A Sadie Hawkins Proposal

February 29 is leap year day, an odd day marked by odd customs intend to underline just how unnatural the day really is.  Take for example the conflation of Li’l Abner’s Sadie Hawkins Day with some older customs that upset the “natural order” by putting women in charge.  So we have a day when women are allowed to propose marriage to men <gasp!> and we have events at which women are allowed to invite men to dance <gasp!>.

While those traditions may be shocking in some quarters, I’d like to propose a gender-neutral alternative for celebrating Sadie Hawkins Day:  Look for constructive ways to upset the natural order. What do I mean by this? Here are some suggestions:

  • Before you do something the same way for the 99th time, ask yourself if there is another, better way of doing it.
  • Before you do anything, consider whether it needs to be done at all or whether it can be delegated.
  • When you see everything sitting neatly in its place, ask yourself whether a little disorder around the edges might in fact energize things.
  • If you’re used to working in a top-down, command-and-control fashion, look for ways to loosen the reins and let things flow bottom-up.
  • If your professional life is focused on managing knowledge stocks, consider what it would mean to facilitate knowledge flows instead.
  • Imagine what else might be possible if you decided to give up Just One Thing.

This isn’t about change for change’s sake. Rather it’s about giving yourself permission to break out of your rut and discover a new perspective.  Some of the experiments might fail, but I guarantee that you will learn something of value if you approach this in the spirit of exploration and intellectual honesty.

While Sadie Hawkins events traditionally promised romance to the lovelorn, I’m afraid my approach won’t deliver a heartthrob. However, I suspect that you might discover something nearly as wonderful — innovation and insight.  That’s not a bad return for one odd day.


When Collaboration is For the Birds

Collaboration is key.  We’re told by social media mavens that it powers networks and unlocks the potential within individuals and the groups with which they associate.  However, collaboration is not always an unalloyed good. Sometimes it can go badly wrong.

Now, before you throw me out of the social media club, consider the following: collaboration isn’t just about working together; it’s about working together towards a shared goal.   However, sharing a goal is not enough it you are looking to optimize the situation for your group.  Merely accomplishing a shared goal doesn’t guarantee good if the goal itself is flawed.

If you aren’t convinced, watch these two brief videos in which groups of birds act together to achieve a common goal:

Here’s an example of great collaboration to achieve a worthy goal:

Now, here’s an example of a crowd realizing too late that the goal towards which it was working was the wrong goal:

So here’s the takeaway:  If you’re going to go to the trouble of collaborating, make very sure that the goal towards which you are working is worth the effort.  Otherwise, you might discover that your collaboration effort is for the birds.



CoIT: An IT Nightmare?

the screamFor the average worker, it might seem like a dream come true. However, I suspect that some information technology folks consider it a nightmare. What’s the issue? The advent of the consumerization of IT; something Scott Finnie calls “CoIT.” Dion Hinchcliffe describes the elements of  CoIT in the following way:

1) businesses taking more local control for IT, 2) workers using their own preferred computing devices and apps, and … 3) manageable processes for rapid uptake of enterprise apps, mashups, and devices matched with IT support processes that scale to match.

While this may not seem an ideal scenario for the traditional IT department, it most likely is within the limits of what can be tolerated.  However, what happens when the business gets “carried away” and starts driving IT initiatives? Here’s Dion Hinchcliffe’s explanation:

The overall trend towards ad hoc adoption of personal and cloud technology at work seems to be inexorable. More and more IT is moving out from under the CIOs budget, just over 30% by some estimates. Perhaps most disruptive of all, however, is the sudden appearance of extremely stiff competition for IT services. While the move to self-service IT in general has been a steady trend for a decade — and which is starting to be called CoIT — it’s the outright diversion of business budgets directly to external IT providers, whether they are the newer SaaS vendors and app developers or the more traditional IT consulting firms and VARs. In short, the business likes the selection and service it’s getting elsewhere, and routing around IT in many cases. [emphasis added]

Suddenly, we have a situation in which the IT department no longer is in complete control and may well have trouble imposing a locked down computing environment.  Now, if you’re working in the financial or legal services industries, consider what happens when you couple the move to CoIT and external IT providers with growing incursions by hackers. According to a recent report in Bloomberg News, there’s been disturbing hacker activity directed towards law firms lately:

Over a few months beginning in September 2010, the hackers rifled one secure computer network after the next, eventually hitting seven different law firms as well as Canada’s Finance Ministry and theTreasury Board, according to Daniel Tobok, president of Toronto-based Digital Wyzdom. His cyber security company was hired by the law firms to assist in the probe.


`As financial institutions in New York City and the world become stronger, a hacker can hit a law firm and it’s a much, much easier quarry,’ said Mary Galligan, head of the cyber division in the New York City office of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Galligan’s unit convened a meeting with the top 200 law firms in New York City last November to deal with the rising number of law firm intrusions. Over snacks in a large meeting room, the FBI issued a warning to the lawyers: Hackers see attorneys as a back door to the valuable data of their corporate clients.

To be honest, I don’t envy law firm IT directors.  They are faced with the difficult task of imposing stringent security measures even as they watch their internal clients scurry out the door, exercising their right to choose their own IT tools and chasing self-service IT as a means to get out from under the control of their organization’s IT department.  While security concerns have often trumped other considerations in the past, it will be interesting to see if the newly emboldened  IT consumers will insist on using their preferred devices and self-service IT despite heightened security concerns.

It’s a nightmare scenario, coming to an IT department near you — soon.

[Photo Credit: Terry Freedman]


Topspin and Tacit Knowledge

Do you know what you know? And, more importantly, do you know how to communicate it effectively to someone else? For far too many of us, the answer to both of these questions is “No.”

To be fair, we may think we know the extent of our knowledge and may even believe we can be effective teachers of that knowledge, but Malcolm Gladwell suggests that we are just fooling ourselves. Take a look at the brief video clip below of Gladwell discussing why people succeed. He recounts instances where professional tennis players believed they were giving an accurate account of their knowledge and practice, and yet a video of their game proved the inaccuracy of what they said. At the end of the day, the explanation they gave about how they hit a topspin forehand did not match what they actually did.  Rather, their instructions would have led to a sprained wrist. Were they just dumb? Gladwell doesn’t suggest that.  Instead, he says that their knowledge as extremely competent professionals was instinctive and they really weren’t able to reduce it to words that could produce a topspin forehand if put into practice by someone else.

Now consider the implications of this for knowledge managers who seek to “capture tacit knowledge.” It is an article of faith in knowledge management that some of the most valuable knowledge is tacit knowledge:  that part of knowledge that comes through experience and cannot easily be codified into explicit knowledge.  It’s prized and it’s elusive.  Dave Snowden years ago reminded us that we know more than we can say and we say more than we can write down.  Yet so many of our knowledge management systems depend upon the written word. If you’re lucky, your knowledge management system will contain merely incomplete information.  If you’re unlucky, your attempts to render tacit knowledge explicit may result in information that is just plain wrong — like the instructions on how to hit a topspin forehand.

What are the solutions? Rather than asking experts to write everything down, consider making a video.  But have that video focus on what the experts are doing — not what they are saying. As we discovered with the tennis players, verbal explanations may be no more accurate than written explanations. Better still, facilitate knowledge transfer by having the experts work directly with less knowledgeable people.  It’s this old-fashioned apprenticeship approach that maximizes the flow of tacit information.

Granted, instituting an apprenticeship isn’t quite as cool as implementing new technology. But if you really want to learn how to hit a topspin forehand, you will have to learn by watching and doing.  If you rely on the incomplete transfer of tacit knowledge into verbal or written instructions, you may end up with a sprained wrist.

You’ve been warned.