K is for… management

Trying to formulate an approach to knowledge management within my organisation, it’s occurred to me (and sorry if this has been blindingly obvious to you for a while!) that the stress is on the second word. KM is a management activity. Or, slightly more fully, it is the set of activities which managers can undertake to ensure that knowledge has and retains value for the organisation.

The first result of taking this perspective is that it shifts the focus. KM projects spend, or historically have spent, a lot of time trying to answer questions like “What do we mean by “knowledge””. But the primary question is: what do we mean by “management”? That isn’t necessarily a simpler question to answer, but it is one that gives context. Management is a role that can be analysed and defined in an organisation – what kinds of things do we expect managers to do? – and hence what kind of knowledge management activities might be appropriate in a particular organisation at a particular time.

Second, rather obviously, you can only manage the things you can manage. That means having the means to measure or at least monitor what effect your KM activities are having. And only managers can answer the question as to what knowledge contributes value to their business.

So what I’m concluding is that “knowledge management” is a particular aspect of management (like “financial management” or “staff management”). And what the KM discipline does is to provide managers with tools that enable them to manage the knowledge activities and processes in their business. That means:

  1. KM practice operates at whatever level is sensible – team, business unit, corporate – accordingly to where the need is;
  2. KM may be and usually should be entirely focussed on particular business problems, not on general issues like “how do we retain expertise?”;
  3. KM isn’t a new thing that an organisation should “do” or “not do”; it’s something all organisations (all managers) do – they just do it well or badly.

This has some implications for what KM isn’t, or rather what KM practitioners don’t need to do. First off, they don’t need to patronise people who know how to do their jobs by calling them “knowledge workers” and telling them that they don’t know how to do their jobs. Second, they don’t need to repeat mantras like “knowledge sharing is good”: it may be, but sometimes it may not be that important – and it’s up to the business to know whether it is or not. Third, they don’t need to pursue the fatuous aim of turning all “tacit” knowledge into “explicit” – which is a little like an accountant arguing that come what may all the company funds should be turned into gold bars as quickly as possible – admittedly pretty, but quite often utterly useless.


ID is for…

I missed a credit card payment to Capital One this month. Sheer incompetence on my part, of course – simply a matter of missing the date. Not, you would think, the end of the world.

I became aware of my forgetfulness when Capital One’s callcentre staff phoned me on Friday morning. The conversation went as usual with these companies: “Can I speak to Mr Ben Pl…Pleuvy [or something similarly vague]?”. “Speaking.” “This is Capital One here, I need to speak to you on an urgent personal banking matter. For security, could you please confirm your date of birth.”

Hang on, whose security are we talking about here?

“I’m not giving you my date of birth. It’s personal information. I don’t even know who you are.”

Rather impatiently, I was told that if I doubted their identity I could phone them: “You’ve got the number, it’s on our bill.” Gee thanks. I did phone them – even though it cost me 7p plus 2p per minute. Their system told me to key in my credit card number. I did. It told me to key in my date of birth. I didn’t. The system put me through to one of their callcentre folk. He asked me for my date of birth.




“I said no. I’m not giving you my date of birth. It’s my personal information.”

“But if you don’t pass validation, I can’t talk to you. The system won’t let me see your account until you give me your date of birth.”

“So you want my date of birth because your system requires it?”


“But it’s my personal information.”

“But I need it for security.”

“Then you’ll just have to write to me, won’t you? Goodbye.”

After that second call, I had a think about why I wasn’t playing – until then, I’d been reacting out of sheer irritation, partly at my own stupidity in forgetting the payment, partly at the mere fact of being called from a callcentre. My date of birth is my personal information. If it is so valuable a piece of information that it can validate my identity, then I don’t want to give it to someone I know almost nothing about – even if I’m sure they are indeed working in Capital One’s callcentre, I still know nothing about their personal integrity. If, on the other hand, it isn’t a valuable piece on information (because actually it would take very  little effort for anyone else to find out my date of birth), then the charade of giving it “for security” as though it is some kind of meaningful token is merely demeaning.

Call number three was pretty similar. Call number four came on Saturday morning. By that time, of course, I’d actually paid the bill, but Capital One’s systems apparently didn’t know that.

“Can I have your date of birth?”


Sigh. “You have to pass validation or I can’t talk to you about your account.”

“So don’t talk to me about it.”

Sigh. “We aren’t going anywhere.” You got it. “You’ll have to put up with the calls.” She hung up.

Call four tried reasoning with me. “Why won’t you pass validation? You can ring us so that you know we’re Capital One.”

“I have rung you – and was asked for my date of birth.”

“Well, you have to pass security.”

“Not if it means giving you my date of birth.”

“We’re complying with the Data Protection Act.”

Well, no you’re not. You’re just trying to limit your risk under the Data Protection Act. Different thing altogether.

“You can ring us if you don’t believe we’re Capital One.”

“I don’t have any doubt that you’re Capital One – I’ve spoken to enough of you over the past 24 hours. My date of birth is my personal information. I’m not going to give it to you. In fact, I don’t even know what you think my date of birth is.”

“We aren’t going anywhere. You’ll just have to put up with the calls.”

“So you’re telling me you’ll keep ringing until I give you my date of birth? That sounds like harassment.”

“It’s important that we speak to you about your account.”

Not to me it’s not. At least, not if I have to bend to your will to enable you to do so.

But she’d rung off.

There was a call five, and may even have been a call six before Capital One’s systems obviously twigged that they’d actually had their money. The later callers were bad-tempered from the outset – their system may not allow them to see my account details until I’ve “passed security”, but it sure as hell let them see a note reading “This One Is Trouble” or words to that effect. The words “we’re going nowhere” were repeated. The threat to keep phoning was repeated.

This is a mess. I’m not precious about my date of birth. In fact, I am happy to give £10 to your favourite charity if you (so long as you’re not someone I know well) are the first person to email or DM me my date of birth any time before the end of April – but only £10, because I don’t believe it will be particularly difficult. So while I can think of lots of scenarios in which my supplying my date of birth provides some evidence of my identity, I can also think of lots of scenarios in which it proves nothing of the kind. I can also think of scenarios where a callcentre worker quietly harvests personal information to use for their own illicit purposes. Why should their systems pander to their paranoias rather than to mine? Capital One have never explained to me the systems they have in place – if any – to prevent their callcentre workers (overseas) from misusing my personal information.

Then there’s also that whole callcentre thing. The significant pause after you answer the phone, which means that a machine has dialled your number, not a person. The ridiculous “How are you today?” greeting. The utter failure to accommodate – the failure to have a Plan B for dealing with the maverick client – because “The system requires it”. This is not customer service – it’s (attempted) customer management.

I wouldn’t object to sharing a secret with Capital One – a password, a question and answer, some facts about my account. I wouldn’t mind if their callcentre staff were free to negotiate around establishing identity and to make a judgement on the basis of a conversation. But date of birth has become the standard mechanism for authentication, in spite of the obvious nonsense it is. And of course Capital One isn’t the only company to act like this – it seems to be pretty universal. It’s “what the system requires”. Well, not from me. Sorry.

What are the behaviours that build digital engagement?

This is a summary I prepared at work of some conclusions about how we build an “Enterprise 2.0” organisation (specifically, a civil service organisation). I’m particularly interested in what’s needed in the way of new skills to support such a change, hence the final section.

Characteristics of Enterprise 2.0

Sustaining valuable conversations

  • The digital world is bitty and subject to firestorms
  • Commitment to continuity is crucial – even when followers are fickle
  • We do not have a privileged voice: we gain authority and audience through skills and knowledge, not because we are “the Government”.

Blurring of boundaries (real/virtual; private/public; official/unofficial; internal/external)

  • We have to operate consistently and authentically (and avoid being a “creepy treehouse”)
  • We must learn to plan all activity across the boundaries of real and virtual
  • Managing and deploying knowledge must happen transparently across the boundary between “internal” and “external”

Concept mapping

  • Concepts connect, and we no longer control the connections or the changes in them
  • Sharing, testing and challenging our understanding and our vocabulary is essential

Developing communities

  • Proactively seeking engagement, not passively waiting for it
  • We’re in competition for eyeball time: don’t assume people will engage with us rather than with other centres of power or authority
  • There are no hierarchies in a web: no-one represents or stands in for others
  • Developing partners’ capabilities is as important as developing our own (and can only be done jointly)

Capturing good exemplars

  • Small-scale experimentation works better than large schemes in complex situations
  • Lessons learned = good examples – and not = “best practice”
  • Experimentation means being tolerant of failure, and being comfortable with talking about failures

Building “Enterprise 2.0”

  1. Enterprise 2.0 can be built by command and control (CISCO is an example), but it is generally built by removing barriers rather than by corralling staff.
  2. Different organisations have different levels of capability (and indeed capability may differ within an organisation). These different levels will affect how “naturally” staff take to Enterprise 2.0 behaviours (and we should not assume that the differences are generational).
  3. Resistance or reluctance can come from a variety of causes: a fear of not having permission; a fear of getting out of your depth; a fear of looking ridiculous; a simple fear of technology.

Building skills for “Enterprise 2.0”

Some new skills areas become crucial, especially:

  • facilitation skills – leading a collaborative effort in such a way as to maintain the wider engagement;
  • visual skills – presenting and understanding knowledge and information in ways that can be read rapidly and effectively;
  • engagement skills – understanding and working to an agenda which is not necessarily ours;
  • identity skills – managing and maintaining authentic, valued and secure identities.

Some older skills may also need updating, particularly:

  • writing for the web – particularly the ability to write punchy, engaging text and make issues real to people through clear illustration and examples;
  • collaboration skills – the ability to work effectively with a range of stakeholders, internal and external, in an open and almost real-time way;
  • searching skills – being able to locate and monitor relevant information, conversations and issues as they arise “out there”.

Two women in technology

I promised Suw Charman-Anderson (through Pledgebank) that I would blog “publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire” to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day.

Tricky one, this: my boss is a woman, and as Chief Information Officer she probably is “in technology”. And obviously I admire her deeply! But I’m not going to blog about her.

The women I want to celebrate are two of the early pioneers of electronic music: Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire. In referring to these two, it is of course compulsory to refer to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and to the Doctor Who theme. There, I’ve referred to them. It must also be said that it seems clear that the Workshop would not have existed without Oram, nor the Ron Grainger tune have survived so long without Derbyshire. But that’s not the point here.

No, my admiration for these two stems from their immense practicality. That may sound strange when referring to two women whose primary interest was in musique concrète and the outer edges of tonality. But the point is that to Oram and Derbyshire, the technology had purpose.

I like the story about Oram that one of her early jobs was ensuring that concert transmissions were not interrupted by bombing. Essentially, she followed a feed from the Royal Albert Hall and ran a recording of the same work in synch in the studio: if the RAH went down, she switched over to the recording, ideally so smoothly that the listeners wouldn’t even notice. Fakery? Possibly: but also an immensely practical way of helping to make bearable the experience of wartime Britain.

Yes, both women clearly loved technology – the feel of it, the joy of it, the heft of it in their hands (and often in those days the technology had real, physical weight). But they don’t seem to have loved it for its own sake, but because by using it they could explore and expand the frontiers of their art.

So here’s to all women (and men of course – although I’m tempted to say that women are better at this than men) who can keep their eyes firmly focused on the reasons for doing technology even while recognising and celebrating the unexpected, the unexpected, and of course the downright cool that technology itself introduces us to. Two women I would have loved to meet: Delia and Daphne.

D is for…


Disagreement is a fine thing, isn’t it? Just as we learn by making mistakes (or as Dave Snowden puts it, “Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success”), so we advance a debate by exposing our thoughts to discussion and criticism and even ridicule at others’ hands. And now we have tools that enable disagreement to flourish. Yes – that real-time, multi-dimensional, all-singing, all-dancing blogospherical world where endless discourse and discussion and dissent and, yes, disrespecting go on 24/7.

And how does this apply to the political process? Well, there are certainly good signs, as government departments and public bodies embrace – well OK, sometimes flirt timorously with – social media. Ideas of creating “interesting, authentic conversations” with stakeholders or “A National Conversation” on Scotland’s constitutional future are fine brave ideas. But the concept of authenticity is intimately related to the concept of trust: and trust in political discourse is perhaps lower than ever.

No, the political process will only learn from debate when it becomes genuinely transparent: when the mass of people can be convinced that they have real influence over policy. And that means that the process of making (re-making, amending, tweaking…) policy must itself be exposed to the public gaze.

Getting to this point is not easy. The traditional media see debate and discussion as signs of weakness – a blog post by a civil servant that even hints at a different view from that of Ministers will be seen as “undermining”; a Tweet from a Minister that queries government policy will certainly be headlined as a “split”.

Everybody loves a good dramatic story: but sometimes the dramatic stories obfuscate the truth that public bodies have a right to be wrong, a duty to learn from mistakes, and an obligation to debate and discuss and disagree. Historically, this has happened behind closed doors, inevitably weakening the learning process. And if some chinks of light have been let in recently, for example by the Freedom of Information Acts in the UK, they are still only patchy and partial. The real fear is that letting in the light, when accompanied by the derisive hoots of a media that cannot comprehend a political process that works outside of the lobby system, actually withers the trust that we hoped to nurture.

Regrettably, then, D (as this post acrostically spells) is for Danger. It’s also for debate, discussion, devolution… and, most important, democracy.

Networks and not-works

The statistics associated with social networking are colossal: there are 280 million 15-year old kids signed up to FaceBook, and 700 trillion videos on YouTube. And those figures are rubbish, but you probably believed them for about a second. The numbers are huge. But actually size is not only not everything, it’s not even in the same ball game. Because I suggest that what people use social networks to do is to set boundaries to their world. Take the research from the HP Social Computing Lab, which found that actually we return to only a small number of websites and genuinely follow or engage with only a small number of “friends”. Researcher Bernardo Huberman called this a return to the “dawn of the age of intimacy”.A bridge from Tyneside

Actually, of course, this is pretty obvious. Web 1.0 – once it moved outside the community of CERN-heads – became huge, amorphous, unfriendly. Information was an unstoppable torrent – remember when “Results 1 – 10 of about  191,000” was supposed to be a good thing? Even the chat rooms and other interactive features the web offered became too big, too unpredictable, too full of the disruptive and the exploitative. We built something that resembled the financial district of a very large city – on a Sunday. Windswept, slightly (or even very) unsafe, lacking in human scale and human amenities. So people started moving to safer ground and building communities – some of them gated, many of them quite welcoming to strangers, but all of them offering us ways of engaging only with those we choose, by some mechanism or criteria, to engage with.

Now, what about the enterprise? It doesn’t look as though things are much different there. A recent piece of research indicates that the silo is alive and well. Researchers Adam M. Kleinbaum, Toby E. Stuart, Michael L. Tushman sampled more than 100 million emails and 60 million calendar entries from around 30,000 employees of a large company (no, I didn’t make those figures up), and found that most interaction in the enterprise takes place within the immediate business unit. So having got a mega-mammoth email system which enables us instantly to consult and collaborate with colleagues across the entire world, we mostly use it to email the guy in the next desk but one to ask if he’s seen the key to the stationery cupboard. (By the way, Kleinbaum et. al’s research is fascinating – although a lot of it just confirms what you always thought – and I’ll probably return to it in the future).

Note the shift in values here. We think that people building and protecting communities in the wide world is A Good Thing. But in the workplace, we kind of want people to broaden their outlook. We think communication and collaboration between different parts of organisations is good. We think we’ll improve our business if everyone is talking to everyone else – or at least, is willing to do so. In other words, we expect people at work to behave in ways that we know perfectly well they don’t behave in the rest of their life. Well, there’s a surprise.

So, on the assumption that we can work better with the grain rather than against it, can we adapt the strengths of social networking in the not-work arena and pervert them for the purposes of work?

A modified version of this blog appeared elsewhere , but I’ve moved it here to encourage me to follow it up!