Above and Beyond KM

A discussion of knowledge management that goes above and beyond technology.

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This publication contains my personal views and not necessarily those of my clients. Since I am a lawyer, I do need to tell you that this publication is not intended as legal advice or as an advertisement for legal services.
  • Tablica do badania wzroku z reklamy Vision ExpressA lack of vision has tripped up presidents and business leaders.  President George H.W. Bush famously dismissed “that vision thing” as something not worth investing in.  As he soon discovered, however, the electorate did not agree with him.  His official biography on the US Senate website contains the following sad commentary:

    Bush also suffered from his lack of what he called “the vision thing,” a clarity of ideas and principles that could shape public opinion and influence Congress. “He does not say why he wants to be there,” complained columnist George Will, “so the public does not know why it should care if he gets his way.”

    In my post, The Purpose-Driven Organization, I discussed how important it was that an organization know WHY it exists and WHY it does what it does. Simon Sinek believes that it is the job of the leader of an organization to master that vision thing — to see a better world — and then to communicate it in such clear and compelling terms that others volunteer to work above and beyond the call of duty to make that shared vision a reality.  But all the goodwill in the world may not be sufficient to reach that goal.

    In fact if you look carefully, you’ll undoubtedly find that there are examples in your life and in your organization of the proposition that good intentions often come to naught without supporting structures. Steve Denning wrote recently in a Forbes blog of the challenges of making changes in an organization without tackling its underlying corporate culture.  Using the World Bank as his case study, he noted frequent mistakes made by senior management in an attempt to change organizational culture:

    • Overuse of the power tools of coercion and underuse of leadership tools.
    • Beginning with a vision or story, but failing to put in place the management tools that will cement the behavioral changes in place.
    • Beginning with power tools even before a clear vision or story of the future is in place. [emphasis added]

    The big exception he found was Robert McNamara, who had a profound and lasting impact on the mission and activities of the World Bank.  According to Denning, the key to McNamara’s success was to create a support structure to underpin the vision he had for the World Bank:

    McNamara … arrived with a clear vision for the organization: it was to be a lending organization that was lending a great deal more money. He had a clear idea of the management he wanted introduced: hierarchical bureaucracy. He introduced systems and processes that focused everyone’s attention on his vision of the World Bank as a rapidly growing lending organization and the type of management required. Those systems are still largely in place today and still guide management action.

    Now let’s move from the arena of large organizations to our personal lives.  Every New Year’s Day, people all over the world articulate a personal vision — usually in the form of a New Year’s resolution.  And, for many, those resolution are abandoned within the first few days of the new year.  Why?  In How to Stay Focused on the Important Things, Peter Bregman suggests that it’s because we fail to restructure our personal environments (our lives) in such a way as to improve our chances of accomplishing our new priorities:

    In other words, it’s great to learn new habits, but if we want to sustain them, we need to change our environment, and then maintain that new environment, for as long as we want to maintain our change.

    Coming back to knowledge management, as Denning so rightly points out, it’s not sufficient to launch a brilliant KM system or technology.  Rather, you’re going to have to tackle and change the underlying structure of the organization that makes knowledge sharing less likely.  Unfortunately this work is both necessary and hard.  And, it cannot be done overnight.  The good news, however, is that Robert McNamara has shown us that when you put the right supporting structures in place, the desired behaviors will continue — despite changes in leadership, fashion or vision.

    So go ahead and dream your dreams — identify your compelling vision for your organization.  But don’t forget to do the hard work of creating an environment that makes it possible to achieve that vision.

     

    [Photo Credit: Trochim]

     

     

     

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  • What’s the purpose of your organization? (No, that’s not a trick question.) Deb Lavoy and her colleagues at OpenText believe that answering that question is the first critical step every organization must take.

    Putting their money where their mouth is, OpenText hosted on July 11 the first of what promises to be a thought-provoking series of conversations about the purpose-driven organization. The speaker at the event* was Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why. Drawing on examples as diverse as the civil rights movement, Navy SEALS, the Wright brothers, Apple and Disney, he explained that the primary role of a leader is to have a vision of the world as it can be, and then to articulate that purpose with enough clarity and energy so as to inspire others to work towards that purpose.

    Granted it’s promotional material, but here’s a synopsis provided by his publishers:

    In studying the leaders who’ve had the greatest influence in the world, Simon Sinek discovered that they all think, act, and communicate in the exact same way — and it’s the complete opposite of what everyone else does. Sinek calls this powerful idea The Golden Circle, and it provides a framework upon which organizations can be built, movements can be lead, and people can be inspired. And it all starts with WHY.

    Any organization can explain what it does; some can explain how they do it; but very few can clearly articulate why. WHY is not money or profit– those are always results. WHY does your organization exist? WHY does it do the things it does? WHY do customers really buy from one company or another? WHY are people loyal to some leaders, but not others?

    Starting with WHY works in big business and small business, in the nonprofit world and in politics. Those who start with WHY never manipulate, they inspire. And the people who follow them don’t do so because they have to; they follow because they want to.

    Why does your organization need a well-articulated purpose? Simon Sinek believes that without a clear and compelling purpose, you cannot recruit, retain and inspire the highly motivated people who are so committed to a shared sense of purpose that they will move mountains to achieve it. It’s this willingness to go above and beyond that sets them, and ultimately their organization, apart.

    For my readers in the legal industry, don’t assume that this conversation about purpose is only for our clients.  Bruce MacEwen writing at Adam Smith Esq covered some of this territory in Thoughts on IBM’s 100th: Idea or Product, where he attributes IBM’s nimbleness and longevity to its view of itself “not as an organization creating products but as an organization loyal to an idea.”  He then summarizes a list from The Economist of companies that are animated by ideas versus those focused on products:

    • IBM:  Package technology for use by business
    • Apple:  Package the latest technoology in simple, elegant form and sell it at a premium
    • Amazon:  Make it easy for people to buy stuff
    • Facebook:  Help people share things with friends easily
    • Dell:  Building PCs very very efficiently
    • Cisco:  Routers
    • Microsoft:  Windows

    Taking this dichotomy straight to the door of law firms, he asks: “Are there firms premised on fealty to ideas and firms premised on selling products (practice areas)?” After naming a couple of firms that might be “idea” firms, and one sad example of a “product” firm, he reaches a sobering conclusion:

    Alas, I suspect that law firms premised on a widely recognized idea are rare.   Many would insist they are idea-based, but dig under the surface and I bet you’ll find a mutating assemblage of practice areas and geographies without–in most cases–an overarching idea that all the partners could tell you in their sleep motivates the firm.

    If he is right about this, how will firms recruit, retain and motivate excellent people? How can firms ensure their own longevity? Is it really just about paying market salaries?  I suspect it has a great deal more to do with the type of culture a firm nurtures, and the quality of the clients and work a firm attracts.

    As we continue in this period of economic uncertainty, it’s worth considering whether your law firm, company, business unit, department, school or nonprofit has what it takes for the long haul.  You should start by asking WHY.

    *****************************************************************

    If you’d like to hear more about the importance of knowing your purpose, here’s Simon Sinek’s very popular TED Talk:

     

    *Disclosure: This event was sponsored by OpenText and free to the public.

    [Photo Credit: Godserv]

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  • Do you think small? Or, do you have a compelling vision that gives your work purpose? What gets you out of bed in the morning other than the knowledge that someone expects you to punch the clock at the office?

    Some have reported that in their view the safest course through the economic downturn was to pursue tactical goals rather than grand visions.  They have taken comfort in the sense of forward motion generated by their incremental gains.  However, while achieving these goals can be satisfying (in the way that crossing something off a to do list can be satisfying), they too rarely provide the competitive advantage that our firms are looking for.

    What works better?  Pursuing a BHAG: a Big Hairy Audacious Goal.  Jim Collins and Jerry Porras coined this phrase to capture the kind of grand vision that a company articulates and then uses as an organizing principle and a spur to greater action.  Google doesn’t just want to be the go to search engine. Google’s BHAG is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”  Amazon doesn’t just want to be a great bookstore.  Rather, Amazon’s BHAG is a little grander than that:  “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company for three primary customer sets — consumer customers, seller customers and developer customers.”  That’s all?

    What audacious, outrageous goal are you trying to achieve with knowledge management?  Is it big enough to keep you and your team energized and focused?  As we emerge from the economic downturn, bold ideas are going to help the surviving firms thrive.  What’s your bold idea?

    ********************

    Here are some additional resources on BHAGs:

    [Photo Credit: jiruan]

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  • We tell our children that work is serious business. And that’s right  — to a certain extent. However, research is reminding us that it takes more than just grim determination and single-minded focus for success at work (and in life).

    Marion Chapsal recently reiterated this truth in her post, Play, laughter and creativity in coaching.  In it, she refers to recent studies in neuroscience that “show the correlation between the ability to make people feel good and the global productivity at work.”  Taking this one step further, she cites Daniel Goleman, who has done landmark research in the area of emotional intelligence.  According to Goleman and Richard Boyatzis (Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership, Harvard Business Review, 1 Sept 2008):

    Mirror neurons have particular importance in organisations, because leaders’ emotions and actions prompt followers to mirror those feelings and deeds.

    Here’s an example of what does work. It turns out that there’s a subset of mirror neurons whose only job is to detect other people’s smiles and laughter, prompting smiles and laughter in return. A boss who is self-controlled and humourless will rarely engage those neurons in his team member, but a boss who laughs and sets an easygoing tone puts those neurons at work, triggering spontaneous laughter and knitting his team together in the process. A colleague of Daniel Goleman, Fabio Sala, found that top-performing leaders elicited laughter from their subordinates three times as often , on average, as did mid performing leaders. Being in a good mood, helps people take in information effectively and respond nimbly and creatively.

    In other words, laughter is a serious business.

    As you start this new work week, consider if your leadership style is depressing your team and its success.  Perhaps it’s time for you to lighten up and create an environment that enhances both productivity and personal satisfaction.

    [Photo Credit:  Allie Wojtaszek]

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  • The Harvard Business School recently held an executive education session on the global economic crisis.  Amid all the depressing news and analysis came the advice of Professor Robert Steven Kaplan regarding three practical steps business leaders can take now to move things forward in a positive direction:

    Overcommunicate – Be visible, be vocal.  Remind all your colleagues what’s great about your organization and help them understand how they can help the organization.

    Do the “Clean Sheet of Paper” Exercise – Starting with a blank piece of paper, ask yourself:  “How you would redesign the business if you were starting from scratch?”

    Stay Calm – the leader sets the tone at the top and must model constructive behavior.  A leader who is freaked out or entirely focused on finger-pointing cannot effectively lead an organization through this crisis.  You can do better, and your organization deserves better.

    While all of this is great advice at any time in the life of an organization, the “Clean Sheet of Paper” exercise seems particularly compelling given the carnage around us.  When things are going well, it’s hard to step off the hamster wheel long enough to imagine a different approach.  And, you hate to mess with anything that seems to be working.  Under current circumstances, however, nearly every organization has to think hard about what it could do to improve its situation.

    If you’re going to tackle the “Clean Sheet of Paper” exercise, I’d highly recommend that you adopt some of the principles of Appreciative Inquiry.  Rather than focusing on what doesn’t seem to be working, focus on your organization’s strengths.  Ask yourself, what are we doing right?  How can we do more of that?  How can we do it better?  Then, look at your mission.  Is it the right mission for your organization?  Does it line up with your organization’s core strengths?  Are your colleagues and their activities aligned with that mission?  Is all of this supported by your organizational culture?

    In the midst of all this upheaval is a golden opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to create something new.  The “Clean Sheet of Paper” exercise is just a tool to help you get started.  Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.

    [Photo credit:  liquidx]

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  • If you’ve got a generous budget and an appropriately-sized, energetic, motivated and productive staff, you can stop reading now. Clearly you’ve got more assets than most knowledge managers and must, as a result, be achieving great things in the world of knowledge management. If, however, you aren’t so fortunate, you might want to read further.

    In this political season (or as one of the presidential candidates called it, this “silly season“), there’s a lot of talk about leadership. Unsurprisingly, much of that discussion is superficial. When you look back at some great leaders in this country, you realize that some of the talents they brought to the table are innate and simply cannot be purchased or developed. For example, George Washington was universally known as a great leader and, undoubtedly, that reputation was due to more than the mere fact that he was often the tallest man in the room. However, while having an imposing physical size was not sufficient, it certainly was helpful. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the sort of asset that is hard to purchase or develop. A different kind of asset is the moral compass Abraham Lincoln had or the personal courage Theodore Roosevelt had. While they may have been flawed men in many ways, they also had enormous strengths that ultimately made a huge difference in how they led and what they accomplished for this country.

    For the purposes of this discussion, however, it’s useful to put Franklin Roosevelt front and center in your mind. The manner in which he led involved methods that can be developed in adult life. Furthermore, we are learning now that some of these methods are critical to good leadership in modern enterprises. Here are a few of these methods for your consideration:

    How you deliver the message matters as much as the message itself

    In day to day leadership, one of the most critical things you do is communicate what’s important and how it is to be accomplished. What isn’t always understood is that the way you communicate matters as much as (if not more, sometimes, than) the message itself. Looking back at FDR, he was very careful in his public appearances to project vitality, strength and optimism. But this was not just for show. Most of us, after all, have fairly good personal radar for detecting insincerity. Rather, he was able to project these things successfully because he believed them himself, truly embodied them, and had great faith in his overriding purpose.

    Bruce MacEwen of Adam Smith Esq. reports on a study that compared the results of communicating a positive performance review accompanied by negative body language (e.g., frowns, narrowed eyes, flat voice, etc.) with communicating a negative performance review accompanied by positive body language (e.g., smiles, nods, good eye contact, open hand gestures, etc.) What the study found is striking: people who received positive reviews delivered with negative body language felt worse about their performance than people who received negative reviews delivered with positive body language. The latter felt encouraged and capable of making improvements. This study puts a premium on intentionality and clarity in leadership. You need to be sure that you are coherent and consistent in what you say AND how you say it.

    Leadership is about more than achieving personal acclaim

    By the time he became president, FDR had already been governor of a great state and had all the benefits of having grown up in one of the country’s leading families. He really didn’t need to burnish his résumé. Unfortunately, too many business “leaders” are in it for the glory and not as many have a cause truly worth fighting for. FDR had several Herculean tasks, including bringing the country out of the Great Depression and curtailing fascism. Are you working for anything more than your ego and your résumé?

    Leadership means developing the best in others

    One of the hallmarks of FDR’s leadership was that he understood that historic times required historic efforts. To that end, he called on the people of the United States to give more than the they thought they could give and be more than they thought they could be. History tells us that they answered that call.

    FDR clearly understood that at the end of the day, leadership is not about you, it’s about the people you serve and lead. We now know that there are also some compelling business reasons for focusing on them rather than on yourself. An exhaustive study at Bell Laboratories followed the career trajectories of engineers in an attempt to identify the traits of star performers and determine how to recruit and retain the best engineers. In his paper, “Are We Selling Results or Résumés?: The Underexplored Linkage between Human Resource Strategies and Firm-Specific Capital,” William D. Henderson reports that what they found was striking:

    - researchers found no relationship between performance and various social, psychological, and cognitive abilities, such as I.Q
    - higher productivity among knowledge workers was attributable to several distinctive work strategies that were teachable
    - controlled experiments showed large and persistent productivity gains for engineers who completed the training program, with women and minority workers posting the largest increases [emphasis added]

    What this suggests is that building a great team depends less on recruiting stars, and more on how you develop the people who work with you. A great leader will take the time and make the effort to ensure their team learns the “distinctive work strategies” for success that the researchers at Bell Labs found were “teachable.”

    In knowledge management, as in politics or any other discipline, good leadership is a rare asset. Those of us who have it will be ahead of the pack. The good news is that even members of that pack can develop some of the attributes of good leadership. And, when they do, we’ll all be much better off.

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  • It’s a natural human tendency to run from failure. In our understandable need to avoid pain, we try to put it behind us and move on. (The more cynical would say, we sweep it under the carpet, shrug, and move on.) While I’d be the last one to recommend that we should wallow in misery, it is useful to remember from time to time that the main point of experience is to learn and grow. And, it is hard to learn and grow without a little reflection and analysis. Reflecting on your successes may give your ego a brief boost, but that in and of itself doesn’t always equip you for the next challenge. Reflecting on your mistakes can, if you’re careful about how you uncover, analyze and handle the information.

    Nancy White at Full Circle Associates makes this point in her post, Learning from our mistakes, in which she reports on the remarkable after action review undertaken at Amazon after an embarrassing technical failure. What comes through her report is the integrity and decency inherent in the way Amazon handled what could have been an opportunity for upset, abuse and unhappiness in the hands of less skillful managers and a less mature organization. Their object wasn’t to find fault, but to learn. As Nancy White observes:

    “Pulling our mistakes out and looking with them, alone and with the aid of colleagues, is a simple and effective learning practice. But it takes both a personal commitment to productively looking at our warts (rather than simple self-flagellation or guilt) and an organizational culture that values learning along with success. And we all know it… we learn more from our failures than our successes.”

    I can’t stress enough the importance of leadership in this exercise. Every child knows how to deflect blame and finger point. That isn’t an effective after action review. That’s an exercise in avoiding responsibility. In Amazon’s case, the participants appear to have assumed responsibility and then taken the next vital step: they understood that this responsibility required them to learn from the event sufficiently to avoid repeating their mistakes. Very few of us do this without the right leadership. I don’t know who at Amazon led this effort, but I do commend them.

    Leaders help us rise above our natural tendencies and move us along the path to doing the right thing for ourselves and for our organizations. However, this isn’t a isolated action. Well before the mistake occurs, a good leader will have put in place an organizational culture that emphasizes the importance of innovating, going out of our comfort zone, and taking reasonable risks. Above all, a good leader understands that innovation inevitably involves mistakes. A great leader knows how to use those mistakes to yield the maximum advantage (in terms of lessons learned and growth) for their team and their enterprise.

    When you’re dealing with an organization that faces liability if it doesn’t reach the right result every time in a predictable, controlled fashion, mistakes take on an even greater importance. Consequently, there can be a tendency to sacrifice innovation and growth for predictability and control. In that environment, mistakes are barely tolerated and rarely encouraged. The problem is that an organization without mistakes is an organization without innovation and growth.

    In our drive to avoid mistakes, we don’t always spend enough time learning how to react to mistakes in a manner that is productive. Therefore, when we do respond, it is often in an ad hoc way that doesn’t take advantage of the tremendous opportunity for growth presented by mistakes. The good news is that response patterns to mistakes are learned responses and can be improved — provided participants know they won’t become scapegoats or pariahs. Looking to cases like the Amazon after action review can provide some guidance on a better way to learn from mistakes, grow, and achieve greater success.

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  • Don’t kid yourselves. If you haven’t realized that knowledge management is about leadership, you’re in the wrong business. It takes leadership to analyze and implement system reforms. It takes leadership to achieve behavioral and cultural change. It takes leadership to get all of this done when your colleagues aren’t entirely sure they know what it is you do for a living.

    Leadership is a huge topic in the business press and gets scrutinized regularly. Much of what we read is not terribly deep, although occasionally someone publishes an insight that can help broaden our view. Often we are distracted by the razzle dazzle of celebrity CEOs whose personal flair (and adoring press) tend to obscure the basic fact that at the end of the day the core components of leadership remain remarkably consistent over time. — regardless of personality.

    In “Driving Lessons,” Knowledge @ Wharton interviews Dr. Dieter Zetsche about lessons learned while with Chrysler. In the article he talks about his experiences running and then selling the company. What emerges is a summary of those core components of leadership:

    1. Competence

    In Zetsche’s experience, “if your people sense you are not prepared or don’t have the right stuff to get the job done, you’re in trouble. Even if they don’t like your personality, they will respect your ability.” He then discussed how basic competence is the building block to creating a sense of common purpose that helps colleagues tackle change. “`As a leader, you have to be consistent in implementing the program and making very clear that sitting out is not an option,’ said Zetsche. Good leaders make change and common goals part of the corporate culture. `The key for any leader is to make sure everyone on the team is on the same page and understands where he or she is going….’” For knowledge managers, getting everyone on the same page is a huge challenge. Having a reputation for competence will help win both the support of management and the cooperation of your colleagues. And, this support and cooperation are necessary for most KM initiatives.

    2. Responsibility

    With respect to taking responsibility, Zetsche referred to the famous sign on President Truman’s desk: The Buck Stops Here. For Zetsche, “[t]hat remains a simple and powerful statement about the responsibilities of leadership. As a leader, you simply can’t pass tough decisions up and down the line and neither can the people in the organization.” Finding a business leader who actually walks the walk is a rare thing. It’s far too common to work with people who are happy to claim the credit when things go well, but then point fingers when a problem arises. Given the nature of KM, knowledge managers often end up as de facto risk managers, quality control officers, professional trainers, chief cooks and bottle washers. With this comes huge opportunities and commensurate responsibilities. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is for knowledge workers to have a clear understanding for which buck stops here. We rarely have the wherewithal to be responsible for the entire firm. Once you and your firm are clear about the scope of your responsibilities, then you know which buck stops with you.

    3. Authenticity

    On the subject of authenticity, Zetsche notes, “`[y]ou have to be the real deal.’ Don’t pretend to be John Wayne if that description doesn’t fit you. `And if you are John Wayne, don’t pretend to be Woody Allen. If you try to be someone you are not, the analysts and the media will see right through it.’” And, perhaps more frequently, your colleagues will see right through it. In the context of knowledge management, this means having clarity about who you are and what you are supposed to be doing. It is very hard to get colleagues to do things they would not otherwise do if they aren’t sure who you and what you stand for. A lack of authenticity leads to a lack of trust. And trust is critical if you are trying to bring about lasting change.

    Leadership and knowledge management are inextricably entwined. While great leaders may be born not made, none of us is incapable of developing competence, responsibility and authenticity. It all starts with a good faith effort in the right direction.

    [Disclosures: (1) The Knowledge@Wharton article may require a password, but registration is free. (2) My firm has had the privilege of working with Chrysler for many years. (3) I'm posting this using the mail to blogger functionality -- let's see what happens...]

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