I was approached recently by a former client to see if I would be willing to update a piece of work I was involved with a decade ago.
I was initially reticent as much of my last 5 years has been occupied setting up and running a business (Bees Homes Property Limited), co-authoring a couple of books (“Navigating the Minefield” and “KM Cookbook“) conducting global masterclasses as well as undertaking pro bono work (President CILIP and a founding member of Eastbourne’s “Cobra” Committee and BSI’s KM Standards Committee). Frankly, as we were also dealing with a family bereavement, the last thing I was interested in was another assignment.
And it came concurrent with another request for assistance but I was attracted by the learning opportunity of revisiting previous recommendations.
I’ve always been a proponent of “Give / Get” or “Paying it forward”. That, if you put yourself out for others and give without expectation of reward, people will remember when you need to ask of them. And so it proved.
I sent a note (via LinkedIn) to some of my network. Here’s what I said:
I’ve been reflecting on 30 years of “KM” experience as a precursor for a new piece of work. I’m asking friends and close connections these questions.
…would you mind taking a stab at answering them. Obviously your response would be treated in confidence.
I was hugely appreciative of the many and varied responses and offers to chat about them. While preserving confidentiality I am sure the global contributors (drawn from industrial engineering, pharma, defence, law, consulting) will allow me a few observations. This was the first question:
What’s the #1 business issue you’ve been addressing?
Data Governance. All parts of the business are impacted by a lack of enterprise wide, fully integrated data governance strategy, tools and behaviours.
Timely provision of reference projects as well as exchange of lessons learned in the project business to avoid mistakes.
Embedding LfE (Learning from experience) in projects meant a long detour to first define a projects approach to embed into (!)
The amount of time it takes to approve consumer-facing knowledge has been my biggest challenge.
Ability to accurately map current capability and knowledge in digital and information professionals or subsequently plan for future needs.
Knowing what each other is doing and what each other knows.
Dealing with hybrid work model. From KM side it is document automation.
In 2017 in “Navigating the Minefield” I wrote as a summary observation on the programmes we’d looked at, Operational KM to the fore, Strategic KM to the rear.
Interestingly, 5 years on, the majority of the above are focussed on “burning platform” issues, hence tactically driven rather than strategic.
The exception is driven by the founder who insists senior managers take ownership of content placed on their practice management system. They recognise that their core product is knowledge and needs to be findable and reused where applicable.
It’s a theme I am finding time and again as organisations attempt to answer:
Where do I find?
What did we do?
What if they leave?
How do we create and share new knowledge?
Communication is at the heart of effective KM. Presenting findings or seeking input to an idea is often about putting yourself in the shoes of the recipient.
The simple act of putting a “Draft” watermark on a document when circulating it for comment among seniors and peers will send a powerful signal about ‘working out loud’ and challenge existing hierarchichal ways of working.
I’ve found a visualisation to be worth a thousand words. Here’s six drivers I believe underpin many KM programmes. I’d be interested in the thoughts of others.
In case you are wondering about the relevance of the picture (of a road in the medieval town of Warkwick) it’s where I got the idea of this article from!
A few weeks back I was in Maastricht, a town synonymous with a 1991 EU treaty I’d point to as the beginning of the movement to take the UK out of the European Union by those on the right of the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister John Major. This observation, from Elisabeth Hill-Scott, a political commentator, struck home:
Major was also able to argue that the Maastricht principle of ‘subsidiarity’ meant that more decisions could be devolved to the national level
I vividly remember the fractuous nature of the ensuing debate resulting in the eventual resignation of Prime Minister Major. I mention that example to emphasise how words (and places) shape our perception and how ambiguity, while useful in getting political treaties over the line can be destructive in a business environment where a second language is the vehicle of communication.
Back to July 2022. We were in Maastricht for my birthday to attend a twice postponed (due to Covid-19) concert by local boy made good Andre Rieu. Each year Andre and his orchestra occupy the town square in July for a series of open air dinner concerts. The audience is diverse, smart and multicultural. The lingua franca is English!
That we chose to travel via Le Shuttle on the day schools broke up for the summer term was poor planning though in mitigation when we originally booked the dates did not coincide. The additional presence of my 94 year old mother added to the sense of anxiety when, arriving on time for check in, we were told departures were being delayed by 3 hours! Our sense of frustration was exacerbated by the blame game that ensued with the UK Home Office castigating the French for the lack of border officials to check passports and the French opining it wasn’t them that changed the European travel rules. The truth, revealed by a Eurotunnel official, they were surprised by the demand and unprepared for the rush.
A gulf in perception
Apart from my wife Ana (who is Portuguese) and mother (who isn’t) we were joined by a Dutch friend Annette who lives and works in Germany and her German friend Gaby. The event was to prove a great backdrop to a series of conversations about perceptions, cultural nuances and miscommunication.
I’ll begin on the evening of the concert. Since my mother is no longer fleet of foot we needed to park as close to the main square as possible. An early arrival ensured we found an off road parking space. With no barriers, cameras or ticket machines, I was intrigued as to how parking fees were collected and non payment avoided. I was told people just come in and pay out of a sense of obligation.
A day later and the five of us are exploring Maastricht and surrounds. We noticed how the people who served us were smart, engaging and seemingly proud of their roles; and how respectful the clients were of them. Throughout our time there, eating or drinking proved to be a collaborative experience where the ‘server’ took pleasure in your pleasure.
There are staff shortages mainly due to Covid not a lack of interest. Being in hospitality is viewed as a career and not looked down on and seen as a retrograde step for those unable to get a real job!
Linguistic & cultural nuances
This got us onto the use of language. Surrounded by 3 people whose linguistic capabilities put mine to shame we discussed how the English tend to thrive on ambiguity (see Treaty of Maastricht interpretation above).
I shared my experience of managing the intergration of Dutch, German, US and English companies; how the word interesting is interpreted as a positive word by non English when it is quite likely to be a way of saying “not on my watch”.
Another word often used by native English speakers that can cause offence is tolerant. When describing how accomodating ‘we’ can be, I said we are tolerant. “You tolerate me?” was the sharp response! As a result I no longer use that phrase.
I first came across the phrase “Goat mouth” while conducting an interview with a President while on a Knowledge Management assignment in the Caribbean.
Slang expression for someone that has the ability to predict future outcomes (particularly unfavorable future outcomes that causes misfortunes)
Had I understood it at the time it would have put much of the remaining conversation into context. NB it showed the value of capturing (with the interviewees consent) the conversation and having it transcribed!
Finally, going back a decade, I am working on a project to improve collaboration and team working across a global organisation. Having surfaced a number of stories of behaviours and cultural nuances that separate and unite we create a “What makes us tick?” booklet that serves as a critical friend aimed at getting the team to reflect first and speak / write second.
You might be aware one of my prime interests is Bees Homes who sells beautiful homes.
The process of selling and buying a property in the UK is convoluted and alien to the majority of the rest of the world. Solicitors / Conveyancers are at the centre of the English process and their interpretation can derail a transaction especially when each has a different take of property & boundary law. When structural surveyors are instructed as they tend to be on older property purchases there is a need for careful interpretation of what their words really mean.
Here’s a true story:
A couple of friends were buying a wonderful but run down property commanding a magnificent view over Friston Forest. When they received the surveyor’s report they questioned whether they should go ahead with the purchase as it contained many comments of concern. Our friends who are practical business people decide to cut throught the caveats and legalese and ask a straight question:
“Are you aware the property has been empty for 4 years? If so would you buy it?”
The response: “No we weren’t. In that case in a heartbeat, all it needs is a little TLC”
Imagine then, selling a historic property to an overseas buyer who works for a parastatal organisation and prone to forensic interpretation of words. The propensity for misunderstanding and mistrust is great and requires the patience of Job. Phrases and words of professionals can be confusing to overseas clients and result in intransigent positions being adopted.
I suggest the English speaking world is privileged but lazy. Few of us speak another language yet we get offended when non native English speakers don’t grasp what we say or mean.
Here’s a mantra I developed many years ago to mitigate this issue. Taken from a post I wrote while helping a new multicultural management team come together:
Perhaps the most revealing was that nobody had English as his or her first language. We adopted this mantra as a way of overcoming potential misunderstanding:
‘I heard you to say…. and I understood you to mean….’
Further we agreed that whenever anyone did not understand a phrase or word they would seek clarification and record it on a white board along with a glossary of terms.
“As a child, I often would go back home to spend my summers in Tokyo with my grandparents. A memory that stays with me are the trips we would take to Kamakura and Hayama. Hotels and ryokans treated every guest like a VIP—no matter if this was the first stay or the 100th stay. The attentive staff was neither pushy nor clingy nor obtrusive. It was a perfect balance. Everything from the first warm greeting to the way meals were prepared and served was an experience, executed smoothly and with such precision it never felt forced or unnatural. Moreover, the hotels had this uncanny sense of knowing what the guests needed. Every time I left, I couldn’t wait to come back again.“
The quote (bold emphasis is mine) is taken from a blog post by Mari Yamaguchi, who comes from a Customer Experience Design and Voice of the Customer background, and gives a good illustration of the five basic principles that underpin the Japanese custom of Omotensahi.
Greet the customers
Be friendly / smile
Use appropriate language
As business managers / owners I wonder how many of your team aspire to provide that level of service? Is it part of your culture too? Do your clients say, “I couldn’t wait to come back again?”
It doesn’t matter the size of your business or industry, operational and decision making processes can always be improved. Taking time to reflect in a non judgemental way is an essential part of the technique Knowledge & Information Professionals call Learning Before, During & After.
As a relatively young business (5 years old this month) Bees Homes has set out to provide exceptional customer service and to use it as a market differentiator. A quick glimpse of its current portfolio amplifies the strapline “Selling Beautiful Properties from the Downs to The Weald”!
First impressions count. Since 90% of property sales originate from online searches it’s essential to stand out from the crowd. Great presentation is key to getting a listing noticed and potential buyers interested and willing to pay a premium.
Bees Homes ‘Tailored Marketing’ (part of a trademarked process – 5Hive) is subject to continual improvment and refinement. Core, is the art of presenting the client’s home to its maximum potential. And to achieve that, a wide range of experienced and talented professionals with complimentary skill sets are deployed at the photoshoot along with an array of accessories and artifacts for staging and styling.
Each event is planned with military precision with estimated timings for each phase, the order in which rooms are to be staged and the role to be played by each professional.
The lead agent needs to ‘see through the lens’ of the photographer and imagine how an image will look online and in the bespoke coffee table brochure that’s produced for each property.
She/he needs to capture enough of the DNA of the property that the Copywriter and Designer can incorporate it in the brochure. And she/he needs to ensure the client is delighted with both the event and the resulting marketing collateral.
Each of these events throw up learnings that are fed back into operational processes. Here’s how:
Learning after: “Pause & Reflect”
Each Pause & Reflect session is run no more than 2/3 weeks after the event and lasts for a maximum of two hours.
It is led by someone who was not at the event and features those who were.
So many organisations fail to engage with the people who work alongside them. In the above example James (our photographer) was able to input a number of valuable insights and suggestions that will improve the conduct future projects and the result for the client.
As an illustration, a list of 10 enhancements emerged from the latest session all of which have been fed back into Bees Homes Tailored Marketing process. The latest brochure of a very desirable property in Rye reflects a couple.
Bees Homes is fortunate to be led by Ana Aguilar-Corney who is a qualified Interior Designer and experienced design blogger. Ana is able to use her skills to help the team present a property in a compelling way so that prospective buyers can imagine themselves living there.
Successful businesses draw on a variety of skills and give voice to the people who work alongside them. They are willing to hold up their hands when things don’t work out the way they’d planned but (and this is a differentiator) they are constantly seeking a pathway to excellence through process improvement. Dare I say it, to a culture of Omotenashi?
A few weeks back, Dr Madelyn Blair, a friend of many years standing, approached me to ask if I’d participate in one of her weekly tv slots. She left the topic up to me and, with the world emerging from the pandemic and international business starting to resume, I thought I’d share some of my experiences of working internationally.
Here’s a few of the thoughts I covered:
Looking back & looking forward
I am lucky; I’ve worked across five continents and experienced many different cultures over the last 40 years. I’ve been shot at in Ireland, detained in Sudan, been part of an aid convoy in the Philippines after Typhoon Ondoy, slept in a tin shack in Darfur, shared a room with a desert rat while watching oil fields burning in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Desert Storm and landed in Barbados after the island’s only hurricane. When I reflect on a few snippets from a lifetime of conducting international assignments it’s perhaps unsurprising that my daughter once said “Dad are you really a spy?”.
As I’ve visited/worked in: China, Colombia, Cuba, Iran, Russia and Sudan and the fact that I have two passports it’s surprising I rarely attract the interest of immigration officers. Over the next couple of paragraphs I will try and explain why I think that is and share a few stories about conducting international Knowledge & Information assignments in an ever shrinking and connected world.
I’ve made 6 visits to Iran as part of an assignment to help develop a Knowledge Management Strategy and oversee the implementation of a set of pilots. All the preconceptions I had were wrong as I discovered on March 21st when Iranians celebrate their new year, Norooz, based on the seasons rather than the Islamic calendar.
Getting organizations to embraceKnowledge Management (and become Knowledge Driven rather than merely Knowledge Enabled) requires a deep understanding of the way they work and the context in which they work. The more challenging the environment the more some of the techniques I describe below come into sharp focus.
We practice what we preach and learn before, during and after and make sure those learning’s are fed back into the methodology we use.
Winning the business
We’ve all had ‘we’d like to invite you to tender for’ requests from organizations we’ve never met. As you become more visible and published so these increase. As a rule unless you can trace a direct link to someone you know or somewhere you’ve been then you are being used as padding for a tender process. Be warned. It takes a considerable effort to respond to tender requests especially when there are procurement specialists intermediating.
I learned this in my banking career from a Canadian client in the mining industry who set up an informal cartel in order to meet overseas government tender requirements for at least 3 bids.
Looking back over the major (£250k+) assignments I’ve won and led, in all cases they came as a result of a referral, a presentation or an enquiry stimulated by targeted marketing activity.
I use this criteria for deciding whether to submit a proposal: what new knowledge will be learnt as well as will it be profitable? To that I add, is it something I really want to do, will it enhance our brand, will it make a difference to the prospective client and will it be challenging?
Negotiating the ‘deal’
Having ‘teed up’ an opportunity, the next (big) challenge is how to tie down a mutually agreeable scope of work and a payment schedule that reflects the effort. Here’s where the fun starts and I try to find out how strategically important the work is as this can influence when / if you get paid!
Big international organizations have defined processes (and payment terms) that often make it difficult for SME’s to work with them. Cash flow is king so be prepared for the potential impact on your business of a delay.
An African friend of mine signed up for a consulting engagement with one of Africa’s major organizations. It looked great and met all of the criteria I outlined above. Payment was triggered by receipt and acceptance of a set of reports and recommendations. Now 9 months later he is still waiting for formal approval for his reports. His mistake? He had no milestone payment and no upfront mobilization fee. Next time he might insist on a payment for delivery with balance on acceptance.
Travelling and staying
Another big consideration is travel. Your safety is important, as is your health. Before I decide on whether to go or not to a country I check out what and whom I know who might help – I conduct my own ‘Peer Assist’ – and visit the members’ library at Chatham House.
Many of the countries I visit require visas and sponsors – that process needs to be built in to your budget and timetable.
Remember you are probably going to be more expensive than a local competitor and unlikely to be able to charge for travel time so do the planning.
Choose your carrier wisely – it’s how they treat you, how they respond when things go wrong and how quickly you get there that matters not the air miles.
My travel checklist works like this:
What’s the quickest route on the safest carrier (in my case that means leaving from Gatwick and transshipping if necessary)?
If over 7 hours, can I break the journey?
What’s the most economical way of getting there in comfort?
Does the airline have facilities to work while in the air?
So I have a working knowledge of schedules and use SeatGuru.com to check out the best seats with the most legroom on the plane.
Accommodation can make or break an assignment! A client will often give you an allowance or have preferential rates. Expensive doesn’t always mean good; proximity to your client is vital as is the ability to work in your room.
For Darfur I had to undergo UN security training. It taught me a number of things I use today when asking for a room:
Above tree line and below floor 7
Preferably not facing the street
Proximity to fire stairs.
Working & communicating
In an FT Article, A guide to (mis) communication Gillian Tett draws on ‘Mind the Linguistic Gap – Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide’, to illustrate how easy it is for people from developed nations let alone developing ones to have major communication difficulties. The guide lists phrases that are commonly – and completely – misunderstood when English and Dutch people talk to each other.
So when the English say, ‘please think about that a bit more’ we actually mean ‘that’s a bad idea’ whereas the Dutch (and many others) would assume we mean, ‘that’s a good idea, keep developing it’.
Gillian goes on to look at The Culture Map by Erin Meyer which notes that human speech varies depending on whether there is a “high” or “low” level of assumed shared cultural context. This affects vocabularies: the English use more words whereas North Europeans (and Americans) tend to be more forthright.
Why is this relevant? If you don’t adapt your style and (in my case) speak slower, write more succinctly and with less jargon, there is huge potential for miscommunication.
Here’s one vivid illustration of the need to adapt styles and approach. Many years ago I ran the energy portfolio for a bank. It involved frequent travel and meetings with clients from different backgrounds and cultures. I was in a meeting with the Deputy Minister of Petroleum and it was fully 15 minutes before we got around to discussing the issue to hand. He led the conversation, about the investment climate, the property market and the oil market and then when he was ready (body language changed) we got down to business.
That same day I met the US CEO of a major oil corporation. He opened with ‘you got 15 minutes, what have you got to show me?’ A rapid change of pace that reflected different contexts.
Importance of set up
If the way we speak, write and hold ourselves is important so are the technological underpinnings. Consider this: in many organization the jump drive (memory stick) is banned. There is a limit on email size (try sending a video to a client), browser activity is monitored and restricted and guest access behind their firewall requires countless sign off and takes days!
Before setting off on your mission, ask the uncomfortable, check whether you need a Mac adapter to show a presentation, are plug sockets receptive to your adapter? I’ve arrived at the HQ of a Swiss organization and discovered that the only way to access their power sockets was with a special plug.
The other key issue is to develop an advance view (hypothesis) of the organization and its culture. Is it a ‘red line’ organization where obsessive attention to detail suffocates innovation and creativity? Or one that is so loose nothing happens.
Agreeing a weekly plan is a great way to surface this as is developing specific agenda for each session.
And we all take things for granted, I once arrived at a ridiculously expensive hotel in Khartoum to be greeted by a sign that read: ‘No credit cards in Sudan’. Thank goodness we had a friend with a local account and a suitcase full of cash!
Listening ears and noticing eyes
How you are received on arrival is usually a good indicator of how important your visit is. I make it an objective to see the President (or similar ranking officer) of an organization during my stay even if to say hello, it is courteous as well as tactically smart.
I also try and get a view of the meeting areas and informal spaces early in a visit. And where the water cooler and coffee stations are located to see how people interact and what they talk about.
I also find it pays to listen more than talk especially in the early parts of an assignment, as someone once said ‘you have two ears and one mouth and should use them in that proportion’.
Assuming you are by now super observant and minding your P’s & Q’s, the next big challenge facing you is how to work with your immediate stakeholder group.
You need to establish separate sounding boards not just your project sponsor.
Wherever possible look to work with a cross functional/silos steering group to whom you can turn to for advice and critical friendly fire.
Show respect to everyone. While our organizational structures tend to reflect importance it is not always the same elsewhere and the power brokers / influencers who can help you to make things happen or identify blockers who can be opaque to the uninitiated.
When yes means no and timing is flexible
Working with global businesses I’ve come to realize a one size fits all ‘approach will fail. I once had ‘ownership’ of the integration plan for an acquisitive business during the dotcom era.
With offices in UK, Germany, Netherlands and USA (where the CEO was located) it became pretty apparent that incentives in the US didn’t play well in Europe (and vice versa).
“Employee of the Month’ is probably universally accepted as a way of incentivizing and measuring performance. I shall always remember the response of a Dutch winner who when told that her prize was lunch with the CEO said ‘And that’s worth winning?’
A serious point: in many cultures, yes means no or at best maybe and you need to know which is which.
I would turn up for an agreed appointment only to be told by the PA or Secretary: ‘Mr … is just coming’ ‘Mr… is on a call’ or ‘Mr… has been called to see …’
All are bad news. 15 minutes is about the maximum time to wait. I’d leave a card and suggest returning in the future or ask for an area to work in while I waited.
Timekeeping is often the biggest challenge on an international assignment. Rare are the occasions when meetings start and finish to time irrespective of the venue.
“Africa time’ is often jokingly used to describe that continent’s loose association with timekeeping.
But it is not only there! If you have a number of meetings in a day remember it can take considerable time to navigate from one office to another and you need time to catch your thoughts and make field notes.
Handling left field moments
Even the best of us can inadvertently put a metaphorical foot wrong.
Our actions are magnified when we are dealing in a different environment and out of our comfort zones.
I narrowly averted a faux pas in Iran. A copy of the Koran had been placed on the table I was sitting at in full view of the audience I was addressing. A technician came to wire me up and put my coffee cup and working papers onto another desk while he did so. He gave me back the papers and cup as he left and I was a whisker away from putting the cup on the book as one might in the UK.
Another issue that often comes up is the formal greeting. I now let the person I am meeting make the first move and respond accordingly. I’ve been slapped, kissed on both cheeks, put my hand on my heart, bowed, even touched noses (a strange experience) and had my hand crushed.
Rituals around food and entertaining can be the most challenging to deal with when working cross border. I was having dinner in Abu Dhabi with a Saudi professor who told me a wonderful tale about an early experience when he was just married and was at language school in upstate New York with his wife.
As is customary they were invited to dinner but did not take a gift as in his culture to do so would be an insult. His hostess was not impressed and it took some time for him to understand the reason.
Perhaps my most surreal experience occurred in Sudan when I was invited to visit a major company for a discussion only to find on arrival there were 200 people assembled to hear my presentation on ‘Knowledge Management in the Energy Industry’.
After recovering from the shock I conducted a 45-minute Q&A session prompted by an opening, ‘What keeps you awake at night?’
Reporting and getting paid
I’ve had mainly positive experiences dealing with international clients and getting paid.
Typically the more ‘developed’ the country the worse organizations (especially governments) are at making payment if you are an SME.
However I’ve found people will try and find a way to pay you if they feel you’ve done a good job. Your challenge is to manage that perception!
In the early contract negotiations it’s important to have an advance or mobilization payment built into the contact. The assignment scope should cater for that and it should be clear the work that is being done in order to trigger that.
Reporting steps should be specified and wherever possible adopt a Value Frame approach wherein each milestone is evaluated jointly to assess the value and impact you’ve provided..
I discovered one of the best ways of setting expectations with clients is to present an early draft to test the format and language. `
The most important technique is a visualization of the service you are providing which is updated frequently. It is so much easier to talk to people in their 2nd language with an image or roadmap as a backdrop.
When I set out on my Presidential journey last January it was in the expectation I would get to meet a cross section of the membership at the annual conference as well as regional events. As it turned out ‘my year’ was almost exclusively virtual. The upside: I got to meet a number of international members and speak at international events. The downside: I didn’t get to visit other parts of the UK to see first hand the important role libraries play in the community.
I’d spent much of the previous 3 years promoting the idea of an independent accreditation for the Knowledge & Information Management professional, so I had high hopes that KM Chartership / Fellowship along with the recently released ISO KM Standards might come to prominence during my term of office.
As the global community was attempting to get to grips with restrictions caused by and the aftermath of the pandemic I was intrigued: What will the new normal look like?; will work be a hybrid of virtual and in person?; will it revert to being location specific?; and will the communal spirit endure? I hypothesised that in 2021,
I am convinced that those who succeed will be agile, collaborative, tenacious, excellent facilitators and a trusted resource, good at curation.
How accurate was this hypothesis?
One of the initatives I introduced was “Presidential Musings. I invited a variety of prominent industry figures to examine some of the questions I’d raised. These were captured in CILIP’s flagship publication Information Professional and can be accessed below.
We started with the ISO KM Standard and it’s likely take up. We then looked at the rapid growth in digital publishing and it’s potential impact on Libraries. Following on, we examined the impact of onboarding new employees in a virtual world. We looked back to look forward in assessing the role of Libraries over 100 years. We tracked the journey of a senior University Librarian who changed roles and continents. We debated (and captured thoughts on) distributed working and its impact on urban centres. We rounded off with a look at the role Knowledge & Information Professionals played in helping to run a successful Olympics during the pandemic.
As I look back at each article I am extremely grateful to everyone who gave of their time and knowledge. I hope you find them as enjoyable to read as I did to research and write.