Mind your language: when yes means no!

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)

https://jamaicanpatwah.com/term/Goat-mouth/1574#.YvuQxPHMJeU

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.

And finally

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.

Thanks for reading

Striving for Omotenashi excellence: the value of “Pause & Reflect” sessions

“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
  • Be presentable
  • Act appropriately

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?”

Are you able to say we have “..an implicit understanding that there are no menial tasks if the result ensures a great experience…”

In search of excellence

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.

And finally

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?

Virtual Teams: simple steps to help with self isolation

What do you do when one of your team has to self isolate just before Christmas and is unable to join the pre Christmas celebration? Put the celebrations on hold, go on with the show without them, or make them centre stage of your event?

The team at Bees Homes chose the latter and having dusted down a few of my “Managing Virtual Teams” notes, we asked our Team Executive, Gemma who was self isolating, to come up with an online quiz to accompany our hastily (re) arranged pre Christmas gathering.

It proved to be a success with much laughter. Why?

  1. Snacks (and wine) were shared as we had passed by her home on the way to the office and left food – Gemma had what we had.
  2. Gemma was the host so drove the pace of the event which lasted a couple of hours.
  3. Drawing on some great ideas on this Team Building site, she came up with a “Spin the wheel” quiz and added questions such as “What is your favourite Christmas Song?”
  4. The whole team were visible throughout – see Gemma’s view from my laptop.
  5. We have spent time in f2f team meetings developing a collaborative and supportive culture.
  6. Gemma is someone who responds well to adversity and takes responsibility.

It reinforced many of the tips I’ve given clients over the last couple of decades about managing virtual teams.

Happy New Year!

why networks (and meditation) matter in a virtual world

It’s been an effort getting back into the swing of things after a lovely Christmas spent in Cascais!  Maintaining a portfolio of activities as I have since 1999 requires a considerable amount of self motivation and a supportive network. So it was nice when ‘on cue’ a couple of my oldest friends / former colleagues (Martin, James and Victoria) got in touch to arrange catch up sessions and Tony Melendez of Saudi Aramco posted a picture (see below) of the 50 copies of The KM Cookbook his KM Team ordered for the management of the world’s largest oil company.

Importance of reflecting

Over the past few months I’ve been full on helping my fellow partners at Bees Homes LLP run our annual ‘Pride of Eastbourne’ campaign. It culminated in the donation of 5 hampers to deserving people/causes prior to Christmas. Apart from managing the logistics of the campaign and mobilising mayoral resource, there is also the media and a “pause & reflect” to run so that, following good KM practice, lessons are transferred back into process for the next campaign. Taking the time out to reflect on any campaign, event or project is essential irrespective of size and number of stakeholders.  Our session which included debriefing with the Chamber of Commerce yielded a number of learning’s that would not have surfaced if we’d have not met face to face. It enabled us to also reflect on why the campaign was a success. These were deemed critical success factors:

  • Clarity of roles / absence of hierarchy;
  • Clarity over timings / regular updates;
  • Willingness of everyone to pitch in; and
  • Clarity over budget.

And this is what the local paper (The Eastbourne Herald) printed:

 

President Elect (CILIP)

Some of you will be aware that on January 1st I was appointed President Elect of CILIP having been nominated by my good friend (former Chair and fellow BSI KM Standards Committee member) Karen Macfarlane. It took a few months to come to closure as for the first time I will be in a figurehead role devoid of executive authority.  Here’s why I said yes:

“In 2017 in ‘Navigating the Minefield: A Practical KM Companion’ I noted inter alia that to achieve corporate legitimacy, KM professionals would benefit from the introduction of a set of universal standards plus recognised practitioner led accreditation. I was pleased to have been a member of the BSI Committee that contributed to the development and publication of the ISO KM Standards 30401 and the CILIP project board overseeing the development of the Knowledge Management Chartership accreditation.  

I am delighted to be appointed as President Elect CILIP as it allows me to remain close to and promote the ongoing development of a global practitioner led KM Chartership and Fellowship while expanding CILIP’s global reach.”

Knowledge Matchmaking

My wife Ana was at a charity event recently where she bid for and won a morning’s session with someone ‘Calmer Self‘ who helps:

…busy, successful people who are struggling to find moments of calm in their day to day lives…

Ana gifted it to me so two weeks ago I spent a ‘morning on the couch’ much of it in a state of meditation. I found it insightful and thought provoking. Among a number of observations handed to me were:

…when you offer advice and help to others it’s ok to truly let it go and to know that it is ok for them to do what they want with what you have given them… that it is perfectly acceptable to protect yourself from people that take too much from you energetically.

This resonated in respect of my previous writings on Knowledge Matchmaking. Perhaps this is the missing #10 on my list?

KM Cookbook

Nick Poole CEO, CILIP  (who own the publisher Facet) told me a few weeks before Christmas that the book is now well on the way to being their best seller (in 4 months) which is great news. And that was before this bulk order from Saudi Aramco.

What’s been particularly pleasing are the reviews, the highly respected Portuguese KM’er Ana Neves said:

“The authors’ combined experience permeates every page: it is in the book’s concept and structure, in the useful artefacts they developed (like the KM Chef’s Canvas, for instance), and in the way they expertly led and made sense of the interviews to then compose the 16 core chapters of the book – the KM approaches taken by different organisations.”

My coauthors and I have been delighted too at the wilingness of people to send photos of their copy in some amazing venues to contribute to the ‘Chelfies’ Gallery.  How many of the faces do you recognise?

Forthcoming Q1 ‘Gigs’

My aim over the coming year is to build on the success of the KM Cookbook and specifically draw on the KM Canvas to help organisations review existing programmes, build a new one or prepare for a future KM Audit against ISO 30401.

Chris Collison and I are booked for an event at the EU soon and I will be helping the good folks at NetIKX at the end of January to consider: Virtual working and learning: is it working for you?

In March I will be running sessions at the annual KM Summit, a K&IM Professional Development Day and AGM (a CILIP event) plus addressing a group of award winning entrepreneurs in Brighton on the importance of Knowledge Management to SME’s.

And finally

2020 is here. I’d already mentally devoted the bulk of it to helping Bees Homes and Coastway Financial expand and take a step back from KM Consulting other than associated with KM Cookbook. A recent email from an organisation to me (among others) with a Request for a Proposal (RFP) convinced me of the veracity of the decision. Dated 19th December the email asked for a written response to be on the desk of the Procurement Team by mail on Sunday 22nd December.  And it gave 17th December as the last date for submission of questions of clarification. Having spoken to like minded people I trust I immediately contacted Procurement to ask if they’d had no luck with an earlier mailing to prospective consultants or whether this was a mistake.  I received no formal acknowledgement but I and others got an email within 4 hours saying:

“… received various requests for the extension from our potential bodies and the Consultant Selection Panel members for this assignment came to the consensus to provide the extension for the submission date…”

How can Knowledge Management possibly thrive in an environment where the conduct of an audit of work done is a ‘tick box’ exercise aimed at justifying spend?  Life’s too short!!!!

 

Knowledge but not as we know it: “looking at business through a microscope and telescope”

Many moons ago before the introduction of GDPR I used to provide a semi annual update of my activities to people who said they were interested in what I was up to. With the requirement to get permissions from the recipients and a book to help complete those updates went to the back of the queue. Over the last few months though much has happened so here are a few reflections.

SmartWorking Summit

It’s Mid October and I’m back in Docklands to attend Quora’s Autumn Smart Working Summit. With attendees focused on work place environments and effective working practices (including genuine diversity) it picked up on a theme I’d heard recently at many Sussex business sessions namely how to manage mental health in the workplace.

It seems that many of us are not happy with our working environment (people get distracted every 3 minutes in an office apparantly) or indeed our managers.  And since the young are seemingly ill disposed to stay more than 2 years with any employer the traditional social contract between employer and employee is undergoing a massive shift.

Many of the speakers and contributors from the floor talked about “3rd place working” and the need to curate good environments both physical and virtual.  Many bemoaned the use of corporate safaris to see how others set out their space and over lunch a few of us debated the value of floor, meeting or community hosts to facilitate working in hub environments.

Does this matter? Yes!  Workplace productivity is down 9% in the last decade in the UK and compares unfavourably with the rest of the world. In a report released in January 2019 by employee engagement organisation Engaging Works the UK ranks 10th in the world for workplace happiness. They note:

“What is perhaps most striking is that eight of the countries which sit ahead of the UK in 10th place also sit above the UK for productivity, where the UK is a global laggard.

From a knowledge sharing perspective this is important. People are more likely to share if they feel engaged and supported yet few I spoke to involved in the design of office environments had knowledge sharing as a critical success factor when designing space. Neil Usher’s excellent Elemental Workplace came to mind at this point.

Selling your business

I had the great pleasure of attending a Masterclass run by BCMS at a rural location in Kent last week. A boutique M&A house they assembled a group of owner businesses to share tips on the process. It was slick and impressive.

A few stats stood out:

  • Few companies sell to competitors.
  • You need to talk to (interact) with at least 200 potential buyers.
  • Traditional valuation methods (DCF / NPV) are a thing of the past, sell based on a mulitple of future earnings as an acquired or merged business.

Underpinning their model is a dedicated research group who maintain what Founding Director Dave Rebbettes described as a massive M&A database. It took me back 25 years to my Corporate Finance days when using search I helped create a knowledge base to tell us what ‘we’ knew about a business, their people and the markets they operated in.

The word “Curate” was used a couple of times to describe how data is assembled but not in the context of managing knowledge. Once again I was left pondering why as I did last year when I wrote: “If so few Mergers & Acquisitions are successful why is Knowledge Management so often ignored?”.

Post coffee (and chocolate) we were treated to a presentation by Green & Black’s Co Founder Jo Fairley. Jo charted their journey from 1991 when they set the business up in their lounge, disposing of large stake to an investment group, being acquired by Cadbury’s, then Kraft and onto the current owners Mondalez.

Jo highlighted how post acquisition by Cadbury’s in 2005 the company suffered a loss of knowledge exacerbated by Kraft’s takeover of Cadbury’s.  Interestingly Arthur Shelley who was then CKO of Cadbury’s spoke about a similar issue when we interviewed him for “Navigating the Minefield: A Practical KM Companion”.

Recognising the importance of not losing the DNA of the brand, Mondalez have hired Jo as part of an induction process to illustrate the ethical (Fairtrade) historical legacy of the brand for new employees.

I ticked off some key points Jo made in response to a question about 3 things they got right. I was delighted these match Bees Homes top 3 aspirations:

  • Great product and branding
  • Great customer service
  • Capture the testimonials

To which I would add, “Create Brand (chocolate) Ambassadors” to ensure there is conscience in the brand.

Recognition & Awards

In a recent personal reflection the widely respected Euan Semple noted:

… the stress of working with different businesses all the time is getting to me…  So what to do? I don’t feel inclined to start marketing myself for the consulting and speaking. I never really did. I wrote stuff, people read it, and work came in. I am not even really sure why this has changed. But I am not sorry.

The outpouring of suportive comments on Facebook and LinkedIn must have been rewarding to Euan for ‘putting it out there”. Why does it take something like that though for people to acknowledge and recognise contributions made by others? As many of you will know since 2012 I’ve included a section on my site Who I admire (and why). In it I recognise people I’ve worked alongside who’ve shaped the way I think and act.

In August I wrote about Dr Gada Kadoda from Khartoum who helped found the Sudanese Knowledge Society.  I was delighted the BBC recently recognised her as one of the “top 100 women of 2019 for her work in rural communities.”

Continuing the recognition theme Bees Homes, one of the businesses I helped set up and run, has since inception led an annual Pride of Eastbourne” campaign at Christmas.

We encourage people to nominate those they feel deserve recognition for the good they’ve done for others. The winners, chosen by the Mayor and Chamber of Commerce members, each receive a Sussex Hamper which the nominator presents.

While on the subject of awards I was humbled to receive this email a few months back from the Walford Prize judging panel. The award is given each year to a person deemed to have made a significant contribution to the field of Knowledge & Information Management:

The judging panel were most impressed by your energy and enthusiasm and complete commitment to spreading the word about knowledge and information management not only in the UK but worldwide.

I pick up the award alongside KM luminaries Patrick Lambe and Nick Milton (winners of the best book for their Knowledge Manager’s Handbook) at a ceremony next week.

And finally

I wanted to share my response to Euan since it reflects where I am today after 20 years running a portfolio of activities:

Euan Semple you and I have talked before about having a portfolio of activities where a thin red line or thread connects everything you do. I know many people who’ve taken a jump from the security of a “day job” to being in what today is known as the gig economy. And in the majority of cases they are more fulfilled emotionally if less financially enriched. I’ve watched your journey from corporate to ‘consultant’ to ‘traveller’ with admiration. I’ve always believed that people are judged by the stories others tell about them. You’ve spawned many. Keep travelling!

On the subject of travelling I will end this update with something Jo Fairley said about how to run a successful business.

Look at the business through a microscope and a telescope!

Now off to do just that!