using knowledge for competitive advantage: a graphic illustration from history

It being a lovely afternoon and with a guest over from Washington DC my wife and I decided to pay a visit to the Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth where some of Britain’s most famous warships have been restored and are on display.

I didn’t expect to find such a vivid example of how the application of what you know allied to an entrepreneurial spirit can make such a difference.

Here’s the background: By the time of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 the rate of fire from a cannon on the British Fleet was every 90 secs whereas for that of the enemy it was 5 minutes; a major factor in the competitive advantage of the British Fleet and the ensuing victory.

Here’s why:

Captain Charles Douglas, commander of the 90 gun ship Duke in 1778, had such great confidence in the efficiency of the flintlock for firing guns that he equipped his ship with them out of his own purse. When Douglas became captain of Lord Rodney’s flagship Formidable (90 guns) in April 1782, he demonstrated his superior rate of fire and hitting power in the victory over the French at the Battle of the Saints in the West Indies. Douglas’s son, Major General Sir Howard Douglas, improved the gun lock system by introducing a double headed hammer to house the flint. This made it unnecessary to change flints frequently during action as this new form of hammer could be turned through 180 degrees to engage the second flint.

What that quote omitted was that the French forces were the inventors of the original flintlock and indeed had trialled (without much success) its introduction to the fleet.

On the British side this became a grass roots incremental change programme spread by word of mouth that ultimately became ‘corporate’ policy. Individual Captains’ who were often quite wealthy paid for the enhancements to the guns on their vessels and were able to see significant improvements in productivity. By the time of the great sea battles of the late 18th and early 19th century most British ‘ships of the line’ were fitted with these devices with devastating impact.

It struck me as I walked around HMS Victory that today many organisations aren’t aware  of what others in different areas of their business do and are often not involved in the redesign of process. Indeed two of the recurring comments we hear are “I didn’t know they did that” or “yet another top down HO initiative we pay lip service to”.

This example spoke to me of the value of knowledge sharing and the need to engage rather than impose change.  I hope you agree?


“The best motivational message I’ve ever seen…”

So says Lucy Kellaway in an article today on FT.Com Management which draws on a “…standing on a burning platform..” memo, sent to all Nokia staff by CEO Stephen Elop, to make this point:

Fear of death is motivating; so is the truth. Most employees are fed on a never-ending diet of flannel, so when they are dished up a helping of stark truth, the effect can be invigorating.

When I first read the leaked memo at the end of last week what struck me was the CEO’s use of a story at a critical time in the organisation’s evolution or potential demise; it was as stark as that.  Through the imagery of a burning oil platform it presented staff with a  choice: jump into the freezing waters and potentially drown or remain onboard the platform as it is today and perish.

Seemingly part of a well orchestrated internal communications programme the memo was followed a few days later by an announcement of a strategic development tie up with Microsoft in response to Apple’s competitive edge in the smartphone and apps arena.

Lucy’s take (and I am paraphrasing) is that the use of fear is a powerful tool to cause a shift in approach.

It’s a technique we’ve used before to try and bring to life topics that normally switch off most senior managers when raised. I’m referring here to records management.

A couple of years back we used a picture (of the inside of a road tunnel) and asked the company’s management to look at the picture and estimate how much the remedial work about to be undertaken was going to cost.

The figure they gave reflected the fact that they had to strip down the tunnel walls to find out what was behind them; the records and plans were no longer to hand.  Quite apart from the increased cost of the project there was a significant loss of productivity caused by the unecessariy lengthy tunnel closure.

The picture and the supporting story were catalysts for a change in approach and the adoption of a new records management policy contributed to improved effeciency.

It remains to be seen whether the ‘burning platform’ memo will have a more dramatic effect at Nokia; its safe to assume the image is planted firmly in the minds of most employees and stakeholders.  I wonder if the next chapter in this unfolding story will be the release of a story based in the future?

using the past to inform the future: Asian Development Bank

In 2010 in Manila, staff and Alumni at Asian Development Bank were handed a book and cd as part of a new Human Resources strategy, the culmination of an assignment to create a Living Archive for the bank that had begun back in November 2008.


Here is the story of the assignment.

“…the story he told me about his work… made things come alive, and showed where my project fitted into a much larger and more complex picture than I had foreseen or understood.”
Rajat M Nag
| Managing Director General

In November 2008 ADB officials and alumni embarked on a journey to find new ways to share reflections, insights and experience. Recognizing the power of narrative to stimulate dialog and unearth the hidden stories that best illustrate an organization at work, ADB appointed Sparknow LLP, a knowledge and communications consultancy, to help to create a Living Archive and to nurture the individual and collective practices that will allow ADB build a new narrative capacity to marry to the substantial analytical skills it already has.

An exhibit, plenary sessions, a combination of short, structured sessions and more extended oral history interviews, interactive workshops and on location sound recording were techniques employed to capture the content that forms the backbone of an embryonic Living Archive upon which ADB can build.

Today, the Living Archive comprises:

  • a slim book, ADB: Reflections and Beyond, capturing significant events in ADB’s history told through the eyes of some of those who were involved
  • a set of audio clips for use in induction and training
  • a CD featuring the sounds of ADB and Asia as a backdrop to many illuminating reminiscences about working for and in ADB
  • a narrative practitioner manual to support ADB in evolving the processes and practices across the organization.

A small group of determined, enthusiastic and skilled Narrative Practitioners has worked with Sparknow throughout and these people are now equipped to listen for, capture and share stories about ADB, its work and impact on those it seeks to help. These processes and their products can be seeded through all parts of the organization, whether it’s the formation of a community of practice, better handling of a mission debrief, or new ways of evaluating and carrying out after action reviews. ADB’s narrative practitioner team will help to build on the work with Sparknow in 2010 and make the most of the possibilities it has opened up.

Fast forward a couple of years to 2012 and this case study is now part of a publication from the Ark Group entitled Making Knowledge Management Work For Your Organisation”