Borrowing with pride, acknowledging with style, sharing with humility.

I was participating in a Twitter chat yesterday with staff from across the UK’s National Health Service, on the topic of quality improvement, facilitated by Hugh McCaughey, the NHS’s National Director of Improvement   

One of the threads of discussion picked up on the opportunities for knowledge reuse, and Hugh used the phrase ‘Borrow with Pride’.

We’re all familiar with the idea of ‘Steal with Pride’ – (or ‘pinch with pride’, as Caroline, one of the other participants put it), but there is something in the idea of stealing and pinching which runs counter to the idea of a knowledge marketplace or a reciprocative - or even altruistic - knowledge-sharing environment. 

Borrowing suggests that ownership remains unchanged, and the item will be treated with respect and care. Stealing….. well, you can join the dots on that one!

Acknowledgement is key to this – we should take pride not just in the fact that we discovered something of value, but in who we have borrowed from. We should wear the @ tags of recognition of those who have gone before us – those from whom we are learning - as medals of honour! 

adapted from an image on

adapted from an image on

(“Lacknowledgment” is one of my revised seven deadly syndromes of knowledge sharing - thanks Lynnette for the reminder!)

Most of the time we are borrowing insights, experiences, ideas – sometimes embodied in documents – but often not. So how do we make it easier for people to ‘borrow’ what we know (with confidence that they will acknowledge us, of course)?

I believe that most people are most likely to re-use something shared in the spirit of "I tried this and it worked for me" (good practice in my context) – “this was what we did”, “this was what we adapted from others”, “this was probably where we got lucky”… (thank you Google Inc for that last one). That kind of muted trumpeting requires the sharer to dial back on the PowerPoint gloss a little, be authentic and reduce the barriers to acceptance - to share with a little humility.

Perhaps that's what knowledge leadership is all about?

Image by  Jessica Boyle

I'll get by with a little help from my friends

Two days ago I turned 50. There. I said it out loud!

One of the features of ‘milestone birthdays’ is that you receive a lot of empathy from your peers. This was demonstrated very practically at our ‘We’re all 50 this year’ school reunion in Devon, where I spent my childhood. (I'm in the back row, 8th in from the left).

Dawlish Comprehensive School -  Class of 1984

Dawlish Comprehensive School -  Class of 1984







It was lovely to see around 70 schoolmates with whom I’d long since lost touch, all together again thanks largely to the magic of Facebook events and some additional detective work by the organising committee. 

What really struck me was the way in which we reconstructed our memories from 34 years ago by combining fragments. None of us had the whole story, and I suspect that most of us had long forgotten or misplaced the memories we had – but somehow, when we started to reminisce and ‘ditt’ together, our collective memory became greater than the sum of the parts. Our memory had been socially reconstructed from distributed, social storage. It wasn’t just what we could remember ourselves, it was what we sparked back from our deeper memories.

It got me wondering how much opportunity we give to this kind of reflection and retrieval when we consider our organisational knowledge. 

  • Is it built largely from individual expert interviews, webinars and artefacts?
  • Are we missing out on what we could re-construct together?
  • Can we do more with processes and tools to access the kind of collective organisational memory and learning which is more insightful than the sum of our individual memories? 

And what about the reverse process - when we disband teams, or retire experts - what is the impact on the availability of knowledge?

It's easy to assume that when a team dissolves, each of the members take the knowledge, lessons and stories with them. Completely. Within this assumption, every team member is a  repository and can be managed and reallocated as a lossless, portable knowledge transfer approach, plugged into the next project just like a lego brick.

My experience is that many of the stories and insights don't reside wholly with an individual - they only surface when two former team members (or school mates) come together and spark each other's memories to release the value. Without the other half, the knowledge value of that shared story is volatile, and at risk of dispersing into the ether.


In this world there is a real loss of knowledge when a team is disbanded and reallocated - it's not all carried by the individuals, recoupable from a set of separate interviews.  The sum of the separated parts is now less than the sum of the parts when they were together.

If you can remember your school Chemistry, you might say that shared memory is a covalent bond, not an ionic one!

Perhaps the Beatles were right all along, that we really do get by with a little help from our friends.

Is KM a quick fix or a slow burner?

BBQs, Brais, whatever you want to call them, they’re one of the reasons that Summer evenings are the long, relaxing family times that they should be.

After years of using, abusing and replacing BBQs of various types and sizes, I succumbed to the marketing of the Big Green Egg Company and bought one. I admit, it was an indulgence – but I love it!

For the uninitiated, it’s a ceramic, charcoal-fuelled BBQ/grill/smoker which (according to the advert) can cook pretty much anything – but does particularly well at slow-roast hickory-infused joints of pork, lamb, beef – gently smoking away for up to 8 hours at a time, until is just falls off the bone. Mmmmm. Now I’m starting to drool.

I had a call today with a long-standing client in a UK’s government department. Over the last 4 years, I’ve been delivering a half-day leadership programme for their middle and senior managers, entitled “knowledge sharing strategies”. During that time, nearly 400 staff have participated in a range of activities: inventing knowledge transfer approaches for the Olympic Games, flying with the Red Arrows and hearing from heart surgeons, reflecting on quotations from Einstein to Toffler, Prusak and Snowden, diagnosing the seven deadly knowledge-sharing syndromes and learning from leaders.

This client was excited to report that there were clear signs that the training was bearing fruit: after action reviews are becoming more widespread, project reviews have become more meaningful, people are experimenting with randomised coffee trials to connect across boundaries, subject experts are consolidating knowledge into ‘knowledge assets’ which connect back to their SharePoint repository, people actively consider learning before doing, knowledge loss is being addressed as a real risk, and leaders are more aware of how their own behaviours and questions can shape the environment for knowledge-sharing. There’s still a long way to go to join up these puddles of good practice in to a river of improved performance, but it’s really good to see evidence of real change. The programme continues…

So what’s the connection between my Big Green Egg and that client conversation?

It’s all about patience and time

If my 20 years working in the field of knowledge management have taught me anything, it’s that whilst there may well be quick wins, there are no quick fixes.

 Some people perceive KM the business improvement equivalent of a beef burger – pre-processed content, a quick grill, flip it over, and it’s ready for consumption.

Change the technology. Send out a management missive. Start up a discussion or implement microblogging and call it a community, then look for the benefits in a few months.

My experience is that a sustainable implementation of knowledge management is far more like a slow-roasted joint of meat – well-chosen, marinated and prepared. We’re talking about hours rather than minutes, depending on the tenderness and cut of the meat in question – but the smokey aroma reminds you that it’s worth the wait.



In just the same way, when we consider strategic KM, we’re talking in terms of years rather than months. For this client, it’s taken 3-4 years to see great examples emerging – some organisations are more ‘tender’ and change comes more rapidly – but generally KM is a slow burner.  That’s not to say we don’t need to identify quick wins, or sparks of inspiration as we go. Most change programmes need a steady trickle of these to keep sponsors happy and keep the faith and morale high in any implementation team – however, let’s not settle just for the quick wins and lose sight of what’s really possible. 

Just as we wouldn’t invest in a Big Green Egg to just to grill burgers – let’s ensure that our impatience doesn’t deny us the long-term, lasting benefits of a knowledge-enabled organisation.  That might mean that we have to re-educate the business palate of a few key people – but in the end, it’s well worth it…


Now isn’t that much more appealing than a burger?

Finishing the unfinishable. Where lessons should lead.

I had the pleasure of working in Edinburgh today, and flew in over the Forth Bridge (the rail bridge). It’s an iconic engineering landmark and a symbol of Scotland, which was recognised earlier this month by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

What this bridge is most famous for though, is that the task of ‘painting the Forth Bridge’ has become a metaphor for never-ending, unfinishable jobs. With 240,000 square metres of steel to cover with 230,000 litres of paint – no sooner have the painting team finished the job, that the weathering processes mean that they have to start again. 

Until recently that is.

Four years ago, new innovative epoxy paint with glass flakes was used on the bridge – the same paint that is used by the offshore oil industry. The new coating is predicted to last 25 years, ending the 120-year tradition of continuous painting. (Well, let’s face it, they needed a rest!)

This is a helpful metaphor for lesson learning in organisations.

  • It’s not unusual for the same lessons to learned over and over again by different teams in the same organisation.
  • It’s not uncommon for the same lessons to be captured over and over again in the same system.
  • It’s not uncommon for other teams to be well aware of the lessons which their peers learned before them.
  • Sometimes they even modify their plans accordingly – but even that shouldn’t be seen as the end-game.

 Effective lesson-learning isn’t predicated on the endless handover of the same knowledge and learning baton from team-to-team. That’s just like the ‘painting the Forth Bridge’ cliché. Learning is transferred but nothing fundamentally changes as a consequence.

 In 2011, something fundamentally changed with the Forth Bridge. Insights from the use of paint in another industry was suggested, tests were conducted, a business case was formed, a decision was made, a project was funded a specialist painting contractor received a lucrative contract (and the incumbent paint supplier lost an established customer), the old paint was blasted off and the new paintwork was completed after a ten-year effort. The unfinishable was finished.

 Learning, Innovation, Adaptation, Change, Improvement, Value Creation.

The future of Knowledge Management – Births, Deaths or Marriages?

A few months ago I was asked to present at Henley Business School’s annual conference on the past and future of knowledge management, looking backwards and forwards 15 years.
Without sharing the whole presentation, here is a summary of my thoughts.

My own family has changed dramatically in that time – as Hannah, my 15 year-old will testify!  In several respects, KM hasn’tchanged a great deal over the past 15 years.  Many of the practices which were pioneering approaches in 2001 are still surprisingly effective and still surprisingly novel for some in 2016.

Not all practice are equal though.  Different KM practices evolve and develop at different paces.  For example: communities of practice and lessons learned go through gentle spirals and eddies of improvement and iteration whilst other developments seem to go past in the fast lane…

We have also seen significant shifts in KM due to changes in other related disciplines.  The rise of enterprise social networks over the past 10 years has added much momentum to KM – probably changing KM’s mix and perception from then on.

At a high level, we have seen a shift from a focus on Knowledge capture and Information management – ‘just in case’ KM, which generated a response to information overload in the form of distillation and curation and the formation and management of knowledge assets – ‘just enough’. Timeliness – just in time’ knowledge is also a critical issue. As  Dave Snowden once said: “we don’t know what we know until we need it”. And now ‘just for me’ knowledge comes with the growth of personalization and tailored knowledge flows over the last 5 years.   5 years ago, when we searched for the same word on google, we got the same result.  That’s no longer the case.

Looking forward, I asked the SIKM community, one of the longest–standing KM leaders communities – for their thoughts on the key developments over the next 15 years. Technology will continue to disrupt (positively) the KM marketplace, but that doesn’t mean that human KM is going away – but we’ll continue to get better at it, especially as the nature of he employment contract, the psychological contract and the very nature of organizations shifts. IP will continue to evolve to keep the lawyers busy (the ones which haven’t been replaced by robots), as Open Data and the sharing economy combine with the changes to organizations to create what the Chinese might describe as “interesting times”.  At an individual level, we’ll see more of a shift to personal social broadcasting.  Periscope is just the tip of a bigger iceberg.  Add personal drones, virtual reality and wearable technology to the mix and we’ll all be streaming and broadcasting in multiple dimensions. Google search will just have to keep pace.

What does all this mean for KM?  The community had different views. They agreed that KM will be devolved further into the workforce, which could create a resurgence for expertise to help with that shift.

As part of its maturing, KM as an ever-growing umbrella may find that the unifying material has stretched too thinly to remain meaningful.  How broad can a broad church become, before it loses the faithful?

Back to our river of ‘justs’…  going on from ‘just for me’, I think we’ll see that increase in social broadcasting ‘just from me’ with our employees (whatever “employees” means then) – thousands of potential channels to tune into in real time.  In 2001, our only employee “footprints” were emails!  Think how much that will be enriched. And by the way, will any of us even use email in 2031?

Cognitive computing will better anticipate our knowledge needs based on current context, history, geography, proximity to others – and suggest answers to the questions we hadn’t even though to ask ourselves. ‘Just thought you should know’

Ultimately, some of those decisions will be made for us – ‘just decided for you’ –  and we will have to decide what we, and our children do to thrive in that world.

My predictions for the future of KM?

Some things are ‘evergreen’. People will always need to talk, learn, reflect,
network, collaborate and interact.

Expertise will continue be prized, but the bar will be raised on machine learning. Employment boundaries will change and become more permeable; communities and networks will become more flexible. HR will finally embrace the strategic, people-oriented elements of KM, and we’ll see it at the heart of OD capability, rather than on the periphery.

Technology will change significantly, offering huge opportunities to a smaller number of people who understand how to integrate behaviour, understanding and technology.


So for KM?  I don’t think we’ll be using the label in 2031 – but well recognise today’s KM DNA in a series of sub-disciplines which it has become unbundled into.  Knowledge, Learning and Change will still be fundamental to success.

A couple of years ago, a respected thought leader in KM blogged that KM wasn’t quite dead, but was in its death throes. I think he confused death throes for labour pains.  We’ll see KM as the mother and father of many thriving child disciplines.

However, just like my daughters Martha and Hannah – these child disciplines may one day chose to marry and take on a new surname – but they will always have my DNA.

A time to write, a time to talk...

Two things have got me reflecting on how we decide when to write and when to talk.

Yesterday I had the privilege of spending the day with a regiment in the British Army, helping them to apply knowledge management and organisational learning.  Over dinner in the mess, the officer next to me was telling me that he had overseen a successful social event for the regiment during the previous year,  and that he was passing on the baton to another officer to do the same this year. He was personally frustrated that he hadn’t yet considered what he had learned, or written any procedures for his colleague – and was unlikely to have time to do so. “Why don’t you just talk together over a beer?” I asked?
I won’t forget the look of relief on his face!

Such is the cultural emphasis on formal codification in his military experience that he hadn’t really considered a more informal method of sharing his knowledge. I got them together after the dinner over that beer and happily told them that ‘my work here is done.’

Secondly, this entertaining TED talk by Elizabeth Stockoe (Professor of Social Interaction at Loughborough University) illustrates so well the conversational richness which is accessible to an expert like Elizabeth, and the way in which it can be encoded and analysed – and how much I would have missed!  It made me appreciate afresh the knowledge we lose in codification – so much of the message never makes it into the written record. Bullet points really do kill knowledge.

So these two inputs have got me reflecting on this typical exchange:

“Can we have a chat about what you think about this project?”
“Let me email you some thoughts as soon as I’m back online…”

We make this kind of decision every day, often subconsciously.  Shall I send a message/email; shall I pick up the phone; should I drop by and talk face to face, or over a coffee?  Whenever we do this, we’re making a decision about the relative value ofcodification versus conversation.  In a sense, we execute our personal version of a KM strategy on a micro-scale.

Each approach has its own efficiencies and trade-offs:

Codification creates an record of the message, and provides an opportunity to multiply its reach for free, and releases us from doing anything at a specific moment in time.  Write (and edit) it once, when you have time – and then share your message with as many people as you like.

However – as Dave Snowden says – “we will always say more than we can write down” – so when I decide to ’email you some thoughts’, I am making the judgement that:

  • the tonality and visual cues which would present in a spoken conversation can be left out with minimal damage to the message;
  • that I can capture enough of the necessary detail unambiguously in writing in time for it to be useful to you,
  • that I can anticipate the questions which you might have have asked,
  • and any that new direction which a conversation might have taken probably wouldn’t have been of great value..

These four points would be addressed through conversation – but that requires us to agree a time to connect – so the exchange is no longer on my terms.

Other factors and preferences also come in to play:  Am I energised by social interaction, do I enjoy this person’s company, is this a relationship which I should invest in? 

I think we balance this equation subconsciously  – so  doing some of my thinking out loud here has helped me to examine the relative weighting I give to each factor.
All of which has led me to a new year resolution:

write less and converse more

Learning from others – shedding new light, or entering a hall of mirrors?

Bringing the right knowledge to bear on the important business issues – isn’t that the essence of the contribution that knowledge management makes to organisations?
But how do we know what the ‘right knowledge’ is in a given situation?

Knowledge management has much to offer in terms of techniques for bringing knowledge together: in addition to the various content collation, curation and social tools, we can introduce numerous in-person processes for sharing anecdotes and stories, conversation-based knowledge cafes, speed-consulting, communities of practice, peer assists and peer reviews – to name but a few.

Some of these techniques bring focused expertise to solve a defined problem, and drive continuous improvement whilst others bring more diverse views and provoke innovation.
This may be an obvious point to make – but it’s a good idea to be clear about what your desired outcome is.

Are you looking for a group of people to critique, test, improve and “kick the tyres” of a proposal or strategy? You might want to try ‘critical friend facilitation’, run a pre-mortem, formalise a peer review process, experiment with Cognitive Edge’s ‘Ritual Dissent’ or Victor Newman’s ‘Predator’ exercise.

If you want to combine diverse knowledge inputs to surface innovative ideas (and have the space and intent to act upon the insights you gain), then you could employ knowledge cafes, pilot randomised coffee trials, apply speed-consulting or anecdote circles, and run peer assists.

Problems can arise when we use a technique in the wrong context, with without the right mix of participants.

Taking the last examples – Peer Assists. These can go wrong when the invited group of peers have too much overlap and common ground with the person or project requesting input – a lack of diversity leads to group-think.

Pictorially, a good Peer Assist would work like this:


Pick the wrong blend (wander down the corridor and ask a few friends on closely related projects), and when cognitive and experience overlap is too strong, this can be the outcome:



Or to put it another way – a hall of mirrors is great if you want to see yourself from different perspectives, but less so if you are looking for an innovative new view. You need to let the light in for that.

Here’s a question –do the people you follow on twitter act as a hall of mirrors to your area of specialist interest, reinforcing shared views and improving current practice? Or do they represent a diverse source of new innovative thinking.

Knowing what good looks like...

Last week marked the end of this year’s Masterchef competition in the UK.  Once again our family sat, drooled and marvelled at the creations of Simon Wood, this year’s winner. His combination of ingredients, skills, techniques and presentation was outstanding, and from the minute the camera zoomed in on his final three courses, you know that you had seen what good looks like.

For his starter he cooked octopus served with chorizo crisps, cannellini beans and chorizo salad, brunoise tomatoes and a sherry and smoked paprika vinaigrette. His main course was squab pigeon served two ways — roasted breast, and a pigeon leg bon-bon, stuffed with pigeon leg meat, chicken, mushroom duxelle and Armagnac — served with three types of heritage carrots, pommes parisienne, girolle and trumpet mushrooms, carrot puree, watercress puree and a cassis jus. For pudding he whipped up a lemon posset topped with citrus tutti-frutti - charred grapefruit and orange, a lime tuile and limoncello — topped with pistachio crumb, edible flowers, tarragon leaves and a lime air.  Mmmm.

When it comes to organisations, with such a wide range of available knowledge-related ingredients, tools and techniques which can have a potential impact, it can difficult to discern "what good looks like" and which ingredients should be given prominence at different times.  But that shouldn't stop us trying!

Here's my attempt to describe what it good looks like when it comes to knowledge management...

Leadership. Leaders in the organisation are collaborative role models, challenging people to ask for help, seek out, share and apply good practices. This inspires curiosity and a commitment to improve.

Collaboration. People have the desire and capability to use work collaboratively, using a variety of technology tools with confidence.  Collaboration is a natural act, whether spontaneous or scheduled.  People work with an awareness of their colleagues’ availability and expertise and use collaboration tools as instinctively as the telephone to increase their productivity.

Learning. People instinctively seek to learn before doing.  Lessons from successes and failures are drawn out in an effective manner and shared openly with others who are genuinely eager to learn, apply and improve. Lessons lead to actions and improvement. Project and programme management create a healthy supply and demand for knowledge, and can demonstrate the value it creates.

Networking. People are actively networking, seamlessly participating in formal communities and harnessing informal social networks to get help, share solutions, lessons and good practices. The boundaries between internal and external networks are blurred and all employees understand the benefits and take personal responsibility for managing the risks.

Navigation. There are no unnecessary barriers to information, which is shared by default and restricted only where necessary. Information management tools and protocols are intuitive, simple and well understood by everybody.  This results in a navigable, searchable, intelligently tagged and appropriately classified asset for the whole organisation, with secure access for trusted partners.

Embedding. Knowledge management is fully embedded in people management and development, influencing recruitment and selection. Knowledge-sharing behaviours are built-into induction programmes and are evident in corporate values and individual competencies.  Knowledge transfer is part of the strategic agenda for HR. The risks of knowledge loss are addressed proactively. Knowledge salvage efforts during hurried exit interviews are a thing of the past!

Consolidation. People know which knowledge is strategically important, and treat it as an asset.  Relevant lessons and practival recommendations are drawn from the experience of many, and consolidated into guidelines. These are brought to life with stories and narrative, useful documents and templates and links to individuals with experience and expertise. These living “knowledge assets” are refreshed and updated regularly by a community of practitioners.

Social Media. Everybody understands how to get the best from the available tools and channels. Social media is just part of business as usual; people have stopped making a distinction. Serendipity, authenticity and customer intimacy are increasing.  People are no longer tentative and are encouraged to innovate and experiment. The old dogs have learned new tricks!  Policies are supportive and constantly evolving, keeping pace with innovation in the industry.

Storytelling. Stories are told, stories are listened to, stories are re-told and experience is shared. People know how to use the influencing power of storytelling.  Narrative is valued, captured, analysed and used to identify emergent patterns that inform current practice and future strategy.

Environment. The physical workplace reflects a culture of openness and collaboration.  Everyone feels part of what’s going on in the office.  Informal and formal meetings are easily arranged without space constraints and technology is always on hand to enhance productivity and involve participants who can’t be there in person.

How's that for some food for thought?