Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

Archive for knowledge management

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?

KM as Hierarchical?

Yesterday I tweeted that authors of a blog post about knowledge management had managed to push my buttons. I assume that in writing their piece they researched through a number of sources. Perhaps they read the “knowledge management” literature driven by software vendors that many of us dismissed in the 90s.

If the relationships amongst social media and knowledge management interest you, read their post and the evolving list of comments. My comments follow.


I’m rarely at a loss for words, but am not even sure where to begin. I’ll keep it to 5 brief comments.

1) There is no mention of knowledge management as complex, comprehensive work that can be a touchstone for a range of activities and tools, some of which may have nothing to do with technologies and some of which may fit hand and glove with social media.

2) If knowledge management is top-down, why does so much good work happen under the radar (ideally later infused into organizations)? And–by definition–if participation in a group is prescribed it is not a community of practice.

3) Who came up with the idea that all or most “knowledge” is stored in KM efforts? Most good KM leaders and consultants perpetually steer clients away from misguided repository-heavy tactics. Solid research has taught us for decades that people go to people when they need to learn, problem-solve, and share and generate knowledge. Loved it when M. Rumizen called communities of practice the “Killer Apps” of KM.

4) What are the traditional KM techniques referenced in the post? When our advisory board designed an MA in KM over a decade ago, we put focus on leadership for engagement and shifts away from mechanistic thinking, communities of practice, narrative, story, peer assists, action reviews, social network analysis, used of social media such as wikis for collaborative work, and–yes–a small amount of emphasis on repositories for essential information, ideally with links to stories, videos, resource people etc.

5) If knowledge management were as hierarchical, mechanical and simple as implied in this post, we wouldn’t still be wrestling with the big change leadership issues (and related terminology) that comes with rethinking how organizations work. Social media use is a brilliant example of what these changes can look like. Part of the chaos comes from the as-yet-unresolved collision of past and future models of work. I think back to Karl Wiig (one of the “traditional” KM founders) and his description of KM as a social movement.

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.

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?

Musings on Client Panelists in Problem-Based Learning

For over 12 years, I’ve been involved with problem-based learning processes in which mid-career professionals present their ideas to executive panels. The settings and my roles have varied, but there are common threads: intense learning environments; current, complex or wicked challenges (problems); and client panel members who drop into the situation without the lived experience of the days or weeks leading up to the team presentations.

As part of the learning process, I expose participants to a range of leadership constructs and models. In this post, I will use the term “complex” leadership as an umbrella term for a range of theories and models associated with complex, knowledge-intensive, unpredictable environments. And I will generalize the term “complicated” leadership as an umbrella for more familiar theories and models associated with more linear cause-and-effect relationships.

There is anecdotal evidence that participants know they are working with complexity, yet struggle with how to distil their work into “presentations” coherent with complexity thinking. Some present linear, sequential, recommendations in traditional formats. Others present in ways rarely if ever seen in boardrooms, with or without conscious thought about complexity.

Almost since my first engagement with this approach, I’ve felt that work with the panel may be the weak link. In this post, I muse about one layer of these concerns. This may be a very early pre-publication draft about this sort of learning design.

When participants use non-traditional media such as storytelling or theatre depicting a different future, panel members often speak to the emotional impact such “presentations” have had. They rarely offer critique on presentation methods; their comments are about impact and content.

When participants use more traditional media, panel members often critique style, usually with comments about being more specific, detailed, emphatic, structured, and so on. As one example, when a team presented rationale and ideas for an unusual, multi-sector research and education centre (which would require considerable dialogue with potential partners and publics), a panellist asked about construction costs and phasing. As another example, a resource person (who worked with a panel member) stated there hadn’t been anything concrete in the presentations (whereas presenters believed they had included many concrete details).

So, what is at play here? Let me preface this hypothesis by saying that many executives with whom I have worked are skilled complexity thinkers. The nature of their positions requires them to work across boundaries with incomplete data. Yet many work in rigid structures with tools and measures rooted in the Industrial Era.

When panel members come into a seemingly familiar situation (which they might frame as being briefed) perhaps some default to a set of expectations not well suited to a complex problem. They may not have examined their biases. They may not have thought about how leadership and management differ, or how leadership can take dramatically different forms in different domains (as articulated by Snowden and Boone). They may come in thinking as supervisors more than clients or as mentors more than as peers-for-the-moment struggling with an intractable challenge. They may not have time to reflect beyond the emotional impact of non-traditional, and use media such as storytelling as springboards for new ideas.

In a very practical sense, what does this mean for use of a problem-based learning process for actual, current challenges? In some settings, its use has been pulled back (perhaps because questions of panel readiness weren’t studied and addressed). In others, panel members are now better briefed than they once were about the participant experience and what to expect. But I do not know of examples of client panellists being briefed on content from the learning experience (such as complexity theory or complex leadership or different forms of knowledge and limitations of scientific knowledge). Would such advance briefing be helpful? If so, how might it best be presented in ways that ease executives into seeing non-traditional work in enriched ways? What if some panellists are locked into industrial model thinking and tools? Could such preparation be counter-productive?

In “The Death of the Expert,” Richardson and Tait describe the role of the neo-expert in a way that rings true for me in this form of problem-based learning. “Modernist experts do our thinking for us, whereas neo-experts help us think for ourselves… Whereas modernist experts attempt to replicate successful patterns, neo-experts attempt to create new successful patterns (or behaviors) for each intervention” (2010 p.36)

I welcome insights with others who ponder similar challenges or can share related learning experiences.