technology is introduced to the equation — making it easier for contact information to be used without seeking the consent of, or even notifying, the person with the original relationship — people’s fear that their client or personal relationships might be misused increases significantly.

For those reasons, I think effective firmwide (rather than personal) client relationship management is the hardest KM nut of all to crack in a professional services firm. It may be easier in other sectors; I am not familiar with them.

Recognition and understanding

It is important to us that people listen to our needs, understand them and adapt to them. We know this about ourselves, but very few of us can naturally empathise with others. One reason for this, I think, is that human beings are almost infinitely complex and yet our brains cannot cope with this variety.

So what do we do? We create archetypes. We categorise. There are even people who classify themselves (and others) according to whether they were a first, second or third child (fourth children fall into the same category as the first-born). I wonder whether this is because in small communities (with close genetic links) such generalisations are likely to be accurate. As our circles of acquaintance become larger, their weaknesses become more obvious, but as we also struggle to do without them we depend more heavily on them.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I read Graham Durant-Law’s recent blog post, and remembered Dave Snowden’s short rant against Myers-Briggs. They both point to the complete absence of scientific evidence for summing people up in a small number of categories. Graham also poses a number of questions:

Why do these modern archetypes have credibility and how do these they help us? Why are they any better than Jung’s original archetypes? Where are they best used and what problems do they solve?

I can’t answer any of these, but I am interested in the way in which we think they might help us. Going back to my starting point, we want to be able to understand people (whether our managers, our team, our clients and customers, or our families) in order to work better with or for them, or to get along with them as well as possible. Doing that well is excessively hard. However, by referring to archetypes or categories we can make a reasonable attempt at empathy (especially for the relationships where a ‘quick fix’ will do).

We are fooling ourselves. If any of these relationships is worth pursuing, it must be worth the real effort that it takes to recognise someone as an individual with unique needs, desires, concerns, preoccupations and quirks. Archetypes and categories only conceal that reality.

The opening gambit

This is a bit more sudden than I expected it to be. I have been thinking of blogging outside the firewall for some time, and had hoped to be able to build up a body of posts before putting my head above the parapet. One of the reasons for reticence is that I hadn’t identified a comfortable focus for a blog. There are too blogs that already cover topics that are close to my interests for me to be confident of adding anything significant to the online conversation.

However, in a post on the KnowledgeThoughtsBlog, Ian Rodwell has touched on a couple of issues that helped a number of things fall into a sharper focus for me. He describes (beautifully) a visit to Lloyd’s of London.

You may know the building: a Richard Rogers masterpiece which really does look like nothing else in the city and which famously displays its insides on the outside, so to speak. You might think that such a modern exterior cloaks a similarly modern business within: sleek, flashing terminals perhaps, solitary workers murmuring into headsets with blackberries twirled like sixshooters in either hand. Mmm..not quite. And that’s what made the experience so intriguing, enjoyable and peculiarly relevant to this whole knowledge thing of ours. You see, I found it a jarringly exciting combination of the profoundly modern and the, well, the Dickensian if I’m perfectly honest. The Lutine bell guarded by an assistant in his Victorian red jacket and top hat, a cabinet of Nelson memorabilia, a huge log recording ship losses in perfect ink calligraphy (one only last week) and around this museum-like core a series of huge trading floors full of underwriters’ booths where brokers queue to place their risks face to face (or rather eyeball to nose as brokers sit two inches below underwriters to ensure the underwriters’ eye level is above that of the broker…!). You will see people carrying unfeasibly large bundles of paper (indeed, the more astute wheel suitcases of the stuff) and risks are recorded not on a laptop but written, yes written, on a chit of paper. And by the way, don’t think of leaving your jacket and tie at home as you won’t be allowed in. And ensure you call a male underwriter “Sir” and a female underwriter “Madam”. Oh, and braces and black shoes, although not compulsory, do, dear boy, make a difference.

Ian goes on to link this deep tradition (the Lloyd’s ‘brand’, if you like) with knowledge management through close human interaction. This is something I have been interested in for a while. How much do we know because of who we know and what they tell us? How important are the unofficial channels of communication? Isn’t gossip the life-blood of a healthy and vibrant organisation?

Yes, but…

These ideas are intuitively powerful, but are our intuitions borne out by the evidence? Is gossip more harmful than not? Is tradition really a rational approach to business organisation and knowledge management? Is “we have always done it like this” ever a justifiable response? How disruptive should knowledge management and related initiatives be? Should we always aim to fit our activities to existing ways of working? Is the received wisdom right? Is it even tested (or testable)? How did we get into these habits, and can we (should we) shrug them off? How do personal attitudes affect the enterprise? Which should take precedence? What can we learn from other views of the business and its impact?

These are all interesting (and probably unfathomable) questions. From now on, I want to use this blog to try and shine some light on them, and related topics. It may be a searchlight or a candle, direct illumination or filtered. Let’s see what happens.