Out of austerity, growth of Social and a dose of Logical Minds: insights from working in Lisboa

Royal Bullfighting Club

Real Club Tauromáquico Português, Lisboa

I’ve just spent an inspiring couple of days in Lisboa. It started well: a wonderfully productive 3 hours in the company of Ana Neves of Knowman discussing SocialNow 2015 in Amsterdam, followed by a reunion dinner at the Real Club Tauromáquico Português, (Royal Bullfighting Club of Portugal) Lisboa with a former colleague I had not seen since 1986.

The prime motivation for my visit (apart from the 25c temperature) was providing advice to a business that helps children with learning difficulties as it thinks through its future options.

economic & business backdrop

Over dinner, my former colleague, an influential banker whose ancestor discovered an island in the Atlantic now named after him, shared his perceptions of the current state of play.  Here’s my take on what he said:

…the government is doing very well but the current political structure means decisions are taken very slowly. I am an optimist by nature and see great potential in our people but our media is always looking for mistakes and bad news and never tells us about areas we are doing well.

Taken at face value this gives grounds for optimism and yet in previous conversations I discovered that the Portuguese prefer to hear ‘experts’ from overseas rather than trust their own and go overseas to make their fortunes. So for young entrepreneurs the future is bleak.

Yet Portugal is a country that ranks 25th in the World Bank’s ease of doing business ranking (ahead of Netherlands, France and Spain).

Portugal WBK ranking

Click to enlarge picture

It’s improving standing is due to a raft of measures many of which are currently subject to scrutiny and debate in parliament:

  • Portugal lowered its corporate income tax rate from 25-23% and introduced a reduced corporate tax rate for a portion of the taxable profits of qualifying small and medium-size enterprises.
  • Portugal made enforcing contracts easier by adopting a new code of civil pro-
    cedure designed to reduce court backlog, streamline court procedures, enhance
    the role of judges and speed up the resolution of standard civil and commer-
    cial disputes.

Since 2008 the government has made a number of changes to employment law. While these have resulted in increased productivity there is growing disenchantment at declining living standards and the young expect to leave when they graduate.

What does the immediate future hold?  Increased personal taxes, an increased disparity between those able to ride the continued wave of austerity and those who can’t and a desperate need for investment for young start up businesses.

Initiatives such as Cidadania, an event aimed at stimulating discussion in society around the use of new forms of communication, will help. This year’s event in Porto showcased numerous examples of how empowered citizens have interacted with NGO’s, Government and Public Administrations. Ana Neves has also been running a Community of Practice for COTEC and written a guide on helping its member organisations to choose KM Tools.   Ana would be the first to admit that Portuguese organisations are not yet big on Knowledge Sharing or Knowledge Management and that community involvement in social tools is in its infancy. But interest is growing!

LogicaMentes (Logical Minds)

Autism strikes without consideration of ethnicity, gender or financial background. It is a developmental disorder that affects the way people interact with the world and other people.

Each child or adult with autism is unique and, so, each autism intervention plan should be tailored to address specific needs.

The UK’s NHS notes:

Some types of intervention can involve hours of intensive work, and this is not always possible for many families because of the practical, emotional and financial commitments necessary.

Treatment is based on the assessment of the physician carrying out the examination and frequent case assessments with the team thereafter.  Treatments now take place in the home, at school and at clinics like LogicaMentes.

Much is written and there are countless online sites providing guidance, advice and online collaboration to parents who often find this a very difficult condition to live with.

images.livrariasaraiva.com.brThere are a variety of treatment methodologies, LogicaMentes bases its on the book written by the clinic’s co-founder, Claudia Bandeira De Lima.

They also use a wonderful iPad application developed by a member of their team that enhances the learning experience for children. Already it has paid off: the app has facilitated communication between a mother and son where previously his condition has precluded any. Small but significant steps!


Resource management, records management and cash management are core competences as are the ability to share knowledge among the team and manage a diverse group of stakeholders (parents, schools, doctors).

It is a priviledge to have been invited to help the team and to be working in Portugal.


On Portugal’s recovery: ‘Don’t compare us to Greece’

The Portuguese media has been awash with stories about attempts to renegotiate the terms of the bailout negotiated by the government with the international community (The Troika).  After the Irish Finance Minister went public saying Portugal should honour its obligations as they had and not ‘do a Greece’ a senior  politician from Lisbon came back with the above retort. It’s a sore subject; the Portuguese are a proud people with a history of meeting their obligations yet during 2 weeks talking to people in Porto, Lisbon and Faro I’ve come to realize just how precarious the recovery is.

Food, drink and the cost of living

Eating out is a national pastime; lunches are taken seriously and out of the office. Today an average 2 course meal for 2 with wine in Lisboa will set diners back €35-40.  Sounds good?  Compare that with the average weekly wage of €200 and then consider that Portugal now ‘enjoys’ some of the highest priced utilities in Europe (among top 5) and you get some idea of the shift in habits that is occurring.

The imposition of a 23% tax on eating out, on wine and even on golf have all taken their toll. Its no wonder there is a campaign for a minimum monthly wage of €600 and a reversal of the pension decrease the ruling party introduced when the austerity budget was introduced.  For a great breakdown of the cost of living and interesting commentary see here: Cost of Living in Portugal

Wages and disposable income

In Portugal, people earn $24 384 per year on average, less than the OECD average of $34 466. Not everyone earns that amount however. Whereas the top 20% of the population earn $30 578 per year, the bottom 20% live on $13 056 per year.

Another essential factor of employment quality is job security. Employees working on temporary contracts are more vulnerable than workers with an open-ended contract. In Portugal, close to 9% of total employees have a contract of 6 months or less, slightly lower than the average of 10% for 30 OECD countries. This figure suggests Portugal has been successful in stabilising working contracts and encouraging open-ended contracts.

Stealth taxes and the road toll debacle

Hiring a car is easy, even if the companies now rival Ryanair in dreaming up additional must have extras, using the road toll system is not.  For a start the hire company will try and ‘sell’ use of a tracking device that charges the car for using any autoroute subject to a toll charge.  If you refuse their tempting offer then a labyrinthine process awaits when you come to settle your tolls involving numerous trips to the Post Office most of whom are oblivious to their new responsibilities.  And the galling thing: it is virtually impossible to turn around and leave the autoroute!

Three days on we still don’t know how much we owe for the first part of the Faro-Lisbon trip and we’ve been out of the country since Saturday!

The black economy

A friend who knows about such matters told me that up to 40% of trade is conducted outside of official channels.  Restaurants and indeed the open top bus companies are reluctant to process credit card transactions to avoid tax – many have signs that notify you in advance and those that do not are often ok with you going back to pay later. It’s a situation many travelers will find uncomfortable.

Roll back the frontiers of the state

‘It won’t work if it’s legal’ was one chilling indictment of the authorities’ efforts to promote new ideas.  Wading through treacle is how to best describe the insidious intervention of the state in an attempt to seize revenue from whichever source it can.

The most recent example is the edict by which all houses must put white posts up to signify the boundaries of their property. And of course everyone will pay for the privilege of registering his or her ‘new’ boundaries!

Barbarians at the gate

Real estate has bottomed and in Lisbon / the Lisbon coast a slight rise is being fuelled by overseas buyers from China and Russia perhaps prompted by the policy whereby rich individuals can purchase a visa permitting access to the rest of the EU.

This from CNN Money

Portugal has been offering these deals for just over a year. Foreigners receive a residency permit when they invest €500,000 in property. After five years, they can apply for permanent residency, and EU citizenship one year later. Portugal is also trading visas to those who inject capital or create jobs in the country — similar to the U.S. immigrant investor program, which requires a minimum spend of $500,000. Like those on offer in Spain, the Portuguese visas grant access to the Schengen area, which includes the bulk of the EU but not the U.K.

Official figures show more than 330 visas have been issued in the first 12 months of the program, raising €225 million.

And yet

The eternal frustration among the chattering classes I met is that the country’s promotional activities are too low key. Two examples: I had no knowledge at all about the Portuguese Army’s involvement alongside the Allies in Belgium in WW1. In reading an excellent account (balagan timeline) of their involvement I was amused to see this quote: ‘…The Portuguese soldiers hated the British rations…’ and; I was also unaware as were most I spoke to that Foreign Pensioners can reside and collect their retirement pensions in Portugal entirely tax free. Portugal has launched an aggressive measure to attract affluent worldwide pensioners to come and reside in Portugal. The lure is zero tax on such pensions.

In addition to these tax incentives Portugal has:Sao Bento Station Porto

  • great food, a great climate, wonderful architecture  and superb scenery;
  • great roads with no one on them;
  • really talented people with ideas and imagination;
  • it costs less (17% of disposable income) to keep a roof over your head there than elsewhere in the OECD (21%)

But:Dessert at Darwin

  • there is a lack of industrial manufacturing;
  • 35% of under 25’s have no job and many are leaving and perhaps most seriously;
  • there is a cadre of middle managers aged 45-60 who are in entrenched positions across the government and block ideas and the career prospects of others and;
  • there is a complete lack of trust in the political parties and politicians and a general view that the increased taxation is choking growth.

in summary:

Portugal will pull through, of that I’ve no doubt.  There are signs of recovery and despite the national mood (which a good performance by the national team at the World Cup will lift) this period of readjustment was probably needed.

Habits are changing, as an illustration the biggest growth market appears to be in building and running residential homes for the elderly something that surprised me.

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

Building Bridges: SDC Story Guide

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.