The Perfect Path Creed

I’m drawn to the idea of some explanatory statement for people I’ve never met or spoken too this intimately. Now, I’ve read some darned good manifestos in my time: Marx & Engels set me on fire as a teenager, Cluetrain turned my understanding of the world upside-down and encouraged me to leave the “security” of a “well-paid” job in public service and more recently Hughtrain has rewoken my thinking about creativity in business.

As I like to be different for the sake of it, I’m going to steer clear of talking manifesto (…yet) I’d like instead to present a sort of creed (or credo if we need to be everso latinate about it which I don’t think we do, no it’s a creed) – what I believe about modern organisational life – and (later) a memorandum, those things that I need to remember about living that life. I knew that Latin ‘A’ level would both pay off and turn me into an unbearable pain in the arse.

My creed is mostly my answer to the most difficult question in the history of the world. It inevitably creeps up at cocktail parties when I’m asked what I do and it slips so easily out of their mouths and bites me hard “oh that sounds fascinating….so what exactly is Knowledge Management?”. The answer I give here is not really suitable for most cocktail parties; but this is my party, so here it is.

When I talk about KM I simply mean the subject of managing the dominant form of organisation in our economy, the knowledge-based organisation, chock-full of knowledge workers.

Of course, managing knowledge work isn’t new, universities and craft guilds have been doing it for centuries – it’s just that when, in the 19th Century, we started thinking about how to manage the new industrial processes we came up with a whole new bunch of ideas about how to organise people to carry out processes and indeed what management means. This radical notion of organisations as mechanical entities, which could be steered and engineered found it’s expression as Taylorism and although it just doesn’t work in lots of situations it has stuck with incremental tweaks every so often ever since.

However, groups of people working on solving a human problem or delivering a personal service are much further away from being a mechanical entity than a bunch of guys putting a car together. And so as the economy becomes more and more knowledge-based, the management techniques taught for the best part of the 20th Century work less and less. The trouble is that most people don’t see it this way, they don’t realise that we’re using the wrong tool to do the job. They don’t understand that the tools they are using (because they were once told was “the right way to do things”) were actually devised for a very different sort of business in a very different sort of economy and a very different sort of society than that which we now live in, let alone the one that is likely to emerge over the next few years.

I believe that this is part of the reason why, for example we find “matrix management” and “virtual teams” so attractive, but horribly difficult to do. This too is why so much “change management” turns into corporate-wall head-banging, because we go into conversations with people saying things like:

“Look, I know you’re not a machine, and you know you’re not a machine, but in order to manage this organisation, we all have to pretend for a moment that we’re like a machine and that our parts are easily changeable and so that’s why we want you to start doing a completely different job in different ways with people you’ve never met before and we want you to be performing at absolutely optimal levels from day one, at least and preferably day minus two, which was yesterday.”

I know, I’ve heard myself saying it and it’s not pretty.

I believe we need to be learning a new “right way to do things” and that one of the ways to help people is to reconnect them with the fact that they are not just a “dumb agent” who must do exactly what they are told in order for the organisation to survive, but rather that they are miraculous, intelligent human beings who are infinitely capable of creativity and innovation as long as they are nurtured and encouraged.

Well, that’s what I believe… today.