Next month marks my tenth year as an independent consultant.  How time flies when you’re, well, learning to fly…


As I look back over those years, and the privilege of working with 120 different organisations, there are many high spots (as well the odd moment I’d prefer to forget!).  One particular type of activity stands out as my favourite, running a knowledge-sharing and learning consortium.

Let me explain how they work, and why they are so effective.

They typically start with a conversation initiated by a client which goes something like this…

“We keep going to conferences and feel like we’re hearing from the usual suspects, and seeing the same glossy presentations, but not learning anything new.   Could you find us a number of peer organisations to learn from and with – and facilitate a number of high-intensity meetings for us?”

And in a nutshell, that’s what a knowledge-sharing consortium is: a limited series of meetings between different organisations at similar levels of maturity with a commitment to openly share and learn. You could say that it’s the perfect blend of a Community of Practice and a Peer Assist, with a brilliant mix of non-competing organisations.

I have co-facilitated my consortium programmes with my good friend and consultant colleague Elizabeth Lank. It takes the energy and abilities of two facilitators to help 25 participants get the maximum benefit from their investment. You need to give it everything you’ve got. I know that both Elizabeth and I end each event with that feeling of “positive-tiredness” that comes after the last member has departed happy and the celebratory G&T has been poured, to help with our After Action Review.

So thank you to Schlumberger, Shell, BT, Unilever, GSK, Freshfields, Oracle, ABN Amro, Syngenta,  Pfizer, PwC, Freshfields, NHS, Audit Commission, the International Olympic Committee and others – thank you for making those events so memorable and enjoyable.

Here are my reflections…

Lessons, recommendations and design principles for a knowledge-sharing consortium.

  • Forming a consortium works best when there is a founding organization – a client with a need and a curiosity and desire to learn. Recruiting and inviting other participating companies is so much easier when you can say, for example, “Schlumberger are looking to learn from some other great knowledge companies about maximising the value from Communities of Practice. Would you be interested in joining us?”
  • We found that 4-8 member organisations worked best. Any less than 4 and members feel that they are exhausting the possibilities for learning. If you go much higher then 8 and it becomes too difficult to sustain relationships or remember what was discussed – you end up with something more like a conference.
  • Ask for 2-4 participants per company. This enables them to provide members from complimentary functions in their own organisations, and gives a critical mass for company break-out moments when they create space and time to consider “what will we do with all the good practice ideas that we’re picking up?. It also enables them to share their own story from multiple perspectives.
  • The series of meetings (usually 3 or 4 over a 12 month period) is deliberately time-bound, with a clear end in mind. This gives a focus and a helpful sense of urgency to extract the maximum value from every hour of each event.
  • Invest in forming relationships right from the start. Ensure each event has an over-night stay in a pleasant venue, great food and drink, space for informal conversations. Ensure that people have bios or social media profiles available, and include early ice-breaker events which make use of this information and get the group laughing together.
  • Ensure that there are sessions where participating organisations tell their story (as creatively as they like – you might chose to ban PowerPoint from some sessions). Balance this time evenly between telling and asking questions. Do everything you can to make it unlike a conference!
  • Solve real problems brought by the participants, as early as the first meeting. This sets the tone not just for subsequent face-to-face meetings, but creates the expectation and openness to request and respond.
  • Have fun together! We’ve incorporated treasure hunts, photo-safaris, museum trips, role-play, board games, playlists and karaoke into the designs in order to create memories, bind the group together, and, well enjoy having fun!
  • Make full use of artifacts. If every picture tells a story, then physical objects can write a book. We’ve curated displays of awards, posters, t-shirts, stress balls, card games, mugs, books, calendars and quizzes and explored their effectiveness at length. It’s been brilliant to see some consensual stealing-with-pride going on between the members.
  • Stay flexible. The best-planned agenda needs to be sacrificed if the group collectively choose to go somewhere else. We’ve learned to build in flexibility and use methods like Openspace to keep the power of choice firmly in the hands of the participants.
  • Vary the methods, techniques and tools – and debrief their use with the participants. We have found that our participants have really valued the use of new techniques. We’ve introduced reverse brainstorming, appreciative inquiry, project retrospects, social reporting, knowledge asset creation, social network mapping, speed-consulting, peer assists – and some experimental techniques which evolve on the day. Every time we use a technique, we review the outcome and the process and encourage reflection in company teams on how they can be adapted for use.
  • Focus facilitation on the process rather than the content.  Elizabeth and I are both frequently called upon to speak as experts on knowledge management and collaboration, but in a room with 25 experienced practitioners, our focus is usually on helping them to learn from each other – and just interjecting with the occasional story or 10 minute context-setting session.
  • Keep the discussion going between events. We’ve successfully used Google Sites, teleconferences, vlogging, individual telephone calls and even good old email to keep the party going between face-to-face events, and to build anticipation for the next meeting.


Stop press!  We’ve had an approach from a large international company who want to participate in a consortium focusing on effective collaboration, virtual working and network/community building, and we have just started the search for suitable consortium members.

So if this an area that your organisation has experience with, and you’re particularly interest in joining with some peer organisations to learn more, then please contact me for details.  I can guarantee it’s even better than raindrops on roses…

The start of a new year is a good time to look back over the previous 12 months and reflect on some highlights – so here are the first five of my ten favourite moments of Knowledge Management Consulting from 2014 – in no particular order – I loved them all!

If you ever wondered what I get up to as a KM consultant, it will give you some insights…

1. A whirlwind trip to Iran.  After a number of virtual presentations via Sharif University, I made my first trip to Iran, visiting Tehran and then flying to the beautiful, ancient city of Isfahan. What an amazing appetite for knowledge!  After presenting at the Iran MAKE awards ceremony, I ran (see what I did there?)  a number of simultaneously translated workshops for large audiences who had huge interest and no end of questions.  My host from Sharif had to spirit me away to another room during the coffee times so that I had a chance to draw breath.  Here’s a shot of some of some participants conducting the Marshmallow Tower exercise to apply the fundamentals of KM.


2. Ethiopia with the UN.  I have had the privilege of working with the United Nation System Staff college for several years now, and visited Addis Ababa twice last year to facilitate workshops on KM and Appreciative Inquiry with the Economic Commission for Africa. We discussed networking, and learning in depth, and worked up a 10-year vision for KM in the region. The photo below was a fun physical network analysis which brought a smile to everyone’s faces!


3. Google Glass for Knowledge Capture.  I worked with a major Pharmaceutical company on their KM strategy  and had the opportunity to visit their R&D facility on the east coast of the US to explore the connection between KM and Innovation, and encountered the use of Google Glass to capture and really understand the actions of development scientists.  I had my first chance to play with them. Not exactly Raybans, but I still felt kind of cool.


4. Teaching KM for Programme Managers At Skolkovo Business School, Moscow.  I have been part of the faculty at Skolkovo for two years now, and have enjoyed several trips to deliver modules on corporate leadership development programmes.  The business school was only build in 2005.  As you can see, it’s one of Moscow’s more innovative buildings.


5. The KDP Consortium visit to the Olympic Museum.   If I had to choose a favourite assignment, I guess it would be the work I did with Elizabeth Lank facilitating the “Knowledge Driven Performance Consortium” programme for 20 KM leaders and champions from  six different organisations. We met three times over a year to share experiences and learn lessons from a set of mature KM programmes. It was lovely to meet up again with old friends from MAKE winners Schlumberger and Syngenta, and to see the experience shared both ways with new clients like the IOC who hosted our meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland and gave us a private tour of their brilliant Olympic Museum. It’s a brilliant example of a knowledge asset which you can walk through and interact with.


So there are my first five highlights; five more to follow later this week.

What a privilege to have a job which enables me to see so much of the world, and support such a diverse group of clients. I’m counting my blessings.

One of the common constructs used to ‘frame’ knowledge management activities is that of Collect or Connect.

Collect is often thought of to refer to the KM activities closest to document management and information management. It invokes thoughts of ubiquitous SharePoint, intranets, portals, knowledge assets, content, FAQs, wikis, folksonomies and taxonomies.

Connect takes us into the areas of networks, communities, social networking, expertise profiling, knowledge jams, cafes, conversations and randomised coffee trials.


There’s nothing wrong with either of these domains – any more than there is anything wrong with a bookstore or a coffee shop. But just as there’s more to our high streets than libraries and coffee shops (mind you, there are an awful lot of coffee shops) – there more to KM than collect-and-connect.

So what happens when you put the coffee shop inside the bookstore, then invite an author to sign copies and discuss ideas for new books? That’s one way for new knowledge to be created.


We also create knowledge when we learn from experience, combine and distil existing knowledge, make sense from patterns, collaborate, develop and build upon each others’ ideas. None of this is new, but I’m still surprised at how many organisations build a KM strategy which seems to be entirely fulfilled through SharePoint.  What a lack of ambition!


I ran a workshop last week with a group of programme directors from different organisations who are in trust-building stages of forming a community of practice.  They had already created a self-assessment tool to provide them with a common language – and identified a number of topics within their overall discipline.
We found it very productive to run a group table conversation for each topic along the lines of:

  • “What knowledge can we collect – what can we each bring to the table?”
  • “Which sub-topics and specific questions can we connect together to discuss, where a conversation is more appropriate than formal information sharing?”
  • “What are the areas and challenges where we could collaborate and create new knowledge (products, guides, recommendations, processes) together?”

One hour later we had over 100 pointers to the best content, offers to share documents, a whole selection of informal and formal discussion areas, ad-hoc offers and requests – and a set of new potential collaboration projects to learn together, share experience, create new knowledge-based products and challenge conventional ways of working.
Now that’s likely to energise this community even more than any double espresso!

It’s only in the last few years that I’ve come to appreciate(!) the connections between my world of KM and organizational learning, and the  philosophical mindset which underpins Appreciative Inquiry.

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) pre-dates Knowledge Management. It has been around in its current recognised form since the mid 80s, and was first published as a discipline in 1987 when David Cooperrider  and Suresh Srivastva wrote their seminal paper for Research in Organisational Change and Development.


The video below sums it up nicely when he describes the conventional approach to improvement as viewing the organisation a “problem to be solved” –and how over time, a problem-resolution mindset can sap energy, goodwill and enthusiasm from the workforce.

I’ve heard accusations made that AI is somehow ‘dangerous’ because it artificially views the world through rose-tinted spectacles. My response?

Who are we to say that the lesson-learning, problem-discussing, improvement orientation which strongly influences us doesn’t come with its own pair of KM-branded Reactolite-tinted glasses?

Perhaps we just don’t realise that we’re wearing them (and perhaps that’s why some are so quick to look for the danger in other techniques!).  Our default perspective is not necessarily neutral and perfectly balanced, and it’s good to take a look our favourite tools and techniques and ask ourselves whether they reinforce a deficit view of the firm.

Having facilitated a number of KM-related workshops using an AI, I can vouch for the positive engagement power of the approach.  It’s still rooted in the reality of what we can learn from our own practice, but the conscious focus on what does it look like when we’re at our best gives a different kind of energy to the group, and expands their vision as to what is possible.

The four steps of an Appreciative Inquiry “4D” Summit are surprisingly simple:

1. Discover. (Inquire into what works.)

This is a filtered process of reflection and storytelling to set the context for what is possible, building a “positive core” from the sharing of stories.

  • 2. Dream. (Imagine how good it could be.)

This is a creative vision-building step – constructed by amplifying the reality of the examples from the discovery step. The photo to the left  is from a UN KM and AI workshop in Addis Ababa , showing the positive core, and an engaged group creating their dream, stimulated with some inspirational photos of Africa.

3. Design. (Agree how good it should be.)

This is a prioritisation process, finding ways to connect the colourful hot-air balloon of a long-term vision to the ground with some actionable propositions.

4. Destiny. (Commit to what will be.)

Identify specific actions and start to plan for success.

An approach which combines Reflection, Storytelling, Visioning, Prioritisation and Action and generates positive energy for change? Why would I not want to employ that?

So if you’re a knowledge professional who hasn’t considered or explored Appreciative Inquiry, let me commend it to you as a valuable mindset to integrate into your KM toolkit.

Or to put it another way, provided we understand the perspectives and mindsets which can lie behind the techniques we recommend – then we can help our client organisations to maintain a nutritionally balanced diet of savoury lesson-learning, palate-cleansingly neutral sensemaking and sweet appreciative inquiry.

What’s not to like?

I’ve been thinking recently about the role of sponsorship in enabling knowledge management, and it took me back to some Change Management principles which I learned from ChangeFirst, when I was responsible for Change Management as well as Knowledge Management at Centrica.
The ChangeFirst model was based on Darryl Connor’s “Managing at the speed of change“, but also had much in  common with the work of John Kotter.  Both excellent reads with similar roots.

Depending on your KM strategy, sponsorship is always important and often absolutely critical to the success of a knowledge change programme – and let’s face it, most of our work as practitioners is all about creating change and making it stick.  So here’s what I learned from my various Change Management gurus about the ten characteristics of effective sponsors.


Think about the leaders who sponsors your KM activities as you read then through – or use it as a checklist to help you select the ideal candidate, if you’re still looking…

1. Dissatisfaction.  You want your Sponsor to be agitated about the current state of knowledge sharing in your organisation.  They need to be frustrated at the loss of value, the inefficiency, the corporate stupidity, the missed innovations and the embarrassment of re-invention or repetition.  A sponsor who thinks “everything is generally OK, and this KM stuff – well, it’s just the icing on the cake!”  is going to struggle to defend or promote your work with any authenticity.
If they’re not already sufficiently fired up, then you might want to find some provocative horror stories to spark things along.

2. Making resources available.  It’s an obvious one – but there’s little point in firing up a sponsor who lacks the wherewithal to help you take action.    If they don’t have the budget or resource available themselves, can they help you through their contacts and relationships?

3. Understand the impact on people.  Particularly true of Knowledge Management sponsors, because KM is fundamentally a people-based approach.  How would you rate your sponsor’s emotional intelligence (or perhaps his PQ Passion Quotient or her CQ Curiosity Quotient)?
You will need to be able to engage them in discussions about the culture of the organisation and the behaviours of leaders. If that’s an uncomfortable area for them, then keep looking!

4. Public Support.  Bit of a no-brainer, but naturally you will want a sponsor who is willing and able to speak on behalf of your ‘programme’ at every opportunity.  You may well need to equip them with an ‘elevator speech’ and some compelling success stories – and remind them of their dissatisfaction.

5. Private Support.  Ah yes.  The authenticity test.  Will your sponsor speak with the same level of passion and heartfelt credibility in a private conversation with their peers – or is it just a mask they wear when they’re wheeled out to make positive speeches.  You need a believer!

6. Good Networkers.   Perhaps this should be at the top.  Your sponsor need to be adept at spanning boundaries, spotting synergies and sneaking around the back door of silos.  Their network needs to become your network.

7. Tracking performance.  This is one of the acid tests of interest and commitment.  Is sponsorship of your activity something which is on their agenda, or are you just a medal that they wear to special occasions?  Agree what good looks like, agree the immediate steps and agree on the indicators and measures you need to focus on.
Get that meeting in their diary at least quarterly.  If they’re dashboard-oriented, then build one for them, but remember Einstein‘s classic quote:  “Not everything that can be counted  counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

8. Reinforcement when needed.  Sometimes you might need to ‘send for reinforcements’, so select a sponsor who is willing to challenge, knock heads together, unblock the corporate drains and generally provide you with air cover when you want it. You need a fighter as well as a lover.

9. Focus on the future.  Ensure that your sponsor gets the big picture – and can communicate it compellingly.  What is their personal vision for the organisation five years from now?  Does it match yours? Does it line up with your KM strategy and plan.  If they have a tendency to get lost in the details of performance targets, then make sure that some of your measures are long term.  You don’t really want them fussing over how many documents were uploaded into a SharePoint folder this week when there’s a demographic knowledge-leaving-the-organisation bubble which threatens to burst 3 years from now.  Help them to lift their heads up – and ask them to lift yours too.

10. Behavioural modelling.  Your sponsor needs to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk. When you champion knowledge sharing, you lay yourself open to accusations of hypocrisy much more than if you were the sponsor of systems implementation programme.  It’s behavioural.  It’s relational.   And people notice.
You might want to equip them with some simple questions to ask others which help them nail their colours to the mast.  Syngenta are good at this, and put a number of “leading questions” on a pocket card to help all of their senior champions to verbalise their commitment:

“Who could you share this with?”  “Who did you learn from?” “Who might have done this before?” “Who could you ask for help and advice?”

University College Hospital’s After Action Review behavioural programme has taken training to the very top of the hospital tree to ensure that anyone is equipped (and expected) to facilitate an AAR. Would your Sponsor know how to lead a simple period of team reflection?  It would certainly increase their impact if you could help them to become the “knowledge conscience” in the boardroom…

So how does your sponsor measure up?  If you can nod gratefully to most of the above as you read it, then you’ve not only probably found yourself a Myers Briggs ENFJ, but you’re also in for a more effective and enjoyable time than Dilbert ever had!

I’ve been looking back on the highlights of the past year, and previous years, and it’s got me reflecting on the power of making KM engaging, fun and tangible in some way.

Back in 2010, I wrote about KM Top Trumps, and how I used them with a group of business improvement professionals to help them get to grips with the breadth of KM tools and techniques available.  I still use these today with groups.

Two happy memories from the past year:

Social Network Mapping with the UN in Ethiopia. 

For several years now I have worked with the United Nations System Staff College on a KM leadership programme.  This year saw me out in Ethiopia working with representatives from across the continent.  Communities, Networks and Networking featured heavily in one particular module, and having contrasted the sharing and networking habits of birds, bees and sheep, we engaged in a practical Network Analysis exercise which brought the room to its feet, and put smile on every face.

Each participant was given 5 coloured ribbons and asked to give one end to another colleague – the different colours indicated different relationships:  for example: – Who have you known the longest?  Who would you ask for technical advice? Who would you share an innovative idea with first?


Energy levels rose instantly, accompanied by smiles and laughter.

Once each ribbon had been shared, the group carefully lowered them to the floor and stepped out of the web, replacing themselves with their placenames from the tables.

As a group, we could then stand around the pattern and discuss what it told us about the relationships, collaboration and knowledge flow.

Snakes and Leaders – a creative way to explore the first 100 days of a community of practice.

Syngenta have been a client for a number of years now, and have been looking for new ways to up-skill the core teams of their networks, especially in the early stages of growth.

We worked together to document the ups and downs of network development during the first critical 100 days, and created a familiar-yet-different board game which embedded these critical moments, with one or two additional twists and turns. Creating the game together, and tailoring the rules for different parts of the business caused us to think critically about the non-negotiables and key principles of networks; probably one of the most enjoyable codification exercises I’ve been involved with. Thank you Syngenta!


I’m looking forward to hearing how the game has gone down (or up!) this year.


(I know that technically it’s a bit early for this but here goes anyway…)

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Twelve knowledge assets

Eleven open questions

Ten strategies

Nine knowledge cafes

Eight AARs

Seven deadly syndromes

Six social networks

Five lessons learned

Four knowledge jams

Three anecdotes

Two peer assists

And a tweet from the APQC

Click here to sing along from the start!

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