Posts Tagged ‘mimetics’

Knowledge Management Issues: How to talk to Executives

June 25, 2010

There are some important Knowledge Management and Information Behaviors needed when one deals with executives – such as front-loading communications, using layered concision, and invoking pre-existing memes.

Back when I was a young and stupid 39yr old, I discovered a perplexing thing – the more senior a manager was, the shorter their attention-span seemed to be.
At that time, several teams were being put through one of those cyclical “teach middle-managers about business” efforts, and the consultant that was paid to teach this was at loggerheads with several of the managers.

Some of these managers were under the impression that I was clued up on this topic, and asked me to help turn their 40-page business plan into something the consultant would smile upon. So far she had just kept telling them it was wrong and too long, and they couldn’t interpret the reasoning or explanations she offered. I didn’t help much because basically I agreed with the managers that if it took 40 pages to detail, then by golly, that was what the Exec would just darn-well have to read – I mean if we could read 40 pages of code in a siting at our salary, then why couldn’t a clever exec digest a business plan of similar dimensions?

In exasperation she threw her hands up and proclaimed that “no exec will read anything more than a single 5-point power-point slide” (or something to that effect).
This left us gawping and muttering amongst ourselves that evidently she was just one more of those inexperienced proselytizers of the sort of religious dogma that the business schools applied to clever young things to turn them into a highly-paid priesthood of faddish dimwits. (We held MBA consultants in somewhat low regard back then).
But it did get me thinking – what if she were right, do execs have some sort of attention-deficit issues?

This really was a puzzle – were people with limited attention-span more likely to become executives, or did the executive roles make them that way? I wondered (sometimes aloud I am afraid), if it was something to do with eroded or malfunctioning working-memory as a result of too many cocktails, or if it was stress-related interference, or maybe that the huge salaries made them less able to focus on less interesting things.

Years later when I had more experience and greater exposure to executives, I came to believe that the consultant was right, and that it was indeed a combination of stress and incremental pressure on time.
After the ravages of commoditization, BPR, downsizing, rightsizing, and globalization, executives often do not have the necessary supporting scaffolding to preserve slack in their available time.
The pace is murderous, and the average exec is responsible for twice what their predecessors were, and with probably half the supporting staff – So unless ideas are presented in very small bites and highly concise, they simply lose patience before the punchline – or will take a cursory look at the length and expected investment of time, and summarily discard the item unread.

This creates a huge problem because (a) managers and staff are not trained in how to compose an exec-readable email, and (b) as Chomsky noted – familiar and accepted ideas can survive concision well, but innovation and novelty needs longer explanation.

Unless the managers in the middle get really good at communicating with execs, much of the innovations coming from them and the staff below them will hit a mostly impermeable barrier and will never receive the necessary approval or funding.

Until we find a way of providing execs with more scaffolding or improved working memory, there are some tricks that managers can adopt in order to get a decent chance of attention:

  1. Front-load your communication
    Put the payload up front. A memo to an exec isn’t a detective-story where the punchline is at the end, you need to put the punchline and request for action right up front and not down at the end of your story.
  1. Use layered concision
    Let the first sentence be capable of approval – what you want (who needs to do what and when)  and why so that the answer can either be a yes/no or a referral. In case the exec wasn’t prepared to decide already, the next piece of information can be a single short paragraph justifying and explaining in terse format. If needed, the final part can be the 40 pages of exactly what the full story is.
  2. Invoke preexisting memes
    Cast the proposition in terms of already-accepted concepts and ideas, that way you allow the idea to be digested easier and trigger working-memory savings. If you overwhelm their working memory you get avoidance behavior. Don’t use examples or illustrations that distract.

There are of course more things to be considered, but these three steps can go a long way in getting the most likely obstacles out of the way.

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


Matthew Loxton is the outgoing director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profileis on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.

Knowledge Management : What a toilet and Nature tell us about Information Ergonomics

June 10, 2010

I am sure that the author of Ecclesiastes who said that there is nothing new under the sun was a nascent Knowledge Management specialist. Much of KM involves “shamelessly borrowing” ideas and patterns because (a) KM loves parsimony, and (b) most innovations occur when an idea that is matured elsewhere is imported and adapted to a novel purpose.

Biomemetics, for example, takes the position of Orgel’s second rule that “Evolution is cleverer than you”. There are a great many methods and mechanisms that evolution has refined and tested over millenia and which can be adopted in chunks.

For instance, when a cell is manufacturing something in your body, it sticks a sample through a port in the cell wall which advertises what is being produced. Roaming “quality inspectors” examine these on a routine basis and if the product looks suspicious, an apoptosis signal is sent to the cell to self-destruct.

Suicide is perhaps a bit over the top for a workgroup doing the wrong thing, but I am sure you can see the opportunity for either saying “hey look at this cool idea” and spreading it (Knowledge Diffusion), or alternatively to issue a “quit that!” instruction (Quality Management).

The point is that you can learn a lot from nature*.

What I really want to talk about though has to do with the balance between concision and redundancy.

Back in the days when telecom circuits were expensive, noisy, and prone to failure, we had to balance the protocol choice between whether we needed great message integrity or greater speed when sending from one machine to another. One approach was X.25, a robust protocol that had several layers of error checking and correction, and could select alternate routes, receive packets in any order, and would almost run on fencing wire. However X.25 was pretty slow, and gobbled up bandwidth in housekeeping overhead.

Frame Relay however was sleek, fast, and used most of the bandwidth for message payload and thus far cheaper per byte and far faster.

So why not use Frame Relay?

This is where toilets come in.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but during droughts in some parts of the world, reducing the flush size was a big deal. A brick or two in the cistern (or fancy adjustment) would save a lot of water over the long haul simply by reducing the quantity of water used per flush. The downside was that at a certain point, the flush was too small to be entirely effective and repeated (and embarrassing) multiple flushes were needed, and besides reducing the intended saving, the immediacy became a bigger problem than the benefit of potential savings.

Repeating a message in the datacom scenario had the same general outcome – any savings that Frame Relay had over X.25 were lost as soon as the retransmission rate crept up, and even worse, the end user was left waiting while the retries mounted and latency became observable.

This principle applies to everything from answering the telephone to sending emails – if you make the message too concise, the “excuse me?” rate will climb and message integrity will be lost.

There are some really clever formulae and algorithms that can tell you what the best concision vs redundancy balance is, but in general nature has already kitted most of us with that equipment – we just need to pause a moment and let it inform us.

So next time you answer the phone, send an email, or put instructions on a user interface – pause a moment and consider if you need to be really curt and concise to get high transmission speed, or whether you need to layer in a bit of extra payload redundancy to allow the other person to reconstruct any lost information. (Loxton, 2003)

* see Robert Full’s fascinating TED Talks video on “Learning from the Gecko’s Tail


Matthew Loxton is the outgoing director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.

Knowledge Management: The Disease Model discussed

May 1, 2010



Some readers of my blog on the Disease Model of Knowledge Transfer might have justifiably wondered if I had been typing after a few beers. Admittedly it was a joy to write, but the back-story is actually quite solid and very interesting. (to me at least).

The issue is one of how we can take models built for one purpose, and apply them productively for a completely unintended purpose – in fact a large proportion of technological and scientific breakthroughs occur in exactly this way. Taking a way of seeing things from one domain to an unrelated domain means that you might impose a degree of artificiality, but still derive benefit from the change in perspective and the new questions that might be productively raised.
Philosophy of Science (PoS as it is hilariously abbreviated) calls this an “Instrumental Theory” approach, and people like Ernst Mach (he of speed-of-sound fame) proposed that many if not all scientific facts and theories were actually just instruments of explanation and not real in any strict sense. Electrons, he held for example, were just a useful concept to further investigation, and not real little ball-like things.

In this way one can plot the “infection characteristics” of obesity even though nobody is saying it is “really” infectious, and Richard Dawkins could propose that one could look at ideas themselves as infectious replicators.

What Prof.Dawkins was trying to do was instill a better understanding in his students as to how evolution works at the gene level, and he emphasized that while genes are teleologically blind and not intentional in any way, variation and selection could nevertheless shape populations of people carrying the genes. To understand evolution one needs to look at the world from the perspective of genes under selective pressure in which there are not enough resources for all of them to be replicated. Successful replicants tend to slowly increase in proportion to those that aren’t simply because it is the victors whose code gets replicated.

To explain this Dawkins proposed a thought experiment in which ideas themselves are seen as a replicator.

Picture a world filled with ideas that aren’t entirely stable and can mutate or join together, and which can replicate from one host mind to the next – sometimes suffering copying errors on the way. There are more potential ideas than minds to run them, and those that don’t get run by a mind die out.
Like the DeLorian or Cuban Heels.

The idea of “memes” (as he named them) itself went viral, and soon it became evident that it was a highly productive way of looking at ideas. Whether or not memes or even temes* are “real” is not terribly important – but what is, is the ability it gives us to do useful things and ask productive questions. *See Prof. Susan Blackmore’s Meme/Teme TED talk online

It allows us to ask why some ideas transfer more readily between people, why some are more stable, why some last longer. It allows us to look at Intellectual Property, Job Aids, and Knowledgebase articles in a new way, and to try new ways of getting ideas to behave in ways that we would prefer.

For example, it asks why gossip and the “corporate grapevine” are so compelling and so fast, and begs us to consider how we could put this to use or gather information from it. In Nonaka’s “Ba” a coffee area or watercooler is a place where people will gather to exchange information – the question is how to increase the work content of that without tunring it sour and putting people off.

A second area that I find an interesting parallel, is in the work of a psychologist of human behavior by the name of Eric Berne. In his Transactional Analysis approach, he proposed that there were somewhat stable “games” that seem to be enacted by people – especially in interpersonal settings. By “games” he didn’t mean fun and party-novelty kind of behavior – he meant that the on inspection one could make out somewhat persistent “rules”, “players”, and “roles”. Important to note however that the dehumanizing form of Game Theory described by the earlier Nash is not what I have in mind at all – that path leads to a dreadfully dehumanizing approach to people and drives highly destructive behavior.

Putting the two together (part of my own research activities) one comes to a perspective in which games and ideas “fight” for space in people’s minds and to get expressed as behavior. Just like genes, some memes work well together and some are mutually exclusive. We even know why (to an extent) some ideas push others out.
For example, if you are thinking of money and especially personal reward, some very specific parts of your brain fire up and they suppress activity in some other parts – you can’t easily run the two sets of circuits at the same time. This is why economic norms suppress social norms and why somebody who was perfectly happy to donate time and effort to do something for a “good cause” might be put off if you pay them to do it. It is also why rewarding people with money is a risky approach and tends to lead to conflict and gaming of the system of rewards.

If you doubt this, try the suggestion of researcher Dan Ariely, and at your next Christmas meal offer your Mother In Law $50 for her trouble. Let me know how that works out for you.

Putting another layer on this, some ideas, like pathogens or genes, have evolved specialized penetration or adhesion mechanisms that are usually very specific to the host they will use – and this is where we can start asking how to make some information easier to use, or stick better, or be easier to locate.

For example, although digital watches and instruments were very hip, they were actually less usable – it takes more processing power to turn a digital readout into what your brain uses than analogue.

You can literally measure the time difference between how long it takes to say if a specific time is still a long way off or near when viewing either an analogue clock-face or a digital readout. For this reason many time-critical instruments in a cockpit are analogue.

This is also why it is important to decide if information is something we want somebody to remember, or if we will just present it to them at the appropriate time. Getting people to memorize product codes or server paths is not as effective as simply presenting them with the information when the time is ripe.
It is also important in GUI design and in how IT needs to be appropriate.

At a higher level, when everybody knows that the “real rules of working here” mean that you aren’t actually allowed to use the eLearning materials or the open-door policy, then they behave according to the game rules of the “real ground rules” not the ones in the employee handbook.

In a future blog I hope to go into some of the practical implications and uses, but for now, this is my story, and I am sticking to it.


Matthew Loxton is the director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.

Why nobody needs to “get” Knowledge Management.

January 9, 2010

Knowledge Management (KM) isn’t something an organisation needs to “get” – every human individual and group already has KM.
We have it built into our DNA and evolution has kitted our brains out with KM – out of the box.

 In a Knowledge Management Experts forum thread on LinkedIn, Art Schlussel posed a question “If the term “KM” could get a do-over what would you call the discipline?”.

Art already frames very correctly in his question that we tend to think about KM in terms of a “discipline”, and to be sure a praxis or discipline is what it is in corporate terms, and it isn’t something that we need to buy or get, but something that we either do well or badly, and which will either tend to be more productive in terms of our chosen objectives, or less so.

You don’t need to buy KM, and no software vendor can ever sell you KM, but you can buy tools or consulting or help in improving how you do your KM.
You can also structure your organisation in ways that enhance your KM, or degrade it, and your individual behaviour in specific and corporate behaviour in general will either lead to beneficial KM results, or less so.

Consider this for example:

HR is not normaly considered part of KM, but if your HR department places hurdles in the way of job-seekers, has “no-reply” emails, and labours under the misguided belief that they should hide from applicants and force them into a labyrinth of application processes and forms that demand registration with arcane password rules – then you will have a handicap in the struggle to attract, recruit, and keep people with good intellectual attributes. As Dawkins explains – where there are replicators in an ecosystem and where contention exists for resources and benefits, and there is variation amongst them, there will be natural selection and those which are less able to compete will tend to die off.

Right off the bat you will have a KM approach that will act as a detrimental evolutionary force, and one that will reduce your organisation’s chances of survival.

Two KM behaviours will then come into play:

–       Is your organisation aware

–       Can your organisation learn

If you systematically blind yourself to information that there is a problem (such as noreply emails, or not giving personal contact info), then again there is a KM behaviour that will be an evolutionary negative and tend over time to kill your organisation.

Likewise, even if your organisation senses the error, but fails to incorporate learning behaviors to correct not just the error but the causes of the error, then there is another KM behaviour that will be added to the probability of demise.

Again, we all “do” KM, the issue is whether how we do it leads to positive or negative outcomes

*See also Argyris on single and double-loop learning
** See Ari de Geuss on learning and corporate survival

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