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.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

KM in the Jerkplace: Episode Two -- Knowledge Engineering for Solitary Scrum Masters

Installment Summary: The Big Four knowledge survivalist jumps into the awaiting arms of the engineering camp for a once mighty developer of media software – back when hardware mattered. At first the opportunity is virgin territory. This inviting place to plant the knowledge flag is signified by efforts to source and build a search capability for leveraging the company’s collective assets. The initial optimism is however tempered by factional infighting and an unwillingness to fly those engineering colors under the SAME flag.

The Factory Gates Open for Knowledge Engineering

A week before I was to ship out as a SharePoint business ninja within IT, I hitched onto a passing knowledge raft. This water-logged trial balloon was powered by the knowledge-seeking curiosities of the engineering arm of Keen Core Technology – arms dealer to Hollywood, TV, and recording industries, and now under siege by an unceasing array of disruptor insurgencies from all sides of the media production spectrum.

While I had worked along-side IT and engineers with MBAs (a.k.a. “management consultants”) I had never been subsumed into the belly of the engine room: that is IT itself. I learned software-making as a repeatable cycle in need of documentation as-in coding the coders. I learned about daily stand-ups as the perfect antidote for task-drenched programmers who would rather be writing code than getting sucked into meetings.

My mission at Keen Core was to classify the wikis, channel the documentation stream, and socialize the release cycle of the half-dozen or so product development teams. Ultimately this meant distilling all these outputs into a single automated helping of digestible knowledge called “search.” The fact that there was no enterprise-wide answer to the perennial how-do-we-know-what-we-know question meant two things to the engineering crew of Keen Core:
  1. Conceptual – how do we boil this ocean of applications, file-shares, lapsed repositories, and group-based collaborations from Outlook to Google Docs?
  2. Practical – once boiled, how do we care and feed this resource so we can retreat to our safety zones in the comfort of knowing we can test our forward-leaning hunches against our collective history?

The Knowledge Safety Net

From a theoretical perspective the wish list that brought me to Keen Core began and ended with the same staggering and sober realization: we can scale the production of code but we don’t have a clue how to trap, catalog, and ultimately leverage the by-products of that effort.

This overwhelming sense of an organization’s inability to get out of its own way is not well-served by a top-down inventory of all assets – whether they live in the U.S. Patent Office or under “the digital landfill” as AIIM's John Mancini would say.  Rather than over-analyze the backlog of dumpster-grade documents, we looked to establish the safety net – not the uber knowledge archive.

There was nothing random to this sampling. Domain experts come out of the wood work – reluctantly sometimes because they’re often “heads down” …
  • On some failure-is-not-an-option mission, or
  • Closing in on some new shortcut to faster, better, cheaper.

These are not the sycophants of social media in search of the likability badging trophy. 
These are the folks who build stuff. They might not communicate effectively and their managerial skills lapsed long ago – if they ever had them. They are socially speaking apolitical, meaning they are drawn to fixing problems, not towards handling them. They are by-and-large drawn from the ranks of engineering and they are my brilliant, argumentative, recalcitrant, misunderstood people.

These are the ones who emerge when the call goes out for who-knows-how-stuff-works. And like their own circles, the documentation they travel in lands off the documentation radar. It lives on the outskirts of any centralized repository that confers authority, explains connections, or unpacks the experience that inspired it. In the case of the Keen Core safety net it was little more than providing a link to an obscure server I might or might not find password accessible. But after a series of non-threatening prods I had my unofficial off-the-map collection of references that the engineering teams swear by.

Not the sanitized intranet they were used to swearing at.

The Bake-off

The legendary chef Julia Child once said, “Always start out with a larger pot than what you think you need.” She might as well have been describing the process for picking an enterprise search engine. This proof-of-concept or PoC is your due diligence for matching internal priorities and selection criteria to your bake-off results. PoCs demand an improbable mix of reference able work product – no matter where it comes from, the application particulars, or the sub par referencing used to catalog the electronic version of what lives inside organizational roles and responsibilities.

Once I had my vetted safety net, I was clear to map them to the safe harbor of the search interface where memories get tested, experiments are run, and explanations are concocted.  That mapping included a healthy respect for the mismatch between Googling for cat videos that stick to our social billboards and researching a backlog of databases that live behind a corporate firewall. A PoC was undertaken to reduce the vast, uncharted wilderness of Keen Core to a single search box and a choice of search vendors – hence the “bake-off” that played out against the following design choices:

#1 – Fact versus Conceptual Search: Most business problems are not reducible to the distance of the closest pizzeria with the highest reputation ranking. In other words the answer is neither immediate nor obvious. It’s not persuasive on its own but needs the back-story to connect its relevance to the problem at-hand. That connection can only be provided by the searcher – not the search engine. The conceptual search idea was welcome by my colleagues as they were well-acquainted with the status and responsibilities of domain-expert-as-content-curator.

#2 – Single Answers versus Iterative: Because of their research-focused nature, most business or enterprise search problems are not only conceptual but iterative. They are greatly influenced by changes in time frame, authorship, formatting, narrative style, and context – the reason the artifact exists in the first place. Enterprise search results defy definitive or conclusive answers. They’re conversational – not just among peers but with the search interface itself which guides the searcher with:
  1. Related events, 
  2. People, 
  3. Locations, and 
  4. Organizations that suggest …
  5. Further probing, 
  6. Competing explanations, or even …
  7. Complete redirections of our original assumptions.

This relatedness was realized in the proof of concept. Human-mediated tagging was neither doable nor desirable but the prospective search technologies proved up to the task for grouping these relations as search facets.

#3 – Search versus Source Dependent: The key to building our knowledge safety net is not so much keyword searching as enterprise sourcing: The ability not just to crawl volumes of pages, folders, and files but to evidence why anyone bothered to do so. Search scoping is essential because it brings the sense-making role of any single artifact apparent to colleagues with otherwise no shared experience beyond a common holiday calendar and pay cycle. Sourcing logic reinforces the cohesive logic of coordination across business lines and supporting functions:
  1. Want to know what the customer sees before it’s out on your website? Search on marketing. 
  2. Want to understand our products better? Search on training. 
  3. Visual learner? Precede to training videos, etc. 
  4. The more technical explanation? Go to the core requirements hammered out by account managers and the engineers who design to them.

Everyone at Keen Core understood the different lenses for sifting through the same content. The challenge was that only engineering had a seat at the bake-off table.

Enterprise Assets or Liabilities?

The good news is that each of these ingredients was factored into an enterprise search proof of concept for the engineering crew at Keen Core. The correct sources were indexed and configured to a search-driven interface reflecting both the nature of the index and the information-seeking goals of the searcher. Better still I got to run a true side-by-side comparison between two enterprise search vendors (Coveo and Google). The thinking here: My colleagues could base their tool of choice on their actual problem-solving.

The bad news is that Keen Core’s enterprise resembled a potluck more than a catered sit-down. The number of place settings changed with who wanted a seat at the table. The unsettled seating arrangements made it hard to move forward without revisiting some tired assumptions like:

  • The Google Slam Dunk: Hey, wipe that Google web smirk off your enterprise requirements for Google Search Appliance. We’re talking two different engines here!
  • The How Big-is-Our-Data Routine? What constitutes a fair test sample when a vendor solution crawls across diverse operating systems, repositories, and legacy apps (with licenses no one bothered to renew)?  
  • The How-Open-is-Open Question? What's bothering your colleagues about access to resources? What's the important stuff we can get access to if we need it?  What are the content bottlenecks that hinder a silo-bound organization?

Conclusion: At every milestone selecting the right vendor was resistant to simple risk-to-benefit reductions. Multiple trade-offs were the norm. So were the dug-in heels of competing vendor camps. All of these larger lessons were lost to the conflicting agendas of poker-faced stakeholders – regardless of the actual bake-off winner.

Next week: The bake-off verdict is clouded by a crash diet spending plan courtesy of a stock delisting and a CEO whose blunt leadership style distances him from all non-depreciable costs -- including the company’s ingrained know-how on the building of its products.


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, February 12, 2016

KM in the Jerkplace: Knowledge Factory Settings, Part 2

Installment Summary: A bumpy transition slides into a personal predicament when an annual performance review turns rocky. That review cycle is a politically charged rejection of merit-based promotion. Here we encounter our first skirmish with a petulant subject matter expert more intent on surrounding their homegrown system with a privileged fortress than an actual team.  


Performance Anxiety

There are few corporate rituals less popular and more practiced than performance reviews. If our people are our greatest resource, no platitude rings hollower than the feigned understanding of their resourcefulness.  This is the actual nuts and bolts of actual innovation the ability to move beyond the gravitational pull of power structures, the boundaries of siloed systems, and the inertia of entrenched bureaucracies:

  • To penetrate new markets!
  • To remedy chronic shortcomings!
  • To forge game-changing innovations!
  • To get the real work done!
Each of those laudable goals must be met by steely resolve and channeled through the social loop. Consulting staff enlist KM support for realizing these aims. But a peripheral assist does not a critical path make. At review time those managers might well be trading up for a promotion by focusing on the contributions of their direct peers and not the collaborations of an extended team. And the indirect nature of knowledge work begs the existential question of knowledge-based ethics, practices, and careers:

How does one gain a merit-worthy move up the managerial ranks – particularly on teams that are often scattered, and double-staffed to other operational groups?

That uphill incline tilts even steeper for the folks retained to blast through the indifference. Those calcified process flows stuck in-between: (1) the front-office that brings in the revenues, and (2) the back office that counts them.

Knowledge managers by definition are expected to break with routines while playing within the rules. They are expected to do this typically by flying solo into the strong headwinds of ingrained habits. That whistle-blowing can sound shrill and incriminating to the keepers of longstanding allegiances. These are not your father’s old boy networks. These are keepers of traditions to policies and protocols that appear just fine from the inside and positively undefendable from a longer-term and customer-facing perspective.

Muckraking over the Coals

At CYA that tension was further inflamed by the binding rationale for acquiring System Wisdom: Let’s absorb the profits but then swallow this change management formula too? That didn’t go down so well. Organizationally this meant looking in the mirror – could we integrate the acquisition mindset into the larger culture? From a KM perspective this meant confronting CYA’s ambivalence to new thinking and alternative approaches.

The role of muckraker for knowledge managers assumes not only that we're suited to be mavericks but that our success operates around an operational imperative. Without a targeted outcome successes are small and isolated by the vacuum that forms in the absence of tangible benefits to the business. 

Failing that, the knowledge brain trust reports to no one and answers to all. We tend to float below front-line customer operations and revenue streams. While no less beholden to them, knowledge folks typically report to teams of one with visibility into every which silo we're required to smash.

That muckraking happened over the coals of the well-tended CYA pecking order. This dominance hierarchy was not just a Darwinian take on the corporate food chain. It was also the obstacle course sanctioned as the performance review cycle: hunting season for jerks.

Respecting the Box

As we’ve seen through the lens of the performance review, thinking outside the box is one thing. Acting on that thinking from within said box is a decision that lives outside our authority as change agents. As CYA decorum suggests that box is reinforced with some pretty thick walls. What’s communicated within them does not deviate from those boundaries. A knowledge manager who reaches outside their reporting level or distribution list has not only waded outside the collective comfort zone but violated its confidences. By reporting upward without regard to station the KM grunt has circumvented the command chain.

Like most CYA lessons this was an act of omission. I wasn’t aggressively stepping over a superior but inadvertently stepping on a landmine.  The inspiration to stray outside the talk box came from the need to bond with the business and draw from the same gumption and resourcefulness of the System Wisdom team model. The resulting reprimand was the first hint that the old bootstrap routines were boxed out of the CYA power structure. To think otherwise was na├»ve. To act in anyone’s interest beyond one’s immediate reports was not simply a misinformed overreach but a glaring error in judgment.  

Demerit-oracy in Action

Like any reasonable knowledge manager I sought to connect these isolated violations of the CYA protocol. As performance review season kicked in it became apparent to me that under the veneer of merit flew the flag of Demerit-ocracy. Drum roll please … what exactly is Demerit-ocracy (accent on the “DE”)?

Definition: Gotcha culture for punitive politicking – one where all point systems and scoring formulas give way to who’s minding the performance store. Here’s a sample range of outcomes:

·         I will overlook your shitty performance because I admire your winning personality.
·         Every marginal misstep will stick to you like the static cling of a thousand shag rugs – take that you loser!

Organizationally performance reviews serve two pragmatic functions:
  1. It’s a collection basket for days of plenty: “Tell us what line you’re waiting in and we’ll tell you where the lines are shorter!”
  2. It's a dragnet operation for times of scarcity. Demerits are tradeable currency for trimming the ranks from the bloat of past hiring binges.
On a personal level the practice plays out as corporate frontier justice – beyond shouting distance from the civil liberties that defend us against shakedowns, entrapment, and self-incrimination. All roads run up and down one’s organizational progression. Yet there are no arbitrators to broker an honest difference between the reviewer-supervisor and reviewed-underling. In a padlocked top-down review system there is no incentive to favor or even consider the greater good or recognize the win-win outcomes that stem from the positive reciprocity encouraged by KM.

The spoils go to the jerks: the rewarding of power for power’s sake.

At CYA this meant placing your standing in the hands of your time-keeper – the manager/owner for the tasks you clock into your time sheet. To CYA’s HR folks it meant an observable check-in on the career growth calendar between the knowledge doer-bees and their scorekeepers. To me it will forever mean a license to silence constructive feedback or ambush useful advice.

Taxonomy and Representation

Brittany Whalesong had two unique gifts:
  • Creating a taxonomy that shadowed CYA’s obsession with counting and fact-keeping.
  • Treating her creation as the exclusive province of Brittany Whalesong.
In fact the care and feeding of the taxonomy was booby-trapped by her need to retain proprietary control through a tortured blend of reporting schedules, batch updates, and spreadsheet acrobatics. I thought that we would bond over an abiding love for metadata. But the sense-making part of the pattern-matching never entered the picture. Instead I spent the balance of the assignment chasing misshapen pieces of a puzzle that never quite came together.

The first hint I was over Brittany’s barrel was the inability to reach her. I knew she was resourced as a subject matter expert to a client engagement and that availability was limited. That meant stockpiling blocks of questions dependent on the conditional logic of multi-step instructions. Since her know-how of the taxonomy resided solely with her, there were limited opportunities to crowd-source or leverage the team's insights. I assumed that trying independently to solve these problems would be the best teacher.

It wasn't.

Follow-up requests for additional onsite training were denied. Remote-based training was scheduled, postponed, and ultimately cancelled a few weeks after Brittany communicated that I was to receive "a couple of months more of training" before I would be "officially ramped up." Instead she refused to schedule any form of regular communications and team-building for problem-solving and Q&A. All that receded into the background until review season. That’s when I learned through the food chain of Brittany’s …
'Shock' at my ignorance of taxonomy development, my inability to learn it, and my dishonesty in pretending to be a skilled practitioner. She writes that my misrepresentation of this skill caused the reputation of vocabulary services to suffer. Surely she overestimated my talents as a salesman: "My biggest recommendation is not for Marc to oversell himself."
Rather than follow-up a hatchet job with another losing hand I chose not to dispute an unfavorable rating (this is a managers' prerogative). I spoke to the professional virtues of periodic feedback and the firm behaviors that inform all touch points in the review process. My role was not to advise or assess but to learn and to support the team.

The one prerequisite Brittany insisted on was not about prior experience but that I be dedicated. On both counts I worked diligently to learn a new tool, accruing 213 hours, mostly over a short, intensive burst of six weeks. How’s that for counting? Regrettably my client interactions were minimal and almost exclusively on email -- mostly cc-ed as a recipient. That made it harder and easier:·  
  • Harder to understand the viewpoints and priorities of our clients
  • Easier to piece together an escape route from the obstruction of jerks
Next week: A move from CYA to the greener, if not ever greener pastures of an fragmented engineering group. These guys will come with no prior KM program and no understanding of the profession that a Google search can't explain.


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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