Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

Archive for March, 2009

Smart People Magazine

Those of you in knowledge management circles probably know the work of Jerry Ash. Jerry has left some of his long term KM-related commitments and is focusing on a new online publication. Smart People Magazine focuses on knowledge work but casts the net very broadly to honour different ways of knowing and explore and share stories from people in all walks of life.

We have started groups and networks using several social media. For example, there is a new twitter account (Smart_People) and related hashtag #SPMag. I have attached some of Jerry’s early posts in the LinkedIn group called Sart People Magazine. Please join conversations if this interests you, and watch for further announcements through these networks.

Jerry’s Introduction

Women in technology

Along with over a thousand other people, I have pledged to celebrate the first ever Ada Byron Lovelace Day by publishing a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire.

In the mid 1990s I worked with a Ministry of Education, helping to weave themes and philosophies–such as gender equity–into the K-12 curricula. One of my projects was to work with Susan Simmons of the Association for the Promotion and Advancement of Science. We were to help female teachers build confidence and skills in their work with computers, which had magically appeared in classrooms with little orientation. Susan was a confident and energetic internet user and an advocate for good girls’ education. She had written a science activity book for girls that was very well received in field tests, though not approved by the Ministry because it “cheapened science,” turning it into “kitchen science.” Think how many layers of bias are woven into that decision.

We designed workshops for teachers. In one of our planning sessions, we showed a university website of 50 Great Canadian Scientists. One of the women (from Women in Trades & Technology) commented that there weren’t any women on the list. “You should complain” said Susan. “Yes, I suppose I should write a letter” she replied. “No: you can contact them through the internet–right here…” So the woman who worked with trades had her first experience with the networked world.

In our next planning session, we pulled up a reply that there were no women on the site because the scientists had to be “great.” There was a woman in the room who had recently researched female Canadian scientists, and had a list of 100. Again, the internet was used to reply and a few of the names quickly made it onto the university’s website.  These were transformational moments for several people in the room.

I have no idea what Susan is doing now, but based on the enthusiasm, tenacity and passion of our time together, I know she has influenced more than she can imagine.

X-disciplines or lose relevance?


News and conversations are filled with challenges that cross disciplinary divides: climate change, poverty and effective education to name a few. In my consulting practice, I work with leaders who are struggling with complex, knowledge-related challenges. As a researcher, my scholarship hovers around the intersections of leadership, complexity theory and knowledge management. Increasingly, I appreciate the strengths and relevance of people who can make connections across boundaries to enable innovation, ethical decisions, and environments in which people can learn and thrive.

Last night I attended a small house party where people were associated with at least five universities. Several individuals—who knew little or nothing of my background—spoke to me about leadership, complexity theory and/or knowledge-related challenges. Almost everyone spoke about spanning, linking or integrating disciplines. Some described the challenges of communicating with single-discipline-focused colleagues. One had been told by a supervisor at their university that they had too many interests: they could not be an “expert” in all of them.

In my world of practice, important learning can occur rapidly, across many boundaries. Someone posts a request for help and within hours there are stories, references, provocative questions, practice examples and tool suggestions posted by experts from many organizations and countries. These conversations sometimes continue through cycles of experimentation and improvement. For better or worse, such learning does not require terms of reference documents, project charters, grant proposals, approvals through hierarchies, publication, peer reviews or evaluation metrics.

What are the risks and benefits of universities’ maintaining discipline-based structures and values? I suggest formal education in some fields will quickly lose relevance of universities do not find meaningful ways of honouring and rewarding their boundary-spanning faculty and students.

Photo of hands from

Assumptions about Assumptions

I had an interesting airport experience yesterday. Realizing I was flyng with a U.S. based airline, I planned ahead to take advantage of oversold flight perks. Wouldn’t it be great to have a free flight for a writing session with the co-author of a book we’re hoping to write this year! So my plan was in place, and I walked to the counter during the announcement that asked if one person would delay their flight.

I arrived first, and a tall man arrived on my heels (close enough that we might be interpreted as a couple). The United agent hung up to phone and asked the man if we were together. I replied that we weren’t but we’d come for the same purpose. The agent maintained eye contact with the man and arranged for his free flight. I was as curious as I was irritated. As I walked away from the counter, a woman standing close enough to have watched the scene unfold gave me a knowing smile. I said, “I guess I wasn’t tall enough” and she laughed.

After the passenger and agent had completed their conversation I went back to the counter and said “For future reference, I wanted to let you know that I was the first to arrive at the counter.” The agent looked a bit flustered and said “Well, he might get on this flight anyway.” I wondered if he had spent his career working for tall white males and reiterated that I was mentioning this as something to think about in the future. I wonder if he heard anything other than a gentle complaint? How many boundaries was I trying to cross, and did I cross any of them?

Metadata on Steroids

Recently, Lisa Petrides posted this tweet:
“listening 2 interesting talks on metadata (really!). we have 2 get away from narrow def of it, to include user-generated, annotations, etc.”

This reminded me of a work I had done with Andrew Faulkner in which we used data warehouse infrastructure (his specialization). I created views of data integrated from several sources so that front line managers could quickly access basic and customized reports related to particular tasks, challenges and opportunities. They had no interest in technical metadata, but did care about what the data meant, from where it was drawn, how recent it was, and why each report option could be helpful.

Although Andrew and I never wrote about what he calls metacontent in this context, he did write a paper with Henry Kucera titled “Managing Metacontent: Metadata + Meta-information in the BC MELP Data Warehouse,” which I am sharing here with his permission. kucera_oow98