Rothko and KM

Those of you who follow the art scene will know that the Tate Modern in London is hosting a celebrated exhibition of Mark Rothko paintings. Thanks to the BBC, those of us outside London can have a taste of the exhibit via a brief video tour by the sculptor, Anish Kapoor, and Sarah Montague.

The conversation and controversy surrounding this exhibit provide interesting lessons that can be applied to knowledge management. First, consider the description by Anish Kapoor of the “restricted vocabulary” with which Rothko worked. That vocabulary contained only color, a field and a foreground. In Kapoor’s view, Rothko worked successfully within the constraints of that limited vocabulary to “draw on deep human emotional realities.” For those of us who tend to spend our time protesting our constraints, there is an important lesson here in using our contraints to move ourselves to richer insights and more creative output. For those of us thinking about KM budgets during an economic downturn, it’s worth thinking harder about how financial and staffing limitations might provide opportunities for new and innovative work. When you consider what Rothko was able to do with some black paint, you realize that we don’t always push ourselves to make the best use of what we have.

The second lesson relates to the dispute as to whether some of these Rothko paintings were hung incorrectly. Critics have charged that two of the paintings in Rothko’s Black on Maroon series should have been hung horizontally rather than vertically. Nonetheless, the curator and gallery are sticking by their decision to display the paintings vertically. The discussion about the “right way” to hang the paintings was a salutary reminder to me that sometimes breaking with tradition or convention can provide fresh perspective and insight. As knowledge managers, we can get caught up in the role of librarian or guardian of the canon. In fact, our primary function is not archival; rather it is to provide the resources necessary to facilitate innovation and growth. Key to that function is offering a new perspective on what our organizations know. If that means turning things on their head from time to time, so be it. The purists may protest, but if you’ve facilitated insight and innovation, it’s worth it.

Coming full circle, if you find yourself working with severely limited resources, consider whether trying a different angle on an old KM program or resource might provide the opening you need to achieve something new or useful. Now is not the time to play it safe. Otherwise, you’ll find your programs and impact shrinking faster than your budget.

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