Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

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 http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/10/social_media_versus_knowledge.html 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.

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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.

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?

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.