August 15, 2008

I have been derided elsewhere for referencing Harry Potter, when my elder and better is paying attention to Herodotus, Thucydides, Sophocles, Shakespare, Tolstoy and Proust (yes that is a quote, honestly) but I could think of no better way of finishing this Emperor series than with a reference to the Imperious Curse. As many of you will know this is one of the three unforgivable curses. Its use places the target into a trance where they are subject to total control by its initiator. It’s good news in a way as the curse provides a complete release from any sense of responsibility or worry over one’s actions and their consequences. The final bit of briefing for the Proustian scholars amongst you is that the curse requires commitment from the caster of the curse, you have to want to control people for it to work. The second, Cruciatus Curse requires its initiator to really want people to suffer excruciating pain (the truly wonderful portrayal of Bellatrix Lestrange by Helena Bonham Carter demonstrates this well). The third, Avada Kedavra simply kills you.

So, why is this relevant to my concluding blog in this sequence? Why have I inserted the famous painting of Machiavelli? Confused? Read on …

The key is in this phrase the curse provides a complete release from any sense of responsibility or worry over one’s actions and their consequences. That about sums up the general sense of risk avoidance which is an inevitable consequence of centralisation and formalization. Its the reason people play safe, what matters is not to succeed in making a difference, but to avoid any risk of ever being seen to fail. Even after a tragedy such as 911 the Danse Macabre of bureaucracy continues unaltered and unchallenged. I elaborated that in the first three postings of this series.

In the last two posts I attempted to suggest a series of alternatives: methods, software and concept. I also acknowledged but did not elaborate that you cannot move directly to an ideal, but have to accept the realpolitik of the current situation, adapting and evolving what is to what might be. Paradoxically that may mean accepting that the only way of getting attention is to create some form of centralised function or catalytic devise. However if this going to be the case then there are some simple principles that need to be applied and actions that need to be taken or avoided. Now this advise applies to any organisation, but I am focusing here on the question of government.

  • It should not be a gathering together of all current KM people across different departments and industries. There is just too much history in KM, too many papers, too many cases, too many conventional solutions. An aggregation of existing practice will simply end up with an homogenised, lowest common denominator set of conventional wisdom. This does not mean that there are not brilliant and well motivated people working in KM, or that many are other than well intentioned. However we are all a product of our history and there are simply too many past proposals and claimed success to defend.
  • If anything it needs to be a multi-program office focused from day one on real, tangible intractable problems not aspirational goals. It should have the power to assembly people into projects (or create volunteer projects, reference SNS in my earlier post) to deal with those problems.
  • It goes without saying that it should not be permitted to create central repositories of best practice guidelines, recommendations on tools, conferences, working parties and all the other ephemera that so delights bureaucrats. You can see why they propose it, its easy to measure success because you have not really accepted to do anything useful, or particularity challenging.
  • Creating social computing environments (I do not mean communities of practice) will build the linkages and connections that allow peer to peer sharing of best practice, access to tools that work and advise. Such social interaction is far more messy, and far more effective than a centralised function. The clearing house idea is seductive but it simply doesn’t work.
  • Keep all activity part time, making people full time on KM is always a mistake as they end up disconnected from the business, speaking a specialist language and presenting sanitized case studies at conferences. If people continue to engage in their data to data work not only do they network better, but they stay in touch with reality. Part time may of course be a three month secondment, or a one/two day a week assignment or multiple variations thereof.
  • A sizable proportion (ideally all) of those programs should be experimental using new methods and software. Its one good use of a centralised budget as it frees people up to try things out that their own departments would normally avoid as too risky or expensive. The use of seed corn funding for novel activities is one way of encouraging evolution.

Now of course this follows the basic advise of any complex system intervention: safe-fail experiments not safe-fail design.

Finally, I have used a the Lincoln quote about thinking and acting anew throughout this series. I want to finish with some advise from the master of evolutionary and realist approaches to politics: Machiavelli. Consider them the poster set for the new centralised function!

For the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by things that seem than by those that are

There are three classes of intellects: one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehend; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent, the second is good, the third is useless

For the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things; for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order; this lukewarmness arising partly from the incredulity of mankind who does not truly believe in anything new until they actually have experience of it

Innovation makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old regime, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new.

Oh, and if you haven’t worked out the relevance of Crucio yet, then think about it.

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