KM Australia

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —August 7, 2009
Filed in Communication, News

You can imagine my surprise when on day 1 of the conference I found myself sitting at the same table as Dan Kirsch. I’ve never met Dan. I’ve seen some of his posts in ActKM but top-most in my mind was that Dan was the guy who triggered the events that led Yahoogroups to delete the ActKM forum. At first we didn’t say too much to each other and then I found myself next to Dan in the line for lunch, so I asked him, “so from your perspective what happened to our YahooGroups forum?” We sat down and he told me the story.

I came away with a different perspective on those events and it reinforced for me the importance of listening to other people’s stories to make connections. Stories told and listened were creating new connections throughout the conference. You could feel the energy it was creating among the 150 delegates.

On the first day I started off sitting next to Kerry from CPA. She couldn’t believe how small Luna Park was because as a 12 year old she used to think it was an enormous theme park where you could get lost for hours. Context is so important on how we view things. We were blessed with sunny Sydney days and being right on the harbour we looked out over the harbour bridge and the opera house. Spectacular venue.

Rather than give you a blow by blow description of the conference I thought it might be more fun (especially for me) to just recount those things that grabbed my attention.

I enjoyed Frank Connolly’s presentation the most. Frank is the co-ordinator for the Victorian Public Sector Continuous Improvement Network. It was like watching a stand up comedian. Not in the sense of delivering funny lines but in just how relaxed he looked and how well he connected with us. I really admired how Frank phrased his ideas, which were focussed on creativity and how we talk to each other. He told us when he was uncertain of what he knew, he spoke directly and plainly, and showed real empathy for the discipline and his place in it. He was creating a space that encouraged conversation. Frank also left us with this enduring image: “KM is like pushing a loose stool up a hill with a toothpick.”

When Dale Chatwin from the Australian Bureau of Statistics was presenting I felt myself cheering him on. Dale was one of the few presenters who had the courage to admit their efforts to establish communities of practice were less than successful. It was a warts and all expose describing how ABS mandated CoPs based on IT consultants recommendations and from what I could read between the lines it seemed that CoPs were mainly viewed as online discussion forums. Dale and a few others knew better and are working to turn things around.

You might have seen me tweeting about On the Origin of Stories. One of its themes is just how important play is for animals, such as lions, because it creates a safe way to learn how to fight and hunt and by practising these things strength, agility and speed also improves. With humans we engage in cognitive play through storytelling, dance, painting, singing etc. Somehow however we’ve managed to kill many of the opportunities in organisations for cognitive play, with the exception of mind games. So it was refreshing to experience Patrick Lambe’s session using his KM Method and Culture cards. At each table we played a set of games which got us talking and thinking in new ways. Great fun.

Roberto Evaristo from 3M showed us how they are mapping the skills of their employees using network graphs. I’ve been involved in a number of skill register projects and most have failed because they require a lot of time to compile and are rarely referred to which in turns diminishes the motivation for anyone to keep them up to date. Roberto’s approach seemed different because senior folk were using the network graphs on a regular basis to decide who would be on what team, where learning efforts should be focussed and who might succeed another based on capabilities. You can imagine that these types of decisions matter to people and would give you plenty of motivation to update your details.

I have to admit I’m normally a KM conference-goer who leaves the room when the software vendor sponsoring the event stands up to speak. I know this is disrespectful but as a delegate I’ve found that I normally gain much more from the discussions with colleagues in the networking lounge than hear what is often merely a sales pitch. But on day 2 of the conference I was the conference chair so there was no skipping out of the room for me. As a result I was pleasantly surprised by Cuneyt Uysal’s presentation from Open Text. Cuneyt (pronounced Jenai) gave us a good context for what was happening in social software. This quote sticks in my mind, “young people only use email to communicate with old people.” It checks out with my 14 and 16 year old but like all definitive statements it’s not the whole story. Most importantly it reminded me of what was happening in the software world and I was chuffed to see that ideas that I blogged about years ago are being incorporated into mainstream products such as social ranking of search, idea crowdsourcing (but I didn’t call it that) and easily incorporating video.

Dave Snowden spoke a couple of times during the conference starting with the conference keynote. The idea that got me interested was the concept that it’s not that useful to think of tacit knowledge as something that’s in your head but that it’s contained throughout your body. I was sort of expecting Dave to go the next step and say that tacit knowledge extends beyond your self and incorporates tacit knowledge of those people and things you are connected to or surrounded by. It reminds me of the network controller who couldn’t remember what he knew in his lounge room or that classic of anthropology, Cognition in the Wild where each navigator alone was unable to explain or dock an aircraft carrier, but together they could.

During the conference I heard a some speakers recount the meme, “we learn best from failure.” I’m not sure this is entirely true. Anecdotally I remember distantly when I read about the Ritz Carlton approach to conveying values using stories and I’m now delivering a similar approach to a client on the topic of innovation. Here I’ve learned from a good practice. As Bob Dickman once told me, “you remember what you feel.” I can imagine memory being a key first step to learning. And some research shows it’s more complex than just learning from failure. Take this example. The researchers take two groups who have never done ten pin bowling and get them bowling for a couple of hours. Then one group is taken aside and coached on what they were doing wrong and how they could improve. The other group merely watches an edited video of what they were doing right. The second group did better than the first. However there was no difference with experienced groups.

So I’m hoping we will have many more presentations at KM conferences like Frank’s and Dale’s which open up the possibilities, speak plainly and directly without jargon and doublespeak.

Thanks to the conference organisers, Ark Group, and especially Valerie and Aimee, for being attentive and putting into practice the ideas for improvements year in year out. It was a worthwhile and enjoyable event.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Matt Moore says:

    “we learn best from failure.”
    This reminds me of a couple of Bob Sutton posts:
    I think Bob makes an interesting point that whether you focus on success or failure may depend on the context you are in – and possibly your attitude to it.
    The bowling group study is really interesting – but it may be as much about confidence as learning. Being told that you are screwing up will make you more self-conscious and less effective* at motor co-ordination skills.
    *That reminds me of the mother’s comment in ‘Ammerican Beauty’ – “Honey, I’m so proud of you. I watched you very closely, and you didn’t screw up once!”

  2. jackvinson says:

    Tease! What _is_ Dan’s story? I’ve always wondered myself, as it has happened in at least one other online group in which I’ve been involved.

  3. Dr. Dan says:

    Jack, I think that this just “begs” for a “what happens in [KM Australia] stays in [KM Australia]” comment. 😉

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