Is this Knowledge Management's most effective tool?

There are a lot of KM-related words beginning with the letter C.

Connection, Collection, Collaboration, Curation, Conversation, Communities, Culture…

There’s one which you might not have thought of, but which I think is pretty important.

Here’s a clue.

Department of Coffee and Social Affairs, Leather Lane

That's right, Coffee.  One of knowledge management’s most powerful tools.

Not so sure?  Let me share with you a couple of quotes from middle managers in a smart, knowledgeable organization which can spend over £1bn annually on major programmes and projects.  I was interviewing a range of staff to help them create an Organisational Learning Strategy, and the C-word kept coming up:

"Coffee conversations happen all the time – our networking keeps us alive.  People say we’re a process-driven organization, I just do not agree.  We’re relationship-driven."

"Do people regularly go into a Lessons database  - ”I’m just about to start a project, I wonder what’s there?”.  I can tell you that they absolutely won’t!  They might have a coffee conversation, but the learning won’t come from the document – it’ll come from “Blimey, someone told me you did this before, is there anything you can give me tips on?”

We're talking here about a conversation in an area around the coffee machine or in-company Starbucks, rather than coffee taken back to a desk. So why does a conversation over coffee work where formal KM tools and techniques fail?

  1. It's neutral. It feels like you're not working! 

    Coffee is a social activity.  It's something we would chose to do for enjoyment.  Asking to talk something over with a coffee is a sugar-coated request which most people accept without another thought. Especially if they're not buying.

  2. You get to talk and you get to listen. It's not often you see people balancing coffee on the edge of laptops and communicating with each other through PowerPoint.  Far more common is a straightforward conversation, complete with the eye contact which PowerPoint and flipcharts often rob us of...

  3. It's transparent. Others see you talk. Having a coffee with someone is  a pretty visible way to share knowledge.  Many of our interactions are semi-private email, telephone or instant message exchanges. Whilst that's not a problem as such, an e-mail-only exchange takes away the serendipitous "Oh, I saw you having a coffee with Jean  yesterday, I didn't know you knew her - we used to work together..." connections which might follow.

  4. It makes you pause, and go slow. "Warning, contents may be hot." You can't drink a coffee quickly.  There's a forced slow-down of the exchange and time between sips for the conversation to bounce between the participants.  It prevents "drinking from a fire-hydrant syndrome!"

  5. Others stop and talk whilst you're in the queue. Double serendipity!  Not only might you be seen having the conversation, but it's very common for  one of both of a pair of knowledge-sharers waiting the coffee line to connect with others  whilst they wait. You don't get that in emails!

  6. It's a culture-spanner. Coffee is the second most used product in the world after oil, and it is the world's second most popular drink, after water. That makes it pretty much a universal currency for buying knowledge-sharing time in any country and any culture.

  7. It stimulates your brain. Coffee doesn't just keep you awake, it may literally make you smarter as well. Caffeine's primary mechanism in the brain is blocking the effects of an inhibitory neurotransmitter called Adenosine. By doing this, it actually increases neuronal firing in the brain and the release of other neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. Many controlled trials have examined the effects of caffeine on the brain, demonstrating that caffeine can improve mood, reaction time, memory, vigilance and general cognitive function.

  8. It's very cost effective! Set-up costs might extend to some cafe-style tables, but the ongoing operational costs are unlikely to be  a problem.

So there we have it.  The humble, but very effective cup of coffee.

What other KM tool or technique spans all cultures, balances speaking and listening, slows the world down enough for sharing to soak in, encourages serendipity and openness, makes you smarter and more receptive, costs a pittance and doesn't even feel like working?

Mine's a caramel macchiato...


KM, Communities and the "Little Free Library"

I came across this post via the Knowledge Flow (thank you Susan Frost!), and was struck by the idea, and its parallels in the world of networks and communities of practice.

It's the "Little Free Library".


Little Free Library is a creative idea, thought up by Todd Bol and Rick Brooks, that aims to promote literacy and bring communities together by putting up mini libraries in neighborhoods around the world. Started in 2009, it's a nonprofit that seeks to place these small, accessible book exchange boxes right in front of a house or on a street corner. (Take a book, return a book.)  What makes the idea so special?

Their website states: "Little Free Libraries have a unique, personal touch and there is an understanding that real people are sharing their favorite books with their community. These aren't just any old books, this is a carefully curated collection and the Library itself is a piece of neighborhood art!

It's great to see the principles and practices  of reciprocity, trust, curation, individuality, creativity, altruism, generosity, adaptation and growth all working together, building a sense of community.

What if you were to ask each member of your community of practice to curate a small library of their favourite resources, links, documents, sources and experts - to make that visible (virtually) and then to borrow connections from each other?

If you get the same result as Todd Bol and Rick Brooks, then it's just what a successful community thrives on:

“It’s started a neighborhood exchange. It gets people talking and more comfortable with their neighbors,” he said. “This leads to them helping each other.”

That sounds like  a pretty effective knowledge management tool to me.


School. On reflection.

We spent some time with extended family over new year, and I overheard one of the younger boys, Ted, recounting his tales of mischief at school – and the subsequent punishments he had received.

I was perturbed to hear him say that the school no longer uses the word “detention” because it has negative connotations (Guantanamo has a lot to answer for...),

No, instead labelling staying late after school or missing break as “detention”, the children in this particular school  are threatened with.....                  wait for it...




Yes, the biggest threat that you can hold out to an eleven-year old is that of Reflection!

So Ted gets caught copying someone work, and is sentenced to a period of reflection until he’s learned his lesson.

In ten years time, Ted may well enter the corporate world where (if he chooses his employer wisely) he’ll be expected to copy the work of others, encouraged to take time to reflect, and to actively seek out lessons learned!

We don’t make it easy for them, do we?

Knowledge Management and the Divided Brain

Geoff Parcell pointed me in the direction of this brilliant RSA Animate video, featuring renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist.  There is so much in this 11 minutes that you'll want to watch it two or three times to take it in, and a fourth, with the pause button to appreciate all of the humour in the artwork.  Just superb.  Do watch it. [youtube=]

It got me thinking again about parallels between how the brain manages knowledge and how organisations manage knowledge. Ian debunks a lot of myths about the separate functions of left and right hemispheres and emphasizes the fact that for either imagination or reason, you need to use both in combination.

  • Left hemisphere - narrow, sharply focused attention to detail, depth, isolated, abstract, symbolic, self-consistent
  • Right hemisphere - sustained, broad, open, vigilant, alertness, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate.

We share some (but not all) of these left/right distinctions with animals. However, as humans, we uniquely have frontal lobes.

  • Frontal lobes - to stand back in time and space from the immediacy of experience (empathy and reflection)

I think a holistic approach to knowledge management which mirrors the brain will pay attention to breadth, depth, living connections and reflection. This has implications for the way we structure and navigate codified knowledge - moving between context and detail, abstract to interconnected - and also reinforces the relationship between KM and organisational learning (the frontal lobe bit).

I believe that an effective knowledge management strategy will creatively combine each of these components in a way which is balanced to the current and future needs of the business.

In a way, a lot of first generation KM was left-brain oriented.  Second and third generation KM have combined the learning elements of the frontal lobes with the living, inteconnected right brain.  That doesn't mean that first generation KM is no longer relevant - I would assert that the power is in the combination of all three - see this earlier posting on KM, Scientology and Top Trumps!

It's probably the last minute which is the most challenging.  Does your KM strategy,  led self-consistently by the left hemisphere,  imprison your organisation in  a hall of mirrors where it reflects back into more of what it knows about what it knows about what it knows?

The animation closes with Einstein's brilliantly prescient statement:

"The intuitive mind is a sacred gift. The rational mind is a faithful servant. We live in a society which honours the servant, but has forgotten the gift."

Smart man, that Einstein chap.

Overlapping Social Circles

I came across this image by Joe Pemberton in Flickr the other day.  It (and the discussion attached to it) sums up my predicament of the blurring of boundaries between public and private social networks.


This is some thinking I've been doing lately about the ecosystem of social networks and the problem of managing it all and of keeping the personal separate from the professional.

Some overlap will happen in social networks but maintaining boundaries helps you keep professional contacts eyes off of your private matters, your personal goings on, your family status, your childrens’ accomplishments, etc.

[DOTTED AREA] Public. Your personal brand awareness happens here. Create digital acquaintances. Network. Be a person, but be sure to balance out your travelogue with your sharing of insights.

[CYAN] Professional. Limited to people you‘ve worked with. Don’t dilute this network with digital acquaintances.

[ORANGE] Keep these limited to friends and family. These are not professional networking tools. Avoid the urge to accept every friend request. Do you really want to connect with old high school acquaintances?

[MAGENTA] Keep these close; limited to people you hang with. Old high school buddies and people you met at conferences don’t need this layer of your digital life.

This is not a prescription for others but is pretty much a diagram of my own social network. And yes, as lame as it sounds, that's how I have to view it, as a brand exercise. After all, careers have become brand management of your personal expertise, experience, insights and beliefs.

 As one of Joe's Flickr respondents said,   "I have a real concern with recent professional contacts having access to some of my oldest goofiest friends".  

But the prospect of "de-friending" a number of professional contacts out of Facebook seems pretty tough too. 

And then there are the true boundary people - the professional contacts who have become friends.  What have I got myself into!?

It's probably far too late. 

 Perhaps it's just a fact of life 2.0 that we have to live with?   Transparency. Trust. Thinking our loud.  

And getting comfortable that that the rest of my social-media life will feel like my big four-o birthday party would have done last year, had I had the bottle to have one that is...  and  mix family, friends, colleagues, schoolmates and clients in with alcohol for several hours! 

Perhaps I'll save that for my 50th.  By then someone will have figured out the social media boundaries of politesse...

Dubai invests $10bn in a "knowledge-based society"...

Saw this interesting full page advertisement describing one of the largest charitable donations in history in today's Times.  Sounds like a laudable goal...   We know what a learning organisation looks like - but what about a learning Kingdom?

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed  Bin Rashid Al Maktoum10 Billion Dollars

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced the establishment of his foundation with an endowment of 10 billion dollars, focusing on human development in the region. The foundation will facilitate and promote knowledge creation and dissemination, and will nurture future leaders, providing them with equal opportunities with the aim of building a knowledge-based society.

Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation   

More background from here