Adopting the 12 Days of Christmas Approach to KM

12 days of Christmas graphic wikipediaIf you let your sense of time be guided by Madison Avenue, then by January 5 we are well into the New Year, and Christmas is long since past. Even the after-Christmas sales are old news at this point.

But the Madison Avenue view of life is not the only, or even the best, view of life. There is an alternative view according to which January 5 is not merely a day that occurs after Christmas, but rather is the 12th day of Christmas. According to this approach, Christmas is not a day, but a season. It is commemorated by the English carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas. While the particular identity and meaning of each of the gifts may vary according to different sources, the underlying point remains the same: Christmas does not begin and end on December 25.

So why does this matter for knowledge management professionals? Aside for providing an excuse for additional gifts, it also serves as a timely reminder that things are not always as they seem. While one perspective (in this case, the Madison Avenue perspective) may be telling you the main event is over, looking at things from a different perspective (in this example, the Christian liturgical calendar) suddenly reveals that the festive season rightly should continue for much longer than you might have expected.

Similarly, in our work it is too easy to declare events or projects a success or failure and then turn our attention to other things. But have we actually fully explored and understood what happened?

  • Have we drawn all reasonable lessons from our experience?
  • Have we found useful and effective ways to share our learning with others?
  • Have we improved our systems and processes to reflect that learning?
  • Is our decision-making better because of that learning?
  • Have we squeezed every last drop of juice out of the experience?

The job of knowledge management professionals is to make the system work better — not to condemn the system, our colleagues and ourselves to making the same mistakes over and over again. However, if you treat your projects or matters as one-off events — like Madison Avenue treats Christmas — then you miss a golden opportunity to derive the fullest possible value from each experience.

In 1984, the PNC Bank established the Christmas Price Index by calculating the cost in present-day dollars of actually giving someone each of the gifts enumerated in the carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas. The cost in 1984 dollars of giving one set of each of the gifts was $12,623.10. The “true” cost of Christmas (i.e., giving as many sets of each gift as indicated by the repeated lines of the song, that is 364 items) was $61,318.94 in 1984. By comparison the cost in 2014 of one set of gifts was $27,673.21 while the cumulative cost of the gifts as repeated was $116,273.06.

While PNC has provided this fun new tradition (as well as a game and other resources for children) to help show the cost of the 12 Days of Christmas Approach to gift giving, I’m not aware of any data that show the true cost to KM professionals and their organizations of their failure to spend the extra time to wring every possible lesson out of every experience.

While the 12 Days of Christmas traditionally end on January 5 (according to the western liturgical calendar), I wonder if a KM calendar should extend them to the entire year? After all, can we or our organizations afford not to take advantage of every gift of learning that comes from experience?


Just for fun, here are two of my favorite new versions of the carol:

Straight No Chaser

Bob Chilcott’s arrangement:

[Photo credit: Wikipedia]



Why Read the Book When You’ve Got the Cover?

We should have learned our lesson by now:  the lesson that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  Nonetheless, time after time, we rush to judgment with precious little objective evidence to support our position.

I was reminded of this when a trail of links led me to some clips from Britain’s Got Talent.  In this instance, Simon Cowell could have been any one of us.  He clearly reached a negative conclusion based on appearances alone and then had to backtrack in the face of evidence that completely undermined his premature judgment.

For those of you who are devotees of this show, the encounter with Jonathan Antoine will remind you of Susan Boyle’s introduction to the world:

And there was Paul Potts as well:

In fairness, research indicates that we may not be able to help ourselves when it comes to judging faces:

…when we see a new face, our brains decide whether a person is attractive and trustworthy within a tenth of a second, according to recent Princeton research.

Princeton University psychologist Alex Todorov has found that people respond intuitively to faces so rapidly that our reasoning minds may not have time to influence the reaction — and that our intuitions about attraction and trust are among those we form the fastest.

“The link between facial features and character may be tenuous at best, but that doesn’t stop our minds from sizing other people up at a glance,” said Todorov, an assistant professor of psychology. `We decide very quickly whether a person possesses many of the traits we feel are important, such as likeability and competence, even though we have not exchanged a single word with them. It appears that we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way.’

Nonetheless, we owe it to ourselves to try to be as rational as possible when making decisions.  We owe it to ourselves to be aware of the tendency to act without rational thought and then counteract it with an evenhanded search for evidence. If we aren’t always capable of rational thought, we should at a minimum be honest about that failing.

Lest you think it is only folks in the entertainment industry who persist in reaching judgments on the strength of the cover alone without bothering to read the book, consider how some folks in the legal industry reach their judgments on non-legal matters. Have you heard someone dismiss a technology out of hand without taking the time to try it properly?  Have you seen someone purchase a device or software without doing much due diligence beforehand? Have you heard anyone make a pronouncement about the adoption or usefulness of  “X”  without first looking at the relevant data? (You can replace X with the name of almost any law firm knowledge management system or IT system.)

Rapid cognition may be supremely helpful in a life-or-death situation where quick reflexes and decisions can mean survival. But, for all the other circumstances in life, what do we lose when we make snap decisions?




Chaos Control Collaboration

TED 2011 - Eric Whitacre ©Suzie Katz #2521Nature may abhor a vacuum, but management abhors chaos.  And middle managers cling to control as if it is the only thing standing between them and perdition.

Winning the middle” is the strategy that targets those middle managers who sometimes seem so fearful of social media tools behind the firewall.  To be fair, they may well have a legitimate concern of being sidelined by technology that allows their subordinates to communicate directly to people in other departments or even to senior management.   (See that specter of chaos?)  One solution suggested by some is to suppress all mention of “social,” referring instead to Enterprise 2.0 or “Modern Communications Infrastructure.”  That may help overcome initial concerns that social media will lead to delinquency at work, but I doubt it will help middle managers truly understand the potential of these new tools.  To do that, you have to give them an understanding of the value of that potential — a value big enough to outweigh their fears.

To expand the horizons of a manager who is petrified of losing control, try offering an example that shows a wonderful blend of individual autonomy subject to light control (voluntarily accepted) leading to fruitful collaboration.  In case you don’t have plenty of examples of this phenomenon handy, may I propose the following:  spend a few minutes with Eric Whitacre and his extraordinary virtual choirs. (See video)

Here you have people around the world who voluntarily contributed their time and talents in a collaborative creative effort.  They avoided complete chaos by agreeing to work within a shared governance structure — in this case, Eric Whitacre’s score — and time frame.  And, they accepted Mr. Whitacre’s leadership for the project — leadership that imposed a very light (but critical) measure of control with a judicious hand.  What makes it all work?  The talent of the musicians and the “magic” of technology.  In the first virtual choir, the organizers took the homemade video recordings of 185 singers from 12 countries and created an cohesive, beautiful whole.  In the second virtual choir, they combined 2052 singers from 58 countries. Technology allowed these musicians to work separately but yet together, to produce something that would be difficult to create without social media.

Now, think about what a model like this could mean for your organization.  Do you have work teams that are spread around the globe? Do your subject matter experts need to reach outside their traditional silos?  Imagine them working across geographies, disciplines and business units via a common platform that allows them to share information, learn and collaborate without travel.

Opening a world of new possibilities is one result of good technology deployed well.  What possibilities could you unearth if you and your colleagues were able to use Enterprise 2.0 technology to help you work as if you were part of a talented virtual choir?


Lux Aurumque:


[Photo Credit: Suzie Katz]


How High the Moon?

Les Paul 93rd Birthday Concert I’m not easily impressed, but today Google impressed me.  How?  They put an extraordinary “Google Doodle” on their search page in honor of the June 9 birthday of the legendary guitarist, Les Paul. (See video below.)

One of the great benefits of living in New York City is that we have access to amazing performers.  Nearly everyone who is anyone comes to New York to strut their stuff.  And Les Paul was no exception.  In fact, well into his 90s, he had a regular gig on Monday nights at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City.  I was fortunate enough to experience the magic. There he would sit with his trio and make the most astonishing music with his iconic electric guitar.  Over the course of the evening, he played many of his greatest hits for a highly appreciative audience — an audience that went wild when he launched into a famously fast rendition of How High the Moon.  Inevitably, a listener was left open-mouthed, wondering how he produced such fantastic sounds from his instrument.

In a similar fashion, even this jaded New Yorker was left open-mouthed when I realized that the Les Paul Google Doodle was interactive.  (See the video below.) By moving my cursor over the strings of the guitar image, I could produce the sound of an electric guitar.  Amazing!

You may be less easily impressed and feel that I ought get out and see the world more often, but that’s really not the point.  The beauty of this playable guitar on a Google search page is that it reminds us that we haven’t yet reached the limits of what’s possible using online media.  In some ways many of us have until now merely moved our old print or telephonic or face-to-face communications to our computers, and we haven’t looked for much more than improved speed and some hyperlinks. Google’s guitar points to a much wider range of possibilities — allowing us to co-create, allowing us to experience new things — all through the computer.

Keep this in mind when you return to the daily grind of your office.  We have tools on our desks that are grossly underutilized.  While we may not have access to Google’s talented designers, I bet there’s a great deal more we could do with our existing computing power if only we thought outside the (music) box.

In honor of the innovative musician, Les Paul, take this Google Doodle to heart and to work tomorrow. Push your systems, your designs and your imagination a little harder, a little further.  Just start by asking the classic Les Paul and Mary Ford question:  How High the Moon?


This video captures the Les Paul Google Doodle in Action:

Here’s a video of an older Les Paul, playing How High the Moon while doing astonishing things with his guitar (please excuse the quality of the recording):

Here are Mary Ford and Les Paul performing How High the Moon:

[Photo Credit: PiscesBlue81]


If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free

Enterprise 2.0 finally has a fight song.

While reading Andrew McAfee’s discussion of the key criteria by which to judge whether a collaboration software deployment meets the requirements of E2.0 and Alexander van Elsa’s post on how old-fashioned business models are holding back Web 2.0,  I found myself thinking about the importance of user independence, as well as the related importance of management, IT, and knowledge management trusting their users, removing the safety wheels, and letting their colleagues work with minimal constraints.  And that’s when I remembered a song that really should be the E2.0 fight song:  “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free.”

For those of us who manage employees and systems in risk-focused businesses, this level of freedom can be downright terrifying.  Over time, many managers have come to believe that unless employees are severely constrained, they will be a danger to themselves and the organization.  If that really is true, don’t we need to take a closer look at our recruiting practices and internal training methods?  Clearly, they are deficient.

You can find an interesting analogy in child-rearing.  There are few of us who would let a toddler play with matches.   However, there comes a day when you do need to teach a young person how to use matches safely.  And then, you leave them to it.  There may be the occasional burn, but most of us do master this task.  And so it is with social media tools.  We definitely do need to provide training on responsible use and reasonable expectations, but after that, leave users free to explore and create.  It’s only when you lift the stifling weight of anxiety and control that you discover just how creative your colleagues can be.  And that’s when the power of social media tools finally becomes evident to all.

If you’d like to see a video of a great live performance of the E2.0 Fight Song, here’s your link: Sting: If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free

[Photo Credit:  Creativity + Timothy K Hamilton, Creative Commons license]


Shall I Tell You Where to Go?

Do you know where you’re going to?* That’s the critical question Mark Gould asks in his recent post on social media, in which he makes the fair point that there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all social media strategy. Each person and each organization has to figure it out for themselves. And it all begins with knowing what you’re trying to achieve. Then you choose the tools that will get you to your goal.

That said, I know folks are always looking for the silver bullet, the one sure-fire way of achieving success. Putting to one side the fact that I don’t know how you define success, let me make a suggestion: Go where the conversation is. In the brief time I’ve been using social media tools, I’ve been struck by how well they facilitate conversations that cut across status, age and geography. Above all, I’ve been impressed by the richness of those conversations. But don’t be fooled by the fact that they can be brief, casual and, on occasion, banal. The reality is that these online conversations build relationships, and those relationships enrich your life. In fact, they can even be profitable in your professional life.

There was a time when the critical business conversations happened on the golf course or in particular private clubs. Increasingly, they are happening online. So if you want to participate, find a social media tool that works for you** and then use it to go where the conversation is.

[*When I first saw the blog title, “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?” I thought Mark was joining me in my series of blog posts based on popular songs. Unfortunately, it was not the case. However, for those of you who don’t mind a trip down memory lane, here’s the song I had in mind.]

[**And, for those of you who have read this far, here’s a small bit of advice: try using Twitter for three weeks and then let me know what you think. There are great conversations to be enjoyed there. If you wish, you can find me on Twitter using the tag @VMaryAbraham.]


Just the Way You Are

For those of my readers who were secretly hoping that I’d lose interest over the weekend in my current fascination with popular music and management, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I was getting ready to stop and then I discovered that Billy Joel is not only a philosopher, but a pragmatic one. His song, Just the Way You Are, is viewed by the more romantic among us as an extraordinary statement of the complete acceptance many hope to find in a relationship. For those of us more pragmatically minded, we realize that he is just stating the obvious: it’s really hard to get a person to change — so you might as well get along with what you’ve got.

While optimism and a deep belief in the perfectibility of humankind are an important part of the culture of the United States, it would be foolish to base a knowledge management department or KM program solely on the hope that folks will change. There are some fundamental elements of human nature that simply can’t be undone, although they may be tweaked around the edges. For law firm knowledge managers, understanding the basic personality type of lawyers is an important prerequisite to organizing a law firm knowledge management program that has a prayer of succeeding. For all knowledge managers, understanding the patterns of behavior in your employees and users will allow you to be much more effective.

So, let’s return to the prior discussions about the importance of recruiting the right people to your team, really knowing the people who work with you (their values, strengths and weaknesses), and then deploying them strategically so that they achieve their highest and best. If we take Billy Joel’s song to heart, getting the recruiting right is critical. By hiring people who have the right values for your team and demonstrate the ability to think critically, work creatively, learn and grow, you free yourself to pursue an ambitious knowledge management program without having to waste precious time in the nearly futile task of trying to change their fundamentals.

Understand early who they are and then take them “just the way they are.”


Hop off the bus, Gus.

I really didn’t intend to write a series on management skills and popular songs but, after yesterday’s reference to “Love the One You’re With by Crosby, Stills & Nash, here we are today with staffing issues again and Paul Simon’s classic “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”*

The impetus for the journey from one song to the next came from some thoughtful reactions to yesterday’s post that I received in the form of blog comments and some sidebar e-mail conversations. The folks who wrote to me pointed out that sometimes there simply is a mismatch between the employee and the needs of the law firm and, in these instances, you really have to part company with that employee for the firm’s sake and theirs. They are right about this. However, before things get to this state it’s important to be sure that you’ve really taken the measure of the person in question.
In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins makes an interesting observation about the importance of staffing:

We expected that good-to-great leaders would begin by setting a new vision and strategy. We found instead that they first got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats — and then they figured out where to drive it. The old adage “People are your most important asset” turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asset. The right people are.

Why this focus on people? According to Collins,

First, if you begin with “who,” rather than “what,” you can more easily adapt to a changing world. …Second, if you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away. …Third, if you have the wrong people, it doesn’t matter whether you discover the right direction; you still won’t have a great company. Great vision without great people is irrelevant.

Interestingly, in separating the right folks from the ones that don’t measure up, his research indicated that skills were not necessarily the deciding factor:

…the good-to-great companies placed greater weight on character attributes than on specific educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge, or work experience. Not that specific knowledge or skills are unimportant, but they viewed these traits as more teachable (or at least learnable), whereas they believed dimensions like character, work ethic, basic intelligence, dedication to fulfilling commitments, and values are more ingrained.

So coming full circle to yesterday’s discussion, spend the time you need to be sure that you understand the employee in question — their character, values, motivations, knowledge and skills — and then see if they meet the demands of being a part of an A+ team, regardless of the tasks to be tackled. If they have the necessary fundamentals, invest in them. This may mean moving them around the bus a little until you have them in the right seat. If they don’t have those fundamentals, get them off the bus.
*For those of you who are really paying attention, let me apologize for misquoting Paul Simon in my title. The actual lyrics of the refrain are as follows:

You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free


Love the One You’re With

Two stories this week from senior managers I know made me think again about the responsibilities of managers with respect to their staff. In the first case, the manager was a senior executive in a financial firm. He said he was struggling with what to do with certain members of his staff who “would never meet their career objectives.” The problem was that while he might have fired them in better economic times, secure in the knowledge that they could most likely find work in a less challenging firm, he was equally sure that these folks would not be able to find work easily given current economic conditions. Add to that the fact that his firm has a strong culture that emphasizes the “firm as family” and you have a difficult managerial challenge.

The second story comes from a manager who felt that his staff was stretched, exhausted and needed assistance. However, when he made his request for additional staffing, he was told that his company was in a cost-cutting mode and there could not be any additions to headcount in his department.

What’s a manager to do?

When assessing how well your staff members are performing and whether they are able to operate at their highest and best level, consider your role as manager. Two qualities that set an excellent manager apart from the herd are (i) the ability to understand what talents and abilities each member of staff has and (ii) the ability to provide a framework that allows that staff member to utilize those talents and abilities to the utmost degree to the benefit of the firm. Adherents of the strengths-based approach to staffing and management will tell you that encouraging folks to build on their strengths and successes rather than focusing primarily on their shortfalls inevitably results in higher performance for the group overall.

In the case of the manager with the under performing staff member, consider whether they are not meeting expectations because you’ve set the wrong expectations. In other words, is their under performance because they haven’t been given the opportunity to set goals and work in an area in which they have demonstrated talents and abilities? (E.g., I can practice 8 hours each day with all the determination in the world, but because I don’t have the necessary innate ability, I will never play baseball as well as Derek Jeter. If recruited to the Yankees, I would never “meet my career goals.”) In the case of the second manager with the exhausted staff, consider how much effort your existing staff members must expend to get things done. Are they working in their areas of strength or struggling in areas for which they are ill-equipped. Asking your staff to do things for which they don’t have natural talents or abilities requires them to spend additional time and energy to get up to speed and overcome their own hard-wiring. Sure they can do it, but at what cost? Contrast that with the speed and ease with which people are able to do the things for which they are hard-wired. (E.g., with enough training and perseverance, any educated person should be able to read an actuarial formula — but never as easily as someone who is naturally highly numerate and enjoys that strange language actuaries speak.) With a reasonably diligent staff, they will try hard to get the job done, but it will take longer and be more painful than if they had the necessary talents and abilities. As a result, they will be perpetually over-stretched, unable to complete all the work, and your department as a whole will under perform.

So what’s the take away from all of this? In these hard economic times managers have a greater responsibility to ensure that they are deploying their staff in a way that takes the best possible advantage of the unique talents and skills these folks bring to work. This approach maximizes the probability of high performance and high morale. Don’t waste time thinking about how you could replace these employees. Except in special circumstances, you won’t be allowed to spend the necessary funds to recruit and train someone new — assuming, of course, you’re even allowed to hire.

So, in the words of Crosby, Stills & Nash, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

[Here’s a link to hear a recording of the entire song: Love the One You’re With, Crosby, Stills & Nash]