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!

“You have the wrong passport”: KM in Khartoum

I’ve been in Khartoum. I was there as President Trump announced the ban on travellers from 7 countries which included Sudan. The impact on morale (a week after the outgoing Obama administration had eased sanctions on the country) was palpable. Bans don’t hit the powerful they hit ordinary people with families overseas or like many I spoke to who visit the US for work or research.

a week on “Managing Knowledge in a Connected World”

So it was a poignant backdrop to the week long visit as part of the series of events “Managing Knowledge in a Connected World” I’d organised with the Sudanese Knowledge Society.

Those of you who follow the work I do might recall a change of approach this year. Included in a paragraph on my values and approach for 2017 I said:

I am counting my blessings and getting on with doing ‘stuff’ I think will make a difference in different parts of the globe and where less is definitely more.

This was the first opportunity where I felt my presence might act as a catalyst to advancing KM practice while providing encouragement and support. Sponsored by some of Sudan’s leading companies and universities and also the World Bank Group Sudan it comprised four main events:

  • Workshop on Sudanese Internet Content — 28 – 29 January
  • Forum on Knowledge Sharing — 30 January
  • Masterclass on Knowledge Audits — 31 January
  • Reverse Brainstorm Session on Virtual Work — 1 February

Khartoum International Airport

As with any visit where you are reliant on others to make arrangements there is an amount of trepidation as you step off the plane and enter the customs hall: will the person who is going to help me get a visa be there; will the authorities let me in?

After a short delay, while I negotiated with the immigration authorities over paying my ‘entry fee’ in Euros (which I had and they don’t accept) vs Dollars (which I didn’t have and they do accept), my welcoming party arrived to settle the entry fee and ease me through.

Corinthia Hotel Khartoum

I was excited by the prospect of returning to a country I first visited in 2010 and to a hotel (Corinthia) that remains an iconic structure in a prime position overlooking the Nile. My initial impression is Khartoum has changed little since I was there in 2013. It has a feel of Jeddah in the mid 80’s but with a few iconic structures.

The absence of cranes in sharp contrast to Dubai where I stopped en route suggests a country that is struggling economically due to the loss of oil revenues from the secession of South Sudan.

enriching Sudanese intranet content

Day One/Two: Early morning in Khartoum is magical when you overlook the Nile and the view from my suite is amazing.

The call to prayer evokes a fond memory of decades of travel to the Middle East (and Arabic speaking Africa) and the mid to high 20’s temperature a welcome change from the grey cold that is the England I left behind.

I was asked to give the opening Keynote at this event and to set the following two day’s of activities into context.

My laptop is not compatible with the projector despite having the adapter. As always I have backed up my work on DropBox and given secure access to Professor Gada Kadoda the driving force and inspiration behind the Sudanese Knowledge Society.

The two day event is predicated on the assumption that content is key to the success of a country and business. These points emerged:

  • Information and Digital Literacy Skills are in short supply;
  • Slow line speeds make uploading of content in a web based environment difficult;
  • There is limited use of the internet in Sudan but everyone uses mobiles to connect with such as Facebook which is widely embraced;
  • People don’t trust “Facebook News” (or any other) and there is limited content or data. But what there is people don’t know about;
  • There is no recognised and agreed Arabic Natural Language Directory (the base on which software such as Artificial Intelligence might build); and
  • There isn’t a culture of sharing (and storing) content in organisations.

creating a knowledge sharing environment: the role of HR professionals

DAM HR Forum

Day Three and the program shifts from strategic to operational. I am ‘booked’ for an evening with leading HR professionals. I begin by moving everyone around and asking them to make introductions. I repeat the instruction a couple of times. The third time I just ask them to move and the attendees naturally engage and answer the question, “what does KM mean to you?”

In plenary reflection they note how a neutral object (me) created an environment that broke down barriers enabling them to engage in a way they would have not done before.

Three hours fly by. The group has identified barriers to knowledge sharing and come up with a number of ways to overcome them. They leave engaged and animated at 10pm in the evening after I close with a few illustrations of what a Cheif People Officer who looks after the KM function does.  Grateful thanks here to Penny Newman who answered a few questions from me prior to my visit to Sudan.

masterclass on Knowledge Audits: a practical guide

‘Room 1’ Proposed Masterclass venue

Day Four and I am up early to check whether the room we are going to spend a full day in is fit for purpose. As expected there are a few ‘niggles’ to be resolved but its so much better than the room originally allocated.

Theoretically Room 1 may have seated 20 but with no natural light and little space to move around it would have sucked all the energy out of the room.

14 turn up and all really engage as the feedback confirmed.

Actual Masterclass venue

“It was a wonderful opportunity to have participated in a such an informative session, I hope we could get more such opportunities.
I found your Talk and Master Class about KM and KA very interesting and informative.

Was delighted to be among the participants, thanks to Paul to be able to cover all this important material without us losing interest and enthusiasm. It is a novel and rewarding start that we will hopefully plan and implement at our different organizations.”

reverse brainstorm on working virtually

Graduate group in a reverse brainstorm session

Day Five was spent with the future leaders of Sudan and another 3 hour session with graduates and members of Education without Borders Sudan. After showing a few videos and slides about working virtually I asked the 65 people present to get into 6 groups of 10 and discuss what they could do to make virtual working fail. Though not much room to move about everyone jumped at the chance of getting into a practical exercise.

A couple of observations on the facilitation technique I used:

  • Getting everyone’s attention is a challenge. This time if people didn’t ‘come to order’ quickly I made a point of asking the recalcitrant one’s what they were discussing pointing out to the room that often people carry on conversations because they are enthused.
  • It’s good to share. The act of going round the room in a circular fashion to see what the other teams have done creates momentum and illustrates that its not just about your ideas. Some teams ended up using ideas from other teams in their final submissions.
  • Voting (everyone has a sticky dot to place on the issue they think is most important) is a great hit and provides a visual image of how the room thinks

and finally

As is often the case you learn so much about a country and its people from its stories and proverbs. Having read a number before I left Gatwick I kept this in mind for all my sessions:

Our wasted days are the days we never laugh

After a week there and seeing how my visit served to pull many people together this one struck me as being apposite:

If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito.

And so to the title: if there is one abiding memory I took away its the resilience of the population and the young who have had so many doors slammed in their faces yet come back for more. I recall one moving story from a very bright and well qualified woman who was repeatedly told by big western institutions: “You are the perfect fit for the job and we’d hire you tomorrow if we could, we can’t, you have the wrong passport!” She is marooned in Khartoum unable to get a local job that fits her expertise and unable to leave!

Now onto the next ‘mission’ which is to Kuala Lumpur and a Masterclass on “Working smarter in a knowledge world: why space matters for collaboration, innovation and knowledge transfer” in conjunction with the International Islamice University of Malaysia. Much more on that next time.

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

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

Sudanese Doctor

Anwar

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

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

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

The story of the Health Worker

Ismail’s story – Health Worker

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

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

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

 

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

Breakout room

Breakout room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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