In a matter of two weeks I’ve stumbled across the work of Larry Lessig. Last week I read about the Lessig presentation style at Presentation Zen. I even put the Lessig method into practice at my presentation at ActKM. Then today I hear Larry on ‘this WEEK in TECH’ podcast. I didn’t realise Larry was the guy who got creative commons off the ground. If you wondered what create commons are all about I recommend you check out these two Flash movies.
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This is the last week before we run our narrative workshops in Sydney and Brisbane. If you want a really practical understanding of how to use narrative in knowledge management, culture change or any other business issue that is seemingly intractable then join us next week.
To register just download the brochure, which is just over there on the left panel of our website, and fax us your details.
I would like ActKM to abandon the speaker-audience model in their conferences and adopt something radically different—discussions. Dave Winer sums the problem up beautifully:
The problem with most conferences is that the intelligence is sitting in the dark with its hands folded, falling asleep while a bunch of idiots on stage with PowerPoints talking nonsense because they are so scared they need crutches to keep from having a nervous breakdown. This has been going on for twenty years. It's time to try something new.
As I reflect on the ActKM conference I realise the reason I enjoyed it so much was the great conversations we had, but they didn’t occur during the presentations, they happened in the coffee break area. David Glynn-Jones, this year’s organiser, specifically made the coffee area a focal point and it was an excellent decision. That was definitely a step in the right direction but why not convert the entire conference into a organised coffee break. I believe this was the thinking that also led to Open Space approach to meetings.
Check out Dave’s post because it describes how such a conference could work. He calls it unconferencing.
One of the things I love about conferences is the people you meet and the stories you hear and share. Here’s an anecdote which I heard and thought it a great one for demonstrating the value of simplicity:
“I was doing knowledge audits down south and spent some time with an operational unit which had recently been moved to lovely new warehouse buildings. This was due to the need to have more and more physical workspace to meet the needs of supporting the maintenance and upgrades of the organisations' core machinery. I wanted to know how this unit obtained the information they needed, how they learnt how the machinery had performed after delivery, what designs worked best, and what were their preferred ways of working were. With the machinery being operated in Antarctica it was crucial that this machinery be in excellent operating condition as people’s lives depended on it. The problem however, was that the division, in all it’s efforts to support the maintenance of the machinery had forgotten about it’s people. They had removed the tea room to make more room for spare parts etc. Discussions and debate was held with the organisation on the requirements for an IT system that could house all the detailed written plans and processes. This IT system would cost millions. I was pleasantly surprised when the operational unit realised that spending millions on a new IT system was overkill and decided a kitchen table would be sufficient.”
Andrew, Mark and I are currently at the ActKM conference in Canberra. So far it’s been the best ActKM conference in its six year history. Its success is primarily due to friendly nature of the 100 or so participants, many of whom know one another (shared history and context). The welcoming atmosphere combined with some stimulating presentations and a good place to sit and chat has set the scene for some tremendous conversations. I guess this is what knowledge management is all about: creating a conducive environment to create and share our knowledge.
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I was in Brisbane on Thursday and had a great opportunity to catch up with some friends. One of them, Vince Aisthorpe, related an anecdote from Tom O’Toole who founded the Beechworth Bakery, one of the largest in the southern hemisphere. The anecdote was about why many Government agencies don’t seem to get much done.
“They aim for perfection, and end up going ready, aim, aim, aim. They aren’t prepared to fire because they cannot be certain they will hit the target. Sometimes you just have to fire: you might not hit the target, but you might find out where the target is.”
Apart from being a good anecdote, this reveals one of the common problems organisations have in dealing with complex problems. Thinking that they need to know the ‘correct answer’ in advance, they suffer ‘paralysis by analysis’ because complex problems tend not to have one single correct answer.
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Having a casual surf on a sunday afternoon I came across this interesting Storytelling survival guide by David Boje. It seems a fairly comprehensive, if not provocative review of both theory and practice of storytelling in and of organisations. Provocative because he claims that the works of Snowden and Denning are naive. (I wonder what they think of that…)
I do agree with his concern of control in “not to put storytelling into some demarcated or caged territory or make stories told a subject of surveillance and managerialist control”.
Obviously anecdotes play a key role in our work. We use these real life business stories to help people see patterns that typically remain hidden using traditional techniques. Recent projects include topics like staff morale, client satisfaction, occupation health and safety and staff work load. Unlike using interviews and surveys you tend to hear what is really happening when people have the opportunity to share their work stories.
There are two ways we collect anecdotes: 1) transcribe people’s anecdotes, usually in an anecdote circle; or 2) hear an anecdote and document it in the words of the listener, after the fact. Most of our work uses the first method of transcription but there have been a number of times where I have worked as a type of corporate anthropologist listening and recording the stories I hear.
I thought you might like to see a couple of examples. This first example is from a project on occupational health and safety and it has been transcribed verbatim.
You can go the other way and just get extreme neglect, whereas I've seen, in subdivisional work, an instance that didn't result in a death, but near, could have; 30-tonne excavator benching out, bulking out a trench, swings off to the side, releases his bucket, sticks another bucket on and swings back over the trench, bucket falls off, no safety pin. It's simple. Bucket falls off, man down trench looking at a target, bucket straight over the top of him, and I mean straight over the top of him. Now, that was that close to being dead. But it was just a simple, instead of taking the time to put in a safety pin, which means getting out of the machine and doing so.
Here is one I’ve documented recently after it was told to me.
An industrial designer came up with a type of periscope device you can mount on a rifle to see around corners. The designer’s manager said “stop wasting time with that idea, we have more important things to do. His manager’s boss shared a similar view. One day the designer happened to wander past the Chief Scientist who was having his morning smoko. “What are you working on lad?” the chief asked. He told the chief about his periscope and the chief loved it. He immediately told the Chief of Army who ordered it to be made and put in production. It was a hit. The designer received a medal for his work and his managers were left with egg on their faces.
When a group of people such as decision-makers, planners, clients, are exposed to these anecdotes they begin to detect broad patterns of behaviour and key themes emerge. These insights form the basis of new interventions that are designed by the organisation rather than by an external ‘expert.’
Earlier this year Shawn posted about a great site containing anecdotes about the development of the Apple Macintosh. Browsing through the archive I found this great anecdote written with real passion:
Since the Macintosh team were artists, it was only appropriate that we sign our work. Steve came up with the awesome idea of having each team member's signature engraved on the hard tool that molded the plastic case, so our signatures would appear inside the case of every Mac that rolled off the production line. Most customers would never see them, since you needed a special tool to look inside, but we would take pride in knowing that our names were in there, even if no one else knew.
We held a special signing party after one of our weekly meetings on February 10, 1982. Jerry Mannock, the manager of the industrial design team, spread out a large piece of drafting paper on the table to capture our signatures. Steve gave a little speech about artists signing their work, and then cake and champagne were served as he called each team member to step forward and sign their name for posterity. Burrell had the symbolic honor of going first, followed by members of the software team. It took forty minutes or so for around thirty-five team members to sign. Steve waited until last, when he picked a spot near the upper center and signed his name with a flourish.
Do you have any great anecdotes about your work that you would like to share?
Send me an email, I’d love to hear them. Andrew AT anecdote DOT com DOT au
(Feel free to anonymise)
(The whole anecdote can be found here )
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When something happens we like to tell others about it. This retelling of our experience often is done in the form of a story. “I can’t believe what Margaret just did. We have been working on the Acme project for 3 months and today she rings up, out of the blue, and resigns. I told her to get off the grass—no way! We spent an hour on the phone and it turns out she was unhappy with Jim’s attitude. Look like I will have to help build some bridges.”
This first telling enables us to hear what we think and upon reflection helps us make sense of what has just happened. The sensemaking process is also wrapped up in how we perceive our own character (our identity) and how we subtly portray our identity in the stories we tell. The sensemaking process is a learning process and stories seem to be the natural sensemaking mechanism. But perhaps more importantly is the need to have someone to tell your stories to; someone you trust.
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A quick question for everyone. Are you aware of any Australian companies who are blogging inside the firewall? I’m working with a mid-sized professional service firm to introduce blogging and we were wondering whether other Australian companies were doing anything in this space.
Love to hear your thoughts.
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Two powerful ways of making sense (in a weickien way) are:
- Using frameworks to ‘frame’ data
- Getting people to explain and explore surprises
The first technique of placing data into frameworks is common. Shawn posted a great example of such a technique here.
I like the surprise approach. Asking ‘what has surprised you’ is a great way to generate surprise as well as helping a group to make sense of what’s going on. It’s interesting that this approach doesn’t seem to work so well on lone individuals. For instance, if I ask you, “what has surprised you today”, you probably might struggle to come up with something surprising. Yet, be placed in a social setting and it seems that surprises are ripe to occur.
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This is the best KM conference in Australia because it consists of practitioners talking about how it is done – no vendor presentations. It’s a two day program with an excellent conference dinner—not to be missed. The conference theme is “MANAGING KNOWLEDGE FOR BETTER PERFORMANCE”. Let me know if you are going because I would love to catch up.
The conference program is here.
And you can register here.
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You can think of the act of sensemaking as discovering the new terrain as you are inventing it. A man who is certainly mapping and creating new terrain is Seth Godin. Seth has stated quite clearly his vision for the next version of web technologies.
I BELIEVE THAT WHEN YOU GO ONLINE, you don’t search. You don’t even find. Instead, you are usually on a quest to make sense.
To facilitate this sensemaking Seth is launching a new technology called Squidoo. The interesting thing about this new technology for facilitating sensemaking is that Karl Weick queried this in his book Sensemaking in Organisations . Weick says that “…perceptions of information technology might undermine the ability of that technology to facilitate sensemaking”. Maybe this is something for Seth to think about in his marketing strategies…
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Brian Arthur’s quote is a classic and I like the metaphor of sensemaking as mapping the terrain. I would add one twist which was introduced to me by Stuart Kauffman, the idea that the terrain is made of rubber and every step you and everyone else takes deforms the terrain in new ways. Sensemaking is therefore an ongoing process.
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This has got to be one of the best quotes I’ve seen regarding sensemaking, from an article of Brian Arthur’s in the Harvard Business Review.
Imagine you are milling about in a large casino with the top figures in the high-tech-the Gates, Gerstners, and Groves of their industries. Over at one table, a game is starting called Multimedia. Over at another is a game called Web Services. In the corner is Electronic Banking. There are many such tables. You sit at one.
“How much to play?” you ask.
“Three billion,” the croupier replies.
“Who’ll be playing?” you ask.
“We won’t know until they show up,” he replies.
“What are the rules?”
“Those will emerge as the game unfolds”, says the croupier.
“What are my odds of winning?” you wonder
“We can’t say,” responds the house. “Do you still want to play?”
Arthur argues that, in this type of environment, sensemaking differentiates great leaders from average leaders. Great leaders are identified by “their ability to perceive the nature of the game and the rules by which it is played as they are playing it”. In other words, the act of sensemaking is discovering the new terrain as you are inventing it. In the very process of mapping the new terrain, you are creating it.
(thanks to andersonite‘s blog)
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Sensemaking is an important part of the business that we do here at Anecdote. We’ve decided that over the next month we’ll blog about it. Maybe we’ll make some sense of sensemaking in the process… Stay tuned…
I’m a lover of Moleskine notebooks. Perhaps it’s their history or their sturdy design. Whatever the attraction I always have my notebook handy. I see they now make a storyboard version. This will be great for sketching out scenes and brainstorming presentations. Sadly my stationery weakness is a curse ;-)
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Dave Pollard is highlighting the similarities between wicked problems and complexity. I had a similar thought a few months back so it’s good to see others seeing a connection. Of course Dave does with much greater thoroughness.
I was interested in this comment because I agree that the word ‘problem’ is a problem when addressing complex issues.
They even avoid using the term ‘problem’ because its connotation is something that has a solution. But the terms that are appropriate instead are awkward, because they hit home the impotence of those trying to tackle them: instead of solutions and problems they talk of “approaches to deal with or cope with” a “situation”. And instead of analysis and cause they use complex-system terminology like “pattern recognition” and “correlation”.
If it is viewed as a problem you tend to want to fix it which encourages you to think in project management terms: tasks, milestones, targets, efficiency, pre-defined outcomes. For a complex issue the approach should be to improve the situation knowing full well that it can’t be ‘fixed’. At what point is culture fixed? When is trust fixed? When has an organisation done and dusted innovation?
What is frustrating is hearing professionals talk about issues like culture using metaphors that suggest it’s a mechanical problem. I’m referring here to a presentation I attended two weeks ago by someone using the Human Synergistics diagnostic. The talk was sprinkled with terms like ‘levers’ and ‘drivers’ and asking questions like ‘what is causing your culture?’
Language is vital. When I help clients design interventions I tell them to stop trying to solve the problem. Until people understand the importance of a new language for complex problems we are going to slip back into our old ways. And these old ways are not going to help.
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Andrew and I are helping an Australian professional services firm introduce blogging. As part of the business case we’ve been searching for examples of other Australian companies who are blogging but to no avail—any help here would be greatly appreciated. In my search, however, I came across this paper by Edeman (communications firm-I think that means advertising agency) and Intelliseek (market intelligence). It’s an excellent resource for anyone proposing a corporate blogging initiative.
[thanks to NevOn for the link]
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We had a lot of fun in our Narrative Techniques workshop yesterday.
It’s interesting how much discussion and enthusiasm is created when we start working on Archetypes…
(The picture comes from the paper mentioned in our previous post on Mapping archetypes )
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My first blogpost was inspired by Patricia’s Madsons book on Improv Wisdom and it’s relation to business and organisations.
It’s great to find John Moore exploring this too:
“In Improv, if you always play ‘high status’ then you’ve probably got an inferiority complex to deal with.
Same goes in business. A boss who always plays ‘high status’ has personal issues he/she needs to address. The best bosses I’ve had have been willing to show their vulnerability by playing ‘low status’ at times.”
Here’s an unique way to use Powerpoint (or the Apple equivalent). The talk is by Dick Hardt on the topic of Identity on the net. Entertaining, informative and memorable. Warning – put on your techo hat before entering.
[via Garr Reynolds]
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The gang at CPsquare are revisiting some guidelines they developed in 2003 for communities spanning time zones and countries. The original guidelines provide a great starting point for any global community of practice. I’ll keep you posted on the developments.
One of the suggestions which made me think was the advice to use more complex language because plain English can easily be misinterpreted by a non-English speaking community member.
‘Simple’ language in English is often more confusing for someone whose first language isn’t English. For example: extinguish (Latinated) is easier to understand than put out (‘simple’ English); investigate rather than look into; resist rather than hold out; reinforce rather than back up; cancel rather than call off; accomplish rather than bring off; complete rather than fill in.
Notice that in each example a more precise single word substitutes for two more general words. Perhaps the advice could also be, “reduce your words and be precise”.
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Communities of practice thrive on rhythm. I’m not talking about members taking up the tabla of course. Community rhythm is established by holding regular events such as meetings on the first Tuesday of the month, conference calls and distributing the humble newsletter. These events perform the vital function of reminding members that the community exists and interesting things are happening. Doubly important for distributed communities.
I was asked the other day what could be included in a newsletter. Here are some ideas drawn from my experience and what was done at Companycommand.com.
- have a member write a thought piece which challenges the orthodoxy of the group
- highlight new and interesting content that has been posted to the group’s online repository
- run a survey or quiz – you can use Survey Monkey for this (http://www.surveymonkey.com/)
- describe a scenario and then ask people to write in on how they would tackle it
- highlight new members or members who have done something interesting or useful for the group
- let the group know what the core team has been planning or working on
- include pictures
- announce events and remind members of the regular events
What other neat things have you included in a CoP newsletter?
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I have also found that using social network mapping in conjunction with an Open Space event can be a great way to demonstrate change and create new stories within an organisation. The figures below show the change in social networks from a recent Open Space event.
Before Open Space
After Open Space
Interestingly, as discussed in my whitepaper “Does your strategic planning make a difference?” the social network map examples that were handed out post Open Space to the sponsor have found themselves moving throughout the organisation, at many levels, stimulating new and interesting stories about where the organisation is heading in the future….
The topic at a meeting this morning was the design concept for a web-based ‘clearinghouse’. I mentioned the risks of taking a ‘Field of Dreams’ approach – “if we build it they will come”, and the importance of having relevant content that users can easily find and use. I also mentioned that having the best technology available isn’t worth a cracker if people either don’t use it, or if we train them not to use it by having them go there and they don’t find anything relevant or useful. Thinking that this was merely pointing out the blindingly obvious, I was surprised when the design consultant asked if I could be quoted on that…..
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It’s interesting how many organisations do strategic planning and yet how little value is considered to be delivered as a result. In an article called Eight problems with strategic planning a few points tweaked my interest.
- Does our process produce a plan that's "real?"
- Does our plan really work for the organization?
- Is anybody doing anything?
The danger I see with the normal model of highly facilitated (the facilitator is driving) strategic planning sessions is that the 3 points raised above are often missed. As mentioned in the article, often the facilitator is too academic (in which case a framework is used) or the facilitator is too much of a content expert for the industry and ends up taking over the meeting, when really, it should emerge from the work of the participants.
My friend Eric Lessor at IBM’s Institute of Business Value has recently launched a report, “Addressing the Challenges of an Aging Workforce in EMEA (ie. Europe).” Here are the main conclusions described in an interview Eric did for leMarchedesSeniors.com:
1. Redirect recruiting and sourcing. Companies are quickly facing worker shortages from labor pools where they normally would draw younger employees. To reach mature workers, companies can conduct over-50 workshops at local job recruitment centers, offer targeted benefits such as unpaid grandparent leave and look externally to identify retired professionals desiring part-time or short-term work.
2. Retain valued employees through alternative work arrangements. While some companies are recruiting aging workers, others are developing alternative work arrangements, such as part-time schedules. Companies should also explore, when appropriate, the use of telecommuting as a way of retaining mature workers.
3. Preserve critical knowledge. One approach elicits employees’ experiential, or tacit, knowledge through detailed interviewing or documentation, explicitly capturing and storing these insights. Mentoring arrangements and communities of practice can also encourage mature workers to pass knowledge down to the next generation.
4. Provide opportunities for workers to continually update skills. Executives are recognizing the need to refresh the skills of workers whose formal training may have ended years, if not decades, earlier. Companies are seeking to actively transfer informal skills that have not been taught and that are necessary in the working environment.
5. Facilitate the coexistence of multiple generations. Often overlooked as a facet of diversity, the viewpoints of different age groups can present significant barriers. Organizations must balance the needs, interests and work styles of all. By pairing senior managers with junior employees, each can mentor the other in different areas.
6. Help mature workers effectively use technology in the workplace. A common misperception is that older workers have more difficulty learning and adopting new technologies. While multiple has studies have shown otherwise, accessibility requirements and strategies for application rollout and training are needed to support all potential user groups, including mature workers.
Suggestions 3 concerns me because once again there is this notion that tacit knowledge can somehow be documented, especially if you use detailed interviewing. I think a better approach it to gain evidence, using narrative techniques, of where tacit knowledge exists in your organisations and then develop interventions to better harness that knowledge.
I like the balanced nature of the report in that it not only examines the scenario of baby boomers retiring en masse but considers ways to get the best out of the entire workforce. In my current projects the organisations are facing the opposite to baby boomer retirement problem—they are staying on into their seventies. As a result there are few places for the next generation to take on senior leadership roles.
[via Organic KM]
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Last week I had a lovely day at Wivenhoe Dam working with SE Queensland Water. It’s 50 km or so outside Brisbane. I did, however, loose my keys on the day so let me know if you find them ;-)
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We use 37signals’ Basecamp, which is a web-based project management tool that enables our clients to collaborate with us in project planning and delivery. The hallmark of their software is simplicity.
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Etienne is running his online community of practice workshop. I highly recommend this event. I had a blast when I first participated and since then have returned as a guest speaker (I should say, typer). Here is the link which will tell you all about it:
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As we know, developing communities of practice is an organic activity. You never quite know what is going to happen or whether it will succeed. This is why a big bang approach is a mistake. To herald to your entire organisation that you are going to develop a community of practice on topic X is likely to cause pain when the initiative fails to gain support. I’ve seen this happen and it even more prevalent when the organisation has just invested in community technology which has forums functionality—”we must get CoPs going so people are using this forum functionality” I hear them say.
Here is the softly, softly approach I recommend people take:
- identify some people with common interests in a domain that is important to the business
- meet with each person separately and ask them about the things that interest, challenge, excite or intrigue them
- common things of interest invariably emerge
- suggest the all of them that they have some interesting things in common and offer to organise a meeting so they can discuss them
- at the meeting suggest they might meet regularly to enhance their learning in the domain
Once the groups starts to develop a rhythm, suggest they think of small tasks to work on together that might improve their practice—here is an approach. Only when the groups says things like, “how are we going to share these documents?” or “can we discuss this online?”, do you investigate technology support. Some groups will get to this point faster than others, and it doesn’t matter one bit.
Finally, keep a look our for indicators which suggest your community is making progress. But whatever you do don’t let management turn these indicators into targets! But that issue is a topic for another post.