Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

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?

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.

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?

Adaptive Tensions: Fuel for Innovation

In the twitter-based group that explores knowledge management topics (#KMers), John Bordeaux made some comments that piqued others’ interest. For example, he wrote that organizations pull for repeatability; people pull for creativity; and conflict can lead to novel approaches for both.

This statement speaks to the heart of my interests as a reflective practitioner. In scholarly circles I might say that I’m most interested in the intersections of complexity thinking, knowledge management and leadership. Since the mid-nineties I’ve not been able to think of any of those fields without the others. In lay terms, I might say that organizational structures serve good purposes AND constrain some types of knowledge-intensive work critical for growth or even survival. So many principles and norms in organizations are designed for predictable environments. This frustrates people who recognize the complexity around them, and have the energy to innovate and make a difference. These people find each other in coffee rooms, by water coolers, and increasingly through social media that can support networks and communities of practice. These connections can lead to anything from cynical camaraderie to deep learning, synergies and innovation.

Some KMers asked if I’d published anything related to the ideas in John’s comment, and I have, though I plan to expand this work in the future. For example, I identified 10 ways in which leaders work with the boundary between vertical and horizontal environments. One is to sustain adaptive tensions between the vertical and the horizontal. I illustrated this with a story of how an exercise was being planned to test and refine counter-terrorism capacity and capabilities. This quote from “Brenda” describes the process:

  • The first exercises very strongly focused on: “Here’s a spill, let’s clean it up” or “let’s find it first.” The second exercise was still along those lines, but they were a little more receptive to what if there were persons in that area of contamination. The third exercise was actually throwing in 50 rowdies who are potentially contaminated. How do you deal with them? So I’m anticipating that because of the way that I pushed for the exercise design, we’re pointing out gaps that will need to be addressed. And hopefully that will expand the areas of research interest for the next round of funding.

This quote is from p. 188 of Perceptions and uses of boundaries by respected leaders: A transdisciplinary inquiry by MacGillivray, Alice E., Ph.D., Fielding Graduate University, 2009, 256 pages; AAT 3399314 available through ProQuest database.

One of the points I was making was that networks of people that span organizational boundaries might be valued, respected and drawn upon by those in the vertical structures, or they might be excluded and marginalized to the detriment of learning and innovation. Even if they are respected, there are inherent tensions, which should not be ignored and which can contribute positively to innovation.

I posted my dissertation abstract below, and also have some papers that explore complexity-KM-innovation connections in the publications area of the blog:

Respected Leaders’ Work with Boundaries

I am about to respond to a request from some colleagues to post ideas from recent research. To set the stage, I am sharing the abstract from my dissertation here first. I have added a couple of notes to it in red font:


We work in organizational structures designed by industrial era architects, yet find ourselves in a knowledge era that is more like an ecosystem than a machine. We measure things, yet the real value may lie in the relationships amongst these things, especially as leaders face multidimensional challenges including climate change, terrorism and enabling organizational learning. This empirical research is driven by the need to better understand leadership in complex, unpredictable, horizontal, boundary-spanning environments.

This study explores how persons who are respected for their leadership in horizontal environments understand and work with boundaries. Each participant also brought current or recent experience as a leader in a vertical hierarchy, enabling them to compare and contrast these environments.

Data were gathered through interviews and–in many cases–direct observation of leaders at work. Phenomenography, ethnography and the integration of theoretical material were combined as an experiment in systemic phenomenography. This approach revealed detail and diversity of potential value for practitioners working in varied contexts. It also added to theoretical work about boundary critique and complex system leadership.

Participants generally described their vertical environments with factual statements about numbers of employees, structures, software, products and services. They generally described horizontal environments–such as communities of practice and shared leadership teams–with more emotion, revealing passion and frustrations. They had moved into horizontal work for several reasons including problems not being resolvable through traditional, vertical approaches. Frustrations sometimes related to the marginalization of horizontal environments, difficulties bringing learning and innovation from the horizontal into the vertical, and workload.

Participants understood boundaries and edges in different ways. One of the most common was to see edges of organizations and groups as places for the mixing of ideas to enable learning and innovation. (I have called these places Intellectual Estuaries )

Some participants thought consciously about boundaries in their work, and all worked implicitly with boundaries in several interconnected ways. Their behaviours included scanning the environment for potentially productive connections, making context-specific boundary decisions and maintaining adaptive tensions (the focus of my next blog post). Many worked consciously to integrate multiple identities associated with work in different cultures and disciplines.

KEYWORDS: Leadership, horizontal, boundaries, communities of practice, complexity, knowledge management, governance, counter-terrorism, narrative, systemic phenomenography.

Taken from: Perceptions and uses of boundaries by respected leaders: A transdisciplinary inquiry by MacGillivray, Alice E., Ph.D., Fielding Graduate University, 2009, 256 pages; AAT 3399314 available through ProQuest database.

Who’s In & Who’s Out?

A comment by John Lebkowsky in twitter about democracy standing in line piqued my interest and led me to his blog post about’s 125-member United States issues forum, which is described as “a civil, more deliberative discussion of national public policy issues and politics in the United States among people with diverse political perspectives.” After receiving an automated message from the forum (he had attempted to share thoughts more than once in a 12 hour period) he wrote: “The implication is interesting: democracy is not about enabling discussions, but restricting them. From their perspective, I suppose the idea is that an unrestricted list will be dominated by a few voices. Savvy online communitarians know that every forum will have a few vocal members, though, and many more observers who rarely if ever speak.” (As a post script, I have learned that the organizers are consciously experimenting and this situation may change.)

Later in my afternoon of intermittent lurking, I came across this blog post about biases against lurkers. It explains how a community tried to exclude anyone who was not visibly active and drew a humorous parallel: “How about if Wikipedia limited access to only those who had contributed on a definition?”

I recall years ago in a CPsquare Foundations Workshop helping a group that wanted to dispel some prejudice through a project they called: “Let’s get more positive about the term lurkers.” I guess that work still has some room for application.

I wonder about the leanings of the people crafting these rules (degree of introversion, degree of desire for control, affinity for rules or software “solutions”). I wonder if they do similar things in their living rooms: “Now remember, you have to leave if you don’t talk…and don’t forget you can only speak once in 5 minutes.”

Sometimes you just have to write

Yesterday, I read an article in the Economist that inspired this poem:

with apologies (and credit) to John Godfrey Saxe

There were six tweeps in Cyberspace
exploring a mistake.
“How could exec’s have gone so wrong
when so much was at stake?”
So in <140 characters
Each shared a different take.

The First (who wore a black belt)
said “defects had crept too high”
No doubt because of variants
allowed to go awry.
“So, tight controls could fix this up
(Through experts such as I).”

The Second, sketched connecting dots,
and said, “It’s very plain.
The data held the wisdom
but were siloed; such a shame.”
“A data warehouse architect
Could prevent this flaw again.”

The Third concurred but added that
“The data are one piece.”
“Economists have thought this out,
It’s story skills we need”
“We call them ‘Data Scientists’:
a sexy growing niche.”

“The IT’s just a symptom of
a mechanistic view.
They lost their innovative edge;
the workers were their glue.”
The Fourth concluded that execs
ignored what workers knew.

The Fifth (who had an OD blog)
proposed a four-pronged plan
“If we were there, we would have used
environmental scans.”
“Through PAR, effectiveness
continually expands.”

The Sixth, had followed all the tweets,
debating how to share
that complex wholes are more that parts,
where MBAs despair.
“You’re claiming truths in retrospect
for which you can’t prepare.”

And so these tweeps in Cyberspace
had shared their thoughts and fears,
from in their fields & disciplines
supported by their peers:
Their efforts to collaborate
constrained by their careers.

© Alice MacGillivray

Tensions Between Differentiation and Boundary Blurring

The World Cafe is a lot like the “Blind Men and the Elephant” in that it can be viewed in so many ways (as part of knowledge management, dialogue, deliberation, public engagement, social justice work, organizational development, and so on).

Juanita Brown, who developed The World Cafe concept in theory and practice, is like many professionals in these fields: she has been generous with her ideas. There seems to be a healthy degree of adaptation and customization around elements of TWC practice (and arguably work that stretches the boundaries a bit too far or purports to be the work developed solely by consultants who have stamped similar activities with their own brands). I am always aware of the tensions, risks and benefits around differentiation and the blurring of boundaries.

David Gurteen is another generous practitioner whose work I respect. He runs what he calls knowledge cafes. In January (2010) Singapore blogger “thinkaloudalot” contrasted The World Cafe and Knowledge Cafes.

How does your experience with The World Cafe or Knowledge Cafes map with his thoughts?

What are your thoughts about pros and cons of differentiation and boundary blurring with concepts such as TWC and KCs?