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.

Does Social Networking makes your brain grow?

With thanks to Rob Cubbon Ten year ago, we were hearing that London Taxi drivers have an enlarged hippocampus because of their encyclopedic (or should that be atlassian?) knowledge of London's roads.

Now the same research team in UCL are questioning whether social networking has a similar impact although the researchers do confess:

It's not clear whether using social networks boosts grey matter or if those with certain brain structures are good at making friends. perhaps slightly cyclic reasoning?

I've wondered for a while whether we have a finite "namespace" in our brains, and once it's full (see why I didn't make it as a neuroscientist!), it starts to overflow and we forget people's names.

I can testify that changing my work relationship pattern from a single slowly-evolving large corporation to short assignments in 100 client organisations over the last 6 years has certainly helped to fill it up. My wife reports similar name-overflow challenges working a supply teacher.

Or perhaps it's just that we're just getting older!

You know knowledge is being effectively managed when...

There was a helpful thread in the sikm-leaders forum last week when someone asked for ten responses to complete the statement “You know knowledge is being effectively managed when...” I thought it was a really practical way to explore how it feels, and looks – how people behave, when KM is really working.   Here are my ten suggestions:

You know knowledge is being effectively managed when...

Leadership. Leaders in the organisation are role models, challenging people to ask for help, seek out, share and apply good practices this inspires curiosity and a commitment to improve.  The organisation is learning!

Learning. People instinctively seek to learn before doing.  Lessons from successes and failures are drawn out in an effective manner and shared openly with others who are genuinely eager to learn, apply and improve. Lessons lead to actions and improvement.

Networking. People are actively networking, seamlessly using formal communities and informal social networks to get help, share solutions, lessons and good practices. The boundaries between internal and external networks are blurred and all employees understand the benefits and take personal responsibility for managing the risks.

Navigation. There are no unnecessary barriers to information, which is shared by default and restricted only where necessary. Information management tools and protocols are intuitive, simple and well understood by everybody.  This results in a navigable, searchable, intelligently tagged and appropriately classified asset for the whole organisation, with secure access for trusted partners.

Collaboration. People have the desire and capability to use work collaboratively, using a variety of technology tools with confidence.  Collaboration is a natural act, whether spontaneous or scheduled.  People work with an awareness of their colleagues and use on-line tools as instinctively as the telephone to increase their productivity.

Consolidation. People know which knowledge is strategically important, and treat it as an asset.  Relevant lessons are drawn from the experience of many, and consolidated into guidelines. These are brought to life with stories and narrative, useful documents and templates and links to individuals with experience and expertise. These living “knowledge assets” are refreshed and updated regularly by a community of practitioners.

Social Media. Everybody understands how to get the best from the available tools and channels. Social media is just part of business as usual; people have stopped making a distinction. Serendipity, authenticity and customer intimacy are increasing.  People are no longer tentative and are encouraged to innovate and experiment. The old dogs are learning new tricks!  Policies are supportive and constantly evolving, keeping pace with innovation in the industry.

Storytelling. Stories are told, stories are listened to, stories are re-told and experience is shared. People know how to use the influencing power of storytelling.  Narrative is valued, captured, analysed and used to identify emergent patterns which inform future strategy.

Environment. The physical workplace reflects a culture of openness and collaboration.  Everyone feels part of what’s going on in the office.  Informal and formal meetings are easily arranged without space constraints and technology is always on hand to enhance productivity and involve participants who can be there in person.

Embedding. Knowledge management is fully embedded in people management and development, influencing recruitment and selection. Knowledge-sharing behaviours are built-into induction programmes and are evident in corporate values and individual competencies.  Knowledge transfer is part of the strategic agenda for HR. The risks of knowledge loss are addressed proactively. Knowledge salvage efforts during hurried exit interviews are a thing of the past!

Now your top ten will probably be different to mine (although you’re very welcome to borrow and adapt them). This kind of approach encourages us to look well beyond the technology which often disproportionately demands our attention.

Taken from the Consulting Collison Column in an upcoming edition of Inside Knowledge

Babies, Social Media and Synaptic Exuberance

Came across this courtesy of npr via John Allan. Nice post, interesting research. It got me thinking about social media, and the exuberance (now perhaps that's a collective noun for social media?) of sources available stimulate us, if we choose to be stimulated.

See what you think.

He rocks. He rolls. He sucks. He kicks. He tongues. He handles. He flips. He touches. There's not a single item in this living room that 9 month old Charles-Edward (aka Edward) doesn't explore (for a while I thought he'd ignore the chair in the upper left corner, but no...). Edward (son of Quebec City journalist/photographer Francis Vachon) is a rolling demonstration of what the neuroscientists call "synaptic exuberance." You can't see what's happening in his brain, but he is forming ten, twenty thousand new connections every second. Watch him go.


Here's the thing about babies. When we're born, we get the brain cells we need, but the connections between cells haven't formed yet. In those first few years as we explore the world, the cells begin to link up at a dizzying pace, forming tens of thousands, even millions of new links. When you watch Edward you can almost feel it happening.

Look inside a baby brain and you can see the brain cells getting bushier with more and more links to other cells.

But the strange thing is, we babies overdo it.

All of us, not just Edward, form more connections than we need. Then, later on, (different regions of the brain do this at different times, but it goes on into our teen years) there's a strange reversal. Millions of connections start to die. Why does this happen? Why do babies have a sudden burst of synaptic exuberance around Edward's age and then start losing the connections?

Why does a child's brain demand twice the energy of an adult's brain? Why do some areas in the brain mature before others? And what about one of the most fascinating aspects of brain development — the discovery that the brain produces "too much" of various neural elements and then eliminates the excess? In some ways, this is analogous to the sculptor who begins with more material than is required and then subtracts the excess material to obtain a desired form. Unlike the sculptor, however, who eventually achieves a final form, the brain is able to undergo some remodeling throughout life.

...This way, brain circuits are created and strengthened, in part, by whatever environment and experiences the baby encounters.

This allows for a fine-tuning of neuronal circuits, based on early exposure and environmental nurturing, that makes the neuronal architecture of each person unique.

What he's saying is babies go wild making connections and then, as we grow into our preferences, our personalities, life is like a scalpel. We slowly shed what we don't need or use or want. Having watched Edward for those time lapsed four hours, it's hard to imagine what he’s going to give up later in life but he's got to give up something. We all do.

So, for example, a spell in Twitter can feel very much like young Edward's 4 hours - rolling around between information sources, picking some up, putting some down, clicking-through, retweeting, favouriting...

I'm most struck by the idea that we "go wild making connections, then as we grow in our preferences, we shed what we don't need or want".

So even though we're all significantly older than Edward (although he shares my hairline), does it still work for us when we roll, crawl or toddle around the information playroom?

Does the same principle of "shedding what we don't need or want" help us to develop a new set of preferences and personalities which can handle an explosion of information sources and stimuli without suffering overload? Or does social media do the scalpel work on our behalf, so that our synapses don't need to re-live their childhood?

I'd like to think so. That floor looked hard!

Christmas 2.0

I love this!  The media changes, but the story is timeless. Happy Christmas to all my readers, RSSers, followers, friends, linked-in connections...


With thanks to Jane McKenzie at Henley Business School for pointing me in the right direction...

Knowledge Sharing Behaviours 2.0

I'm currently working with the Henley KM Forum on a project which is exploring how the rise of social media have changed knowledge-sharing competencies and behaviours - and how we can help people to understand and embrace this We've set up a LinkedIn Group entitled Knowledge Sharing 2.0 to engage a wider group in the discussion - please sign up and join in!

Meanwhile, to give you a flavour, here are a couple of posts from yesterday:



Chris Collison • Hi Susan, I think there are several dimensions of knowledge sharing where social media have significantly accelerated, amplified, or positively skewed good old-fashioned KM. [You know – the kind of knowledge-sharing activities that we’ll tell our kids about one day, and they’ll laugh at us... just like they can't believe that we once used land-line telephones with wires connected to the receiver]

Here are five areas/behaviours which I can think of for starters...

Immediacy: - Presence, IM and microblogging have all changed expectations in terms of how quickly people respond and react. Most transactions happen within minutes or hours. I almost hesitate to respond to things what are a few days old now... That never used to happen.

Imperfect incompleteness: – This is related to the immediacy point above. People don’t wait until they have the ideal solution before they share now – you get raw, partly formed ideas, suggestions, contacts, 140 characters. Responding is now less pressurised – it’s no longer about competition, it’s about contribution. That has to be a good thing in not-invented-here cultures. There's less pressure to reject something which is delightfully imperfect.

Serendipity: - Twitter and its equivalent now connect me with people and content that I would have never have stumbled across. It’s like those Brownian motion experiments we did in chemistry – increase the intensity of temperature or pressure, and the chances of a collision increases.

Connectivity: – It’s just so easy now to get plugged into everything. Barriers to entry are minimal. And the connections you don’t know about, you get alerted to.

Transparency: – I’ve had to get used to doing more of my thinking out loud, and have often been surprised by a proactive response to something as simple as a status update. Sometimes help comes when you didn’t even ask.

Any more, anyone?

1 day ago

    Ron Donaldson


    Ron Donaldson • Hi Susan I fully agree with the five areas Chris has identified and would like to add five more:

    Diversity: - I now have connections with people with a huge diversity of interests and perspectives across for example storytelling, complexity and Nature. This results in much greater crossover of ideas and occasionally avoidance of mistakes already made in a different field.

    Pheromone Trails: Pursuit of new knowledge is now unbelievably similar to ants foraging. Anyone can find something and blog or tweet it. This is then retweeted based on how useful that knowledge might be for others. Trending themes quickly emerge and highlight areas of common interest.

    Chaining: - I love the way simple connections between social software tools allow a simple tweet to flow from Twitter, to Facebook, to Linked-In, to Plaxo and pick up comments from each of the quite different networks which end up back as emails. This means that people can use whichever tool suits them but still be connected and aware of something new.

    Maturity: As the first tools in each of their niches mature they are being added as standard to mobile phones, widescreen TV's and probably fridges and hoovers as we speak. This makes it much easier to maintain connections and thereby keep informed wherever you are which was never possible five years ago unless they phoned you.

    Feedback: My favourite aspect of Wordpress blogs is the dashboard site stats. This gives you a daly read-out of the terms individuals used to access your daily utterances, which pages they clicked and which links they took to others. Once you get over the depressingly low numbers of visitors it is great encouragement to attract greater interest so the feedback really does build a stronger 'system'.

    My only concern is that Social Media is still the domain of the early adopters. A lot of my ex-colleagues in nature conservation have so much vital and important knowledge, but they have absolutely no interest in social media. They really should be forced or at worst, paid lots of money for opening up their knowledge for the benefit of the planet.

    Any more, anyone?




    Speed Consulting

    Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you combined speed dating and knowledge-sharing? I can’t own up to any firsthand experience of the former, but I’m told by friends who do, that you participate in a merry-go-round of three-minute exchanges on a room full of tables-for-two.  When the bell rings you move around to the next person.  If you like what you’re experienced, you make a note on your score-card, and, if the feeling was mutual, you take the next steps together. Tremendously efficient and less emotionally risky than the traditional approach - at least for most people! speed dating

    To save a praying mantis experience, there are websites full of interesting questions that you might ask during your 3 minutes – for example:  “What luxury item would you take on a desert island?” and “What are your favourite words and why?”. Incidentally, “knowledge management” is not a good answer to the second question. So if speed-dating is designed to reduce the emotional investment, embarrassment and risk of failure  of finding a potential partner – what can we learn from that room-full of tables which we could apply in a KM context?

    In my work with communities of practice and networks over the years, I have observed that when someone asks a question in a network, people are sometimes reluctant to offer up suggestions and ideas because they don’t have a complete answer or a polished response.  The longer the silence lasts, the more risky it feels to contribute.  People hold back, worried that they might be the only one to respond and that their idea will be perceived as being too trivial or too obvious – how embarrassing! If your community feels like this, and you have an opportunity to meet face-to-face, then let me recommend a simple “Speed Consulting” exercise which can help groups to break these bad habits.  (I’m indebted to my friend and consulting colleague Elizabeth Lank for introducing me to this technique).

    A quick guide to speed consulting.

    Identify some business issue owners In advance, identify a number of people (around 10% of the total) with a business challenge which they would like help with – they are to play the role of the client who will be visited by a team of brilliant management consultants. Business issues should not be highly complex; ideally, each issue could be described in 3 minutes or less.  Brief the issue owners privately coach on their body language, active listening, acknowledgement of input etc.  Remind them that if they are seen to have stopped taking notes (even when a suggestion has been noted before); they may stem the flow of ideas.

    Arrange the room You need multiple small consultant teams working in parallel, close enough to generate a “buzz” from the room to keep the overall energy high. Round tables or chair circles work well.  Sit one issue owner at each table. Everybody else at the table plays the role of a consultant. The issue owner will remain at the table throughout the exercise, whilst the groups of “visiting consultants” move around.

    Set the context Explain to the room that each table has a business issue, and a team of consultants.  The consultants have a tremendous amount to offer collectively – from their experience and knowledge - but that they need to do it very quickly because they are paid by the minute! They have 15 minutes with each client before a bell sounds, and they move on to their next assignment. The time pressure is designed to prevent any one person monopolising the time with detailed explanation of a particular technique.  Instead, they should refer the issue owner to somewhere (or someone) where they can get further information.  Short inputs make it easier for less confident contributors to participate.

    Start the first round Reiterate that you will keep rigidly to time, and that the consultants should work fast to ensure that everyone has shared everything that they have to offer. After 15 minutes, sound the bell and synchronise the movement to avoid a “consultant pile-up”.

    Repeat the process Issue owners need to behave as though this is the first group and not respond with ‘the other group thought of that!’. They may need to conceal their notes. Check the energy levels at the tables after 45 minutes.  More than three rounds can be tiring for the issue owners, but if the motivation is particularly high, you might manage 4 rotations.

    Ask for feedback and reflection on the process Emphasise that the issue owners are not being asked to “judge” the quality of the consultants!  Invariably, someone will say that they were surprised at the breadth of ideas, and that they received valuable input from unexpected places. Ask members of the “consulting teams” to do the same. Often they will voice their surprise at how sharing an incomplete idea or a contact was well received, and how they found it easy to build on the ideas of others.

    Transfer these behaviours into community life Challenge them to offer up partial solutions, ideas and suggestions when a business issue arises in a community.  Having established the habit face-to-face, it should be far easier to continue in a virtual environment.   The immediacy and brevity of social media helps here – perhaps the 140 character limit in Twitter empowers people to contribute?

    So perhaps I should have just tweeted: @ikmagazine boosts sharing in communities #KM @elank and waited to see what my followers would respond with! To be published in the next edition of Inside Knowledge.

    Knowledge Management, Scientology and Top Trumps...

    A sneak preview of my up-coming column in the next edition of Inside Knowledge... During my childhood, I wiled away many an hour with school friends and a pack of Top Trumps cards. For the initiated amongst you, Top Trumps consists of a set of cards based around a particular topic.  (In my day, it was ships, racing cars, Olympic medallists or dinosaurs. Today, it’s more likely to be X-Factor contestants or Harry Potter characters).  Each card contained statistics about the car or dinosaur in question, which enabled you to compare scores with your friends and - if you chose the right category - to win their favourites until you possessed all of the cards. One of the side effects of overdosing on Top Trumps would be the ability to recall facts and figures about any card.  To my slight embarrassment, I can tell you without pausing that the 0-60mph acceleration of a 1978 Lamborghini Countach is 5.6 seconds.  Too bad my short-term memory is  unable to recall  where my own car keys are right now!

    Last month I had the opportunity to work with a network of business improvement professionals (the I&I Network) who wanted to understand where knowledge management tools and techniques could complement their world of LEAN, Six Sigma and Kaizen.  Sensing an audience of potential Top Trumps sympathizers, I made up packs of “KM Trumps” for them to play with in pairs for ten minutes.   For my categories, I chose:  Cost, Return on investment, Learning curve, Geek Factor and Engagement Effect.  I had difficulty stopping their game to continue the workshop with them! I found that even in those few minutes, everyone picked up on the breadth and variety of tools which we place under the KM banner.  When all 36 cards were laid out, with their categories visible it was easy for my group of improvement specialists to make an informed selection about the tools and techniques which might best fit their own organisations.  They could tailor their own custom toolkit with just the right amount of “Geek Factor” and not too much learning curve.

    One of my bugbears in KM circles is the way in which the labels KM 1.0, KM 2.0 and even KM 3.0 are used - as though knowledge management is only allowed to exist in a number of quantum states; or it’s a branch of scientology... Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan and big user of social media, and I think it has brought energy, connectivity, serendipity and a real-time edge to the field of knowledge management.  What it hasn’t done is to supersede the fundamentals of KM – the value of conversation, the importance of learning and reflection, the power of communities of practice, the need to both summarise and provide stories to preserve context.  Superceded?  No.  Provided a welcome shot of adrenaline?  Absolutely.

    I believe that as KM professionals, we have a duty to remain aware of, and open to, the new tools and techniques which come our way.  Where we add value is in explaining how and when an approach or combination of approaches can have the biggest impact.   That might mean that this year, your organisation is KM 1.6, and next year it’s KM 2.17.  It’s our job to find out what number our organisations need

    Sometimes we might be surprised that a simple, established KM tool has the biggest impact, just like I was surprised when my school friend trumped my prized Lamborghini card with his Isetta Bubble Car.  All because he was smart enough to choose fuel consumption as his category, rather than acceleration!

    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...