Friday, April 1, 2016

KM in the Jerkplace Postmortem: Crossing the Knowledge Divide

Installment Summary:  The series concludes with a reflection on the power of jerks and their confrontational relationship with us – the folks charged with transferring knowledge across cubicles, silos, business units, and generations of would-be collaborators. Those conflicts boil down to an irreconcilable difference between knowledge concentrators and distributors – a rift that favors coercion over dispersion. Ultimately the conflict cannot be resolved by placing knowledge in the corner office but by placing it in the corner of every change agent and meeting table across the organization.

crossing the KNOWLEDGE divide

Over the last seven installments we’ve visited four wildly diverging workplaces united by one thread besides a revenue model, a payroll, a services catalog, and a badging scanner at the front entrance – the decision to pay a smart person with the necessary blend of naiveté and self-confidence to include the term “knowledge” in their job title.

The arguments play out like this:

      Some organizations might say KM distills the essence of the meta-level inference: Who can plausibly oppose knowledge about knowledge?
         Who can argue with hiring smart people who consider ivy towers to be silos worth avoiding? Q: I wish we knew what we know? A: Hire a KM guy.

         Who can dispute the fact that the collective organizational brain is both overworked and underutilized – trapped in the hamster wheel of earning-one’s-keep justifications?

Beyond collaboration, efficiency, and shear speed-of-learning, KM is perceived as the bottomless cup of caffeinated process acceleration. It’s also looked at as a hedge against attrition as-in knowledge walking out the door. It’s a container of code; hence the fixation on system knowledge. And as the thesis of this blog series maintains, it’s a protection against the intellectual and emotional vandalism of jerks. That’s because it encourages reciprocity – not simply sharing for its own reward. It promotes transparency to gain trust. It codifies repeatable lessons so they don’t need to be relearned and so the successes they spawn can be reapplied. Is there really any place for jerk behavior to breed in such an empathic setting?

Well … yes.

The problem with this theory is that it crashes faster than the QA server entrusted with your gold-plated production assets. How is it that something that matches patterns as nimbly as it connects the strategic dots fold instantly at the jerk table? That is the looming doubt that shadows each ensuing KM program and the enterprise that failed to support it.

There are ways to fight the power. None of them land more than one separation degree from measurement. Measure the world in units of knowledge and …

·         No one suffers from an abundance of it.
·         If anything there’s a scarcity of it.

What would it take to close that deficit?

Knowledge Needs Know-How to Play Nice With Jerks

The hyphenated answer is know-how. There’s nothing sacred, value-based, or recoverable about knowledge in its static form. It’s a trophy piece – a collectible – until pressed into the service of problem-solving. What’s the most popular one-word definition of knowledge? It’s power. And we appreciate that before we even know what to do with our knowledge.

But here’s the rub. Information wants to be free and knowledge doesn’t aspire to anything. Power closes down dissent and debate. Knowledge is an open book. It’s a quality that many of us covet more than any capture-worthy material or ideal we could ever hope to possess. So here’s the question: How do we get from “free” to “power”? They’re not polar opposites but they’re not exactly complementary. 

Or are they?

If we work among peers who see knowledge as process, then aspirations like team-building, communities of excellence, and end-to-end transformations become a reality we create at work – a channel for reciprocity, a reward unto itself.

That transformation cannot be willed into operation through platitudes or imposed by knowledge czars looking to inflate their knowledge adoption metrics. If the organization sees knowledge as a destination, we’re sunk. Nothing corrupts the power of knowledge more absolutely than treating it like a product.

Closing Arguments

So what do we know about the split between knowledge hoarders and givers? We know that the battle is often a private one. The resolution isn’t decided by competency frameworks and social informatics. Mostly it boils down to proximity to power.

We know that impediments to pooling knowledge are rarely correlated to missing revenue targets. The intention of sharing is likelier to find its way to mission statements than actual boardroom conversation. Yet the transfer of knowledge impacts the downstream verdict on the ultimate workplace rationale: Are our employers anything more than the sum of our paystubs? From a KM perspective it’s not the size of the pay check where the answer lies. It’s an organization’s belief it holds the cards to its own fate.

Here’s now is the conclusion of the lessons learned from the jerkplace.

    6.       Don’t fetishize the look and feel
One of the great misuses of technology is that we get hung up on presentation over substance. Function follows form. We clean data without actually putting it to work. We don’t digest, absorb, or assimilate it into a series of actions or outcomes. That’s not to suggest we can’t have a pretty screen to tease the data patterns out of our work product. But most web design fixates on the interface – not on the interaction itself where the actual substance lives. It’s an uphill argument for KM folks who find themselves sequestered on intranet teams.

     7.       Show the how (and strive for imperfection)
There’s an endless supply of “what” matched with a finite number of “how.” The former is a near certain argue over definitions. The latter is an open invitation to gain interest, buy-in, and eventual leverage with your stakeholders. The difference can best be gauged as the distinction between the collecting of knowledge and the applying of know-how. That’s the cause-and-effect of operational KM. It’s not a static repository that requires data storage and system passwords. It’s a fluid transfer between practitioners trying to shorten the distance between the outcomes they desire and the actions required to trigger them. The imperfection of that process refers to the surprise that comes with the excitement of sharing – not a sure thing or an obvious answer but the corrections and adjustments necessary to match the demand for answers with a responsive supply of prior experience.

    8.       Never fall prey to the messenger’s ego
There is a bias in most news rooms that has little to do with your political bent and everything to do with your speed-to-market. Scooping the competition will not guarantee thoughtfulness or a responsive approach to the news you’re delivering. But it gives your audience the distinct impression of your connectedness to the news-making – even if you’re only collecting the dots and not actually connecting them. If this plays to a KMer advantage it’s that we’re arguing “why” this news flash is newsworthy. Not why it compromises the folks who may sit outside the news traveling circle. One example would be to say why we’re surprised and how it shifts our expectations as we take this new direction onboard with our earlier thinking.

    9.       Be the active observer
KMers are largely institutionalists. They see organizational struggles from the larger, shared perspective. They follow bottlenecks through to the boundaries of matrixed organizations where cross-functional incentives lag behind the need to think holistically. In such structures the interplay of internal divisions inspires uncontrolled layering, overlapping resources, and a lack of cohesion. Each of these shortcomings are sage opportunities for outside intervention. And from an insider view, the KMer is most poised to offer a more open alternative to these ingrained behaviors and parochial tendencies.   

    10.   Do not attempt to influence through threat-making
“OR ELSE …” is an argument that hangs itself when it comes to moving the needle that KM is supposed to thread and stitch into the fabric of how organizations: 1) coordinate internally, and 2) compete in the market. No one’s going to score points for helping the risk-averse to see the KM light or getting right with the knowledge gods. There are few punitive cards in play here, perhaps because there are few dedicated KM departments and even fewer protected from the rigors of quarterly profit-taking. Most KM influence is vested in accentuating the positive impacts of adoption – not the negative consequences of inaction. Regrettably, inaction is referred to life before KM; unfortunate because “before” transitions to “after” if those pilot programs aren’t more widely established.

    11.   11th Commandment – Know Thy Jerk

         Executive: insecure or boorish?
You would think that the arrival of executive status would usher away the insecurities which drive the promotional cycle. However, this romantic notion cools quickly once our selective company is on the hot seat for timely, specific results.

         Supervisor: protective or insular?
It would seem that one’s immediate superior is the most prevalent command chain positioning for picking fights of a rigged nature or the pulling of rank in the absence of group consensus. Look to expand the stakeholder pool when making the boss look good means being set up to fail by same boss. 

        Peer: controlling or off-the-handle? 
One could easily assume that peer relations inhabit neutral territory and not natural breeding grounds for jerkiness. Maintain the status quo of “doing more with less” is the common mantra of the mid-level manager and it behooves them to cooperate in support of this implicit understanding.

            Subordinate: passive-aggressive or risk averse?
      One might conclude that incalcitrant, immovable forces are not within province of the lower rungs of the pecking order. One could easily equate the junior status of the less experienced staff members as a more exploratory approach to conventional problem-solving. Maybe they tinker with technologies that intimidate their elders or a devil-may-care attitude for attacking chronic or seemingly intractable tech-leaning workplace glitches that KM is expected to resolve.

Monday, March 21, 2016

KM In the Jerkplace: Postmortem – Social Management in the Knowledge Media

Postmortem: Social Management in the Knowledge Media

Installment Summary:  We take stock of the flying elbows around the management table and find that much of the turf wars between KM and jerks are seeded by a series of pre-existing conditions. They include a fixation on security, gamification, and social media. 

Powering Down on Knowledge

Since no serious student of politics (geopolitical, office or otherwise) disputes the proposition that knowledge is power we will start our jerkplace postmortem with a less traveled corollary:

Power in its purest, undiluted form is an awesome aphrodisiac.

Agree with that logic and no wonder we're on the path to knowledge as our habitual gateway drug. Being compensated on the managing of knowledge, it's hard to deny ...

  1. The plummeting price of storage
  2. The proliferation of isolated sources
  3. The congealing spaghetti of passwords slamming the doors to those silo-prone disconnections
But maybe the biggest change in the knowledge calculation is the business value placed on the internal pack behavior that's swelling the newsfeeds across our intranets.

The Power Hungry Chow Down at the Newsfeed Trough

The dumb-downed thumbs-up is the only vestige of personal judgment passing for a browser-contained experience. Emoticons, hashtags, likes ... All of the preceding attributes are measurable in a world where information once cost something to obtain. However, that justification is no longer valid in the land of content too cheap to meter. And it's not just a matter of mounting repositories or the virtual barbed wire we place around them.

No serious advancing of knowledge management can occur without the sober realization that social media is not some temporary distraction from tackling the real KM work. It's a daunting impediment to the collaboration we were hired to promote and capture. That’s not because ...
  • The power hungry are busy accruing virtual badges (confirming a ravenous appetite for collegial know-how)
  • Social media lowers the barriers to collaboration and who needs KM anyhow?
  • You blocked me from reading your newsfeed
It’s that social media has lowered the knowledge bar to the point where challenging ideas are regarded as provocations. On social media terms that reckoning could be described as:
  1. An insatiable need for praise,
  2. The nagging doubt that compliments are insincere attempts to curry favor, or
  3.  That it’s the world of ideas that are the true distractions.
It’s our outsized personalities that must be privileged before we address any demands on our collective expertise for solving problems.


No Country for Honest Disagreements

I'm talking about a world where we placate our taciturn cousins with friended status while narrow-casting our way clear of a potential firestorm. The irony is that our sincerity buttons are being pushed by the same publishing features that shield us from the need to listen to, much less negotiate points of contention among conflicting opinions. I'm not suggesting that the foundational aims of KM are at risk the moment we deploy Yammer, Jive, or some other virtual water cooler for keeping our colleagues in the organizational loop:
  • Oversharing is not the same thing as over-collaborating.
  • TMI ("Too Much Information") is not the same thing as running a surplus of collective know-how. 
The rub is that keeping up our social appearances runs the risk not only of diluting findable content but pushes the need to produce, host, and maintain high quality content off the home page and into a sea of dead links and decommissioned servers. And before we're left debating whether humans are even capable of rationalizing through the back stacks of organizational sense-making, consider this. There is a jerk willing and able to...

1) Affix their jerk signature to a working definition of obsolescence  whatever got built before it faced the turnaround artistry of their wrecking balls.

2) Sandbag the wheels of change with so much process that even the option of deleting a non-functional site is an open invitation to paralysis creep.

The Knowledge Management Code of Practice: Takeaways 1-5

It’s been five years since the termination of System Wisdom. In that time I’ve worked at four knowledge-starved organizations. In each case they all held to the theoretical justification for hosting a knowledge function and failed to realize the benefits for doing so. The lessons I draw from these otherwise divergent enterprises is the real and lasting damage done by individual jerks. At each management level jerks sabotaged the focus, structure, and cooperation needed to operationalize the capture and transfer of know-how between communities and individual practitioners.

While I’m humbled by my own track record of working with these challenging colleagues, these mixed successes only reinforce the fundamental takeaways from the seven years of KM plenty at System Wisdom that preceded the current diaspora.

Here then are ten ways to that KM professionals can work through, around, in-between, and ultimately past the drain on collective energies from dealing with jerks.

   1.       Be a credible ambassador 

Be the group lead from the department of understanding. Credibility needs the impartiality of detachment to be both truthful and non-threatening. Don’t be vested in the mercurial personality or the following of tomorrow’s temporary mantra. Credibility is enhanced by a single-minded focus on moving the community needle into positive territory. That territory needs to be clear of conventional performance indicators. It’s not about the counting of “stuff.” KM is not measured by the composite sum of its parts. It’s not drawn to or rewarded by the appeal for shinier screens. And KM credibility doesn’t play well with budgetary authority or blanket justifications for maintaining dormant assets and inventories.

   2.       Operationalize the good of the group

Keep a maniacal pulse on the transfer points – be it via email threads, project retrospectives, attendance at user forums, or colleagues queuing for assistance in a request list. There are a surprising lack of analytics associated with knowledge-on-demand. There are even fewer for connecting that demand to the pipeline that this transfer point signifies. Knowledge managers are not gatekeepers or coders or subject matter experts so much as brokers between knowledge demand and content supply. Formulating that equation not only heightens awareness about resources but helps unblock the back channels where informal networks prosper but where transparency can move the entire community forward.

   3.       Metricize the un-trackables

Like we said, you will undermine your credibility if your knowledge budget comes down to the non-value-bearing cost of carrying stuff: software licenses, market research, travel expenses. They’re all one-way tickets to the most leading of all the cost questions  you can’t afford the freight if you have to ask the price. The value worthy of capture lies in the quality of the cohesion in the teams we support. The better the chemistry, the more interchangeable the pieces. The more dynamic the knowledge transfer within the community, the more chances to capture those transfer points. That’s where KM’s fluid nature is no longer seen as a nice-to-have but a critical competence for channeling the organization’s resources to the right challenges and opportunities.

   4.       Give everyone a seat at the table (and rent a big table)

Nothing rings more soundly in theory and half-baked in practice than the notion of open access. While everyone gets and agrees that privileged information needs to be padlocked there’s not much consensus around what constitutes the information commons – that sweet spot where all organizational boats are lifted by a single point of access. An effective KM program sets up a governance process where you know where you stand from the get-default-go, i.e. everyone can see everything unless it’s a case of A, B, or C. Delaying the process is an invitation to a convoluted rules that are prone to change based on revolving sets of rule-makers. Do you have rule-makers with exclusive sights on rules only they can stamp their signatures on? All the more reason for open access.

   5.       Call the bluff of exclusionism

Many organizations are becoming less open – even to themselves. How else to explain the extenuating nature of security sprawl – that advancing premise that information is foremost to be protected, no matter how benign its nature.

Hence, open site access – once the default setting of an organization’s communities -- is now an open access question. These increasing boundaries to access have their bad actors. But these are not the likely boundary-inducing suspects. This is not about cavorting, or lording, or even hoarding information for personal betterment. Pure and simple it’s about trust in the system and delivering on a consistent user experience.

So what’s an inconsistent one?

How about being sent the link that leads nowhere. Being sent the link to sites you can’t access typically means the site owner’s moved on or that the administrator’s overmatched. Pretty benign barriers. The problem is that a KM-centric view of information-sharing requires a level of intentionality and upkeep that eclipses the awareness and resource levels of most intranet site teams, run by folks whose primary role has zilcho to do with managing knowledge.

One key takeaway for KMers is to couch the care and feeding of company intranets in terms of what’s worth recognizing by the wider organization – much of this HR-centric.

Next week: The lessons keep learning with takeaways 6-10.

The blog series KM in the Jerkplace is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

KM in the Jerkplace: Episode Three, continued – Tight Expectations on a Slack Budget

Installment Summary:  Below the operational surface was a firm uncomfortable and out-of-step with technology. Nowhere was the black cloud of technophobia more pronounced than in the planning horizons of the pending SharePoint deployment I was leading. Project success may have been partially compromised by an unfinished legacy or a parochial IT counterpart. But it was positively sandbagged by an A-Lister partner and my own inability to manage my boss and project delivery expectations.

Tight Expectations on a Slack Budget

I misplayed those budget deliberations. No question about that.
Perhaps it was a combination of unjustified self-assurance and a fundamental miscue on my part.
Full disclosure: I never ran a “knowledge department” with a dedicated set of headcounts and dollars. I bartered my way from project-to-project and traded endorsement letters for free knowledge labor from the interns in a Bentley College study abroad program. Skimming by on the bare bones made any budget feel like money in the bank. There was widespread agreement that the firm should move from a niche provider of KM software to the industry standard that my IT manager and I had delivered to our prior employers. TRANSLATION: Gut the status quo system for SharePoint.
However, on my way from the no-brainer to the slam-dunk I was waylaid by my own wishful thinking.

Territorial IT

One of the perennial clashes between IT and KM managers is that the two camps are either one in the same or at each other’s throats. The familiar rap is that the IT folks are oblivious to the business while the KM folks are IT challenged, relegated to passenger status at the back of the IT bus. I didn’t believe this conflict was to play out again at GSM because the territorial nature of my IT manager was more about hosting a new KM system – not about running it. I had no reason not to believe we were on the same team.

Legacy KM

As previously stated my predecessor was a much beloved member of the GSM family and well-recognized member of the KM community. Few of us actually make a go of it as an independent consultant/author and market researcher. However that reputation was etched on Ralph’s record as an industry observer and not a day-to-day practitioner. GSM marked Ralph’s first gig on someone else’s payroll since he had worked for a content management consultancy in the early nineties. 
When the time came to build GSM’s first KM System, Ralph made two questionable choices in the firm’s storage and search capacities. With his untimely passing, the building of a more cohesive, responsive, and intuitive system welcomed the immediate attention of Ralph’s successor.

The Grand Bargain Basement

For all these reasons I agreed without reservation to deliver a new KM system on time and within budget ten months from the start of my employment contract. In retrospect I’m still not clear whether that was naiveté, hubris, or both.
Compounding this aggressive scheduling was my reluctance to revisit the rollout dates through the lens of the above “refactoring.” While the signs of a delay in reckoning were many, the one that stands out involved a Request for Proposal (“RFP”) to tag prior work so that it would inherit the new organizational taxonomy we were building in SharePoint 2013.
One of the potential contractors of the work was on retention by the IT manager to support the firm’s network infrastructure. Rather than respond to my RFP, this vendor spent two in-house meetings ducking the requirements in favor of a wholesale do-over – in effect replacing me as the manager and developer for the project. When I opted for another consultant to implement my specification he dug in his heels. The new taxonomy was working but the test server remained too unstable to demonstrate this to stakeholders.
These testing delays marred the SharePoint rollout all the way to my dismissal. This over-reach by the infrastructure consultant was of less concern to my IT manager than the fact I was depriving his outside ally of another GSM retainer.
Not a well-played hand on my part. In fact, not played at all.

Rigidity at the Top

As promised no post-mortem of the GSM debacle is complete without gawking one last time at the wreckage left in the wake of my head-on collision with the partner who terminated my employment.  There are times in a career where we lack chemistry with our bosses. Oftentimes they don’t choose us. Have you been able to choose your own boss, aside from self-employment?
Well, that makes one of us.
Perhaps a little flexibility was in order. Maybes some prudent piloting among some early adopters could have provided the wiggle room necessary to work through the hiccups. Somehow trial-and-error had devolved into trial by error. Instead of a sober recalibration, all milestones continued to be measured against my initial rose-colored miscalculations.
Some of Bill’s spinal tension was brimming over well before my starting date:
·         Ralph’s choice of Coffee Table Cooler as the firm’s knowledge portal was largely seen as a good first step as a social media hub but long surpassed by GSM’s work product and the potentials for its reuse.
·         Ralph’s untimely departure masked another critical part of the position which was that managing knowledge was but one role in filling my position. Another was managing a boss who suffers from a clashing sense of control and detachment – the former in deference to his executive peers and the latter a disregard for the tactical orbits of operational staff.
This indifference to the lower rung of the firm’s food chain was assuaged by Ralph in three ways:
1)      Ralph was a vocal cheerleader. His zealous embrace of KM relieved some of the
pressure at the top to lead by example. For instance he loosened up the tip-top of the Type ‘A’ person he reported to – a natural foil to the unyielding drive of the relentless Dale.
2)      Ralph played the supplicant card in a good-natured way, play acting in the front seat of the knowledge taxi while driving the boss-jerk down the path of discovery!
3)      We were told by Dale at a local office event that Ralph had even shared the same housekeeper as himself, putting to rest all doubt Ralph could glide between roles as a follower, leader, manager, and part-time employer of local cleaning services.
I neither had any of these cards to play nor the perspective to sense the emerging pattern. What I had was an over-achieving ram-rod high-stakes, swamp-draining uber-dragon on my tail. On one extreme he wanted the political cover of not knowing the sausage recipe for KM making. On the other he sought to hand-stamp every gravitational synapse between the KM factory and all knowledge oxides running upstream to the leadership team.

Firing Line

There’s somewhat wound-up and then there’s borderline all-controlling. Bill Dale was on the intense extreme of tightly-coiled. I drafted seven status memos to his peers on the state of KM. Seven times the memo was met by Bill’s wholesale rewrites. By the end of the editing cycle there was no news to share. Events had overcome the spinning of their direction as the options considered in the memo had now expired.
Strong editorial oversight doesn’t do justice to the cork on that pedantic bottling process.
Perhaps the most sincere way to tell this story is to cut ahead to the expiration date. The termination scene lives on in memory as both factually accurate and emotionally honest. I remember focusing on the fingers of the Chief People Officer who sat between Dale and myself. They were not dancing in the methodical confidence of a drum roll procession, but fumbling in a nervous prattle. Her attention was shifting between the termination script and the terminated. There was no smoothing over the bump removal process. Dale stroked his razor-crisp horse shoe mustache, actively looking down as if masking the hands of a countdown clock now out of reach.
No one wants to be on the firing squad any more than wants to be fired on. Two documents were pushed to my side of the table: (1) a performance review that skewed heavily towards the “insufficient” side of the evaluation scorecard; and (2) a severance check deduction. Perhaps the most revelatory moment of the unsavory send-off was that the sufficient box was checked but once. The category? “Accepts criticism from peers and superiors.”
What wasn’t shared was the informal understanding common to the sorry-things-didn’t-work-out conversation. That’s where the parting employee is told they’ll receive some form of endorsement as an applicant for the job hunt to come. Endorsement here doesn’t confer a blank check of hollow praise but simply an affirmation of the job done and perhaps some recognition of a professional commitment to it – if not the desired outcome in the time allotted.
The parting shot was the refusal when asked of any recommendation, as if all the planning and designs were expunged from a year of spade work. At the time it felt like this was no garden variety layoff but the existential nature of facing the loss of reputation along with a regular income to the impervious boss-jerk. In retrospect I realized a great sense of relief and a return to the creative side of KM.
As my wife likes to say about the creative process: “Everything’s a draft until you die.”
Next week: The lessons learned from serving in four KM positions over the course of four years and what KM means as a potential hedge against the petty and substantial influence of the myopic and single-minded executives, managers, and peers who would have their run of their imagined jerkplaces.


The blog series KM in the Jerkplace is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Monday, March 7, 2016

KM in the Jerkplace: Episode Three – Technophobia in the Knowledge Department

Installment Summary: Keen Core’s search engine bake-off smolders into thin air. The dream of a unified Keen Core recedes on the news that a knowledge-centric nonprofit consultancy is looking to implement a topflight KM system. These consultants are decidedly not engineers or accountants but change agents with designs on tackling the rougher edges of social issues – daring to lead in messy, resolution-defying places that don’t pass the white glove test of more corporately-inclined consulting firms.

Technophobia in the Knowledge Department

My move to GSM (“Global Social Maze”) seemed right for so many reasons. What could be a better mix of big picture agenda-setting working hand-in-glove with pragmatic KM?  That marriage could harness, cultivate, and inevitably scale the adoption of GSM's winning ideas across professional, institutional, and national boundaries.

I was moving from a trial balloon to the sanctuary of a department with a mission in support a firm with a vision. Instead of hoping to hit someone’s budget and apologize later, I was on boarding with one, and had the resources to make it happen.

And the most intoxicating news of all was that the reasoning was coming from the prospective employer – not from my wish-list of everything I’d been longing to implement since the great knowledge Diaspora of the Big Four absorption conquest.

KM was not just the flavor of the month or a passing placeholder. I actually received dozens of emails from perspective colleagues, imploring me to take the position:
  • A self-generating cheering section!
  • KM Manager for President!
From day one what charged my imagination was the challenge to fire an idling knowledge operation. I felt uniquely qualified to fill the gap between the firm’s value proposition and its cheerful but underwhelming KM platform – an application better at socializing water-cooler gossip than propagating lessons learned. 

This reluctance to embrace the best technological fit was evident throughout GSM: 
  1. Conference rooms whose dedicated laptops could not be over-ridden
  2. Knowledge transfer sessions that went unrecorded on fears that the play button could disconnect the conference
  3. Whiteboard doodles of siloed databases which resembled a Daddy Long Legs thumb wrestling a paraplegic octopus. 
This was not a high-achieving technical organization.  

Manager’s Remorse

The increasing prestige and responsibility of the senior manager role included two direct reports. Besides the summer interns we’d hosted at System Wisdom, this was my first supervisory role in over a decade.

It didn’t take long to realize my managerial instincts were rusty and perceived by my boss as an overstretch of the leadership he saw me lacking. Regardless of the leader and leadership qualities in question, my focus channeled past information flow to the padlocked doors of damage control. I was managing stress levels and deadline shifts – a far cry from directing the discourse of the firm’s vaunted “knowledge exchanges” or actually mentoring junior level KM associates.

The first indications this was the wrong fit were written into the terms of acceptance. I was to be physically present in the firm’s Back Bay offices five days per week. That was not in itself a deal-breaker.  My lifelong lifestyle choices have led to living in the sticks and working in office parks. I knew I could rev my intrepid jets to support a second residence via Craig’s List. I could even do it for an upfront commitment of one review cycle. I would live from suitcase to cubicle. I would see my family on weekends. Down the road lay the expectations of a more balanced and sustainable telecommute. 

Here’s what I didn’t see coming: my boss basically comported to the same 5 day in-office work week. That was a level of attentiveness far beyond my prior exposure levels to “managing up.”

(More on boss jerk in next week’s episode).

Stepping Around the Big KM Shoes

Management consulting is an industry that caters to the insatiable need of corporate chief-doms for external validation in the shrinkage of prior commitments and the growth of bottom lines. The nonprofit version sounds the same themes with one important difference – the bottom line is measured by community betterment over earnings statements. In other words it’s not the rationale for profit-taking but what’s to be done with the spoils – the residues of capitalism known as philanthropy.

For a former Hampshire College grad steeped in sustainable economies and social justice, this assignment was just what the do-gooder doctor ordered – not just doing the right thing to surmount the moral high-ground but because the greater social good was being served by capitalism – not in spite of it. What greater calling could there be to share the gospel of such GSM-branded practices as “collective value” and “shared impact” through the edifying lens of Knowledge Management?

That same conclusion did not escape my predecessor, Ralph Chasticio who began GSM’s KM practice in 2010. Ralph positioned his zeal as a firebrand by leading bona fide KM pep rallies at the annual retreats. He threw birthday parties for the KM system he initiated. His untimely death in 2013 left a gaping hole that included his oversized personality as well as his stamp on KM. I never expected to the replacement for the former and was inspired by the loose-ends of the latter. For those reasons I saw his legacy as a welcome mat to his successor – not as a bar too high for hurdling.

Full-time Visitor Badge

Mondays through Thursdays, the headquarters of most management consulting groups are pulsing with the sounds of air ducts ventilating and elevators shooting past their reception areas. These are mostly thriving, barren places. A profitable and desirable place to work in this industry is an office of rural library-like decibel levels and empty offices – at least those staffed by absent partners and their consulting teams. The intrepid consultant catches the red eye fly flight home on Thursdays to reclaim their personal lives, collect their dry-cleaning, and reconnect with the rest of the firm.

The non-billable office staff earn their keep by making problems wait, if not disappear, prior to the casual Friday homecoming. Marketing, Finance, IT, KM ... most functional innards get baked into the booking fees with the same invoicing logic as reimbursable travel costs. We are the cost of doing business -- not the value.

Those expenses were less padded and more scrutinized at GSM. Not only were GSM consultants out to save the world but they did so largely from the interior of our offices. That’s not to cast doubt on the sincerity of mission-focused consulting or the commensurate sacrifices (pay-cuts, no bonuses, and a slower promotional track). There are many instances where project teams exceeded the visitor badge status of what an onsite assignment means. I was honored to meet and support project teams who worked with refuges and underserved populations. No matter the client, assignment, or budget, the goals or determination to reach them never wavered. 

The distinction here is that those in the pedestrian roles of support staff also forgo creature comforts, consolations, and even workplace conventions. In my case this meant assuming a consultant lifestyle at support staff sustenance.

Another was an emphasis on process. In more conventional settings I was surrounded by engineers with MBAs whose move rationalized the bottom-line justification for the results they deliver. At GSM I was surrounded by project managers who were chess-boarding the interdependencies of moving pieces across a sprawling array of events, engagements, and non-billable projects, (a.k.a. the slippery stuff that’s hard to track).

I still remember the dumbfounding realization that my direct reports were not interested in tinkering with the interface or noodling around the peripheries of the “undo” function. They wanted an expectation of scheduling – the where and when. “How” was off the agenda. It was not a role they welcomed. In hindsight it was my failings as a boss to own their lack of initiative and the “how” of the planning.  This was illustrated in a single-spaced 30 page rollout plan, top-heavy with micro details. I don’t remember a point-of-return once I sent that roadmap to the printer. I don’t recall a single approver or accomplice even read past the table of contents.

A third unexpected challenge was how the emphasis on process played out in the negotiating of commitments and resources to projects. On the surface this meant there were “pre-reads” to consider before the actual holding of the meetings they addressed (sort of a book club meets budget planning scenario). And those meetings were as scripted as they were scheduled – no scribbling outside the margins. No unplanned digressions. No Q&A without some certainty there was a consensus on where the ‘A’ stands before the ‘Q’ sits down.

Next week: The ghost of a former KM founding father casts a longer shadow as a pending KM rollout is tripped up by an intractable IT peer and my own unwillingness to renegotiate the terms of project success.


The blog series KM in the Jerkplace is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

KM in the Jerkplace: Episode Two Continued -- All You Can Eat Knowledge Buffet
Installment Summary: The initial optimism for planting the knowledge flag at Keen Core is tempered by factional infighting and an unwillingness to fly those engineering colors under the SAME flag. At the same time leadership exhibits a great thirst for consolidation and little appetite for absorbing the cost of supporting knowledge programs like enterprise search.

All You Can Eat Knowledge Buffet

As the term “bake off” suggests employing cooking metaphors inside a kitchen of software cooks is an event that feeds on a hearty appetite for knowledge management. The idea that coders could compare approaches and results in the pooling of collective assets is tantalizing in itself. Using that process to fire an imagination based on this become standard operating procedure goes one step further. Modeling this team-based approach to problem-solving as the basis for choosing a search engine is perhaps the pinnacle of KM meal preparation.

Imagine a selection process based on the merit of a side-by-side taste test: No loyalties or caveats or leadership nods in any particular direction. The evidence of experience alone being the sole basis for recommending one tool over another. What after all could be more unfettered or unvarnished than the direct input of product teams all hurdling down the roadmap toward the Promised Land of next version resolution?

Little did I know that nothing that resolvable or apolitical was ever a realistic outcome – let alone a KM promise worth keeping beyond the proof of concept stages.

The Lean and Hungry Fat Cat

Regrettably a few hard business realities pushed Keen Core off of NASDAQ just around the time the proof of concept entered the lightening round.

It didn’t help matters that the evidence-based vote to elect the licensing of a new search vendor was corrupted by a power struggle in which divided camps sparred over this decision. There was no referendum. The final straw boiled down to the authoritarian jerk the board of directors hired to lead Keen Core from its tumbling stock price. Gordon Gato was quite candid about his take-no-prisoners style and hard-headed focus on bottom-line priorities.

Where overhead-accruing managers like me come from, this is code for lay-offs. I wasn’t about to hold the knowledge bag knowing I was to slip through a knowledge safety net that had not yet …
  • Hit the awareness horizons of corporate higher-ups, nor
  • The budget responsibilities of anyone in engineering.

Revenues declined by a third during my knowledge watch – roughly the same as the increase in Gato’s bonus and non-equity incentive payments. His total take home pay was nearly half of the company’s net income. This financial contortion is especially impressive considering that he was brought in as a turnaround artist whose change in direction netted a continuation of the same downturn.

Besides the dwindling numbers, the company decided to delay reporting its 2012 earnings for the balance of 2013. First came the nosedive in the stock price. Then the stock slid off the quarterly earnings radar – the NASDAQ delisting. It would be uncharitable and inaccurate to say that Gordon Gato took his turnaround signals sitting down. He’s still in the throes of reworking the business model from licenses to subscription-based pricing – a transition that’s unforgiving of status quo payroll levels and flat-out hostile to any non-pay-their-own-way peripheries orbiting fuzzy math cost centers like KM.

Rumble in the Engine Room

In the spring of 2013 Gato used a series of cater-less all-hands meetings to unveil his PowerPoints of the emerging business model and to mark his difference in the new direction – more time with customers, market analysts, and shareholders; less with engineering and services.

Engineering shrugged, went back to work, and reserved any angst about Gato and the stock price for picking internal fights of its own design. Most of the political score-settling in the ranks boiled down to the chess piece maneuvering of product team leads more intent on empire-building than the heavier-lifting required to integrate the moving parts of a divergent portfolio.

Acquisitions were typically rationalized according to: (a) the victors who tend to be the deal suitors, and (b) the cash-out considerations. Gato shared the point more than once that a distant second went to improving how the customer actually benefits. And buried below all the safe harbor statements was the jumble of complexity known as the roadmap required to reconcile the source code of alien applications now expected to unify under a cohesive, functional product family.

In the June 2015 issue of the Atlantic, “Why It Pays to Be aJerk,” author Jerry Useem writes that we’re all complicit in Gato’s ascent to the head of the jerk table:

“Once a hierarchy emerges, the literature shows, people tend to construct after-the-fact rationalizations about why those in charge should be in charge. Likewise, the experience of power leads people to exhibit yet more power-signaling behaviors (displaying aggressive body language, taking extra cookies from the common plate). And not least, it gives them a chance to practice their hand at advocating an agenda, directing a discussion, and recruiting allies— building genuine leadership skills that help legitimize and perpetuate their status.”

That is not to argue that Gato’s prestige rests solely on the forcefulness of his positions or the acquiescence of the shrinking violets in engineering. Remember the existential doubt of a once dominant now floundering enterprise? Now add to the mix the matter of those cookies (or in the following case the unauthorized taking of coffee).

Useem references a 2012 study comparing the effects of individual aggressors and group acceptance. In the control group the aggressor pilfers coffee from a researcher’s coffee pot. In the experimental group he satisfies both himself and the test observer, servicing both their needs. The hypothesis is this: What effect does his stealing have on the other person’s willingness to put him in charge?

The answer: It depends. If he simply steals one cup of coffee for himself, his power affordance shrinks slightly. If, on the other hand, he steals the pot and pours cups for himself and the other person, his power affordance spikes sharply. People want this man as their leader.

And if the man did the pouring without the purloining his leadership “… ratings collapsed … massively.”

That larger lesson about taker behavior in the service of group welfare casts a different light on the fable of cookie jar thieves and the largely unspoken law of rule-breaking as a leadership rite. Perhaps the study participants feel entitled to that free cup. Perhaps the rule-abiders sense they’ve earned it but the rules suggest otherwise unless … we follow the lead of what Useem calls these “heelish” interventions. Hall monitors need not apply here!

Instead of asking why some people bully or violate norms, researchers are asking: Why doesn’t everyone?

Is it the moral compass that points us followers towards the assurance of policies and procedures or is it the stigma of running outside the rules? The convention-smashing leader finds his magnetism in two vital places:

  1. He provides the cover for conformist acceptance: “It’s not just me…”
  2. He holds open the promise of opportunity when the seduction of exceptionalism beckons: “I’m not some rule-bound chump.”

Make no mistake. The primary jerk was Gato. The actual news is that he served in dual capacities as head jerk and visionary leader and the two roles were not in conflict. Many of my former peers saw his brazen leadership as the least disruptive way to keep Keen Core afloat.

Even at his most abrasive, most of my colleagues were not hearing “my way or the highway.” Gato had inserted his will into a power vacuum somewhere between the product family and the fire sale of corporate assets. On the other side lie either: (1) a return to glory or, (2) the resume rewrites of a thousand product evangelists, scrum masters, change agents, and six sigma black belts.

Insert your LinkedIn update here. 

Next week: With the bake-off stalled and leadership adrift another door opens in a small but vital management consulting shop, teeming with idealism and knowledge not the side show but the pivot point to their success. Would I be riding high on the coattails of KM?


The blog series KM in the Jerkplace is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
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attentionSpin is a consulting practice formed in 1990 to create, automate and apply a universal scoring system (“The Biggest Picture”) to brands, celebrities, events and policy issues in the public eye. In the Biggest Picture, attentionSpin applies the principles of market research to the process of media analytics to score the volume and nature of media coverage. The explanatory power of this research model: 1. Allows practitioners to understand the requirements for managing the quality of attention they receive 2. Shows influencers the level of authority they hold in forums where companies, office-seekers, celebrities and experts sell their visions, opinions and skills 3. Creates meaningful standards for measuring the success and failure of campaigns and their connection to marketable assets.