The Broken Middle

The Broken Middle

Written by Moya Sayer-Jones from a conversation with Victoria Ward, in London –

My interest in knowledge management began around 1996 and 1997 when I was working for an investment bank. Many things were going wrong in the bank and it was quite dysfunctional, particularly in the mid-office area. I called this, the broken middle.

People working in that part of the bank, lacked confidence in their own voice and experiences and so they didn’t share what they saw and knew.

The broken middle is what can happen when there’s a lack of process or sponsorship that allows people to share freely.

There was a lot of covert and subtle bullying that kept people quiet and there was a lot of fear.

We needed to repair the confidence and encourage ideas from this broken middle but they were a very unique group. Investment banking can have a very glamorous allure but the broken middle were different. They weren’t professionals like the others, but operationals. They were often quite junior and not necessarily, graduates. There was also quite a gender difference and a race difference too. We needed to connect with them and encourage their belief in the value of sharing their experiences. We asked ourselves, what would make it desirable for them to take a risk or even stick their neck out, for the broader good of the organisation? As it turns out, part of the answer was The Green Book project.

Finding the knowledge

The Green Book came about when, as Chief Knowledge Officer, I was asked to look at how we could leverage the many, very diverse boutique businesses that made up this investment bank. We decided, ‘Let’s not try to find all the knowledge, let’s instead create a navigation to the knowledge, so people can find their own way to it.’ The project we designed was called the Green Book and in designing it, we created the momentum the broken middle needed.

How the Green Book worked

The Green Book was a hard cover, very nice looking publication. People would only be listed if they were an expert knowledge holder about a specific thing: structure derivatives, credit derivatives, treasury currency etc. Or if they were willing to act as what we called a knowledge coordinator: someone who could point people to where the expertise and resources and knowledge in that area were. People were quite keen to be knowledge co-ordinators because it gave them something: it gave them a relationship with others, that they didn’t have before.

The Green Book brought status and relevance for the broken middle and as it turned out, they went on to be the guardians of the Green Book. And they became our eyes and ears locally.

Their knowledge and experiences were now more accessible and valued.

Also, in creating this new group identity, we also created a new network.

The Impact

We published a very limited print run with only enough copies for the knowledge coordinators themselves. This gave them extra privilege and cachet. From the moment it was distributed, the calls started coming from everywhere. ‘Why aren’t I in this?’ And the knowledge coordinators suddenly had people queuing up to see the book: ‘Am I in it? Why is this person in it and not me?’ It created a fuss which is exactly what we intended. Everybody wanted it and they wanted to be in it too. ‘Engagement’ and ‘knowledge sharing’ acquired a new status. It was like a first step to create an environment for better engagement with this group.

Ebola Knowledge Network

That project seems like a very long time ago now but the principles and philosophy are still relevant. And we continue to use them. In a recent project with the World Health Organisation around creating an Ebola Knowledge Network (to convert the Rapid Response Training they did at the height of the crisis into long term readiness to respond to health crises), we used similar thinking. These days of course, we have many different social media platforms and technologies to use but absolutely the same fundamental principles apply. And it works best when we can use a combination of analogue and digital, as well as virtual and face to face approaches.

The WHO moderators tasked with putting in the foundations for a resilient peer-to-peer network of knowledge exchange are creating simple repeatable patterns focused on building a lively, purposeful, social dynamic in which both operational and technical experts get a change to share their knowledge and be acknowledged by others for their contribution. The by-product is the pool of stored resources that will grow over time. The emphasis is on the storied, though, not on the stored.

This is one of the most important questions of all when it comes to engagement, particularly in a digital age. How much do we collect and why?

Gathering loads of raw stuff and shipping it off is often a waste of time and resources. It’s not practical or economical. Who’s going to trawl through it?

Who has the funds to do that? It’s not the amount we gather but it’s what we can move forward with.

img-knowledge2-smHave knowledge, will travel

We should accept that, as knowledge gatherers, we can’t carry everything we hear and see. Knowledge capitalisation is all about moving us forward.

To be agile and make progress, you’ve got to think about knowledge as though you are literally travelling with it. Ask yourself ‘What will fit into a suitcase I can carry with me and take forward to do something with?’ In any organisation, your balance between flow and stock, or information exchange and infrastructure, needs to be heavily weighted in terms of flow, not stock. Because stock weighs us down.

I always ask people to think through all the stories and opinions to ask themselves, ‘What’s the dynamic asset here? What’s portable? What will best enrich these dynamic ideas?’

What makes good engagement fall over?

Engagement process is quite deep and intense and expensive and often sponsors can’t see why. They don’t protect the process because they feel there’s too much process and not enough product. ‘Why can’t you just do it and give us something?’

But often what is given after an engagement process, is the beginning not the end. It should be. Engagement is really about chipping open a space that we invite everyone into…and then locking the door behind them so they can’t get out until they see where the problem is. And how to move forward to fix it.

Many sponsors can’t stomach that because it’s very painful to face their problems. They think that by commissioning others, they’ll be saved them from having to face the problem themselves. But it doesn’t. They also don’t always like to acknowledge that the resources already exist, for the most part within them, to find the solution.

There’s no magic solution. Engagement can be fun and pleasurable but in the end, change is always very uncomfortable and people forget that it’s a serious thing that goes on and on. It’s not a one off thing. It’s like that ad on the tele over here in the UK. It screens at Christmas-time and it says: A dog is not for Christmas, a dog’s for life. And so are efforts to include and improve.

Ideas to take away in our suitcase?

  1. Engagement has to move sideways, peer to peer: not something that is being done  for you and not being done to you.
  2. The change space or the engagement space or whatever you’d like to call it, is a place that allows people to be different. To imagine differently. We have to make sure that when they step back over the threshold to the reality of their work or life, that they understand and can manage that reality.
  3. You’ve got to be willing to let it go to the edge. You’ve got to be willing to let it fail because it might simply not be the right time for the engagement you want to push. It doesn’t mean it is wrong, it means the climate is wrong.

To this last point, a story. A brilliant colleague of mine lives and works in South Africa and does quite a lot with unions there. Once he was to give a 3 day workshop for two unions, one very white and one very black. There was a fundamental breakdown in communication and on the first day, one of the unions walked out.

My friend didn’t try to salvage it. He let it happen but then, on the second day, nothing happened at all. No one turned up.

Still he waited. On the third people came back and started again.

This story shows us that we need to create an environment where people ultimately take responsibility for what happens within it. You cannot make them engage. And in the time you are with them, you can give them all the fun in the world, all the listening, all the respect but in the end, the painful reality where truth lives, still exists. And the change is still to happen.

The learning works two ways

Thank you for this chance to share my work and thinking. Sometimes I realise, like most of us do, that I don’t even know what I know! Often we’re all just swimming to survive and it’s hard work, yes? This conversation has reminded me of what I know.

Good knowledge-work in practice.

Victoria Ward: Director, Sparknow UK
Sparknow repairs broken connections between individuals and organisations through culture change.

We’d love to hear what Victoria’s ideas have got you thinking about?
Please jump in with a comment or idea of your own.

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