How’s and Why’s of International Assignments

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’.

Friendly ‘fire’

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.


Don’t “reinvent the flat tyre”

By the skin of our teeth

Phew! Having arrived in Lisbon on December 20th concurrent with the announcement that estrangeiros were being banned, my wife and I headed for the Covid-19 testing centre so we could spend Christmas and New Year looking after my poorly Mother in Law. Imagine our relief as we caught the last flight back to the UK (and a period of self isolation) on January 4th before the cancellation of all flights.

While there I’d prepared my first Presidential message to the 10k+ members of the Chartered Institute of Libraries & Information Professionals (CILIP). In it I’d set out a few objectives and I’m delighted to note that a couple are underway.

The first of my “Presidential Musings” is about to be published in CILIP’s flagship publication Information Professional. “To certify or not – the value of an ISO standard?” features a couple of highly respected senior managers who give their thoughts on how organisations might seek assessment against ISO 30401. Patricia Eng was an obvious choice, being the first globally accredited ISO KM Auditor and the former head of KM for a national regulatory body, as was Carol Aldridge, one of the few KM professionals I know of who has introduced ISO standards into her organisation. Carol’s summary comment is very apposite:

“Demand may come if and when organisations see this standard as a convenient means for evaluating suppliers’ KM performance as well as a framework for assessing their own.”

And the good news is that subscribers (CILIP members) can now view this via a downloadable app.

“Don’t know how to be poor”

A very busy month followed: 4 days of masterclasses, a couple of board meetings, numerous Zoom calls, a webinar on search, plus 2 Cobra meetings in my home town Eastbourne to discuss the ongoing pandemic.

From relative obscurity and a very low rate of Covid-19 cases per 100k Eastbourne entered the top 10 of most affected areas in the UK with an average of nearly 1k cases per 100k. Civic leaders and health professionals attributed it to:

  • An influx of day trippers driving to the South Downs National Park to meet friends
  • A large proportion of blue collar manual workers unable to work from home
  • An influx of homeless people from outside the borough being housed in local hotels

A campaign to change behaviours around the use of masks while shopping and fuelling the car is being put in place since 30% of cases were attributable to those activities.

Perhaps most worrying is the dramatic rise in demand from working class families seeking assistance to feed their children and too proud to visit food banks. As one of the volunteer group leaders put it, “they don’t know how to be poor” and need a lot of assistance and direction from volunteer groups to signpost them to the help that’s available.

The good news is our local vaccination programme is ahead of schedule (my 93 year old mother had the jab in December) and collaboration, between everyone involved in the supporting the local community, remains excellent.

Osmotic learning

One of my Zoom catch up chats was with the engaging Ian Rodwell of Linklaters. We talked about how in a virtual environment you might recreate the serendipitous encounters that are often the source of new ideas and connections. Ian is working on something he describes as “Scheduled randomness” – watch this space for more, and as Head of Client Knowledge & Learning his focus is on Osmotic Learning. “Lockdown Learning” and “Return to the Office Toolkit” are recent outputs.

Ian’s challenges are I imagine mirrored by many: how to maintain lockdown momentum, motivation and focus in a virtual environment; how to build on the extended reach that tools such as Zoom and Teams provide; and how to keep the contributions (top tips) coming from officers.

I heard similar concerns about keeping up momentum expressed in a subsequent conversation with another global Knowledge Manager. We talked about the difficulties of managing across continents and time zones, of maintaing peripheral vision while facilitating virtually and encouraging contributions from junior members of staff. She noted one downside of Teams is that it can create silos.

Being remotely human

Having introduced Dr Bonnie Cheuk to the members of CILIP’s K&IM SIG I wanted to be sure to attend the webinar she ran a few weeks back entiled: “Digital transformation, learning and development and knowledge management: is the line blurring“. I was glad I did.

Bonnie’s title is is Senior Business and Digital Transformation Leader, AstraZeneca. So much of what she does is around facilitation and creating an environment for knowledge sharing to occur. I had the pleasure of working with her and members of her team a couple of years ago during the transformation of the business and know how important a number of the initiatives she put in place were in accelarating changing ways of working. The unprecedented discovery and production of the AZ/Oxford Covid-19 vaccination is a great example of more agile working and effective use of tools such as “Pause & Reflect”, “Working out Loud” and “Paying it Forward”.

I was particulalry drawn to her example of creating a regular online hangout around the virtual global watercooler as an attempt to redefine learning and unlearning and create a human space in a remote environment. More on that in the future, below is a sneak preview!

Agile KM

While on the subject of Agile working, Chris Collison and I had the great pleasure of running a “behind the firewall” KM Cookbook Masterclass over a couple of days for the Agile Business Consortium’s senior leadership team and board. Using a combination of Zoom and Mural we used the KM Canvas to address issues that will arise as they develop their KM capacity.

What stood out to me, apart from how smart they all were, was the ease with which they navigated the canvas and how rapidly and candidly they were able to identify gaps and needs.

Professionalising KM

Much work has been going on in the health sector. Apart from Chris Collison and my masterclasses with Public Health England, Health Education England (HEE)’s Library & Knowledge Services, who have been doing an amazing job providing evidence based knowledge to front line workers, recently launched a five year strategic framework Knowledge for Healthcare Mobilising evidence; sharing knowledge; improving outcomes. Led by Sue Lacey Bryant, a CILIP Trustee and the 2018 winner of the Walford Award, it is very much at the core of a drive to professionalise Knowledge and Library Services across the health industry. Who can argue with this:

Knowledge and evidence are business critical because the quality of care, patient safety and service transformation is underpinned by informed decision-making.

In fact, HEE helped fund the enhancement and rewrite of CILIP’s Professional Skills and Knowledge Base (PKSB) which is due to be launched to the profession in Q2 this year. HEE use it as a core tool for helping to develop its professional staff. Mapped to ISO KM Standards 30401, it is a major development and goes a long way to providing a set of core competences against which to benchmark a knowledge professional’s development.

“In conversation with…”

l’ve begun the initiative of direct engagement with CILIP’s members I flagged in my presidential message. These chats have been both enjoyable and heartwarming; hearing the stories of people coping and thriving in a pandemic will hopefully inspire others. I will be summarising these conversations in my regular column in Information Professional.

And finally

Ahead of the recent round of Virtual Mezze Masterclasses we asked participants to imagine they were at dinner with a partner.

The responses from many KM ‘newbies’ were hugely insightful. Here’s a selection:

Knowledge Management is about leveraging information, knowledge, experience and connectivity, it can speed up processes and learning allowing you to start off on the best foot and be creative.

How to ensure that knowledge and experience of every individual in a community is shared in such a way that 1+1=3

Bringing together knowledge and evidence from across a range of sources and synthesising this to enable easy interpretation.

Knowledge management is really important to everyone because it helps us all to do our jobs and keep our organisation running. Imagine if there hadn’t been any guidance or procedures, when you first began your job. How would you know how to do it? Capturing the knowledge and experience of others that have come before is important for this. But equally important is that you know where to find it – even starting with knowing that it exists. So, having a structure and knowing how to use both the structure and the information is very important!

Without it I guess we’d keep re-inventing the wheel or the flat tyre. Time consuming!

This, from Aku Sorainen senior partner of one of the most successful European law firms, and a reviewer (a “restaurateur”) of The KM Cookbook, neatly sums up the value of KM to knowledge based institutions.

Prospering behind the firewall

It’s been a very hectic period since I returned (just in time before quarantine was reimposed) from Portugal. Since face to face communication is at a premium and Zoom / Team dominates working conversations I thought I’d reflect (#workingoutloud) on ‘stuff’.

KM Cookbook: Virtual Mezze Masterclasses

In the last few weeks, Chris Collison and I have run “behind the firewall” virtual masterclasses for the South African Knowledge Management Community (KMSA) and a prominent law firm. Well attended in each case they were held on Zoom / Mural and Teams / Miro. Both were exceptionally well received- no technical glitches to report – and the brekaout sessions around the KM Chef’s Canvas stimulated much discussion and “to do” lists.

The Walford Award & Presentation

In a couple of weeks time I will be giving the annual Walford keynote address to CILIP’s K&IM Community and presenting this year’s award to the hugely deserving Naomi Korn.

The 2019 event was followed by an enjoyable dinner with other award winners: 2020 is going to be held en famille. I like that the organisers have given me free reign to choose a topic the title of which will be: “Who needs knowledge professionals?” It’s not too late to sign up, see here.

The Knowledge Management Officer

A month ago Professor Eric Tsui asked me (and a number of others in the KM community) if I’d be willing to create a short video clip for his Hong Kong students about what it takes to be a Knowledge Management Officer. It made me reflect on how much or how little the role has changed since I first came across the term back in 1994.

To view the video see – https://flipgrid.com/s/w3WzgDTksB-qfLBx

Certifying the certifier: ISO KM Standards

My good friend and coauthor Patricia Eng has been hard at it these past few months preparing for the December launch of Dr Ron McKinley (previously Chair of the ISO Technical Committee that helped develop 30401) and her program for aspiring ISO KM Assessors.

The topic of who certifies the ISO KM assessor has generated much space on KM chat groups with claims and counter claims about who is and is not authorised to undertake an ISO KM Assessment against ISO 30401.

Patricia has always passionately advocated the separation of the consultant and auditor role. Of late there is a danger, with the slew of announcements from The Gulf claiming to be the first program to be certified, that the line is becoming increasingly blurred so the sooner she and Ron can begin accrediting would be assessors the better.

Ron’s Linkedin post ISO 30401 Certification Authority of a few weeks back is worth skimming through. I am looking forward to seeing them differentiate between and knowledge audit and a Km systems audit.

Cobra meetings and Kruger report

I continue to serve on my town’s ‘Cobra Committee’. Comprising Eastbourne’s civic leaders, business heads, health professionals, volunteer groups, enforcement officers, tourism chiefs and our MP, it meets virtually to ensure a coordinated response to issues presented by Covid-19 and that lessons get translated into policy responses.

It’s been tough for the local authorities to interpret guidelines from above while managing social cohesion and with half term holidays approaching the community is bracing itself powerless to prevent an influx of visitors from areas where the incidence of Covid cases per 100k is four times that of our town.

One of the topics I raised at this week’s meeting was the recent report “Levelling up our communities: proposals for a new social covenant“. Attempting to build on the community spirit that has emerged during the Coivd-19 pandemic, the report from Danny Kruger MP, sets out a vision for a more local, more human, less bureaucratic, less centralised society in which people are supported and empowered to play an active role in their neighbourhoods.

The importance of digital inclusion, digital literacy and collaborative public spaces, are topics that, as President Elect of CILIP, I care passionately about. Libraries Connected suggests:

“Libraries are at the heart of communities, reflecting and responding to local needs. They get more visits each year than any other cultural service, with a reach that extends right across income brackets, ages and ethnicities. They play an important role in promoting well-being and community cohesion by producing a range of cultural activities with their local communities, and providing many with access to vital online services.”

In 2013, when I was one of the founding trustees of the Zero Food Waste Charity Plan Zheroes seeking to redistribute edible surplus food to those who needed it, I hoped the issue of free meals during school holidays for those struggling to feed their family might be off the agenda by 2020. Alas it is not. Our MP Caroline Ansell showed her mettle this week, resigning her government post having voted with the opposition on the provision of school meals during the holidays.

The moral maze!

Interestingly and unrelated to the above, CILIP CEO Nick Poole tweeted this:

“When you strip it down, when you get right past politics and the law, the bedrock is morality. Each of us is at liberty to make a moral choice about how we treat the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. We ought to judge our politicians on the morality of their choices.”

To which I replied:

@NickPoole1 Eastbourne’s current MP @Caroline_Ansell made her moral choice yesterday and resigned from HMG. @StephenLloydEBN the previous MP resigned the LibDem whip a few years back, also over a matter of conscience. Must be the sea air!!!”

And he responded:

“Thanks Paul! I honestly think we should fete politicians who vote with their moral conscience to the rooftops – anyone who remains in Government is morally complicit in its actions.”

And finally

November is shaping up to be very busy. I was due to start it in Lisbon but the twin demands of work and threat of enforced quarantine on my return caused a postponement. Instead I’ve 5 speeches / events to run from the confines of my Home Office or that of Bees Homes Country Office and views to die for!

#Distributedworking is now becoming the norm. The housing market is awash with urban buyers looking for country idylls in which to combine home and work as a result of Covid and firms relocating and changing their working patterns. Here’s just one example from Reuters of 19th October:

Deloitte said Saturday it would close four of its 50 offices in the UK — but staff will remain at the big four firm on work-from-home contracts.

An updated report from thinktank New Financial notes 332 financial services firms have already moved jobs out of London because of Brexit, up from 60 last time they looked in March. It makes sobering reading but presents a huge opportunity for the agile, tenacious and knowledgeable professional.

As I will suggest in a forthcoming presentation awareness of the importance of the role of knowledge professionals is growing as firms struggle with knowledge loss due to downsizing, finding ‘stuff’ in opaque systems, collaborating effectively and facilitating virutal conversations.

It promises to be an interesting 3 months: the US Election; further global lockdowns; UK’s severing of ties with Europe; and yours truly taking on the role of CILIP President at a time of great change!

Trust, leadership and culture

It’s almost 6 months since the first lockdown was imposed in the UK yet the media is awash with stories of second waves of infection and a failure to meet demand for testing. Add the continuing furore over the “oven ready deal” to leave the European Union the electorate was promised in Q4 last year and its clear that trust in our organs of state is being seriously eroded.

Is that relevant in a business context? I would argue yes. Business doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It is on the receiving end of policy decisions made by government, often having to interpret guidance that is unclear. ‘Thriving on ambiguity’ works in a diplomatic environment enabling many interpretations of a word or phrase and allowing all parties to present outcomes as beneficial to them.

Professor Geert Hofstede who conducted one of the most comprehensive studies of how values in the workplace are influenced by country culture notes:

British are comfortable in ambiguous situations – the term ‘muddling through’ is a very British way of expressing this. There are generally not too many rules in British society, but those that are there are adhered to (the most famous of which of course is the British love of queuing which has also to do with the values of fair play).

In work terms this results in planning that is not detail oriented – the end goal will be clear … but the detail of how we get there will be light and the actual process fluid and flexible to emerging and changing environment. Planning horizons will also be shorter.

It is not a sound approach to managing a crisis or meeting treaty obligations.

If guidance is not informed by the best knowledge and data, or deemed politically expedient to ignore it, frustration, chaos and a polarisation of society is the outcome.

Once trust gets eroded at the top of society, and professionals tasked with enacting the guidance are held accountable for the actions of their masters, there is a ripple effect on business (and life). How for example can NHS Trusts conduct effective After Action Reviews or Lessons Learned exercises if any admission of error may result in dismissal or court action?

And the behaviours people see in their leaders often reappear further down the chain.

What is becoming increasingly clear in the UK is:

  • There is a shift towards a hybrid model of home and hub working;
  • Many organisations are reshaping their workforce concurrent with the phasing out of furlough; and
  • Law firms and HR specialists are awash with requests to draft new contracts and assist with the laying off of workers.

What might you ask has this to do with Knowledge Management? Unfortunately a lot.

In the ISO 30401 KM Standard considerable attention is paid to the role leadership and culture plays in developing an effective Knowledge Management programme. Underpinning both is the need for trust: that what we are being told is the truth; that decisions are based on an assessment of all the facts; and that those tasked with coming up with solutiuons are not in some way tied to those who gave them the contract to do so.

Today, few organisations are equipped to handle the impact of the pandemic on their organisational knowledge and even less on the efficacy of their knowledge and search systems (“where do I find…?”).

This is not a new situation. A few years ago I was in a client’s office when some key employees with very domain specific knowledge announced their departure. If you want to read more about the approach I encouraged the client to adopt take a look at: Going but not forgotten: how to conduct knowledge capture in a hurry“.

Impact of country culture and values

My recent (restricted) travels resurrected my interest in the role country culture plays in how people (and organisations) respond in a crisis and how they collaborate (or don’t).

A month previously I’d been in Germany staying with a Dutch friend. I’d seen the Germans universally adhere to track & trace, to social distancing and the wearing of masks. My Dutch friend had described in some detail how her countrymen struggled at first but were ultimately respectful of others. In Portgual over some amazing bottles of wine, superb food and horse riding (sorry I just had to put the picture in) I’d asked family and friends of all ages and status to rank their government’s performance. Each came out at about 7/10.

The media in these countries has for the most part been broadly supportive and in most cases the prevailing feeling was one of trust. I didn’t get a sense of polarised societies. As I’ve lived and/or worked in all three I was intrigued.

German Values, Gezellig & Saudade

Perhaps most revealingly each country’s characteristics play out in the way they’ve responded:

Germany

Hofstede notes:

…A direct and participative communication and meeting style is common, control is disliked and leadership is challenged to show expertise and best accepted when it’s based on it.

Communication is among the most direct in the world following the ideal to be “honest, even if it hurts” – and by this giving the counterpart a fair chance to learn from mistakes.’

Separate research revealed 5 core values most Germans aspire to:

Family, Order, Punctuality, Truthfullness and Attitude towards work.

Netherlands

Hofstede says:

.. keep the life/work balance and you make sure that all are included. An effective manager is supportive to his/her people, and decision making is achieved through involvement. Managers strive for consensus and people value equality, solidarity and quality in their working lives. Conflicts are resolved by compromise and negotiation and Dutch are known for their long discussions until consensus has been reached.

Wikipedia notes:

“… gezellig, does not have an English equivalent. Literally, it means cozy, quaint, or nice, but can also connote time spent with loved ones, seeing a friend after a long absence, or general togetherness.”

Portugal

Hofstede says:

… a close long-term commitment to the member ‘group’, be that a family, extended family, or extended relationships. Loyalty in a collectivist culture is paramount, and over-rides most other societal rules and regulations. The society fosters strong relationships where everyone takes responsibility for fellow members of their group.

Echoing the Dutch example there is a word that sums up the national consciousness:

Saudade is a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one cares for and/or loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never be had again. It is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places, or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, and well-being, which now trigger the senses and make one experience the pain of separation from those joyous sensations. However it acknowledges that to long for the past would detract from the excitement you feel towards the future. Saudade describes both happy and sad at the same time, which is most closely translated to the English saying ‘bitter sweet’. Wikipedia

In Portugal unlike the UK 70% of professional staff are back at work. Everyone wears a mask when in public, hand sanitisers are everywhere, the mercado has a disinfectant machine to go thru before entering, there is a curfew on the sale of alcohol after 8pm, nightclubs are closed and police are seen enforcing the use of masks in supermarkets.

The government has recovered from a slow start, is seen as being transparent and The President who is widely admired leads the public. Statistics and data are trusted.

Back to Hofstede. Here’s what his team concluded about dealing with the British:

Critical to understanding the British is being able to ‘’read between the lines’.’ What is said is not always what is meant. 

Remote working implications

Over the past few years I’ve run a number of Masterclasses on Managing Virtual Teams. What this period has reinforced is the need to think much more deeply about set up, composition and language especially since I will be runing a number of virtual events in the coming months. The first of these is on September 30th for KMSA .

What do I takeaway from my excursions and time helping my town to respond to the crisis:

  • Country culture is amplified in a crisis
  • Remote or virtual working exagerrates country culture
  • People need some form of social interaction to make virtual work
  • Virtual facilitation requires taking a step back to let the silence hang!

And finally

For the last 6 months I’ve been involved in my town (Eastbourne’s) response to the crisis. I encouraged the civic leaders to follow KM principles and for a time that was successful especially in the planning phase. All meetings have been held virtually and participants from Leader of the Council to Volunteer Heads adapted well to using Zoom and MS Teams.

The majority of the 110k residents would probably applaud the collaborative non partisan efforts. The homeless were housed, people rallied round making PPE, incidence of infection is among the lowest in the country despite it being a town dependent on tourism and a number of recovery initiatives originated from within the group.

And yet it’s been galling to witness the disconnect between the headline announcement and the article (guidelines) those charged with implementation are faced with!

Knowledge et al: view from 46K

I write this at Dubai airport. I left a very fractured and troubled nation that is the UK, torn apart by a futile attempt to sustain the unsustainable (maintain unity in the largest party in our parliament).
Without pinning my political colours to the mast I must confess I despair at the majority decision to abandon a group that has been in part responsible for peace in Europe these last 75 years. The rush towards right wing nationalism across the globe is in no one’s long term interest and terrifies me as does the bellicose rhetoric that passes for debate.
It’s a good time to reflect on what’s gone and what’s to come.

Knowledge Management: the future

I was interested to see James Robertson and his team at Step Two in Australia post this week that Knowledge management isn’t dead, it’s more important than ever!and describe a number of assignments they’ve done at the practical end of KM.  That they (an excellent Digital Workplace and Intranet focused group) should highlight the importance of their KM practice feels significant.

Knowledge Management (KM) has been around for over 20 years as a set of tools and methods for connecting, collecting and creating knowledge. Lots has been written, and there are tens of thousands of practitioners out there—in-company specialists and consultants. Unlike Lean, Agile and other business improvement methodologies, KM has never had a single agreed set of tools, or a commercial accreditation or standard.

ISO KM Standard

In many ways, the arrival of an internationally agreed standard and vocabulary, imbues fresh professional credibility to the field of Knowledge Management. It provides knowledge managers with a ‘brand-new kitchen’, and a moment during which they can pause for a moment and consider the service that they provide to their organisations. I sat on the UK’s BSI KM Standards Committee one of the international bodies that provided input to ISO as the KM Standards were developed and ultimately published in Q3 2018. I said at the start and still believe
“The arrival of the ISO KM Standards (albeit that adherence is voluntary) provides a framework against which KM Programs can be viewed. An independently assessed external accreditation is another key component of the KM practitioner’s path to corporate legitimacy.”

KM Cookbook

The KM Cookbook written by Chris Collison, Patricia Eng and I serves up a menu of success stories and strategies for organizations wanting to know more about Knowledge Management Standard ISO30401 – whether they intend to pursue certification, or simply seek to use it as a framework to review their existing programme and strategy.
In writing this book, we want to catch the excitement of the arrival of this ‘new kitchen’ and to demonstrate how the arrival of the ISO Knowledge Management System Standard (ISO 30401) provides so much more than a moment to certify a level of consistency in practice.
It provides a moment to re-evaluate, to return to first principles, and to learn from others. Imagine you had the opportunity, not just to enjoy a new, well-equipped and fully inspected kitchen – but also the chance to sit down with KM ‘chefs’ from around the world, across different industry sectors and listen to their stories.
That’s exactly what we have set out to do with the KM Cookbook.

Chartered Knowledge Manager Accreditation

Concurrently in my role as Knowledge & Information Management Ambassodor for CILIP I have been assisting them with the development of what we hope will become a globally recognised accreditation for Knowledge Managers. The first cohort of two dozen has being signed up and they are going through a process of submitting a KM portfolio of work for assessment in anticipation of the award of a Chartership in Knowledge Management.

Assignments, Masterclasses & Speeches

I am Asia bound to give the opening address at a Knowledge Exchange Roundtable event at Securities Commission in Kuala Lumpur and then to run a Masterclass (my 4th) at the International Islamic University of Malaysia
The next stop is then Hong Kong for another Masterclass this time with my good friend Eric Hunter followed by presentations / panel sessions at KM Asia 2019.with Patrick Lambe, Hank Malik on the ISO standard and Bruce Boyes, Rajesh Dhillon, John Hovell and Bill Kaplan on KM Accreditation.
At all these events I will be drawing on the soon to be published “KMCookbook: Stories and Strategies for organisations exploring Knowledge Management ISO Standard 30401” as well as the latest developments in the KM Chartership Accreditation.
Then it’s back to the UK for the Thomson Reuters Practical Law event where I will be running a session and speaking, then a co session with Victoria Ward (more of her in a minute) at the UK KM Summit followed by a trip to Lisbon for the launch of the KM Cookbook in Lisbon in early June at one of my favourite events, SocialNow.

2018: a varied and stimulating year

Looking back to 2018 I had the great pleasure of working alongside Victoria Ward (formerly of Spaknow) on a really interesting KM assignment for a global manufacturingl company. Involving the embedded of KM practices into an organisation undergoing rapid transformation it was challenging and stimulating in equal measure and the use of effective visualisation, personae and archetypes key to delivering on our mandate.

As if the above and researching, interviewing and coauthoring the KM Cookbook wasn’t enough I also managed to fit in a couple of Masterclasses in London and Stockholm around the soft skills (the critical 8 ‘ates) of the Knowledge Manager and deliver a few keynotes in Italy and Sweden.
Back in the UK it was the 2nd year of operations for the two businesses I helped establish and run, award winning Bees Homes  and Coastway Financial. Today is the end of both companies financial years so it’s great to report we are on target to where we wanted to be. 
Despite all the uncertainty, Brexit is proving less of a challenge as there is a move from vendors towards the type of quality service we are offering. A key statistic for us is “Property Views” online and it’s great to be able to report we are currently #1 in our region.
Transparency and trust are important values so we are running “How to sell your property in a post Brexit world” on April 16th at Eastbourne’s swankiest new boutique hotel to share some of the techniques we apply to dress a property to its optimum potential.

In the Community

Our initiative to help with the transformation of our town continues on a couple of fronts. The Urban Art idea has gathered momentum and support from the Municipalities CEO and I am helping him and the regeneration team to attract conferences to the town.

And finally

46k is my preferred seat on the Emirates A380 (and the Boeing 777). Check out Seat Guru.com to see why!