The elephant fable: a Chinese reflection on KM, innovation and knowledge capture techniques


To set the following discussion into context, my name is ‘Jonny’ Jiang, I am a PhD candidate on service design and service innovation at a design school in London.Jonny I am working part time with Paul at a start-up charity Plan Zheroes to deliver services to make better use of surplus food and help people in food poverty.

Thanks to Paul, I have been given opportunities to learn from his expertise in knowledge management and practice some of his methods to capture knowledge and insights in that charity.

As result, I am able to reflect upon my journey of knowledge management at the charity and my research in service design.

Interestingly, by comparing these two distinctive fields of practices, it gives me some thoughts around the importance of how we can generate new knowledge and insight around innovation.

KM tools for learning during and after

Let’s talk about some of the knowledge management methods I learnt in this process. Before jumping into these practices, I should tell you I had very little understanding of knowledge management apart from my general reading around business journals.

Paul sat down and demonstrated to me one of the previous knowledge capture sessions he ran with one of employees at the charity. He explained the rationale of capturing and sharing knowledge among staff through interviews with employees before their leaving and during their life cycle with us.

As I understood, it is very important to understand each individual’s experience and perspectives on his or her journey here and on specific events in particular in order to spot and improve the internal and external operation.

One of the other rationales I understood very well at the end is Paul’s point on the element of constructively building a better relationship with interviewees even after their leaving to help them reflect upon the personal growth and learning during the period of working inside the organisation, which I realise is very important to each party and helps nurture Alumni Networks.

Later on, I have been given an exercise to listen to Paul’s recording on his interview and using his knowledge management toolset (e.g. brief, time map, experience circle, questions) and conclude my findings based on those.

Then a few days after, we sat down again to compare our capture of knowledge based on the same interview and reflected together on some of my questions and learning’s. This was an incredibly effective session with Paul because I am able to learn by practice from Paul’s expertise to help equip a newbie in knowledge management with knowledge, practical tools and confidence.

I took the lessons and tools from this exercise and conducted an interview with employee who was about move to another city and leave the charity. Once the interview has done, I sat down with Paul again to reflect on my interview and report of this knowledge capturing practice.

Most of Paul’s methods have been already described and explained very well in this blog, so if you want to figure out what tools and methods I have used, please click on this post ‘Going not forgotten: knowledge capture in a hurry’.

Check out the timeline tool as a way to effectively reflect the knowledge and insights accumulated along the journey. It is a powerful tool because

  • It gives a common language that visually displays our thinking’s and provokes thoughts around the highlights and lowlights of the journey. In my interview it helped us to reflect on interviewee’s expectations at the start of job, which gives us lots of insights on how we manage the expectation during staff induction.
  • Mutually, it also gives an opportunity to help the interviewee consolidate the learning from the job that can be transferred to future careers.

My elephant and the correlation between design and knowledge management

As Paul invited me to write down my reflections after this exercise, I was fascinated by how similar and powerful the practices around knowledge management and design as a source for organisational innovation can be. As many of us  interpret the word ‘knowledge’ with a connection to ‘science’ ‘scientific’ and ‘objective’, there seems to be a misunderstanding of the value in ‘subjectivity’ and ‘social artefacts’.

As we all come from different experiences in life and become who we are because of those experiences, we all develop very distinctive perspective on the world based on the things we learnt and have done in the past.

It is like one of fables I learnt as a child which described four blind people who gave a very different description of the elephant by touching it from their own positions. seems to be fully convinced by their ‘objective’ interpretation and deny others’ views of what the elephant ‘truly’ is. It is obvious, in the fable, that each of them only ‘sees’ their part of reality.

The elephant and social facts. source:

In real life, this fable maintains a sense of inspiration too. We all experience a building differently from where we look at it. It can look small from a bird’s eye view or intimidating if standing alongside it.

In organisational management nowadays, particularly large organisations, operations can be highly siloed and lacks ways of detecting those subtleties in perspectives. It means each department may have their very own budget and competing agenda and develop their very own ways of understanding and doing things under the cover of ‘specialisation’.

Those silo operations based on ‘the only one way’ present danger of neglecting the values in perceiving or doing something differently that is at the core of innovation.

As such, knowledge management is becoming increasingly critical to recognise subtlety in each individual’s interpretation and map them in order to spot opportunities in the gap of our personal knowledge and experience.

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 14.46.57In service design, this idea of interpretation has been very important in user research.

By mapping extensively, designers can understand better the users’ perceptions and behaviours and gather deep insights on where the opportunities can be for designing better customer experience and services.

One example of customer journey mapping. Source: (

In Knowledge Management these interpretations can often reveal opportunities and strengths as well as failures and weaknesses.

And finally

The advice I can give to someone who is about to do the same exercise and interview a colleague who is about to leave is to take the default position of ‘he-or-she-knows-much-more-than-me’ rather than being judgemental on what you believe as the ‘truth’ or ‘reality’.

As many as we are coming from this global village, there is a great value in the diversity of perspectives and this is where I believe is the infinite source of innovation.

And of course, definitely check out those knowledge management tools on Paul’s shelf. They are really effective and surprisingly practical.

A comment from Paul

I have had the pleasure of mentoring ‘Jonny’ for the last couple of years during which time he has participated in board meetings, helped select a project management tool to act as store for the knowledge and documents on the various projects we’ve undertaken and conducted knowledge capture sessions. He is also the curator of our digital library.

I invted Jonny to be a guest contributor as I felt his experiences might be of value to others. Indeed his comments about the ‘give, get’ component of a knowledge capture process is particularly perceptive as often the drivers for such programmes are downsizing and layoffs where there is little positive feeling.

I am delighted he has contributed and would encourage you to join in with your comments.

capturing & exploiting corporate knowledge in HMRC: bombs, cakes and critical knowledge

The impending release of the UK Government’s Knowledge & Information Strategy has shone a spotlight on the need for all areas of government to capture, effectively manage and share the knowledge and information they create and receive…if they are to deliver a world class and publically accountable digital public service.

I wonder how many UK taxpayers associate HMRC with being at the leading edge of government practice? Yet a few months back 14 senior business people gathered for the first modules ran by Victoria Ward and I of a Civil Service Learning pilot programme* entitled capturing and exploiting corporate knowledge. 

The venue was Whitehall, London yet the delegates came from around the country and represented a wide variety of disciplines from across HMRC: VAT Directorate; Anti Money Laundering; Large Businesses Service; Corporation Tax, International and Anti-Avoidance (CTIAA); Specialist Investigations; Local Business Comliance: and Excise, Customs, Stamps & Money Services (ECSM).

in advance

We asked the delegates to:

…bring along an object. An image, document or small artifact that illustrates a memorable event with which you were involved during your last couple of years in the business. It might be a decision, a new piece of policy or a transaction.  We are going to ask you to talk about the object and use it during the exercises so please think carefully about what you might choose.

Here’s why: Objects stimulate conversations; people feel comfortable talking about them in environments where otherwise they might not open up. They reveal insights other techniques fail to unearth and so are effective as icebreakers and as triggers for more in-depth discussions on events and projects.

One of the core beliefs I’ve developed working with Sparknow is that, to be effective and valued, knowledge management has to be about helping to improve the decision making capacity of individuals, teams and organisations. Indeed it features in the opening sentence of the World Bank’s definition of KM:

…Knowledge provides insight for decision making…

So, much of early stage investigation into critical knowledge has to be around events and decisions and how knowledge has (or has not) informed them. Objects have proved to be a good way of facilitating those early dialogues and feature prominently in the work we do.

By combining timelines and objects to examine an event or decision in an Anecdote Circle we imagined this would act as a real stimulus in helping to place clarity around the concept of critical knowledge.

module one: Positioning


  • understand the importance of critical knowledge to HMRC


  • able to identify critical knowledge
  • see how and why others identify and capture critical knowledge

Reassuringly people were prepared and had an object, an image or something in mind (this is often not the case). Here’s an extract from Victoria’s fieldnotes taken during the plenary debrief on the memorable objects session:

My object wasn’t that helpful, it was just a document…But it was a conversation starter, very simple very plain, a trigger… It brought a story to life and helped with focus

The Anecdote Circle helped the delegates identify the event or decision they wished to examine in more detail.

For that we invited them to use a tool, (worksheet) for conducting a more in depth (Deep Dive) type of discussion, Sparknow has christened the Narrative Grid.

Narrative Grid Worksheet

Narrative Grid Worksheet

Comments were broadly favourable and the Narrative Grid was to feature later in the programme by which time they were more attuned to its benefit and skilled in its application.

From looking at critical knowledge from an internal perspective we shifted to the external environment drawing on examples from the nuclear industry, the health industry and the regulatory industry to illustrate how they had set about identifying what critical knowledge was in their business and why they set about capturing it. A common theme running through each example, with which the HMRC delegates were able to empathise, was the need to mitigate risk especially around the departure of staff with considerable expertise and experience.

There was broad agreement that critical knowledge:

‘It’s the knowledge HMRC would struggle without if it lost’

And in working through examples the delegates were able to identify two compelling metaphors: bomb defusing and cake makingcolored_wires_bomb_cutter_3268

  • In defusing bombs the precise critical knowledge is knowing what wire to cut.
  • For recipes, it’s not just the recipe, ingredients, marinading, but how hot is my oven?

    Flower Bomb Cake by Madeline Ellis

    Flower Bomb Cake by Madeline Ellis






Module One ended with us providing the delegates with a set of references and reading. We also provided a link to an interview I’d conducted with Gordon Vala-Webb a promiment KM’er in Canada who was in charge of a project to capture and retain knowledge for a regulator at a time when many of its most experienced staff were about to retire and would impact them operationally. Gordon gives an eloquent explanation of how a large govenrment organisation tackled this and determined the knowledge they could least afford to lose. Here are a few snippets:

…we took a risk management approach and got each of the branches to fill in a risk assessment form as part of the annual business planning process… a high score would have resulted in the branch developing a risk mitigation plan… we provided guidance on different approaches which included videoing, interviewing, expanding procedure manuals…in some cases they kept the retiring staff on call…

…I believe if we had not had this program people would have been scrambling to keep operating…

More to follow on Modules 2 through 6 over the next few weeks.


*Sparknow and Knowledge et al worked in partnership to deliver this programme.

“… a brilliant and eye opening experience”: using ‘The Apprentice’ format for a good cause

This quote, from one of the Accenture team who took part in a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) volunteer day in blistering conditions at Islington, London a few weeks back, was in response to a question I posed at the conclusion of the event:

Q) As you leave: if someone in the office asked you about the day what would you say?

A) ‘Was a great day with a chance to do some real good.’ was another participant’s reply.

Those who follow my musings will know how honoured I am to be invited to become a founder trustee of the charity PlanZheroes (PZ) who aim to help make use of surplus food. The CSR day, one of a number of imaginative ‘offerings’ PZ developed, gives organisations and their employees a chance to put something back into their community while concurrently testing their innovation, teamwork, sales, negotiation and project management skills in a real life setting.

‘…your task…’

To make the day really energetic PZ introduced an Apprentice-style competitive element. Fifteen people, three teams, three separate areas of London: Who will raise most awareness and get most businesses and charities added to the map?

I was there with CEO Designate Maria Ana Neves and a team from PZ whose role was to shadow the teams as they made their way around Islington and to provide input for the debrief session that was to end the day.

The 16 participants began by introducing themselves and noting something that others might not know about them. This was to prove a great kick off session, part of the briefing to equip them for the time they were about to spend out and about in Islington.  We asked later what they’d expected:

Q) On arrival what were you expectations?

A) I did not expect the day to be as organised as it was or to have such supportive helpers

fired up and ready to go

Briefing over and armed with PZ badges and little books each team spent a while perfecting their strategy, the messages they were going to give to the organisations they met and who would be doing what.  A large part of the challenge of approaching food outlets is to recognise that surplus food is a natural by product of the suply chain, hence we advised them to avoid using the word ‘waste’.


We were not to see them now for 5 hours so Maria Ana and I monitoroed their progress via Twitter and the PZ Map updated as contacts were made and organisations signed up.

The teams assembled back at base just before 4pm for the debrief. I asked them to use a timeline as a prompt to describe what happened, when and who was involved with a further commentary as to how they overcame difficult moments.

One of the team's timelines

One of the team’s timelines

Though lighthearted it gave the teams (and a senior manager who joined at this point) a chance to compare and contrast: what had worked and what hadn’t; where did they get pushback, from whom (and why)?

amazing results

Before revealing the results Maria Ana asked the teams to develop a one sentence ‘why we should win’ statement. The ‘results’ were amazing:

Announcing the scores

Announcing the scores

  • 14 new businesses on the map & 1 new charity sign-up
  • 35 businesses to follow up & 2 new charities to follow-up
  • one team even walked to Holborn to talk with Sainsbury’s head office
  • two teams got their lunches for free (or part of it!)
  • 130 mix of facebook likes and tweets/followers and we were told one celebrity chef is supporting us (details to find)

Perhaps the most value though comes from the way the teams come together and the roles they play throughout the day. Here’s a couple of responses to my question about role models:

Q) Role model: who did you admire during the day and why – tell us about what they did?

A) One memeber of the team really came out of their shell and were particularly confident when approaching businesses …

A) …The person was awesome and I think I have learnt some people skills that day.

To learn more about Plan Zheroes’ special days for volunteers and organisations please contract us via the PZ website

when Moscow and Bangkok meet: conducting a cross border/cultural debrief

A couple of weeks ago I was the fictitious CEO of a global insurance group listening to a presentation by a combined group of Russian and Thai delegates at a training programme. Their task was to convince me that my company should engage them and to do so they had to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the approach they’d spent the previous 4 days learning about.

They had a few rules to adhere to:

  • The presentation was to last for a maximum of 50 minutes and minimum 25 minutes
  • Each person had to present for at least 5 minutes and no more than 10 minutes

Those familiar with both cultures will know that one is voluble and will openly debate, happy to occupy centre stage; the other more reserved preferring offline conversations with an aversion to open criticism.  After lunch my challenge was to conduct a debrief on this exercise with the group drawn from consulting and energy with a good to acceptable command of English.

I settled on using a timeline as a way of giving both groups a neutral object on which to focus.  I was trying to get them to recognise how differently groups from varied backgrounds and cultures can view the same exercise while concurrently acknowledging their very positive actions as a group. 

using a timeline as a catalyst for coming to an understanding about an event

Here’s the instructions I used:

  1. Please split into two groups Russian Team and Thai Team and take 15 minutes to:
    1. draw a timeline: from handing over to presentation
    2. now trace the steps and the chronology, noting down key moments/decisions as you saw them and who was involved
    3. were there any moments the group got stuck and if so how did you overcome them?
    4. when you’ve completed your sheet put it up on the wall
    5. then inspect the other team’s and note down any obvious differences

A key request was that ‘above the line’ they should record the key moments and ‘below the line’ the sticky (or difficult) moments. TimelineThe Thai team with their energy (engineering) background created a detailed forensic account whereas the Russian Team provided summaries for each of the headings above. The group found it very useful to discuss the difference in approach and outputs since it has real implications on the way to roll out new initiatives in a global organisation.

There was a lot of laughter (a good sign) when I invited them to split 50/50 Russian/Thai in pairs. I invited them to

  1. Get into pairs and discuss
    1. What is something that worked well in this activity?
    2. What is something that did not work well in this activity?
    3. What is something you would do differently next time?
    4. And finally, what behaviours did you find most helpful as you worked in a team for the first time.
  2. Back into plenary and capture each person’s comments.

Once we’d surfaced positive behaviours it enabled me to split the ‘teams’ and as a mark of progress I asked the listener to repeat back what their partner had said.

my takeaways

The formality of the timeline allowed both cultures to fully participate in their own way and  gave the less voluble Thais a mechanism to voice their feelings which otherwise might have remained hidden.

It re-emphasised the maxim that in a global business tailoring your messages to each audience is critical to get adoption.

And finally it underscored the idea that when undertaking a debrief it is important to always recognise and acknowledge the good behaviors that others adopt.

Importance of KM in Health: the story of Doctor Anwar and making use of what he and others know in Sudan

Meet Anwar, a Sudanese doctor. Just one of 5 fictional characters created by delegates at the Knowledge Management for Health in Sudan event I spoke at, helped plan and run.

Sudanese Doctor


This exercise, Scenarios for the future, was set in 2020 and invited the 80 or so delegates drawn from across the whole of the health industry in Sudan to consider what a day in the life of each character might look like.  This was a new and warmly embraced concept in an environment where my information is my soul and much of the debate about the future takes place against a backdrop of uncertainty and increasing austerity where:

  • 2/3rds of all drugs are purchased ‘out of pocket’ not from health system
  • drugs are proportionately more expensive than in other domains
  • funds from external sources are available to assist with health informatics.

Having settled on a description of each character the delegates who were by this time in groups of 8-10 then set about imagining what their day might look like on January 1st 2020. A vivid imagination is required and was evident in the quality of the stories that were told by each group’s nominated storyteller.

The story of the Health Worker

Ismail’s story – Health Worker

I will in due course and with the organising committee’s permission publish the two ‘winning’ stories; yes we did do voting while the storytellers left the room.

One of Sudan’s leading pharmacists noted in a one:one conversation how important listening was and how difficult a technique this is for many to use when prescribing drugs.

By inviting each of the storytellers to play back the story to each of the other groups it was good to hear them say in the summing up that by the end they really felt they were the character.


The previous day I’d invited the delegates to change the way they looked and think about issues and barriers.  Using when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change exercise conducted in the best breakout rooms I’ve ever worked with, the delegates who are naturally loquacious soon grasped the concept of seeing the room through the lens of different professions.

Breakout room

Breakout room

This change of mindset was important: it allowed the subsequent round table (well round conference room) session that discussed:

‘What are the biggest issues we face in sharing knowledge and information about the health of our nation and how can we overcome them’

I’d invited each delegate to introduce themselves to three people they didn’t know. This worked well and encouraged a very frank discussion. The main issues highlighted were:

  • no systematic collection of information and limited understanding of its value
  • transparency of process (where do the figures go) and credibility of the data
  • lack of human resources to do the collection
  • limited statistical information to undertake scientific research on
  • ownership of data and the whole process – fragmentation
  • accountability to deliver
  • communication/awareness of what each organisation is doing – lots of ‘stuff’ is happening but there is a real risk of duplication of effort e.g. many of the disease control programmes are creating their own informatized information systems

Delegates recognised the tremendous strides being made by the Public Health Institute (one of the event’s sponsors and host of the official dinner) in developing professional public health administration programmes, the creation of a Data Dictionary and the publication of the first Annual Health Performance Review though many bemoaned the lack of official  support for research projects where Sudan has a prominent global position, Mycetoma Research Centre an example.

I came away from reflecting on a discussion I had around the event:

Its all about ‘informization’ – the ability to report from a health centre level with ‘point of sale’ data collected via PDA’s / mobiles as well as computers; about logistics management as a result to ensure supplies get to where they can do the most use.

This can be monitored by the minister, routine reports can be prepared showing which centre reported, which district has complete reporting, which state has complete and timely reporting and % of stock outs of basic drugs or vaccines etc.

And inspired by many of the presentations I’d seen on the morning of the second day from University of Khartoum’s research centre and of course the Public Health Institute who are reaching out to try and create greater awareness through public forum, newsletter and other events.

Perhaps the presentation that struck the biggest chord was from EpiLab
who have achieved impressive results in helping to reduce the incidence of TB and Asthma and whose research and community communication techniques are highly innovative. I loved the cartoons they developed on how to self treat and prevent the incidence of illnesses which were drawn up BY the local communities.  Their pictures and their words are published as guides for the nation and I know they will make them available so I can share them in future blogs.

It was an honour, a challenge but nevertheless great fun enhanced by the warmth of the welcome and a genuine sense of appreciation. Sudan’s people are among the most engaging and intelligent I’ve met. One anecdote from a conversation with a young professional in the communications business illustrates their dilemma:

‘…of the 95 people who graduated in my year a few years back 90 are now working overseas, the majority in highly paid good positions…’

In my address I acknowledged the support I’d had from many people in preparing for the event. They were: Ahmed Mohammed, Dr Alim Khan, Dr Anshu Banerjee, Ana Neves, Andrew Curry, Archana Shah, Chris Collison, David Gurteen, Dr Gada Kadoda, Dr Ehsanullah Tarin, Dr Madelyn Blair, Sofia Layton, Steven Uggowitzer, Victoria Ward