In recognition of my Dad “a lovely man”: when knowledge capture becomes personal

John Corney, my Dad, died in August a month shy of his 87th birthday. Though not unexpected the timing of it was.  I was lucky in the sense I got to say goodbye and to reflect while he was still with us on his amazing contribution to and guidance for my own life.

Dad was a ‘lovely man’ a phrase / tribute we oft heard from those who knew him and a private man. I realised as he neared the end of his life that though we were close there were so many aspects of his background that were opaque to me.

He was of the ‘old school’ a meticulous senior banker involved in international trade who passionately believed ‘my word is my bond’ and that debt is a commitment to be honoured.  He was not loquacious or a natural storyteller; instead he eschewed the limelight though he was well read, capable of deep insight and eager to debate topics he found stimulating.

For him ‘social’ was a word associated with a gathering of people not an online activity.  Though he recognised the value of the internet, Apps, Smartphones and Tablets were alien concepts to him.

What you might ask has this personal story got to do with business? Here’s how:

  • As Executor of his estate charged with carrying out his wishes I wanted to understand the thinking behind his approach to investment.
  • I also wanted to understand more about his early life and how he made decisions.
  • Dad was similar to many senior executives who are often reluctant to acknowledge that their contribution has been significant.

Perhaps subliminally I drew on many of the techniques I encourage others to adopt when trying to capture critical knowledge from people about to retire or relocate:

  • I used a timeline to look at significant milestones in his life with photos as a prompt.
  • We talked about books he had read that had helped shaped his thinking.
  • We talked about people he most admired.
  • We went through his ‘blue book’: a transactional history and ledger of all assets.
  • We sat and watched something and used that as a neutral space for a conversation.
  • I spent days ploughing through his archives.

A big regret is that I didn’t record any of these discussions but the stories and artefacts remain and I am now their custodian with a duty to pass them onto his great grandchildren so that they too can appreciate John’s legacy.

And finally

When people leave organisations after a long period legacy is a word often cited as the justification for a knowledge capture interview. What many overlook is the step of thinking up front what is the critical knowledge they are looking to surface during the process.

This mirrors many of the stories emerging from the interviews my co-author Patricia Eng is undertaking for “Navigating the Minefield: A Practical KM Companion” book which we are aiming to publish next year. Often the driver for these initiatives has been a reorganisation, takeover or downsizing; in effect a firefighting exercise.

Setting up a programme to consciously capture knowledge is expensive and time consuming: it needs a clear rationale/driver and a set of measurements to track its efficacy and value.

Knowledge Capture EventI am looking forward to evolving my own thinking when I am in Lisboa next month running this masterclass with Ana Neves. It aims to raise awareness of the importance of critical knowledge: how to identify it, how to go about capturing it and how to go about making it available for reuse.


“What’s in it for me”: sharing client knowledge in a workplace with 4 generations.

On March 2nd I was in Broadgate talking to the Chairman and two Managing Partners of a law firm. There, at the invitation of the Chief Operating Officer, we were discussing inter alia how to deepen relationships so that when the senior relationship manager departs, their knowledge, networks and clients don’t depart with them.

‘Why would I change, there’s nothing in it for me’

Against a backdrop of increased M&A activity and potential ‘Lift Outs’ (hiring of teams from another firm) we talked about why millionaires would share what they know for the benefit of the rest of the firm. I recalled an incident from a previous client, a federation of 13 businesses with very wealthy MD’s who had no intention of passing on what they knew about clients or cross selling for the good of the whole firm. This is what one MD said:

I wouldn’t let …. anywhere near my client;  for a start my business is unique and I don’t want them ruining a relationship which has been built up over many years.  Ours is a relationship business and I have an assistant who knows everything about the client and we store all information on the …. system.

And this from a senior banker:

I have a flat in London and a house in Umbria. I drive an Aston and the school fees are all paid. Why would I want to change?

These are not untypical responses from the upper echelons of organisations.

‘I have no assets so I go where the excitement is’

Contrast that with these factionalGeneration Rent’ (People born in the 1980s who have no hope of getting on the property ladder, a term coined by The Independent’s Tim Walker) examples arising our of conversations I had a few days ago.

Sam‘ is 30. He left college and became a talented electrical engineer.  As part of the BT’s acquistion of EE he now finds himself in demand.  His prospective boss (a newly promoted middle manager) sends him an email in which he tells him how lucky Sam will be to work on his new team – I kid you not!  So Sam retorts, ‘actually I am not going to work for you or on your team…’

Sam lives with his girlfriend, they are able to afford to rent but have little immediate prospect of owning a home. She is training to become a teacher.  Their horizons are near term and they want to work for people who share their values where they can move on when the role (or people they work with) becomes uninteresting.

Sam’s father Matt who is in his late 40’s had a mortgage at 21 fuelled by the belief that home ownership was the ultimate benchmark of a civilised society. Sam doesn’t feel the same, for him experience is more important.

Micha‘ is 23 and has been in work for 2 years since graduating from Univeristy of Southampton. She doesn’t know if she can afford to leave her parents to move in with her boyfriend. Her world is governed by whether she can service her credit card and overdraft and of getting away from a 45 year old middle manager who has read the corporate values manual but disregarded it from day one in his pursuit of a plethora of consumer durables. He speaks the talk but doesn’t walk it.

Generation Rent employees have a very different set of values and aspirations from their colleagues.  Unable (or unwilling) to join the property owning fraternity they are more transient than their predecessers and do not have the same sense of attachment. They will go where the action is unencumbered by physical assets.

They come to firms with a developed sense of online community but are less adroit at human interactions.  Engaging with these organisational foot soldiers is going to be one of the biggest challenges facing senior management over the next few years as they try to make organisations leaner and more productive. And no longer I fear can Senior Managers subcontract the task to HR, Learning, Training or indeed Knowledge Management or rely on the cascading methods of communication that have been prevelant in most organisations seeking to get changes made and messages understood.

crossing a broad chasm

The proportion of people classed as Generation Rent is predicted to expand as UK home ownership becomes a distant horizon.  This gap isn’t going to close quickly so organisations are relying on squeezed middle management to be the water carriers between the top and the bottom. For the first time ever we have 4 generations of workers all working at the same time!

In the current edition of ‘The World Today’ Chatham House’s bimonthly magazine there is piece on a recent members event during which Kevin Sutcliffe, Head of News Programming EU, Vice News had this to say:

There is a notion that television news and documentaries attract an older audience. The logic in editorial meetings at Channel 4 News and the BBC is that people aged 18-35 aren’t interested in the world.  VICE started to put out documentaries about the coup in Mali or the way Egypt and the Arab Spring was unfolding. They were very popular. They had engagement times of about 25 mnutes and they were getting hundreds of thousands of views. So there is great interest from that group in the world. The issue was the way it was being presented. Most television talks down to people, and that is not representative of 16-35 year olds.

I found this encouraging and supports a comment from Gordon Vala-Webb who Sandra Higgison interviewed a few years back when my colleagues and I at Sparknow were conducting research into the Evolvng Role of the Knowledge Manager. In response to a question that indirectly asked how his KM initiative at PWC Canada impacted all ages and levels of seniority Gordon said:

Our biggest portal users have been here less than six months

What is striking about all of these examples is the expectation and motivational gap between those at the top and those lower down the organisation which prompts this question: Is a fundamental shift needed in the so called Social Contract between employees and firms to bridge this chasm and make organisations more sustainable?

How to close the gap

Create a Corporate Social Contract (with embedded KM aspirations)

In a recent piece of work engaging with a brand new Senior Management Team I encouraged them to get their personal values and beliefs on the table and craft their own commitment to each other and the team.  It mirrors this piece extracted from Harvard Business Review For Great Teamwork, Start with a Social Contract

To turn groups of employees into great teams, a powerful first step is to form a social contract — an explicit agreement that lays out the ground rules for team members’ behaviors. A contract can cover territory such as how members will work together, make decisions, communicate, share information, and support each other. Social contracts clearly outline norms for how members will and should interact with one another.

Team norms exist whether openly stated or not. A good leader should facilitate sessions with his/her team to uncover the existing norms, both positive and negative, that impact team functioning. Establishing a social contract can reinforce positive behaviors while helping teams to overcome dysfunctional ones.

I’d add one aspect here: the development of Knowledge Competencies (at a personal and corporate level) should be a thread that runs through this document.

Contemplate disintintermediatimg middle management

This will be heresy in some quarters but I generally believe we are at a tipping point when it comes to how organisations are working.  The interpretation of messages from the top and flow of ideas to the top while often seen as an important filtering process seems to me more likely to alienate Generation Rent employees who are used to collaborative not command and control environments. Dialogue has to be more transparant not more opaque.  Social media is exacerbating the naming and shaming of bad organisations who are often characterised by a broadcast rather than collaborative approach to internal and external communications.

Go 3 Levels down for an effective client relationship

When I set up a client strategy process at an investement bank the first challenge was how to widen and deepen relationships with our major fee earning clients so that we could accomodate the departure of a key Relationship Director. We only considered a relationship ‘secure’ when there were three contacts at three levels across our and their organisation. We documented what we knew and kept it current with regular contacts at all levels.

However, then, as now, successful ‘rain makers’ could demand want they want; a case of a slightly skewed symbiotic relationship, wherein Senior Management pay lip service to values statements and Corporate Social Contracts while bowing to commercial reality? The process worked primarily as I reported to the General Manager and CEO and carried ‘the pen’ with a mandate for change and the ultimate sanction of appointing a different Relationship Director if another refused to participate.

In another meeting last week in The City I was with the KIM Head of a large global law firm overseeing the process of deepening relationships with clients. He recognised the need for a meaningful client relationship to be 3 level deep and the importance of illustrating the differences in the way we all see the same event or object. His company is getting clients in at 3 levels for show and tell and share sessions as a way of cementing a relationship and getting expectations and aspirations out on the table.

Focus on Risk and Assets as a framework when thinking about what Critical Knowledge to keep

What struck a chord during last week’s meetings was the notion of risk – most organisations understand risk but few set about managing Knowledge in that context or seeing Knowledge as an asset. While a lot of work has been done on the Risk of Knowledge loss less has been done on  the value of Knowledge Assets.

Critical Knowledge Matrix

Following a conversation between John Wade (Gill Jennings & Every) and Paul J Corney

This is how one organisation is starting to think about how to contextualise the capture and retention of its Critical Knowledge. This statemant (also from HBR – Managing your MIssion Critical Knowledge – January 2015) sums it up well:

Few companies think explicitly about what knowledge they possess, which parts of it are key to future success, how critical knowledge assets should be managed, and which spheres of knowledge can usefully be combined

Its a topic I will be picking up over the next couple of weeks at KM Middle East in Dubai where I am making a speech on Why effective knowledge capture and retention matters  then running a workshop on Unlocking the true value of Knowledge Management: identifying and assessing your organisation’s Knowledge Assets and then Singapore where I will be running Masterclasses.


What Knowledge Management is and why some people don’t ‘get it’

I was in virtual conversation today with Professor Fernando Sousa, President of APGICO, the Portuguese Association for Creativity & Innovation whose aims are to:

  • develop, disseminate and promote knowledge and experience in the management of organizational creativity and innovation;
  • establish international contacts with similar organizations;
  • create forums for dialogue between businesses, academic institutions, government agencies and other stakeholders in the management of creativity and innovation.

APGICO has all the right characteristics to become a Knowledge driven organisation where collaboration and co-creation are at the heart of everything they do!

Fernando and I first met 5 years ago when we were part of an Advisory Board assembled to look at future business options for a traditional hand weaving business based in the Alentejo region of Portugal. Fernando subsequently invited me to be a guest speaker at an EU Creativity & Innovation event Portugal hosted during which he used stories to develop themes and we’ve shared ideas ever since and recently met for tea in Faro.

I mention this since despite a number of conversations Fernando, like many, struggles to ‘get’ Knowledge Management though he appreciates the ideas behind it, the techniques that underpin it and the value of stories to unearth new meaning. In his own words:

Although I have some difficulty in entering your field of expertise, I always find your texts and slides quite interesting; in fact, I find some of them are true mind breakthroughs

While generous (thank you Fernando) it means I haven’t expressed the message clearly enough in language that he understands or in context which goes to the heart of a conversation I’ve been following this week on KM4Dev started by the World Bank entitled ‘PDFs that nobody reads’.

KM – the dangers of a supply led model

Here’s an extract from one of the many excellent contributions to the KM4Dev discussion, this by Lata Narayanaswamy, Honourary Research Fellow at University of Sheffield:

It is this question of what people actually do with all the reports and newsletters and information packs that we as development professionals produce, and I absolutely include myself here. My own research in this area would suggest that, in contrast to so many members in this forum in particular, who work to promote KM as an interactive, engaged, two-way, back and forth communications process, a large proportion of what passes for KM is the production of a PDF that gets posted on a website. It is a supply-led model that reflects what both Philipp and Magdaline have identified as the lack of reflection on what people actually want to know, and instead focuses on what organisations either want to share or what they think people should want or need to know and ‘how’ to know those issues. ……
Given the diffuse nature of what we call ‘development’, it is not therefore surprising to find that the World Bank, despite their powerful financial and discursive position, is experiencing a ‘no one is really reading our stuff’ problem, because broadcast mode has always been an essential part of their KM framework and the way in which so much of civil society has understood what is means to ‘do’ knowledge.
And whilst I believe that engaging with and articulating the demand for knowledge is hugely important, I am under no illusion that engaging with demand alone is going to address this issue. I myself as a practitioner have been in plenty of situations where someone has requested information (presumably this counts as engaging with demand!) and I subsequently learn that they didn’t use it. I think Peter’s example of ‘information that might be useful if only we had a budget to engage people with it’ really highlights that KM is not only about demand or supply but a continuous process of recognising the value of information to the knowledge creation process.

My own observations on that discussion were:

I’ve been working a fair bit recently with and in Middle East and Africa and very aware of the challenges of publishing dry English reports to audiences where English is a subsidiary tongue. I’ve tried using the power of 3 (3 bullets, 3 themes), stories and postcards to bring ’stuff’ to life.  But ultimately it takes a seismic shift for people to change ingrained habits.

One of my early corporate assignments was to set in place a business intelligence function which collated and summarised salient content for senior officers.  Later, technology sought to replicate this but was never quite able to replicate the knowledge of an individual who knew the business inside out.  In a way this was how the Knowledge Manager in that business emerged – a person who knew and understood the business providing the right content (with opinion) to those who were best able to use it.

I’ve been working with one of the leading Gamification experts and will be facilitating a debate on the subject at KMUK and with David Gurteen at a Knowledge Cafe in a few weeks time.  Its a similar issue – how to get engagement with an audience, a problem increasingly exacerbated by the behaviours of Generations X, Y & ‘Rent’ whose learning and reading styles are driven more by social than traditional push technologies.

identifying the value of Knowledge Management

So I was delighted when Nick Milton published the extract from a presentation to financial analysts made by ConocoPhillips last month in which one of their Vice Presidents described the value of Knowledge Management to that organisation – take a look at Nick’s blog. The comment that really hit me was:

The knowledge sharing group that we have that drives all of this is embedded in our IT organization, which is embedded in our technology and projects organization.
So it’s well integrated with all our other functional groups and we look at maps of how knowledge is being shared from one part of the world to the other and across different functions and can actually track how well that is working and it’s been pretty impressive what it has done for us.

“It is actually one of the key tools that we are using today to combat the great crew changes, we call it in our industry, where we have so many people with so much knowledge who are retiring and we’ve hired all of these younger people. A big part of how we do that knowledge transfer from the experienced folks to the less experienced folks is using these tools.

Value creation is at the heart of the Knowledge Asset Management Methodology, Ron Young has helped many organisations adopt. It is based on a concept of frequent value assessments with measurements (Change Readiness / Stakeholder Analysis / KM Maturity Models as examples) and the idea of embedding a 9 step Knowledge Management process into the day to day workings of an organisation.  It further calls for the identification of an organisation’s Knowledge Assets, a serious attempt to measure the intrinsic value of processes, communities and individual, team and organisational knowledge and networks.

For many years Ron, along with others in the KM arena, has been calling for a mechanism that places a value on these Knowledge Assets and while the ConocoPhillips briefing is some way off that it is a move towards that goal. Lest we should forget, a few years back a correlation was made between the winners of MAKE awards and their outperformance on the US stock market.

I believe Risk Management is also of huge significance and why the Nuclear Industry pay attention to the capture of Critical Knowledge identifying who has it and what they could least afford to lose through natural wastage or downsizing. As yet, factoring in the value of a loss of Critical Knowledge as a potential risk does not feature in the Audit and Compliance reports of most organisations and I for one believe it should.

and finally

So what do I take from this?

  • Knowledge Management needs a foundation of good Information Management;
  • To be effective (and sustainable) Knowledge Management must be embedded in the processes of an organisation and focus on business issues;
  • While stories bring experiences to life, you can’t assess what you don’t measure and if you don’t map and measure (frequently) you are reliant on anecdotal evidence which at the top level of organisations won’t wash for long; and
  • Its easy to produce ‘product’ that looks good but not relevant or in context for the audience – pushing at an ajar door on the lower levels is a lot different than banging on a locked door at the top of the building!

‘…education, education, education…’ and the role of critical knowledge in government as seen from Whitehall

Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people.

Prime Minister Blair, ahead of the 2001 General Election

Paul at Cabinet Office 1It was an interesting and Westminster focused week. A chance to see first hand whether more than a decade on the aspiration of making Britain a learning society had been realised.

Monday, I was a guest at a Cabinet Office Knowledge Cafe facilitated by David Gurteen; Thursday, I ran a workshop* at the Department for Education on knowledge capture and retention.

At the Knowledge Cafe there was a nice mix of people from across the Civil Service. The 40 or so, assembled by Susan Chan of The Cabinet Office and hosted by Roger Smethurst, Deputy Director and Head of Knowledge and Information Management at the Cabinet Office were discussing:

How can we more actively share knowledge in the workplace?

The Knowledge Cafe format encourages conversation (it’s David Gurteen’s mantra) asking as it does for three rounds of conversation after an opening round of 2 minute introductions. For some the lack of any obvious outcomes is a source of frustration, for others its a liberating way of discussing a topic of interest and testing your own hypotheses.

I found myself in conversation about the diametrically opposed tasks of promoting voluntary transparency across government while protecting the exemptions of the Freedom of Information Act.

We discussed the difficulties of establishing Twitter dialogue and of being tied to SharePoint.   Everyone had a tale to tell about lack of handover time when being faced with a new assignment. Few seemed to have heard of Collaborate the internal government social media/chatline.  To a man (and woman) there was disquiet over the abandonment of the Local Government Agencies Community Network.

Yet the vast majority had concerns about potential loss of knowledge when organisations downsize and move to more flexible and generalist working.  This was a theme that was to resurface on Thursday.

‘I spent the morning waiting for a login…’

The dozen or so people who attended the 2nd of 3 knowledge management expert sessions held at the Department for Education were drawn from Policy, Administration and Delivery. My topic:

capturing and exploiting critical knowledge in Department for Education

An exercise I’ve found works really well when trying to get to the bottom of what critical knowledge looks and feels like is to ask people to think about a time when they needed to know…. Often mundane administrative issues (a good handover/briefing pack being rendered ineffective by lack of access to a system) get in the way!

Introductions SlideThis slide gives you the narrative.

A variety of frustrations were aired as well as great examples of good knowledge sharing practices. And yet so much revolved around the need for signposts and people acting as knowledge hubs – knowing who to go to being as important as knowing where to look.

If I didn't come back tomorrow                                                           The discussion really came alive when the delegates split into three groups to work through one of these questions.  Some of the learnings:

  • Critical knowledge is often held at Grade 6 & 7 and these are neglected when it comes to knowledge capture. While Directors and Deputy Directors are adroit at managing, their domain knowledge is unlikely to be as detailed.
  • The narrative (context) surrounding critical knowledge is hugely important. By focusing on events and decisions it’s easier for this to emerge.
  • As the propensity for greater disclosure (authorised and unauthorised) increases so does the need for informal discussion – ‘An audience with..‘ sessions increases.
  • Reputation risk (from not drawing on previous experience) is viewed as a core issue.

takeaways from Westminster

Revision of the Government Knowledge & Information Strategy has sharpened the focus on the need for effective knowledge capture and retention.  That needs the active support and participation in the business areas (not just in the Knowledge and Information Management Professionals across government) for this to happen and for continuous knowledge harvesting to become ingrained behaviour.

There is still some way to go before Tony Blair’s vision is realised!

* informed by a programme run by knowledge et al and Sparknow for HMRC