KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Archive for July 2013

One inbox to rule them all?

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Way back in the mists of time when I first started my professional career in DFID we had but a few places from where we would get instructions and requests or where we could find the information we needed to get our work done. Basically we had a full set of procedure manuals on the shelf, an inbox for inter-office memos and the circulation file for general “might be of interest” announcements and interesting articles as well as two month old copies of The Economist and Paris Match (because we were all supposed to be practicing our French).

Now when I come in to the office (or more likely shortly after I wake up)  I scan through the following: work e-mail, private e-mail accounts, Twitter, Facebook, Teamworks (UNDP’s internal social network), the Coordination Practice Network, our office Intranet, Feedly (for my RSS feeds both news and blogs I follow). Less regularly I also check LinkedIn, my old UNICEF e-mail (yes I still get messages there), KM4Dev, Zunia and a whole host of other networks and communities I signed up for at one time or another. And that’s not to mention text messages, instant messages (on at least three different platforms), Skype and telephone. The only thing I don’t check is my office mail slot – because I never get anything there.

Overall the greater access to information and diversity of channels is a very positive thing. I’m able to find out about things and respond to them much more quickly and get access to a much wider range information and expertise to help inform my work than I could have even imagined when I first started working. And the fact that this is almost real-time allows discussions, collaboration and feedback loops that were all but impossible before.

But one big peeve with this Brave New World is the fragmentation of all this information, and the challenge of keeping up to date with it all, knowing which things to follow and managing my time to check so many different inboxes and networks. Just how many social networks do you need to follow?, and how often do you need to check them to keep in touch with colleagues and keep up to date on the latest thinking? What are the chances that you are NOT checking precisely that network where the contact or information you need is most easily accessible? And what advice do you give to your late adopting tech-wary colleagues about where they should put their efforts and expend their limited attention (and why should they bother to be part of your community when they are already struggling with so much stuff)?

Wouldn’t it be great if you could go to one place to get all your development related updates and messages?  (or whatever topic it is that interests you). Can’t we all our contacts use the same set of tools? But if this is such a simple idea why don’t we have it already?

One attempt to solve this problem has been through the development of knowledge portals. Many organizations have tried and failed to produce knowledge portals that have “everything you need to know about X”. Curating “everything” about a topic is a monumental effort that is unlikely to find everything that is out there, and also such a portal will necessarily reflect the views and information architecture preferences of the curator which will not fully meet the needs of a diverse group of users. Competition between different portals can also confuse things and sometimes even means that people are not willing to share their content with each other forcing users to follow multiple portals defeating the original intent.

Another approach at the organizational level is to pick a software platform that “does everything”. Many software companies are keen to sell corporate platforms that include social collaboration, messaging, content feeds often laid over work process software – common examples being done through SharePoint. These are usually expensive custom creations within any organization and they don’t always play nicely with external software tools, especially social ones.

The other fix that many of us use is to get e-mail notifications from our various systems and funnel them to a single inbox. The challenges with this are that your inbox quickly becomes overloaded with diverse updates, some systems don’t provide e-mail updates or at least not useful ones and for me at least I still find the need to split these systems somewhat artificially into my work and private e-mail accounts (e.g. twitter – is it work or private?) also because of limitations on the size of our work inboxes and concern about how “private” my work e-mail really is.

Some advocate for moving away from e-mail altogether. Something I’d like to see in, in theory, but it only works if everyone you collaborate with also moves off e-mail and agrees on a common platform (or small set of platforms) to use – something that seems highly unlikely in my work environment where every little thing is done by e-mail and where social platforms are still used by a relatively small “enlightened” few – and many of those are internal platforms that don’t easily allow collaboration across organizations.

What I’d really like to see, but haven’t yet, is a software tool that would allow you to have a personal “mega-inbox” or dashboard that would combine together all the various streams that I’m interested in, business and personal, my e-mails, social networks, RSS feeds and monitored intranet pages. Ideally such a tool would be portable i.e. accessible by the web and not tied to my employer so I could take it with me if I switch jobs (although my access to feeds from internal sources wouldn’t continue if I leave an organization). It would allow us each to use the tools and networks we feel most comfortable with but be able to add new ones without learning new tools and new logins. What this would need is a common system for providing and authenticating feeds and for processing user postings that could work across all of the most common platforms.

This could be an enormous productivity boost for all of us, and a great opportunity for some enterprising software developer out there – so what are you waiting for!

Written by Ian Thorpe

July 25, 2013 at 9:51 am

Know yourself

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“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom” – Aristotle

In a recent blog post I talked about the transformational leadership course I’m involved in. One module of this is learning about “Emotional Intelligence” i.e the soft side of managing others which begins with managing  yourself, and a key element of that is “self awareness” i.e knowing yourself.

This has several elements – one is recognizing and understanding who you are and where you come from and how your origins and upbringing and experience impact how you are and how you see the world. Another is having a realistic understanding of recognizing your strengths and weaknesses, and of how well you performed in any particular instance. Yet  another is understanding how others perceive you and how this affects how they interact with you.

Self awareness is not easy. There are a number of challenges including:

  • In the workplace at least we are encouraged to think of ourselves as objective and neutral i.e. that we look at any situation based on the facts not on our personal views. The problem with this is that it isn’t really true. We see any situation or any new person through the lens of our own experience. So it’s much better to be aware of how our conditioning (gender, nationality, class, family circumstances, education etc.) affect how we see the world so that we can then examine how this is affecting our decisions and on how this might be a factor when we disagree with others on how to interpret “the facts”.
  • We often try to suppress our emotions, rather than acknowledging them and how they affect our decision-making, instead we might try to rationally justify our actions which are really driven by how we feel. One tool we used for this was to check off emotions from a long sheet of words over a 24 hour period – it’s quite surprising how many emotions you can feel in a short period when you are paying attention!
  • We often have a different perception of ourselves than others have of us. Various studies show how we often overestimate how attractive, intelligent or kind we are. Part of the challenge is that we seek positive reinforcement to justify our actions, and are less likely to seek, or accept negative feedback (also because it affects our emotions negatively). But it’s also because others are often reluctant to give us feedback for fear of hurting us or for our reaction. Sometimes we also miss seeing hidden strengths that others see. To help address this we need to actively seek feedback, including being aware of our emotions and reactions when that feedback is challenging, and to be most beneficial that feedback should be diverse not just from our friends. We need to also create safe spaces for feedback and to make use of tools that can help us collect it (including anonymously) – as an example of this we looked at the Johari Window which can help us see the differences between others perceptions and our own.
  • We often fail to remember and learn from the past – in terms of what we were thinking, how we were feeling and what we achieved. Keeping some form of journal or record of thoughts, achievements, setbacks etc. can be useful in helping us learn from our own experience, but also to give us a more balanced and complete view on our own experience.
  • Getting too much negative or challenging feedback can be difficult in itself as it can negatively affect your emotions lead to de-motivation and loss of hope, unless you have a clear idea of what you seek to be and some support mechanisms either personal or institutional  to help you figure out how to get there. Giving people tough love feedback without any coaching, training or peer support is just not helpful.

But self-awareness is not only a challenge for individuals, it’s also a challenge for the teams and  organizations we work in. Quite often they create their own self-image which differs from our image in the eyes of others. Like individuals, organizations need to understand their history and their organizational culture in order to understand their present situation and why they are the way they are – and often why they make the decisions they do which are often less based on “cold logic” than how they are described and justified.

Organizations can and do put efforts into objective measures of their progress (how much money did they raise and spend, how many vaccines did they distribute, how many government counterparts did they train etc.) which can be more informative that whatever we do on a personal level, but they are much less strong in seeking feedback on the perceptions or views of others, especially those they are seeking to help ( a common topic on this blog, and one for which there are various approaches we should be using more).

For both individuals and organizations self-knowledge is the first step to self-improvement. we can’t keep kidding ourselves that by describing and promoting ourselves as they way we would like to be will be enough to convince others, or even ourselves. When we feel the tension, which is a creative tension, between who we are and who we want to be this is powerful motivator for change, and one that also helps us focus on where we need to put our best efforts.

Written by Ian Thorpe

July 18, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Feeling lucky?

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“Luck is where the crossroads of opportunity and preparation meet.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

“Chance favours the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur

One of the oft-cited benefits of use of social media in the workplace is serendipity – the possibility of finding useful contacts, information and expertise seemingly by chance that you most likely would not have discovered in the past. This serendipity is especially credited as an engine for innovation since it introduces you to new ideas and perspectives that might help inspire you or help you solve a problem that you otherwise would have struggled with if you could only draw on your past experience and existing knowledge.

Last week Nick Milton blogged about NOT being a fan of serendipity being a major part of a knowledge management approach, considering it rather a last resort. He argues that while serendipity might be useful in the early stages of setting up a knowledge management system, once that system is mature with a culture of knowledge sharing and tools to support it then we shouldn’t be relying on chance to make sure relevant knowledge is shared and is being put to work.

Unusually, I find myself disagreeing with Nick, but I think it might be because we have a different understanding of what serendipity is in the context of knowledge sharing, and just how it works. We’re not at all talking about finding someone or something you need to know entirely by chance. Instead what we mean is finding ways to dramatically increase the odds of finding what you want, and this is equally important in an organization with mature knowledge management systems as it is in an organization just starting out to think about this.

Allow me to illustrate. Suppose I need some information or expertise to help me complete my project. If I know exactly what I need and where to get it (e.g. through a review of the guidance manual, the lessons learned database or the expertise roster) then there is little need for chance. But what if I don’t know exactly what I need, what if the exact experience I’m looking for isn’t in the database (yet), or if the expertise I need is outside the organization?  What happens if someone else has an insight that I hadn’t thought of that could dramatically improve my programme but we don’t know each other and don’t know about how our experiences could relate to one another? These are times when serendipity comes in handy.

But here’s where good knowledge management systems come in handy too. Encouraging staff members to maintain personal profiles, getting them to participate in communities of practice, organizing knowledge sharing events where different people can share their work and interact with one another all greatly increase the chances that people will connect with the knowledge they need or the people they want to learn from or collaborate with. Even with great databases of lessons learned and comprehensive and regularly updated procedures and manuals, people often don’t instinctively look for knowledge that could be helpful for them, or at least if they do they don’t do it in a consistent or systematic way. A lot of knowledge sharing and collaboration depends on trust and also on their personal interest/attention. Knowledge management approaches that help support the building of personal relationships and reputation both by surfacing potential areas of collaboration and then by providing the mechanisms for these to be strengthened and followed up on can greatly increase the “chance” of successful learning. Supporting work related social networking and other interaction with people outside the organizational firewall or at least outside their usual internal contacts and professional groupings inside the organization also greatly increases the chances of cross-fertilization of ideas from different points of view.

Similarly finding ways to expose your staff to new or different ideas greatly increases the chance that these will inspire new thinking to help solve existing problems. Training and support to help staff members be better prepared to recognize and take advantage of relevant knowledge and connections when they see them will further increase the possibility of productive “chance” encounters.

No matter how much knowledge you collect and share you can never be sure that you will have the knowledge you need at the time you need it, or that it will eventually be used. But there are a number of things you can do to increase the chances of productive knowledge exchanges – not only by increasing the supply of available knowledge but by working on increasing the flow of knowledge from one person or team to another. Promoting serendipity is not about leaving it to chance – it’s quite the opposite – it’s about doing everything  you can to increase the chances of successful knowledge exchange when you can’t predict who will need what, when and from whom.

Written by Ian Thorpe

July 8, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Promoting professional networks at work

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A year and a half ago I switched jobs from one UN agency to another. Something that became immediately obvious to me in making this switch was the importance of professional networks in getting your work done.

On the one hand I found myself a bit at sea not knowing who to contact for what, who has expert knowledge, who has inside gossip, who has great ideas, or even who can tell me what the rule is on X – making things a lot slower going. On the other hand I was lucky in that as someone working on knowledge management who had invested some time in getting to know counterparts in other agencies, I already had a few contacts who I could ask to give me pointers on who to ask, so I didn’t need to start totally from scratch.

In general when you join a UN agency (or to my memory any of the other public administrations I’ve worked in) there is relatively little support to newcomers for them to build their professional networks. You might get to attend an orientation course where you meet other people in the same position as you – great for moral support and experience sharing but not so great for getting the insider knowledge that you will need for your job. You might get taken around the floor to be briefly introduced to your colleagues – but then it’s often up to you to take the next step. If you are lucky, your boss will suggest a few people you should get to know. In most cases that’s it.

Why don’t organizations do more? I think it’s partly because the value of networks in our work is hidden and so we are rarely conscious of it as being an important enabler to our work. Networking is seen as something social and intangible or even unproductive and we are encouraged to be task focused i.e. don’t waste time chatting, get back to work!

Yet in practice networks are critical to quickly getting answers and advice for individuals. But they are also of benefit to the organization itself. Not only do they allow staff to be more efficient and to learn from one another – but they also provide an unofficial source of “help-desk” support, as well as being a store of institutional memory. This interesting post from orgnet looks at what happens when someone leaves an organization and how their absence is felt across the organization through their network.

But what can organizations do to help?

The first step is to think about networking and networks when hiring in the first place. Firstly hire people with good skills in networking (they will need them). secondly consider someone’s existing network more explicitly when hiring – e.g. someone hired from a similar role internally might already have a large part of the network they will need and can get up to speed much more quickly, but someone from outside might be able to bring in new external contacts which will help enrich the current work.

The next step would be in induction and onboarding. Individual managers need to encourage new staffers to take the time to meet and get to know people they will need to collaborate with both inside and outside the immediate office or department, and they also need to be prepared to advise them on who to met and to help facilitate introductions. At an organizational level, building communities of other newcomers is helpful, but this can also be usefully supplemented by partnering new staff with buddies who have experience in the organization who can give advice and help make introductions. Including networking skills as part of management/leadership training might also be a positive step.

On a day-to-day basis it’s also important for offices to organize regular occasions where people can meet and get to know each other outside formal meetings. This could be through social gatherings but could also include more interactive working formats such as regular “stand up” meetings or town halls or retreats.

Many organizations also have thematic communities of practice or have social business platforms (such as UNDP’s Teamworks). These can play an important role in encouraging staff to make professional connections in the workplace including across functions and locations. But having the platforms or communities isn’t enough in itself, staff need to be trained and encouraged to use them, and perhaps more importantly community facilitators need to help encourage connections to be made through approaches such as introducing and profiling new members, encouraging/badgering staff to complete their profiles and upload photos, organizing virtual and face to face events and helping broker one on one connections between people with shared interests who are not yet in touch.  Of importance in this is to encourage people to follow other people rather than just communities or topics. It’s also useful to recognize that people will also use other tools such as twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn as networking tools and to encourage and support that rather than to trying to only support people to do this through corporate tools – this is particularly important as professional networks should include people both inside and outside the organization.

Other KM approaches such as self-assess/peer assists and knowledge fairs are also underutilized tools for promoting growth of personal networks.

Finally there is always space for some novel approaches. I really like this example from Nesta – Randomized Coffee Trials, where staff who sign up are assigned to have coffee with another random staff member every week without any fixed agenda. The results were much strengthened contacts between different teams, but also a greater number of new projects where different teams collaborated.

What tips do you have for promoting stronger professional networks in the workplace?

Written by Ian Thorpe

July 2, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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