Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

Archive for Boundaries

And the prize goes to…

If you read my last post, you saw that we held a “twitter un-chat” as part of our efforts to include our offsite friends, colleagues and extended networks in our f2f #OCE2o12 event. It would be a bit strange to have a gathering of online community enthusiasts (OCE) without some online experimentation. The idea of the UN in the un-chat was that we were not setting questions up in advance. They would emerge through the onsite open space process and/or through conversation on twitter, and people off- and onsite would participate.

You probably saw that Nancy White brought a copy of Digital Habitats as a prize for online participation. Nancy White and John D. Smith were also facilitators at this event, and co-authors of the book along with Etienne Wenger, who could not attend.  I love this book, and you can see from the reviews that many of us have written that it has been appreciated and used in many ways.

Let me first say that people onsite enjoyed everyone’s input and questions from a distance. We didn’t project the tweets; I just interjected to relay comments in either direction. The topic conveners looked forward to these contributions and shared in the emotions (a round of belly laughs instigated by @PhDAda comes to mind) brought into the room.

As I said in the earlier posts, decisions were subjective, but @sparkandco (Holly MacDonald) stood out. She stayed with us through the topics, despite missing the buzz of our room. In one of our topics we got talking about the power of the whole person on line, and Holly did that beautifully and naturally. Her parting tweet read

Thanks for letting me hashtag crash #OCE2012, enjoyed participating, but heading out to a volunteer meeting. Following some new tweeps!

She listened, reposted questions for others and RT’d others. Several of her posts brought uncommon perspectives to conversations. As one example, Paul Stacey had convened a conversation about creating a great home/office workspace. We shifted from physical space and technologies (she contributed to both) to a conversation about home vs. work responsibilities. Everything was about separation until Holly came in with:

As freelancer, mostly I love that there’s no artificial divide btwn work/home.

It was wonderful to have Holly and so many other thoughtful people join us for the hour (and throughout the day). Thanks! A copy of Digital Habitats will be heading from one island to another shortly, Holly.

Paul Stacey and I had a brief conversation during the break about how much better we could become connecting people across that onsite/offsite boundary. Some people have invested considerable effort in this with some great results (Beverly Trayner and Etienne Wenger’s current work with BEtreats comes to mind). But Paul and I agreed it is a rich space for much more work and innovation. I wonder what the boundary will look like for #OCE2013?

Epistemological Integrity

Yes, it is a weighty title, but I have searched for a term for years, and this is the best I’ve come up with.

Most of us design learning opportunities. They might span an hour in a boardroom, months in a university environment, or years with children. Almost all workplace training I have seen for such design is rigid.  There are frameworks, models and steps one follows to be effective. We see this same rigidity in efforts to define information, knowledge and learning. We superimpose value judgements. Wisdom is better than knowledge. Knowledge is better than information. It is better to think critically than to memorize, and so on.

These conclusions are devoid of context. Personally, if I ever need CPR, I hope the first aid attendant has memorized the steps. If I ask advice about a complex challenge, I hope to hear questions rooted in wisdom.

Some of my work several years ago as a program director at Royal Roads University may be an example of epistemological integrity. As part of an MA degree, we offered back-to-back distance courses. One (which a lawyer taught) was about intellectual property (IP) and intellectual capital. The other (which I taught) was about communities of practice.

The designs–within this single degree program–were intentionally different because much of the thinking in those fields is very different. There were common threads, such as group conversations, assessment by learning outcome, and application of learning to workplace challenges. However, the IP course had a lot of relatively black and white factual material about things such as copyright law and trademarks. Assignments were tied to specific topics. The instructor—Dawn Wattie—often communicated correct answers to things based on legal precedents. Learning in this course involved building one’s knowledge base in specific fields.  The communities of practice had more of a constructivist bias. There was specific learning theory content in the first two weeks, but then it opened up dramatically. Learners chose their own learning outcomes, designed their own projects, chose individuals or groups with whom to work (or not) and worked in different platforms and venues. They spent a large part of the course experiencing a community of practice-like environment and making sense of the sorts of learning opportunities they could find or create there.

Formal learning institutions are under pressure to be efficient, accountable and to recruit and retain students for tuition revenue. And students are sometimes anxious about a lack of firm structure, especially if they came through highly structured educational processes in the past, or if they pay tuition by the term or year for however long it takes to graduate. Yes, the CPR course should be efficient. But don’t we need more people who can think in different ways and respect the value of different ways of knowing to tackle the complex challenges of our world?

Resisting pressure to fragment

Are you a systems thinker? Do you regularly encounter pressure to fragment? Do you get questions like “But what is your area of specialization?” Or comments like “But that project was never intended to include THAT.”  I do.

So–even though I rarely write blog posts–I started a new blog: http://www.IslandHealth.Info It’s explicitly about things like healthy food consumption; not about leadership and knowledge work. So I was amused today when I came across a blog post by one of my favourite social media connections: Luis Suarez (@elsua). In this post, he writes: “One of those folks I have been truly admiring for a long while is  JP Rangaswami a.k.a. @jobsworth”

Luis embeds a March 2012 TED salon presentation by JP Rangaswami in this post. It is well worth 8 minutes of your time if you care about work in a knowledge era and appreciate the power of metaphor. This TED talk explores the idea: “what would happen differently in your life if you saw information the way you saw food.” It left me both inspired, and feeling sheepish about my decision to publicly fragment spheres of thinking, which this authentic thinker has integrated so beautifully and provocatively.

What do you watch for?

In organizations, we strive for specificity and certainty. Set a goal, carve into objectives, document metrics, and watch for progress. We know what we find, but what do we miss?
Since moving to the country, I have adopted a different approach in my personal life (or perhaps I’m simply more aware of it now). For example, my economical three-cylinder Daihatsu flatbed stalled the other day and refused to restart. This happened at the end of a driveway with an ocean view. At first I was totally focused on the problem. Then I decided to ignore the truck (which I later realized was flooded), and watch the ocean. I thought “something interesting is bound to happen.” And within minutes, an otter climbed out of the water onto a protruding rock, groomed its fur, and slipped back into the ocean.
This morning, I set up chairs on the new boardwalk that surrounds our pond. I sat in each of them to see if I liked their orientation. Then I settled into one, thinking “I bet I will see something interesting.” This time, within seconds, a hummingbird came to the pond. In the winter “clean-up” we had missed a couple of cattails, and the hummingbird went straight to these raggedy tops. She probed them just as hummingbirds probe flowers, but she was gathering a huge beak-full of fluff for her nest.

So I thought back to work in organizations…what lessons are there? In all my years of work in the public sector, two people stood out as leaders who inspired me and supported me in doing my best. As I think back on it, they both had this “watch for interesting things” approach. Of course they had to work with business plans and the like, but they were extraordinary observers, listeners, and synthesists. They were not afraid to try the unexpected. They understood use of complexity theory in leadership without ever using those terms.
In your work as an organizational leader (formal or informal; internal or external), what do you watch for?

CoP & Projects: A Toxic mix?

I’ve been exchanging tweets with Matthew Loxton about whether communities of practice (CoP) and projects are a good fit. He’s sceptical; I suggested it can work, depending on context and on definitions of a project. I haven’t written specifically about this before, so thought it was worth sharing preliminary thoughts in a blog post.

First, I think Matthew is correct to be cautious for at least four reasons. 1) The fuel for CoP is passion for a topic, and sometimes the grunt work needed for projects can eat away at that all-important passion. 2) In my experience, many executives don’t know how to manage (or more appropriately, not manage) CoP.  So any activities that make the communities look like more familiar animals—such as project teams—can put the distinctive nature of these groups at risk.  3) As the flip side of the same coin, the community might begin to equate its work with deliverables rather than good communication, support, inspiration, learning and improved practice. 4) Project work could put a community into a form of direct competition with other workplace groups. This could be a lose/lose. Fabulous results could result in unproductive tensions; poor results could erode hard won support for the CoP.

When I commented on projects being potentially valuable, I realized I was drawing a fuzzy line between two types of communities of practice: intra- and inter-organizational. I’ve seen the latter have a whole lot more freedom, diversity, longevity and sometimes creativity. This isn’t always true, but the distinction is worth thinking about. Executives don’t quite know what to do with inter-organizational communities, if they even know about them. They clearly cannot control them. If they come to see value in these groups, they might treat their member employees as intriguing internal consultants on loan, capable of bringing project benefits back into the organization.

As examples of successful project work, consider early days of CompanyCommand, when the “failed” project of the good practice guide was replaced—again on a volunteer basis—with the launching and development of the community itself. For years it crossed organizations, but had enough momentum to continue as an intra-organizational community of company commanders (who were always the intended beneficiaries). Another example is Canada’s counter-terrorism network of communities—CRTI—about which I have written in the past. Community members came from many federal government departments as well as from a range of first responder organizations. Some of the project work was funded through a proposal process.

I also commented about the definitions of project work. We usually think of projects as intimately tied to organizational goals (and my comments above are in that context). However, I have seen communities of practice take on learning-related projects. CPsquare (I’m fortunate to have a great vantage point by being in the leadership group) does this quite regularly.

I welcome other perspectives on Matthew’s question.

Reflections on Travel in America

I’ve spent more time in the U.S. over the last few years than in the rest of my life. And today on Independence Day I decided to do a 2 minute brainstorm of things I almost always enjoy on each trip, even if most of my time is in meeting rooms. In random order…

  1. Hearing the range of accents.
  2. Watching people from California and New York try to communicate.
  3. Barbeque.
  4. Learning more about life as an African American.
  5. Trying not to say “about.”
  6. Seeing plants, birds and landscapes we don’t have in Canada.
  7. Hearing jazz or blues.
  8. Finding some new kind of hot sauce.
  9. Hearing Spanish spoken.
  10. Having assumptions about America shaken up in new ways.

What are we doing on twitter?

You have undoubtedly noticed the exponential growth of tips—on twitter, for example—about how to achieve things through social media. Often the desired result is simply more followers.  Some people want huge numbers of followers (see @jeffbullas for tips) where others such as John Tropea @johnt reduce the numbers of people they follow to avoid overload.

In the deluge of input we get through social media, I wonder how many people think about the implications of routes they choose. I’ve pulled two people out of my twittersphere simply because they come to mind as very different, despite their overlapping expertise.

Pete Cashmore (I usually think of him as @mashable) with over 2 million unique twitter followers, shares content about social media. He recommends people never talk about themselves in their tweets, usually walks the talk. Jean Russell (@nurturegirl) comes to mind as one of several active twitter users who rarely tweets in a totally impersonal way. I haven’t heard her advocate a whole-person approach to tweeting, but she models that practice. By the way, I’ve not met either Pete or Jean face-to-face.

I can’t help but reflect on these two common styles and how they fit into societal trends. We crave good information, sound bites and references to make us sound more credible (especially in win-lose environments). @mashable provides a gold mine of factoids and links, often based on analytical work. When I go to @mashable, it’s a bit like going to a lecture or encyclopedia. It feels mechanical and entity-oriented. I suspect he has a strong network for complicated problem-solving. I get no sense of Pete as a person. I get no feeling of relationship; in fact I envision a message to him slipping towards the bottom of a very large pile. I don’t feel that my critical thinking is challenged. I feel pulled into the illusion that everything has a “right answer.” I do feel better armed for conversations over coffee and reassured that I can catch up efficiently on important content by visiting his sites.

Sometimes Jean’s tweets have “no value” for me, yet they might lead me to picture her wrestling with ideas at her computer or walking on a sunny SF street. Difficult to pin an ROI on that, but she attends to relationship: the essence of complex systems. I suspect she has a strong network for complex problem-solving. Intentionally or not, she is working with very different ways of knowing, and different ways of using twitter as a tool or medium.

We often focus on what we want or need individually as a person with a social media account, reading the work from others’ accounts. How do we think about ways in which we are shaping societies through the choices we make?

A Tale of Two Transactions

As some of you know, we have just moved after over 20 years in the same suburban home. There are many things I could compare and contrast, but an unlikely one stands out: dealing with the real estate transaction process.

This is a post about home moving, but it’s also about bigger things. I could as easily be writing about mergers and acquisitions, immigration, knowledge management practices when employees retire, or adoption processes.

I’ll call our new home the “island” home and the old one the “suburban” home. We met the owner of our island home on our second visit when the house inspection took place. As a matter of fact she stayed for the house inspection and answered questions. It has been a few days since we moved in; she has visited and replies promptly to my questions by e-mail. We knew she’d be leaving some things behind, such as ladders and some leftover building materials. We’d agreed to that in writing. Some of those items weren’t here after all (which was fine with everyone) and she left many other things. If you went to wash your hands after bringing in boxes, there was a cake of soap and a dish towel. If you started a fire there was a poker. There were cleaning products and flowerpots and all sorts of other potentially useful and educational things.

We have never met the new owners of our suburban home. They stood out on the street until we drove away for the building inspection. We left them a note with contact information in case they had questions, but they’ve not contacted us. The re-routed envelopes say “moved.” They knew we would be leaving some things behind, such as firewood they wanted. We’d agreed to that in writing. Everything we agreed to leave was there, and we left other things as well. They were the sorts of things we’d “inherited” when acquiring other properties such as fertilizer for the lawn, bottles of cleaners specific to surfaces in the house, paint that matched interior painting, and a rack of wood molding and trim. There was a strawberry pot planted with succulents that I cannot imagine anyone not liking. As we were being given an extension ladder with the island home, we paid it forward by leaving ours at the suburban home.

As we left the suburban home there was a flurry of concern. For one thing, the cleaning service provided by the realtor as part of the contract was for less work than we’d realized. In addition, we “might be sued” for leaving items not agreed to in writing. So there was a scramble to find a mover to take away anything not on that list. I don’t know what went, but it’s my understanding that all items not on the list were to be hauled away, perhaps to a landfill, without checking with the new owner as to whether they would like them.

The contrasts in these experiences have me thinking about the urban-suburban-rural spectrum, and how that manifests in homes and workplaces. Do these contexts encourage us to think differently about territoriality, re-use, life-cycle costing, effectiveness, ethics or when rules should trump adaptation to unexpected variation? Could we use the urban-rural spectrum to re-think some of our outmoded workplace practices?

More views on the BP-KM link

(or lack thereof)

I received from Nick Milton and Roan Yong on my post “BP’s spill and KM excellence: A paradox?” Both–in somewhat different ways–challenged the idea that there was a paradox: Nick (speaking independently but with deep internal BP expertise) argued primarily from the Black Swan perspective: no one could see this coming. Roan argued that BP is great with peer assists but they are designed for simple problems using Snowden’s Cynefin framework, whereas the blowout was complex. (I’d say peer-assists are primarily for complicated work and may have merit in the complex domain).

Now Tom Davenport has weighed in in an HBR post entitled “If Only BP Knew Now What it Knew Then.” He also contrasted the CEO’s approaches. Davenport states that BP’s “prized ‘peer assist’ program — the jewel of its knowledge program — was barely functioning.” Although he does not mention boundaries or environmental programs specifically, he hints at boundaries in statements such as “The cultural byword had become full steam ahead” (note mechanical metaphor).

A range of interesting comments is trickling in to the HBR site, and I hope they will continue to do so. Watch the HBR post space and comment/trackback here or there if you have insights to share.


BP’s spill & KM excellence: A paradox?

Photographer Brian Skerry tells us that 90% of the big fish in the ocean have disappeared in the last 50-60 years. And most of us didn’t even have that context as we turned our eyes to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s early June and there has already been a MEDEVAC of a worker with chemical poisoning. The leak may not be fully stopped until August. The effects of chemical poisoning in a human—according to CNN news—can last for more than a decade. We have no idea about the massive number of non-human lives lost. Oil and dispersal chemicals will be caught up in currents and spread well beyond the Gulf. And meteorologists are predicting a bad hurricane season.

Those of us who work with Knowledge Management (KM) know that BP has—or had—an exceptionally good reputation for work with knowledge as an asset. BP won the Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise award many times, and many KM publications draw from the years when Lord Browne was CEO. How can a company that developed such a high skill level be at the helm of such a disaster, apparently uncertain about everything from technical solutions to communication?

I can think of many hypotheses related to knowledge management and they are just that; I have no evidence. One has to do with the nature of the KM processes and tools BP developed and used, and those they didn’t.

I heard one of BP’s well-known KM experts present in 2003. He cited Lord Browne’s catalyzing quote: “Anyone in the organisation who is not directly accountable for making a profit should be involved in creating and distributing knowledge that the company can use to make a profit.” (In this post, I set aside the for-profit element). After the presentation I noted that almost all the focus had been on knowledge sharing and distribution through communities of practice, virtual teams, action reviews, and so on. I asked about the “creating” part of Browne’s knowledge equation. (At the time, we were very much aware of the limitations of knowledge sharing or transfer; it is part of the reason we have retained that awkward umbrella term of “knowledge management.”) Knowledge generation was not being ignored—he explained. It was an integral part of the peer assist process.

For those not involved with knowledge management, a peer assist is used to improve plans before they are put into action. Typically a team that has successfully completed a major project flies in to meet with a team about to undertake a similar project. By exploring the rich edge between experiential learning in another context and knowledge of the new context, valuable new knowledge can be created.

Yes, this is a great example of knowledge generation. But it is tightly bounded by the project mindset. Drilling for oil is a standard part of BP’s suite of activities. Capping a leak that could never happen from a rig that could never sink is not. Might the epistemic culture of engineering (would I be accurate in saying this kind of engineering is best with how, what and when questions?) restrict the possibilities for exploring different kinds of questions requiring knowledge generation?