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.

No comments:

Bookmark and Share

About attentionSpin

My photo
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.