posted 16 Dec 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 4
Journey of a knowledge worker
Blogging is no longer the reserve of IT geeks and has become the must-have accessory to a website or discussion forum. Richard Cross shares a year in the life of a knowledge worker with highlights from his own blog. He discusses, among other things, the hype around innovation, leadership lessons from Shakespeare’s Henry V and the notion of galumphing.
That blogs have become de rigueur these days among the knowledge cognoscenti is evident from my attempts to refresh my mind following Ark Group’s event, KM Europe 2003. A few keystrokes takes me to blogs by Martin Dugage or Lilia Efimova and I am lurking and learning on the peripheries of the knowledge fringe – a sub-culture whose members share their insights with abandon.
Almost exactly a year ago I embarked on what Simon Lelic at Knowledge Management called a blogging soliloquy, a pseudoblog for the written medium.3 Hoisted by the petard of the publication in print and encouraged by an American friend, Jerry Bowles, I now admit to blogging. Although, as Oscar Wilde put it, "The trouble with socialism is that it takes so many weekday evenings." I have therefore only been an occasional, binge blogger.
My original plans were bold. The blog was to focus on ‘knowledge’, and the travels and travails of an international consultant. I envisaged delivering a perspective on how the nature and landscape of work is changing the link between knowledge management, risk management and innovation. But as celebrated psychologist Karl Weick says, plans are important but not for the reasons that people think. Plans are signals, games, excuses for interactions; they are not good for micromanaging the unexpected.
What follows are edited excerpts from this year’s weblog. In other words, when the living web goes to print, discretion is the better part of digital valour.
Today I celebrate twenty years in Xerox. Considering I joined as a post-graduate to complete a research project on organisational culture, it is a notable achievement. Looking back I can reflect on, among other activities, Eastern Europe before and after the revolution (I was once almost arrested for daring to use customer-satisfaction questionnaires), and participating in the establishment of a joint venture in India in the late eighties. I was also part of the team that wrote the winning application for the first European Quality Award in 1992.
More recently, Carmarthenshire was the scene of one of my attempted consultancy outings with leadership consultant Richard Olivier (www.oliviermythodrama.com) in an organisation-transformation event. Richard – son of Laurence Olivier – does a soliloquy on Henry V and the management of change. He examines the skills and process used by Henry V to transform himself from vagabond to king. The long version includes newspaper swords for senior managers to re-enact the battlefield of Agincourt – at least falling on their own swords will be painless!
Richard performs an outstanding pitch using stories from Shakespeare to focus on leadership skills, presentation techniques and creativity. It’s the first presentation I’ve attended where the audience has requested an encore. Reflecting on Richard’s work, I recall no reference to IT.
Quo vadis? I have been asking myself this question for some time, particularly since my 20th anniversary at Xerox. However I also refer to the London restaurant where Xerox Global Services hosted a dinner for key clients and knowledge celebrities, such as Tom Stewart and Dan Holtshouse, who were in the UK for KM Europe 2002 at Alexandra Palace. The meal was excellent, the conversation epic. Tom Stewart, editor of Harvard Business Review, used to work with Jerry Bowles when at Fortune. Jerry was one of the marketing geniuses who established the US national quality movement that ran from 1985-1995, which was when quality became a ‘commodity’. Six or seven years ago he started an e-mail club called the Ancient Thespians. Its motto was adapted from Neil Young: for men who believe it’s better to burn out than it is to rust. Many of the luminaries of the quality and KM movements are members. Currently, Jerry’s blog is one of the best out there (www.bestoftheblogs.com).
Tom Stewart reported back to Jerry and the rest of the club that during the Quo Vadis meeting of the Ancient Thespians, where we whined, dined and opined, “Richard and I solved a number of the world’s more pressing problems. Though we did this in the presence of other people from the erstwhile Document Company, no one thought to document our discoveries. They are, therefore, lamentably, lost in the fog of history, or something like history.”
Over the past few months I have been too busy to blog. As Alexander Fleming once said, chance favours the prepared mind, and I have taken the decision to establish my own business. The initial consultancy has brought a number of requests for sequels (copycat consulting, one client called it) and I have started to work with a behavioural psychologist to support a major organisational-change initiative. The work is exciting and energising, although after 20 years as a Xerox employee there is a period of adjustment and learning. I’m also becoming an Easyjet expert much to my own unease.
I bought the Harvard Business Review as I caught up on my business reading at Gatwick airport. One article stands out, ‘Sense and reliability’. It is by Karl Weick who is the Rensis Likert distinguished university professor of organisational behaviour and psychology at the University of Michigan Business School at Ann Arbor. What a job title. As an aside I once consulted to an organisation that, for a very short time, had a position called group office business systems head of information technology – just try making an acronym of it and you’ll understand why it was short-lived.
Weick’s classic book, The Social Psychology of Organizing, first published in 1969 is a must, albeit dense, read. For some time Weick has outlined the adaptive advantages of chaotic systems, distributed authority, and sensemaking. I find his term ‘cosmological episode’ resonates in the context of current business scenarios and my own experience. Weick points out that one of the cruelest aspects of organisations today is that they hold executives to standards of rationality, clarity and foresight that are unobtainable. Most leaders can’t meet such standards and get caught in a cycle of insecurity covered up by hubris, placing a lot of hope in unrealistic goals.
But the notion of ‘galumphing’ captures my attention. Weick uses the term galumph to mean a kind of purposeful playfulness. It is a type of improvisation whereby organisations try out different possibilities. I prefer the term to bricolage (although I believe Weick did write about bricoleurs in some of his early work). Galumphing stops organisations from being too complacent; it helps executives see things in a new way. Interestingly, from his research on wildcat fire fighters, he points out that they’re most likely to get killed or injured in their tenth year. Just about the time they start to think they’ve seen it all.
Action, tempered by reflection is the essence for Weick, “chaotic action is preferable to orderly inaction”. He says that, leaders have to leap in order to look, or to leap while looking. He recounts a story to make his point. Several years ago a platoon of Hungarian soldiers got lost in the Alps. One soldier had a map and they used it to get out safely. The soldiers subsequently discovered the map they used was of the Pyrenees. Great story. As Weick says, it illustrates that when you’re confused, almost any old strategic plan can help you discover what’s going on and what should be done next.
I met Australian-based Ross Dawson, author of Living Networks, last year and we caught up again at Starbucks while he was in London. The book is about the evolution of networks, organisations and strategy. Dawson practices what he preaches, or as Weick would say the other way round he ‘talks the walk’ and written word. It’s fascinating to listen to Ross’s adventures, travels and connections. I do note though that Ross, the living-but-jetlagged networker, needs strong coffee to warm up.
I attended a session on innovation at the EKM and am now in a reflective mode. Is it all hype? Is the word ‘innovation’ set to go the same way as knowledge management – appealing to everyone because it’s a great buzzword and something we can all buy into? Did many of the researchers just preface their existing projects with an innovation or a knowledge spin to secure their grants? A couple of the projects I heard seemed to be an extension of existing research.
From what I gathered though a number of the projects are winners. For example, ‘The evolution of biomedical knowledge: Interactive innovation in the UK and US’ will have a huge impact. Professor Scarborough as director of the initiative will also have his work cut out in project managing his fellow academics.
I also remain concerned that organisations seem to be seeking a one-size-fits-all approach that achieves miracles as quickly and seemingly effectively as the Atkins diet: the initial results are reported to be brilliant but the side effects disastrous.
What is knowledge management if it is not about networking? Knowledge workers everywhere are linked by a constellation of networks, virtual and real. Ross Dawson is personified proof of that. But if I thought Ross was a consummate cosmocrat (the Sony Ericsson term for the nomadic, new breed of flexible workers who base themselves in coffee bars or work wherever wireless takes them) I had not yet considered Ecademy (www.ecademy.com), which can only be described as Dawson’s living networks on steroids. Power networking pervades the site and is proof of how the simple ideas outlined in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, take off.
As one of those who believe that speed matters, however, I have been advised to go to one of the speed networking events that are all the rage. Working in pairs, you have 90 seconds to tell each person about you and your business and find out if you can develop a ‘synergistic’ relationship. This sounds like bringing KM to the masses.
So the message is, if you’re not a member of a network yet, make sure you become one, but of the right club.
Jerry Ash, a lapsed Ancient Thespian (www.kwork.org) has a valuable website that I use regularly as a KM resource. For the past two weeks I have been one of the virtual audience on the Star Series session. Simon Lelic has been in the hot seat as the knowledge mastermind and his specialist subject is communities of practice. The series is a good example of how such e-discussions can stimulate discussion and enable collaboration as well as the occasional controversy.
I was inspired to call Jerry Bowles to hear the news from the other side of the pond. He says he thinks that KM-related software is about to become one of the first hot-technology sectors to emerge since the dotcom crash.
It’s always difficult to predict the future, but should Jerry be correct in his observations there is a promising but potentially different future for knowledge management over the next year.
1. Martin Dugage’s blog: http://blog.mopsos.com/archives/000037.html
2. Lilia Efimova’s blog: http://blog.mathemagenic.com/2003/11/15.html
3. Cross, R., ‘A personal view of knowledge work’ in Knowledge Management (volume 6, issue 4, Ark Group, Dec 02/Jan 03)
4. Weick, K., The Social Psychology of Organizing (McGraw-Hill Education, 1980)
5. Dawson, R., Living Networks: Leading Your Company, Customers, and Partners in the Hyper-Connected Economy (Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2002)
6. Gladwell, M., The Tipping Point: How Little Things can Make a Big Difference (Abacus, 2002)
Richard Cross is director of InnovationX. He can be contacted at email@example.com