posted 9 Dec 2002 in Volume 6 Issue 4
A personal view of knowledge work
People who work sitting down get paid more than people who work standing up
Web-logs, or blogs, as they have become known, range from the insightful and informative to the banal and nonsensical. Done well, though, a good blog can help generate valuable debate, and even create a community of interest around a given subject. Richard Cross offers his views on this very modern medium, before embarking on his own blogging soliloquy.
As I get older, time goes by faster. Is it only a couple of years or so ago that the ‘new’ medium of the web-log – the blog – emerged?
Nowadays blogs help people expose the details and the trivia of their day-to-day electronic lives and interests to public scrutiny. The Guardian newspaper has even run a ‘best blog’ competition (www.guardian.co.uk/weblog/bestbritishblog). Apart from the obvious question of what makes a blog British (is it like football, where having one grandparent is enough?), it makes me think about how I’d define a good blog. Is it a genuinely informative and thoughtful one, like those from David Weinberger at JoHo (www.hyperorg.com/blogger) or Amy Wohl (http://amywohl.weblogger.com)? Or is it one of the really toe-curlingly bad ones that are addictive and compelling in their banality – the web’s equivalent of Big Brother (www.channel4.com/bigbrother). Then again, there are those that lay bare the author’s ego: the next-generation personal web page – the blog as brag.
Of course, the serial, stream-of-consciousness format of many blogs is hardly new. Tom Wolfe used the written equivalent forty years ago in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, right down to the logic leaps and arcane side-references. It’s not clear, though, whether he intended this as a deliberately new style, for he subsequently claimed that what was published were his original notes that he was unable to turn into considered prose. Part of me thinks that people who claim that the speed of the blog and the interactions around it are making the printed word obsolete are overstating their case. Digital media have always forced the printed word to change its role, from one of news bearing, for example, to one of analysis and discussion.
Nevertheless, blogs are more than interesting. I’m not yet convinced that they have a lasting use in business as we know it today, but conversations are certainly the essence of knowledge sharing and building, and blogs – while not exactly real-time conversations – can be thought provoking and approachable in their informality. If done well – intellectually and with the right software support – they establish links between ideas and people, and generate new perspectives. And, like any good medium, they connect you to topics that you never knew you were interested in. Chris Locke (www.rageboy.com/blogger and co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto) says that markets are now conversations, and I’m sure he’s right.
So I thought I’d try a pseudo blog for the printed medium and see how it works. What follows is, as you’d expect, slightly artificial and tidy in that not all these things happened do me in precisely this order and at digital speed (remember those contrived Sunday Times colour-supplement articles, ‘A life in the day of...’?). But they did all happen fairly recently, and the thoughts, while not all my own, are as genuine as thoughts can ever be. The truth is only what you remember.
Print also still has some advantages over the web. Web-based blogs tend to be linear in nature, with day following day. But here I am somewhat freed from those constraints, and have taken the liberty of inserting the occasional retrospective and reflective entry.
I start with where I should always start: with a client. I am working with a company that is entirely dependent on highly qualified, professional staff for the service they offer. The market they serve is growing rapidly – so much so, in fact, that they can see a time in the not too distant future when they will simply be unable to keep pace with demand. This is mainly due to the time it takes to hire and train people, and they think one way out of this problem is to improve productivity by improving knowledge sharing within the organisation.
This is not an easy issue to address. In the first instance, it is not one that can be solved by technology, although that may have a role to play downstream when current work practices are fully understood. I’ve been facilitating workshops with this in mind, getting their staff to map out processes and develop a common, shared view of their problems. Such captive workshops, with their combination of formal structure and informal time in the bar and out of the workplace, have a power of their own. They enable people to reflect, get to know each other and tell stories. In a world inundated with information, I see such learning opportunities as becoming much more important, even precious.
One of my observations from this exercise is that procedure can get in the way of knowledge sharing. Procedure is intimately associated with history – this is how we’ve always done it; we won’t be allowed to do it differently. There’s a relationship of mutual reinforcement between procedure and corporate culture that means people adopt an overly narrow view of their responsibilities and accountabilities. They get trapped by routine and ritual, sharing only the material that the procedure says they should share, and perhaps not even knowing what their customers might actually find useful. The situation reminds me of the consultant who, at the end of a systems-implementation project, said to a meeting of the steering committee, “You got what you asked for, but what you asked for is not what you wanted.”
The more of this type of work I do, the more I come to the conclusion that effective knowledge-management practice is actually sound business practice. This is not to downplay the term ‘knowledge management’ – categorising something as a discipline can revitalise it and provide real focus – but we have to be careful not to claim that we’re opening up virgin territory or force-feeding clients with our favoured medicine or preferred paradigm.
It is intriguing how much we can learn from organisational history and our experience of previous initiatives. For example, there are parallels to be drawn between KM and total quality management (TQM). I’m hosting a (written) discussion on AOK’s Star Series Dialog (www.kwork.org) on this very topic. There are certainly differences between the two approaches: whereas TQM was inclined to constrain (many would say stifle) innovation, good KM should do precisely the reverse. This is not to say that one is bad and one is good – it’s a question of horses for courses. For example, you’d usually prefer consistency to creativity when your airline pilot is coming in to land at Heathrow airport in the middle of a storm.
KM is facing many of the challenges that TQM faced in the 1980s and 1990s. Both aspire to a holistic view of a business and often get resistance from within the organisations where they are promoted. This may be because such views are foreign to most people. In looking at organisations we are like blind people examining an elephant. What we ‘see’ depends on what we touch, and very few of us are able to comprehend the whole picture.
Both disciplines tend to challenge the way a business is conventionally run, often seeking to break down (or at least subvert) the traditional command-and-control structure that management has grown comfortable with. Steve Denning (www.stevedenning.com), once of the World Bank, refers to both TQM and KM as works of labour that need missionaries to make them effective.
Two aspects of this exercise on AOK are worthy of note. One is that the context of the discussion is as important as the content. With contributors from the far east, Australia and North America, and with my icon and mentor Jerry Ash mediating and moderating, we have rapidly built a community of interest – if not of practice – that results in valuable conversations and insights. It demonstrates to me that such communities have to have a subtle blend of kick-starting and self-management if they are to succeed, partly because, as John Seely Brown (www.creatingthe21stcentury.org/JSB) says, they depend on mutual trust to facilitate knowledge sharing. Having a CEO mandate communities of practice is simply not enough.
I also realise how important a role the act of writing plays in formulating and organising my ideas. I’m obviously not the first person to have spotted this. In fact, many people I talk to say they share the same experience, but I wonder if it’s a discipline that’s at risk as the world becomes more frenetic. One hundred and fifty years ago, John Ruskin (www.ruskin.org – no, I’m kidding) wrote, “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.” More recently, Alvin Toffler (www.toffler.com – a real one this time) said, “The very process of writing changes me. It clarifies my thoughts. It organises my time and my life.”
Using this medium, is this the equivalent of a flashback a blogback? Or a backlog? Anyway, I’m reminded that I was lucky enough to encounter Toffler not too long ago at a conference that Xerox had organised in India. Over ten years ago, he talked about knowledge being the most democratic source of power, and how the struggle for that power would become a struggle over the access to knowledge. I was struck by the hold he still has on management and, more immediately, by how he was mobbed in the hotel lobby by people seeking his autograph. The consultant as rock star.
Back in real time in Europe, a colleague and I meet with some of the industry consultants who identify trends in the knowledge-management marketplace. As we discuss what we do (and who we do it to) it becomes clear to us that there are multiple views of the KM sector, and not all of them coincide with ours. It comes through loud and clear that in some instances technology has hijacked market perception. I suppose this should not surprise me. After all, it makes it much easier to provide tangible data and comforting charts about market size and growth, but I have an uneasy feeling that we will forever be talking at cross purposes. The more I talk about KM, the more facets to it I realise there are.
For example, I’ve become fascinated by the role the physical workspace plays in helping – or hindering – people do their work. Although people are much more mobile, if not nomadic, and ‘homeworking’ is becoming more acceptable to companies, the day of mass teleworking has yet to dawn, mostly because it ignores the vital social aspects of work. However, I will watch with interest the recent move by Starbucks to put WiFi access into many of their locations. Are we going back 350 years to the time when coffee houses were at the centre of London’s financial-services business? At least desk rage will become more civilised over afternoon tea.
I think we all know, either instinctively or explicitly, that the social aspects of the workplace are very important. Most companies I work with have gravitated towards open-plan environments, albeit usually with the (not very) hidden agenda of saving money. Open plan can work well providing it is balanced by spaces where people can go for privacy (and providing these places are not commandeered by managers and turned into offices).
I spend a day in London accompanying a study tour for Japanese businesses organised by our sister company, Fuji Xerox (www.kdi.fujixerox.co.jp/e/index.html). We have a tour of the UK Treasury, just off Whitehall, where the architectural firm DEGW (www.degw.com) is involved in a project to renovate and refurbish this 100-year-old building.
The result is certainly different from most government operations I’ve seen. Old light wells in the interior of the building have been cleaned up, had softly lit translucent roofing added and turned into informal meeting areas. There is a strong emphasis on the importance of community space elsewhere as well, particularly in the training rooms and the restaurant. But probably the biggest change has been the removal of the traditional grade-linked offices that the civil service is noted for and the pervasive introduction of open-plan layouts. Even the most senior staff – the permanent secretaries and so on – seem to exist in open plan. Very impressive, although the cynical taxpayer in me says I’d like to go back in a few years time and see if the associated principles are still being followed.
The day is interesting in other ways too. Companies like Sony, Mazda and Mitsubishi are all represented, and the age of the attendees is considerably less than I would have expected from Japanese companies a few years ago. I am also struck by the extent to which the members of the audience use digital cameras (made by Sony, of course) to capture images of slides during a presentation. I’ve not seen European audiences do this and I wonder if it’s a portent of things to come. Are the phone companies right in believing that camera phones will help recoup their 3G investments?
All the proceedings are conducted through an interpreter (one lady who must be exhausted at the end of what turns out to be a 12-hour stint), but despite this the level of insight that comes through in the questions is remarkable. A colleague suggests they all understand English perfectly but use the old diplomatic trick of having an interpreter to give them time to think. I don’t think this is the case, but the reverse is certainly true when we present to them over dinner – having a person translate does give you the opportunity to plan what to say about the next bullet point (and we certainly need that after a few glasses of wine).
Back to my obsession about the breadth of KM as a discipline. Believing this is all very well, but it would help if we could find other people – specifically clients – to share that belief. To this end, we’re doing a survey with Mori to find out what senior managers across Europe think about knowledge and the role information technology has in promulgating it and helping productivity. The results will be explored in an article in the next edition of Knowledge Management.
The reason for bringing IT into the equation is our observation that, all too often, IT systems – related to KM or otherwise – fall short of their promise. The best-known examples are usually in the public sector, although their very nature means they get publicity. I have no figures to prove this, but my strong suspicion is that the failure rate of IT projects in the private sector is just as high. But private sector companies are rarely coerced into looking back at major systems projects and doing formal after-action reviews.
Why do we have these problems with IT? I believe it’s to do with something I mentioned earlier, that technology cannot be expected to help unless you really understand the environment it’s being employed in. If you don’t know how work gets done, you’re unlikely to be able to design a system that will get it done better, or even differently.
That may seem like a glimpse of the obvious, but the truth is that management very often doesn’t know how work gets done within their company. They think they know, and they have the flowcharts to prove it, but the reality can be completely different. As the soldier said, there’s nothing more frightening than an officer with a map. In our own day-to-day lives, we’re all familiar with the shortcuts and guerrilla tactics we use to get a job done. Or are we? Actually we may be so familiar with them that we find them hard to describe until someone watches us do our job and explicitly asks us about them. It’s for this reason that we are starting to use consultants with ethnographic (sociological and/or anthropological in other words) skills to observe and understand people at work before implementing any supporting technology.
My client from day one comes back to me with good news. The workshops have been well received and the results have been used to get board approval to proceed. It’s a nice illustration of how an internal knowledge initiative can start at the grassroots, and then take off with a zealot fanning the flames.
So that brings me up to date. A blog can talk about the present and the past, but it would be a brave blog indeed that talked about the future. I feel a bit like John Ebdon, the BBC presenter, who always signed off with the words, “If you have been, thanks for listening.”
Richard Cross works for Xerox Global Services in the UK. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org