Picturing KM (and associated variables)

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Picturing Knowledge Management (and IM, IT and the management of organizations) – by drawing images and metaphors from 2300 years ago

“He is an icon – a symbol – he stands for something. All nations need something, some person or symbol to which they can cleave; which can give a disparate mass of people a sense of identity and thus of unity. Without a unifying symbol people drift into internecine feuds.” (Icon by Frederick Forsyth)

Sun Tzu: The Art of War[1]as it is popularly known, but more appropriately as “Ping-fa,” is a short manual assembled 2300 years ago by a team of brilliant strategists. They solved a quite incredible riddle: how to achieve objectives without the use of force. In fact, these masters of social engineering discovered how to achieve their objectives without others being even aware that matters were being gently (but tightly) guided, in a way that would ensure that losses due to conflict – if it happened to occur – would be minimal.

Ping-fa is a comprehensive manual. It contains detailed instructions on leadership, delegation, accountability, planning, communications, collaboration and intelligence. In short, we see all the key elements (saving only information technology) in what we generally consider the current realms of strategic planning, Knowledge Management (KM) and governance wrapped up in one coherent methodology. That the methodology was extraordinary was proven when the ancient pre-China kingdom of Qin brought about the end of a very longstanding and deadly period of war, while founding one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen.

Qin’s strategists, having crafted the tools, then addressed a tremendous challenge: how to teach and ensure there was sound learning of what were very difficult principles and practices. All that was in the Ping-fa methodology was strange and new. And it all flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Where it had been common knowledge that issues were to be resolved through combat, diplomatic practitioners were now told that under no circumstances was force an option. Force was counter-productive.

The Qin diplomats were independent agents, wandering – apparently aimlessly – about the countryside, chatting with the common people, and sometimes finding themselves in the courts of neighbouring kingdoms. But there was nothing random about any of this.

The diplomats were representing their country in an effective, efficient and unobtrusive way, and they did not have the luxury of regular contact with the motherland. These agents could think on their feet. They had the talent to assess situations, make decisions and carry them out – normally without assistance.

Now this is all quite remarkable, but for our purposes here, we are less interested in Qin’s diplomatic and political achievements than we are in how the kingdom was able to teach its agents. Though no one became a Qin agent unless they brought better than average intelligence and physical endurance to the table, they also had to demonstrate the ability to conceptualize, and learn. These agents were the real strength of Qin, the ones that the first emperor immortalized in his terra cotta army by putting them out in front of the uniformed soldiers. [2]

Qin agents attended one or more learned academies where they were taught the principles and practices of a new diplomacy: a diplomacy that was built on strength, but not on force. To shape their novices, the instructors used two devices; the delightfully flexible language of the “Middle Kingdoms” of pre-China, and metaphor.

It was plain that if one wanted to explain “leadership,” for example, and have it deeply and profoundly understood, the novices had to be able to visualize it, and integrate it into their intellectual and emotional frames of reference. In other words, it had to become part of what they were. When trained, they acted out of a thorough understanding of what things meant, and what things mattered.

Today, we’d consume vast textbooks to both teach these concepts and provide massive texts for ongoing reference for our agents, though even with all that we’re not likely to turn agents loose today to do what Qin’s agents did two millennia ago. [3] Today’s “command and control” has more to do with ensuring orders are followed than it does with ensuring that results are achieved.

But though our agents today may not have the degree of freedom that did those of Qin, we still have a very real need for leadership. And here, I want to make it very clear that it is not only leaders that must lead. Leadership is a competency that needs to be instilled, and exercised, at all levels of the organization. It is no longer acceptable – if indeed it ever was – to keep doing what one does simply because that is the way it has always been done. [4]

Low quality objective analysis and decision-making is wasteful and counter-productive and needs to be on all our screens. But though we might all agree with that notion, we have yet to discover the way that we can deliver an empowered organization that might look – from a distance – more like chaos than order, more like management by situation than rule. [5] As Ping-fa told us – to those uninitiated into the principles and practices of strategic engagement management – the behaviour of high competents looks erratic and senseless.

Fast-fowarding to the current day, let us pose the same question that the Qin academies did so long ago. How do we teach in a way that the lessons become fundamentals of understanding? How do we deliver agents competent enough to act (without control) with intelligence (and compassion)? How do we ensure that action is profoundly economical, relating always to need, without expensive and time-consuming competition and conflict?

The answer is that agents need to have fully internalized images of what is, what needs to be, and the ways in which those two pictures are to be integrated.

Qin’s academies knew that people did not learn better and retain better when the lessons involved great volumes of text. And concepts like “leadership” might not even be addressable through the medium of text. They found, as we are finding today, that people can relate to images far better than they can to words. We say they are “visual” rather than “textual,” and yet most boardroom presentations today are nothing but slide after slide of bulleted text. [6]

Qin did not teach practical detail. It taught principles and processes. It used a pictorial language and metaphor, conveying key instructions again and again in different ways that hammered home messages while meaning was defined from different perspectives. Ping-fa uses rivers, mountains, forts, armies and combat to illustrate the difficult concepts of management. An example may be helpful here.

The third most important admonition in Ping-fa is, “Gain knowledge and modify plans by circumstance.” This instruction is conveyed 37 times in various ways. [7] The methodology was adamant: you will begin your exercise with a strategy and plan, but do not be so foolish as to believe that you should not amend those plans by what you learn as you proceed. Ping-fa’s frequent reminders to be adaptive include an organic icon. [8]

Today’s workplaces are to some extent a cliché: we speak of a “fast-paced, continually-changing, inter-dependent, information-based globalized economy and society.” Clichés are not really a problem if they convey some validity. The problem here is that this cliché is erroneous.

Rather than achieving a high level of adaptivity, interdependency and information grounding, we have all of that happening only at a superficial level. We appear, in fact, to be growing more and more fixed in how we look at things and how we behave. Rather than becoming more globalized, we seem to be becoming more separated and regionalized in some ways. So what?

Well, one of the so-what’s is that we are encountering a serious outfall in both quality and quantity, and ever-increasing cost and confusion in the intellectual property sectors. Being neither collaborative nor information-based, we are islands in a consumer sea – buffeted by waves from afar whose source and intent we do not know and cannot know.

For a whole lot of reasons we have to get our (collective) act together. We need to tackle horrendous problems of overlap, gap and duplication. We need to do a whole lot better job of managing what we know and what we need to know. And to get there, we need that information base we say we have and do not, and we need to start acting knowledgeably, which we do not.

We have the technology that can help deliver these outcomes. But these information technologies were not designed and built in the adaptive, “shuai-jan”  mode that Ping-fa speaks of. They came from a world that was driven by past practice and rules. Performance, for example, has always been a more strongly supported attribute in the IT world than utility and responsiveness. [9]

But though IT developers may have wanted to change and adapt, their lot was not an easy one. In countless architecture, infrastructure, application and database development meetings IT analysts begged for direction: “Tell us what your business objectives are. Tell us what your principles and priorities are and tell us where you see the organization going.” Though IT developers needed to know, nobody needed that knowledge more than the business managers themselves, so it was rarely forthcoming.

Delivering the values and concepts to support IT-based organizational transformation during these developmental exercises would have been expedited had the practitioners been able to use a 21 st century Ping-fa. Had they had access to a small, pictorial text that would allow them to move away from linear A – Z thinking, using less words and more images, fewer tables and more poetry, maybe business leaders and IT developers could have gotten on the same page. They would have had a far easier time of it with shared symbols, icons and metaphors.

To date, the combined intelligences of the global IM / IT /KM / business community has not been able to deliver a standard definition of “collaboration.” How, without that understanding, do we reach agreement about what “sharing” means, and then go ahead with the tools and techniques needed for information-base building and knowledge exploitation?

Linear thinking has given us Web-based information dissemination, a useful vehicle without doubt, but not at all able to achieve either collaboration or horizontal (never mind holistic) inter-activity, which may be the outcomes that business managers are expecting. Part of the problem here is that these sites are designed and built from the “content” provider’s, not the user’s perspective. If you want people to get involved with you, you need to walk in their shoes at least some of the time.

How could a corporate Web site be done differently to achieve higher, wider objectives within a stated corporate objective to work in a new way, in this new “globalized, information—based environment”? Here’s some opening thoughts:

> Users are told that what they see is current, accurate, officially approved information (with name / contact info for authorized official);

> “Accurate” is defined according to (posted) organizational IM / KM standards;

> The sources, links and context of the information are provided where available and appropriate;

> There is direction to individuals, agencies and organizations who may have additional, corroborative or non-corroborative information to what is seen;

> We are told this is the N iteration, that previous iterations are stored by the organizations, and what the process is for gaining access to those iterations.

> The importance of this information to users, the organization itself and its community are indicated;

> The way in which this Web site is intended to further the organizations stated information, knowledge and business objectives is articulated

> The ways in which users may respond to, and contribute to this site are indicated;

> Reactions of users (and other members of the community) are posted or available thorough other means.

Here you have information that is presented from the end-user’s perspective: set up by what they presumably need, because you are open to those needs and interests. Here you are demonstrating corporate responsibility and accountability – advising the entire user community where you are coming from, where you are, and where you are going. No, you don’t need to betray what you probably call “competitive intelligence,” but you can gain a great deal of global credibility by releasing what can be called “collaborative intelligence” – intelligence that is, by being shared, intended to benefit others as well as yourself.

This user-driven Web site can be thought of, metaphorically, as a farmer’s market – where the consumer can wander about, testing and tasting, seeking information on source of product, fertilization and harvesting techniques, cleanliness and so on, all of which adds up to an assessment of vendor or product competence. The consumer can test one against the other and then finally, make an informed decision and purchase.

The image sought is one of strength and openness, of low vulnerability and willingness to share and involve. This picture can easily be conveyed to developers who know how to make these capabilities work with ease and comfort. This model is dramatically different from the “official house organ” style of most organizations which often give the impression that they’re doing it because they have to, not because they want to.

Another illustration may be helpful. Information Management “policy” is often document destruction scheduling. Having worked (briefly) as an archivist, I discovered that a key archival talent was the ability to distinguish between an important historical record and ephemera (junk). Such a skill is necessary where storage space is limited, and of course storage is limited everywhere.

IM “policy” that does not set out categories of importance, and then attach the necessary related procedures, is of no value if one organizational goal is development of an historical record and a knowledge base. It is of no value if the organization wants to construct a knowledge platform, and if the organization then wants to use that knowledge platform to support learning and competence, productivity improvement and profit, greater efficiency with reduced risk.

We assume there is a more than token appreciation in business for these organizational capabilities and objectives. So how do we instruct information managers on ways to assess the value of documents? The easiest way to do that is through story-telling. Let me illustrate.

A British officer was being sent to India for a three year posting. His batman (servant) asked what he should pack, and how his possessions that were being looked behind should be looked after. The officer replied, “I shall carry the necessary and assigned military equipment and a few items for my personal comfort and security. Among the latter will be one or two letters and photos from my wife, my passport and my Officer’s Manual.” The batman said, “Very good sir, and what of all that you are leaving behind, in the event that matters should prevent your return?”

The officer said, “This assignment, and my family are the most important events in my life. Should I not return, please send my orders and field reports to my father, the Field Marshal who will decide what to destroy, keep and send to the National Archives. He will know what to do. All papers related to my marriage and family are to be sent to my wife who will make a similar determination, though I expect it is all duplicated and suggest she sell it all and take a good long holiday.” How much easier would be the lives of information managers if they had such instructions in hand!

A very large chunk of interpersonal communications is benign bumpf. Most of what transpires between server and client at the hairdresser and between passenger and driver in a taxi is mere filler. Such “communications,” while adding little in the way of new knowledge, are the buzz of our social experiences and they last, in our short term memories, no more than a day or two – if that.

We all are convinced that there is a distinct difference between such chats and business communications. But is that really the case? Is there any real, long term corporate value of the minutes of the employee social committee? Similarly in the electronic age, two copies of the same powerpoint presentation does not represent twice the value, though it could well be half in terms of time wasted by both developers and users.

It is not a great achievement to be able to identify and discard non-business and redundant documents. It is, however, a great achievement to be able to separate out the artifacts of a deciding moment in corporate history, or the essential information elements that went into an important decision. Though these may be important, perhaps even mission critical competencies, we have no images at hand. We have few stories that can be told, no metaphors that can be relayed to ensure that what is crucial is being saved from the maw of the shredder.

If information technology needs to be designed and built by people who have been exposed to a visionary future for the organization, and if the people building the information base need to have ready icons that they can draw down to help them recognize importance when they see it, who is to be the artist of these images, and who is to be their transmitter?

Nothing moves without communications, and the best communications are those that evoke a suite of thoughts, feelings, emotions and values. They resonate with who we are, and what we want for ourselves. They are “inspirational.” They motivate us. We know what is expected, what we need to do, and how what we are doing fits within a variety of contexts.

These “powerful communications” are usually more than words: they are pictures, or they evoke pictures in our minds. The great orators of old, and the great writings of all ages used these devices to cause these reactions in the minds of their audiences. And importantly, these great communications created memories that remained with people over time. So in effect, these communications changed people, and these people went on to change the environments within which they lived and worked.

A recent story reported by Law.com relayed that a major US firm was encountering some derision because it had established not only a position of, “global chief people officer” but also a “chief knowledge officer.” The company explained that as a law firm it is a people business operating globally, and that “knowledge is our business.” [10]

These decisions look right. Aside from the actual work that these officers will be doing, their very presence telegraphs both “what” and “how” this organization will operate and what it values. It is to be hoped that the new officers will be like the “icons” of Frederick Forstyth – “symbols who stand for something ……. (so that people don’t) drift off into internecine feuds.”

If they are to become that, and they are to achieve that, they will need good picture books in their pockets. They will need the symbols and metaphors that can serve as destination markers and guideposts. They will need to have the ability to build an environment where strategies and plans can be realized without the stultifying cloak of procedure manuals and policy. [11]

From what we know today, it is experts in knowledge, people, process and information technology who can bring these talents to bear on these chores. The aforementioned “chief people officer” will need to free him/herself from the dead weight of “human resources management,” while the “chief knowledge officer” will need to be free of the linear, non-interactive world of both IM and IT. It will not be easy to find the right people for these jobs.

There are few KM poets, artists or musicians. KM has no metaphors and only a few analogies. And without pictures, KM appeals only marginally, if at all, to those who manage in an ever-deepening sea of complexity and turbulence and do not understand that the dynamics, and context have changed.

Were KM to have poets and playwrights on board, we would be seeing symbols, pictures and cartoons emerging in dizzying array as they tried to articulate their emerging understanding while tossing lures with hooks into the deep pond to hopefully make connections that can establish a bridge of understanding. If they had the time and talent, they could help us design icons for knowledge and knowing, learned and learning, being competent and trustworthy. They would be thinking about how these icons related to each other, and why it was that some of them don’t seem to relate at all. The pictures that were found to work all or most of the time would become part of the KM communications arsenal: that is, real ammunition. They would set the agenda for discussions between knowledge and people managers, and professionals in IM, IT and business process.

We KM practitioners need icons we can work with, and we need them now. We need to get talking to the poets and the painters. There is some urgency. The knowledge of the ages is walking out our doors forever, and for the moment all we are doing is asking that they check a few boxes on an exit form before they leave.

© 2008 David G. Jones, B.A., M.A. Fellow of the University of King’s College

[1] “Sun Tzu: The Art of War” is an incorrect translation of Ping-fa, which is more properly “The Art of Diplomacy.” It is a manual for conflict-free issue and event resolution.

[2] Historians, who believe that first emperor Qin Shi Huang celebrated war and who buried the terra cotta army to protect him in the afterlife, are unable to understand or explain why civilians lead the terra cotta army at Xi’an

[3] Check out the delegation and empowerment advocated in the “persuasion” known as the “Training the Imperial Concubines”

[4] Though we might decry that practice, it has been around a long time, and is with us yet. Some organizations proudly proclaim that they have broken free and are now, “policy-driven.” But policy-driven may be only another way of saying “rule-driven,” and what we need now more than ever is to be driven by other variables, such as clients or preferred outcomes.

[5] There is no mistake in how this is written. Advanced organizations do look chaotic to outsiders because performance and measures are not adhering to commonplace (or easily recognized) models

[6] Presenters should use real ammunition instead of “bullets”

[7] The first two instructions are: Manage events (40 occurrences) and manage strength (38 occurrences)

[8] Ping-fa uses the image of a snake known as shuai-jan, a chameleon sort of reptile that adapts to its surroundings, to show how agents that they should be adaptive and learn how to exploit opportunity such as potential collaboration.

(Ping-fa XI.29 – 31)

[9] As it remains in some IM circles today including libraries, where there is disdain for such “unapproved” and “unregulated” vehicles as Wikipedia

[10] Reed Smith Hires Two to Run Firm as Global Business, Kellie Schmitt, 9 January 2008

[11] An important contribution to defining KM came with Dr. John Girard’s “Inukshuk.” Here, he took a a Canadian cultural, communications and guidepost)icon and used it to convey KM’s culture, place and messages. KMPRO Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1

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