posted 25 Aug 2004 in Volume 8 Issue 1
The knowledge: Richard Cross
Best known for his work at Xerox, Richard Cross’s name is synonymous with pioneering total-quality-management initiatives – a discipline many believe was a starting point for KM. Having taken the plunge into independent consulting, Cross talks to Rebecca Cavalôt about the Xerox years; how networking is influencing his current work at InnovationX; and his passion for the personal in knowledge management.
When organising a venue for my interview with Richard Cross, it seemed fitting that we meet at a local coffee shop. The location provided a perfect illustration of the martini (‘any time, any place, anywhere’) workplace Cross and his former Xerox colleague Dan Holtshouse will discuss at Ark Group’s KM Europe event in November. To say Cross is passionate about his work is an understatement and the venue was conducive to a relaxed discussion that produced some enlightening insights into his extensive KM career.
Cross’s educational background is in politics and international relations and, on graduating, Xerox sponsored Cross to study organisational development (OD) while he was working in its management-development unit. He believes that his education has provided the theory that has supported the practical elements of his career. Back in the 1980s, organisational development was a discipline that Cross describes as eclectic. The ethos was to take a dual perspective: to improve the quality of life for members of human systems and at the same time to increase the nstitutional effectiveness of those systems. “It fitted into my idealism: the discipline of OD developed as a reaction against the dehumanisation and increasingly bureaucratic nature of organisations,” he says. Above all, Cross was able to focus on supporting and creating organisational and cultural change – a focus that was to shape his career.
In the early 1990s, total-quality management (TQM) was the new buzz-phrase and heralded the start of what Cross believes were his first steps into the KM breach. It was still early days at Xerox, but Cross was already a veteran of TQM and was part of the team that developed the successful Xerox application for the first European Quality Award in 1992. Close professional ties with Jerry Bowles, then editor of the Fortune magazine supplements on quality, gave Cross insight into the ‘next big thing’ after total quality management. It was 1995 and Bowles was championing the merits of a new ideology – knowledge management.
Cross was intrigued and agreed to co-organise a seminar for a Fortune tour to Europe. The keynotes were Tom Stewart and Leif Edvinsson, and Edvinsson’s overview of the role of intellectual capital and the rise of the ‘knowledge worker’ struck a chord with Cross. “Until then, I confess to a relatively mechanistic model of organisations,” he says. “Edvinsson was considering how the knowledge economy affects each one of us personally in our careers and how to capitalise on the opportunities this presented.” Cross was hooked, and he still describes Edvinsson as one of the most brilliant minds he has encountered in the KM field. He also cites former Knowledge Management cover star Elizabeth Lank as an early influence. Lank, then at ICL, an organisation Cross mistakenly perceived at the time to be fairly staid, was pushing beyond the knowledge horizon with the Café Vik intranet project. As Bowles had predicted, everyone was suddenly talking about sharing knowledge across organisations.
Following its work in total-quality management, Xerox was also playing its part in driving KM forward, considering its own identity as an organisation and exploring future business scenarios through the work of Holtshouse. “Up to that point intangibles didn’t count,” explains Cross. “At the time, Tom Stewart was talking about the value of Microsoft, saying it was worth more on paper than what it physically produced.” A new kind of organisation was emerging: one that valued intangibles. Xerox, always a pioneering company, recognised the opportunity and undertook one of the first organisational surveys of KM back in the mid-nineties. There was good reason for Xerox to strategically associate itself with this new phenomenon. Cross was working with a wealth of clients outside the company. “They were interested in finding out was going to be next after TQM. KM provided an antidote to the one-size-fits-all model of TQM and also posed the question as to how explicit knowledge in codified documents could be exploited.”
Cross’s global work with Xerox allowed him to become involved with projects he now alludes to with a sense of satisfaction. One of his early project briefs was to develop Xerox’s expansion into Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. His role was to select and train expatriate and local general managers to work in the new entrepreneurial environment. He placed a massive Sunday Times advert in all Eastern European languages. “The reaction was astounding,” he recalls. “Almost every emigré, defector and Slavonic studies scholar applied, as well as diplomats and former political attachés.” The investment paid off: the project produced several presidential award winners and Xerox was able to capitalise on the growth opportunities. “It reinforced my point about ‘people first’,” says Cross. “It was the old idea of establishing the right culture to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus, no matter how challenging the circumstances.”
Recently, Cross has decided to change his own circumstances by leaving Xerox. His move has not changed his view of Xerox as a leading enterprise in the KM arena and this is widely echoed in industry good-practice surveys. Cross believes this is down to the way Xerox has kept knowledge at the heart of its ethos. “As The Document Company, the very nature of Xerox products means that knowledge and information transfer is central to understanding what people actually do with these products,” he says.
However, he believes that the contribution of one individual in particular rooted the organisation firmly in the KM sphere. Lucy Suchman, an anthropologist now at Lancaster University with a background in ethnomethodology, observed some individuals making use of photocopiers and attempted to understand how they followed the user instructions that the machine provided. “Looking at a copier in its natural environment was not something that had previously occurred to designers,” explains Cross. Neither had it occurred to computer designers to observe a machine in a work environment. Suchman’s studies contributed to the diagnosis of the frequent, sometimes disastrous failure of large-scale computer systems that were poorly designed for the work they were intended for. “Within the discipline of computer-supported work, Suchman’s theories became known as ‘situated action’,” says Cross. “For the first time, software designers actually had to visit the shop floor.” The award-winning Eureka project based on how Xerox engineers share knowledge can also be traced back to this anthropological heritage.
After 20 years at Xerox, surrounded by influential thinkers like Suchman, David Jones and strategy director Dan Holtshouse, Cross decided it was time to move on. However, he freely admits that shaking off his time at Xerox and striking out alone has been a real test. “But after 20 years the opportunities run out and it’s time to go it alone,” he explains. Cross also confesses that being a ‘free agent’ brings its own rewards and challenges. “When people hire you as a Xerox employee, you never know if they are hiring you or the company. But I’m now being hired as an individual and, to paraphrase Descartes, the feeling is one of ‘I consult, therefore I am’. People not organisations are the most meaningful unit in this networked world.” Under the InnovationX banner, Cross is focusing on his passion of working with networks; specialising in organisational-change projects, be they strategic or at grass-root level. In an exciting future alliance, InnovationX will work with a Wharton and INSEAD consortium on the subject of innovation. “It’s about putting new knowledge to work and charting a new global position for innovation,” says Cross.
One recent Innovation X project of which Cross is particularly proud was initiated under the label of a KM project but ended up as an organisational-change effort. The company in question was entirely dependent on highly qualified professional staff for the service it offered. The market it served was growing rapidly and the company was concerned that it would eventually be unable to keep pace with demand because of the time it took to train staff. Improved knowledge sharing was an obvious starting point. Cross suggested offsite workshops, where staff would be required to develop a common, shared view of their problems. The informal, procedure-free atmosphere meant that colleagues could reflect, unfreeze (in OD jargon) and tell stories.
As Cross points out, “People can get trapped by routine and ritual, sharing only the material that the procedure says they should share or that which satisfies their boss.” In the worst-case scenario, Cross believes that this narrow view can spread and lead to employees becoming distanced from the needs of their own customers. The workshops created a cadre of change agents willing to drive the company forwards and challenge conventional wisdom.
In Cross’s own words, InnovationX is also a network organisation and epitomises his attempt to live off his own knowledge and intellectual capital. He believes that networking enables a successful business venture and with his array of contacts, Cross has become a frequent flyer. Cross’s collaboration with former colleagues can be seen in action when he takes to the stage with Holtshouse at Ark Group’s KM Europe conference in November. Cross will be speaking as a Xerox alumnus and the dynamic duo will be discussing the workplace and the knowledge worker. They will concentrate on how to build a place of work that attracts the best of talent and activates the finest ideas. Fundamentally, Cross will be exploring why there can be no let up in the quest to master cultural change. “KM should support work-place effectiveness at the individual knowledge-worker level,” he says. The presentation will investigate the tools and techniques required to make the concept of personal-knowledge management a reality without drowning in what he terms ‘digiglut’. “Too often technology still gets in the way,” says Cross. “We need to understand the excess and the negative impact it can have.”
The role of technology is a bone of contention for Cross. However, he believes that knowledge management has evolved in recent years and that the way that organisations perceive the discipline has changed. The recognition of KM as a discipline that is based around work practices, social relationships, personal drivers and goals, and a long-term view of business priorities gives him a sense of satisfaction. According to Cross, the evolution of KM has also seen the demise of the chief knowledge officer (CKO). “I don’t see as many posts or board-member placements for CKOs, but this doesn’t mean that KM doesn’t count – merely that it is mainstream and pervasive.” For Cross, echoing the thoughts of Victor Newman, knowledge is such a huge part of every project that everyone involved is now a knowledge officer.
Despite this acceptance of knowledge as an integral part of organisational operations, Cross still believes that the long-term nature of KM is at odds with the short-term world of profits, fashions and trends. In his experience, Cross has found that short-termist attitudes can push companies into the realm of efficiency projects. “These can appeal to the bottom line,” he says. “However, what you don’t want is to have to look back and see the side effects these projects have caused.” For Cross, a balance of short and long-term strategies is essential to developing a successful project.
Another major challenge for organisational development, as Cross sees it, is an in-built reluctance to cultural change – a reluctance that Cross believes is born out of habit. “We need to create momentum and belief in organisations because so often things just stay the same simply because that’s the way it has always been,” he says. He urges companies to challenge the status quo but to do so by encouraging employees to believe in and buy into change. “It’s great to have an organisation that promotes debate, but turning words into action is the challenge,” he says. However, Cross is positive about the way management is beginning to realise that individuals who have the ability and vision to drive organisations forwards can come from any level of the company. He is a great believer in the power of the individual and considers debate and authentic conversation to be the greatest KM tools available. The challenge, of course, lies in convincing organisations.
And so to the future of knowledge management. Cross has seen various management trends come and go over the past 20 years and is reluctant to make predictions. “I don’t know what the next trendy topic will be or what will be flavour of the month in 2005,” he says. “If I did I’d be writing the book not sitting here talking to you!” However, just as I am starting to feel a little instability creeping over my own career prospects, Cross offers me a ray of hope. He feels that the messages that KM embodies will endure the tests of time as long as companies can identify the discipline’s key points and not let them fade into the recesses of other management fads.
Although wary about contemplating the future of KM, Cross does predict that the 21st century will bring definitive global changes. He advises companies to recognise these international divisions and differences, and to use the lessons we are currently learning from KM to ensure economic health. He also believes that governments and trade and industry organisations must actively embrace KM. In true humanist style, Cross suggests that an individual could provide the key to the longevity of KM. “To an extent, perhaps we need a champion knowledge economist to encourage organisations to get behind knowledge management to make sure it will stay the course.”
Ultimately, Cross’s core message is for those in the KM field to open their minds to the perspective of the worker. “Quite simply, there is something very personal about knowledge and about how information moves around an organisation,” says Cross. As long as organisations take into account the way knowledge mutates and evolves, Cross believes that KM strategies and projects will continue to go from strength to strength. Cross’s social-based approach to KM comes as naturally to him as his networking does. I have no doubt that he will continue to inspire, no matter where his personal KM journey takes him next.