No More Pretzels!

Let me begin with a health warning: Be careful as you watch the video below. It will give you a sympathy backache. That said, it’s worth watching it to see what a naturally gifted human pretzel can do.

Now think about how you might perform as a human pretzel.  No matter how much physical flexibility you may have, chances are that you cannot come close to the standards that Victoria Jacoby attains in the video.

Actually, let me rephrase that. Chances are that you cannot come close to her ability to contort her body, but I’m willing to bet that you far exceed her accomplishments when it comes to contorting yourself and your technology to accomplish everything you need to do everyday.

A classic case in point is email. Its ubiquity is a testament to its perceived usefulness. However, I’d suggest that we have been pushing its usefulness beyond the boundaries of safety and sanity.

So what are smart and safe uses of email? Craig Jarrow of Time Management Ninja suggests the following:

  1. Non-urgent communication
  2. Follow-up
  3. Praise
  4. Timeshifting
  5. Filtering
  6. One-t0-many communications
  7. Sending documents/pictures
  8. Mobility

If those are the good uses, what are the bad uses? In 2007 Dave Pollard outlined the bad use cases in When NOT to Use Email:

  1. To communicate bad news, complaints or criticism
  2.  When you are seeking information that is not simple and straight-forward
  3. When you are seeking approval on something that is involved or controversial
  4. When you are sending a few people complicated instructions
  5. When you are asking for comments on a long document
  6. To request information from a group on a recurring basis
  7. To convey instructions to a large number of people
  8. To achieve consensus
  9. To explore a subject or idea
  10. To send news, interesting documents, links, policies, directory updates and other “FYI” stuff.

For each of these cases, Dave Pollard provides what he considers to be the better way of communicating. (You can find a concise summary of the alternatives in his post, Getting Rid of Email.) In addition, he has created a detailed decision tree you can use to determine what mode of communication is best in each circumstance.

People are fond of saying that “Lawyers live in email.” A more accurate way of describing this is as follows: lawyers spend their days as human pretzels when it comes to email. They contort themselves and their technology, pushing it to do things it was never meant to do.

And then we get mad when things go wrong?

Perhaps it’s time we shifted from the bad use cases to the better use cases for email. Perhaps it’s time we finally outlawed pretzels — of the human and technological kind.


Dave Pollard: Conversations that Don’t Suck #kmw12 #KMWorld

Dave Pollard is retired CKO at E&Y and Director, Group Pattern Language Project. For more information on the Group Pattern Language Project see

[These are my notes from the KMWorld 2012 Conference. 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.]


  • Intention. How you prepare for a meeting has an enormous impact on the results of the meeting. For example, engaging a facilitator beforehand can help surface conflicting agendas early. What matters with respect to intention? Set the focus for the meeting early and articulate that priority clearly and early.
  • Context. To promote better conversation, place them in a pleasant discussion space. Even if you have participants of different rank, make sure you’ve created a welcoming and equal playing field so that everyone feels empowered to contribute regardless of rank. Be sure that you understand and give respect to group culture and the history/context of the discussion. Finally, make sure you’ve invited the right people to the meeting and that all of them are present and participating.
  • Relationship. “Hosting” a meeting is a critical role. They set and maintain the tone of the meeting. You can help build relationship by breaking bread together, expressing appreciation for the members of the group and encouraging the good faith assumption (i,e., accept that we are all doing our best). Other critical factors are transparency, shared airtime and continuous attention to tending the relationships as they grow,
  • Flow. Pay attention to the rhythm, energy, balance, and pacing from beginning to end. How you open a meeting sets the tone. Equally how you close the meeting can help with resolution — especially where there has been conflict or uncertainty in the meeting. Be aware that if you are exploring a new topic or looking for new ideas, you need to observe the divergence/convergence rhythm: diverge so that you can brainstorm and then converge to come to consensus.
  • Creativity. Be careful that you don’t shut down creativity too early. Common ways of doing this are failing to encourage bold thinking, trying to force new ideas into an existing structure too quickly, using budgetary constraints to stop new ideas, being unwilling to be playful (using humor and fun). That said, be aware of the “power of constraints.” If you embrace limitations as challenges, that can help focus your efforts more productively. Just be aware of your intentions — don’t rush to a constraint if your goal is to shut down the current conversation.
  • Perspective. When it looks like a meeting is running off the rails, it may be necessary to help everyone shift perspective. For example, help the group focus on common ground. While doing that, don’t ignore what’s going on — be sure to honor the contradiction and ambiguity that has emerged. Other ways of shifting perspective are (1) Fractal (notice patterns repeating at different levels); (2) Go meta (widen the lens, change the frame of analysis; (3) Change your focus by zooming in or zooming out (focus on forest or focus on trees); (4) Time shift (reflect on the past, envision the future); (5) Translation (reframe, articulate, bridge differences); (6) Value the margins (listen to voices from the edge);(7) Viewpoint shift (see with new eyes so you can think differently about the problem).
  • Modelling. The facilitator needs to be very courageous throughout this process — don’t be defensive — just hold the participants to their commitment to achieve/perform together. In addition, the facilitator needs to “hold space” — this means maintaining the trust, focus and openness of the group. Sometimes the facilitator may need to say “I’m stuck here and need help moving us past this logjam.” Ideal participant behaviors include (1) listening carefully until you really understand what is being said (or not said); (2) mirroring — reflecting back what you’ve heard; (3) don’t things personally — it isn’t always about you; (4) be self-aware — understand your own values, biases, needs, biases, gifts. One key technique is to use the words “Yes, and” rather than beginning with the word “But.”
  • Inquiry & Synthesis. At this stage, it’s important to take time to reflect. Then distill by summarizing/synthesizing what’s been said or decided. If necessary,consider going deeper (drilling down) until you really undersatnd what’s going on.
  • Faith. While this may be a tough concept for a business audience, it is important that people trust that by doing the right things, the right result will emerge. Letting go and letting come can be very hard — especially for the faciitator.



Are You Obsolete or Mission Critical?

Given the state of the economy, it’s wise to ask yourself from time to time if you are closer to obsolete than mission critical.  As you think about your answer to that question, I’d recommend that you take a look at Rick Mans’ post, Should Knowledge Managers Look for a New Job, and the accompanying comments.  The message that comes through is that in an Enterprise 2.0 world there won’t be much of a need for knowledge managers who act as gatekeepers (i.e., deciding what information is worthy of collecting or sharing) or archivists (i.e., collecting and organizing information in a central repository in accordance with a strict taxonomy).  Rather, knowledge managers who wish to remain employed will need to morph into facilitators who help people work with new collaboration tools, comply with community-derived tagging guidelines, and share information.  While I agree with the general thrust of Rick’s post and the accompanying comments, I fear that the implied time horizon is too short.

Why too short?  I suspect that in the long-term organizations are going to be increasingly reluctant to fund large groups of knowledge managers to do work that should be done by front line knowledge workers.  Instead, employers are going to expect that every knowledge worker has at least minimum competence in personal knowledge management.  Accordingly, knowledge managers will move into personal knowledge management coaching.  These shifts make economic and practical sense.  For too long, knowledge workers have been outsourcing their KM responsibilities to centralized KM departments.  The distance between the KM department and the front line often results in central data repositories that tend to reflect management’s view of what’s important rather than the shifting concerns and interests of front line knowledge workers who actually have to use the information collected.  Unfortunately, as Dave Pollard aptly points out, management itself is often too far removed from the front line to understand what the front line knowledge worker truly needs.  The problem is compounded if the knowledge managers don’t have subject matter expertise.  Without the experience of walking in the shoes of the front line workers they are supposed to be supporting, their decisions about what’s important to collect and how to organize it or what collaborative tools to provide will largely be based on hearsay.

Further, the traditional one-size-fits-all approach to information management has disregarded the fact that our centralized collections rarely fit many.  Research reported by the Wharton School of Business found that a focus on knowledge capture didn’t always yield the desired benefits and sometimes incurred some painful costs:

We find that using codified knowledge in the form of electronic documents saved time during the task, but did not improve work quality or signal competence to clients, whereas in contrast, sharing personal advice improved work quality and signaled competence, but did not save time….  This is interesting because managers often believe that capturing and sharing knowledge via document databases can substitute for getting personal advice, and that sharing advice through personal networks can save time.

Partly in response to this research, Harold Jarche has suggested that it’s past time that we moved beyond “central digital repositories.”  Instead, we should focus on enabling what he calls a “parallel system” to support knowledge workers in those many instances in which the central repository proves inadequate.  What would that parallel system look like?  Here are his suggestions:

  • Develop measures that can help experienced knowledge workers capture and make sense of their knowledge. [This is personal KM.]
  • Support the sharing of information and expertise between knowledge workers, on their terms, using personalized knowledge management methods & tools.
  • Keep only essential information, and what is necessary for inexperienced workers, in the organizational knowledge base – keep it simple.

So what might a future knowledge manager spend their time doing?  Primarily, coaching individual knowledge workers to become effective personal knowledge managers and online collaborators. Secondarily, creating systems that facilitate collaboration and allow passive sharing of the results of these individual personal KM efforts.  This mission critical approach puts knowledge management where it belongs — on the front lines and in the hands of the the knowledge workers who can use the information shared to strengthen networks and produce revenue.

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Here are some additional resources if you’re interested in learning more about Personal Knowledge Management and the possible future direction of KM:

[Photo Credit:  Kimberly Faye]