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.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Knowledge Management in the Jerkplace

Is Knowledge Capital Our Most Prized Asset and …

Do Knowledge Guys Finish Last?

An article last summer in The Atlantic brings refinement, nuance, and dynamics of this most familiar dichotomy:
  • It’s a constant in any workplace, registering on performance reviews in all shades of documentation.
  • It bubbles 24/7 just below the water cooler surface. It’s the leading age-old management question, the equivalent of what makes for a good marriage.

I’m talking of course from the safety of my hard hat inside the office park construction zone. The sign on the fence reads: Caution: Jerks at Work.

My interest in this sore, fascinating subject is both personal and professional. I don’t just mean in terms of who I work with and the residual impact on career. I mean what I chose as my career path. Knowledge Management or “KM” and its success or failure to my employers depends on its practitioners: (1) not being pulled into the jerk zone, and (2) enabling our colleagues to achieve the same.

The idea is that KM is supposed to organize experience in a shareable way so that it pays to be a generous colleague and that jerk behavior becomes more of a career limiting move for the majority of jerk practitioners.

After all, managing knowledge is an abstraction made employable by long-accepted information age assumptions. That means brains-over-brawn in the knowledge-is-power world of …

1.       Reciprocating social networks,
2.       No one knowing as much as everyone, and
3.       Two-way dialog that produces informed bottom-up decisions.

Knowledge is also the single most reducible currency of what the consulting industry converts into credit-claiming revenue. Whether that interaction is a launch cycle, a maintenance plan, or a fire sale, it takes a knowledge exchange to swing the forces of change in the client's favor.

For all my blind spots, skill deficits, and impatience with jerks, I have learned with time to trade on knowledge currency. That means shopping the benefits of collaborations enriched by expedient on-boarding, accelerated proposal-making, and the simple math of repurposing documents from pitch decks to code snippets. In management ranks reusable assets have come to mean the frameworks derived from a firm’s core IP – the secret sauce promoted in the books, symposia, and articles in places that consider the trade-offs of corporate jerks. Regardless of the channel, these artifacts are brandable as knowledge products stamped by the elder statesmen and their high-flying heir apparents.

With each new position and employer however a recurring wrinkle began running outside this formula. A pattern emerged that marginalized the traditional arguments for hiring knowledge-dedicated staff. This new twist even challenged whether the benefits for adopting KM were better delivered by full-time employees or through project-based contractors. Buoyed by the intrinsic ease of Google, limitless storage, and the self-organizing allure of social media, many organizations began to question the need even for contractors. Why not pass those benefits directly onto those knowledge-consuming elites? Hey, anyone with a browser is in constant pursuit of faster, better, cheaper content. 

Why hire intermediaries who don’t …
  1. Produce it,
  2. Administer the hardware, or
  3. Bill their time back to clients?

In this new calculation either a knowledge system is rolling out or a bright, unbillable knowledge manager is shipping out ahead of it. That “IT horse” before the “knowledge cart” aptly describes the three organizations I’ve joined and left in a recent three year cycle of knowledge roulette. In each case those ingrained virtues of collaboration and community bonds of knowledge sharing took a backseat to the rollout of the knowledge system. 

Teasing out leverage-worthy project cases, how they’re socialized, and building buy-in for the ways to organize them was reduced to background noise. In the foreground lie the three dominant IT project markers known as: (a) DEV, (b) QA, and (c) PROD – as in production where the knowledge cart goes on full display. 

Knowledge Systems: Art or Artifice?

The fact that the experiential nature of knowledge-sharing has been sandbagged by deployment priorities suggests that the system is no longer a means to an ends. It is the destination for the funding organization and the termination point for the deployment team. Either it’s launched and can care and feed itself or never gets off the ground in the first place. If four knowledge jobs in four years is any indication, the knowledge currency I traded on in the past is buying a lot fewer believers. Facilitating the transfer of knowledge between learning-inclined colleagues has gone from the foundational goal of KM to an afterthought of system implementation.

Now I’m not saying the lights have dimmed on the long view that calls for the intentional transfer of knowledge as a practicing discipline and competitive advantage. What I am saying is that knowledge is an enabler of a process. It is not “the promised land” – even for the most community-minded or altruistic of those knowledge-seeking intentions. No greater proof of this exists with the notion that dogged me through those four years in the KM weeds: that I was hired to carve a well-tended knowledge garden out of a sprawling and unruly thicket of information. In each of these cases knowledge represented “a system” and the knowledge system was a destination – a container of the great organizational learnings that could be tapped regardless of …

·         The lesson being drawn
·         The question being asked,
·         The lesson being modeled, or
·         The conclusions being drawn.

I was a party to these flawed understandings. It is too easy to blame them on the coercions of jerks. What makes the takeaways from these fallacies most instructive is that I too was culpable. I contributed to the confusion that formed when the system failed to hold the expectations of those counting on it.

Knowledge Stock and Trade

Metadata, search, and taxonomy form the holy trinity of knowledge system deployments. These are the tools of the knowledge trade. Most KM professionals I know have a penchant organizing virtual assets. But it’s more than classifying documents. Often it’s reshuffling a jumble of pages, images, links, site roots, and file folders that offer little more than a time stamp and a cryptic file name to determine its value, connection to the past, or merit for preserving it. In most cases the knowledge has outlived its creators or the explanatory power of sense-making artifacts. The KM manager becomes a forensics analyst – an archivist who doesn’t just collect the pieces but threads them into a narrative which justifies all the learnings and rationales that were reduced to rubble and nonsense:

·         In the aftermath of a hasty merger,
·         A rash and wholesale restructuring of a former division, or
·         The marginalizing of assets that were never properly curated in the first place.

Now try finding these pattern-matching challenges in the outcomes of the rollout. The truth is that there’s nothing cultural, organic, or people-based about it. The further off schedule or offline the production system slides, the more on-the-line the KM manager becomes for the collateral damage of bringing that much touted knowledge system into creation. 

* * *

For the remainder of the Jerkplace series I will put this higher level summation into a series of nine installments: 
  1. Each post will cover my last four positions. 
  2. Each a failed attempt to build and facilitate three distinct cultures of knowledge. 
  3. Each its own climate of uncertainty, suspicion, and a nominal reserve of cooperation, compromised by the actions of knowledge jerks. 

In each installment I will demonstrate the conditions that jeopardized the adoption of the knowledge programs I managed and the hard reckoning that comes from…

·         Working with difficult colleagues, and
·         Using knowledge as a counterweight to difficulties they imposed.


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.
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.