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.

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