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.

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