On change or staying the same

Firstly, an apology. I had promised to give some detail and comments about the papers from the RMAA Convention yesterday. However, I took my notes to work this morning and left them there with the records management plan I am working on! I promise to blog about the conference papers and add my comments tomorrow.

But for now, I want to touch on a topic that has always interested me and was triggered in part yesterday from the convention theme on adopting and adapting – change. And I want to begin with an evocative scene from a particular television show I watched when I was a child. The television series was Planet of the Apes. One scene from one of the episodes remains a clear and distinct memory that often comes to mind when I am thinking about things staying the same or changing.

Planet of the Apes is set on Earth in the year 3085. Entering this future world from 1980 is a NASA spacecraft that crashes, with two surviving astronauts. The humans take the astronauts to safety and look after them. The scene that remains with me is where the Planet of the Apes’ humans have cattle in a corral. The corral consists of tall, thick wooden posts that have been pushed into the ground and lined vertically in a circle. The upright posts have gaps between each, the gaps of course being too narrow for cattle to walk through. However, after a while the cattle lazily push against the vertical posts and the posts are pushed over and the cattle walk through. The humans round the cattle up, dig the vertical posts into the ground again in a narrow-gapped circle, and the cycle continues.

One of the astronauts asks why the posts in the corral have been set up only as vertical posts and the cattle allowed to eventually escape. The farmers respond by saying that they have always built the corral that way and it’s expected that after a while the cattle will escape! Our 1980 human suggests that building the corral with both vertical and horizontal posts for rigidity and permanence will prevent the cattle from escaping. The rest of the scene has our two astronaut humans and the farmers building a new corral that can’t be knocked down by the cattle.

I always see this scene from Planet of the Apes as a metaphor about organisations and how responsive they may or may not be to new ideas. If we accept the current way of doing things because it has always been done that way, then we may keep repeating poor practices over and over. Believe me, I have seen plenty of examples of this type of thinking. Even past successful practices need review and analysis.

And sometimes organisations need someone from “outside” to recognise and suggest that there might be a better way to do things that bring about improved results. At the same time, new ideas need to be couched in terms of the organisational context. Likewise, new ideas need to have some chance of being listened to and acted upon. Timing often becomes a critical factor in whether new ideas are ready for adoption or adaption. New ideas don’t convert to benefits automatically – there is usually a lot of hard work (like building a proper corral).

There must be a reason to initiate change. The reason for change needs to be positive and acceptable for the people who are being asked to change. As a knowledge management professional, my role has often involved getting people to change the way they do things or suggest improvements via a new tool or an adaption to a work process. I often say that knowledge management is about getting other people to do stuff, and as such, we deal with change and change management all the time.

Like the scene from Planet of the Apes, we must be able to identify needs and initiate change. And, most importantly, we must be active participants in the change process ourselves. Change is just part of our personal and organisational evolution.

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