Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

Archive for Natural environment

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?

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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?

Public engagement & social technologies

Today, Nancy White joined one of our calls for leaders in park and protected area systems. Our focus was on how their public engagement efforts might be enhanced through use of social technologies and related tools. A common challenge for these professionals is maintaining the relevance of systems developed with a European-shaped North American perspective of wilderness. Youth who have grown up in cities and new Canadians from Asia, for example, may have totally different perspectives. I think my favourite idea was involving new Canadians in creating videos about their first experiences in parks, and posting them on YouTube. Park organizations could learn a lot about their interests, their ideas of positive experiences and their stories. And their stories could be very powerful for their communities.