Sunday, January 31, 2016

KM in the Jerkplace: Episode One -- Knowledge Factory Settings

Installment Summary

We focus on the friendly acquisition of my knowledge-centric consulting shop by an accounting giant in 2011. A first glance, the giant’s knowledge systems and practices casts doubt on the ability to integrate the know-how of my former firm into my new firm’s service offerings and value propositions.

Copyright The Ubyssey 2014
I was the lead knowledge manager for a small, enterprising consulting firm that we’ll call System Wisdom. System Wisdom owed its success to two factors:
  • A steadfast mastery of operations management – the nuts and bolts around improving production cycles and supply chains.
  • The glue holding that mastery together – the knowledge transfer needed to sustain these practices.
There was no original jerk at work in the swallowing of this intrepid, forward-leaning consulting firm. It wasn’t motivated by any personality really. I attribute the post-merger fallout to a blind-spot inside the acquirer – a Big 4 accounting colossus we’ll reference as Cover Your Assurances (“CYA”).  

This was not an aggressive overreach by CYA, but a presumption really that success factor #2 was somehow implicit in the first. In this transition all the operational smarts would flow into CYA’s bottom line as easily as the bookings of former System Wisdom clients.

CYA admired System Wisdom as a small, dependable outfit. Our allure was  based on: (a) the complementary nature of our tinkering engineers to their bankable legion of accountants; and (b) our outsized profits. When one dialed in System Wisdom:
  1. First you got cool, informed analysis of your current operational state
  2. Next we broke down your operational innards
  3. Finally we pieced them back together with the rationale for strengthening them over time.
The miscalculation was the presumption that System Wisdom’s success formula was as transferable as the financial assets used to seal the deal. Is knowledge (like the capital used to produce it) reducible to transactional units? In our case, the outputs were the documents generated in our case work. As client deliverables they were both solutions to prior problems and reusable frameworks for addressing the new work to come. 

CYA treated the exchange as largely a rebranding exercise:
  1. How many offshore editors does it take to redact all specific references to System Wisdom’s former case work?
  2. How many search and replace macros will reappoint the respective logos and color palettes?

This kind of knowledge refactoring scales well for reproducing sets of static artifacts, say for booksellers? Not necessarily so when it comes to social and iterative pursuits like building management practices inside massive bookkeeping juggernauts.

When these ingredients are purged from the original work and the context is removed, it compromises  the consulting teams’ ability to absorb the lessons, rethink the approach, and determine its applicability to the case at-hand. A stripped down relic of an ex-client of a former firm is disconnected from…
  • The insights of authorship,
  • The learnings from the unforeseen consequences, and
  • The breakthrough thinking of a pressure-tested innovation

    – In short, the particulars that evolve the practice.
These were not the flagrant aggressions of a subversive jerk. These are but sins of misunderstanding and omission from an institutional perspective. On a personal level the jerk war path was paved with malevolent intentions: The fully intended disruptions, the pulling of political ranks, and performance review sucker punches were yet to come.

Three Keywords and a Cloud of Dust

I had barely decamped in CYA’s Knowledge Services fold when I learned of this branch’s eminent demise.

At its peak Knowledge Services consisted of 300-odd former librarians, reporters, PhDs, and trainers that CYA had been advised to assemble as an expansive storehouse of thinker-bees. Regrettably this deluxe busload of bright, non-billable folks was thrown under an even bigger bus – a caravan of metrics that calculated knowledge by the dump-fill and justified the number of sanitation workers required. The answer was not many. The main task involved sorting the number of deliverables and the tags needed to locate, if not find them. This distinction is a scream-out to CYA’s suboptimal search. Each query approached every new information request as an isolated pursuit. 

Keepers of the knowledge fold consisted of three camps:
  1. The captains, 
  2. The doomed, and 
  3. The campers groomed for the lifeboats by their knowledge captains

    – None of whom were ticketed to go down with their knowledge crews.

System-wise the enterprise content supply lines were unresponsive to the knowledge demands of consulting staff. Rather than align them, CYA leadership aborted dysfunctional search for the leaner and trendier social media platform. The new system required none of the care, feeding, and expense of the system maintained by the brainy, unbillable folks of the knowledge fold.

The cost savings rationale joined forces with the demographics. The argument was that junior staffers were more apt to engage Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. than CYA’s intranet. Here was a knowledge bone we can throw them to retain them a cycle longer before shopping their wares to a rival firm.

The ruse all along was that corporate-styled Facebooks would make the home team more collaborative on the inside, and once externalized, and more competitive. In reality here’s what happened:
  • No governance structures led to dozens of redundancies and missed opportunities for community-building. Each new site was in a confused state of collaboration-readiness: some open access sites, some in lock-down, and some slightly ajar (invitation-only).
  • All engagement deliverables were treated as potential liabilities and were fire-walled away from the economies of learning and reuse.
  • “Likes” and shallow salutations were socialized like the upturned grin of a ginormous smiley face. Attachments leading to actual work product were frowned on. Substance was a non-starter.

Bottom-line: the competitive edge for leveraging knowledge was used for personal gain – not for organizational advantage.

Disabling the Knowledge Store

I played the expected role of the knowledge giver on social media. I did this by reproducing the archived threads of past problem resolutions – the iterations of practitioners collaborating within a community of experts. Each posting was credited to me even though the know-how being traded was exchanged by the consultants – not the copier/paster/curator.

Contributors to these community sites were rewarded by a scoring system designed to tally their peer influence.  My point totals were inflated by reposting the work of others. Then there was the approval seeking which demonstrated the conformist pressures of social media. Why hypothesize or test a rationale among your peers? It’s far easier to win followers by pandering to the pep talks from the C-suite?

Perhaps that’s why the social engine runs on the breathy validations of the leader-led. Point totals lead to accruing badges. Attaching iconic credentials to more substantive discussions was not part of the rewards package. But one could argue that the enterprise knowledge store was never open for business – before or after the brown-nosing and patronizing began.

In the fishbowl of corporate Facebook what’s always an open proposition is not the latest posting, comment, or like. It’s the variation on the question of what I’ve done for you lately to solicit favor.  The surface details on social media are sounded through the same immutable timetable. Annual performance reviews are an orchestration set to the grand pause of musical chairs. And no one knows better which notes to play or how to stop them cold better than the CYA reviewer elites.


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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