Posts Tagged ‘meme’

Gossip and Rumor – The Natural Instruments of Cultural Learning?

January 26, 2011

Gossip in organizations is almost universally seen as a negative phenomenon and one that in a work situation should be stamped out if at all possible, but what if there were valuable knowledge to be gained from gossip and information that could improve corporate governance and innovation?

For the purposes of this article I am going to conflate gossip and rumor to a large degree, although at a finer level of granularity the two become very different (McAndrew 2008)– Rumor deals more with externalities and objects, whereas gossip involves interpersonal relationships more.
Gossip is a natural human communicative phenomenon that is part of our evolution (McAndrew and Milenkovic 2002) that does several things, amongst which are articulation of what people are worried about, worries that are insufficiently known, instances of cheating, and changes of positional power or influence.

In case you get bored by the discussion later on, I am going to discuss a quick win first – mining the gossip in your organization as an early-warning system.

Early Warning System

Perhaps I should qualify “early” here – I don’t mean like you have a radar that can detect an oncoming wave of bombers long before they reach your shores, I mean in the sense that you get to sample what is already eating away at your foundations and which may give you an idea of what you are dealing with.
For this reason I strongly recommend that gossip be sampled regularly in order to get on the radar screen threats and weaknesses that might otherwise have been missed until they made themselves known more overtly and systemically.

The technique is to gather gossip without people being afraid that the intent is to track the source and to mete out punishment.
If people fear retribution, the gossip doesn’t go away and neither do the causes, it just goes silent – silencing gossip is the equivalent of switching off power to the radar screen.
The idea is not to encourage gossip as much as simply sample and monitor it.

Depending on the level of trust in your organization, there are two main ways to sample gossip:

  • Get them from the people in the organization who are the Connectors, those who lie at the nexus points in your Social Network
  • Provide staff with an anonymous postbox

OK, so I lied a bit, there is another and far more accurate way, but you aren’t going to like it.


Gossip is often the stuff that people believe to be true or likely but that they feel uncomfortable to tell management. This might mean they just have a hunch, but it may also mean that they know something but won’t say it for fear of being embarrassed or the retribution that may visit them if they come clean.

This is where Prediction Markets come in, and boy are you going to hate this!

If you ask how a project is going or what the sales forecast is, you are likely to get the sanitized and upbeat evaluation, but if people bid on a market – even with fake money, something different happens, and you are likely to get a far more accurate picture. Asking “how is the project going” gets you a CYA response, but if there was a pseudo-stockmarket in which people bid on a specific question such as “Project X will achieve Y milestone by Z date”, the results are likely to be far more accurate.
Share-value in the market rises or falls according to the insider knowledge and conviction of buyers, and if the identities of bidders are unknown, it represents the most accurate sampling of the organizational knowledge that one can get.

The downside is that questions must be highly specific and need to be somewhat Boolean in nature (Manski 2006), and people must not be able to game the system for personal gain which is perhaps an insurmountable obstacle since you could get the equivalent of “insider trading” in which a person might deliberately sabotage a project to gain benefit from the market.
However, some academics show evidence that “bear raids” and other attempts to game the market tend to be short-lived and self-correcting (Hanson, Oprea et al. 2006)
On the other hand, economists were the same geniuses that said this about the real stock market prior to the Global Financial Crises that appeared from the shadows and ate about $8 trillion.

I told you that you wouldn’t like it! – but let’s talk very quickly about what gossip is really, after all.

Cultural Learning

In a very real sense gossip is a manifestation of “cultural learning” (Baumeister, Zhang et al. 2004), it emerges under several distinct conditions that have to do with (amongst others) detection of social cheating, message incongruity, fragmented information scent, and power vacuums. It also manifests when there are threats and insufficient information available. Rumors often start because of simple information underload.
In the case of social cheating, gossip functions as the channel to communicate cheating and as the foundation for what has been termed “Costly Punishment” (Henrich, McElreath et al. 2006)

Gossip not only communicates efficiently and fast, but also delivers peer pressure to correct non-conformance with norms of behavior – and this is where there is both a problem and an opportunity.
If organizational goals and policies are out of step with the organization’s social norms, then gossip will “correct” behavior to satisfy the social norms rather than the organizational goal, and people will tend to obey the “ground rules” (Davenport and Prusak 1998; Stacey, Griffin et al. 2000) rather than the institutional rules, and this bears repeating – if the social rules are at odds with your institutional rules, the social rules will win almost every time.
Peer pressure is faster and stronger than institutional power, so it is wise to sample the gossip stream to see if there is significant divergence between the two and measure the results of any remedial interventions for signs of success. – bringing the two closer together puts peer dynamics into play to achieve organizational objectives, rather than undermining or corroding them.

At a different level, sampling the gossip-stream also gives a very good picture of what the organizational culture really is like and to what degree the organizational mission as communicated is infectious, sticky, and resilient – A poorly crafted mission statement simply won’t stand up to the test.

“Ba” and the Water-Cooler Dilemma

One of the foundational objectives of Knowledge Management as a practice is to create both built-environment and mental space that fosters and encourages innovation and knowledge diffusion. In his conceptualization of “Ba”, the mental and physical knowledge terrain (Nonaka and Konno 1999), Nonaka proposes the “water-cooler” phenomenon – that more often than not breakthroughs and acquisition of critical knowledge happens in the spaces between formal meetings and workareas rather than in them, that sometimes the water-cooler and other social spaces see more real work than the formal work areas.
While this is certainly a strong argument, what is also clear is that when left to their own devices, people tend to talk about sports, celebrities, and gossip more than they do about work, and that even when they talk about work it tends to be more about their idiot boss, the lazy workmates, or which members of staff are in a romance or likely to leave, than about work itself.

This leads to somewhat of a dilemma – creating “Ba”, areas and time in which staff can mingle, chat, and relax certainly does increase the likelihood of real innovation and productive spread of knowledge, but it also increases at a larger rate the amount of gossip and non-work related talk.


Gossip isn’t going to go away anytime soon and while it can be reduced both by disciplinary action and removing some of the information-gap causes, it can also be monitored as a good error-signal and mined for content to flag things that are miss-matches between organizational objectives and social rules. Gossip is also a reliable indicator of organizational culture, and can be a valuable source of information that can lead to beneficial intervention programs.
Gossip is something that is likely to increase if knowledge management is done well, but the upside is that it becomes a mechanism for good just as much as it does for serving the craving people have to know about the personal foibles of the powerful and who is sleeping with whom in the office.


Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management expert, holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra, and provides pro-bono consulting in Knowledge Management and IT Governance to various medical institutions.


Baumeister, R. F., L. Zhang, et al. (2004). “Gossip as cultural learning.” Review of General Psychology
8: 111-121.

Davenport, T., H. and L. Prusak (1998). Working knowledge: how organizations manage what they know. Boston MA, Harvard Business School Press.

Hanson, R., R. Oprea, et al. (2006). “Information aggregation and manipulation in an experimental market.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization
60(4): 449-459.

Henrich, J., R. McElreath, et al. (2006). “Costly punishment across human societies.” Science
312(5781): 1767.

Manski, C. F. (2006). “Interpreting the predictions of prediction markets.” Economics Letters
91(3): 425-429.

McAndrew, F. (2008). “Can Gossip Be Good?” Scientific American Mind
19(5): 26-33.

McAndrew, F. T. and M. A. Milenkovic (2002). “Of Tabloids and Family Secrets: The Evolutionary Psychology of Gossip1.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology
32(5): 1064-1082.

Nonaka, I. and N. Konno (1999). The concept of Ba : building a foundation for knowledge creation. Boston MA, Butterworth-Heinemann.

Stacey, R. D., D. Griffin, et al. (2000). Limits of systems thinking Complexity and management; fad or radical challenge to systems thinking. London, Routledge.


Knowing What You Know – and Doing Something About It

September 16, 2010

“If HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times as profitable” Lew Platt, HP

I love that quotation, and wish I could thank Lew Platt for saying it.

This blog covers some of that ground, but also gives an historical example to use as reflection on two basic problems in making use of what you know or even being in that position at all .

As I wrote in a different blog, science advances pretty much inexorably overall and so indeed does business, but delays in diffusion or acceptance of knowledge may be pretty devastating to those directly involved, and the happy recipient of the value of knowledge may not be you, even though technically, you might “own” it.

Take Ignatz Semmelweis for example.

In 1847 Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor, concluded after ruling out other causes that contagion was responsible for the high death rate due puerperal fever in the obstetrics ward, and he reduced the untimely deaths from nearly a third of deliveries, to less than 1% – simply by requiring doctors to wash their hands in a chlorinated lime solution.

Unfortunately it was decades before other scientists and doctors came to the same conclusion, and improved sanitation became the standard.

In the mean time a great many women and infants died, and Semelweiss himself had a nervous breakdown, according to some, as a result of stress and despondency at the unnecessary deaths.

So while science as a whole got to the right conclusion in the end, it came too late for the women who died or were injured by puerperal fever.

Part of the problem was an “Old Guard” of physicians who simply didn’t want to accept what was published by Semmelweiss, and had to retire or die before younger physicians without the baggage replaced them.

Another part of the problem was that many doctors never got the message – the publication was not global, it was only in German (His book “Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever” wasn’t available in English until the early 1980’s), and no mechanism existed at the time for indexing it in other countries or even advertising it within Germanic countries – this was after all 160 years ago and The Lancet was yet to come into existence and email was far over the horizon.

So the problem seems to naturally separate into two distinct areas

  • A cultural resistance to change and to novel ideas
  • A problem of awareness, and of simply knowing that the knowledge existed

Cultural resistance can be addressed by leadership and building an attitude of mutual support and sharing, but may require stronger tactics – like moving people. Change management is also crucial to reduce the perceived and actual disruption, and ease people into accepting new ideas.

Improving awareness on the hand sounds easy but whereas in 1847 the potential audience was starved of information from peers, today we have the opposite situation – infoglut.

The idea ecosystem is already crammed with competition and they crowd each other out, so the challenge is to find ways to tunnel through the abundance of conflicting information and highlight the few that we want to use.

Oddly enough, this may come back to leadership again, but not the hierarchical corporate power structure. Instead what we want to leverage is the leadership of SMEs – people who are the recognized experts and thought-leaders in the organization.

By implementing a framework in which the approval or authorship of the acknowledged experts is visible to others, it is possible to build the leadership into the process itself.

This can range from leveraging the opinion of your SMEs to making sure you get your money’s worth from failures, but at the very least it implies knowing what your SME’s read and use, how they rate it, and what they say, is made visible so that people can follow their thinking.

Sitting around hoping that knowledge will naturally flow to where it is needed and be used by those who require it, is not a luxury that any business in a competitive market can afford. If you don’t take positive steps to get the knowledge to those who need it, and find ways to put knowledge to work more readily, your competition will.

Please contribute to my self-knowledge and take this 1-minute survey that tells me what my blog tells you about me. – Completely anonymous.


Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management professional and holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra. Mr. Loxton has extensive international experience and is currently available as a Knowledge Management consultant or as a permanent employee at an organization that wishes to put knowledge to work.

Knowledge Management and Knowledge Transfer

July 16, 2010

Specialized and functional knowledge is what organizations run on and what gives them both identity and their competitive advantage – but all too frequently it is not easily accessible to the people who need it, and may be locked up in private stashes, file stores, or in the heads of isolated individuals.

Knowledge Management as a discipline has a variety of techniques to address this situation including deployment of Knowledge-Bases, creation of Technical Libraries, and implementation of information architecture approaches including portals, and other technological solutions. However, technology is the smaller part of the pie, and the lion’s share is in how knowledge can be spread from person to person to person in the form of insight and understanding.

Knowledge Transfer (KT) is the process of spreading understanding and insight so that the organization gets more operational value and realizes more advantage from it. With this in mind, KT should be primarily focused on getting business advantage, so the kind of knowledge that should be predominantly transferred is that which has operational value.

Knowledge transfer in an organization can be done in many different, and hopefully, synergistic ways. Those organizations working along ISO9000 or ISO20000/ITIL guidelines should have formal procedure maps and documents stored for all to see and have an advantage over firms that don’t, but the following KT techniques can be applied even if no formal quality and standards system is in place, and would be in addition to rather than in place of formal systems. (although I strongly advise looking into adopting ISO or ITIL).

There are three standard “classroom” style KT environments:

  • Formal product or operations training through an internal Educational Services group
  • External training of both soft-skills, and tech or industry related courses
  • Lunchtime presentation sessions of typically 1 hr covering product or “tricks & tips” subjects.

Classroom-style KT is not the whole picture though, and other components of KT need to be considered.

Informal but scheduled KT sessions can be highly productive and should include regular meetings expressly for KT – such as weekly team information and knowledge transfer sessions with both the local staff as well as their peers in other regions if the organization is geographically dispersed.

Daily “stand-up” transfer sessions for operational updates can be held so that each team lead can hear what others are up to and tell everyone what their team is doing. These need not run longer than 10-15 minutes and should be focused on the most important or significant topics.

Externally facing sessions can be used to reduce customer-support or business-partner costs, and could typically be offered as monthly webinars in which a staff member does an online presentation to customers, partners, and internal staff in short and focused sessions typically as an hour-long tutorial on some aspect of the product-set or ancillary/environmental subjects. These could be recorded for re-use by the Educational Service group and seen as Intellectual Property.

Ad-hoc transfer can be done very effectively by “swarming”. A typical scenario is one in which a person may struggling with a customer problem or has a high-impact internal issue and they call for help. Team members “swarm” around them and provide help and alternative theories or suggestions and then disperse as soon as the person has enough to continue with.

One-on-one teams can also put together on an ad-hoc basis when the situation demands it so that a junior person can have a “guru” help them think through a tricky problem.

Another valuable KT mechanism is to have a mentorship/coaching program where more experienced staff can pair up with a junior member for a longer period.

Sending staff from one geography to another a few times a year can also be valuable in order to exchange specialist information and knowledge in classroom settings, in hands-on small group settings, and also 1-on-1 mentorship sessions.

In a similar way, some staff members can be rotated through other domain areas to gain insight to how other parts of the organization or product-set work and how other teams do things.

Borrowing from academia, it is worth considering a sabbatical system in which a staff member can visit a customer site or another industry, or just work on a particular subject, and then internally publish a formal paper and conduct KT sessions on what they have discovered.

It is also important for subject-matter staff to belong to industry groups and to attend the seminars and workshops offered, and then to bring back knowledge and transfer it to other staff, and to regard that as part of the deal – attend external training or informative sessions and on return you have a duty to deliver at least a tutorial.

Finally, a very high-value KT method is to send staff to customer sites to help the customers with specific problems, but also to simply observe the customer environment and how they use your support services and your product set, and then bring back their observations for you to use to change the product or how you interact with the customer.

These observations may simply trigger lunchtime KT sessions, or customer tutorials, etc. but also have the potential to lead to dramatic innovations in services or product direction – there is nothing quite like seeing something in action to gain insight.

In conclusion I would say that these components should not be seen as isolated solutions, but be mixed and woven into a coherent KT strategy but that can be fluid enough to adapt to internal and external demands in order to deliver the most value.

Please contribute to my self-knowledge and take this 1-minute survey that tells me what my blog tells you about me. – Completely anonymous.

Knowledge Management and the Novice’s Mirror

July 7, 2010

The focus of Knowledge Management is usually on the folks with all the Knowledge and Experience, the people who have been with the company for years and in the industry for decades – and this is hardly surprising, since they are the ones who have most of the good ideas, know how to do stuff, and have all the tips, tricks, and war-stories.

We are focused on the Experts because that’s where the goodies are for the most part.

However, experts are also those who have best learned to put up with stuff and the Jerry-rigged quick-fixes that were put into place as a short-term stop-gap five years ago but just blended into the stream of history at some point. They have also forgotten many of the things that initially bugged them, and have accumulated a host of bad habits and habits to protect them from the embarrassment of all those bad habits.

This is one of the ways that “ single-loop” learning mechanisms start up, and how we wind up protecting ourselves from evidence that things are wrong. As Chris Argyris explains it, not only does the problem itself become unmentionable, but the very fact that it is unmentionable is unmentionable!

It is simply bad manners to even hint about it, so over time people learn to unconsciously avoid certain subjects, issues, and facts.

A second problem with expertise is that we no longer notice how we do things – much of what we do is autopilot and runs fast and smooth on well-oiled rails. We effortlessly and unconsciously glide over shortcuts, detours, and work-arounds that are so well practiced that they are all but invisible.

Expertise and its learned-behavior hides problems that more expertise is almost powerless to break and to whom the problems are as invisible as a vampire’s reflection.

This is where the Novice’s Mirror enters the picture.

A new-hire presents a perfect opportunity to make invisible reflections show up again briefly – until they are assimilated and acculturated and the images fade from their consciousness.

A novice can reflect to us things that have become invisible in two ways

  • Where they do not yet know how things are done and will be able to question things that have no apparent reason. It is this “why” that can fleetingly bring something back into view, and if we keep our natural instinct to defend or distract under control, we will get a brief opportunity to snare a bad habit.

  • Secondly, we can learn a great deal from what a new-comer gets wrong. When they stumble over a task step, or can’t find something, or something doesn’t make sense, it is a red flag that we may have built an invisibility shield around something that was wrong but for which had we evolved ‘tricks” to get past.

Quite often the original reason for the tricks might have resolved itself or simply become irrelevant, but the “tricks” to circumvent it may still be in operation long after their need had gone. – A novice often shows us a reflection of ourselves by what they trip over or what they do wrong.

In the choices they make that strike the expert as wrong, they in fact articulate the shape of the expert’s assumptions in all three areas of tacit, explicit, and cultural knowledge.

I have used this notion of the Novice’s Mirror in varying degrees of success in several different organizations over the years.

For example, in one case customers following the download and installation instructions of software components and fixes would often interpret the instructions “incorrectly” and perform steps out of sequence.

The customers had come to believe that our fixes were fragile, and they often needed to call on us to manually assist them in loading the fixes. If the fixes worked fine when we loaded them, they wrote this off as being just another example of the mysterious and unpredictable nature of our fixes.

To us of course it was clear that customers were just lazy or unqualified and didn’t follow instructions.

It took a newbie to point out that in many cases the order of steps to fit a fix was important, but that we didn’t say so in the instructions. The instructions were in fact quite unclear on this point and many others once you looked at them from the novice point of view. Some steps required a strict order, others not, some steps were seemingly trivial, but weren’t.

The newbie had tried to fit a patch themselves as part of training and had skipped a step that was unclear with the idea that they would find out later what it meant.
The resulting failure made them wonder if we had meant that the steps were strictly sequential and were all necessary.

Luckily the experts caught the implication and examined what had gone wrong rather than simply laughing it off as newbie stupidity, and from then on we had far fewer calls for “bad fixes” because we henceforth clearly stated if steps were to be taken as sequential or not, and which were crucial and which were there for comfort or cosmetics.

The opportunity to glimpse in the Novice’s Mirror was very brief, and could have just as easily been dismissed and lost. If the newbie had been taunted rather than really listened to, they would simply have learned to do it “our way”, and also have “learned” that pointing out faults was not welcome in that organization.

I apply this idea to any new-hire or visitor, requesting them to take notes whenever they are unsure of an instruction or document, cannot find something, or don’t know who to ask for assistance – the “novices mirror” shows us assumptions and inbuilt problems or obstacles that are invisible to the experts.

A very effective way to use the Novice’s Mirror, is to build it into a constant-improvement philosophy such as the Japanese quality control concept of Kaizen. In this way workers and management are made curious about failure and become more likely to seek causes, rather than simply assign blame or to ignore the problem.

That is my story, and I am sticking to it.

Knowledge Management – The ITIL/Quality-Management Aspect

July 2, 2010

Knowledge Management has been portrayed as being a direct descendant of the quality movement that started with W. Edwards Deming, and quite rightly we can trace many of the core tenets of KM to the various Quality Management offshoots. The concern for parsimony and efficiency, the analysis of work structures, and the interest in keeping libraries of best practices are all cemented in the foundations of both the Quality Management and Knowledge Management spheres.

It has been a source of concern however, if not irritation to many people that the focus on procedure and structure in the quality movement may have inadvertently displaced the human side of the equation, and that insufficient attention is given to learning and behavioral aspects. Sometimes the builders of procedures seem to forget* that processes and procedures are executed more in vivo than in silico, so to speak – humans would be performing the procedures rather than computers. (*Perhaps a legacy of the Taylorite turn.)

Many otherwise well-designed processes fail simply because they ignore that humans learn, do not always respond rationally, and may simply get bored (or take short-cuts as a result of learning). People require motivation, knowledge, and ability to perform a procedure, and no matter how carefully and how ingeniously a procedure is crafted, if it isn’t constructed to accommodate humans, it is bound to fail – sometimes with impressive results.

Knowledge Management on the other hand has the same basic QM background, but embraces more of the I/O Psychological understanding of humans, and pays attention to aspects of motivation and leadership, learning and knowledge-diffusion, and information-ergonomics. Think of it like the difference between the standard-model of economics versus behavioral-economics. The former presumes a perfectly rational and fully informed agent executing a self-maximizing schema, while the latter presumes a somewhat predictably irrational person who may also have biases due to either a lack of knowledge or preexisting beliefs, and may simply not be motivated to act as desired.
Bringing these two streams together again seems to have the promise of the benefits of the repeatability and predictability of procedure and the stability of established infrastructure libraries, with the human factors that can put knowledge, skills, and attitudes to work to achieve a desired or preferred end goal.

Previously, knowledge management was pretty much excluded from the world of quality management, but with the release by the British OGC of ITIL V3 in 2007, KM was overtly nominated as part of the core features, and specific processes in the Service Transition part of the ITIL Life-cycle Phases were dedicated to Knowledge Management.
This embeds a Services Knowledge Management System (SKMS) in the fabric of an operational services strategy, and while not part of the ISO20000 framework for Infrastructure or the ISO9001 Quality Management framework (and therefore not in the audit process for certification), would still be a highly convenient attachment point for expanding KM activities

There are two obvious approaches that one can take at this point – to view the relevance of the SKMS in terms of KM providing knowledge-bases for ITIL deployment and use, or additionally to view the inclusion of a KM marker within ITIL as a very expedient and advantageous eye to hook ITIL into a broader Enterprise KM approach.

Using KM only to set up ITIL Knowledge Bases seems like a bit of a waste of an opportunity, so perhaps the more productive approach would be to see how KM and QM can work together.

This can of course be viewed from both angles – a way to use KM as a vehicle to spread ITIL and QM concepts throughout an organization, or alternatively as a way to spread Knowledge Management practices on the back of the increased attention (and budget) that ITIL is currently enjoying.

Another way to picture this, is as co-infectious ideas – that is, memes that are compatible and which both act as adjuvants for each other, perhaps in a cyclical and recursive fashion. An organization deploying ITIL can gain by also spreading KM practices that extend beyond IT activities, and likewise an organization that has “caught the KM bug” could implement ITIL and gain far better advantage from IT both in cost-effectiveness of IT, as well as risk-reduction.

The potential advantages to ITIL and QM of this are many, but here are five of my favorites

  • A better way to determine when to teach and when simply to present a job aid, since while people love to know, they don’t really like to be taught anything that is boring or not clearly relevant.
  • A more effective deployment process that embeds learning in a way that increases transference by adding context and meaning.
  • Highlighting the critical question of any process: “Yes, but would they actually do it?” and addressing the motivational and leadership aspects of informational behavior.
  • Introduction of Information Ergonomics to make processes easier to understand, easier to find, and conveniently located in the person’s information ecosystem – putting regular or critical information as few mouse-clicks away as possible.
  • Establishing networks and communities of people whose processes are related and giving them stakeholdership in the design and execution (and maintenance) of procedures and processes.

The challenge of course is how to avoid killing innovation.

That is my story, and I am sticking to it

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