Tips for working on international assignments (part I)

Thanks Frank (Gardner)

It was he who encouraged me to blog about my experiences and I have always wanted to be able to share some of the techniques I’ve come to adopt when undertaking international assignments. The offer by Sandra Ward and Val Skelton, Co-Editors of Business Information Review, to write an article for the forthcoming edition was too good to miss and so today I submitted that piece.

Here are just a few snippets from my submission (the pictures won’t be appearing):

Abstract

In today’s global village the ability to work cross border and cross culture is increasingly important. This article looks at the lifecycle of an assignment from winning and negotiating to working and collaborating concluding with reporting and getting paid. It examines what it takes to run successful international assignments while identifying a number of potential pitfalls to be avoided and issues to be considered.

Baggage trolley at El Fashar Airport DarfurI 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 frequently asks the question at the top of this piece.

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….

Negotiating the ‘deal’

….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 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

… 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.

…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 Victoria Ward and 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

The Culture Map 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….

Importance of set up

If the way we speak, write and hold ourselves is important so are the technological underpinnings. Consider this: in many organizations 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!….

Listening ears and noticing eyes

How you are received on arrival is usually a good indicator of how important your visit is…

…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…

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….

…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!…..

Ten tips

If I were advising someone about to undertake their first international assignment what would I tell them?

  • No credit cards in SudanClarity is key, ambiguity is the enemy of progress: be clear about the terms, what they are going to get, when and in what format and what help and assistance you need from them in order to deliver it.
  • Prepare for the unexpected: plan for disasters and have a backup (if you are on medication take that in your briefcase); save your work to the cloud (securely of course). Adopt my 50/50/50 rule and always have that amount of £, € and $ in your wallet.
  • Keep detailed field notes and conduct regular After Action Reviews or Pause & Reflect sessions as a team: It’s vital to be able to reflect on what you’ve heard and to have the ability to play that back in regular progress reports.

I will share the rest of the article and the remaining seven tips over the coming months.

What Knowledge Management is and why some people don’t ‘get it’

I was in virtual conversation today with Professor Fernando Sousa, President of APGICO, the Portuguese Association for Creativity & Innovation whose aims are to:

  • develop, disseminate and promote knowledge and experience in the management of organizational creativity and innovation;
  • establish international contacts with similar organizations;
  • create forums for dialogue between businesses, academic institutions, government agencies and other stakeholders in the management of creativity and innovation.

APGICO has all the right characteristics to become a Knowledge driven organisation where collaboration and co-creation are at the heart of everything they do!

Fernando and I first met 5 years ago when we were part of an Advisory Board assembled to look at future business options for a traditional hand weaving business based in the Alentejo region of Portugal. Fernando subsequently invited me to be a guest speaker at an EU Creativity & Innovation event Portugal hosted during which he used stories to develop themes and we’ve shared ideas ever since and recently met for tea in Faro.

I mention this since despite a number of conversations Fernando, like many, struggles to ‘get’ Knowledge Management though he appreciates the ideas behind it, the techniques that underpin it and the value of stories to unearth new meaning. In his own words:

Although I have some difficulty in entering your field of expertise, I always find your texts and slides quite interesting; in fact, I find some of them are true mind breakthroughs

While generous (thank you Fernando) it means I haven’t expressed the message clearly enough in language that he understands or in context which goes to the heart of a conversation I’ve been following this week on KM4Dev started by the World Bank entitled ‘PDFs that nobody reads’.

KM – the dangers of a supply led model

Here’s an extract from one of the many excellent contributions to the KM4Dev discussion, this by Lata Narayanaswamy, Honourary Research Fellow at University of Sheffield:

It is this question of what people actually do with all the reports and newsletters and information packs that we as development professionals produce, and I absolutely include myself here. My own research in this area would suggest that, in contrast to so many members in this forum in particular, who work to promote KM as an interactive, engaged, two-way, back and forth communications process, a large proportion of what passes for KM is the production of a PDF that gets posted on a website. It is a supply-led model that reflects what both Philipp and Magdaline have identified as the lack of reflection on what people actually want to know, and instead focuses on what organisations either want to share or what they think people should want or need to know and ‘how’ to know those issues. ……
Given the diffuse nature of what we call ‘development’, it is not therefore surprising to find that the World Bank, despite their powerful financial and discursive position, is experiencing a ‘no one is really reading our stuff’ problem, because broadcast mode has always been an essential part of their KM framework and the way in which so much of civil society has understood what is means to ‘do’ knowledge.
And whilst I believe that engaging with and articulating the demand for knowledge is hugely important, I am under no illusion that engaging with demand alone is going to address this issue. I myself as a practitioner have been in plenty of situations where someone has requested information (presumably this counts as engaging with demand!) and I subsequently learn that they didn’t use it. I think Peter’s example of ‘information that might be useful if only we had a budget to engage people with it’ really highlights that KM is not only about demand or supply but a continuous process of recognising the value of information to the knowledge creation process.

My own observations on that discussion were:

I’ve been working a fair bit recently with and in Middle East and Africa and very aware of the challenges of publishing dry English reports to audiences where English is a subsidiary tongue. I’ve tried using the power of 3 (3 bullets, 3 themes), stories and postcards to bring ’stuff’ to life.  But ultimately it takes a seismic shift for people to change ingrained habits.

One of my early corporate assignments was to set in place a business intelligence function which collated and summarised salient content for senior officers.  Later, technology sought to replicate this but was never quite able to replicate the knowledge of an individual who knew the business inside out.  In a way this was how the Knowledge Manager in that business emerged – a person who knew and understood the business providing the right content (with opinion) to those who were best able to use it.

I’ve been working with one of the leading Gamification experts and will be facilitating a debate on the subject at KMUK and with David Gurteen at a Knowledge Cafe in a few weeks time.  Its a similar issue – how to get engagement with an audience, a problem increasingly exacerbated by the behaviours of Generations X, Y & ‘Rent’ whose learning and reading styles are driven more by social than traditional push technologies.

identifying the value of Knowledge Management

So I was delighted when Nick Milton published the extract from a presentation to financial analysts made by ConocoPhillips last month in which one of their Vice Presidents described the value of Knowledge Management to that organisation – take a look at Nick’s blog. The comment that really hit me was:

The knowledge sharing group that we have that drives all of this is embedded in our IT organization, which is embedded in our technology and projects organization.
So it’s well integrated with all our other functional groups and we look at maps of how knowledge is being shared from one part of the world to the other and across different functions and can actually track how well that is working and it’s been pretty impressive what it has done for us.

“It is actually one of the key tools that we are using today to combat the great crew changes, we call it in our industry, where we have so many people with so much knowledge who are retiring and we’ve hired all of these younger people. A big part of how we do that knowledge transfer from the experienced folks to the less experienced folks is using these tools.

Value creation is at the heart of the Knowledge Asset Management Methodology, Ron Young has helped many organisations adopt. It is based on a concept of frequent value assessments with measurements (Change Readiness / Stakeholder Analysis / KM Maturity Models as examples) and the idea of embedding a 9 step Knowledge Management process into the day to day workings of an organisation.  It further calls for the identification of an organisation’s Knowledge Assets, a serious attempt to measure the intrinsic value of processes, communities and individual, team and organisational knowledge and networks.

For many years Ron, along with others in the KM arena, has been calling for a mechanism that places a value on these Knowledge Assets and while the ConocoPhillips briefing is some way off that it is a move towards that goal. Lest we should forget, a few years back a correlation was made between the winners of MAKE awards and their outperformance on the US stock market.

I believe Risk Management is also of huge significance and why the Nuclear Industry pay attention to the capture of Critical Knowledge identifying who has it and what they could least afford to lose through natural wastage or downsizing. As yet, factoring in the value of a loss of Critical Knowledge as a potential risk does not feature in the Audit and Compliance reports of most organisations and I for one believe it should.

and finally

So what do I take from this?

  • Knowledge Management needs a foundation of good Information Management;
  • To be effective (and sustainable) Knowledge Management must be embedded in the processes of an organisation and focus on business issues;
  • While stories bring experiences to life, you can’t assess what you don’t measure and if you don’t map and measure (frequently) you are reliant on anecdotal evidence which at the top level of organisations won’t wash for long; and
  • Its easy to produce ‘product’ that looks good but not relevant or in context for the audience – pushing at an ajar door on the lower levels is a lot different than banging on a locked door at the top of the building!

A KM Definition that isn’t: KM Legal 2014 examined

This extract from today’s twitter stream on KM Legal 2014 is telling:

Just been asked why we’re not at in London – “because we went to the one in 2004” was the answer.

I was there to deliver the opening address to this year’s KM Legal event.  It was very well attended with 80% of the audience being qualified lawyers.

In truth I left feeling disappointed. Apart from an interesting perspective on the future role of predictive data delivered by Eric Hunter, Director of Knowledge, Bradford & Barthell in California much of the remainder focused on providing information rather than applying knowledge and the discussion was about Intranet implementations on SharePoint. I should point out that my impressions are based only on Day One.

In my presentation (publically available on SlideShare) I began by describing how 20 years ago I’d helped build a one screen view of all our activity and created what was effectively one of the first Intranets in the process.  Yes the solutions and reach are greater today but the questions being addressed are the same.

Its significant how many people have knowledge in their titles however almost all are involved in Operational Knowledge Management and many in Information Management.  Very few appeared to be involved in Strategic Knowledge Management which for me is surprising given that the legal profession more than many others has to be knowledge driven relying on precedent and changing judgements in order to make recommendations (legal arguments) based on personal and team knowledge and experience.

Information Management is not Knowledge Management!

Mark Gould (who was suitably voluble) summed it up thus:

Information management is important, and often needs to be better. Helping information flow is not knowledge management.

I noted the Knowledge Management definition delivered by Zurich which might work for them and meet their specific criteria but for me misses by a mile the real meaning of Knowledge Management:

Knowledge Management: ‘The efficient and effective use of information to meet the objectives of the team and businesses we support’

Where is the key bit about learning from what you’ve done before, capturing, storing and reusing the knowledge of people? What happens when people leave and new lawyers join?  Yes Knowledge Management requires good information systems to support it but there is no mention of building knowledge into the processes of the business.  Its quite ironic as in 1998 Zurich Re London hired me to help embed knowledge into their Lotus Notes systems for underwriting and decision making.

We want value add from our legal parners!

This was a cry from a few of the presenters and the logic is powerful.  If their lawyers have expertise in managing knowledge then why not tap into it and ask them to share it with the clients as part of an overall package. But that’s a narrow perspective as the conference demonstrated.  The essence of KM tools like Peer Assists is that you are bringing expertise from outside of your own industry when launching a new project. Organisations that just hire the same character types and draw from the same talent pool end up being clones! The same applies to advice.

Transparency and co-creation

Eric’s presentation struck a chord.  His premise: that the future is about opening up and co-creating with clients is spot on.  Clients at the event were complaining about opaque charging structures and archaic processes.  Eric (who is ex Oracle) noted that:

Real-time data analytics is changing business models

I buy into that argument and can see a world where more generic aspects of law are consolidated (perhaps in the cloud) and the superior knowledge hence value is priced differently. Surely the value of great legal minds is in the analysis and delivery not the curation and storage?

Comments I liked:

  • On Intranets: Bird&Bird-content facilitation role vital to look at what was best version and then use that. LinklatersWhen search works you are on your way to a winning Intranet!
  • On how to sell: White&Case- Demands for collaboration coming from clients is a common theme. Love analogy of selling processing and successful completion.
  • On the creation of  embedding knowledge into ‘Pathways’ (processes): White&CaseSubject matter pathways (a set of navigable PowerPoints) that help lawyers go thru a workflow. simplicity thru PowerPoint with embedded live links. Real business efficiency tool. pathway dependent on effective curation next step is to add on time recording and budgeting. Good for showing clients Gr8 for onboarding.
  • On what’s in it for me: White&Casepeople will only contribute if they know who is going to see information. Simplicity is best, fewer options better.
  • On what people are called: ZurichExpertise Enablement Officer, (Learning Officer, Knowledge Manager, Information Manager rolled into one).
  • On organisational values and change: Berwin LeightonPaisnerDownside of giving people ability to customise their personal home pages is that the core message / values of the firm get lost.Lewis SilkenPowerful group needed to bring about change in a legal firm? Secretaries! Administrative initiatives will fail if not involved.
  • On the future: Variousrevolution in way of working is coming with a need for a virtual digital workspace across the industry that all firms contribute to. Increasingly clients will put together teams based on the best practitioners drawn from different firms.

What I missed?

  • Any discussion around communities and talk of knowledge sharing policies.
  • A discussion on risk – none seemed to follow the example of Nuclear who have identified what critical knowledge is and tried to plan accordingly for its loss?
  • And a wide ranging debate on Twitter that brought those outside the room into it.  How can we as a KM Community preach knowledge sharing if when we are at events like this we don’t practice it?

And finally:

I left feeling that the huge challenge of breaking down silos across specialist practices in law firms has yet to be tackled effectively.  Yes the idea of common platforms is a good one but each practice area is a federated business and lawyers probably have more allegiance to their specialism than a firm.

‘What you bill is who you are’ came across as a strong undercurrent that can only be overcome by the sort of technological changes that impacted the Reinsurance Industry when Catastrophe Modelling Analytics went from being nice to haves to must haves in order to stay in the game.

If you accept the premise that the future is about co-creation and collaboration then the centralised firm structure is in danger as technology aids disintermediation.  This suggests Legal Knowledge Management’s future focus should be on competencies, skills and network management.

And just to prove that the legal profession has embraced ‘Gamification’

From Penny Newman's session on change and managing resources

From Penny Newman’s session on change and managing resources

 

‘Freelancers’, orchestrated serendipity and the symbiotic relationship between virtual and physical space

I have just published an updated research note on Scribd. following the workshop I ran for the NetIKX community last week and wanted to share the findings here:

To succeed in the 21st Century organisations will need to be good at collaboration and co-creation and the research I’ve undertaken suggests some organisations are changing working environments and patterns in order to accommodate this. Are they doing enough to take their staff with them though or do their people merely see this as an attempt to cut cost?

a case for ‘Orchestrated Serendipity’

This has been a mantra of mine for some time. The RSA clip on reimagining work cites the example of people sat in open plan offices emailing colleagues sitting a few desks away.  Rather than promoting dialogue open plan has often had the reverse effect.

ADB Knowlelge Hub

ADB Knowledge Hub

Where I’ve seen organisations working well they have tended to look at workflows, people’s habits, made them an inclusive part of the process of change and communicated effectively. They’ve accepted that serendipity needs a bit of a push and have recognised that ‘ah ha’ moments often come from such serendipitous meetings and arranged space such as a khub to accommodate that. I often speak about how interactions to and from prayers in the Muslim world are often the most productive and why knowledge hubs and information centres are often situated in close proximity to refreshments areas.

Nelia R. Balagapo in May 2013 described how ADB had gone about the process of creating a physical knowledge hub.

The library reorganized its physical space to become a knowledge hub (kHub) to host book launches, meetings and forums of the COPs. In collaboration with the different departments and COPs, an average of four activities are held in the kHub weekly, including “Insight Thursdays,” a weekly forum where staff share insights on topics or issues of interest to ADB. Wireless Internet connection and videoconferencing facilities enable staff at regional offices to participate online in these forums. The introduction of these facilities, including a coffee shop in the library, contributed to the transformation of the library spaces into dynamic learning areas.

It seems our personal habits are changing too: this week it was announced that more and more homeowners crave for multipurpose ‘living’ areas that can accommodate, cooking, eating and lazing!

the rise of ‘Freelancers’

Knowledge workers are changing too, despite what Melissa Meyer said that all Yahoo workers should come to the office or quit! In a thought-provoking article How Freelancers Are Redefining Success To Be About Value, Not Wealth  Sarah Horowitz suggests that today in the US Independent workers make up a third of the workforce. By 2020, just six years from now, 40% of Americans will be working as freelancers, contractors, and temps. Here’s a couple of quotes that stuck:

…Freelancers are shaping the new economy. As flexible schedules and ubiquitous communication become the norm, the work-life balance that we’ve always struggled for is becoming achievable. As community and teamwork become more necessary than ever to thrive, the lonely, closed-off cubicle will make way for meaningful collaboration. And as the demand for healthy food and workspaces increases, industry will increasingly connect corporate profits and social good…

So if this phenomenon is growing how are we responding? I recall a presentation I gave in Houston in 1999 where I said that growth in the number of independent (non-salaried) workers was dependent on three factors:

  • supportive collaborative technology
  • a rise in physical meeting hubs
  • a change in the way financial services organisations assess the credit of non-salaried workers with irregular income patters.

All three now exist and so the key challenge is Trust (among peers as well as with direct reporting lines) as the Yahoo example would seem to suggest.

the importance of social and technology

I am a founding trustee (Knowledge Trustee) of a charity that aims to make better use of surplus food. www.PlanZheroes.org has no formal offices yet its governance process is all very formal and in the cloud. We hold virtual meetings and new volunteers are given access to all the materials and instructions they need to begin sourcing donors and recipients. As a knowledge hub for surplus food we perform a brokerage role helping to facilitate contacts between those who generate surplus food and those charitable organisations that make use of it.  All of this is made possible by collaborative technology, the rise of social media, which encourages and facilitates collaboration, a culture that is aligned around a shared vision and the availability of suitable meeting places in which to conduct essential f2f interactions that underpin social exchanges.

objects and the role of neutral space

Slide31One of my 3 takeaways is to use objects as a stimulus for dialogue and innovation.   The idea of neutral space is core: if you accept the premise that it is important to create hubs for interaction such as that illustrated at ADB then the same logic applies when looking at how to facilitate those interactions.

I saw a salesman use a very informal worksheet last weekend and wrote about it.  By using a worksheet (a neutral object) he was able to elicit valuable information that helped make a sale.

the symbiotic relationship between virtual and physical space

As often happens with the wonders of modern technology, a comment I made on a news item on the simply communicate newsletter entiitled working out loud at Deutsche Bank led to a really interesting exchange with Managing Director John Stepper.  John has achieved a lot using a Jive platform to encourage social collaboration and change the ways of working there. I asked him:

Hi John, I’d be interested in whether you paid attention to how virtual and physical space come together? I’ve just published on Scribd. an updated report on ‘when space matters…’ And one of the questions was whether virtual could replace physical! How did you manage to marry the two?

John replied:

Paul, I’m an admirer of well-designed spaces though by no means an expert. But I’ve written about how virtual spaces complement the physical (and systems) design: http://johnstepper.com/2013/02/23/the-best-office-design-for-collaboration-is-also-the-cheapest and

/http//johnstepper.com/2014/02/01/creating-places-we-care-about/

Do take the time to read his thoughts. If anyone has coined a more apt description of what many organisations have become then I have yet to see it:

We discarded some of the age-old principles of what motivates and engages people. Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten we should be designing organizations for the benefit of the human beings in them.

 

Why stories matter for Knowledge Management: From Colombia to Iran via Portugal

A year or so back while I was in Colombia I was asked to do an interview for publication in Brasil.  It was about the role of storytelling as a effective technique for Knowledge Management and I thought I’d share (in English) some of the answers I gave then which I believe are still really relevant today. Here’s why:

Last week in Tehran as part of Stage 2 of an exciting KM project I have been invited to work on I was in a room with a dozen or so senior managers and engineers. We were trying to map a process to see where it could be enhanced / reengineered by embedding KM techniques.

There were flow diagrams, boxes and arrows.  The process (and the engineer describing it) came to life when he was invited to ‘tell us a story about what happened’. He opened up – it was as if I had given him permission to be himself and let go of ‘corporate or technology speak’. He then went onto describe what we styled ‘The Lube Oil Pump Incident’.

At the conclusion (and in the following day’s sessions) our sponsor and I encouraged everyone talking about a process to use narrative and to think of a title for their story.

It brought back two questions I was asked for the Brasilian article which I conducted while I was Managing Partner of Sparknow LLP:

Why stories? What is so special about them?

Hi Ana, thank you for this opportunity. Let me tell you why I think the use of narrative (storytelling) is a hugely powerful and insightful technique not merely for use in organizational KM.  Stories have the power to unhinge and unearth insights, experiences and emotions often hidden in the jargon and protocols of corporate world.

Sparknow’s tradition in using story in KM goes back to the late 90’s when the Founder Victoria Ward commissioned Carol Russell (a storyteller with origins in Jamaica and story roots in Ghana) to write and tell a story about the KM journey at one of the UK’s leading Banks.

Not long after ‘Corporania’ was completed and shared to much acclaim Sparknow was running a series of open sessions at the KM Europe conference held in Den Haag.  Among the attendees was a Geographer from Switzerland who had recently been asked to head up knowledge management at Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in Bern.  Manuel wanted to explore story-telling tools as a way to increase knowledge transfer between the Agency and its partners, different places, and the edges of the organization and the centre; that began a 5-year joint exploration that culminated in the production of Building bridges, using narrative approaches to knowledge management still viewed by many as one of the most useful works on organizational storytelling, and tangible evidence of how effective the use of story can be in KM.

I digress. To illustrate the point a bit more clearly.  Everyone can remember their best teacher or professor and I’m sure they were good because they shared anecdotes and stories that brought a topic to life. My law teacher was brilliant at describing in a humorous way cases that illustrated the law of tort. Moreover great leaders tend to be adept at using stories to engage and communicate, its one of their core skills.  So sharing lessons, bringing strategies to life, getting messages out across the organization, getting buy in to new ways of working and perhaps most importantly hearing what people actually think and care about are all improved by the use of a story in whatever form it is told. I’ll talk more about that later.

For me a big turning point was conducting an interview as part of an inquiry on behalf of the UK Tax & Revenue.  We were asked to find a way of augmenting quantative surveys to identify among other things how clients (taxpayers) perceived them and the help they gave.  While the interviews were but 20 minutes they were constructed in such a way as to encourage the interviews to tell the stories of their experiences in seeking help.

This particular interview which ended up being called ‘tippex and the kitchen table’ helped paint a graphic picture (through the words of the interviewee) of what it felt like to be filling in a tax form which you had to keep correcting through a lack of knowledge while running your own business and bringing up two children.

How is this relevant to KM?  By playing back the interview (with permission) to a wider audience it set the backdrop for potential changes in the way the department worked with clients.

Stories are prone to misinterpretation. Is there the danger of that causing problems in communication? If so, how can that be prevented?

Context is key. What I takeaway from a story might be different to you because of when and where I hear or read it and what my knowledge base is.  The same though applies to every form of communication. How many times do organizations seize up because of poor email practices and verbosity? This is a real issue across continents and languages and I can recall how the knowledge transfer in an R&D function stopped purely because of a different style of email communication.

The way to reduce the potential for misunderstanding is to give people the skills, the confidence and the equipment to identify, collect and share stories. And to ensure they are targeted at the right audiences in a manner that can be understood. Here is how we’d go about tackling the issue of whom to target and what to share with them. This applies equally to a KM programme as to a piece of engagement or communications.

1 |  Develop a strategic story that explains the direction in which their organization is heading, the prizes, the pitfalls and what’s expected of them. Bring it to life through words, images, etc that can be used to explain it to everyone with an interest in your organization. This provides a context for more specific communications and discussions.

2 |  ‘Support the strategic story with a series of smaller, individual ‘stories’ – accounts of people’s experiences in parts of the organization. These smaller stories can be used to bring the strategy to life, generate enthusiasm, spark ideas, resolve dilemmas, spread thinking and initiate conversations.

3 |  Create resources and assets to enable leaders and managers to put the story to work. Deliverables could include an engagement programme or roadmap, communication materials and experiences to bring the story to life, a story database, workshop designs and agendas, toolkits, training and ad hoc advice.