Sunday, April 18, 2004

The £10bn rail crash:
A superb piece of investigative journalism by James Meek for the Guardian about the mis-management of UK West Coast main line modernization. A project that was supposed to cost £1.5bn will now cost £10bn (more than the new US mission to the moon) and be 2 years late.

Though not spelled out, there is a strong thread running through the tale of apalling knowledge management and the dangers of unamanaged downsizing leading to the eventual collapse of Railtrack. At its heart seems to be management arrogance - a contempt for engineering expertise, a fixation on the city and shareholders, and some dubious hiring choices of executives and consultants.

For example:
"Railtrack was led to privatisation by two men, its chief executive, John Edmonds, and its chairman, Robert Horton. Edmonds was a former senior British Rail executive, Horton the former chairman of BP. Far from being loyal to BR's way of doing things, his experience on the state railways had inspired in him a scepticism towards in-house engineers and safety experts bordering on contempt. They were, he considered, overcautious, conservative, stuck in the mud. It was this which led him, at Railtrack, to shed the nucleus of in-house expertise that left the company unable to understand what its myriad specialist contractors were up to." (my emphasis).

[On Horton] "'He wasn't close enough to the railway to know what was going wrong,' said one rail industry source. 'So he was great at privatising, great with the City, good at getting private investment into industry. He didn't understand that he'd lost all his key operators, lost all his key engineers, and was chasing technology that wouldn't work.' "

A secondary effect of this loss of expertise was a loss of contacts to the outside world. Its plan relied on an ambitious new technology that had never been proven. When Railtrack should have heard alarm bells ringing, it was too isolated to pick them up:

"in January 1995, most of Europe's state-owned railways - 19 of them - came to the joint conclusion that [the new technology] was not ready to be used in the real world, and a simpler, transitional form of new technology should be the next step. Again, Railtrack ignored the warning. In fact, Railtrack may never have heard it: at this time the firm had barely any contact with Europe."

Even if connections had been made, it didn't even have sufficient knowledge to learn from them:
"Railtrack did not have its own sufficiently strong in-house knowledge and expertise to be able to use industry for what it was good at, to gather their views in and make a judgment."

The klesson, then, is to downsize with care, and be very careful about the inherent limitations of outsourcing.

Monday, April 12, 2004

"An MBA in the wrong hands is a lethal weapon"

Pithy piece critiquing organizations that confuses internal change with externally-motivated adaptability. I think the author comes across as favouring reactive change too much, but you can't argue that quotes like this are alarming:

One company recently stated: "We as a management team embrace change, we thrive on it with constant changes in key personnel, capabilities, know- how and processes."

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

The Next Challenge for Collaboration Vendors
It dawned on me that many companies are busy deploying portals in order to overcome sharing barriers by giving everyone the same tool. But even if they crack that, they’ll still have the same problem outside their world of control. e.g. If a design company goes to a manufacturer saying “come and work with us in our collaboration space” that’s fine if it’s the only one. But if the manufacturer works with 5 or 6 design houses, then their world becomes far too fragmented.

What collaboration vendors need to work out is a way to share collaboration objects so that systems understand them e.g. threaded discussions, documents, calendar entries etc. The portal is then just one way to render them. It shouldn't be that hard - email has always de-coupled the email entity from the reader application, Usenet did it for threaded discussions, Vcards do it for addresses, RSS does it for news and blogs and The FT syndicates 'news articles' as an object into company portals. This is, I think, what Web Services is getting at, though with an e-commerce drive at the moment (anybody out there know enough about Web Services to confirm this?)

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Conference Notes: Building and Sustaining a Collaborative Working Environment
Ark Group, London 4-5 March 04

A relatively small conference (~100 people) that focused on developing collaborative environments both internally and with clients. It didn’t always succeed in keeping this focus – it’s a small hops from collaboration to knowledge work to same-old-KM, but some of the issues raised, particularly around client collaboration, made it worth attending.

Comments on individual talks:

Knowledge Mapping by Ricky Ricks of Innoval
Ricky described 'K-Map', an approach almost identical to matrix mapping based around the product-attribute-process idea in QFD. What they've done nicely is deliver result through highly navigable web tool. The technique works really well for fairly simple, determinate processes like mass-manufacturing but can't represent processes with many conditions or complex interdependencies (soft-systems methodologies would be better here).

Health & Safety Exec by
Good account of getting a team to adapt to virtual working e.g. agreeing folder strcuture and appointing guardians, returning emails with attachments that should be in shared filespace etc. I liked this because Kenny was willing to say that its all these little nudges that make virtual collaboration work, though individually they may seem petty.

Chris Shano, Head of Knowledge Services, Atos KPMG Consulting, Knowledge & Research Centre
Appealing change management tool which they called the "mental progress model". It used a timeline horizontally marked with project milestones. Rows were stakeholder types e.g. MDs, consultants, experts and core project team. At points in timeline had “thought bubbles" of how they wanted stakeholder groups to be reacting. This makes it more discussible and provides intangible 'early warning'. For example, if you expectation management isn’t going well, it prompts you to do a quick test of what people are actually saying vs. the mindset you needed them to have according to the bubbles. I like this because in e.g. IT change it’s very easy to get sucked into just looking at the tangible progress and forget about the actual change that organization was looking for when it initiated the project.

Wragge & Co. Matthew Cleverdon
Matthew spoke about extending portals externally as a differentiator with clients. This has proven very attractive - a secure collaboration space was sometimes an advantage when managers were doing something so sensitive that they didn't want it on their own company systems. But it has big implications for support - you can't treat clients like employees and brusquely demand a user ID before you'll help them (what does this say about your average helpdesk!). It also raises questions about liability e.g. for data loss in a partnership or hacking.

Best Quotes of the conference came from Jonathan Odonde, formerly of the UK Sports Council
"We're spending £25M on elite athletes to do what? Win gold medals. It'd be a lot cheaper to buy the gold and just mint them ourselves."

"Collaboration isn't about exchanging documents. Living near a library won't make me the cleverest person in the room"