knowledge tours = knowledge transfer (understanding puffins and olefins)

Today under the ‘people I admire (and why) section of the site I posted an anecdote from a meeting I once had with the then Vice President of Mobil. It brought back recollections from a posting I made a year ago on Sparknow’s site about the value of knowledge tools  for encouraging good knowledge retention and transfer. Here’s that updated posting:

Ahead of a trip to the ECCI creativity & innovation event in Portugal I was looking for examples of good knowledge transfer from km practitioners. Let me share one anecdote from an interview with Barney Smith a former CKO and CIO and champion yachtsman in response to a question on measurement.

Barney: 80% staff have attended a knowledge tour. Oh yeah, we did knowledge tours. That was cool.

Sandra: What’s a knowledge tour?

Barney: They were great! Natural England owns and manages about 0.6%% of  England’s surface, its natural resource…we actually got people to leave their day job and come down literally. And rather than them doing job shadowing and things like that, we got them to build a day where staff could turn up and then could actually experience what that person does. And they could take 10-15 out. So if a person is responsible for monitoring environmental impacts around the Lundy islands, he would take people on a boat around Lundy island and looking at birds with a Lundy Warden.

Barney: Lundy (Norse for Puffin Island) is part of a Marine Conservation Zone managed by Natural England. The warden who lives on site managing it is actually an employee. We took our staff out to spend a day on the islands with the warden talking about puffins and things like that.

But the point was for those people sitting in finance or those people sitting advising farmers on agri-environment schemes or those people who are promoting or designating the  South Downs national park or New Forest national park, that’s what they’re doing at Lundy. And of course that was the pilot, great stuff. But we had the chief executives and senior staff who said everyone’s got 15 development days. One of those days must be knowledge tour.

And we even created one that’s virtual. So it was actually a guy walking land with a video camera, looking at things. And then he did a talk-over. It was done like a documentary.

It reminded me of a time long past when I was a lending banker managing a portfolio of energy clients.  I knew little about hydro crackers and cat crackers, even less about olefins, polyamides and bottoms all of which were about to become part of my expanding oil and petrochemical vocabulary.

My boss, a visionary and talented Yale educated and very well travelled American who could and did argue vociferously in Arabic, Cantonese and English reasoned that if I were to be of value I needed to understand the practices and language of the industry I was working alongside.  So courtesy of Mobil I attended a programme designed to educate financial people into the workings and economics of oil refining.

I never thought about that week at a refinery in Paulsboro New Jersey as a knowledge tour but now looking back I can see the connection and the importance of experiencing what others do in order to make better decisions. That this was a one off initiative and never replicated by the bank was regrettable since it gave me an insight into a world that would otherwise have been opaque and because I had a modicom of knowledge, the ability to have more meaningful dialogue with my clients.

Barney’s knowledge tours have become regular events, measurable as KPI’s and part of the knowledge charter used to mobilise and shape Natural England’s approach to knowledge management. That they are built into the calendar with compulsory attendance is key.

And finally and perhaps not unrelated the Lundy Puffin is no longer on the endangered list as a result of a programme to eradicate the island of rats.


insiders view on knowledge in the Middle East

In 2011 I spoke at the inaugural KM Middle East event about a knowledge survey we created for the event and drawing on recent diagnostic work and the knowledge management strategy and implementation framework it spawned.


photo | Tom Spender

One of the tools Sparknow has used before as a way of raising awareness of, testing the receptivity for and measuring the impact of, a knowledge initiative is an online questionnaire. We usually keep it to about five sets of questions and ensure it takes no more than five minutes to complete – about the length of time it takes to drink a cup of coffee!

It often kicks off a diagnostic process and provides useful pointers/insights into what an organization understands knowledge management to be as well as highlighting ‘the way we do things around here’ through snippets and anecdotes.

KM Mid East seemed like a good opportunity to stimulate a debate through an online questionnaire: knowledge management roles are beginning to appear in quasi government organizations and some recognize that the way ‘stuff’ is stored today will impact on its potential reuse. And this is being conducted against the following backdrop:

  • Libya has descended into a civil war.
  • The outcomes of the Bahrain protests are by no means clear.
  • The Saudi authorities have just handed out over $37bn in pay rises and improved conditions to its inhabitants having reportedly adopted rough tactics with protesters.

The response from within the region’s commercial organizations has been to take a good look at disaster recovery, contingency planning and risk evaluation; assess their value of portfolios. Few would instantly associate this ‘burning platform’ moment with knowledge management but it’s totally relevant. In fact it’s what got me into this business two decades ago when a bomb blast took out the paper records my organization had and I led an ambitious programme in a Middle East focused investment bank to capture what we knew and make it available for reuse electronically. It was our attempt to create a one-screen view of a client and the forerunner of what today people call intranets.

So what has emerged from the Sparknow Knowledge Survey?

  • The majority of respondents were from government organizations.
  • Most people felt lessons learned were best examples of knowledge sharing at work.
  • The spectre of poor records management looms large.
  • Learning and by implication knowledge transfer are the areas many people believe KM should be addressing.
  • While cash incentives are attractive carrots for some to share knowledge the majority wanted recognition and a sense of ownership in the outcomes.
  • Unsurprisingly given the astonishing technological revolutions this region has been witness to, most answers to the question ‘the thing I always carry with me to help with knowledge…’ focused on technological solutions.

‘I cried for an hour…’

The words of a Colombian American who’d been to school in England, whose family are Colombian intellectuals and whose children live and work in the USA. The psychological impact of May’s Bogota bombing on a country rapidly emerging from decades of internecine conflict cannot be underestimated. It is a setback, yet I’d back this country and the people. It is a great place, a fusion of South American and European cultures and its people have a strong work ethic and an insatiable thirst for knowledge which is how I came to be here.

The 5th Knowledge Management & Organizational Learning Summit held over 2 days attracted 200+ many of whom booked late. Colombians I was told leave most decisions such as where to go on holiday until the last minute which places a premium on contingency planning. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the country is emerging from a difficult period personal financial decisions are driven by short-term expediency rather than long term accumulation of wealth. This translates into ‘knowledge is power’ mentality that makes efforts to promote the sharing of knowledge a challenge.

Despite being the sole European and linguistically challenged I nevertheless felt part of a family. My presentation delivered in English with simultaneous translation was given to an audience of bankers, industrialists and government officials. The hour I spent in advance going through the presentation with Carolina the interpreter paid off handsomely and enabled me to run in tandem with Luisa Sucre (an excellent facilitator from Venezuela) a number of interactive sessions that revealed how good South Americans are at dialogue.

I began by asking how many had been in km for more than 5 years – about 1/3rd. How many had km in their title – about 1/5th and how many thought km had been around for more than 10 years – about 2/3rd.  This was a topic they’d clearly thought about even if it had not become an accepted discipline in the organizational hierarchy.

I was also able to garner a dozen varying views on the role of the future knowledge manager in Colombia – more of that in a subsequent posting.  The allotted 2 hours flew by (at least for me); I wished I’d had longer.

The afternoon of Day Two featured a World Café run by Zulma Sofia Patarroyo a very energetic Colombian who used the 3 hour session to surface what the delegates had learned and would take away from the event.  She began by asking each table of four to listen to each other’s learning points and then for the table ‘host’ to remain while the other three found an alternative table.  This continued for a further 2 ½ hours which seemed like an eternity to some but was enthusiastically embraced by most as I was to see evidence of the following day when meeting a delegate who had his ‘takeaways’ on the wall of his office. Jorge Enrique Merchan a graphic artist was on hand to expertly record the activities.


My personal takeaways:

—     A very well organized event that covered the little details well and didn’t try and pack too many speakers into the two days

—     The audience was attentive and respectful; it took little prompting to get them to participate in a karaoke style community singing at the start of Day Two led by Maria Helena Magalhaes from Brasil, creating music at the end of Day One with Patricia Molla from Argentina and embracing the World Café concept with abundant enthusiasm; laughter is always near the surface of conversations

—     There is a lot of km style activity going on in South America albeit under other labels especially Organizational Learning; people see its potential value

—     The big issues organizations face are similar to those found everywhere and include knowledge retention and knowledge transfer though here perhaps more than anywhere there is a need for a structured contextual approach in order to gain endorsement across an organization

—     The use of stories to drive change and underpin initiatives is in its infancy

—     A visit to the Botero Museum where much of Fernando Botero Angulo’s work is displayed in a remarkably open manner should be an essential component of any trip to Colombia

a knowledge retention technique: recognising contributions

Knowledge retention is a big issue for many organisations. This blog first published in 2011 talks about how Sparknow planned for and marked the retirement (his second) of its Financial Controller Roger Doughty. I’ve republished it here since it addresses a key challenge namely that of recognition of the contribution made by an outgoing knowledge worker.

Roger was there in 1997 when Spark began. Through 14 years he has guided us through a maze of fiscal legislation, keeping a watchful eye on our finances and helping us become a limited liability partnership. That Sparknow has been able to develop the stellar list of client names bears testimony to the strength of our backroom support nearly all of which has been done on a virtual basis by Roger.

Our challenge is similar to that we’ve seen with clients when experienced people depart.

  • How to pass on the knowledge he’s gained much of which has been tacit.
  • How to ensure the same level of service is provided. And finally
  • How to recognise his contribution in a manner befitting of our style and values.

Tacit knowledge transfer has been/is being covered by a period of parallel running with his successor Mark Barrett who is also a Welshman with an accounting background. Mark has been shadowing Roger for the last couple of months and now that is reversed and Roger is shadowing Mark. I then hold monthly review sessions with the pair of them to see what issues have arisen and fine tune our processes. Our intention is ensure a smooth seamless transition which thus far it has been.

To recognise his contribution we asked a number of associates, friends, collaboration partners and clients to think of an image that best described Roger and then to write a brief anecdote.

The material was assembled; should we print off a set of postcards, produce a virtual card or make a set of recordings? Webster’s Pictorial provided the inspiration and with the help of Curtis James, a Brighton based ‘letter presser/purveyor of collections…’, Roger’s ‘book of memories’ was born.



A very suprised and delighted Roger was presented with his gift at a garden party held in Lewes.


Many struggle to find a way that recognises the contribution of key people in a business so that when they depart their legacy lives on. Roger reading his ‘book of memories’ shows how much pleasure can be gleaned from a simple gesture.

a knowledge retention technique: importance of business trips and missions

By a stroke of serendipity (a meeting with one of the speakers while he was in London) I went to Khartoum early in the New Year to participate in an event run by University of Khartoum styled “Knowledge Management Capacity in Africa”.

It promised to be an interesting event since unlike a previous mission to Khartoum, Nyala and El Fashar I was to be based in one centre for the week. Also the list of practitioners and speakers is very heavily weighted in favour of the African continent and I was the sole European representative. An honour indeed!

I was asked to focus on a couple of topics: Missions and Creative Commons. More on the latter in a subsequent posting. Here’s a taster from the abstract I wrote with Victoria Ward for the event:

Missions are one of the key ways any development bank or agency can collect, disseminate and synthesize knowledge but the opportunities to do so are often overlooked or wasted.

Most of the processes are focused on producing a report (back to the office report- BTOR), managing risks and making decisions yet every component can be adjusted and fine-tuned or used in more than one way.

This presentation, based in part on a mission to Sudan conducted in 2010 by Sparknow working alongside the World Health Organisation (WHO), will examine a variety of mission collection methods and discuss how the ‘fire of the field’ can be brought back into an organization.

Imagine you are a bank looking to set up a new Islamic finance operation targeted at the private sector in West Africa. There are few peer groups you can look to for advice; it’s by and large unchartered territory. What are your options?

·       talk to the founding fathers of other Islamic institutions

·       undertake a scoping mission to the country

·       identify others in your own institution that have core skills you might draw on.

You actually do all the above but in addition you put in place a programme to ensure that you capture all the learning’s from this new venture; the nuances around operating ‘offshore’ from HQ; the peculiarities of the culture and the way things are done and; you create a missions guide and a mechanism for feeding back what you learn into your organisation. This charts Sparknow’s mission journey illustrated by some of the techniques we’ve found to be of value.

Oh and this time I am going to remember to take nice new shiny dollar bills and not my credit card.