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posted 7 Dec 2005 in Volume 9 Issue 4

The Knowledge: Victoria Ward

It doesn’t seem quite right to be interviewing Victoria Ward in a cold corporate meeting room. As stories roll forth from her early career working hard and playing hard in the City’s financial futures markets, and about her knowledge-focused projects since founding research and consulting firm Sparknow, I feel we should be talking in a vibrant Moroccan souk, reclining on plush cushions, sipping mint tea.

Thankfully the starkness of the air-conditioned space doesn’t detract from the richness of her stories or affect the pace and passion of their telling. I soon realise that this contrast goes some way in illustrating how Ward’s hard financial and analytical skills sit so comfortably with her softer cultural work making knowledge visible through storytelling.

The conversation takes off and Ward describes the consternation she’s facing trying to pick a favourite film for the profile’s Curriculum Vitae. She tells me which titles have made the shortlist and then turns to the rare occurrence of finding a programme that actually compels you to turn the television on. ‘The West Wing’, ‘24’ and ‘Bleak House’ have all had that effect on her as did ‘This Life’ ten years ago and Nicholas Nickleby before that. As my brain jumps a gear to keep up with Ward and her uncanny capacity for remembering dates and facts, she moves onto her discovery of knowledge management and I glance at my dictaphone hoping that it is picking everything up.

While job hunting after university, Ward honed in on an advert in The Daily Telegraph for a financial futures broker as she had most enjoyed comparative avant-garde art and futurism while studying Italian and German. “There’s no other explanation why I would have applied,” she says. “I joined as a graduate trainee on 6 October 1981, the day Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president, was assassinated. I was lucky to be at the beginning of the biggest surf wave in the financial markets for 20-30 years.” Ward joined the industry a year before the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE) opened, the first financial futures trading floor outside of the US, and witnessed the rise of derivative instruments. Although by no means her dream job, Ward learnt to recognise potential beyond hype, a lesson that would serve her well when encountering knowledge management 15 years later.

Although she admits hating the City for a long time, her work in finance gave her skills and inspiration that she has since drawn on repeatedly. “My next job was at the heaviest drinking stockbroker in the world; I was never sober,” she says. “You either worked or you really, really didn’t, which has had a big influence on how Spark runs. On Friday afternoons one of our partners would run out and buy yellow Chartreuse and Champagne, we’d mix it and play darts. I was very lucky to have been in the gilt market at this time to see what hard play means. It’s really good for work but completely lost from the City now.”

After a spell outside of the futures market Ward returned to do a lot of lobbying to create the right tax regime for the industry and develop new products. “I got to understand how new markets work and how you create products that draw a critical mass. I learnt about the dynamics of transaction, and about credit enhancement, clearing and processing.” Moving from such an entrepreneurial company to NatWest Capital Markets – which she describes as a company that wanted to act like a new organisation, but instead displayed the characteristics of absolute schizophrenia – she learnt how to run a business in her role as chief operating officer.

While adding operational risk management to her skill set, Ward started to feel the frustration with the City that would result in her departure in 1997. “I’d always known that I wanted to do something socially useful with my life, like run a bit of the prison service or a housing association. However I also knew that my curriculum vitae didn’t show that I could do it.” It wasn’t until September 1996 when she read a Financial Times article about knowledge management by Vanessa Houlder that Ward saw her exit strategy. “It was like a light bulb switching on. Everything she wrote, about the better exchange of knowledge and experience, and the pooling of resources on behalf of the organisation and individual, I’d been doing unwittingly. If I could get knowledge management under my belt I’d have something to export from the City to other places.”

Having witnessed the explosion of exchange-traded derivatives, Ward recognised that knowledge management had a long life ahead of it. “I knew this wouldn’t go away. I knew that the labels might change, people would get cross with it and it would have all sorts of incorrect manifestations. I had nothing to lose and sent the article to Martin Owen, our then chief executive, with a note that read, ‘Dear Martin, if this chief knowledge officer job ever comes up at NatWest Capital Markets, I’d love a crack at it.’ He rang the next day and told me it was mine.” Unbeknown to Ward, Derek Wanless, the group chief executive, had only recently told the NatWest Group executive committee that the bank needed to look into knowledge management (KM) and Owen had volunteered to champion it.

One of the first things Ward did as chief knowledge officer (CKO) was to secure a £2m budget for the next year, a figure she admits to plucking from the air. She also worked with consulting firm McKinsey, the most expensive thing she spent money on, to write a detailed job description outlining the pilots they would do over the next two years and their purpose. “I made sure it was signed by everyone, all the way up to Wanless, and kept it under lock and key to prevent anyone trying to close me down.” However, eight weeks into the role, Owen left and the group fell into chaos following the discovery of financial irregularities. Although her political ally had gone, Ward fell back on her senior management commitment and financial security to continue her knowledge-management work.

These weapons were not, however, potent enough to fight through more than half of her appointment. Despite being cut short, Ward’s team accomplished an impressive amount. She is still proud of their information audit and the creation of a who’s who guide to NatWest Markets, which she says demonstrates their early recognition of the importance of using design to make objects engaging. They launched a couple of cross-organisational pilots, one in the pharmaceutical sector and one on global structured trade finance. Informal Thursday morning meetings were held in the café with croissants and coffee for anyone in the firm, including the team itself, to find out what was going on. All of these initiatives opened Ward’s eyes to the value of stories and physical space.

Ward says she learns from almost every conversation and everything she sees; her year as CKO was therefore exceptionally fruitful. “I learnt a lot about reciprocity and mutuality. If you imagine the knowledge team as a franchiser and the local businesses as franchisees there’s a negotiation about who gets what benefit. The knowledge team wants the learning and the business wants the direct commercial benefit. I drew on my market background that asks what makes you trade with someone? What do you need to trust them?” She also learnt to experiment and throw away. “Everything you make has to be approximate, disposable and only just good enough. It has to stimulate conversations about the real thing you want to make. Don’t start with permanent things; they have to be nomadic.”

It was her desire to take these lessons to a wider audience that led to the birth of Sparknow. Partly by accident and partly driven by an overwhelming streak of revenge to prove that what she’d wanted to do at NatWest was possible, Ward set up the cross-border, research, think-tank-style consulting

firm. Although there were offers to incubate her idea, investors wanted it to stay in finance, which held no interest for Ward. “I wanted to find and share lessons between the public, private and not-for-profit sectors,” she says. With

a founding essay and an office in Ward’s Clerkenwell apartment, Sparknow was set up to explore the development of a co-creating, emergent, self-organising and leaderless network where experts and amateurs would come together to improve society.

Spark was launched with three overriding themes. “It was all to do with mapping, finding out where things are and making them visible; mining, going deep into parts of an organisation to look at how they work; and connecting, which we later called storytelling,” she says. Although storytelling was Ward’s coup de grâce, David Snowden at IBM and Steve Denning from the World Bank had also adopted it. Ward’s analytical and risk management acumen told her that competition in this area would be fierce and that Spark should not appear to be a threat until it actually was one. Then Ward met Clive Holtham, professor of information management at what is now Cass Business School, on 20 June 1998, and they fell into academic love. “We were both working with physical space and knowledge management and it dawned on us that this was ground that we could take as nobody had yet spotted it,” she says.

Ward had noticed that people reacted differently when talking about physical space. “When you talk about knowledge management, people immediately fold their arms and want to know what you’re trying to take away from them. But everyone has an opinion about their office and desk space, and how their meeting rooms work. You can easily get their views on how knowledge and information are shared and how effective communication and collaboration are without them realising it’s a KM conversation.”

It was the creation of a brief for an architects’ competition to design an integrated health centre that Ward says was the first time she knew Spark was doing what she had wanted it to. “We ran a brilliant workshop with 24 people: patients, voluntary and community workers, GPs, and nurses. They shared photos they’d taken of spaces they liked and disliked, and exchanged personal experiences about times they were proud to be part of an integrated team and where that had taken place. Based on these stories and pictures they came up with ideas of what the building should look like.” The competition ran and the most radical design was selected. “What is key for me is that the people from the workshop can now trace the building back to their personal experiences. You should never lose that thread.”

Spark completed another inspirational piece of story work with the merger of two major UK public-sector bodies. Ward’s team went to the organisation’s ‘coalface’ to get people to express how they felt about the merger, what they wanted to have heard and what they were prepared to commit to in the future. “We did it so beautifully, from the workshops’ design and delivery, to how we collected and curated the stories. The executive committee listened to the stories and told us what they heard before we told them our interpretations and recommendations. It transformed their sense of what they need to do with the merger to engage their people.”

The speed and tempo of work is an additional focus for Spark. “Clive and I have looked at the emergency services and army. To have extreme speed of response you also need extremely slow times to understand and rehearse how to respond,” she says. “Slow work supports fast work, but what if you take the slow times out? How does the fast work get done in mutuality and with trust?” With an increasingly nomadic workforce and pressure on individuals to deliver, Ward believes organisations face an immense challenge in recognising the need for slow time, helping employees recharge their batteries and bringing them together to build familiarity in a non-invasive way. “It brings me back to playing darts and drinking Chartreuse mixed with Champagne; if you don’t get that time to retreat together the rest of it doesn’t work.”

Sparknow has just celebrated its eighth birthday despite Ward’s initial plan for it to be a two-year experiment. During this time it has been the people she has worked with that have proved a huge source of inspiration. “I’m a lot to put up with and they have to make a lot of room for me, but they also insist on doing things their way. Even though all their backgrounds clash and there has been a huge amount of hurt and discomfort, they don’t give up insisting on ways that are different.” Over the past year Ward has taken a step back from her leadership role and has been delighted to see the company accomplish two of its best pieces of work.

Looking to the future Ward has a number of paths in front of her. “I’d like to write the book I’ve been meaning to write about making spaces for change, but I can’t seem to find the space to write it,” she says. “Spark is getting some very interesting invitations that aren’t to be sneezed at. And if someone asked me to change a bit of the prison service or run a housing association, I’d do it.” Ward tells me about books that she goes back to a lot, Richard Sennett’s Uses of Disorder and Karl Weick’s Sensemaking in Organisations, and mentions a line from a song that I think sums up the message behind all the stories she has shared: Keep your hand wide open and let the sun shine through, because you can never lose a thing if it belongs to you. “It’s about keeping your hand as wide open as you can and being ready to receive or hold whatever comes to it, which is how I think you should live your life.” A principle that it seems to me Ward embodies entirely.

Victoria Ward is founder of Sparknow. She can be contacted at victoria@sparknow.org

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