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.

Knowledge and Risk: box-ticking considered harmful

I had been running the knowledge management function for a couple of years in my last firm, when the decision was taken to build a proper risk management team. Until then, the firm’s partners had managed risk themselves, with support from some key litigators and a team of staff to handle client and matter intake (conflict checking, information barriers and so on). The firm had grown, and the regulatory landscape had become more complex, so that there was a compelling case for professional risk management. And so a risk director was appointed, who very quickly identified a need for a larger team of risk lawyers.

2015-04-21 08.51.17-1I was initially nervous about this development. I feared that the new regime would arrive with a list of ‘do nots’ and thereby undermine the work I and the PSLs were doing to encourage knowledge sharing around the firm. I had heard scare stories from my peers in other firms about clashes between risk and knowledge teams: each having a completely different perspective on openness than the other.

In the end, my fears were misplaced. There may be risk professionals who see their role as restrictive, but ours did not. Nor did they interpret the rules as a recipe book for prohibitions. In fact, I found that the goals of the risk and knowledge teams were closely aligned in some significant ways.

Until 2011, the rules governing solicitors in England and Wales were contained in a set of documents combining general principles and detailed rules. This approach worked moderately well when law firms were all fundamentally similar. As the market opened up following the Legal Services Act 2007, it was clear that the myriad of legal business models would need a different type of regulation. The new Code of Conduct combined a set of high-level principles with mandatory outcomes and indicative behaviours. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) gave firms real flexibility in how they achieved the desired outcomes:

The SRA Code of Conduct (the Code) sets out our outcomes-focused conduct requirements so that you can consider how best to achieve the right outcomes for your clients taking into account the way that your firm works and its client base.

The message that firms had to think carefully about their own approach to risk was communicated very clearly by the SRA’s executive director of supervision, risk and standards, Samantha Barrass.

Addressing a risk management conference in London, Ms Barrass said the SRA is concerned that some firms might see the indicative behaviours that help interpretation of the 10 core principles as a checklist, rather than possible examples of practice – the SRA is likely to take a “dim view” of this.

She said: “The indicative behaviours are not mandatory, they provide examples or a starting point to aid thinking on how to deliver the outcomes and principles. Unthinking reliance on the indicative behaviours is not a risk-free approach to compliance; they do not cover all regulatory scenarios or compliance requirements, and certainly focusing attention on the achievement of the behaviours alone could actually lead to a firm overlooking or de-prioritising emerging risks.”

She said that some solicitors “have proudly told me that in preparation for outcomes-focused regulation (OFR) they had extracted the indicative behaviours, and ticked off every one that could possibly be relevant as being present in their organisation in order to present a model of best-practice compliance to the SRA”.

Ms Barrass asked: “But can the firm say, hand on heart, that this approach really gets to grips with the nature of the firm itself and its business practices?”

Since 2011, no firm in England and Wales should take a ‘box-ticking’ approach to risk.

Another significant change in the new Code was that it applied to the whole firm: not just solicitors. Everyone employed in the practice was expected to demonstrate that they were working in support of the mandatory outcomes.

These changes meant that our new risk team was focused on helping people across the firm understand their obligations. Their goal was to shift people’s working practices to meet those obligations.

My goal was similar. Rather than establish a set of rigid knowledge activities and measure compliance with simple KPIs, I wanted our work as a knowledge team to support the firm’s desired outcomes. For me, success would be measured in improvements to the way people developed and handled knowledge in their everyday work, rather than counted in numbers of precedents or items in a knowledge bank.

Good risk management and good knowledge management have these things in common. They work best when there are clear outcomes. Those outcomes may require people to change the way they work. Risk or knowledge regimes that allow people to tick boxes but carry on working as usual merely store up serious problems.

So, the firm’s knowledge and risk teams had much in common. We had a similar (but not identical) message to convey to the firm, and we had an equally strong interest in the firm doing things properly. As a result we worked together pretty well.

Our common interest was most strongly manifested when the firm started to develop a formal quality programme. Most of the products of that programme were driven by risk and knowledge teams together or were strongly influenced by people from both areas. The approach adopted was also similar. Rather than aiming for external certification, the firm defined a number of desired outcomes. Those were driven by known shortcomings in the way work was done. Like the risk and knowledge teams, the quality team avoided a mechanical approach to achieving the desired outcomes.

Over the past few years, I have seen a number of firms (and not just in England and Wales) combining one or more of risk, knowledge and quality in one role. Whilst this isn’t a model for all firms, it seems to work well for those that have adopted it. If, however, there is antagonism between any of these functions, the firm will undoubtedly suffer. Even separated, there should be substantial common interest.

Whether separate or together, each of these teams should “really get to grips with the nature of the firm itself and its business practices.”

L’enfant, c’est moi

A while ago, a former colleague described me as being like a child. I think (I hope) she meant ‘child-like’ rather than ‘childish’. There is a difference, and the former description is preferable. Sadly, many organisations contain people whose behaviour is more likely to be childish.

Snow coverIt snowed yesterday in the part of Northern England where I am based. As I was working at home, I took the earliest opportunity to go for a walk. The snow was still falling, and the ground was firmly covered. It was a child-like impulse to venture out: to experience the metallic taste of snowflakes in the air, and to walk across cornflour-crunchy fields of fallen snow.

Snowfall changes a landscape. Shades of green and brown are blurred and highlighted. Seeing the familiar fields and trees covered in white makes one  appreciate them differently. Paths are indistinct, and one has to tread more carefully.

This is what it is to be child-like. To be open to seeing things differently. To welcome new experiences without pre-judging them. To wonder at previously unknown perspectives. To learn again and again. Sometimes this can tip over into sillier experiences, but that is not to be childish. (Richard Feynman could be famously silly, and retained a child-like curiosity until his death. I think he was rarely childish.)

The alternative is to resist novelty, learning, and new experiences without demanding detailed reasons for change. Closing one’s mind to how things could be different is petulant, childish, and sadly common amongst grown-ups.

There is more to gain from being child-like than from being a childish grown-up.

Legal KM: what is your impact?

I finished my blog post on the need for unavoidable irritation with a promise to look at the purpose of knowledge management in law firms. On reflection, I think impact is a better word than purpose. What difference can KM make to the performance of a firm, and what will the firm’s experience be? In other words — how irritating can legal KMers be so that they generate most value?

Pothole and yellow linesAs a reminder, the goal is to be considered indispensable by the firm, whilst still promoting goals that might be uncomfortable to individual lawyers. This might sound unnecessarily aggressive, but it actually matches the kind of work that has been done over many years in many successful firms.

Consider, for example, the use of standard documents or precedents to assist lawyers’ drafting (or their modern equivalent, the automated document). Amongst other things, these approved ways of working will force lawyers into a single, consistent contractual format or style. For some, this undermines their right to decide how best to draft or to present the document. (I have lost count of the number of times I have had to listen to lawyers grumbling about their firm’s style rules.) On the other hand, clients appreciate consistency across a firm’s documents and the efficiencies that come from part-drafted or automated standards are undeniable.

In this example, we can see the essence of the value of legal KM: it creates value for the firm by seeing better ways of using knowledge, bringing them into being, and encouraging people to use them to work differently (since legal work is knowledge work). The irritant comes in that final stage — any change to the way people work is likely to create a bit of discomfort.

The most successful people in legal knowledge management are those who bring about the most valuable change. (This group includes, in my experience, Chief Knowledge Officers, Heads of KM, PSLs, Knowledge Officers, and a host of other titles at all levels.) In order to have that impact, they have a few characteristics in common.

  • Clarity of vision/purpose: they work out at an early stage what they stand for, and why the firm should value it.
  • Connectedness: they build relationships across the firm, so that they have a better understanding of the complete range of work done, not just the area they work in.
  • Communication skills: they can present their perspective well, whatever the audience.
  • Diplomacy: they know which battles to fight, and when to back down.

These common characteristics (together with others that are more role-specific, such as the twelve listed for knowledge leaders by Arthur Shelley) allow for the greatest impact. These people can generate more value for their firms by being sufficiently irritating — they create pearls.

By contrast, some KM folk have found it easier to make themselves indispensable by producing just what their teams ask for, without questioning the underlying assumptions. By doing so, the only change they create is a culture of dependence. This is similar to the situation described (in reference to a different context) in the following video.

Demands for knowledge ‘products’ are common in law firms. Just like the managers in the video, partners feel more comfortable when their KM teams are creating tangible items. Equally, producing those items usually feels easier than trying to change the way people work. There are equivalents in other areas of business services — finance teams are sometimes asked for spreadsheets they know to be worthless and BD teams may be expected to support unwinnable pitches. The best professionals in those areas will challenge the requests and explain why there are better things for them to do. Good KM folk should do the same.

Ultimately, the test for impact is the same for knowledge management as it is for other professionals within the firm. How much difference are you making to the firm?

For HR people, the answer to that question might lie in recruiting great people or in managing career changes for those who are doing less well. IT professionals could point to improvements in client service using new technology tools.

For KM professionals, the difference should be found in changing the way people work for the better. Activities such as updating precedents and producing briefings are unlikely to be as valuable to the firm as challenging the way legal work is done and actually changing the way clients get the benefit of the firm’s legal knowledge.

Even diplomatic challenging is irritating, but it is necessary to create the pearls firms need.

Generating value through unavoidable irritation

Having worked in both, I can say that one thing that law firms and universities have in common (and there are more than you might think) is that they have a clear purpose built into their fabric. Universities are supposed to further knowledge by teaching and research. Law firms advise their clients on the law to guide their future actions. Diversification would change the organisation in unpredictable ways. (Both may have commercial interests on the side — publishers and conference businesses for universities; consulting arms or resourcing agencies for law firms — but those tend to be arms-length subsidiaries.) As a result of this clarity of purpose, there is a tendency to treat those who are not directly involved in the core activity as ‘other’: non-lawyers (or non-fee-earners) and non-academics. There are many articles and blog posts decrying this terminology, but few have found an easy way round it. This post won’t change that state of affairs — please take as read the decrying and absence of solution.

Thames foreshoreInstead, the past few months observing, and reflecting on, this state of affairs from the outside have led me to a curious conclusion. I suspect knowledge teams in law firms are not ‘other’ enough.

In a previous post, I drew attention to the respect that law firms generally have for their PSLs. This is partly a reflection of professional comity, but it has another aspect — comfort. By contrast, my observation of interactions between lawyers and their colleagues in IT, HR or Finance was that they were a lot less comfortable. The partner who wants to dismiss their PA or the associate who can’t be bothered to complete their timesheet accurately will find that their preferences conflict uncomfortably with those of the firm’s HR specialists and accountants. The outcome is tension between irritation about being unable to do something that seems reasonable and an understanding that there must be standards that apply to everyone. Successful IT, HR and Finance teams manage that tension carefully. They work out how far they can push their professional preferences for locked-down systems, carefully managed grievance processes, or perfect time recording and then they back off. In return they provide something that the lawyers cannot do for themselves: well-functioning systems, effective graduate recruitment, or efficient cashflow. In this ideal scenario, the lawyer’s casual dismissal of the IT geek, fluffy HR person or bean-counter hides a grudging respect for the value that those specialists generate for the firm. There is respect for the profession even if the individual is disrespectfully branded a ‘non-lawyer’.

I think something slightly different happens to BD/Marketing and Risk & Compliance teams. Lawyers are much more likely to consider that they are capable of doing the work done in these areas. In some cases (especially in Risk) the ‘non-lawyers’ have been practising lawyers in the past. Also, there is an expectation that lawyers engage closely with the activities that are notionally the responsibility of these teams. As a result, BD/Marketing and Risk professionals have to work much harder to generate and show the value that their functions deliver for the firm. Where they fail to do this, they are much more likely to be seen as an unnecessary irritant when times are hard.

I was thinking about an analogy for the relationship between these essential services and the firms they work in, but I could only find a cliché. They are like the grit in an oyster that is essential for the development of a pearl. By lodging themselves unavoidably within the fabric of a firm, something better is produced than would exist without their presence.

It is hard to imagine a modern business of any type, even a law firm, surviving without the services of good HR, IT, Finance or BD/Marketing folk. As a regulated business, a Risk & Compliance function is essential for firms (and would be wise even without the regulatory pressure). By contrast, many firms manage without a significant knowledge function. (This conclusion is drawn from observation and the research of the Legal Support Network.) Why is this? I think the answer is a combination of proximity to the lawyer role (even closer than BD/Marketing and Risk), not being irritating enough, and failing to demonstrate or communicate value.

Whilst lawyers love their PSL colleagues, they don’t always understand how their work is different enough from their own to generate value that can be distinguished from normal legal work. Some PSLs and knowledge teams are complicit in this because they want to be seen to be helpful, so they work to an agenda set by the practitioners they work with.

That is why knowledge teams in law firms are not ‘other’ enough. They and their work are respected because they are not irritating or threatening. That is not to say that they should be deliberately obstructive. Like their colleagues elsewhere in business services, greater clarity about the purpose of knowledge management as a professional discipline would generate sufficient unavoidable irritation to create valuable pearls that could not otherwise come into being. Firms that continue to believe that their knowledge teams merely work as extensions of ordinary lawyering will continue to undervalue what those people actually do whilst treasuring their existence — the opposite of their feelings about the rest of business services.

This conclusion demands consideration of the purpose of knowledge management in law firms. That is a topic for another day.

Working with intent

“Why?” is the question of the moment.

  • Why do you want me to do this?
  • Why are you doing that?

Fewer and fewer people accept what they are told at face value. Many organisations, professions and individuals are treated with a modicum of mistrust. Until we know and accept why someone is behaving as they are, we may be suspicious of their motives.

In particular, the way we think about work is changing. After a century of treating work as a mechanical activity, typified by the Taylorist school of management, we are being guided by a number of critical thinkers to wonder why things are organised the way they have been for so long. We know that even a simple instruction will often be freighted with meaning — the bigger picture. Until we know and accept what that picture shows, we may be cynical about the task.

San Gimignano towersThere are many reasons for this suspicion and cynicism. Everyone will have their own combination of factors. But one stands out for me. The pervasiveness of alternative sources of information means that it is harder to conceal the impact of decisions made.

These sources of information are not the traditional media or sanitised official channels, but networks of individuals sharing items of genuine interest. And in that sharing, as Euan Semple pointed out earlier this week, intent is critical.

Intent also came up in an article by Eric Kraus on Medium, “Social Intent:
Interested vs. Interesting”. Eric’s article is particularly illuminating in the way he distinguishes between the core intent prevalent in public social media and that which is most useful in the use of social tools within organisations.

Facebook and Twitter are social networking platforms I’m sure many of us are familiar with. They were created and became popular during the Culture of Personality. It’s not surprising these social platforms define success by things called “Likes” and “Favorites”. While there are many great benefits to these platforms, many people use them to share personal information. And on these tools…they strive to be the most “interesting” or liked person.

In our professional careers, having a message ‘Liked’ by our peers doesn’t necessarily have a great correlation to our success. So, it doesn’t make a lot of  sense that the way we use Facebook and Twitter today would be helpful in collaborating with or leading our teams.

I argue, it’s actually not a problem with the tools. It’s a problem with our intent. I’ve heard from many leaders who say they struggle with enterprise social because they fear posting messages that are not insightful to their team… Their intent is to be interesting. I think they have it backwards.

The ‘Culture of Personality’ that Krause refers to was posited by the historian Warren Susman as a development resulting from the 20th century decline in natural communities in favour of larger cities and organisations where it was hard to know people well.

During this time, we think of people with qualities like knowledge and communication skills. People valued “personality” more so than ever. Are you outgoing? A good public speaker? Are you liked among your peers?

In prior times, when small farming communities were more prevalent and people had real connections within and to those communities, Susman identified a ‘Culture of Character’.

We think of people during this time as having qualities like being helpful. People valued, above all else: “Character”. Were they good people? Were they generous? Did they benefit and provide value to their community?

Kraus argues that meaningful use of social tools within organisations demands that people use them with the kind of intent that comes with a culture of character.

This resonates with something I have linked to before — Pixar’s ways of selecting people to work well within that organisation. The key factors are described by Randy Nelson (then Dean of Pixar University and now Head of Artistic Development and Training at DreamWorks Animation) in this video clip.

The key section for now is transcribed below.

What we’ve gotta find is people who are extremely broad. And the predictor there, we want somebody who is more interested than they are interesting. Yeah, anybody can have a pink Mohawk and enough piercings so that wind blows, you whistle without pursing your lips.

That’s interesting and that’s easy to get. Interested is tough. That’s a real skill and I’m sure all of you have that sense, somebody in your life who you just always think of when you think, that’s the person I want to talk to. Why? Because they’re so bright? Yeah they’re bright. But what they do is they amplify me. They give me what I need. I say, I’ve got a problem and they lean in. They don’t say, “Oh yeah, I got problems too. I bet my problems are more interesting than your problems.” No. They want to know what you want to know. They want to know what’s bothering you.

That’s the kind of intent that builds an organisation where people should be less cynical and suspicious because they understand why others are behaving the way they are — their intent is clear.

Surely that is a meaningful goal for any organisation? Increasingly, good people will move away from the places where being interesting is valued more highly than being interested.

[Picture note: this is a view of the famous towers of San Gimignano, built for no other purpose than to express the power of rival Guelph and Ghibelline families.]

All change!

2014-05-22 18.23.58Thirteen years ago, I packed my bags and left academia. In doing so, I swapped one type of institution (where I had been for almost 18 years: undergraduate, postgrad, teacher) for another: a law firm. At the end of May, I left that firm and institutional life altogether. I am now in the third stage of my career — working as a consultant helping businesses find ways to use their knowledge more productively.

It will take a little while for me to settle to the new role. There will be some changes here too. My intention is to build a set of pages for the business on top of the old ‘Enlightened Tradition’ blog. If WordPress works as described, any old links to the blog will still work as before.

I hope also that the frequency of posting will pick up too. The past few years were very busy for me, and it became harder to sustain the blog. I regret that — I have many draft posts that are now too old to be useful.

The blog is important to me because the new venture will build on the thoughts and ideas I have developed here as well as on the institutional experience I have had.

The key point there is that my thoughts and experiences have been shaped by the hundreds of people in my network — those I have worked closely with, as well as the looser connections that come through comments here and on Twitter and LinkedIn. Over the past few weeks, many of those people have also assisted and guided me through the process of parting from employment and into consultancy. There are too many people to thank individually, but I hope they each know that I am immensely grateful for all of their support. The network is indeed powerful, and beneficent.

Asking better questions, getting better insight

Over the past few months I have been using a model that Nick Milton shared on his blog, to help people understand that the knowledge activities they have traditionally espoused only tell half the story.

I have reservationas about the tacit/explicit distinction, but that is irrelevant for now. The key thing for me is that there is a clear and meaningful difference between systems and tools that push knowledge to people and the activities that develop people’s ability to pull knowledge at the moment of need.

In another post, Nick describes advising an organisation which had over-emphasised the push side of the table. I think many law firms are in this position now. We have developed vast banks of precedents, practice notes, process guides, checklists and so on; and we have encouraged in our lawyers a dependency on these things. To a point, this is all good. These tools help people to dispose efficiently of the work that should not require great thought. But what about those areas where great thought is required. How do we build people’s capability to get to the insight and expertise that will help them solve the trickier problems that clients bring?

We can throw technology at the problem again — search engines will allow people to draw on the vast pool of work that has already been done. Sometimes that will disclose a really useful document that contains just the right information to help the lawyer arrive at a suitable answer. More often, though, it will produce nothing at all or many documents none of which actually help directly. Those many documents may, however, help to identify the right people to ask for help.

So it comes back to asking. Nick Milton has made this point in a couple of posts on his blog this week. The more recent post, “Asking in KM, when and how?”, identifies a number of situations in which asking might be institutionalised: communities of practice, after action reviews, and retrospects; but it doesn’t get to the heart of the question. What does good asking look like?

Fortunately, help is at hand. (The topic must be in the air at the moment for some reason.) Ron Ashkenas, in an HBR blog post, “When the Help You Get Isn’t Helpful“, explores what happens when someone shares their knowledge in a way that is actually useless.

Consider John, an account executive who is contemplating how to expand into a new market segment — one that is wrought with regulatory challenges. With a puzzled look on his face, he walks past Samantha, who asks, “Are you okay?” John responds, “Not really, I’m trying to figure out how to gain access for more of our products into Latin America.” Samantha immediately runs to her office and returns with a 100-page analytical report detailing the region. She then spends the next ten minutes going over a how-to guide on conducting market research. Out of respect to Samantha, John patiently listens. But despite her good intentions, Samantha’s input is counterproductive. John might have benefited from Samantha’s time if she had focused on solving his regulatory conundrum. Instead, John walks away feeling even more frustrated and perplexed.

What happened here? John presented Samantha with a problem, and she offered help. I suspect this kind of unfocused response is common. I know I have been guilty of it in the past, and I suspect I will be again in the future. The difficulty is that people are actually very poor at asking questions. Why that might be is a conundrum for a different time. Fortunately, Ron Ashkenas has some guidance to get better at asking.

Target your requests. Instead of asking whoever is available, intentionally target certain individuals. Create a list of people who have access to resources, information, and relevant experience about your problem. Expand your list to include friends and colleagues who tend to challenge the norm and see the world differently. Make a point of including people who are likely to have useful views but you might hesitate to approach because you think they are too busy or wouldn’t be interested.

Frame your question. Before asking for input, figure out what you really need: What kind of advice are you looking for? What information would be useful? Are there gaps in your thinking? Then consider how to frame your question so that you solicit the right advice.

Redirect the conversation. If the person offering advice jumps to conclusions, be prepared to redirect them. Most people will not be offended if you politely refocus them. For instance, had John interrupted Samantha’s lecture on market research by saying, “The issue isn’t our understanding of the market, it’s how to deal with the area’s regulatory restrictions. That’s where I could use some help,” Samantha could have spent the next ten minutes firing off some useful ideas.

This doesn’t feel like rocket science. Frequently, however, I see people asking quite open-ended questions in the hope that something useful will pop up. I suspect that what actually happens is that those with the knowledge to assist don’t answer precisely because the question is too vague. Yet again, the key to good a outcome here is the same as it is in many other contexts. Careful preparation and clarity of scope will generate the answer you need. (It is also important to be comfortable with the possibility that there is no answer. If you are precise and clear, the fact that no answer is forthcoming is much more likely to be an accurate reflection of there being no answer available at all.)

I think this is an iterative process:

  • Work out exactly what you need to know. What is the gap in your understanding that needs to be filled in order to resolve the issue raised by your client?
  • Who is the best person to answer that question? Do you know that person already, or will you need to seek advice from others? Plan how to ask the right question to identify that person.

Repeat until satisfied…

Hiding behind technology: what kind of a job is that?

I think our relationship with technology is detracting from our capacity to work effectively. In order to change this, we need to reassert what it is that we actually do when we come to work.

One of the staples of TV drama is the workplace, another is espionage. The BBC is currently showing a short series, The Hour, in which those elements are combined with a touch of social/political comment in a not-so-distant historical setting — a BBC current affairs programme (The Hour of the title) in 1956, as Hungary is invaded by the Soviet Union and Egypt precipitates the Suez crisis. It isn’t the best thing that the BBC have done — Mad Men beats it for verisimilitude, nothing can touch Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for British cold war espionage drama, and at least one person who was in TV in the 1950s is adamant that its representation of news broadcasting is a long way from the reality. That said, it is relaxing Summer viewing.

One of the things that struck me, watching the most recent episode, is that everyone is intimately engaged with the objects of their work. Cameramen wield cameras; editors cut film; reporters write words (with a pen or pencil) on paper. And they do one thing at once. During the episode, the producer of The Hour is admonished by her superior (for having an affair with the programme’s presenter). As she enters the room, he is making notes in a file. He closes it while berating her for putting the programme, and her career, at risk. When finished, he returns to his paperwork. There is no doubt at any point during this sequence as to his focus, his priorities or his wider role.

I think we have lost that clarity. As I look around me, in all sorts of workplaces, there is little or no distinction in the environments inhabited by people who actually do very varied jobs. Generally, it looks like we all work with computers. People sit with a large flat surface in front of them, which is dominated by a box filled with electronics, umbilically attached via (in my case) ten cables to a variety of other bits of electronics, to power and to a wider network. One or two of those other pieces of hardware are really intrusive. The screens we work at (I have two) are our windows into the material that we produce — documents, emails, spreadsheets — to the information we consume, and to our connections with other people. But physically, they fail miserably to benefit our human connectivity. In my case, the screens sit between me and the rest of the occupants of my working room. We all sit in a group, facing each other, but our screens act as a barrier between our working environments. When we converse, we have to crane round the barriers, and we are easily distracted from the conversation by things that happen on the screens.

But if you asked the average law firm employee (whether a lawyer or not) what they do every day, very few would respond that they work with computers. They would speak in terms of managing teams, delivering quality advice to clients, supporting the wider business with training, information or know-how. Some of our IT colleagues might agree that they do work with computers, but some would claim instead that their role is to enhance the firm’s effectiveness and that computers are just the tools by which that is achieved. That is consistent with research conducted by Andrew McAfee, for example. At an organisational level, then, technology improves performance. However, it is also well-observed that many forms of technology, inappropriately used, can distract people and reduce their personal effectiveness. That is manifest in complaints about information overload, email management, social media at work, and so on.

The problem is that, through this box and its two big screens, I have access to absolutely everything I need — the software tools, the online information, the worldwide contacts — to do my job. Unfortunately, because everything is in the same place, it is hard to create clear boundaries between all these things. Outlook is open, so I see when email arrives even though I am working on a document. When I am focusing on an email on one project, it is sitting next to one on a different topic, so it is practically impossible not to skip to that topic before I am actually ready. We can discipline ourselves, but that actually makes work harder, and so we must be less effective.

In some organisations, the technology is configured to provide access just to the tools people need. This is typically the case in call centre environments, for example. I think this only really works when people are working through clearly defined processes. As soon as a degree of creativity is required, or where the information needs of a role are emergent, bounded technology starts to fail.

Instead, I think each of us needs to understand exactly what we need from the technology, to create a clear path to that, and to take steps to exclude the less relevant stuff.

My current role requires me to take responsibility for a group of people who have not previously thought of themselves as a single team. I shouldn’t do that from a desk which is at a significant distance from many of them. The technology may fool me into thinking that I am bridging that distance by sending emails and writing documents, but I am sure that isn’t really the case. We have technology to allow me to divest myself of the big box and its screens. I am seriously considering doing just that — doing my job, rather than working with computers.

 

Knowledge ‘what’? And why?

One of the great things about using wordpress.com to host this blog is that Akismet, the tool they use to block spam comments, is really effective. A result of this is that I have never shut off comments on my older posts. If I had, I would never have seen a thought-provoking comment on a post of mine from 2008 by Madhukar Kalsapura:

I simply use this ; “Knowledge management is about what to DO when you don’t Know”.

Over the past few weeks, I have been contemplating this comment. I think it has much to commend it, but it also raises a slight terminological problem.

What do we do when our knowledge runs out? I don’t think we do ‘knowledge management’ as individuals. We certainly aim to develop, deepen, extend, broaden or redirect our knowledge — this is learning. Also, we don’t necessarily go to the same places for that learning every time. Organisations might aim to do things to facilitate that learning process, and we might call this ‘knowledge management’, but I am less and less certain that this is a sensible phrase.

Separately, I was reading Knoco’s recent newsletter (pdf), and found an article which builds on Yasmin Fodil’s experiences observing knowledge and learning at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which she reported on her blog (and cross-posted). In the blog post there are some useful diagrams summarising the people-centric approach used at Goddard; the whole piece is well-worth reading (and following the links to the Goddard material itself). Knoco took one of those diagrams and embellished it. I have embedded that one below (click to see the original).

This table made me reflect on my own knowledge and learning behaviours, as well as those I see around me. In the column headed “How can I learn it?” there are certainly some tools and techniques that benefit from external (call it ‘KM’) input, but the starting point (learning from one’s own experiences) depends on individual commitment.

I found it a bit more useful to show these tiers of learning as concentric circles:

I think this makes two things clearer.

Firstly, what I myself know contributes to the knowledge of my network, which in turn is part of the wider firm’s knowledge (although people’s personal networks usually include participants from outside their own organisation, or their immediate working group, I am ignoring that for simplicity here). When individuals have good personal knowledge practices (even if it is just making good notes that can be easily accessed and used in one-to-one conversations), their wider contribution is almost inevitably higher quality — to the benefit of those around them.

The second thing is that the further sources of knowledge and learning are from the individual, the more help they will need to make the most of them. I think that’s what we mean when we talk about knowledge management. But it isn’t so much ‘management’ as facilitation of knowledge. (And I am not crazy about ‘facilitation’ either. Alternative suggestions welcome.)

As a result of this cogitation, I have amended the description of KM in the comment I quoted above.

  • For everyone, knowledge development is about what to do when you don’t know.
    • When you don’t know, you need to ask: from whom can I learn? When you see people around you who appear not to know, you need to ask: how can we learn together? or what can they learn from me?
  • For the firm, facilitating knowledge development is about creating the best environment to encourage effective learning and knowledge sharing.
    • This virtuous circle of knowledge exchange and learning helps to create a more agile organisation primed to respond creatively and innovatively to client demand, legal change, and market shifts.

That last justification of our knowledge activities is one that often crops up. Better use of knowledge promotes innovation goes without saying, doesn’t it? But if that was the only reason organisations did ‘KM’ then why do all that traditional stuff around ‘best practices’, standard documents, house style and taxonomies and so on?

The commonly-stated problem with all that boring stuff (and I have been as guilty as anyone else of such comments) is that it just crystallises past practices, that if we do what we have always done, we will just get the results we always got. But sometimes that consistency and predictability is really what we (and our clients) actually want.

We (and of course, I really mean ‘I’) need to be careful not to jettison the baby with the dirty bathwater. Organisational knowledge activities (building on good individual behaviours) do contribute to innovation and creativity, but they also ensure consistency, improved quality and risk-avoidance in the boring old stuff as well. The challenge is to steer a sensible course between the two — to do the things that will achieve both aims, even when they appear to conflict.