Professors of Knowledge Networking

I hadn’t heard of this before but BBC Radio 4 the other day had a fascinating interview with Julia Hobsbawm, who last December was appointed the first ‘Professor of Networking’, certainly in the UK and possibly the world. This is at Cass Business School, which already has an active programme of research into KM.

Julia’s approach to networking is one I have expounded over the years. That is, it is about being natural, interested in other people and actually getting to meet people face-to-face. Even today in my voluntary work in retirement which is to help managers who have lost their job get back into the workplace, there is sometimes a pre-conception that networking for a job is all about LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a great tool – to help you make connections. But real networking is where you have interesting conversations and exchange information and knowledge, perhaps online via Skype if you are separated by geography, but ideally face-to-face.

Julia’s website talks about her business as a ‘concierge knowledge club’ for professionals needing to keep up with knowledge and networks in these overloaded times. She asserts that business networking is an important skill in today’s knowledge economy, and one that is now being taken more seriously.

She actually uses the phrase ‘knowledge networking’, the title of my 1999 book. Even before that, my research into successful knowledge managers highlighted the importance of their ability to communicate and network at all levels in the business, and especially laterally across departments and between organisations.

In one sense, there is not a lot new in this topic, but it is great to see a renewed interest and higher profile for this important topic.

Now Julia may be the first professor of networking. In 1997 Paul Quintas became the first professor of knowledge management (at the Open University). So how long before we get the world’s first ‘professor of knowledge networking’. Perhaps there is already one (or several?), and I don’t know about it, because I have not kept my knowledge networking skills up to date!

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Banish Emails: I Think Not!

OK – I’m a bit behind on my reading, but the news (rediscovered in November last year by the mainstream media, and followed up in Time Magazine this April) that consulting company Atos is banning internal emails is not a new strategy. However I doubt it is a valid one. Perhaps the best thing in its favour is that it does alert employees as to whether they really need to send an email in the first place.

Thierry Breton (Atos’s boss) describes the “deluge of information” as one of the most important problems facing companies. His ‘zero email’ by 2014 strategy is an attempt to get staff to use social media like Facebook and Twitter instead. Back in 2003 (even before social media became prevalent) UK phone provider Phones4U banned email, since “email proliferation” was “insidiously invading” the company and causing problems of inefficiencies.

We all know the time and cost associated with employees processing emails (some estimates are as high as 20 hours a week), but that’s no reason to ban them completely. In my early days of researching knowledge management effectiveness (1996-7), I was struck by two things:

1. That one management consultancy was encouraging the use of Lotus Notes discussion groups as an alternative to email – that way you don’t get content pushed at you. You pull it, as and when you need it.

2. That in a third of all business communications, a poor choice of media was used. After all you wouldn’t fire staff through text messaging would you (OK – it has been done but that is really bad practice).

So the crux of the matter is “horses for courses”. We all revert to technologies and media that we are comfortable with rather than pausing to think:

  • What is the purpose of my communication?
  • For whom is it intended
  • What are the best media / methods (out of perhaps 100 or more options) to achieve my aim?
  • What are the recipient’s preferences?

Since on average a sent email is read by seven people, it behoves the sender to take a bit of time to make it easier for the sender to process the incoming email. There really is no reason to ban email, but simply to use it effectively as one of the tools of your trade. Our recently updated Effective Email Guide – now entitled Best Practices: Email gives some useful tips. Companies should introduce ‘email charters’ and standards, and train their employees, as the primary focus of coping with email overload, alongside training staff as to which media to use for what types of communication.

We don’t hear much about Phones4U ban these days. On the contrary, for potential customers they have an Email Us service to notify people when the phones they are interested in come into stock.

So there are good uses for email after all. Atos – pay attention!

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Gecko Tape and Graphene

A very interesting programme last night on BBC4. In its series Beautiful Minds the subject of the episode was Professor Andre Geim, a Nobel winning physicist (he won the Nobel prize for Physics along with his colleague Konstantin Novoselov in 2011). Being a former physicist myself, and also having lived in Manchester, I was very interested.

Several things he said struck a chord with me, and I give them below with parallel suggestions for KM practitioners:

  • He wasn’t afraid to experiment – sometimes in wierd ways. He dropped water into a powerful magnet and saw that it didn’t fall to the bottom, in response to its diamagnetism. He went further and dropped a frog which he observed levitating and waggling its legs in the magnetic field. For this, he was awarded an Ig Nobel prize in 2000 for improbable research (research that makes you laugh first, and then think). Parallel: try some thinking – and doing – outside of the box (see examples in previous post on ignorance and creativity).
  • He introduced the Friday afternoon club that gave his team time to experiment on whatever they wanted. Parallel: allow your team some time to pursue their ‘pet projects’. 3M was renowned for giving staff 10-15% of their time for such activities. One result was the invention of PostIt Notes.
  • He jumped from field to field and used whatever interesting equipment and things he saw around him. He calls this “grazing shallow” rather than “digging deep”. Parallel: In this day and age it is easy to become ever more specialized and miss the wood for the trees. Try and get to know something about other disciplines and their interplay with KM. Way back in 1990 I did research on the hybrid manager (see The Hybrid Manager – people who were not only IT specialists but who were knowledgeable about business.
  • He is often described as “wacky” and once co-authored a scientific paper with his hamster. Parallel: Try something different and out of the ordinary yourself, ideally with your team. It may open up new horizons!
  • His communications style has made physics less dull and more entertaining for others. In particular he inspires young people to take an interest in science. Parallel: In terms of disseminating knowledge, think “Infotainment” – how can you make your work more interesting to general business managers. I have seen examples of newspapers, comic strips and entertaining videos, but all with a common purpose – to embed learning. After all we tend to remember things better that come to us in interesting ways.

The result of Geim’s work is that he and his colleagues have spawned a whole new industry in graphene – a sheet version of carbon one atom thick which in time will give us really flexible computer keyboards and screens and as hitherto unimagined products. Also in experimental stages are adhesives based on the same principles that allow Geckos to climb up walls.

So now go and make your KM more wacky!

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Ignorance Sometimes Beats Knowledge

Reading a recent article entitled ‘What Science Wants to Know’ in Scientific American (link here), reminded me of some times in the past when knowing too much inhibited action or innovation. The article comments “..knowing a lot is not what makes a scientist. What makes a scientist is ignorance.” On the basis that every question that science answers raises 10 more unanswered questions, it suggests that “ignorance grows faster than knowledge”. It goes on to argue for a high quality of ignorance and reminds us of James Clerk Maxwell’s quote “Thoroughly conscious ignorance … is a prelude to every real advance in knowledge”.

In my own work I have seen that a certain amount of knowledge inihibits the exploration of new ways of doing things. People tend to opt for incremental improvements on the well known. A couple of counter-examples come to mind. One was when I was involved with CAD (Computer-Aided Design) and was looking at flat-bed plotters. The traditional plotter rotated a drum (for one axis) and moved the pen along a horizontal bar for the other. But I came across one made by Ferranti Ltd (an earler British maker of computers) where the pen moved in both x and y axes over a solid heavy slate table. On asking the engineers why this arrangement, I was told that they had a need for a plotter and didn’t have any plotter expertise so started from first principles. The result was a highly accurate and stable plotter, albeit very heavy and not easily movable! The second example was someone I knew, who was new to marketing who needed to find something specific facts about his company’s customers. The so-called marketing ‘experts’ suggested a market research survey. However, he thoughy about other ways he might get the information he wanted, and simply went to the accounts receivables department and checked what amounts customers had paid by cheque (the predmoninant method of payment in the 1970s) and which bank the cheques were drawn on!

The classic marketing example, though, is that of the Sony Walkman. All the marketing research at Sony showed that there was no future in a portable tape player. However, Sony’s founder Akio Morita had observed teenagers walking through Central Park in New York, balancing transistor radios on their shoulders and listening to music. So intuition and observation won out over ‘known facts’ and so the precursor of today’s MP3 players was born.

You’ll find more examples of such ‘ignorant creativity’ in the work of Bob Sutton – see, for example, ‘Harnessing Ignorance to Spark Creativity’.

Let me finish with a note of caution. While ignorance sometimes wins over knowledge, in most situations it is the other way round. So don’t let your ignorance – or knowledge – get the better of you!


P.S. I am getting a few comments on this blog. I am happy to post substantive comments on the topic under discussion, but not general and vague comments (such “use another template” or simply “interesting”), not to mention the inevitable spam. So if you don’t see your comment posted here, you now know why.

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Indigenous Knowledge: Creating a Win-Win Scenario

There was an interesting topic on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme this morning (see Herbal Dental Remedy a Potent Anaesthetic (BBS website). It was about how Francoise Barbira-Freedman, a medical anthropologist at Cambridge University, received treatment for a bad bout of toothache some years ago whilst doing research in the Amazon rainforest. The treatment was from a rare plant whose pain-relieving properties were known to the local tribes. Now some years later, a Cambridge University company plans to use this plant to produce a commercially sold gel.

This topic reminds me of ethical questions that arise about indigenous knowledge from developing countries, that companies in developed countries wish to exploit. There have been examples where Western pharmaceutical companies have conducted ‘bio-prospecting’ with a view to tracking down such tribal remedies and patenting drugs that they develop from them. I wrote about this in Chapter 10 of Knowledge Networking citing an excellent Time Magazine article ‘Dealing in DNA’ by Time McGirk (30 Nov 1998). He wrote “Should a government, company or scientist have a right to claim ownership to the innermost workings of a living organism?”

The debate on who owns what rights continues to this day (see articles in Wikipedia on bio-prospecting, commercializing indigenous knowledge, bio-piracy etc.). The good news is that many governments in developing countires and local communities are actively working to protect their rights and gain licencing agreements with those who want to exploit their knowledge. One interesting initative is that of the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library in India, which has collected knowledge about traditional remedies a) before they get lost; and b) before they get pirated. It now contains over 1 million formulations. More importantly it has reached agreements with several leading patent offices on ways to protect this knowledge from bio-piracy.

You’ll be pleased to know that the Cambridge team (Ampika Limited) have in place an agreement with the relevant Amazon communities to pay royalties which are used to support local projects such as schools and hospitals. The first payment has been made. Ampika’s slogan is “innovative medicine from rainforest plants”. In describing its ethos Ampika’s website says: “Ampika was set up to promote commercial applications based on this knowledge and to return a share of any profits back to Peru to help revitalise and preserve the traditional knowledge and use of plants.”

This is a good example of where both knowledge holders and knowledge users both win.

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Best Practice Still Not Shared

One of the earliest techniques used in knowledge management is that of “sharing best practice”. Yet even today Time Loughton, England’s Minister for Children and Families commenting on adoption procedures is reported by as saying “Everything we need for a perfect adoption system is happening already, but in different parts of the country,” and “lack of sharing” among authorities. “Often I’ll find an excellent initiative happening in one local authority and discover the neighbouring authority has no idea about it. Why is that happening?”

Well, I can suggest four reasons (you can probably suggest others):

  • Knowledge management is not embedded as a core discipline within many local authorities
  • There is a lack of incentive to encourage such sharing with local authorities across the country (though financial pressures are forcing such moves, at least with neighbouring authorities)
  • There may be some disagreement as to what is “good practice” or “best practice”. It behoves every authority to be explicit as to their (measurable) objectives
  • There is always a certain amount of “not invented here” or “we know best” arrogance. While some healthy competition is good, it is only through some form of measurement, benchmarking and benchlearning (probing as to why some authorities are better than others in certain aspects) that such attitudes will change.

Yet in many areas there is good sharing of best practice across authorities. In such cases, it seems that some central co-ordinating body is the driver behind this. For example the initiative of the Food Standards Agency Working with Local Autorities on Safer Food, Better Business. Also management consultants are often a good vehicle for spreading good practice. There is also a thriving Community of Practice for Public Service.

But in the end it comes down to local initiative to take on board and act upon such knowledge. So if something is not going as well in your community as it is elsewhere, then why not get active with like-minded people to drive such change. And don’t be fobbed off with the general excuse of “lack of funds”. In many cases there is little correlation between outcomes and level of funding. There is no excuse for not learning from others on how to implement best practice on your patch.

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Raspberry Pi in the Sky?

That’s what it must feel like right now for the many who want to get their hands on the innovative new low cost teaching computer – the Raspberry Pi – which aims “to put the fun back into teaching computing”, especially for schoolchildren. The initial production run has sold out completely so it will be some time before what The Inquirer calls ‘geeks’ will be able to get their hands (and brains) on them.

But the real story is that the Foundation behind this computer wants to get the teaching of computing away from simply having ‘office’ (add social media, games etc.) and keyboard skills to where it was some 20-30 years ago where you actually had to get inside the box and learn to program. Some may argue that it is unecessary to learn what goes on inside your PC (or Mac) just as a driver does not need to know how a car works. But although everyone doesn’t need the detailed knowledge of a mechanic or engineer, some basic appreciation really helps – especially when dealing with a problem. I personally have found such knowledge (gained on computers like the BBC micro) and early DEC machines (remember the RIM loader on the PDP-7?) useful when talking to technical support people.

So this initiative is to be applauded and will help young people discover some useful ‘black box’ knowledge – a topic I have covered before in more detail in I3 Update No. 32 (Sept 1999). And let’s hope the Pis in the Sky soon come down to earth.

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TRASH Your Emails!

OK – sometimes that how we feel, but as we see later TRASH is an acronym for how to process your emails.

Sorry for the lapse in keeping this blog up to date, but I have been rather busy with client assignments recently. Even though consideration of ECM (enterprise content management) systems is a core topic, everyone understands that this a strategic investment requiring significant investment. However, one topic always comes up as a relatively quick win these days – and that is of email management.

Essentially, if people follow good practice guidelines for email they can improve their personal productivity as well as making the recipients of their email more receptive and productive. It is reckoned that every (non-spam) email send is read by an average of seven people. Therefore, a bit of planning at the front-end by the sender can create efficiencies at the back-end by the recipient. Some experts estimate that good practice throughout an organisation can save each person 30-45 minutes a day in reducing the amount of time spent managing email.

In outline there are five areas to tackle and three prongs of attack:

1. Thinking about what you are trying to communicate and whether email is the best method.

2. Composing your email – there is lots of guidance on this aspect, e.g. on subject headings, structure, clarity

3. Sending your email – targeting it appropriately

4. Processing your incoming emails – this is where you TRASH them. A key point is to batch your processing (don’t be distracted by the little “you have a new email” pop-up). There are really only five things you can do with an incoming email (some people say four as you’ll see below):

T – Trash it – read (or skim) and delete

R – Redirect – forward it to someone else to deal with

A – Act – process it (e.g. reply) there and then

S – Save – for future reference

H – Hold – for processing it in future

(though every email you hold is an email you will have to process twice, so this action is often eliminated).

5. Managing the information – if emails have lasting value, then they should be filed somewhere, either in well organized personal email folder or perhaps in your organization’s ECM system; either way you’ll need a good search tool for efficient retrieval.

The three prongs of attack are:

1. Process and Protocols – having set procedures for handling and filing emails; protocols could for example be team specific e.g. use of subject line, action needed by those cc:ed, how to allocate priorities.

2. Technology – especially the use of rules and filters; for example I don’t have a single inbox but 20 in-folders where my rules pre-sort emails into these folders based on sender and subject contents.

3. Good practice – adopting ways of using emails that suit your preferences and personality, and also that others can expect.

There’s no need to labour these points here. There are plenty of useful sources on the internet. While you are reading this website have a look at our Effective Email Guide that I wrote 10 years ago and which has generally stood the test of time. Here are some additional more recent sources:

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Voting for Knowledge

We’ve recently had local elections in England. That got me thinking about voting and knowledge. In Britain’s first ‘past the post’ system you weigh up what you know about the candidates, but since you can’t vote on each issue, you consider them and their parties in the round. What do they stand for? What are their core principles? Forearmed with knowledge about voter intentions (opinion polls) you might resort to tactical voting, where you don’t vote for the person whose views most closely match your own, but since they are unlikely to win, you cast your vote for someone else who with additional votes from people like yourself can beat an opponent whom you would rather lose.

Voting in some respects is like other decisions that individuals and managers make day-in day-out. You assess the situation, pooling knowledge from many perspectives, then go through a mental process of evaluating the plusses and minusses of various options. Sometimes this can be a lonely decision: I have to reduce headcount, so who do I fire? If I bid too high a price, I lose the opportunity to make money. If I bid too low, I lose money anyway.

Within organisations, there is often something akin to collective decision-making. Although the chairman may make the final choice, he or she may ask for a show of hands on how to tackle an issue. There are groupware decision support systems that let users vote on various options. When prioritising options in a KM action plan, I often give a group of senior executives 3 votes each which they allocate however they please to the 10 or so options available. In these situations you are not just averaging knowledge, you are assessing the collective will and commitment to one choice or another.

Now consider the case of where the choice of decision should be factual rather than judgemental. A party of three people on a trek come to a junction. One way leads down to base, the other into a wilderness. They decide to vote which direction to take. The person who actually knows the way out is outvoted 2:1. There is also the classic case in recent British history where prime minister Margaret Thatcher was accused of being out of step with her 12 European counterparts. Her response was that she was going in the right direction and that they were all wrong. Only in hindsight or with a deeper delving into the situation is the right choice finally clear – even then you can rationalise your original choice based on the knowledge available to you at the time.

What conclusions can we draw from these situations?

  • decisions may improve with better knowledge but a vote is not necessarily a reflection of the validity of the knowledge on which it is based
  • collective decisions provide a greater pooling of knowledge – however, in many situations they tend to converge on the most conservative and conventional thinking – not too good for breakthrough innovations
  • voting for something is a demonstration of your commitment; therefore even if the resultant decision is not necessarily the best, it may well do better because more people are committed to its succeed
  • on the other hand those whose votes were not for the resultant decision might feel overriden or their views ignored and therefore not fully committed to something they did not vote for
  • voting may provide the initial direction of travel, but every good practitioner should continually review progress, make micro-decisions along the way, and – although painful – perhaps admit that the wrong initial decision was made, go back and take an alternative course.

So should you vote on knowledge? You may feel the need to adopt voting so that if things go wrong there is collective blame. However, the smart manager will not offer colleagues such simplistic A or B choices (unlike political elections). He or she will work to explore why there are differences – probing more deeply to get from surface knowledge to fuller understanding and insights, suggesting other options, teasing out assumptions. He or she may stimulate further discussion and open up new opportunities by planting what seem like outrageous ideas (a good way of getting away from conventional complaceny and into innovation mode).

In other words, decisions based on consensus, deep knowledge, smarts and weight of argument, rather than on weight of ballot papers.

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Spring clean your knowledge

Spring (supposedly) is on its way. Now is a good time to reflect on what knowledge and information you hoard and what you can safely dispose of. What prompted me to write this piece was an article I wrote on knowledge auditing, that has been reprinted on KnowledgeBoard under the title Cleaning Out The KM Closet. Complete with a picture of a broom, it prefaces the article by pointing out that organizations often overlook what knowledge and information they already hold. It’s not the heading I would have given the article, but it did prompt me to think about spring cleaning my knowledge!

First, let me say that I’m pleased that KnowledgeBoard regular emails have started again, under the new editorship of Louise Druce. It really is one of the best KM portals and their emails help keep you informed of developments – beyond the technical promotions that many so-called KM websites pump out.

Coming back to auditing, several that I have carried out typically reveal two contrary situations:

  • duplication of information – how many customer databases does your organization hold?
  • key information that people need – but which isn’t there or difficult to find.

Information is continually being created. As volumes grow, it becomes increasingly costly (in time and resources) to store and retrieve efficiently. When we create a document, do we think through the lifetime ramifications – how long it should be kept, when it should be reviewed or disposed of. We may give it cursory attention, but when the time comes we’re usually too busy doing something new.

Like many people, my email files have grown and grown. I have many emails that are more than 10 years old. I do occasionally go through a folder or two, keeping only ones that may be relevant in future (it’s amazing how management approaches I used 20 years old have stood the test of time!). An alternative strategy would be to do a wholesale deletion of email folders relating to completed projects, ideas that never got off the ground, past visits etc. This would certainly improve the ‘feel good’ factor, until a day or two later someone asks a question and you knew you had just what was needed only it was dumped.

So is there anything we can learn from physical spring cleaning? Have a look at others tips and see how you might adapt to your office/PC environment – see Tips for Spring Cleaning and Ten Spring Cleaning and Organizing Tips. Here are some things to try:

  • Be tidy in the first place – think logically about where things should be kept
  • Distinguish work in progress from final results – I treat many emails as transient and do not tag them; at a project milestone I file tagged emails
  • Things can only go in three piles – I use it (keep it), I never use it (sell, give away or destroy), I’m not sure (I’m unlikely to use it but it may have historical value or there may be legal or social ramifications if I don’t preserve it)
  • If you don’t want to make a bad decision, then try putting it in the attic (a temporary archive file); then you can delete it after a few years anything you haven’t retrieved, or when you depart, someone will ditch it for you!
  • Don’t generate so much rubbish in the first place!

The big question is – do you do a room (file) at a time, or go the whole hog and do everything together? A lot depends on personal preference. Either way, it does take time, so you should allow for it, either 10-15 minutes a day, or take a few days out. As the Wikipedia entry on spring cleaning says “a person who gets their affairs in order before an audit or inspection could be said to be doing some spring cleaning.” A knowledge audit should be the spur to do this housekeeping.

What are your tips for keeping your office and online files tidy this Spring?

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