Corporate and Personal Amnesia

April 15, 2016

From the BBC Business News site:

Britons today change job more frequently than workers in much of the rest of Europe and, as the economy improves, that churn rate increases. Young workers move jobs much often than older workers did.

But there’s a hidden cost.

Each time someone leaves their job, a chunk of the organisation’s memory leaves too. How, then, do you run complex systems, see through long-term projects, or avoid past mistakes?

Short-term contracts and outsourcing reduce the appetite for learning company or product history. And when job losses land, even more knowledge is lost.

This is a problem that has always existed of course but perhaps, with higher churn rates, it’s more serious than previously or perhaps the consequences are potentially more far reaching (global). I remember there was much talk on this subject over 15 years ago, when I was involved the the relatively new field of ‘knowledge management’.

The article gives some interesting and quite varied examples, including:

  • City firms – in 20012 the churn rate for one was 28%, higher than McDonalds.
  • Her Majesty’s Treasury – “the vast majority of Treasury staff had never been through even a recession, let alone a banking crisis.”
  • Nuclear weapons – “for years after the end of the Cold War, policy and expertise became less of a priority; collective memory leeched away as more and more people retired.”

Then there’s the problem of “preserving the institutional memory in the age of email and texts”.

Last year an official review of government digital records concluded that existing systems had not worked well. Most departments, it said, “have a mass of digital data stored on shared drives that is poorly organised and indexed”.

Historian Prof Sir David Cannadine, who was involved in the 2009 review of the “30-year rule” on the release of official papers, goes further.

Speaking at the British Academy in March, he said poor preservation of electronic records from the late 1980s to the early 2000s meant that often, when you looked for documents, “there’s nothing there”.

This latter point applies to my personal information as well. It’s dotted around in emails (in addition, I don’t always systematically save attachments), various databases (Evernote, Devonthink etc) as well as different types of notes/documents (Scrivener, Tinderbox etc) and mind maps (iThoughtsX etc). I could always try to interconnect them but you have to be careful that the time taken to do this (and keep things updated) may easily outweigh any advantages.

I think I’ll try and get back into the habit of writing one page monthly personal reviews. These won’t obviously capture everything (sometimes small events turn out to lead to bigger than anticipated consequences) and lots will remain in my head but the very process of just thinking about things is likely worth the time invested and hopefully provide a helpful and useful ‘memory’.

Igniting Exciting Conversations

March 7, 2016

There are lots of articles on the drawbacks of formal presentations (death by Powerpoint etc). I’ve certainly gone through many presentations that have ranged from boring to incomprehensible.

In a concise article, Jack Welch offers three tips (extracts below):

Rule #1: Keep your message simple. Not simplistic, mind you. Not dumbed down, either. But simple, as in not over-complicated and completely graspable.

It’s quite likely true that if the idea or premise can’t be made simple (but not simplistic) then there’s probably something wrong with it.

Rule #2: Tell your audience something they don’t know. I’m always amazed when a manager comes into an executive or board presentation and basically recites materials that all of us have already received by email.

As you can imagine, this would certainly grab people’s attention. This relates to Rule 1 of course!

Rule #3: Let your passion rip. I don’t get it, but there’s a popular strand of thinking that speakers gain credibility in front of audiences by appearing pensive and logical, almost contained to the point of flatness, like a 3-star general giving testimony before Congress.

This is sometimes more a question of confidence than anything else.

I quite like this extract, which I think gets to the heart of the matter:

“Giving a speech/presentation is not about relating information or a point of view so that people go, “Hmm,” and move along. It’s about igniting exciting conversations that go on long after you’re done talking.”

Consequently it will be invaluable to think through how you’d keep these conversations going and how best to benefit from them.

The Illusion of Transparency

February 29, 2016

From Stephanie Vozza on Fast Company:

“Questions can also clarify expectations and make sure everyone is on the same page. Even if you think you understood your colleague or manager, there is a good chance you didn’t, says Grant Halvorson; the problem arises from something psychologists call the “illusion of transparency.”

“Because we know what we are thinking and feeling, and what our intentions are, we assume that it’s obvious to other people, too,” she says. “People think they’ve said more than they did, so there is a good chance you are missing something that may have gone unsaid.”

Resolve this problem by repeating back to the person what you think they said, suggests Grant Halvorson. “Something like, ‘Okay, just to be sure I’ve got the important details . . . ’ This clears up any misunderstandings that may have arisen,” she says.”

The problem with this is if it’s done mechanically it will come over as stilted and artificial. In addition, no one is going to be able to pick up all the context in the other person’s head, it will just take too long. However something along these lines, if done now and again, is probably quite handy. It may even sharpen the useful skill in being able to extract the main points in a conversation (where issues and topics often weave in and out).

Reinvention As Personal R&D

February 22, 2016

I’ve (so far) had three types of career: academic (internationally), business manager (in two large UK companies) and as an independent consultant (all in rather different technical areas).

I’m currently thinking about the next phase, which will probably centre around ‘giving something back to the community’, although perhaps not in a traditional way.

Part of this is just my makeup, I like doing and exploring different things, even if changing areas often gets progressively more difficult (a new learning curve each time) although still very rewarding.

In hindsight, it’s clear that my previous ‘reinventions’ were carried out in a fairly haphazard manner – I just got on with it (‘ignorance is bliss’). I’ve often thought there must be a better way. In this context I came across this insightful article by Saul Kaplan which is well worth thinking about if this sort of thing interests you:

Why aren’t we taught how to reinvent ourselves in school? Reinvention is imperative as a life skill. You would think we would at least be exposed to the fundamentals of personal exploration and reinvention while we are in school. Instead we seem increasingly focused on the skills necessary to get a specific job, a job that is highly unlikely to exist five years from now. As a society we highly prize specialty education pathways that track students toward narrow career choices instead of celebrating education pathways emphasizing a broad platform and skill set useful in doing future work that doesn’t exist today. Education and workforce development programs should emphasize foundational life skills that are transferable and enabling the personal confidence and skills to constantly reinvent ourselves.

Reinvention is a journey not a destination. It doesn’t have to be a scare word. You don’t have to know what you’re reinventing yourself to in order to work on reinventing yourself. It isn’t about stopping one thing in order to do or be something else. It’s about spending time every day, every month and every year constantly reinventing. It’s about personal R&D to explore and test new possibilities. It’s about experimenting all the time to uncover latent opportunities. It’s about continuing to strengthen our current selves while simultaneously working on our future selves by actively engaging in new ideas, environments and practices. You don’t have to stop doing what you’re currently doing you just have to allow yourself the freedom to try more stuff.

He then goes on to give a list of 15 practical ways to help ‘build your reinvention muscle’. It’s interesting that I already do most of them so I guess that’s a built-in character trait.

However perhaps the main point is the thinking about it all the time and trying some small experiments in new directions rather than waiting until you’re totally fed up and desperate for a sudden change (or worse, when a change is forced upon you).

Knowledge Creep

February 3, 2016

“As the biggest library if it is in disorder is not as useful as a small but well-arranged one, so you may accumulate a vast amount of knowledge but it will be of far less value than a much smaller amount if you have not thought it over for yourself.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

A Smarter Search

January 16, 2016

When I worked for a large organisation, several extensive information repositories were available to track down useful articles, reports, people etc. This could also be combined with looking externally via Google or similar. A common complaint was that it was time consuming tracking down exactly what was needed i.e. too many irrelevant search terms cropped up. I remember a colleague mentioning at the time that most people didn’t know the full power of ‘search’ and if they did their life would become a lot easier.

A recent article in the Guardian jolted my memory on this and it gives a handy list of ten such methods for Google (see the article for details).

Instead of an ‘immediate’ search, think a bit and then try using:

1. Exact Phrase (use quote marks) eg “Joe Bloggs”
2. Exclude terms eg “Joe Bloggs” -jeans
3. Either OR eg alex hern OR hernandez
4. Synonym search eg plumbing ~university
5. Search within a site eg selfie stick
6. The power of the asterisk eg where there’s a * there’s a way
7. Searching between two values eg british prime minsiter 1920.. 1950
8. Search for a word in the body, title or URL of a page eg intitle:review
9. Search for related sites eg
10. Combine them eg smartphone review ~budget

I’ve just tried this on a topic I’m interested in and it’s given a couple of useful new results. You can also make use of Google Advanced Search, which gives additional options. The latter is probably not used as much as it could be.

The article comments:

As Google and other search engines improve their understanding of the way people naturally type or say search queries, these power tools will likely become less and less useful – at least that’s the goal that search engines are working towards – but that’s certainly not the case at the moment.

They’re All Made Up

July 27, 2015

Nice short post from Euan Semple:

Present a human being with disparate bits information and we will try to make sense of them, to give them meaning, to get them to tell a story. We can’t help ourselves and do it all the time.

We also try to get the world to fit our pre-existing stories. Those we learned from our families, our colleagues, our neighbours. We feel better when it does.

In fact having our stories disproved unsettles us and challenges our very sense of self. We cling to them for dear life. We cause ourselves untold stress and unhappiness when the world doesn’t conform to our stories. We even fight wars over the need to prove that my story is more true than yours.

We would do well to remember that they are all made up.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the various things I’ve done over the past ten years and some days a short insight will present itself (seemingly for no reason whatsoever). The above post summed up my current feelings really well. It’s particularly relevant when you realise that you’re actually trying to convince someone (or they you) that your story really is ‘true’!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.