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.

“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?