Sunday, 5 January 2014

Knowledge Management in 87 Seconds – Creating an “elevator” animation

Reputation before brand were words that stuck with me following a Marketing talk. Yet it could be argued that everything is about just that these days. Marketing. This seems to apply to knowledge management too. Despite some solid concepts, value adding approaches and genuine innovation, KM experts aren't getting the plaudits they deserve because of messages that are too long winded or confusing for mainstream audiences.

I've been fortunate enough to recently complete a project with friend and seasoned KM expert Stefan Lafloer and a vibrant Dutch marketing and animation team Funk-e to see if we could articulate the value of knowledge management in less than 230 words.

If you prescribe to the concepts of Tacit and Explicit knowledge, then you’ll appreciate that not everything can be documented or added to a knowledge base. The lemonade stand scenario was able to reflect situations that could occur if key expertise was to exit organisations. An breakdown of the rationale behind some of our other inclusions.

Knowledge Health Check

We begin by describing a practical starting point for a KM intervention. Some form of knowledge health-check or audit will help understand the current state of affairs for a company and identify opportunities for improvement.

Lessons Learned

We also talk about how effective lessons learned can avoid mistakes and repeat successes and the value of knowledge reuse through an effective lessons learned system will help reinvent the wheel and rework solutions.


Here we’re referring to Communities of Practice. How the collective learning by groups can allow them to learn how to do things better as they interact more regularly to seek experience, reuse assets, coordinate and solve problems.


Last and I guess least, we mention technology. Important as it is in KM, its role should be to support people and not the other way round. In light of this, it deliberately has less of a focus than the needs of people and process.

Anyway, on to the video...

An 87 second animation that took well over 87 collective hours by all stakeholders to complete in the end and proved to be an intricate challenge. The Marketing guys rightfully advising us how certain concepts couldn't be animated, to keep things succinct and make sure it could be understood and appreciated by non-KM people. It was important for me and Stefan that the essence and key tenets of KM were also captured.

We're pretty happy with the results. With KM encompassing such a broad church of areas and different interpretations though, would anyone have done things differently?

Monday, 19 August 2013

Straits Knowledge – Working with a David

Consultancies have had their share of bad press. Whether that’s because of a lack of sincerity in their offering (as described by a former consultant) or the result of clients who call on outside expertise without understanding if it already exists within their organisation.

Despite this, the consultancy model appeals to me. With an honest value proposition, their small structure, resulting lack of hierarchy and organisational fat can allow them to deliver cutting edge approaches to clients far more effectively than larger enterprises.

Working in KM roles for relatively large organisations so far and meeting my fair share of consultants, I’ve always wanted to experience what it would be like be on the other side. So when I was offered the opportunity to spend two weeks with a small but respected Singapore based Knowledge Management consultancy, Straits Knowledge, I had to take it.

During my visit, I was introduced to the Singapore KM community and invited to help in client projects. Highlights (of which there were many) included talking at a community of practice launch, contributing my experiences at a knowledge retention roundtable and actively encouraged to understand Strait’s own KM and learning set-up and practices with the rationale of providing an honest debrief by the end of my trip.

Having my own set of keys to Straits Knowledge allowed me to come in at any time during the day or night from my hotel room to do lots of things. Such as… attempt to take arty photos of an empty office as shown below, help myself to founding partner Edgar Tans stash of roasted almonds (I’m truly sorry Edgar for not coming clean earlier) and slightly more productively, gain a better insight into some of the methodologies Straits Knowledge has been developing and delivering for over 10 years. 

The most credible consultants I’ve met tend to possess a good general understanding of organisations and management consulting while being especially strong in certain areas. Straits CoP Workshop Facilitation, Knowledge Audit and Taxonomy Development workshops particularly stood out. I’m going to talk about the latter two.

Knowledge Audit

I understood knowledge audits as a means of identifying which knowledge topics were well managed, which ones may be at risk as a result of poor knowledge management and what actions might be needed to then help an organisation. Straits Knowledge introduce their own special sauce by approaching knowledge and cultural audit elements with a bespoke set of cards. The cards have been created by gleaning patterns of behaviours from real life organisational scenarios. Their approach allows participants to express their thoughts, while also providing a structured method for actionable next steps. This video featuring Strait’s founding partner Patrick Lambe might explain it better.  

Taxonomy Development

In my mind, Patrick is also a leading authority in this area. Prior to meeting him though, I was always under the impression that Taxonomies were a necessary component of a wider KM initiative, but fell strictly under the area of information access and navigation. It’s only after reading his book – Organising Knowledge, gaining familiarity with Strait’s methodology and how they apply it practically to client projects that I could see how taxonomies can also act as an effective enabler for collaboration too.

My Verdict

Singapore is a fascinating place in so many ways and Straits Knowledge were truly great hosts. Nevertheless, I had been asked to produce a detailed report on Straits Knowledge and this proved to be a tough task ultimately.

Edgar, Patrick and Wai Kong as well as being down-to-earth and honest individuals, were also amongst the most competent KM practitioners I have ever met. Part of me just felt like telling to them to just carry on as they were doing, but then I thought I’d have a go at picking on a couple of points anyway! 

The first (and don’t laugh) was how a laser printer would provide them with better quality text and images, as well as a time and cost saving after the initial outlay.

The second slightly more intelligent observation was that while they were highly regarded in South East Asia for providing KM and Learning products and services, they didn’t appear to have quite the same level of recognition in Europe - essentially because they hadn’t explored the market here.

I'm pretty sure they’re still using that slow and noisy inkjet printer, but the idea of a having a U.K presence appealed to them. For the first time, they will be delivering two U.K workshops  on Taxonomy Development and Knowledge Audits in Birmingham from the 19th to the 22nd of November. I would unequivocally recommend attending these to any KM and IM practitioners and internal consultants who are able to attend. Details can be found on their website or feel free to contact me for further information. 

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Technology. A knowledge managers guide to tackling this dirty area

I'm actually going to stop apologising for the long pregnant pauses I've shown between posts. Rest assured though, I'm still about! I've also tried to make this entry a little more illustrated through the use of a groovy annotating tool I came across called thinglink. Please do have a go at hovering across the image and exploring the links. A larger version can be found HERE.

Anyway, onwards to this blog topic - beginning with an explanation for the choice of headline. I don't seriously mean technology is a "dirty" area of course. It's something I have a genuine interest in, appreciating the positive contribution it can make to knowledge management implementations  However, this contribution also needs to be put into perspective. Many KM practitioners (myself included) understand the importance of people in any successful KM initiative and technology on average should really only take about 20% of the focus. Yet there is an expectation in many KM roles to a smaller or larger extent to have an understanding of technology, if only from an end-user/business-end perspective. Although irrespective of how whizz-bang the technology offering is and what software vendors will claim theirs can do, it will (at best) be an enabler and not a solution in KM implementations. 'Social Life of Information' is a book that puts the area in context, respectfully and rationally.

Of course, technology itself is a huge field. Enterprise Content Management (ECM) and Social Software - Enterprise 2.0 type technologies were the areas that most related to my objectives at the time and the blog image above tells a story of some of the providers I have worked with over the last few years that may help other KM folk experiencing similar challenges.

Free or cheap

"Can you look into finding a tool that can act as an online forum? Oh and there's no room in the budget so it should probably be free". (It happens), in which case, something like PhPbb could function perfectly well as a business forum tool. Topics can be posted and answered by your community of users, although there still needs to be an active coordinator/moderator to encourage conversations and keep things on topic. PhPbb might not be disco enough for some people and there have been some security problems. However, it does function well, is easy to use and under the open source model is completely free.

Tactical solutions

Sometimes solutions need to be in place very quickly. Decisions and the implementation around an on the premise software solution while allowing complete control can also take time and are expensive in terms of overheads and maintenance costs. For smaller IT departments a cloud-based solution, such as Yammer, Huddle or Salesforce Chatter can make good alternatives. The latter is unashamedly modelled on Facebook for user experience and allows easy posting and replying to topics and searching for documents and expertise. Still on Salesforce, I'd recommend visiting one of their CloudForce events. As long as you don't get seduced by the hyperbole it will give you a chance to see how companies are practically adopting their tools and Salesforce really know how to throw a party!

A longer-term approach

As a rule, the cloud based content management  and search solutions I've mentioned don't have as rich a feature set as the more established vendors in the market, namely SharePoint - which personally I feel can provide pretty much anything. In the words of a KM friend of mine though, it is clunky, complete but a 'money pit' (due I guess to the development costs and the unwillingness of Microsoft to support smaller implementation projects). Being in a situation to provide something from scratch can be a challenging and an exciting and worthwhile time. Challenging, because things can get quite techie and venture into the domain of a systems analyst role. Exciting and worthwhile because you have a chance to really get to know the solution, involve the users from the beginning and be in a position to offer something refreshingly different from the usual corporate intranet.

The world of Enterprise content management (ECM) and social software can be a confusing area - even to the tech-savvy. Once you've agreed as an organisation what the ECM is supposed to help with, I found some useful places to start were to look at The site provides impartial reviews, new products and white papers on the areas of document and content management systems.

Gartner's Magic Quadrant although considered biased towards larger vendors does put forward quite a strategic selection criteria that can provide a good basis of questions for any organisations ECM selection process. Typically these include a vendors product and service functionality, financial health, profitability, revenue growth, customer feedback any any other factors that could help gauge if they are likely to be around in the future. Hardly exciting, but useful to know if you're going to be investing a considerable sum of money in a 3+ year solution. With this said, its better not to get too precious about any tool, after the 5 year mark any organisation should look into re-evaluating their content architecture for potentially better solutions.

Based on the functional, technical and security requirements of your organisation it makes sense to come up with a shortlist. SharePoint tends to be in the running, generally because it is one of the market leaders and SharePoint farms already exist in larger organisations. Folks like to stick to what they know sometimes, although there are a lot of technologies out there that can augment existing SharePoint implementations. Other contenders to consider might be their biggest opensource competitor, Alfresco - that can compete on functionality and knock spots off MS for value. Highland Onbase, which appeared to be particularly strong on document management capabilities (security and library services, check-in check out and versioning) and Jive - which Gartner class as 'social software in the workplace' amongst other areas. Ultimately it still comes down to what's needed in your company. In other words there is no best ECM, only a best fit.

From here it makes sense to do bring them in for a 'beauty parade', where your organisations stakeholders can score against a criteria agreed earlier. Try not to chuckle/get upset when any of vendors claim their solutions are a knowledge management solution or "will create" communities. From my experiences they seem to be more interested in providing a technology solution and not a knowledge management one. PowerPoints look great, so don't be shy on asking them for live demonstrations and arranging pilots (at their cost ideally).

Geographically dispersed workforce

If you've worked in an organisation where most of your colleagues are of no fixed abode, it is important to consider how easy it is for them to access and contribute to an organisation wide ECM when they are on the move or at client sites. Many vendors have also considered this and in addition to extranet access provide dedicated smartphone and tablet apps. Some are better than others, although Salesforce Chatter, Huddle, and Jive all provide impressive mobile access and I'd be interested to hear about other tools people have had success with.

Hearts and Minds

A question KM practitioners should ask themselves or be prepared to answer if asked is "what is going to be different this time round?" In other words how is your all singing, all dancing KM technology proposition going to be any different from previous (usually unsuccessful) technology implementations? It comes back to the key challenge of change management.

Although an IT tool itself is not the answer to change management, it's interesting to see how uses of technology can help with this crucial area. Apparently the most commonly used content management system within any organisation is the humble shared drive. One option is to mandate the use of a specific single repository. The reality is that a change programme like this will have varying degrees of resistance depending on how it is handled. Alfresco had a cuter approach to this situation. The existing shared drive access was kept in place including the regular icon. However, instead of this information being stored locally, it was actually being routed and saved in a central location. The user experience would remain unaffected and the system would be able to consolidate usually disparate knowledge bases into one centrally stored and accessible system.

A related challenge that you might come across is when an organisation may implement a technology for a company wide intranet platform. Then decide to launch successive knowledge bases with no thought into any kind of data migration or decommissioning plan. The result can be a confused and irritated user groups who save their work in what they believe is the best location, only to be told to move on to yet another platform without any type of hand holding or training. One approach to tackling these 'islands' within an organisation would be through the use of horizontal portal technology. These essentially work by consolidating several existing repositories into a single search interface to allow users to search targeted to their particular account. Tools such as liferay can act as an effective front-end portal for more established back-end content management systems such as Alfresco and SharePoint.


If you've managed to read this far, give yourself a pat on the back for surviving such a techie explicit post. 

In closing I'd say that many KM practitioners know the extent to which technology can help and yet its easy to find yourself thinking that it can provide a complete solution to KM. This above should really act as a reminder. From a a technology perspective vendor solutions, ECM and related tools can do pretty much anything. The real challenge comes down to change - something that can't be "populated and searched for" in the blink of an eye.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Is a picture really worth a thousand words? Images and Knowledge Management

Before I explain the seemingly odd looking images in the photo below, I wanted to give my take on KM and innovation. Some would argue otherwise, but effective KM promotes innovation, by supporting diversity, encouraging new ideas and helping to seek out new approaches. This is still a fairly high level view and innovation, like other values could benefit from a helping hand. I thought it was time to blog about the experiences I’ve had of the use of images to inspire innovation and how they could help folk do things differently.

Sue Fernandez is the owner of BOSSCo. It’s a great little business that has accommodated the Manchester Knowledge Café’s this year and provides everything from photocopying facilities and chocolate pizzas to branding and website design.

During one of many visits there, Sue set a number of cards out and asked me to describe how they might relate to an organisation I was involved with. Looking past the caricatural nature of the photos, it got me thinking about how senior management (who I pictured at the front of the train) mainly relaxed and smiley, had recently communicated how we had won new business - how there was nothing to worry about and how the future was bright. Conversely, back office staff (effectively the people looking worried and jumping off at the back) were of the belief that this new business wasn't actually generating any additional revenue, that the figures were not being met and ultimately it was time to jump ship.

The spinning plates reminded me about a colleague’s frustration at the ‘ball chasing’ the company did. How all resources were diverted on new and potentially new customers and before you knew it, everyone’s put into a position of juggling too many responsibilities and spreading themselves thin. The spinning plate image especially illustrates the diversity of feelings. Some may actually view this as an example of a capable team. Apart from the odd plate falling it could be perceived that activities are generally being handled well, with almost all the plates left spinning (albeit with fairly stressed looking staff)

Whatever your perception of these and similar images, they are based on real things people have said about real situations and can be a far more effective method of eliciting conversation than simply going into an organisation and asking people to tell you their problems.

Gary King, owner of deadcatdreaming is another image led individual I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Gary, an artist by trade has helped everyone from managers of Sony to council executives articulate their strategic plans, using one common denominator – pictures. He encourages participants in his workshops to express their thoughts, feelings and ideas as visual metaphors. Gary then creates these on-the-fly, painting large scale graphic records of what was important to the organisation who can take these away as constant and colourful visual reminders. This participatory approach deliberately combines different viewpoints, refining and defining often complex problems in ways that resonate for everyone involved, all the while unlocking the creative potential to see things differently (An example of Gary doing his stuff HERE).

Through his work as a graphic facilitator, Gary has also distilled a powerful set of images that he found constantly reoccurring across communities of practice. Deadcatdreaming have also gone on to package these into a set of evocative cue cards that they use to elicit meanings from many audience and topics.

As Gary said, on their own, these cards mean very little. However, when combined with a provocative question or a series of questions within a structured framework, things can really take off. So graphics facilitation is something that I’d class as a utility and like any utility it should be used appropriately – yet one that should be part of a KM practitioner’s toolkit.

Improving team or organisational performance could be one use, building relationships with customers another. More specifically, within knowledge management I see great merit in this approach as part of a knowledge audit process. For example, requesting stakeholders pick an image that might represent their view of knowledge management, be that good or bad and then of course explaining what made them arrive at this choice.

Still not convinced? The next Manchester Knowledge Café on November the 11th will be co-presented by two facilitators, each with their own take on graphics facilitation. Read more and express your interest HERE

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

When knowledge walks. Tactical Knowledge Retention in KM

You never forget a good teacher… The lovely Mrs Lowe managed to communicate the importance of good dental hygiene, where dentists and countless ad campaigns had failed. Her humble props of a jar, an egg and a litre of cola were enough to convince us kids not to wait for decay and use Colgate today.

As a manager I’d have missed her contribution to the school. As a knowledge manager, it would be the regret at losing her expertise, assumptions, values and insight that would inevitably occur when Mrs Lowe finished her class for the last time. You see this all the time of course – workers, good workers like Mrs Lowe, with years of experience leaving an organisation in planned or unplanned ways with little or no thought about how this knowledge loss could be mitigated.

KM practitioners could be thinking communities of practice and mentoring programmes, but what if these don’t exist formally or even informally in your organisation? They’re also not much use if that person is leaving in days and weeks and not months and years.

When bossman asked me to look into creating a procedure for tactical knowledge retention, I was only too happy to help. Perhaps the start and tail ends of an employees lifecycle are the most crucial periods, both in terms of how they are supported and the steps taken to mitigate critical knowledge loss. I’ll attempt to provide an overview of the exit process.
Knowledge Retention?

Related terms include, ‘Knowledge Elicitation’ and ‘Knowledge Harvesting’, although the latter phrase was something that brought genuine fear into the eyes of the first person who volunteered to take part in one. After reassuring them that no brains would be sucked out at any point in the sessions, I decided to communicate it as the less racy ‘Knowledge Retention’ from then on.

Knowledge retention is a response to the crucial knowledge lost when key personnel leave an organisation. It would still be unrealistic to expect that the entire knowledge built up during months and years of a worker’s tenure can be captured in sessions that may amount to hours. Knowledge retention is therefore a damage limitation exercise at best, yet still infinitely better than asking people to volunteer their expertise by writing down what they know, relying only on gathering documents and records they may have created or worse still doing absolutely nothing.

Even with the best will in the world, many experts ‘don’t know what they know’. Therefore, an effective way of capturing and transferring meaningful knowledge is through structured interviewing to help systematically surface know-how and ‘deep-dive’ on content that an individual or team wouldn’t have considered capturing on their own.

My first foray into knowledge retention was to specifically capture and transfer some crucial learning between a subject matter expert who was leaving and a new starter who would be in a position to take some of the previous incumbents responsibilities.

Deciding When

Before embarking on this exercise it makes sense for all involved to understand to what extent their participation should be. Knoco refer to this as ‘High Grading’ the knowledge risk. For example, is the work continuing? Does anyone else have the knowledge? Or, has the knowledge been fully documented previously? Depending on the response, possible solutions could be to simply creating optional self-help documentation. If however they’re identified as the only subject matter expert with key operational knowledge, as was the case of the first person who participated in this session with me, then more needs to be done. In a single point failure situation like this, a structured knowledge retention exercise was the only option.


Prior to a session it seems logical to define certain roles and responsibilities. Katrina Pugh describes these very effectively as part of her ‘Knowledge Jam’ process. For example, a sponsor (in my case my boss) would act to fund and select knowledge retention subjects and advocates in favour of knowledge retention event.

The ‘Knowledge Originator’ would be the subject matter or domain expert with know-how potentially useful to others.

A ‘Knowledge Seeker’ would be the person in search of the knowledge. They should also take part in the knowledge retention process if they are available while the knowledge originator is. Here they can play a role in shaping the direction of the knowledge captured to by requesting any specific information that would help them.

I took the role of facilitator to explain, coordinate and structure the knowledge retention exercise, as well as capture the outputs of the event between the originator and seeker. While it would depend on resources, a dedicated scribe could also work alongside the facilitator and knowledge seeker to help augment any dialogue and capture other such that was missed, noting down who said what. 

The Process

The knowledge seekers need a structured method by which to share their knowledge, in other words something to help tell them tell their story. Indeed storytelling methods themselves could be incorporated into any sessions. If, like me, you subscribe to the notion that experts ‘don’t know what they know’, a key purpose of the knowledge retention exercise should be to help surface this knowledge from them. A ‘pre-interview’ session to determine key points would help here. Routine admin type stuff can be taken out of the way and a request for fundamental reference documents, contacts and the structure of their working year taken.

Providing a context to help the knowledge originator tell their story is a useful starting point in the main interview session. An existing methodology or strategy will act as a logical basis to structure questions on. The first participant I undertook this with was a trading professional that was expected to adhere to a company mandated sourcing methodology. The various stages of this methodology were used as a framework by which questions could be formulated and structured conversation encouraged.

More generic questions could include, “what product/process/strategy do we have today?” Or, “how did the politics of your networks influence how you went about these?
During the pre-interview stage it helps to ask the originator to describe in a couple of word’s what they feel the crux of their job is about. With the first participant, this was essentially how they managed the customer and how they made the saving. Both these concerns were then structured into the main interview session questioning.

As a teacher in a previous life, my guru used to tell me that intelligence comes from within and our role was less as tutors and more to facilitate the elicitation of responses from students. A learning background is an advantage in any facilitated sessions, however probing questions to press for specifics could include:

What would you do if?
- What usually happens?
- What are the things to watch out for?
How could this be made easier to understand?
Why do you do that?
Where do you go for further details?
Describe a situation where it didn't go to plan?    
What are the critical success factors to achieving success in that part of your job?

A sequence of asking questions - exploring those answers, summarising the feedback and developing new questions - to help produce recommendations for the next person doing similar work should be the method of operation here.

The session doesn't need to be limited to capturing only text either. During one session a knowledge originator became quite excited about explaining the management structure of a customer and resorted to using the whiteboard present in the room. It’s fine to go with the flow within reason and I took a quick snap afterwards that was included and annotated in the final report.

Recording any proceedings was something that I personally don’t opt to do, figuring that it could inhibit the flow of conversation and make both the knowledge originator and seeker feel more self-conscious. However, discrete audio clips embedded into session documents can work well as a way of enriching the final explicit knowledge created.

At the end of the sessions, it also makes sense to distribute any reports with both the knowledge originator and the seeker to verify the facts and to let them add anything that may have been missed.

Demonstrating Value

Knowledge seekers, Knowledge originators and perhaps most importantly my boss could see clear benefits of performing this activity. If you are faced with a particularly incredulous financial director, work by Dr Hoffman from the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition laboratories could strengthen the idea of knowledge retention becoming a strategic imperative in your organisation.

-       Consider five people in your organisation who have knowledge that is critical and remains undocumented.

-       For these people think of five critical job functions they perform

-       For each of these functions, estimate the frequency with which it has been performed and the approximate time it takes for the expert to accomplish primary goals.

-       From here the total operational costs of achieving all these critical functions can be calculated.

-       For each of the functions, list 5 consequences to the organisation if the function was lost

-       From this estimate the following questions can be answered “When would the revenue stream dry up if the organisation lost that expertise?”

-       For each of experts, how many years of salary and training costs did it take the organisation to grow the expertise in the first instance?

-       Based on this figure, the total cost of regenerating that expertise over 10 years can be calculated.

Knowledge Empathy

If the process of Knowledge Retention doesn't sound too difficult, then it isn't meant to. Regardless of how much the process is refined or how well a facilitator practices the art of eliciting answers though the success of the entire process balances on the emotions of the knowledge originator and to a lesser extent the knowledge seeker involved.

As part of the process you can talk about moving proceedings offsite and promoting a safe environment for everyone to contribute. I was fortunate enough to see successes with knowledge retention candidates who although leaving their respective organisations, were grateful for the experience and had simply found opportunities that appealed to them more. As a result they contributed wholeheartedly and made excellent participants. 
Problems arise when an organisation talks redundancy and expects those same people to disclose their knowledge with enthusiasm and full cooperation before they walk out of the door. It goes without saying that overworked, undervalued and generally unhappy workers do not make good knowledge retention candidates.

In the current economic climate redundancies are becoming unavoidable for all sectors. It’s still in management’s and HR’s gift to manage the process with as much empathy as possible to make people feel a part of the organisation right up to their last day. It will pay dividends and not just from a knowledge transfer perspective.

So how would a knowledge manager win hearts and minds in situations like this? The first candidate who took part mentioned how the sessions helped him to capture, categorise and transfer the tacit knowledge he had been building up, helping his exit and giving him a sense of legacy.

Offering a sense of legacy may be the only real benefit this exercise could offer to some people. The organisation will of course profit from this knowledge. Personally speaking (and biased as I will be), there is no bigger compliment than having your knowledge become an organisations knowledge, embedded to change the way of working for the betterment of everyone and successive employees and a much greater enticer than any enhanced redundancy package.

Of course, had I had this know-how as an urchin of a kid, I would have asked Mrs Lowe to explain her tooth decay exercise for far more commercial reasons. We could have marketed it to revolutionize the dental industry and made a fortune (or at least enough to let me buy that Scaletrix set that I always wanted). If only I knew then what I know now.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Chocopedia * – How the sweet stuff acted as a perfect enabler for collaboration.

Whoever said “When no one understands you, chocolate is there” probably didn’t realise how profound a statement this could actually be.

“Team Building” sessions are part and parcel to many company offsites and one I attended in Coventry recently was no different. Forrest Gump’s mother might have said, they’re just like a bunch of a chocolates, you’re never sure what you’re going to get (I’ll try to refrain from more choc puns).

While these events are sold as enrichment exercises and an opportunity to build bonds with colleagues in an informal environment, the company hierarchy and competitive spirit to win is all too present.

And it’s always interesting to see the lengths company employees will go to. Grown men and women reduced to running around after furry coloured balls, internalised into handling a bamboo stick like it was a stick of plutonium. Or my favourite to date, spending an hour working out the most efficient way to touch an object and return to the same position, only to be told that a group of school children were able to complete the same task in less than half the time. The group exercise I took part in, was a little easier on the ego though.

Freshtracks have been running their ‘Chocolate Challenge” event since 1998. Originally developed for the marketing team at Pepsi, it has since been used by several organisations and was the basis of the final challenge for BBC’s The Apprentice.

Prior to the exercise we were split into groups. Senior management, including one esteemed member who had worked for a couple of high profile confectionary companies were strategically placed in various teams. Every team except ours, who consisted of, dare I say it, ‘the little people’. A couple of respected procurement managers, an operational sourcing expert, accounting professional and yours truly (Mr Knowledge as I’m increasingly referred to these days). We made our introductions and sat down to hear the Freshtracks facilitator’s presentation.

To begin, three of the most successful chocolate campaigns of the past three decades were shown. The After Eight, Milk Tray and Ferrero Rocher commercials brought back memories of my childhood and the cold war, although younger members of the team clearly had no such emotional attachment to them.

The challenge itself consisted of three tasks:

1) Create an original box of chocolates – As teams we were tasked to create and make a unique, never-been-tasted before chocolate experience

2) Present a product or marketing strategy – We were told to write and present a marketing strategy that would explain how we would promote our chocolates to a desired sector with an appropriate brand name and profit margin.

3) Deliver a 30 second TV commercial – Each team was commissioned with writing and performing a television commercial that would support the marketing strategy. If the commercial ran over 30 seconds, points could be deducted. The finished advert would be presented at the end of the session following a two minute product presentation.

We were told that we could use an unlimited amount of dark, milk or white chocolate to create our product. We could add various ingredients (at a cost), from the fairly cheap and humdrum marshmallows and rice crispies to the more exotic and expensive crystallized ginger, chilli, nutmeg and coconut.

We sat down as a team and got to work. It struck me how we should consider targeting our brand of chocolate for the more premium market. The main focus of all three adverts was less about the chocolate and more about the kind of lifestyle that could be associated with these chocolates.

A younger member of the team was particularly enthused about contributing to the task. Considering he is also a regular reader of this blog, I’m going to refer to him with a pseudonym. “Bandy” a self proclaimed ideas man, got the ball rolling with his “5-a-day” proposal. “There’s loads of different types of fruit we can use. Let’s cover them in chocolate and boom! Job done!” he said clicking his fingers.

While this wasn't a bad idea, it didn’t jump out as a task winner either. I didn’t want to stifle Bandy’s gusto though. Another member of the team mentioned that while it would be a new, never been released before concept, there was probably a good reason for that! I took this as a cue to add a little constructive diplomacy.

We should definitely have this idea as a possibility, even if it could deliver a mixed message. On the one hand we would be trying to promote the health benefits of our product and on the other, smothering them in a high sugar and fat substance. The group agreed and Bandy gracefully accepted this feedback. We still had to come up with a concept though…

After 10 minutes of umming and aahing, I reminded the group that we had access to a large range of ingredients, sourced from different regions of the world. How about we create a ‘journey of chocolate’? Different regions of the world could dictate their own influence on the ingredients and this as far as I could see would be a truly unique concept. There was a collective agreement to go with this, but we still had to think of a name.

My first thoughts were ‘Coco-Republic’ except it could definitely be perceived as a rip-off from the strong Coffee-Republic brand. I then put forward Coco-Nation. Better perhaps, except in common with the majority, I felt it didn’t quite hit the spot.

Maybe we should be looking for terms from languages, other than English I figured. Another team member suggested that we could use ‘Du Monde’ or ‘Of the World’ in French somewhere in the name. “That’s it!” I said. “Coco Du Monde”. "How about simply Coco Monde?" said another member of the team. A catchy, classy, elegant and expensive sounding name that would capture the essence of our concept perfectly.

We then acquired a range of ingredients and packaging for Coco Monde that our accounting professional had worked out at the cost of 49p. A healthy profit if we were to market this chocolate as a luxury brand with our proposed RRP of £4.99.

I suggested we split the choice of chocolates into Continents. South America could have the whole Inca connection, where I remember hearing somewhere lay the origins of chocolate. Dark chocolate, with chilli and cinnamon would be a nice combination.

For Europe, we could keep it simple and sophisticated. Milk chocolate with hazelnuts was agreed to be the flavour of choice for this region.

For Africa, often referred to as the home of civilisation our accounting professional advised natural, earthy ingredients, such as crystallized ginger, honey and dark chocolate as the foundation.

Then, as a group we hit a collective mental block – we’d momentarily run out of good ideas.

Everyone except Bandy. “How about we include Antarctica and choose white chocolate and peppermint as a cool theme for that area!?”

Fantastic, we thought. A procurement professional within the team recommended we create a circular box, like an Aerial view of the world. Bandy was on a role, “yes and lets carry that theme into the inside of the box too!” he said, “Depending on what region of the world you choose, that would be the taste that you would experience!”

Time was running out and we hadn’t determined a target demographic and associated promotional campaign.

I suggested that this could simply be anyone who has an interest in travelling and the group approved. “And as a promotion we could give away some golden tickets in selected boxes where lucky winners could go on a world tour – Willy Wonka style!” (By now you will have assumed who made that statement)

It was time for the teams to present their ideas to the rest of the company and we were first up.

Tasked with doing the initial pitch and with zero rehearsal time being a factor, it probably came across as pretty poor – even if I managed to get the basic concept of all our hard work across. Bandy then took some samples around and they were well received by the group as a whole. Our accounting professional gave a breakdown of the costings, which all added up.

The final part of the presentation was to deliver a 30 second commercial. Again, we had left zero time for this area of the task.

Inspiration (and courage) hit me. I asked Bandy (who by now I’d learned was pretty fearless too) to fly past and mimic an aeroplane and then leave the rest to me…

“You know… I’d love to just pack up my bags and jump on a plane to somewhere exotic. What with these difficult economic times it’s something that I can’t just do. Well now I don’t have to leave my sitting room to enjoy some escapism. I can savour the fiery, spicy passion of South America, the creamy sophistication of Europe, the natural, gingery earthiness of Africa, and the soft, minty coolness of Antarctica, encapsulated in a dark, white and milk chocolate experience all for a recommended retail price of £4.99”

This impromptu, freestyled speech seemed to go down well and it was time for our team to sit back, relax and listen and score the rest of the groups offerings.

It’s fair to say all the presentations were delivered more professionally than ours, with the adverts better scripted and acted out. As slick as they were, it was also fair to say that with the exception of our group, it was difficult to identify any of the products being pitched as unique. The wider group and the Freshtrack’s judges agreed. Coco Monde won the challenge and we were each awarded a nice little book you see in the photo to the shock and awe of a few Senior Directors.

That’s a sweet story, you may be thinking, but what has it got to do with KM?

Let me take the group itself as an example. Unlike the others, there were no senior people present. Not that that’s always a bad thing of course, however it meant that as peers with no rank and essentially no hierarchy was established. A serious purpose to win was helped by the informal environment – arguably the best type for fostering innovation. Every contribution was also a valid contribution and led to a free flow of ideas. Entirely the guidelines by how Knowledge Cafés are run.

Like most people trying to introduce a new concept into an organisation, you’re likely to encounter some challenging questions - even from well wishers. So when a colleague of mine (who was always a supporter of KM) expressed his concerns about KM succeeding if a culture of individual success was encouraged over any kind of team work, I didn’t have an answer. And not having one worried me for a while.

My boss reminded me of why this should potentially never be a barrier to knowledge sharing and collaboration. Before I could finish my sentence expressing my worries he was nodding his head in disagreement. He convinced me that being a winner, an entrepreneur, a leader and collaboration are part and parcel to each other. How Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button have a whole team of people behind them that have contributed to their successes. Of course he was right. The crews of engineers, designers and R&D scientists all play a part in a successful podium position and are all, by rights – winners too.

The success of our team wasn’t the result of one good idea by one person, but the accumulation of ideas and workstreams created as a result of this. Ideas were encouraged, a unique concept discovered, then developed and built upon by different members of the team, all contributing to the same goal.

So perhaps the biggest lesson to me is how the Chocolate Challenge reinforced what someone once told me “A team can be perfect where an individual cannot”. As much as you need your project managers,  process people and techie's, you equally need your motivators, academics and Bandy’s too. I first heard Chris Collison use this phrase and I unequivocally agree. In the end "all of us know more than any of us".

Arshad Ahmed Knowledge Manager and team winner of the 2012 Castle Coombe Chocolate Challenge ;-)

* NB. Chocopedia was the name Cadbury’s used for their international collaboration tool. As a Knowledge worker It seems almost criminal to take credit for other peoples phrases!

Friday, 20 January 2012

Carrots, Sticks and Obama. A Knowledge Managers Perspective on Change Management

Sincere apologies for this unfashionably late update. The topic is change and I’ve been going through some myself that have affected my decision to post any further updates until now. Changes in my work, changes in my thought-process and even changes in my trouser size (too much information perhaps).

Change can appear to be such a powerful verb. By asserting that 'things needs to change' or 'we’re going to change', there seems to be an acceptance that an event/s need to improve. That the old way was wrong and the new way will be better. With this come feelings of excitement, anticipation, fear, but perhaps greatest of all hope. Of course both “Change” and “Hope” were popular slogans for Barrack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, both of which he arguably hasn't delivered on. At the next elections the voters will of course decide. 

Back on topic, this post is about change and specifically the topic of ‘change management’. I still remember as a PhD Student brazenly telling a local Council’s Performance Management Officer that the reason for the slow adoption of a recently introduced information repository was the result of a ‘change management’ issue. His frantic scribbling of notes hinted at the potency of this term. It’s a good job the Council bods didn’t have enough funds to sponsor me in the end. Beyond blurting out that impressive sounding statement, I didn't have much of an approach at that time in my KM journey.

So I’ll start by attempting to explain what my understanding of change management is and why I feel it is so significant to the area of KM and management in general.

I once heard change and knowledge management being described as ‘bedfellows’. This is despite there not appearing to be a united definition for either. Cue Wikipedia: who at the time of writing this blog define change management as “a structured approach to shifting/transitioning individuals, teams, and organisations from a current state to a desired future state. It is an organizational process aimed at helping employees to accept and embrace changes in their current business environment

They also describe it using a separate paradigm. From a project management perspective it is considered “a process where changes to a project are formally introduced and approved

A clear dichotomy between the two terms, however it is the first definition that sits closer to my heart and also the one this blog post will talk about.

So how exactly does change management relate to knowledge management? I agree with Tom Young of Knoco’s view. Introducing KM in an organisation should be treated as a change management project. Unless you’re dealing with a start-up where KM can be embedded from the very beginning into daily work routines, you’re likely to encounter some degree of resistance to any new implementation, including something as crucial as KM. Tom goes on to say that two of the most important aspects to achieve this are Communication and Stakeholder Management (more of this later).

So we have a description of change management and its relation to knowledge management, but it still doesn’t address the need for organisations to take it seriously, irrespective of change being an important factor in the success of knowledge management adoption or not.

An article I came across by Lawrence Polsky provided the killer statistic. 50-70% of new initiatives fail as a result of ignoring change dangers. Issues, such as communication, change resistance and a lack of urgency. A lack of urgency especially was something that Lawrence went into more detail on when we spoke. He asked me how I’d react to being asked to get up at 2 a.m., wake my family, go outside immediately and cross the street. The answer would be… well I’ll leave any profanities out, but essentially ‘no’. As Lawrence mentioned, it’s really inconvenient and I’d get nothing out of it – exactly how 99% of employees might feel when encountering organisational change that was being imposed on them. He then asked me what I’d do this if my house was on fire? Like 100% of people, I would say yes.

I continue to talk with Lawrence on a range of change management issues, but his analogy really got me thinking. For KM to succeed, you have to find that 'burning house'. Although Lawrence didn’t suggest this by any means, was fear the answer? It’s one I’ve heard more than one KM practitioner imply as a strong-arm tactic. How an employees future in an organisation should be limited if they didn't share their knowledge and their ‘reward’ for knowledge sharing would be simple, they’d keep their job. Not that I'm saying rewarding knowledge via incentives is a good idea either. David Gurteen explains the pitfalls of rewarding and setting targets for knowledge and Dan Pinks phenomenal talk at TED on motivation had me convinced that this was the wrong path to go down too.

From a basic, empathetic perspective, it doesn’t seem right to relate non-compliance to having a direct effect on someone’s livelihood either. Perhaps this is the reason why people perform tasks (including disseminating their knowledge) without any real passion or pride or more detrimentally end up leaving an organisation completely. An act that isn’t likely to benefit either party. With this said, certain crucial changes that would affect the livelihood of the company do need to be communicated in such a way, however this really needs to be as a last resort.  

So my first practical task around cultural change was to support the roll out of a new initiative. ‘Carrots and Sticks’ was suggested as a basis at the time. An expression referring to a policy that essentially offers a combination of rewards and punishment to provoke certain behaviour.
I decided to go visit a change manager I met serendipitously a few years ago. He’s a qualified Psychologist who’s always happy to offer some first rate guidance on change related challenges. His room in Manchester is more akin to a stereotypical counsellor’s study and I feel like a patient every time I'm there. I guess good change managers like good counsellors have the ability to listen, if only to become fully aware of every pain-point. He gave me an excellent book to read, “The Goal” by Eli Goldratt, suggested I look at the concepts of Force Field Analysis and Tuckmans Theory and left me with some advice. That “Carrots and Sticks” is a horrid Management term used to manipulate people into a win-lose scenario. True change management is about reaching win-win and this is the only way it will truly succeed. The significance of this instruction hadn’t really sunk at the time.

I attended an inspiring course by Impact Factory earlier this year. The firm provides change management services to a range of clients including the likes of BP and Deloitte. Personally I feel their most impressive success story was developing a change programme for Gala Bingo. For anyone not familiar with Bingo, it’s a card marking pastime in the U.K with points awarded for completing a ‘full house’. With approximately 5 million bingo members, Gala’s management were wise to think ahead of issues that could affect the playing environment of these valued customers, as a result of the Smoking Ban that was coming into effect in the United Kingdom. Everyone in every club, from Operations and General Managers to ‘on the ground’ staff members (who you could argue know the club better than anyone) went through a version of their programme. Impact Factory’s approach didn’t just focus on the implications of the smoking ban, but also on how to help people grapple with the issue of imposed change, an approach that can create “divisive or difficult behaviour, negativity and feelings of impotence” as they described it.   

During the course, several discussions about the challenges we were facing were brought up and I mentioned the role of urgency. I asked if a little fear was a good thing. That little bit of fear to make you cross the road quicker to prevent getting run over. Or to make sure that you do get to work on time, because somebody might just decide that your poor time keeping was a reason to let you go. One presenter suggested that such an approach would work with her, but not universally – different people require different tact. It dawned on me then that the urgency associated with the burning house Lawrence was referring to doesn’t have to be a scare tactic at all. Employee motivation and engagement can be communicated without any negative connotations and it will be a much more powerful approach as a result.

So in the end I left the course with some closure and something that has gone to form my current view of change management. There isn’t actually a set way of approaching it. So I’m sorry to disappoint anyone reading this, including knowledge workers hoping to find a solution for their own ‘burning house’. I simply can’t endorse an omni-applicable solution. Even if I did, one blog post would hardly be able to encapsulate the many facets of change management. Like knowledge management, it’s a huge topic, with many approaches and I’ve found the road can get very rocky when trying to address either of them.

You may not have the luxury of dedicated change management departments like the Accenture's of this world. Or the crucial support of senior management, if they choose to ignore how important it is to the success and many times the very survival of an organisation.
As a lone crusader you can still make a difference. My change manager friend told me that when he asked about going into the field he was told simply not to. That he’d be continually going upstream, find it frustrating, confusing and lonely at times. Not too dissimilar to how we knowledge workers can feel. 

Except we do what we do because we believe in it and that belief can go a long way. As a starting point then, change management, like KM needs to be taken very seriously and in many cases tried, tried and tried again.

I’ll no-doubt continue to see companies spending like Richard Pryor in Brewster’s Millions on IT solutions, including knowledge management technologies, without taking the requirement for change management seriously or at all. Like politicians, senior management support can have a habit of communicating one message outwardly and a different agenda altogether internally. A good starting point is surely to be sincere about change and not attempt it half-baked. Lay down the good and the bad and if you’re not willing to embrace it yourself, then what’s the likelihood of your employees playing ball?
By merely providing tool support and believing that something user-friendly and glitzy or making change the responsibility of one person in an organisation without the appropriate firepower, or worse still try to force changeyou’re really just delaying the inevitable, not avoiding it.

So I’ll end by steering away from blame and offering some solutions instead. Here are some insights I have picked up from research, talking to people and my own thoughts during my journey into change management so far. 

-         Change is achievable and inevitable, but it isn’t easy and it can take time. Communicating change, including knowledge management is easier approaching it person by person, department by department and division by division than an entire organisation at one time.

-          People aren’t stupid and disrespect breeds disrespect. Good leaders are at least testament to the fact that being sincere and empathetic with your stakeholders is the best way to achieve a win-win.

-          Communicating the benefits of change effectively will in the majority of circumstances be more successful than any strong-arm tactic. Change shouldn’t be addressed with fear – unless it is a very real and last resort. Positive urgency on the other hand can be a very worthwhile method.

-          If your organisation hasn’t already, urge Senior Management to take this discipline seriously. Any change initiative will be far more likely to succeed with their support, especially if they not only endorse it, but live it too

-          Practical tips for implementing change is a huge area to cover. However, Lawrence Polsky from People NRG has created some brilliant potted guides. I also like the A.R.M.E.D approach. Get their Attention. Make it Relevant. Give a clear central Message. Give an Example. Say what you want them to Do. Change often needs to be articulated clearly and succinctly in order to deliver a powerful yet concise message.

-          Do look at academic theories of Change Management. I support Dan Pinks aphorism, “science knows what business doesn’t” However, no amount of mastery of these theories will work if understanding, engaging and empathising with people isn’t addressed effectively.

-          Along with ‘Blue-Sky thinking’ and ‘lighting a fire under someone’ confine the term ‘Carrots and Sticks’ to the business jargon bin. If you’re reading this Dr Harrison, then I agree with you completely now. It really does sound like an insensitive, tacky and uninspiring business approach.


-         A Knowledge Café about the topic of change will be held in the Manchester area on February 6th 2012. More details HERE