Sometimes you can’t make it on your own.  One of my favourite U2 tracks.  Now I can’t stop humming it!

Sometimes it takes an impossible challenge to get people to share and collaborate, as this fun video from Coca Cola shows.  Coke put a double-size vending machine into a site in the Philippines, which yielded two bottles for the price of one.  The only snag was that you had to find a friend to help you reach the coin slot.  So you win together by collaborating, or you both walk away with nothing.

Nicely done, Coca Cola!

Way back in the 90’s in my BP days,  CEO, Lord Browne had decentralised the business and created a “federation of assets” with a clear focus on performance.  This was a step forward, but not quite as big a step as it might have been, because with that focus on performance came a strong sense of independence – even to the point of competition.
Here’s a way to visualise this using Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model.

flow 1

Browne did a lot to support peer structures and networking which was well documented, but his initial response to was to increase the levels of challenge further, whilst keeping the resources constant. This raised the levels of performance required such that working harder was no longer a solution.  Business unit leaders would do anything to hit their performance targets – even collaborate!  And collaborate was exactly what they did: sharing knowledge, resources, people, contracts, and effectively enlarging the area of “flow”.


This happened because collaboration became the only option, and competition was going to be as fruitful as two people fighting at the foot of a giant coke machine!

All of which leads me to wonder whether an age of austerity isn’t a good thing for knowledge management after all?

My youngest daughter is going the see “The Croods”  today – it’s the latest DreamWorks production, this time about a prehistoric family about to “leave the cave”.

I”m secretly jealous that I’m not going too, but I’d stick out like a sore thumb among her group of friends.

The trailers look so good that I’ll definitely have to go one way or another – or leave it for the next long-haul flight.
This one in particular is brilliant. It has a lot to say about knowledge, learning, innovation,  improvement and change management – not to mention the reaction of teen-aged girls!

See if you can spot the following – all in 51 seconds:

    • Initial problem with someone feeling the pain,
    • Repeated failure to listen, repeated pain,
    • Failure of conventional wisdom and leadership,
    • Recognition of the need for alternative perspective,
    • Innovation and learning from analogues,
    • Experimentation and adaptation,
    • A trumpeted and hyped solution,
    • Disproportionate excitement followed by immediate sense of loss!

Now, does any of that look familiar in your organisation?

Have you heard the story of Billy Ray Harris?  It’s a heart-warming one.

Credit: KCTV5Billy Ray is a homeless Kansas man who received an unexpected donation when passer-by Sarah Darling accidentally put her engagement ring into his collecting cup.  Despite being offered $4000 for the ring by a jeweller, he kept the ring, and returned it to her when, panic-stricken, she came back the following day.  Sarah gave him all the cash she had in her purse as a reward, and as they told their good-luck story to friends – who then told their friends –  her finance decided to put up a website to collect donations for Billy Ray.  So far, $151,000 have been donated as the story has gone viral around the world.  Billy Ray plans to use the money to move to Houston to be near his family.  You can see the whole story here.

On closer inspection, it turns out that this wasn’t the first ring that Billy had returned to its owner.  A few years previously, he found a  Super Bowl ring belonging to a football player and walked to the his hotel to return it.  The football player rewarded him financially, and gave him three nights at that luxury hotel.   So the pattern was already established for Billy Ray, who also attributes it to his upbringing as the grandson of a reverend.

Whether you see this story as an illustration of grace, karma or good-old-fashioned human nature,  it illustrates the principle of reciprocity.  

Reciprocity is an important principle for knowledge management, and one which underpins the idea of Offers and Requests. 
Offers and Requests was a simple approach, introduced to make it easier for Operations Engineers at BP to ask for help, and to share good practice with their peers.  The idea was for each business unit to self-assess their level of operational excellence using a maturity model, and identify their relative strengths and weaknesses.   In order to overcome barriers like “tall poppy syndrome”, or a reluctance to ask for help (“real men don’t ask directions”), a process was  put in place whereby every business unit would be asked to offer three areas which they felt proud of, and three areas which they wanted help with.  The resulting marketplace for matching offers and requests was successful because:

i) The principle of offering a strength at the same time as requesting help  was non-threatening and reciprocal – it was implicitly fair.

ii) The fact that every business unit was making their offers and requests at the same time meant that it felt like a balanced and safe process.


Like Billy Ray, one positive experience of giving and receiving led to another, and ultimately to a Operations community.  A community website for offers and requests underpinned the process, enabling social connections and discussions.

This is played out in the Kansas story, where the addition of technology and social connections created disproportionate value – currently $151,000 of it. 

In the words of Billy Ray, “What is the world coming to when a person returns something that doesn’t belong to him and all this happens?”

Geoff Parcell pointed me in the direction of this brilliant RSA Animate video, featuring renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist.  There is so much in this 11 minutes that you’ll want to watch it two or three times to take it in, and a fourth, with the pause button to appreciate all of the humour in the artwork.  Just superb.  Do watch it.

It got me thinking again about parallels between how the brain manages knowledge and how organisations manage knowledge.
Ian debunks a lot of myths about the separate functions of left and right hemispheres and emphasizes the fact that for either imagination or reason, you need to use both in combination.

  • Left hemisphere – narrow, sharply focused attention to detail, depth, isolated, abstract, symbolic, self-consistent
  • Right hemisphere – sustained, broad, open, vigilant, alertness, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate.

We share some (but not all) of these left/right distinctions with animals. However, as humans, we uniquely have frontal lobes.

  • Frontal lobes – to stand back in time and space from the immediacy of experience (empathy and reflection)

I think a holistic approach to knowledge management which mirrors the brain will pay attention to breadth, depth, living connections and reflection. This has implications for the way we structure and navigate codified knowledge – moving between context and detail, abstract to interconnected – and also reinforces the relationship between KM and organisational learning (the frontal lobe bit).

I believe that an effective knowledge management strategy will creatively combine each of these components in a way which is balanced to the current and future needs of the business.

In a way, a lot of first generation KM was left-brain oriented.  Second and third generation KM have combined the learning elements of the frontal lobes with the living, inteconnected right brain.  That doesn’t mean that first generation KM is no longer relevant – I would assert that the power is in the combination of all three – see this earlier posting on KM, Scientology and Top Trumps!

It’s probably the last minute which is the most challenging.  Does your KM strategy,  led self-consistently by the left hemisphere,  imprison your organisation in  a hall of mirrors where it reflects back into more of what it knows about what it knows about what it knows?

The animation closes with Einstein’s brilliantly prescient statement:

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift. The rational mind is a faithful servant. We live in a society which honours the servant, but has forgotten the gift.”


There was a helpful thread in the sikm-leaders forum last week when someone asked for ten responses to complete the statement “You know knowledge is being effectively managed when…”

I thought it was a really practical way to explore how it feels, and looks – how people behave, when KM is really working.   Here are my ten suggestions:

You know knowledge is being effectively managed when…

Leadership. Leaders in the organisation are role models, challenging people to ask for help, seek out, share and apply good practices this inspires curiosity and a commitment to improve.  The organisation is learning!

Learning. People instinctively seek to learn before doing.  Lessons from successes and failures are drawn out in an effective manner and shared openly with others who are genuinely eager to learn, apply and improve. Lessons lead to actions and improvement.

Networking. People are actively networking, seamlessly using formal communities and informal social networks to get help, share solutions, lessons and good practices. The boundaries between internal and external networks are blurred and all employees understand the benefits and take personal responsibility for managing the risks.

Navigation. There are no unnecessary barriers to information, which is shared by default and restricted only where necessary. Information management tools and protocols are intuitive, simple and well understood by everybody.  This results in a navigable, searchable, intelligently tagged and appropriately classified asset for the whole organisation, with secure access for trusted partners.

Collaboration. People have the desire and capability to use work collaboratively, using a variety of technology tools with confidence.  Collaboration is a natural act, whether spontaneous or scheduled.  People work with an awareness of their colleagues and use on-line tools as instinctively as the telephone to increase their productivity.

Consolidation. People know which knowledge is strategically important, and treat it as an asset.  Relevant lessons are drawn from the experience of many, and consolidated into guidelines. These are brought to life with stories and narrative, useful documents and templates and links to individuals with experience and expertise. These living “knowledge assets” are refreshed and updated regularly by a community of practitioners.

Social Media. Everybody understands how to get the best from the available tools and channels. Social media is just part of business as usual; people have stopped making a distinction. Serendipity, authenticity and customer intimacy are increasing.  People are no longer tentative and are encouraged to innovate and experiment. The old dogs are learning new tricks!  Policies are supportive and constantly evolving, keeping pace with innovation in the industry.

Storytelling. Stories are told, stories are listened to, stories are re-told and experience is shared. People know how to use the influencing power of storytelling.  Narrative is valued, captured, analysed and used to identify emergent patterns which inform future strategy.

Environment. The physical workplace reflects a culture of openness and collaboration.  Everyone feels part of what’s going on in the office.  Informal and formal meetings are easily arranged without space constraints and technology is always on hand to enhance productivity and involve participants who can be there in person.

Embedding. Knowledge management is fully embedded in people management and development, influencing recruitment and selection. Knowledge-sharing behaviours are built-into induction programmes and are evident in corporate values and individual competencies.  Knowledge transfer is part of the strategic agenda for HR. The risks of knowledge loss are addressed proactively. Knowledge salvage efforts during hurried exit interviews are a thing of the past!

Now your top ten will probably be different to mine (although you’re very welcome to borrow and adapt them).
This kind of approach encourages us to look well beyond the technology which often disproportionately demands our attention.

Taken from the Consulting Collison Column in an upcoming edition of Inside Knowledge

I can’t believe how long it’s been since the last blog. When you wait this long, you feel as though you need to post something profound to account for the radio silence!

This isn’t particularly profound, but it was a lot of fun.
I had the privilege to visit Google’s European HQ in Zurich last week, known by the local as Zoogle. I’d heard a lot about how creative the office environments were, but I was still unprepared for what I experienced in Zurich. The full-sized pool table and multi-coloured soft furnishings in the reception were a shadow of what was to come. Firstly I was greeted by a spiral metal slide (similar to the huge ones exhibited by Carsten Holler in the Tate Modern last year) , used by Googlites as an alternative to the lifts. Then came the coffee bar, which was actually the PC repair zone. “Oh yes”, said my friend – “If we have a problem with our laptops, we just bring them here for a new one, and have a latte whilst we’re waiting”. Nothing gets in the way of creativity and productivity. Needless to say, the Latte –and all of the food and drink – is free. Oh, and if you’re too old for the metal slide, there’s always the fireman’s pole!

Passing a room full of Wiis and other major game consoles, with Googlites playing RockStar, we went upstairs to what almost looked like a normal office environment with meeting rooms. Except that the meeting rooms were stranded cable cars (ski gondolas)! Only in Zurich! My friend assured me that it can get a little warm, so meetings tend to be to-the-point. A number of other creatively shaped meeting room igloos and egg meeting pods which would be the envy of any self-respecting Tellytubby also greeted me, but I was still carried away by the cable cars.

Picture courtesy of Andrew Archy

Picture courtesy of Andrew Archy


Up to the next floor, I was taken through hanging silk threads into the quiet “water lounge”. As my eyes adjusted to the bluey darkness, I took in the exotically populated long marine aquariums, and a row of reclining chairs facing them, interspersed with the odd Victorian bathtub, filled with pink sponge cubes.

The top floor, which I didn’t get to see on my short visit, apparently has an antique-looking library with leather chesterfield chairs… Next time perhaps?

I couldn’t help but ask my friend whether Google ever employs consultants. “Why would we do that?” he responded. “That would be too traditional for us – it just wouldn’t be Google”.

Despite my love of independent consultancy, I had to admit – corporate monogamy rarely looked this good…

***Update!  Video posted on BBC website:

Fear no mistakes.  There are none.  Miles Davis.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a stimulating day at the Henley KM Forum, exploring the use of metaphors in business, and particularly in relation to knowledge management.

We were assisted by Sergej van Middendorp and his gifted team of musicians from JazzinBusiness, who led us through the day, introducing a number principles for Jazz improvisation which the forum delegates discussed in a number of World Cafe sessions.

We looked at the power of minimal structures in the music, and of “taking turns” – how the musicians sense and make space for each other, giving each instrument the chance to solo perform as well as to support; – to lead and change direction as appropriate. 

Provocative Competence– where jazz musicians deliberately move to the edge of their comfort zones in order to generate something genuinely new.  As Sergej says on his blog, Once you feel comfortable with something you are not learning and growing, because learning and growing ‘hurts’. Jazz musicians try to get out of their comfort zone on every occasion.

The group at Henley provoked their competence by asking them to play “Summertime” in a variety of genres and time signatures, including “Reggae”, “Mozart” and “Waltz.

.Embracing Errors as a source of learning – Jazz Pianist Folkert Oostingshowed us how “forced, unforced errors” could be transformed in to completely new directions.  There was seemingly no dischord that he couldn’t repurpose into a new musical direction.  Whilst technical professionalism in Jazz is key, the use of “off-key” errors can drive learning (when we pause to reflect) and innovation (when we pause to reflect and think).

Jazz improvisation is marked by a restless adventurousness, an eagerness to travel into unexplored territory. There are hazards, risks, gambles, chances, speculation, doubts. Jazz is an expressive art form that encourages players to explore the edge of the unknown and if improvisation legitimizes risk taking, it is inevitable that there will be discrepancies, miscues, and ‘mistakes’. Jazz musicians often turn these unexpected moments into something sensible, or perhaps even innovative. Errors are often integrated into the musical landscape, an occasion for further exploration that might just lead to new pathways that otherwise might not have been possible. Herbie Hancock recalls that Miles Davis heard him play a wrong chord, but simply played his solo around the ‘wrong’ notes so that they sounded correct, intentional and sensible in retrospect. Jazz musicians assume that ‘you can take any bad situation and make it into a good situation. It’s what you do with the notes that counts’ (Barrett and Peplowski, 1998: 559). 

Retrospective Sensemaking– because you can’t fully plan ahead in Jazz.  The groove develops through a series of questions and responses, led by a particular instrument, or somehow by the music itself.
Sergej and bassist Paul Berner challenged us around our listening – do we listen deeply enough to what’s going on around us in business, so that we can respond with the next question or answer?  Or do we push through with a predetermined outcome and a set of well-rehearsed responses?   Sergej explores this with some excellent questions on his blog.

We  had some fun with the trio, asking them to play “blind” to test whether they use visual or auditory cues to keep in their “dynamic synchronisity”.  They believed that they sensed by purely “listening” for direction, but when we placed screens between them, we all sensed that the output was less adventurous.  Perhaps we need the reassurance of a multiple senses to feel comfortable taking risks?

Some messages there for anyone who has tried to incorporate innovation into a virtual meeting.

Richard Potter – one of the Henley regulars, provoked the Jazz trio to improvise a piece of music which was precisely 67 bars long, and they genuinely struggled with this, spending longer planning how they might do this than actually performing and then (to our secret delight) failing the task! 

How often do we play the game of deadlines (year-ends, budget cycles, performance appraisals) and miss the opportunity to create something spectacular because we feel that we “have to” restrict ourselves and ultimately deliver something mundane?  Are we slaves to the 52 week score of the business cycle, or do we have the freedom to play by ear, and “create a new groove”?


Martin Cito's piano from Flickr

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