Middle-Earth Communications, Part 2

The Hobbit SecondEdIn my previous post on Middle-Earth Communication Methods, I wrote about the importance of varying the way we communicate. And, I gave some examples from Delta Airlines and Air New Zealand (official airlines of middle-earth) that illustrate how a little imagination and humor allowed them to communicate their crucial safety messages more effectively.

Michael Foster, writing on Melcrum.com, takes the importance of variety in communications even further. In his view, when communications are predictable, their intended audience simply tunes them out:

Safe equals predictable

Human beings process information every second of every day. What we do with this data varies, but in many cases we use it to make tiny, subconscious predictions about what will happen next. At its simplest, this can be illustrated by watching the flight of a thrown ball. Our brain automatically estimates the ball’s future trajectory based on its path up to that point, thus allowing us to catch it (or try to).

This process works in exactly the same way when we listen to someone speaking, with our brain constantly making and revising predictions on where the sentence, point or speech is leading. An engaging presentation tells us something we don’t know in a way in which the outcome becomes unpredictable. The result is that this forces us to pay attention. However when we hear a familiar presenter, speaking in a way we recognize about a message we have heard before, our brain quickly tells us we already know the outcome and maintaining focus becomes much harder. Most of the time this happens subconsciously, but it is a vital process for … communicators to be aware of. [emphasis added]

Predictable equals shortchanged KM

In her comment to my previous post, Vishal Agnihotri (CKO of Akerman LLP) reminded me that effective communications are a critical part of effective change management. Further, effective change management is a requirement of effective knowledge management. So if you stick to predictable messages, you will have a hard time engaging your audience sufficiently to convince them to embrace the changes embodied by your KM initiatives. At that point, it’s game over.

There is, however, an alternative path if you are willing to employ some middle-earth methods. Introduce a little humor and imagination into your communications. Feed the curiosity of your audience so that they stayed tuned to your messages.

When you find yourself stuck in a communications rut, befriend your colleagues in the marketing department of your firm. Ask them to provide some strategic and tactical advice on your own department’s communications. By this I mean more than simply asking them to design a pretty logo or slick internal newsletter. Rather, give them free rein over your text and images too. Ask them what they would recommend you do to incorporate into your communications those vital elements of surprise and delight that capture the attention of your audience. In fact, if you’re serious about sharpening up your department’s communications, see if you can bring a marketing/communications person onto each KM project team from the beginning. By involving them early, you can bake an effective communications strategy into your project plan. In this way, you give yourself a fighting chance of actually getting your message across.

And in those moments when the appeal of dull but safe corporate communications seems most enticing, gather up your courage and then  summon your inner hobbit. As Gandalf the Grey observed:

“Hobbits really are amazing creatures. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month and yet, after a hundred years, they can still surprise you.”

May you always find good ways to surprise your colleagues.


[Photo credit: Wikipedia]



Mark the Occasion

4699612078_9b6048bede_m It’s graduation season again. Families all over the country will travel to academic institutions near and far to celebrate the completion by their loved ones of a course of study. Part and parcel of the process are the obligatory speeches*: the largely forgettable speeches filled with unwanted advice rendered in solemn tones by local worthies; the largely inane speeches filled with low humor and insider references to class jokes delivered by representatives of the graduating class. We sit through these events time and time again because we know it is important to mark the occasion.

A senior manager of a law firm knowledge management department recently told me that one of the challenges KM staff members face is that a fair measure of their time is spent on routine maintenance tasks. Given this reality, one day slips into another, without much sense of meaningful accomplishment. Granted, everyone notices when a maintenance failure results in a crisis, but rarely do we ever celebrate a crisis-free day. His advice was to ensure that in our periodic reporting efforts we take time to note when these routine maintenance chores are executed well or when conscientious effort expended on these tasks results in a crisis-free day.

If our KM systems rely on the faithful execution of maintenance work, it only makes sense to support these efforts. Rather than using sticks, consider using carrots. Just like we help celebrate academic achievement periodically, we should celebrate the less glamorous side of our professional responsibilities as knowledge management personnel. For the sake of our KM systems and our own professional satisfaction, we should remember to mark the occasion. After all, no ones really wants to deal with the crisis that results when we ignore the value of routine maintenance.

* For a welcome alternative, see National Public Radio’s collection of The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever.

[Photo Credit: US Army Africa]


What Yoda Knows

yoda An upcoming client engagement requires that I consult Yoda. Really. (I love my job!) Accordingly, I’ve spent some time recently researching the wisdom of Yoda and have discovered that his insights are beneficial to padawan learners in a variety of disciplines, including knowledge management.

The fear of loss is a path to the Dark Side.”  This insight of Yoda’s can be read as a warning about many of our information management (or, more properly, information mismanagement) practices. The fear of loss of critical data or documents can lead to over-zealous security measures that hobble the reasonable flow of information inside and outside an organization. It also can lead to information hoarding by individuals or the desperate creation by KM personnel of ad hoc databases and document collections. To see if you are on the path to the Dark Side, ask the following questions:

  • How many knowledge collections or databases exist in your organization?
  • How many are actively maintained?
  • Are these materials findable by most people in the organization?
  • Of the materials contained in those collections or databases, what percentage are routinely used?
  • Do the personnel in your firm participate in and support information management practices that enhance appropriate access to key information?
  • Is key information available for general use in shared repositories or systems of record, or are they hidden in private folders or storage systems?
  • Are your security measures designed to inflict the least possible harm on the flow of information inside and outside the organization?
  • Do your security measures cause inefficiencies or other costs due to the unavailability of key information?

You will find only what you bring in.”   Yoda was right about this as well. If he were a 20th-century creature rather than a 900-year old Jedi Master, he might have phrased it as “garbage in, garbage out.” This precept of Yoda’s is particularly apt when considering your organization’s intranet:

  • What percentage of the content is current?
  • What percentage of the content is used on a regular basis?
  • Do you have a retention policy that is enforced with respect to intranet content?

In a dark place we find ourselves, and a little more knowledge lights our way.” Providing a little more knowledge to light the way is one of the greatest services KM personnel can render. To that end, KM personnel should ask themselves the following questions regularly:

  • Are we employing the best possible means known to us to facilitate the flow of critical information in the organization?
  • Have we identified and addressed the barriers to knowledge sharing in the organization?
  • What new things are we learning about the discipline of knowledge management that can help us better light the way for our colleagues?

You must unlearn what you have learned.”   Knowledge management as a formal discipline is not all that old. However, it is old enough to have produced new insights that cause us to question some of the principles that we once thought were eternal verities. If you haven’t been following the development in thought within the discipline, then you haven’t been doing your job. It isn’t enough simply to maintain the intranet and call that KM. Be sure that you and your colleagues know what’s new in KM theory and practice, and let that guide you as you constantly evaluate your own KM systems and practices. It is only by engaging with new (and sometimes challenging) ideas that you understand what it is you need to unlearn before you can truly learn.


[Photo Credit: Gina]






Broadli: KM Theory in Action

Broadli Icon.175x175-75 In some law firm knowledge management circles it is fashionable to disdain theory in favor practical realities. To be honest, there was a time in my career when I chose to ignore theory and focused instead on learning the lessons provided by the school of hard knocks. The problem was that while those lessons were abundant, they often were rather painful. Further, while they made sense in the context of my experience, that experience was by necessity limited and I couldn’t always safely extrapolate from that specific experience to develop a solid theory of more general application.

Once I acknowledged these shortcomings, I had to find a better way. And that way led me back … to theory.  As I began reading, I discovered that I was not the first to experience certain KM challenges and I learned that some of the “clever” solutions I was contemplating had been tried and discarded by smarter minds and braver souls than mine. That’s when it dawned on me that, at its best, the KM literature could save me from a world of hurt by allowing me to learn from the experiences of others.

That made me a convert. Yet even still, I wasn’t entirely sure how far I could safely take KM theory and apply it to the real world.

In the last few months, I’ve been part of a group testing some KM theory and discovering once again that there is a lot KM can teach the real world. In particular, I’ve been testing what I’ve read in the KM literature about social capital and behavior in social networks. Together with my stellar partners Alessandra Lariu, Claudia Batten, John Weiss and Matt Null, I’ve taken those theories out for a trial run in the world of mobile apps. On December 31, a company we co-founded released a mobile app called Broadli. This app helps users sort their cluttered collection of contacts to uncover their trusted network. Then the app helps users activate their trusted network to move forward the projects that matter most to them. Along the way, participants create networks of generosity in which they “pay it forward” by providing a helping hand to people within their extended network.

Thanks to a fabulous feature article in Fast Company and some energetic social media activity, Broadli has become an idea that has captured the imagination of thousands of users. And we hope that many thousands more will see the light.

So if you’ve been wondering why I haven’t been blogging lately, now you know. If you have an iPhone 5 and would like to be part of these networks of generosity, please download the app and start using it. To be sure you get the full experience, invite members of your trusted network to join in as well. We welcome your participation and your comments.


Making a Case for Knowledge Management #IKNS

Columbia University CrownThe panelists in this session are: Jeff Carr (Senior Productivity Technology Solutions Professional, Microsoft), Ed Hoffman (CKO at NASA), Tom Stewart (Chief Marketing and Knowledge Officer, Booz and Company, and author of Intellectual Capital: The new wealth of organization*), and Bob Libbey (Head of Digital & Social Communications, Pfizer)

[These are my notes from Columbia University’s 2013 summer residency program for its Masters of Science in Information and Knowledge Strategy. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • What’s the Key to Good Decision Making?  The most critical element to effective decision making within an organization is knowledge sharing. But this requires a culture that encourages knowledge sharing as a matter of policy AND gives people the necessary support to take the time to seek out knowledge and then share it. This kind of organizational culture helps me overcome the fear of asking and it gives my counterpart reasons to answer.
  • Knowledge Management as a Discipline. One of the great challenges is that the name “knowledge management” can be misleading. However, if you can get past the name, the practices it encompasses can be hugely helpful for an organization. KM is the single best antidote to the greatest threat to good corporate decision making: information hoarding. Helping people understand the value of knowledge sharing and collaboration is a huge part of the role of KM professionals. In addition, they need to help people in the organization handle the constant pressure of information overload.
  • Where should KM Live? Much depends on the organization.  In a balkanized organization, KM should live within the part of the organization that has the ability to take action. Ideally, KM should be a center of excellence with the power to provide KM goodness on an enterprise-wide basis. In addition, there should be KM competency within each business unit. It’s important that prudential functions (e.g., risk, HR, audit, knowledge) report up to a CXO, even though personnel may be embedded in business units. Without the vertical reporting lines, it can be hard to maintain enterprise-wide standards.
  • KM and IT. The relationship between knowledge management and IT is critical. They need to be close collaborators, but the panel agreed that KM function should not be buried inside the IT function. IT’s focus is primarily on the tools. KM’s focus in more on methodology. That said, if you have a generous view of each other’s areas of expertise and don’t get too hung up on turf warfare, it is possible to bring out the best in your collaborators in other key functions. One panelist pointed out that there is (or should be a difference) between thinking about the organization’s information (CIO) and thinking about the organization’s tools (CTO).

*Disclosure: This link is through my Amazon affiliate account and may generate income to me.


An App That Saves You From Yourself

Here’s a newsflash: texting while walking is dangerous. Big surprise? Hardly. Yet, people all over town persist in texting while walking — or worse still — while jaywalking.

When did we decide that we were immortal? Is it that we believe accidents happen to other people? Or have we finally found a behavior that is stupid enough to earn each of us a personal Darwin Award?

Thankfully, where there is a need, someone is bound to provide a responsive product or service. In this case, an enterprising soul identified an emerging market of incredibly foolhardy people and has developed especially for them the Walk and Text app (available for iPhone and Android).  Really.

How does it work?  Using your smartphone’s camera to see what’s coming, the app provides a transparent screen on which you can compose your text. As you’re writing, the transparent screen lets you can see what’s ahead of you. Genius.

If you don’t want to purchase this product, you could always try the Seeing Eye People service. As you will see in the videos below, the See Eye People gave texters the opportunity to focus their undivided attention on their texting. As their clients were texting, the Seeing Eye People cleared a path in front of them and warned them of obstacles ahead. Genius.

Okay. If you’ve read this far, you’ll have realized that you can’t really hire Seeing Eye People on New York City streets. But weren’t you tempted?

In a similar vein, would you like an app or service that saves you from your other self-destructive behaviors? Something that warns you before you fail to share vital information with a colleague? Something that reminds to you check the knowledge base before you send a request for information to everyone in your organization? Something that helps you find what you need?

Perhaps there’s a market opportunity for knowledge management here…


Talking About an Evolution

All healthy things evolve. According to the comedian, Jimmy Fallon, even “Mom Dancing: evolves. If you don’t believe him, take a look at the video above. (It’s Friday, folks!)

So if everything evolves, what’s happening to your knowledge management program? Is it moving on an upwards trajectory as it adapts to meet new and changing needs in your organization? Or is it stagnating like a fetid pond hosting malaria-laden mosquitos?

If you’re not sure, chances are you are stagnating. What are some signs of stagnation?

  • little introspection or analysis regarding your KM program
  • a lack of energy about KM on the part of your KM group or, worse still, your organization
  • a dearth of actionable new ideas for your KM program
  • your KM efforts are focused primarily on maintenance, without scope for R&D or innovation
  • you are stuck at one level of development (e.g., creating document collections or keeping the intranet functioning) and aren’t growing and stretching to explore new forms of knowledge sharing
  • malaria-laden mosquitos

What about some signs of growth and evolution?

  • you have established sensible and stable information management practices
  • the people in your organization recognize the pitfalls (and benefits) of knowledge silos
  • your organization has active communities of practice that facilitate knowledge sharing
  • your KM program is considered to be of strategic importance to your organization
  • the people in your organization conduct themselves as individual personal knowledge managers who also have a stake in the enterprise-wide KM effort

If you’d like a more structured approach to gauging your evolution, I’d suggest you take a look at one of the many KM maturity models that the wonderful Stan Garfield has collected. And, while you’re at it, see some of the articles he has included that question the usefulness of maturity models. As with many things in knowledge management, there is ample room for diversity and disagreement!

(For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of a maturity model, it is a diagnostic tool developed to help assess programs or organizations against a common standard of accomplishment and development. If you’d like a further explanation of the concept see Consultant’s Tool: What is a Maturity Model.)

This may be more than you can think about on a Friday, but I’d strongly suggest that you set some time aside in the next week or two to go through these models and see how your KM program stacks up. It might give you some new ideas and new energy to move out of that stagnated pool into a more vibrant future for KM in your organization.


For those of you who remember music from the 1980s, you’ll have recognized the inspiration for my title: Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.” Here’s a video of the song for nostalgia buffs.


Remembering Carl Frappaolo

On Thursday, March 21, the family and friends of Carl Frappaolo are gathering in Boston to celebrate the life of one of the leaders of the knowledge management community. Since I cannot be in Boston for that gathering, I am writing some remembrances here.

I last saw Carl at the KMWorld conference in October 2012 where he accepted the KMWorld Reality Award on behalf of his organization, FSG. In many ways, the Reality Award typifies what Carl stood for:  moving beyond the rhetoric to actually getting something useful done through KM.  To underscore the point, here’s what the announcement of the award said:

This award recognizes an organization in which knowledge management is a positive reality. The recipient of the KM Reality award is an organization demonstrating leadership in the implementation of knowledge management practices and processes by realizing measurable business benefits.

While Carl was not about mere rhetoric, he certainly had a deep understanding of the vocabulary and theory of knowledge management. He knew what it takes to be “a good knowledge leader.” This provided the foundation for his more than two decades as a widely respected KM practitioner. His bio at Delphi Group (which he co-founded) is impressive. Here are just a few excerpts:

  • “With over 25 years of experience working with a broad array of business solutions including knowledge and content management, portals, search engines, document management, workflow, BPM, records management, imaging, intranets and electronic document databases, Mr. Frappaolo is well versed in the practical business aspects and technical aspects of implementing large scale e-applications.”
  • “Mr. Frappaolo has been recognized by AIIM International (the Association for Information and Image Management) as a Master of Information Technology and as an Information Systems Laureate, and in 2000, was bestowed the Distinguished Service Award by AIIM.”
  • “Mr. Frappaolo has authored over 300 studies on the technology and practices of e-business, portals, Knowledge Management and Electronic Document Management and has been cited and published in leading industry periodicals….”
  • “Recognized as an industry leader with great technological foresight, Mr. Frappaolo is a frequent speaker at conferences and trade shows and has delivered the keynote address at numerous national and international trade and user conventions. His audiences consistently find his presentations thought provoking and always on the cutting edge.”

I had the good fortune to hear Carl speak on many occasions. One memorable keynote talk he gave was at the 2010 Enterprise 2.0 Conference at which he asked “Can E2.0 Crack Through KM Culture?” While I cannot do it justice, my notes of his talk coupled with his slides should give you a glimpse of his knowledge and insight.

At KMWorld and shortly thereafter, Carl and I spoke about his work with FSG. He was inordinately proud of the accomplishments of that organization in the world.  This pride is evident in his quotation featured on his FSG bio page:

What attracted me most to FSG was the mission of the organization. After a long and successful career as a consultant assisting hundreds of organizations advance their causes by maximizing the value obtained from their intellectual property and experience, I was looking for a chance to use my experience and skills in a way that would have a serious and positive impact on pressing and important social issues. FSG gives me that opportunity.

What is equally evident is the high regard in which Carl’s colleagues at FSG and beyond held him.  He will be missed.


Looking for Mr. Wonderful

Have you met Mr. Wonderful?

He’s memorable because he says the most amazing things. Here’s a sampling:

“Actually, I’m not sure which way to go. I’ll turn in here and ask directions.”

“Here, you take the remote. As long as I’m with you, I don’t care what we watch.”

“You know, honey, why don’t you just relax and let me make dinner tonight?”

“Awww, can’t your mother stay another week?”

“The ball game really isn’t that important. I’d rather spend time with you.”

“Let’s just cuddle tonight.”

In case you’re wondering, Mr. Wonderful* is not a living, breathing human male. He’s a little stuffed toy containing a recording that is triggered by touch; all you have to do is give his chest a squeeze.

Here’s how the tag on the doll describes him:

Mr. Wonderful. He says all the right things!

Mr. Wonderful has been carefully developed with today’s modern woman in mind. He is complete with good looks, sense of style, sensitivity, charm, and is genuinely sincere. The perfect gift for any woman, whether single or married!

As I was putting Mr. Wonderful through his paces the other day (to gales of laughter from everyone in the room), I found myself thinking that knowledge management personnel have their own version of Ms. or Mr. Wonderful. If I were to build such a toy, here are some of the things the doll might say:

“I’d love to contribute to the knowledge base. How much content would you like from me?”

“Shift my knowledge transfers from closed email exchanges to open wikis or blogs? Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Try something new? I’d love to!”

“Can you work with me to train my team on effective personal knowledge management?”

“I’d like to lead by example when it comes to knowledge management. What I can do to have the greatest positive impact?”

Do you have anyone in your organization saying these things or is it still only the stuff of your dreams?

The challenge now for all of us is to translate fantasy into reality.

Here’s a video of a bigger, chattier version of Mr. Wonderful:

*Disclosure: This link is through my Amazon affiliate account and may generate income to me.


Milkshakes and Purple Cows

Purple Cow One persistent issue that arises in the world of knowledge management is how best to market your systems and services. Unfortunately, discussions of this issue often devolve into descriptions of tactics: launch email blitzkriegs, offer food to encourage attendance at training sessions, bribe potential users with the latest i-device or (in lower rent populations) Starbucks gift cards. Similarly, you see law firm marketing departments carpet bombing clients with generic legal alerts or seasonal cards that are rarely read or retained. In most cases, these tactics have nearly the same effect:  they don’t work.

So what are we to do? Focus on Milkshakes, Purple Cows and Otaku, of course!


My friend Jeffrey Rovner pointed me to an interesting talk by Clayton Christensen on marketing. Christensen posits that in order to motivate a customer to buy your product, you first need to understand the job for which that customer is likely to “hire” your product. The brief video clip below ends with the words: “…if you understand the job, how to improve the product becomes just obvious.”

Just obvious? As we say in New York, “From your lips to God’s ears,” Dr. Christensen.

In the case of the milkshake, Christensen and his colleagues discovered that the drink was being purchased for two different jobs: (1) to allay hunger and provide entertainment during a boring morning commute and (2) to help parents placate children with a seemingly nutritious treat. So if you were marketing to the commuter, you’d play up the interesting taste and thickness of the drink that led to a longer and more satisfying period of entertainment. If you were marketing to the parent, you’d emphasize the nutritional benefits and the appeal to children, while perhaps thinning the milkshake to allow little mouths to drink the shake more quickly.

Digging further into this research, I learned that understanding a job means more than just understanding the bare function involved.  In fact, there are three critical dimensions of each job: the functional, the social and the emotional.  When developing and marketing a product, you have to address all three elements from the customer’s perspective in order to optimize the chances of your product being “hired to do the job.”

Purple Cows

Marketing maven, Seth Godin, is famous for pointing out that few of us stop the car when driving past a cow in the countryside.  In rural America, a cow is not an unusual sight. However, if the cow in question was purple, not only would you stop the car, but you’d grab your smartphone, take a photo and post it on every social media platform you use. Why? A purple cow is remarkable — it is worthy of being remarked upon. Godin’s thesis is that your product needs to be a purple cow. What does this mean? It needs to stand out from the crowd, it needs to be special — it needs to be remarkable. It follows, then, that developing products aimed at the lowest common denominator, designed to provoke the least amount of controversy, will pretty much guarantee that those products barely register in the consciousness of the consumer. (Christensen notes that every year 30,000 new products are launched, and 95% of them fail.)


Godin also refers to Otaku, which Wikipedia describes as “a Japanese term used to refer to people with obsessive interests.” According to Godin, a product has a much better chance of succeeding if it appeals to otaku. Why? Because the care enough to seek it out and tell others about it. This kind of word of mouth marketing is priceless.  The first step, however, is to know your otaku and match your product to their needs and interests.

So what do milkshakes, purple cows and otaku have to teach us? Understand the job your product is being hired to do, make sure your product is absolutely remarkable and then market it first to the people who care enough to tell others about your good work.

Here are the videos:

Clayton Christensen:

Seth Godin’s snippet on Purple Cows and Otaku:

Seth Godin’s full TED Talk:


[Photo Credit: Jon Milet Baker]