Category Archives: Society

On experiencing context

I want to talk about experiencing context.  I want to investigate what it means to experience something that is really going on rather than what is supposed to be going on.  I want to see what happens in practice as distinct to what the theory might suppose.

I am reading the classic book on urban planning by Jane Jacobs, called The death and life of great American cities.  As a lapsed economic geographer, I am always drawn to the intersection between economics and space and how in practice these two dimensions work.   The first observation, certainly if you are from Sydney as I am originally, is that there is a dark nexus between property developers and urban development.  Much has been made about the power of developer influence on government planning, for instance.

In fact, I recall one big developer wanting to concrete over the beautiful Kuring-gai Chase National Park in the north of Sydney to build more multi-dwelling housing!  The worst part, of course, is that besides giving the developer more profit and more power, the architecture of said multidwelling housing leaves a lot to be desired with their prefab look and feel.

In the introduction to Jane Jacob’s book, she cites an example of a so-called slum in Boston (in the 1950s) called the North End.  To much of Boston, and certainly the city planners, North End was a major slum.  Yet when Jane Jacobs visited the place before a future-planned “redevelopment”, she was amazed by the life and vitality of the place.  She rang a planning friend who confirmed he thought it was a slum, albeit a slum with pretty good health and socioeconomic statistics behind it.  Moreover, her planner friend actually visited North End and found it to have a “wonderful, cheerful street life”, even better in summer.

Jacobs says: “Here  was a curious thing. My friend’s instincts told him North End was a good place, and his social statistics confirmed it. But everything he had learned as a physical planner about what is good for people and good for the city neighbourhoods, everything that made him an expert, told him that the North End had to be a bad place” (page 15).

The story certainly tells me how important it is to experience the context.  I doubt whether it will always be good enough to just look at the theory, or the statistics, or the expert opinion, without experiencing the context for oneself.  More importantly, however, is the finding out about the experience from the people active within it.

It therefore comes as no surprise that in many areas of our professional lives where we have to make decisions, we often rely solely on past experience, our previous training, and the thinking that pervades ourselves and like-minded colleagues.  This is quite insufficient.  We need to explore other ideas and other people’s views, especially the views of the people involved – the real stakeholders.  And if we can break these patterns, either through our own determination or allowing some disruptive thinking to break through from elsewhere, then we can at least look at the world in a different way.

If we can experience context, and include the contextual experiences of those involved, we can make more informed choices and decisions that reflect the real context as distinct from our personal-world-view context.

Knowledge management and the world financial crisis

Since my last blog post, the world financial market has really taken a battering as large finanical institutions in the US, Britain and in Europe collapse under the weight of poor lending practices and even poorer management and control structures. The financial impact alone is enormous.

What has this to do with knowledge management, I hear you ask?

Well, knowledge management is about enabling informed decision-making and taking action. Knowledge management facilitates the information and knowledge assets of a business to drive operational efficiencies, create opportunities for growth and innovation, and establish sound information management practices and systems for preparedness and risk mitigation.

Knowledge management is therefore about establishing the internal operational conditions for making effective and knowledgeable choices and decisions across the business domains of a firm – and those business domains are where profits and losses are created.

An organisation’s codified knowledge and information (explicit knowledge), capacity for research and analysis, and capabilitiy to locate and disseminate this information will inform a workplace and the people within it; for decision-makers and for taking action.

At the same time, knowledge management involves people – the information and knowledge exchanged, re-articulated and reformulated by humans within particular contexts. The knowledge and experiences of people are unique, co-evolving, and able to be shared to develop or create new knowledge. This is what is commonly referred to in the knowledge management literature as tacit knowledge.

Knowledge management facilitates this interplay between explicit and tacit knowledge out of which organisations make decsions and take action. Knowledge management is therefore ongoing, cumulative and regenerating.

Knowledge management also works to reduce costs through improving workflow, facilitating efficient and effective information capture, access, and dissemination, facilitates conversation and human networks, and enhances collaboration and connectivity between individuals for common purpose.

Knowledge management is therefore about providing the infrastructure and capability for organisations to make informed decisions. As knowledge managers, we like to think that the outcome of knowledge management is Innovation and competitive advantage – and sometimes it is. But just as importantly is the strategic importance of using knowledge and information assets wisely to improve operational effectiveness, decision-making and governance issues – profit making and risk mitigation.

On the cost side, knowledge management drives down the cost of doing business through more efficient and productive operations (saving time is one of the obvious manifestations). Being able to find the right information at the right time is critical, as is preparedness through awareness. Being aware and having quick access to information and the right people allows for organisational agility and responsiveness that impacts on how opportunities are found and change is managed.

A strategic knowledge management approach to organisational perfomance is an excellent way for companies to make improved decisions for profit generation and risk mitigation while also saving costs and speeding up interaction within people networks for collective thinking and collaborative advantage.

Knowledge management offers a foundation, many paths and a network. Yet it’s true that senior management and executives choose which way to jump – and the frying pan at 700 or 870 degrees is one route. Wall Street, if it’s not to late, take heed!

On imagination

I was reading this article about an address to Harvard University students by the author of the Harry Potter books, J. K. Rowling. Rowling is quoted as saying:

“We do not need magic to transform our world,” she said. “We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already; we have the power to imagine better”.

Rowling addressed the fundamental importance of imagination – that anything is possible, and that imagination gives one the power to feel empathy.

On anything is possible, imagination truly is a wondrous gift. Yet I fear that it’s a gift that our social and political systems try to beat out of us (metaphorically) to conform to the “real world”.

Children have boundless imagaination. I well remember a science lesson in junior primary school in which we discussed the possibility of life on other planets in our solar system (back when Pluto was in the team). One of my classmates, Ian Ball, said that life could be on any of the planets, to which he was roundly shouted down – how could there be life on Jupiter or Pluto – ha, ha, ha! Ian replied that there could indeed be icicle men on Pluto! And of course, why not? Just because our human concept of life requires a certain environment does not preclude a system of life existing beyong our present knowledge. Afterall, look at what Star Trek and Alien and Farscape imagine is possible!

You can see how what happens with children who have tremendous imagination but have it gradually worn away by “growing up” – what we know in the present rather than what is possible beyond us.

The capacity for imagination in the board rooms of corporations, in the offices of politicians, proprietors, and principals, are sadly lacking today. Let’s deal with the present, they say, and hope that we may straighten out the future with the tools and thinking that have got us to where we are today. Yet the future is craving to be discovered through imagination.

And empathy? How can humans respond to people if they cannot share their experiences? They can share or approximate the experience by imagining what it must be like to be in the shoes of the other person. That is empathy. That is how we can feel connected, no matter who we are or where we live. It is why we need to think of the big picture as well as our own small worlds.

People like J. K. Rowling (perhaps a Jules Verne from another time) challenge the way we see the world. They challenge our thinking to see what is possible even if we can’t understand how to get there now. We must nurture imagination and we must learn how to use imagination to solve the present real-world problems and take on new opportunities.

Imagination is an asset that needs greater attention in our dealings with others and in looking beyond what we see and accept now. Let’s start using it!

On participation

I was listening to the radio this week when I heard an interview with a film producer on triple j. Of special note was the comment by the female dj that perhaps casting for movies should be done the same way as decisions are made in those reality tv shows. Just sms your vote! The film producer was aghast at such a thought! In contrast, the dj’s suggestion was just an obvious manifestation of what is already happening within her demographic’s frame of reference.

And this is where the demographic fundamentals will be working in businesses today. Participation isn’t something the management requests when it suits them, oh no! In a culture where participatory decision-making and social networking are becoming second nature, the workplace will need to adapt as well.

At the same time, the very same set of younger generations have not only been brought up with a hefty dose of reality tv but they have also been participants in the internet revolution. To them, the web and all it can do is as normal as a mobile phone.

Enter web 2.0 (the term web 2.0 was actually born in 2004) and add gen x, y and z.

The web-savvy generations with their penchant for personal networks and participatory decision-making are gradually working their way now (and in the future) into the very dna of organisations across the globe. The norms of organisational decision-making in those post-Fordist managerial hierarchies are looking a tad less secure in the 21st century.

For managers, we need to foster this connectedness and participatory zeal in our workplaces. We can assist with a suite of web 2.0 applications (RSS, blogs, wikis, social computing) that enhance the level of participation and communication among our people and our people-networks. And we can allow and actively encourage the participation, the networks and the conversations to take place inside our businesses because it is through these interactions and participation that we generate real organisational value competitive advantage.

Participation and web 2.0 are a great combination so let’s use them to the best of our advantage. [Check out this Ross Gitten’s article for some more reasons to treat your employees well].

On information research

The latest issue of Information Research is online. A couple of the articles of particular interest to me were on household information practices and Flickr: a first look at user behaviour in the context of photography as serious leisure. The sample sizes used in both research articles were quite small but the articles did prompt my thinking in a number of areas.

The article on household information practices looked at an area of everyday information collection and use that has had little attention given to it in the past. As a microcosm of society, I found the focus on the household for information use and decision-making a very thought-provoking piece.

The Flickr article looked at what impact an online social-based sharing site for digital photos has on amateur photography as a hobby. The relationship between the hobby and the social technology is a field of information research that again focuses on the common experience that has largely been overlooked as a domain for research and study in the past.

Whilst I will get to the other articles later, the two articles featured here demonstrated how information research can be applied to everyday areas of experience that we often take for granted – well worth a read!

On being in touch

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has just released a report based on a survey, How Australians spend their time. The section I want to comment on says this (from the media release):

“Time spent on recreation and leisure activities has decreased by 1 hour 45 minutes per week since 1997 (to 29 hours 31 minutes a week). We’re spending on average an extra hour a week on activities such as watching television and using the Internet than we did in 1997 (16 hours 20 minutes a week spent on audio/visual activities). However, time spent on sport and outdoor activity has decreased by nearly an hour compared to an average week in 1997 (to an average 2 hours 13 minutes a week in 2006)”.

The survey results tend toward an increase in communication via third party channels and a reduction in time spent physically socialising with actual people. Now I admit that my preference is for face-to-face communication, both in my social space and work space, but this is not always possible. To me, my digital communication channels are secondary. But to others, more younger than me I’ll admit, digital communication channels are more, or just as, important as face-to-face communication.

But I want to link this notion of reduced sociability to knowledge management and to a  blog post on touch written by Patrick Lambe. Patrick makes the valid point that face-to-face interaction and socialising are good things – human things. He goes on to suggest that “touch” is something that we ignore, especially working in a field like knowledge management that relies so heavily on human connectivity and trust. Patrick says:

 “And we treat everything as if it’s something that happens in the head, or between heads and heads (involving soundwaves) or heads and text in various forms. Specifically, I don’t see us anywhere talking about the importance of touch“.

Touch is a sensitive issue, in a very real sense of the word. Individuals and cultures have a high range of sensitivities to touch (chase up the iconic research by Sidney Jourard thirty-odd years ago, and quoted in the book, Manwatching).

Touch is also a sensitive issue in professional spheres, where much of the knowledge management we do and encourage takes place. There are often professional sanctions with regard to touch, no matter how innocent or human that may be in the circumstances. Is touch appropriate and allowable in the context at the time?

Now it’s all very well to say that it’s a crying shame that professionally and otherwise touch has been ignored for too long. It is indeed a shame when professional restrictions and legalities intrude into the human dimension but this, my friends, is a fact of contemporary life. So let us not dwell too much in “wouldn’t it be nice land” on the specifics of “touch” in our knowledge management work, but focus more on what being human within our work contexts actually allows us to do with people and how we do it. We can be more human by simply going to the trouble of being with people and not hiding behind a desk and shooting off e-mails to the person across the room, just for starters!

I agree wholeheartedly with Patrick’s sentiments for increasing social interaction and face-to-face contact. Patrick cites a great example where Paolo Coelho sends out ten  party invitation to virtual friends and contacts to meet up face-to-face. Such an approach to get “in touch” in such a way like that is a definite improvement for enhancing “being in touch” with our people network.

So, I am definitely in favour of “being in touch” and “getting in touch” through socialising and face-to-face contact, but I am hesitant in escalating touch beyond that given the cultural, social, and professional barriers (good or otherwise) that exist in our professional world.

And as an addendum, I had a quick look to see if I had any notes on tactile communication from my days sitting in on social psychology lectures all those years ago – I didn’t (which may be a good or bad thing) but I do have a couple of references:

The transparent self by Sidney Jourard

Successful nonverbal communication (4th edition) by Leathers and Eaves

The psychology of interpersonal behaviour by Michael Argyle

On real work

A couple of weeks ago Euan Semple wrote a blog comment about real work. I made a hastily scribbled note to come back to the sentiment at a later date.

The prompt for me was the notion held by some people that social computing activities (blogs, wikis, virtual communities, social networks) are not of value for real work. And this negative opinion hasn’t gone unnoticed, as Stephen Collins rightly fulminates over in a post last year in response to more negative press about social computing.

Yet the features of social computing are not so unusual. A blog is another communication tool akin to the newsletter. A wiki and a virtual community are places in which collaboration and knowledge sharing occur, enhancing the scale and scope of meetings and workshops (and telephone conference calls). Facebook is an elaborate and more readily connected personal network tool that works like a personal address book, diary, photo album, and multiperson conversation piece.

The commonality of these new social computing tools with tools and work practices readily accepted from the past (and continuing still in many organisations) is clear.

What has changed, however, is in the scale, immediacy, and speed at which these new activities can now occur. Moreover, the distinct line (if there ever was a clear divide) between work and the social domain has blurred so that social connections have become part of the connectivity for the workplace. And as the world has become more complex, global and fast-paced, there is a growing need to rely more on trusted people networks and their connections.

Sure, social computing activities can be “abused” in the workplace in much the same way as other workplace activities. Who can forget those famous long lunches and hearing long and arduous private land-line telephone calls pre-world-wide web?

Social computing need not be a threat to the modern workplace after all.