Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Language as a tool
I've just been reading Being There by Andy Clark. Clark argues for the importance of understanding cognition within real environements i.e. that we manipulate what we have around us to help us think, what he calls 'scaffolding'. He argues that language too isn't just for communication but is also a valuable tool for individual thought.

For example, when putting together a chapter for his book, he used many papers, online references and so on to pull it together. Its not that it existed in his head and just needed to be transcribed "instead it is the product of a sustained and iterated sequence of interactions between my brain and a variety of external props. In these cases... a good deal of actual thinking involved loops and circuits that run outside the head and through the local environment" (p207)

KM implications?
1) That to transfer knowledge we sometimes need to understand how an expert uses loops and artefacts to support their cognition, perhaps on an ongoing basis (e.g. a spreadsheet for playing around with models, a favourite template, doodles and sketches)
2) Be wary of mistaking the loops outside the brain for explicit knowledge. Templates are no more explicit knowledge than giving somebody a knot in your handkerchief as a memory aid.

Saturday, December 21, 2002

Mark McElroy´s New Knowledge Management
I had an email from Mark McElroy on my posting of November 7th regarding his talk at KM World on Macroinnovation. I rather bluntly said I couldn´t see why he called this 'The New Knowledge Management' when Nonaka had addressed this in '95. Mark very courteously explained that he was trying to change the way we view business knowledge from Nonaka's use of "Justified True Belief" to one based on business knowledge being seen as claims open to challenge (falsification for those who know Karl Popper's work). An appealing extrapolation of this is what McElroy & Firestone call the "Open Enterprise", where much more of what happens in management is open to the scrutiny (but also the opportunity for improvement) of other employees.

If you're interested, there's a detailed presentation on Mark's website about the differences.

Mark and I are still having a dialog about his concepts. One thing I asked was if Popper's falsificationism ideas, mostly devised to explain the nature of scientific enquiry, really applied to business knowledge. i.e is business knowledge really the same kind of beast. I was reminded of a colleague once lamenting "knowledge isn't what it used to be - it used to mean science that had been tested and re-tested. I took decades to produce. Now knowledge seems to be anybody's experience or the gut feel of some poncey marketing manager".

Friday, December 20, 2002

Those interested in innovation with a KM bent may want to keep an eye on Imaginatik Blog, an experimental blog from Imaginatik who specialise in ideas management. I saw a talk by Mark Turrell, their CEO who began by thanking the Little Mermaid (!). It was Disney´s policy of selling videos by limited release (thereby compressing 7 year's of sales into a few months and making very efficient use of their manufacturing) that gave Imginatik the insight of doing the same for soliciting ideas: they found it was much more effective to have short campaigns for ideas than to have an ever-open "suggestions box" on a given topic.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Lonely Knowledge Manager Seeks Trusting Relationship, maybe more...
And here´s another quandry: in the past I´ve always rated virtual team working as a poor substitute for face to face (though better than nothing at all). Many KM articles assert the same - people need to see a face, shake a hand and all that before they´ll really open up. Ergo, virtual teams should meet at least once before they can operate successfully using collaboration tools like Groove.
The case against: There are now many accounts of people meeting electronically who fall in love and run away together before they ever meet. I read about one couple that exchanged 30,000 words in email in the space of a month. How many of your teams interact with even 10% of this intensity?

So clearly trust (and a whole lot more) can be established without face-to-face first. What matters is that its much easier to damage emergent trust online. So much more is missing (the bodylanguage, tone, chance to re-phrase when you see someone scowl etc.) so messages are more ambiguous. With dating-type scenarios, people are motivated to try much harder to get things right, to repair misunderstanding and keep the tempo up. You´ll never get that level of motivation in the office (not about work anyhow), but in the absence of motivation, education can go a long way.

Too often we just give people tools and expect them to get on with them. But Groove isn´t just another bit of MS-Office, and much more could be done to help people manage online working-relationships. People have managed this, stumblingly, with e-mail where emoticons (smileys etc.) replace some of the missing emotional bandwidth, but this is still missing from collaborative working rituals (not least because we don´t like to acknowledge emotions in the workplace at all!).

Must go - I´ve a chat going with this gorgeous blonde, 23, blue eyes who seems to know all about cars, soccer and hi-tech gadgets. Its almost too good to be true...

Monday, December 02, 2002

Knowledge Flow through Plastic Cigarettes
We know that strong ties between individuals provide a rich conduit for knowledge flow. The problem is that strong ties normally occur between people who are co-located. Eventually, the knowledge pool reaches homogeneity and stagnation sets in (just like an old married couple who think alike and have nothing new to say to each other). Managers try to make new strong ties with things like cross-functional teams that spend a weekend in a forest or trying to cross a river using boats made of flipcharts and drinking straws. This creates a strong common bond in the form of shared loathing of outward-bound events, but there's no evidence that it has a lasting effect back in the office.

What's needed is an ongoing ritual that reinforces a sense of shared adversity and encourages cross-functional encounters. Smoking seems to be the ideal solution. If you want to know what's happening on the grapevine, ask a smoker. Secretaries seem to be particularly over-represented, the ideal scenario for boundary-crossing knowledge events (i.e. gossip). Building-wide smoking bans enhance the effect by forcing smokers into a freezing huddle near the doorways so they can share bodyheat (the most basic form of tacit knowledge). Once you've gone this far, talking about a project failure hardly seems like you're going out on a limb.

The implication of this is that KM strategy needs to balance an overt discouragement of smoking (punitive official policy) with a tacit encouragement of the practice. As this would have health implications, I suggest that plastic cigarette substitutes would be ideal. Plan for January with a series of notices inciting employees to take up giving up smoking as a New Year's resolution.