posted 28 Mar 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 7
The knowledge: Lee Bryant
By Sandra Higgison
Regardless of whether he works with not-for-profit or commercial organisations, Bryant’s guiding principles are based on authenticity, simplicity and clarity. Today he uses these values to help build better relationships between organisations’ employees, their clients and customers, but if you had asked him 15 years ago what he thought he’d be doing in 2006, it wouldn’t have crossed his mind to say he’d be running a successful online communications business in London’s trendy Shad Thames.
With a background in international relations and a keen interest in human rights, a career in political advocacy seemed more likely. During the mid-1990s, he worked for the Bosnian Foreign Ministry helping its new state organise its communications and diplomacy with the
The delegation was fighting an uphill battle to get the mainstream media to represent issues with enough detail and sophistication. “I used to write blog-like daily briefings that would go out overnight to hundreds of people around the world to re-broadcast through their own networks,” he says. “They were successful for being short, punchy, regular and authentic. For example we’d contact the local mayor of a town under attack to get news from the horse’s mouth. It wasn’t the traditional propaganda people were used to; we wrote from a human perspective. I learnt that if you have a voice, if you’re honest and aim for authenticity in communication, you will find people to connect with.”
These briefings were a precursor to his work today at Headshift, using blogging and social media to create more direct, authentic forms of communication and collaboration. An old university lecturer gave Bryant a glimpse of this future when he was based at the Bosnian embassy in
In 1996, when the war ended, Bryant formed TMG with his long-term business partner Livio Hughes to pursue this kind of work. Their initial intention was to focus on human rights organisations, charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). While they had altruistic intentions, they also had bills to pay, so TMG started to take on commercial work to make more money. Bryant and his colleagues soon realised that the same humanist perspective they used for building knowledge communities in not-for-profit groups was also relevant to private companies as they were full of people frustrated by bureaucracy and brittle structures, and who had a lot of value and passion to unlock.
As TMG’s work continued, Bryant describes the epiphany that led to the creation of Headshift in 2002. “Looking back, we were making the same mistake as everyone else at the time: we were focused on building wonderful superstructures, hoping that people would use them the way we wanted them to. We realised that we could flip that model on its head to work on the level of the individual. By giving them simple tools to connect with each other, we could let them create aggregate effects from the bottom up, rather than starting from the top and working our way down. This marks the difference between our work in the 1990s and what we’re doing now.”
When the time came to build a new company and put these ideas into practice, Bryant was nervous, as he could easily remember how difficult it had been chasing revenues in TMG’s early days. But he had not fully anticipated the power of social networking. “With Headshift everything just happened; it was remarkable,” he says. “We set up the business, clients came to us and our new recruits were almost self-selecting. The way we were talking about social networking really struck a chord.”
Bryant says that Headshift sits between the innovation communities producing new ideas and tools and the concrete needs of organisations. ”We know many developers and we track their ideas to see how they can be translated into immediate real-world uses. We form the bridge between innovators who move quickly and organisations that are often a step or two behind in their use of technology.”
Headshift creates the means and infrastructure by which people can share knowledge effectively and on a human scale. As Bryant says, he believes the value of knowledge is relative and only exists between people, which is why he is not interested in the creation of knowledge content or the codification side. “We know companies that spend 80% of their knowledge-sharing budget on storage even though they may not know which documents are important. We are only interested in joining people together, as this is where knowledge becomes useful and therefore valuable.”
He likens this work to an organisational immune system. “The body may appear to be designed inefficiently with millions of interconnections, lots of parallel systems and much redundancy. But it has evolved this way for protection so that illness or bad ideas don’t destroy it. If you look at very hierarchical organisations, such as Enron, one bad idea infiltrated the entire organisation and led to its collapse. We want to build these webs of connections between people with multiple redundancies so organisations have their own immune systems that transmit good ideas, but protect against bad ones. Fundamentally it’s just about letting people get on with what they do.”
In this way, Headshift has brought social networking to a range of clients in different sectors, such as law firm Allen & Overy. One of many challenges faced by legal teams is the process of gathering and processing information about new legislation. Within Allen & Overy, professional support lawyers would use the phone, e-mail and Microsoft Word documents to aggregate information about new areas of legislation, discuss it with people, identify implications and then distribute guidance on the changes to their colleagues.
“We created a knowledge-sharing infrastructure for small groups of people,” says Bryant. “They now share information on a blog while a social bookmarking tool finds links to existing or related legislation and a group aggregator pulls in relevant feeds from various internal and external sources. They can then use the wiki to co-produce guidance documents, which is a faster and more efficient process.”
While Bryant recognises that much of his work relates to knowledge management, it’s not a term he uses or believes in. Instead he talks to clients about knowledge sharing and the idea of putting a social interface onto corporate data. “Organisations have document management systems, learning management systems and people management systems,” he says. “They’re good at being big, robust and powerful but they fall down in the last mile between the database and the human being. We use different combinations of blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, newsfeed aggregation and lightweight mark-up of content to create a usable social interface.”
In terms of social networking, Bryant still regards blogs as the biggest driver. “Sebastian Paquet described blogs as personal knowledge sharing. The idea is that you write about what you know and share it, and people will pick it up if they want to. If you do this at scale then you have a phenomenal knowledge-sharing system. This has reached another level with social tagging, pioneered by sites like Flickr and Del.icio.us, and the popularity of co-production through wikis. If people can use their own voice and have control of what they share, the resulting network effect is what knowledge management was trying to achieve in the first place.”
His approach to document classification is also simple and effective. He almost winces as he talks about the huge taxonomy projects organisations put themselves through. “From any perspective they’re almost without value or merit,” he says. “As David Weinberger says, everything is miscellaneous. Instead of trying to classify two million documents, tell individuals to grab the ones they use and tag them with their own keywords. This way it will be useful to the individual and it’s very simple to achieve.” Such talk scares the large consultancies that will happily charge millions for creating a classification system with a 25-step storage process. “Sometimes what we do is too simple and cheap; we’re giving the game away.”
Bryant also shares his social networking skills with social enterprises such as Muslim Heritage. The project, run by charity FSTC, aims to raise global awareness about the importance and relevance of Muslim heritage and its contribution to current world civilisation. The ‘1001 Inventions’ website uses blogs to help young people understand the innovations of Islam in science and culture. It also has a word game that takes 100 English words derived from Arabic, gives the definition and connects live to Amazon, Wikipedia, Google and Flickr to show how these words are far from being dead concepts. The project has been featured in the national press and has prompted long and fascinating debates on community sites such as Slashdot and Metafilter.
His interest here is about interconnectedness in the world and between cultures. “We have a situation where people on both sides of the East-West divide think the other is wrong. But if you look back over the past 2,000 years, you’ll see that everything we’ve done has been a product of the interplay and interconnectedness of different cultures and empires. When you understand that computers, for example, are based on cryptography, which is based on Islamic maths, then you realise that if you hate this ‘other’ culture, you hate your own as it is based on shared property. This project is important for our future safety and security.”
It’s not surprising that Bryant’s interests also extend to the interface between technology and society. “There are important political and social issues that come with blogging, distributed publishing and devolved responsibility,” he says. “They have the potential to impact positively on our world. On a basic level, we can take back some control over language and the way we talk about ourselves.” Looking back on the dot-com boom, Bryant says that the temporary power given to geeks and nerds was scary. “Governments and companies were changing the way they worked based on individuals who only watch Doctor Who, eat pizza, are unlikely to have girlfriends and are often poorly socialised individuals. It’s a dangerous situation. I’d like to think that the people building the tools my children will use in ten years’ time have a well rounded sense of social responsibility and context.”
Looking back at his experiences working with the Bosnian government, setting up TMG and then Headshift, Bryant says he has learnt to be true to himself. “When we started out we were self-conscious about not having business backgrounds. We thought we needed to become more corporate until we realised that businesses and people like that we just talk to them honestly and on a level, even if that might sometimes sound odd in a corporate context.”
Bryant also stresses that social software and social media are not just about technology as they also relate to a process of change within organisational culture. “Under the cover of business you can do some very good things,” he says. “There’s a lot we can do to help the individuals in business who have a lot of energy, passion and knowledge to share but are trapped in outdated corporate structures. We like to think we can liberate human creativity and potential for the benefit of the individual and also for the good of the organisations they work for.” Bryant predicts that humanising the way we work will become a major theme for the next few years. If we do move away from Fordism and 1950s management thinking towards the creation of organisational structures that are better suited to the way we live today, it can only be to the benefit of us all.
Lee Bryant can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Name: Lee Bryant
Place of birth: Rochford,
Education: Social Science Degree (International Relations),
Employment history: Institute for War and Peace Reporting 1991-93; Bosnian Government 1993-1995; founded TMG Hypermedia 1996, ran it until 2002; founded Headshift 2002
Personal strengths: Dealing with complexity Information processing
Must improve: Patience, tolerance, ability to relax
Biggest inspiration: People who take personal risks to make a difference
What I do to relax: Spend time with my children
Favourite film: Angel heart
Must read: ‘The Politics of Obedience’, Étienne de la Boétie (pub. 1552)