“Putting shit up the tap (faucet) will not get you rehoused”

April 8, 2007

I was engaged in a discussion earlier this morning with someone who feels that knowledge has to be written down if it is to survive the retirement or other loss for other cause of employees. Part of the exchange involved discussing understanding knowledge creation and use in call centres. This reminded me of a story from one of my early ethnographic projects in which (as the title suggests) I learnt some disturbing facts. I will tell that story later, for the moment let me set the scene, which will also set the context for tomorrow;s how to get started in KM summary that I promised Moscow delegates as well as the wider readership.

The other party to the discussion was heavily focused on codification, hence my engagement, I argued that the limits on effective codification are narrower than technology focused KMers would accept. My disputant was arguing that capturing knowledge through software at the point of its use/creation was critical. Now I agree that at the time knowledge capture is more effective than after action review on grounds of better recall, but also because the way we know things in the field is not the way we describe them when questioned. This latter point which has been known for some time and together with issues on question bias in interviews completely undermines traditional systems analysis and consultancy methods by the way, but such practices continue never the less. However despite that agreement I see at the time process as limited in its usefulness if the focus is on codification (I do not include narrative in that).

In effect we were agreed (with Boisot)’ that codification increases diffusion of information. However in Boisot’s I-Space (read his wonderful Knowledge Assets for an explanation) there is a third aspect namely abstraction (which one might also describe as shared context and conventions). Shared context between message giver and message receiver is critical and that context comes, with some exceptions, from other sorces than written documents. This is where KM has in the main failed. Common context requires not just a common use of language (itself very difficult) but also a common set of experiences. This was the heart of our difference, so to make my point more explicit I said:

Let me tell you a story …..

I did a KM project once in a call centre. This involved sitting with the best and worst performer (assessed by senior management) for a couple of days doing some ethnographic work. The best performer handled all calls within the designated period. She also captured knowledge as she went along. If she could not handle things she deferred the query to an engineering crew (this was a water utility). She was more or less fault free.

I then sat next to the worst performer. She was taking too long on each call and was not documenting things. She also broke the rules from time to time and was on the verge of being fired. A few hours into the observation two calls came to mind. One was with someone complaining about something relating to his second (yes I mean second) swimming pool. He was arrogant, demanding and articulate but she calmed him down and left the call with no follow through action needed. Immediately after a call came in from a housing estate (a bad one) in a big city complaining that the water was contaminated. After a few minutes of listening (not forcing the conversation into a process) the worst performer said “Listen love, putting your own shit up the tap (faucet for US readers) will not get you rehoused, why don’t you phone this number and see if they can help”. The caller broke down in tears, had the number repeated and called off. Again no follow through.

Now it turned out that people living in very poor housing knew that the City would have to rehouse them if their water was contaminated. So some people had literally taken their own excrement and smeared it inside the tap. When this happened the engineer sent on call out would detect it quickly, police and social services would be called and a lot of cost in man-time and cash would be incurred. The worst performer was actually the best performer.

Now please do not respond by saying that once this was known it could be codified; even if it could, then there would be many other things that were necessary to get the right context. In this case the worst performer was married to a field engineer so she had access to contextual knowledge in the form of stories told over the dinner table at home.. Given that call centre staff were female and engineers male there was an obvious solution, namely a mass marriage ceremony. That was rejected grin instead all call centre staff were sent, paired with engineers, to spent two days in the field every quarter. Targets were also reduced, and information capture taken back to a sensible level.

Now that is Knowledge Management from a complex perspective, rather than a systems one (in the sense of information systems and targeting). Work with natural processes, expanding and scaling them rather than trying to create some ideal system to replace human, intuitive and instinctive context building. Not to mention compassion; the reason my worst performer had the number is that she had, in her own time, researched local charities to make sure she could provide real service, rather than hitting targets by conforming with a process.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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