The elephant fable: a Chinese reflection on KM, innovation and knowledge capture techniques


To set the following discussion into context, my name is ‘Jonny’ Jiang, I am a PhD candidate on service design and service innovation at a design school in London.Jonny I am working part time with Paul at a start-up charity Plan Zheroes to deliver services to make better use of surplus food and help people in food poverty.

Thanks to Paul, I have been given opportunities to learn from his expertise in knowledge management and practice some of his methods to capture knowledge and insights in that charity.

As result, I am able to reflect upon my journey of knowledge management at the charity and my research in service design.

Interestingly, by comparing these two distinctive fields of practices, it gives me some thoughts around the importance of how we can generate new knowledge and insight around innovation.

KM tools for learning during and after

Let’s talk about some of the knowledge management methods I learnt in this process. Before jumping into these practices, I should tell you I had very little understanding of knowledge management apart from my general reading around business journals.

Paul sat down and demonstrated to me one of the previous knowledge capture sessions he ran with one of employees at the charity. He explained the rationale of capturing and sharing knowledge among staff through interviews with employees before their leaving and during their life cycle with us.

As I understood, it is very important to understand each individual’s experience and perspectives on his or her journey here and on specific events in particular in order to spot and improve the internal and external operation.

One of the other rationales I understood very well at the end is Paul’s point on the element of constructively building a better relationship with interviewees even after their leaving to help them reflect upon the personal growth and learning during the period of working inside the organisation, which I realise is very important to each party and helps nurture Alumni Networks.

Later on, I have been given an exercise to listen to Paul’s recording on his interview and using his knowledge management toolset (e.g. brief, time map, experience circle, questions) and conclude my findings based on those.

Then a few days after, we sat down again to compare our capture of knowledge based on the same interview and reflected together on some of my questions and learning’s. This was an incredibly effective session with Paul because I am able to learn by practice from Paul’s expertise to help equip a newbie in knowledge management with knowledge, practical tools and confidence.

I took the lessons and tools from this exercise and conducted an interview with employee who was about move to another city and leave the charity. Once the interview has done, I sat down with Paul again to reflect on my interview and report of this knowledge capturing practice.

Most of Paul’s methods have been already described and explained very well in this blog, so if you want to figure out what tools and methods I have used, please click on this post ‘Going not forgotten: knowledge capture in a hurry’.

Check out the timeline tool as a way to effectively reflect the knowledge and insights accumulated along the journey. It is a powerful tool because

  • It gives a common language that visually displays our thinking’s and provokes thoughts around the highlights and lowlights of the journey. In my interview it helped us to reflect on interviewee’s expectations at the start of job, which gives us lots of insights on how we manage the expectation during staff induction.
  • Mutually, it also gives an opportunity to help the interviewee consolidate the learning from the job that can be transferred to future careers.

My elephant and the correlation between design and knowledge management

As Paul invited me to write down my reflections after this exercise, I was fascinated by how similar and powerful the practices around knowledge management and design as a source for organisational innovation can be. As many of us  interpret the word ‘knowledge’ with a connection to ‘science’ ‘scientific’ and ‘objective’, there seems to be a misunderstanding of the value in ‘subjectivity’ and ‘social artefacts’.

As we all come from different experiences in life and become who we are because of those experiences, we all develop very distinctive perspective on the world based on the things we learnt and have done in the past.

It is like one of fables I learnt as a child which described four blind people who gave a very different description of the elephant by touching it from their own positions. seems to be fully convinced by their ‘objective’ interpretation and deny others’ views of what the elephant ‘truly’ is. It is obvious, in the fable, that each of them only ‘sees’ their part of reality.

The elephant and social facts. source:

In real life, this fable maintains a sense of inspiration too. We all experience a building differently from where we look at it. It can look small from a bird’s eye view or intimidating if standing alongside it.

In organisational management nowadays, particularly large organisations, operations can be highly siloed and lacks ways of detecting those subtleties in perspectives. It means each department may have their very own budget and competing agenda and develop their very own ways of understanding and doing things under the cover of ‘specialisation’.

Those silo operations based on ‘the only one way’ present danger of neglecting the values in perceiving or doing something differently that is at the core of innovation.

As such, knowledge management is becoming increasingly critical to recognise subtlety in each individual’s interpretation and map them in order to spot opportunities in the gap of our personal knowledge and experience.

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 14.46.57In service design, this idea of interpretation has been very important in user research.

By mapping extensively, designers can understand better the users’ perceptions and behaviours and gather deep insights on where the opportunities can be for designing better customer experience and services.

One example of customer journey mapping. Source: (

In Knowledge Management these interpretations can often reveal opportunities and strengths as well as failures and weaknesses.

And finally

The advice I can give to someone who is about to do the same exercise and interview a colleague who is about to leave is to take the default position of ‘he-or-she-knows-much-more-than-me’ rather than being judgemental on what you believe as the ‘truth’ or ‘reality’.

As many as we are coming from this global village, there is a great value in the diversity of perspectives and this is where I believe is the infinite source of innovation.

And of course, definitely check out those knowledge management tools on Paul’s shelf. They are really effective and surprisingly practical.

A comment from Paul

I have had the pleasure of mentoring ‘Jonny’ for the last couple of years during which time he has participated in board meetings, helped select a project management tool to act as store for the knowledge and documents on the various projects we’ve undertaken and conducted knowledge capture sessions. He is also the curator of our digital library.

I invted Jonny to be a guest contributor as I felt his experiences might be of value to others. Indeed his comments about the ‘give, get’ component of a knowledge capture process is particularly perceptive as often the drivers for such programmes are downsizing and layoffs where there is little positive feeling.

I am delighted he has contributed and would encourage you to join in with your comments.

From the ‘outside’: tips for running virtual meetings

Yesterday Plan Zheroes, the charity I am proud to be the Knowledge Trustee of, held a board meeting. Unablle at the last minute to get to the venue I participated virtually. Here are a few learnings I’d like to share from the ‘Outside’ of the meeting.


Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 12.01.30All people in the room should be visible to the virtual attendee (s). If impractical then make sure the key players are.

As you can see we started with an empty space next to the Chairman where the CEO should have sat.


Unless you are in two specially built VC facilities the chances are you will be reliant on Skype or an equivalent VOIP connection.  To improve reception make sure all other programmes (especially email) are switched off on the host and virtual machines.


Build in breaks and make no session last for more than an hour.


SInce conversations can often be distorted and difficult to follow from a distance (especially if there is interference on the line) make sure whomever is chairing the meeting summarises what was agreed at the end of each section of the agenda.

And finally

Don’t assume every word spoken in the room can be heard outside of it and be patient. I’ve seen virtual meetings fail because of an irritation with the technology +/or connection – why is it we always blame the other end for the poor connection – don’t apportion blame, apportion ownership of the task to get it right next time and have a back up system in place such as Facetime, ooVoo or Viber.

If you want more on this subject follow this link to a piece I wrote with Martin White of Intranet Focus for KM Legal 2015: 10 tips for effective virtual teams.

Fired up but not yet ready to go: Legal KIM response to 2015 challenges

A month back Martin White and I ran a breakfast breakout event for professionals in Legal Knowledge & Information Management. Those who follow mine and Martin’s musings might recall the event ‘The Future for Legal KIM: an outside in perspective’. Our aim was to present our thoughts to a group of Legal KIM’ers and seek their views.

These were the topics we foresaw as being important in 2015:

  • Lawyers come and go – capturing knowledge at speed
  • Collaboration and KM beyond the firewall
  • Getting the best from virtual teams
  • Bringing it all together – legal project management

ALegal KIMs it turned out we were not far off the mark as the feedback from the postcards we invited the delegates to write on indicated.

Once we consolidated all the replies on the day an interesting picture emerged.Scores on the doors (Click on the picture below to make it more visible)

In law firms of more than 250 partners the biggest issues were around virtual teams and project management. Yet all acknowledged they were not yet in a state of readiness to tackle them. Among the smaller players the biggest worry was around loss of knowledge.

other priorities

Not unsurprisingly the comments provided a valuable insight into their thinking.  Smaller firms (at the start of their KIM journey) were looking for basic KM:

  • Basic entry level km – completely new to it / evolving information research service & integrating with K activities
  • Provision of rapid and easy access to previously captured knowledge / Technology to simplify the process of intergration

Larger firms wanted something different (note the reptition of collaboration):

  • Collaboration inside the firewall / Expertise locating
  • Combining & improving KM systems / Organising our know how in a better way across the whole organisation
  • Support dept personalities working together (Marketing collaborating with IS, KM)  / Improve collaboration generally
  • Content clutter and records management / Risk & Security / Knowledge & UT goals & Strategy

So much to ponder on – watch this space for answers!

and finally

Grateful thanks to the four people who made contributions to Plan Zheroes (the event’s nominated charity).  For those who forgot and anyone else who feels moved to contribute, they can do so here.

PZ Virtual PresenceThis Thursday the Plan Zheores team are at London’s GLA for the launch of their new virtual presence which has the potential to make PZ the ‘Uber of surplus food’. Here’s a snapshot of what it will look like and why the team is so excited.


Awash with Artichokes: making the most of surplus food at Borough Market – Risotto Primavera

Artichokes are aartichokes-for-good-healthn acquired taste but when you are hungry they are delicious. This is a recipe with basic ingredients: a few determined people, a dash of technology (soon to be enhanced), a sprinkling of generous traders and a huge dose of imagination from the cooks who mixed ingredients.

Week One: from small beginnings – 5 traders, 1 charity (Dragon’s Cafe)

After a little bit of encouragement from Charlotte Jarman (an Anthropolgist project manager of FoodSave project at Sustain who has helped to develop tourism projects with coffee-growing communities in Peru and Tanzania), aided and abetted by Plan Zheroes, London’s Borough Market adopted the idea of making surplus food donations.
The scheme begain in June and received good local press coverage, here’s what Sustain said: London’s Borough Market sends surplus food for use by a local charity.’

The first week’s donations got a lot of publicity including London SE1 Community Website. One of its reader’s, Abi Todd got in touch:

Hi Plan Zheroes

I read the article on SE1 about linking up food from Borough Market with the Dragon Café. Your work sounds amazing and I would love for us to get involved.

I manage a young people’s hostel for 116 vulnerable people aged 16-21 in Borough. We are making frequent use of Food Banks and I would be really interested in investigating if we can link with local food suppliers to supplement this. many of our young people are sanctioned for long periods of time, and food poverty and poor nutrition are rife.

The organisation I work for is Look Ahead Care and Support , and I attach our service leaflet so you can see a little of what we do.

Do get in touch if you think we could work together on this.

So we did!  We asked Abi to create a profile on the Plan Zheroes map, sign the charity agreement and connected her with Charlotte at Sustain; one week later they were ready to collect surplus food.

Week Two: ‘exit the Dragon’ (temporarily); enter Look Ahead

With the Dragon Cafe unable to receive a donation Look Ahead steps in. By now word has spread and volunteers appear from Plan Zheroes and Sustain to help collect and distribute the surplus food. Sustain and Charlotte

Jacopo of Plan Zheroes weighs donations and we record details, the volunteers from Look Ahead pack it and take it to the charity. Charlotte (of Sustain) registers donations week by week, so we all have an idea of what and how much is being donated.

There was much more food to take LookAheadand Jaqueline from Look Ahead, came with one young person and one (very) big bag… luckily they also had money to call a taxi!

At the donation collection point, we had a surprise: an unusual donation of artichokes. Jaqueline’s face, was a picture: we wondered if she knew how to cook and eat Artichokes… and secretly Jaqueline was already wondering if the young people they help would like it!

We raised the issue her face had betrayed and Jaqueline shared they run a weekly “Masterchef’ session, wondering if we would be able to run one with them for the Artichokes?!  Abi replied again:

On Thursdays we run “masterchef” sessions where staff or young people run cooking sessions. It’s a really well established feature of our week at Gateway and your support with making use of donations would be really appreciated.

Week Three: Masterchef Ivan and the Artichokes class

IvanOf course the next step was to engage Ivan Cubillo – a Zheroes Volunteer, who is a professional chef and just graduated as Nutritionist, here is what he said:

“Artichokes are a bit tricky but once you know what to do with them are delicious!! I know few tricks to cook them with not much hussle.”

So now everything is set up, Ivan is running a MasterChef session on Artichokes.

And the story has a happy ending:

We now have to wait and see when Ivan goes to Look Ahead – Gateway for the Masterchef. Meantime over 150kgs of food was prevented from waste, and 180 young people have access to delicious food from their very local Borough Market!

Back to Abi who confirmed inter alia that:

We can definitely commit to Saturday collections over the Summer. We could handle more – mostly so far we’ve just been giving it straight out to residents, who have been cooking it themselves, but there is a fair bit of scope for us doing communal cooking activities as well. (Ivan is coming on Friday to meet me to discuss)

The veg fits in well with our ‘Healthy Conversations’ programme which is all about encouraging better lifestyles and choices, so we are happy to facilitate as much healthy stuff coming into Gateway as possible.

I counted 7 pallets yesterday, and we also had about 4 cardboard boxes.

The role of a food knowledge broker is never dull and once the wonderful new mobile application is launched from next month, thanks to our friends at Keytree who have given us massive support, we at Plan Zheroes will be able to do so much more and help make much better use of surplus food. Here’s a sneak preview of how a conversation between a donor and a recipient might go:

PZ Wire frames - mobile1 Jul14Even if you can’t help with effort as a volunteer or food as a donor you will be able to by making a financial contribution. Plan Zheroes is a registered charity and like all not for profit organisations we need funds to keep afloat.  Thanks for reading this and watch this space for the results of the Masterchef session.

Now that’s what I call an imaginative use of Artichokes – Risotto Primavera:

Here is Ivan’s account of his MasterChef class

Today it was a good day at Look Ahead. The participants showed commitment and good attitude troughout the session. Tommy who works at Look Ahead helped wonders and it was a fun person to be around. Soda bread was a huge success and although we had to tweak the recipe a little bit, the result was amazing! On Monday, the charity received/collected asparagus, broad beans, spring onions, kale, broccoli and (as Tommy said) “lopads” of carrots. With such as a good variety of produces the choice was obvious: Risotto Primavera! After frying the onions and garlic we add some carrots chopped up nicely. Then we add our rice (no rissotto rice? No Problem!) Tesco did not have risotto rice so we end up using long grain rice (Challenged accepted!). Once we add the rice we started stirring our rice to release all the starch…adding slowly our lovely beef stock  was next (Thanks stock cubes!) and when our rice was almost done we added the broad beans and asparagus (they were previously blanched) and  finished the rissotto with butter and cheddar cheese (parmigiano a bit too expensive for our budget). And the Artichokes? Well, we almost forgot the artichokes! (Here is where the Chefs skills come in handy) Quickly we peeled a couple of them, thinly sliced them and sauteed them with garlic and onions, we add a bit of water until they were nice and soft. The par-roasted artichokes looked delicious on top of our rissotto and the guys in the workshop loved them. Overall, great experience in Borough Road, people loved me (no wonder!) and I loved them, so “this could be beginning of a beatiful friendship”.



Rissota Primavera

10 tips for running a successful Pause & Reflect debrief

David Gurteen rang me just before Christmas.  He’d read my recent blog post about the  Pause & Reflect (P&R) debrief session I was running for the Brighton Food Waste Colllective and wanted to understand how it differed from an After Action Review (AAR).

Here’s what I told him and via this link his observations on the technique:

In a P&R debrief the team (with the help of the Facilitator) is attempting to go beyond the questions posed by an AAR: what was supposed to happen; what did actually happen; what went well; and what might we do differently next time?

While these are valid areas of investigation they tend not to address the how or why an event succeeded or failed and overlook aspects of behaviour, space and culture.

P&R sessions look at all of these through the use of timelines and objects by recreating what happened formally and informally, before the event, during the event and after the event.

The technique I like to use is an A3 version of the Narrative Grid about which I’ve written before.

By way of an example (and with the kind permission of Vera, Mei-Weh and Saskia) I’d like to draw on the recent P&R session in Brighton.

Food Waste Collective Pause & Reflect:

We met informally at a quirky venue (Blue Man Bar) in Brighton. Despite background noise the team were able to raise and openly discuss the event. Here’s what I asked them to think about in advance:

The aim is to identify learning’s from the recent Food Collective Event that you might apply to current and future events. This session is best done with a timeline /narrative grid and I will ask these questions for each stage (Before/During/After):

*     What was expected to happen?

*     What actually occurred?

*     What went well and why?

*     What can be improved and how? And finally,

*     What behaviours in others did you most admire / find most useful?

I will take notes so you just need to bring along your keen minds, memories, observations and most importantly a photo or object from the event.

some key outcomes:

The session designed primarily as a capacity building/knowledge transfer session lasted but an hour.  In that time a couple of key outcomes emerged and each of the team was able to highlight behaviours in others that made a real difference.  It underpinned my belief that by being appreciative in the approach to debriefs and focusing on events a lot more emerges.

Here’s an extract from the notes I took:

P&R Outcomes Dec13

when, where and how to use a Pause & Reflect?

Here are 10 suggestions on how to make it work:

  1. use it to conduct a debrief on an event or decision that has taken place in the last month
  2. use pictures and objects from the event or decision to amplify key moments and trigger memories – brief them about the need to bring something along
  3. get people to fill in the narrative grid / timeline as they go and if you have different cultures involved ask different groups to fill in their own timelines – in the process of comparing you will discover much
  4. probe by asking for examples – in the above case the need to get volunteers on a Thursday to help unload FareShare vans emerged only by going through the event step by step
  5. when someone makes a comment such as ‘it was so organised when I arrived’ get them to elaborate and contrast – it will generate a story that becomes an important narrative of the event
  6. make the session informal (and reflective of the organisational culture) but do have an agenda and stick to it – be clear about the roles each one is playing at the P&R
  7. get participants to talk about the environment and location where the event or decision you are holding a P&R about took place
  8. don’t be afraid to let the silence hang in sticky moments – behaviours (most admired which might have made an event successful) often emerge slowly
  9. ensure (with permissions) that you take photos of the P&R and include them in the write up
  10. finally, don’t be too ambitious: 3 hours is the maximum I’ve found works and look at 1 event or decision not a whole project.