Is the cat in the box alive or dead? …and a physicist’s view on the knowledge economy

This weeks The Life Scientific on Radio 4 featured Professor Brian Cox – the physicist “with more followers on Twitter than the Prime Minister”. 

Whilst the interview inevitably focused on physics and quantum mechanics (and what it means), it also touched (at the end of the interview) on the knowledge economy. 

Well worth a listen.


Poor customer service – marshmallows and spaghetti – and the voice of an angel

Evaggelia Lieas - July 2014In any organisation it is perhaps inevitable that mistakes will happen, things will not go as planned, errors will be made, and lessons will go unlearned.  After all, organisations are organisms, they are made up of people, and people are only human.

So when something goes wrong in an organisation that results in poor customer service, whilst consumers might get very angry, upset or frustrated, many will also have a thought at the back of their minds that ‘life is not perfect and that we all make mistakes’.

That said, and when on the receiving end of poor customer service, it is how an organisation puts things right that matters.  The organisation’s level of effort and focus in so doing will either restore some faith in the customer to use the organisation again, or destroy any trust – resulting in the loss (either for a period of time, or permanently) of future business.

These thoughts about customer service have been top of my mind for the past week.  Why?  Well because, having flown by British Airways (BA) from Heathrow on Sunday 29th June to Athens to teach the Knowledge Management Module on the International MBA Course at AUEB, I was greeted on arrival with the news that whilst I had made it to Athens safely, my baggage had not.

So where was my baggage I asked (along with tens of others)?  

Well the answer was that no one knew, but it was assumed it was still at Heathrow as Terminal 5 had been experiencing problems having suffered a baggage systems failure.

When would I get my baggage I asked?

Again the answer was that no one knew, but having been given a Property Irregularity Report, I was assured that my baggage would arrive (at my hotel) shortly and that I could check online to ascertain the status of my ‘lost case’.

To cut a long story short, my baggage did eventually arrive at my hotel, but not until Friday 4th July – just in time for my flight home to the UK the following day.

I’ll not bore you with the problems the lack of luggage caused, suffice it to say, that in addition to clothing and essentials, my case also contained all of the material I had prepared to teach Knowledge Management to the MBA students.  Some of the material was for running a version of The Marshmallow Challenge I use to demonstrate Learning Before Doing, Learning Whilst Doing and Learning After Doing in Action.

With the help and support of the University staff I was still able to run the challenge, and on the evening concerned, the class was joined by the daughter of one of the students.  Her father had asked permission to bring his daughter along to enable her to see ‘where Daddy spent much of his time and why he also spent so much time studying at home’ and to experience what this might be like for herself. His daughter’s name was Evaggelia – which I believe carries the Greek meaning associated with ‘the bringer (from the angels) of good news’.

Well young Evaggelia certainly brought some good news and creative/innovative ideas to help a team of students with its Marshmallow Challenge and she made good use of the rest of the lecture time by creating this wonderful collage of a boat at sea – with its mast made of spaghetti and its sails filled with little bits of marshmallow.

If only BA and its supporting organisations could apply such innovation and creativity to their customer service!  During the course of the 5/6 days without my baggage:

  • The baggage tracking system remained with the status ‘still tracing’
  • My email to BA went (other than an automated ‘your email is important to us, but we are busy’ message) unanswered
  • My (many) calls (and those of the hotel who provided great service throughout) to the baggage help-line at Athens airport never got past the ‘lift music’ and always ended by me (or the hotel) being cut-off
  • Customer Service silence was not golden!

I’m now, of course, left to resolve the situation (claim for essential costs etc.) with BA’s on-line complaints procedure, which is less than helpful and I am not optimistic about ever hearing from them (noting the thousands of others in a similar situation over the last week or so). Looking on the brighter side, and remembering the Greek meaning of Evaggelia (bringer of god news) maybe BA will one day respond to me, or better still, just pick up the phone and say sorry – which for some organisations remains that hardest thing to do/achieve – and not just to a news camera and BBC interviewer – but to me; a customer.

Are you ready for the ‘internet of everything’?

An increasing amount of air time and articles are being given over to talking about, and raising our levels of awareness of, ‘the internet of everything’ (IoE) and ‘the internet of things’ and inevitably, many definitions are emerging; as are predictions about the likely take-up and the impact on our personal and work lives.

A recent article in Management Today focuses on many of the current and emerging aspects and applications of the IoE as does an interesting set of slides from Business Insider.  It would appear that much of the interest and demand is being driven by the consumer market and like other new ideas, products and innovations, the IoE (and the rate of change/impact/use) is in part subject to the diffusion of innovation.

Both the article and set of slides are worth a quick read/scan and the slides, whilst reminding all of the potential threats to data and security, make a number of interesting organisational and knowledge management related points by touching on the drivers and benefits of IoE in organisations e.g. operational efficiency and intra-organisational collaboration.

So whether you are ‘an early adopter’ e.g. are already controlling your central heating from your smartphone, or are waiting for the products and services made possible by the IoE to become more ‘mainstream’ e.g. your fridge re-stocked automatically, it would appear that the world of ‘the internet of everything’ is coming (is here) and it’s just a matter of time when and how this might impact you…

…and from an organisational perspective there may be some lessons learnt from the implementation and exploitation from all that social media (approaches and tools) had/has to offer in supporting knowledge management (knowledge sharing, transfer, collaboration etc.) activities, that can be applied/adopted to meet the challenges, and address the opportunities (some known, some unknown), when implementing IoE in organisational activities and when using the things made possible through the IoE by knowledge workers.

Mergers, acquisitions, SMEs and marriage

The subject of mergers and acquisitions has come up in a number of conversations with clients and colleagues over recent months. A ‘typical’ conversation will not focus on the reasons for the merger or acquisition (the plan or strategy) but on the implementation and integration aspects (the execution of strategy) following the decision. In other words, a conversation about the challenges being faced and consideration of the options, decisions and actions required to address these.

Such conversations bring to mind the old adage ‘strategy is easy – execution of strategy is difficult’.

An article ‘Why do so many mergers fails?’ in Business Matters at the back-end of 2013 serves as a useful reminder of some of the reasons why mergers and acquisitions fail – or put another way, why they fail to deliver/achieve the expected benefits/value identified in strategy/business case. In the article, and according to research by KPMG, “90% of mergers and acquisitions fail, compared with around 40% – 50% of marriages.”

From a knowledge management perspective, some of the reasons for the failure of mergers and acquisitions can be clustered around the concept of learning (or not learning) before doing e.g. poor due diligence; or not reflecting (and then applying if relevant) on lessons from past mergers/acquisitions from within or external to the organisation; or forgetting that mergers and acquisitions are change management activities.

The reasons for ‘failure’ can be many and commentators, consultants and advisors will each have their check lists or versions of their ‘top 10’. Understandably, it is the success or failure surrounding large-scale mergers and acquisitions that gain most coverage (in the media etc.), but whilst the size, context and complexity of mergers and acquisitions will vary, they all have one thing in common – people. By ‘people’ I mean those impacted by the change and those managing the change – and with people comes knowledge e.g. existing know-how (which is likely to be one of the reasons for the merger or acquisition in the first place).

In an era when mergers and acquisitions has become a popular growth strategy for SMEs, how can they (who unlike their larger counterparts may not have any merger or acquisition experience from which to learn) avoid the ‘challenges being faced’ conversations mentioned earlier?

Well one way is to ask and answer robust ‘learning before doing’ questions, and to do so when a potential merger or acquisition is more of an idea than a reality. Questions might include:

  • What critical ‘business’ knowledge do we need to consider and plan for a merger/acquisition?
  • What critical ‘commercial’ knowledge do we need to execute the deal?
  • What critical ‘management’ knowledge do we need successfully implement the decision?
  • What critical’ performance’ knowledge do we need to ensure that anticipated value and benefits are assessed and realised?

I’ll leave to you to comment on what ‘learning before doing’ questions you think should be asked and answered before getting married!

The hippos ate all of the tomatoes

In the TED Talks video Want to help someone? Shut up and listen! Ernesto Sirolli, a sustainable development expert, reminds us of the importance of listening.

In his talk he tells a number of stories about how and where development aid is applied and how his approach changed when he realised that “every single project we set up in Africa failed”.

In business meetings, project activity, workshops and in the daily ‘cut and thrust’ of organisational life it is all too easy to jump to action without first understanding (through listening and non-verbal communication) the full nature of the problem/opportunity presented and the extent to which the ‘staff in need’ really want to be helped (try using The 5 Whys).

Knowledge Managers can assist here by working to ensure that ‘learning before doing’ is embedded in every-day organisational activity. They can also take from the video some key messages to help them in their role, namely:

  • Listen to the business
  • Seek out ideas and act on them
  • Identify and support the organisation’s entrepreneurs
  • Harness the imagination of staff
  • Don’t impose solutions.

Don’t drop the knowledge baton – completing a successful handover

Completing a successful handover – i.e. transferring knowledge from someone leaving a role to a new starter – is a little like baton passing in an athletics relay race.

Let me explain. With only a minor stretch of the imagination, it is easy to think of the knowledge to be transferred as the baton; the space/markings on the track as being the time allowed to complete the transfer; the fact that business does not stop moving whilst handovers take place; and the fact that an organisation does not want to drop the handover baton.

In the case of an athletics relay race dropping the baton means disqualification; a feeling of letting the team down for the pair involved; and (in the case of the Olympics) the despair of a number of years ‘wasted’ as the hope of winning a medal vanishes in an instant. In the context of an organisation, dropping the baton could mean the loss of business critical knowledge; issues with business continuity; or a wheel getting re-invented.

Knowledge Managers can extend or change ‘the relay race story’ to suit (and promote the importance of) the handover requirements in their own organisations. That said, unlike the athletes in the relay race, staff leaving and joining organisations don’t get a lot, if any time to practice and hone their handover skills.

To address this, Knowledge Managers (playing the role of a relay team’s coach) should ensure that due consideration is given by those concerned to:

  • The people involved and the context
  • The type of knowledge to be transferred
  • The timeline/plan to complete the transfer
  • The learning/improvement gained .

Want to connect with some new knowledge? Try turning left instead of right

As a Knowledge Management and MBTI Consultant I have had the pleasure of working with many different organisations and have visited many offices/work locations – of all shapes and sizes – and have also had the opportunity to visit different parts (floors, functions, meeting rooms, canteens, store rooms etc.) of many of these offices/work locations.

A common reaction I have observed when I’ve been working (and walking) in an organisations building is that members of staff will often look up from their desks and computer screens (or peer out from their offices if they have one) to check out a face they do not recognise. Perfectly understandable, I hear you cry; but what if the face they do not recognise is not that of an external consultant, but of another member of staff?

Well for a start their reaction is the same, and perhaps in part explained by the scale (just too many faces to recognise) of the organisation concerned. But it might also be down to the fact that, as creatures of habit, many members of staff will enter their organisations building and follow the most direct route to their desk. They are likely never to vary the route, nor so the pattern of using the same/nearest toilet facilities during the day, or walking to the canteen or coffee machine along familiar/well-trodden paths.

Why should this matter? Well because (and particularly in the case of knowledge workers) the outcome of this habit is that an employee is likely only to see the same faces, week in week out; and the chances of bumping into a colleague that has a new idea, something to share, or an example of know how to, is reduced significantly.

So whilst connecting with others can be done behind a desk and via, for example, a good expertise finder, the power and fun of unexpected discoveries (serendipity) should not be underestimated.

So then next time you are about to take your normal route to your desk, or your normal route to a meeting room, why not ‘turn left instead of the usual right’ (or go up or down a floor)? You may find a colleague with some knowledge to share!


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