You can’t create a craft by committee

July 8, 2012

From time to time in knowledge management circles the cry of standardisation is raised. It's just happened again with a new KM Linked In Group with the banner …accreditation association delegated to make decisions by the global KM community. A brief investigation indicates its a variant on three men and a dog, or in this case two men seeking jobs, a woman and a cat.  When challenged on the pretentiousness of the title they say its just aspirational.  Since inviting people in, they have managed to alienate  the three people with experience who provided advice (yes I was one, and I tried and it was and is trying) by not bothering to listen and responding with platitudes or insults.  The initiative is not going to get to its desired goal as the idea is flawed and currently there is no gravitas or wisdom being shown by its visible leadership, but more on that tomorrow.  For the moment the issue raised is more important.

That issue is one of quality assurance and professionalism in an emergent discipline. It applies these days as much, if not more so to Agile than it does to knowledge management.  Agile is at the start of its journey and is attracting bright, innovative minds in large numbers.  KM, well lets say that it used to do that and still does, but not with enough critical mass.  Most KM conferences these days are littered (I use the word wisely) with the Sharepoint word as KM had become tool focused and tool determined as a discipline over the last two decades.

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:

Agile people should however really pay attention here.  It would be terrible if they took the same journey as the KM guys.  The trouble is that particular path is the broad path of Matthew 7:14 (see above in the King James edition and Isaiah 35:8 ain't bad either) that leads to perdition, but its the easy path and you can already see early signs of footprints rambling off without purpose.  The narrow path is more difficult at the start, but then becomes easier and my purpose in these two posts is to outline some of the key elements needed.  I hope this will also be under discussion at CalmBeta in Boulder Colorado in a few weeks time.  Its on my agenda if I can get people interested.

The problem is that people confuse three things, and also focus on bureaucratic rather than emergent approaches.  So lets run through the three:

  • Accreditation and certification
    The concern here relates to training in the field.  During the growth phase of a new idea lots and lots of people start to run training programmes, so how does a recruiter determine which provide a real qualification and which do not?  This is a particular problem in the US as there is a long standing practice of setting up a not-for profit company to sell the training, giving out all the right vibes; but then a for-profit company runs the training, taking revenue from the not-for-profit.  One way around this is the authority of the source:  when Universities start to run programmes you know they have a process which ensures a degree of quality; when the origin of the idea is clear (as it is in SCRUM) then,with astute leadership, quality control can be there from the start. However in both KM and Agile there are multiple such initiatives from multiple authorities.  Oh and before anyone from SCRUM or KMPro says it, the solution is not for everyone to accept you are right guys, there is more to it.  This problem of course leads to:
  • The cry to create a standard or a body of knowledge (BOK)
    While there is some merit to this, you seem in practice to end up with a committee that writes documents, makes compromises then published a book.  We saw this with two KM attempts, one of the which via the BSI had your author as one of its members.  In the BSI case the standard specifically stated that there were different and frequently contradictory approaches which were valid (my main contribution).  Despite that neither the BSIthat or the Australian equivalent managed to get major traction, although they did achieve some PR for the primary authors and their sponsors.   I got very cynical during that period.  When I realised that if a major consultancy firm was prepared to allocate one of the their staff to the programme, a cash strapped and publication target drive group like BSI would go along with it.   The other example often quoted and foolishly imitated is the creation of a BOK for project management that went along with PRINCE II and the stultification of a whole field.  All of this of course is really a proxy for:
  • The question of professionalism and the creation of a profession
    It really is all about standards in the broader sense of the term, and how the innocent buyer is to gain some insight or assurance that if they hire this individual or group that they are not buying a wo/man of straw.  It's not enough to have a single course with a certificate possibly backed up by a test or exam to achieve this.  The need to move here is the elephant in the room and it needs to be tackled.

The secret I think lies in that mouse which opens this post.  Its from the craftsman Robert Thompson who100 years ago turned his back on machines and rediscovered the mediaeval craft skills in his oak furniture.  The Catholic Chaplancy at Lancaster was furnished with this, and it must be worth a fortune now.  Every item made has the makers mark of this small mouse somewhere on it.

So is the craft hall the model of a new profession?   My long standing principle of problem resolution is to find something that works in history, discover why it works in terms of science, then seek to scale that understanding into a different context.  

In my next post tomorrow I want to pick up on this and propose a new way forward for emergent communities like Agile as is, and KM as was.   I'll also deal with the pretentious ones at the same time.  But if you want a flavour of the reaction they are getting, read this by fellow Welshman David Griffiths.  He tried to help as well and was rewarded by insults.

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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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