posted 14 Mar 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 6
The knowledge: Patti Anklam
Best known for her work with social networks and knowledge management, Patti Anklam has used her experience to write a practical guide to building organisational performance through collaborative communities, to be published later this month. Now focused on applying the principles behind complexity theory to the collaborative enterprise, she talks to Inside Knowledge about her career and work to date. By Sandra Higgison
Collaboration, knowledge transfer, communication and analysis are just some of the key themes that have supported Patti Anklam’s career as she has worked to build her expertise in all areas of knowledge management and social-network analysis (SNA). Describing herself as a consultant practitioner, Anklam prides herself on applying leading-edge theories to the practical problems facing the organisations she works with. By drawing on these experiences and the many networks she maintains, Anklam has recently written The Social-Network Toolkit, a practical guide to working with social networks and knowledge management. Not only is this piece of work a collection of the major findings from the field’s leading thinkers, it also sets the scene for Anklam’s current focus on the relationship between social networks and complexity.
Anklam’s education in the liberal arts, her early career in technical writing and even, as she says, her gender have provided her with a unique perspective in her efforts to help organisations understand the social and cultural dimensions of introducing collaboration solutions and software into the business. “A colleague once used the phrase ‘advocate for the user’, which has been key to my success,” she says. “I’ve been taking the user’s view since my first job as a technical writer, which required me to extract knowledge and present it in a way that could be documented and transferred. If there was a piece of software that I couldn’t use, there was something wrong. This was when I began to comprehend how people learn and use technology and the impact it has on their working lives.”
This understanding developed further during Anklam’s 22 years at Digital Equipment Corporation, where she managed a large team of people focused on developing the latest techniques in technical writing and documentation. “I architected a system of hypertext mark-up for documentation that transformed the way the company worked,” she says. “It opened my eyes to the implications of bringing new technology into a social environment in terms of the impact on individuals and the organisation.” This work enabled Anklam to become part of a cross-organisational team that was doing early work in what would soon be described as knowledge management. “There were people from all parts of the organisation looking at different aspects of KM,” she says. “We were able to co-ordinate and leverage what each other did. It was how an informal network should operate. It had real power.”
When Compaq, now part of HP, took over Digital Equipment Corporation in 1998, the culture of the new business became less supportive of the cross-organisational network Anklam thrived on. She then joined Nortel Networks, a company that was initiating its own KM conversations. Working in the professional-services division, she built the knowledge-management practice from the ground up, an achievement that makes her particularly proud. “I was able to integrate all the pieces I think are important in a KM programme and bring together a team of people with different skills. We felt good about ourselves and the difference we were making to the organisation,” she says.
Collaboration and its supportive technologies have become a running theme in Anklam’s work. In the early 1980s, Anklam helped implement one of the world’s first conferencing applications, Vax Notes, on Digital’s internal computing network for use by its 100,000 employees. Since then, she has used or helped clients develop work practices for using many of the now common applications like Microsoft SharePoint, OpenText Livelink, eRoom and QuickPlace. “My business partner, Joe Hutchinson, and I have developed a two-pronged approach to help clients bring in collaboration technology,” she says. “We focus on end-user facilitation, training and coaching, and the broader IT-governance issues of policies, procedures and system architecture.”
It was in November 2000 that Dave Snowden, founder of the Cynefin Centre and former director of IBM’s Institute for Knowledge Management (IKM), introduced Anklam to social network-analysis, now an integral part of her work with collaboration, by inviting her to an IKM meeting. Anklam participated in a workshop led by Rob Cross, author of The Hidden Power of Social Networks, and was instantly in awe of the potential value the subject could bring to organisations. “I was amazed at the insights social-network analysis provided into information and knowledge flows, and how network maps could help you understand how people and organisations work together,” she says. It was a fresh insight into collaboration. “I also responded to the sociological side given my college studies. Most of all though, I realised that I had to work with Cross; I’ve been working with him ever since.”
Five years later, SNA has become a staple of the KM toolkit. In a nutshell, analysis of a social network aims to map the relationships and patterns of communication that occur between network members. These maps help to raise questions about how an organisation can improve information and knowledge flows. Sophisticated software takes the data, collected via surveys or one-to-one interviews, to create maps showing the connections – or lack of them – between people. To date, the biggest adopters of network analysis have been large, geographically dispersed organisations. However, the technique is also valuable outside of a business context. Personal networks and networks “in the world”, as Anklam refers to groups in societies or economies, can also be mapped. Indeed, Anklam says she often creates maps of her own networks. “I have mapped the interactions within the informal networks I belong to,” she says. “I often do this as a way to demonstrate social-network analysis to clients as well as build my map repertoire.”
Although social-network analysis is becoming more readily understood, in order to reap the rewards of network analysis, an organisation must have the right mindset in its approach to managing its business and its people. “On the social side, too many companies still use command-and-control management styles,” says Anklam. “One of the things I have learnt from my work with Snowden is that social networks are an expression of a complex mindset. A lot of managers still think that, if they plan something, it will happen. They have to understand that if there are people, networks and human relationships involved, you can’t predict and control. But you can guide.” To help the managers she works with to achieve this shift in thinking, Anklam introduces them to the Cynefin framework (www.cynefin.net) to make the distinction between complex and ordered environments.
Once an organisation is ready to conduct a network analysis, there are pitfalls and success factors that can either prevent or enable the realisation of the value of the analysis. “A real pitfall is that the people looking at the maps jump to conclusions without validating the results,” she says. In her report, for instance, Anklam explains how nodes lying on the periphery of a map may look poorly connected to the rest of the organisation. In reality, however, they may be the experts or, as in one example Anklam gives, the only person in the organisation in direct contact with customers. In terms of success factors, she says, “Management has to have a clear business goal for conducting network analysis and be prepared to respond to the results generated. If a company asks its employees to reveal something about themselves, it has to be ready to make changes. Communicating well and frequently about the SNA is therefore important.”
The number of organisations pursuing SNA initiatives is growing at a startling rate. Even Anklam is surprised to see how quickly the practice is spreading and is regularly impressed by the work she hears about. “Scottish Enterprise, a development agency for Scotland, continues to find innovative and practical uses for social-network analysis,” she says. “I also recently met people from oil and gas service provider Halliburton. They are doing some amazing work with SNA on project design and intervention. Mars also stands out in it application of SNA to leadership development.” In addition, Anklam has found that many companies are not just using network analysis for knowledge management. “People use it to support organisational change and innovation, and build communities,” she says. “Networks are also being analysed from a diversity perspective, relating to gender or ethnic background. Companies are starting to understand that innovation and strong networks require diversity. SNA can help identify if a network is sufficiently diverse to encourage the generation and cross-pollination of ideas.”
Having spent so long helping organisations understand and nurture their own networks, it is hardly surprising that the practice has influenced Anklam on a personal level. “I’ve become more aware of things like the diversity of my own networks, maintaining my relationships and connecting other people,” she says. “While I’ve always brought people together around ideas, it was only when I learnt about SNA that I understood what I was doing and why I had been successful on some occasions and not others.” Anklam typically approaches problems from a network perspective, an example of which is her blog, www.byeday.net/weblog/networkblog.html. “When I have an idea I’m wrestling with, I put it down in my blog to discuss it,” she explains.
Anklam realised the true value of her personal knowledge and networks when, as she describes it, she was kicked out of corporate America. “I’ve always loved being a practitioner in big companies,” she says. “But when Nortel closed its professional-services organisation, I found myself looking for a job during a particularly difficult economic time. Being able to tap into this great network of people who work with knowledge management and networks helped in large part to make me realise I could take on consulting projects for myself.” Leaving corporate America behind also made Anklam appreciate the talent to be found on her doorstep in the Boston area. “It’s a fabulous place to be. I can attend colloquiums held by Harvard University on complexity and social networks that invite the top researchers from around the world to give talks at lunch time,” she says.
Living within such an intellectually charged environment, Anklam has been inspired by some of the leading minds in knowledge management. “The early work of Dorothy Leonard, Tom Davenport and Larry Prusak was a source of great inspiration,” she says. “As was Richard Wurman, whose thinking on information architecture and knowledge management brought together a lot of emergent ideas. I believe that when people use the term ‘information architecture’ they are referring to Wurman’s original interpretation in his book, Information Architects. In particular, one of his definitions of a person in this role reads, ‘A person who creates the structure or map of information that allows others to find their personal paths to knowledge’.” Anklam also includes Peter Senge as an inspiration. “A lot of knowledge management’s roots lie in his work on learning organisations. I also attended a conference on the learning organisation in 1992 that altered the direction of my career”
Finally, Anklam says that her work with the Stone Center, a women’s research organisation at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, empowered her in many ways. “Over eight months, I spent a lot of time with other women from software engineering at Digital examining the social impact of working in such a male environment. It fundamentally altered my view of the world,” she says. “Some of the subtle differences in gender opened my eyes to the differences that exist in perspectives, skills and talent.” Based on research by Jean Baker Miller, the hypothesis developed at the Stone Center holds that women socialise differently than men and tend to think more relationally. “In particular, women have a real affinity to things like social networks, and there are many women working in this field, though they do not have the visibility that many of the guys do.”
Gender aside, Anklam’s ties with social-network analysis and knowledge management are clear and will continue to grow in the future. She plans to keep working with companies at mid and senior-management levels, helping them understand how social complexity can lead to more effective management. And as the field evolves, Anklam sees technology keeping pace. “What’s happening with technology at the moment is amazing; we can’t ignore it,” she says. “The next generation of KM software will move towards collaboration and social networks. I’m keeping my eye on blogs and instant messaging by mobile communication.” More immediately, Anklam’s work is focused on solving business problems relating to collaboration and KM using the principles that underpin complexity and social networks. As she continues to research, teach and write about these subjects, we can be sure to continue learning from her and her network in the future.
Patti Anklam can be contacted at email@example.com.