Sunday, January 29, 2017

Research Project: KM in Small Organizations

During my Year of Learning, I plan on conducting some research as an ongoing project.  It will directly feed two of my goals (learning and network building) and it will be a longer term, indirect investment in a third goal (making a living).

At this point, I know I want to look at small organizations and knowledge management.  I started an initial literature review which will hopefully allow me to get closer to a meaningful set of questions.

As of January 2017, here are some thoughts:

  • Most of the literature on how to implement successful knowledge management strategies applies to larger organizations;
  • Small organizations may not perceive as much of a need for knowledge management if they see it as something that only benefits larger, more complex organizations with more significant barriers to internal information and knowledge flows or if they see it as something they can't afford to even consider.  That could happen if they understand knowledge management primarily from an IT perspective or as something necessarily complex and too daunting to tackle.
  • My hypothesis is that small organizations could benefit significantly from embracing knowledge management practices to directly and quickly strengthen themselves and position themselves for greater impact and potential growth (if growth is what they are seeking).
  1. What constitutes a "small" organization?  Are there any relevant thresholds in terms of size and impact of Knowledge Management?
  2. What would be the most appropriate research approach?  Would it be useful to compare very small (5-50) to small (51-200) organizations?  What kind of sample size can I realistically consider for a 12-months project?  (10-20 organizations).  How about just a couple of more in-depth case studies?
  3. What types of small organizations do I want to focus on?  There is some limited literature on KM in SMEs, but I want to focus on a rather unique class of organizations, small non-profit organizations working in the field of international development.  I'm not even sure I want to limit myself to non-profits.  The characteristic I want to focus on is "resource constrained," whether they are technically non-profits or not.  A small start-up for-profit organization trying to bring innovation to the field of international development (if that exists) is probably resource constrained in similar ways as a non-profit.  For the initial research, (probably self-funded), I would focus on organizations in the US.  Of course, it would be even more interesting to extend this to study/work with the partner organizations, those working in various countries under even more resource constrained environments.  
  4. If this is all based on pro bono collaboration, where do I draw the line in terms of research vs. providing advice (i.e., consulting services)?
  5. How do I find the right balance between what I want to study and what they need most? I have an interest in conducting research, but I'm primarily a practitioner, not an academic. I'm most interested in research that will have immediate applicability in terms of providing valuable support to the organizations I work with.   Everything I have done so far in planning has been very "me-oriented" because I have focused on articulating my own goals and interests.  This will change so that it is the real needs of small organizations that are ultimately served.   

Questions 1 through 3 will sort themselves out based on the findings of the initial literature review, some initial contacts, and pragmatism.

Questions 4 and 5 will only be answered by having open conversations with potential partner organizations for this research, making my intent and objectives very clear upfront and putting an agreement in writing regarding the scope of each party's involvement and responsibilities.


PS:  I am reading an old copy of George Orwell's 1984.  We have two copies in the house.  My copy is a French version I read in the year 1984 while a newly minted immigrant to the US, attending the French High School in New York City (which explains why I was still reading it in French).  It has my old (212) telephone number printed on the inside cover.  The second copy is an English edition that one of my daughters read in middle school.  

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Planning A Year of Learning

"If you don't design your own life plan, chances are you'll fall into someone else's plan, and guess what they have planned for you? Not much."  ~Jim Rohn
What's a YoL?
I've named it a Year of Learning (YoL).  It's not a sabbatical and it's not a mid-life gap year. I'm not taking a year off to travel or meditate on top of a mountain. And it's not just a career move.  Neither do I want to go in early retirement. I don't know that it will be a year long. Ideally it will keep going in some shape for the next 20 years. I do anticipate that loads of learning will occur, some planned and most unplanned and unanticipated, which is why I have decided to call it a Year of Learning.

Timeline (and the beneficial impact of anticipation)
My YoL will start in August 2017.  It's mid-January 2017 and I've been planning this for a while already (Social Impact Consulting - September 2016).  It feels like planning a vacation.  The planning part can be as fun and rewarding as the vacation itself.  I'm applying some of the findings of anticipation research, transferring them from the context of a vacation to a career change.

My ultimate goal is to design a smooth transition from a traditional 9-5 job with benefits into satisfying independent consulting work that will allow more flexibility to do the things I want to do without having to wait for retirement to do them.

I have goals for this YoL, I even have a detailed business plan, but I'm ready to throw the plan out the window if something else emerges.  Here are four angles I'll be working on:
  • Loads of Learning - That's an easy goal because it's an existing habit, almost on autopilot.  The key is to balance focused, intentional learning with serendipitous learning and exploration. I also have a specific research project in mind (see next blog post). 
  • Make (some) Money - Yes, this is not a 12 months vacation and it's not a sabbatical with a job to get back to in a year.  That's where the business plan comes in.  The YoL does require an income stream but my goal is to not make it the top priority.
  • Nurture my Network(s) - This will be more of a stretch, will require some pro-active planning --which sounds redundant --, and it will be critical to my overall well-being as well as important for long-term success.
  • Work out the "Work-life Balance"- Why wait to retire to go on those long bike rides in the middle of the week?  Schedule it and just do it!  No more 8 hours in front of a computer.  There has to be another way.
Related Resources

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Percolating with Smart Collaboration and Humble Consulting

The things we are exposed to (situations, but also books, articles, movies, etc..)  within the same period of time connect in our heads in ways that might not have happened if we had been exposed to them at different times -- perhaps even six months apart.  Here is an example for the past couple of week based on two items I was reading.

Heidi Gardner, Smart collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos, Harvard Business Review Press, 2017. 

Click on the screenshot above to go to the webinar page. 

Summary:  Professional services firms need to solve their clients' increasingly complex problems, the kinds of problems that only teams of multidisciplinary experts can tackle.  Yet they've organized themselves into narrowly defined practice areas and collaborating across these silos is often messy, risky, and expensive.

Gardner shows that "firms earn higher margins, inspire greater client loyalty, attract and retain the best talent and gain a competitive edge when specialists collaborate across functional boundaries."

This relates to my own efforts to provide consulting services. My efforts will not resemble those of a large professional services firm, yet the clients might present me with the same set of complex challenges.  My own areas of specialization can be perceived as narrow under those circumstances and I want to stick to that as a niche specialty, but organizations are going to present themselves with much broader, more complex sets of interconnected challenges around knowledge management.

My main "organizational" challenge as an independent consultant will not be to break down silos but to create collaborative arrangements with partners in order to bring together the capabilities necessary to provide comprehensive solutions to a client when I can't do it on my own.

That sounds like a nice challenge/practical research question to address within my first year project.

Edgar Schein's Humble Consulting: How To Provide Real Help Faster, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2016.

Summary:  In Humble Consulting, Schein with exactly the same observation as Gardner: Organizations today face challenges that are messy and complicated.  Gardner argues that the traditional consultant role of playing doctor just doesn't work in those situations.  When presented with a simple, technical problem, the consultant/doctor can come in, run a few tests, come up with a diagnostic and prescribe a treatment or present a solution, but those clear cut situations are rare nowadays.  To be truly effective, the consultant must develop an open, trusting relationship with the client, a relationship characterized by authentic curiosity and humility.

In the past year, as I have slowly but consistently been planning my return to full-time consulting, I have also read a lot about the consulting business.  My previous independent consulting efforts, more than a decade ago, had been professionally very satisfying but I had not proven myself a particularly savvy business person.  My initial impression as I considered returning to consulting was that I needed to beef up my business skills and started reading a lot about how to get clients, how to set up consulting contracts, or more generally, how to make a living as a consultant.  That was all fine and useful -- to some extent, but I kept looking for something more.  I needed to convince myself that I was really going to provide value, not just figure out a way to make a living out of it.  I eventually found what I was looking for in Edgar Schein's Humble Consulting.  Schein's approach articulates very well the way I want to work as an independent consultant.

What to do next?
I am going to let these two resources to deliberately percolate together for a while.  They've been very useful in allowing to coalesce insights and ideas around my own approach to consulting and the kinds of things I will want to monitor as I start working with clients.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Winter Hiking - January 2017

First little outdoor adventure of 2017.  It was meant to be "WINTER" hiking and the winter part of it was definitely on location.  15-20 F with significant winds at times and one inch of snow on the ground which made it pretty but also slightly more dangerous because you can't tell what's under the snow.

Warming up with a cup of cocoa later on, I had to do a map and I experimented with a backgruond image (a photo taken during the hike).  It's more a set of small lists than a good map, but not all maps have to be perfect.  This one is good enough for what it's meant to do, just serve as an easy reminder of the hike and what I learned from it.

Monday, January 02, 2017

The Intentional Information Diet

I read through Clay Johnson's The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption.  It could have been subtitled "A Case for Mindful Consumption" but then we wouldn't have the wonderful alliteration (three Cs) in the subtitle.

I like the analogy between food consumption and information consumption, including how both have gone awry and how we should get back on track with more conscious consumption, starting with an awareness of what we our putting in our bodies and heads.  I also agree that it is a matter of personal responsibility.  We can no more blame the junk food producers than we can blame the junk media producers for our consumption.  We have a choice, even if it takes some effort.  The path of least resistance leads us to junk, unfortunately, because that's what we crave, in news as in food.

Looking at my food consumption, I could quickly say that my worst habit is failing to consume enough water.  No need for fancy analysis.  I have known this for a long time and I have yet to find a way to adopt a healthy habit around it.  It's supposed to be simple.  Carry a water bottle around, drink all day.  It's not that simple apparently because I can't stick with it.

Drawing my own information consumption map also led to some useful insights.  In particular, I was able to identify a couple of distracting and unhealthy information habits.

Here's to 2017:  More water, less Facebook. It's as simple as that.  Simple.  I didn't say easy.

My approach to information consumption is slightly different, though.  I tend to have a strong "learning" focus.  My information diet is more intentional and targeted.  For me, being more conscious of the information we consume isn't sufficient.  I would recommend being highly focused in seeking out specific information, otherwise it's very easy to become overwhelmed to a lot of random, interesting stuff.  Some randomness is good though.  Total randomness doesn't add up to a lot of learning.  I would start with a mix of 80% targeted information meant to address a specific learning goal, making sure it's not all affirmation building; and 20% random information.  In practice, I'm not sure how that would happen.

In addition, the term "information" is too broad in this context of information consumption.  We consume information in the form of news, entertainment, communications, and all of it isn't necessarily coming from our computer screen and smartphones.

Related Readings:

  • Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: How the Internet is Rewiring our Brains,
    I had blogged about it here.   Clay Johnson's book came out a year later. 
  • Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We Read.
    Take a shortcut if you'd like and listen to the TEDTalk: Beware Online "filter bubble". 
  • Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.