Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 7 Nov 02 15:40
Our guests are Cliff Figallo and Nancy Rhine, authors of the just-published _Building the Knowledge Management Network: Best Practices, Tools, and Techniques for Putting Conversation to Work_, published by John Wiley & Sons (ISBN: 047121549X). We asked Cliff and Nancy to write a collective bio: "Living communally and collectively for 12 years teaches you a lot about conversation and collaboration. With so many opportunities (and responsibilities) for holding up our own ends of conversations, we learned a lot about wasting time and effort and, as a result, a lot about getting to the point and taking action. So it was quite a transition for us to follow our communal experiences with immersion in virtual communities where there seemed, at first, to be little binding people together beyond the compatible technologies they were using. And yet, through those technologies, people found plenty of reasons to cooperate and provide mutual support. "Since we left our jobs at the WELL in 1992, we've largely gone our separate professional ways, we've both pursued the thread of working through and toward online social interaction. Almost two years ago, curious to figure out how organizations could benefit from the same level of productive conversation we've experienced, we looked deeply into the field of knowledge management. KM to be a somewhat stilted term being used to describe the common sensical organization of human experience; what was clearly lacking was the most obvious form of communication: informal conversation. "So here we are with this amazing Internet and all of its associated tools for interaction, and the most glaring gap in knowledge generation, exchange and distribution appeared to be the intuitive practice of fostering conversation and the interpersonal trust that encourages people to share their stories and experiences. "Why weren't more leaders of organizations encouraging their people to talk more and using email and other onlline interactivity more proactively and effectively? "That unanswered question prompted us to write this book about producing useful online conversation. "Cliff also wrote 'Hosting Web Communities' in 1998 and his resume includes stints as community manager for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Salon.com. He has consulted for AOL, Institute for the Future, Rheingold Associates and Cisco Systems. His most fun time (aside from riding herd on Salon's Table Talk during the Clinton impeachment hearings) was organizing and managing the discussion boards the Web-based Chess Challenge between the world champ Garry Kasparov and IBM's massively parallel computer, Deep Blue. He gets his kicks from hanging out with family, riding his bikes and backpacking. He doesn't miss TV. "Nancy found a love of business and embraced both the humanistic story-sharing side online networks, but also the profitable side as well. Her journey through the virtual work world led her to leave the WELL in 1992 and start the first commercial online site dedicated to women's interests. Later she also founded AOL's first women's 'channel' and was Director, Business Development at the Tribune Company and AOL's joint venture Digital City. From there she built dozens of online health-focused communities for an online pharmacy called PlanetRx. She loves to relax by dancing, hiking, gardening, cooking, studying American History, and doing the NYTimes crossword puzzle every day." Leading the discussion is Nancy White of Full Circle Associates. Nancy is a communications consultant with a background in the planning and design of interactive environments, communities of practice, and online worgroups. She is also an experienced speaker and facilitator, online and off. On the web: Cliff Figallo and Nancy Rhine: http://www.socialchemy.com Nancy White: http://www.fullcirc.com
Cliff Figallo (fig) Thu 7 Nov 02 18:15
Thank muchly, Jon. Yeah, we're former communards, but another way of describing our former home is as an innovation-generating network. Living poor, sharing resources, scamming and refurbishing critical technologies -- dire necessity gave birth to many inventions. People who knew practical stuff showed others, so we developed our own midwifery crew, our own primary medical care, our own phone system and printing company. Most of us had useless liberal arts degrees, and had been raised with few hands-on skills. The Farm was, besides a community, a knowledge networking school for middle class naifs. After going through the past 10 years of Internet business wackiness, we wondered why so many seemingly smart people spent so much money on so many dumb ideas. Didn't they talk about the obvious flaws in business plans? Was everyone involved in all of these companies equally blind? Whatever happened to the voices of the skeptics and doubters? The clear and massive lack of truthful communication seemed, in the end, to be so wasteful and dishonest. Lack of email or message board skills was not the problem. It was lack of resolve and leadership to use these tools effectively -- to exchange experience and knowledge in order to make smarter decisions and to collaboratively come up with better ideas. Yes, there are skills in pulling off an effective and useful conversation, whether online or offline. But the commitment to truth and tolerance has to be there first or no one will bother to say anything worthwhile. So, in that respect, I believe the most important purpose of our book is as a call to conscience (and consciousness) than it is a manual of skills and a catalogue of research on best practices. We want to reach the people within organizations who recognize this under-use of available technologies and of what Susan Scott calls "fierce conversations" in the workplace. We want to provide fuel and inspiration to the internal evangelists who recognize the gap between the potential and the realized use of relatively simple technologies like email lists, discussion forums and instant messaging to help their organizations get smarter.
Nancy White (choco) Thu 7 Nov 02 19:00
Welcome Cliff and Nancy. I enjoyed reading your book, which is now suitably dog-eared, post-it-ized and highlighted! I've already started dropping quotes all over the place! From your opener, I see an invitation to dig right down to the heart of the matter. So here we go! What conditions enable organization to engage in these "fierce" conversations? What hallmarks did you find in companies who were successfull in their move to use online conversation in a tolerant and truthful manner? Are these hallmarks common in organizations? Rare?
Nancy Rhine (nancy) Fri 8 Nov 02 08:11
>>What hallmarks did you find in companies who were successful in their move to use online conversation in a tolerant and truthful manner? << One of those "duh!" but true hallmarks we found was an environment where at least one segment of the management was already fiercely involved with and dedicated to the customers, usually through a commitment to meeting and talking with as many of them as possible, whether it be by invited meetings onsite, or by traveling to meet and talk with them around the country. Or by phone or by questionnaires. Or all of the above. IOW, there was both a commitment to *listening* to them and encouraging interaction and feedback. And the "duh-est" of them all is that the manager enjoys and likes his/her customers. It always just amazes me that management that does not enjoy or trust the good sense of its customers thinks it can be successful! But we have seen this environment over and over again. A lack of affection and trust turns to walls between the company and its customer base out of, so many times, fear. This atmosphere infects the employee base as well and leads not only to knowledge "hoarding" rather than sharing but knowledge shut down as well.
Nancy White (choco) Fri 8 Nov 02 08:53
Ah, that seems like a real selling point --> the customer focus. LOVE the customer! LISTEN to the customer! Heh, ENJOY the customer! Keep the customer --> make the sale! That seems to be a strong purpose to motivate a company to engage in customer conversations. I wonder if we can layer that over the employee target audience. If manager love (generically speaking!), listen to and enjoy their fellow employees/team members, there might be more flow in information through conversation? I remember debriefing a group I was leading through a new manager training. I asked them to name one value they admired in a leader/manager they worked with. One person said "my manager really enjoyed working with us. It showed and we loved to come to work." What can we do to support that sort of cultural shift - or to nurture it where it already exists? At what levels? Where do we look for opportunity? Examples?
Cliff Figallo (fig) Fri 8 Nov 02 09:30
What we can do is leverage examples of good and courageous practice by leading organizations whose support of conversation leads them to success. Organizations must recognize their reality in the world. This recognition should exist not only at the top, where strategic focus is born and lives, but throughout the organization. Employees must trust that their leaders will be honest with them and that issues that affect the whole company are being acknowledged and addressed. Besides a respect (or love) for customers, there's an element of responsibility to society and be open to discussion about that responsibility. That openness needs to be fostered by the company's leadership, which includes board members and executives. I don't know what it is about the Dutch (I know that Nancy W. is headed to the Netherlands next week), but they seem to have a more curious and open perspective of the world than other nationalities. Even their global petroleum corporation, Shell, is relatively progressive. On Shell's Web site, they host an open public forum called "Tell Shell" where company representatives actually respond to accusations and indictments for injustices related to Shell's worldwide petro activities. Check it out at http://www.euapps.shell.com/TellShell/ . Here's a typical post by one of Shell's critics: "To appreciate the negative extent of Shell in their host communities, you only need to take a look at the activities of Shell in Nigeria. Shell played a big role in the killing of Ken Saro Wiwa as the brutal military government of Abacha carried out those atrocities in Ogoniland to protect Shell business. There are reports that Shell actually imported arms which were used to slaughter the Ogoni people." To what extent Shell takes these criticisms to heart and changes its practices accordingly...we'll see. But at least they are supporting and participating in a conversation.
Cliff Figallo (fig) Fri 8 Nov 02 11:38
But just as important as it is to allow such criticisms to be displayed on Shell's website, is the internal conversation that such public criticism stimulates. How far will public comment go towards changing Shell's culture and values? Difficulty and failure are incentives for change, but conversation is the means to sort through the many routes that change might take. We know this all seems like such common sense. We're surprised that so few companies seem to get it and we're eager to hear any stories about organizations that encourage open internal conversations. But organizational culture has been developing in a "central command" direction for several centuries. Much of what MBAs are taught, even today, is based on structures and practices that came out of the Industrial Age -- mass production, mass marketing, "we know what's best for you". Freshly-minted MBAs were essential to the fate of the dot com bubble. The conversations that can wear away the sharp corners of rigidly hierarchical organizations are much easier to have today, with the Net, but few organizations realize its potential. Email alone is like the first rivulet eroding new channels in the old culture. Emergent communities of workers now invent and manage their own networks and protocols to get stuff done. All we're trying to do is make the expansion of such spontaneous conversational networks easier.
I of course ignore the breasts (ruz) Fri 8 Nov 02 13:38
I don't have a question right now but I just want to say hi Cliff! and hi Nancy!
Cliff Figallo (fig) Fri 8 Nov 02 13:45
Hey, Ruz! How's it? I'm sure the ladies appreciate your pseud. Now that's an icebreaker. (Organizational kids: don't try this in the office!)
Mr. Christian Ruzich (ruz) Fri 8 Nov 02 13:53
Oops...guess I shoulda checked that. Things are good. I'll be back with something constructive to say once I read the book...
Nancy Rhine (nancy) Fri 8 Nov 02 13:58
Heya, Ruz! Nice to see ya here!
Nancy Rhine (nancy) Fri 8 Nov 02 14:06
Commenting on a couple of points Cliff made: >>Difficulty and failure are incentives for change, but conversation is the means to sort through the many routes that change might take.<< We've also found that *public* discussions, however the public is defined - it could be "public" meaning the employees or "public" meaning customers and/or vendors - result in greater improvements in systems. When quality of medical service standards are measured via surveys, for example, varying levels of improvement initiatives resulted. When the survey results were distributed only to top management, very little resulting change initiatives occurred. When the results were made available to employees, more improvements were made. And when the customers were informed, the most change occurred.
Andrew Alden (alden) Fri 8 Nov 02 14:16
The company I used to work for had an internal Usenet-style newsgroup. People announced events, bought and sold things, asked about local shops and doctors, etc. Some people also advocated, even had arguments. They commented on politics, even the company itself. After a few years the company shut the newsgroup down without ceremony or explanation. The company also has forums on its website, for customers to ask about and discuss using its products. One forum, almost an afterthought, was called "Take 5." After a while, the weeds of community began to root there: customers checked in with each other, swapped jokes, and all the rest. The volume of postings rose, some people got annoyed, and the staff decided it was too much hassle so they shut that down too. I know they have thrown a baby out with their bathwater, but it wasn't easy to make a businesslike case for just letting things flower. How do you speak to "bottom-line" decision makers?
Nancy Rhine (nancy) Fri 8 Nov 02 14:25
Hi Andrew, I asked this very question to the head of Hallmark's customer community initiatives. He is one of the top managers there and had little inclination to trying to analyze why other companies don't see the value of engaging customers as stakeholders in the company. He just said, if they don't get it, they don't get it. OTOH, if the naysayers or the ignorant are educated by citing examples of companies and situations where customer-generated ideas and feedback result in substantial revenue gains, they can quickly change their minds. It seems few people like to be first in trying something they consider new and iffy.
Cliff Figallo (fig) Fri 8 Nov 02 14:33
If someone pays you to fulfill responsibilities, you should at least take care of those. If you're yakking away around the water cooler or on the newsgroup or in your IM client, and NOT covering what you're paid for, then clearly things are out of balance. But if, in those conversations, you find insights that help you do your job better, win the loyalty of customers and improve collaboration in the company, the yakking is paying for itself. If the conversations have a purpose relevant to your job, then they are part of your job. So, the worker has to account for time spent and what was gained for the company through the conversation. This can be a hard case to prove if management is predisposed to see all on-the-job discussion as a waste of company time. But if management gives purpose to conversation, it can better appreciate what it gains from them.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Fri 8 Nov 02 17:19
I'm wondering if the tradeoff isn't over whether there's a community or not, but rather between a community where most discussion happens on a company-run server, versus having it happen on an unofficial off-site bulletin boards. As a customer I think I'd prefer discussion to be off-site.
Nancy White (choco) Fri 8 Nov 02 18:28
What about the distinction between "community" and the "conversation." Are we creating too much expectation if we place the conversation in a community? Regardless of the location?
Cliff Figallo (fig) Fri 8 Nov 02 19:43
An offsite "neutral" site for customer exchange is certainly an option these days. You don't have to worry about the company shutting down your message board. But if companies establish good enough relationships with their customers, a discussion place provided by the company would simply be an extension of good customer service. In fact, it could be used effectively for product development collaboration between the company and the users of its products. We chose to de-emphasize community as a goal in this book, instead aiming for productive conversation. These can occur in project-based situations and as isolated interactions between customer service and customer. Sure, some communities form around conversational opportunities, and trust is an important element in any knowledge sharing interaction. But achieving "community" can be an offputting expectation for some.
Nancy White (choco) Fri 8 Nov 02 21:56
:: nodding in agreement :: Did you run into any instances where companies had this "aha" about conversations as a way to improve critical thinking? You know that phenomena of when you think about someting -- problems, ideas, etc -- in your head? You think and think and come up with an idea. Then you have the chance to talk about it with someone and wow -- the whole thing takes a quantum leap forward. The act of "explaining" it actually changes it. It seems to me that this can improve a company's collective thinking. Do folks see value in that? Recognize it? (Or do they recognize critical thinking... grin!) Oh, this is one of those awful two-parter questions... If companies recognize the value of conversation in supporting critical thinking, do they start recruiting for people who know how to have conversations? What skills might they look for?
Nancy Rhine (nancy) Sat 9 Nov 02 09:06
Hi Nancy - well, again, I have to point to my experiences with Hallmark and Tom Brailsford, one of my online corporate conversation heroes. Originally when Hallmark set up targeted, invite-only customer communities, their goal was to come up with two or three good product ideas per year out of the group. What they found were not only a myriad of those, but entirely new business ideas to boot. The thinking in these targeted online conversation groups is not only critical and imaginative but waaaay upstream, as Tom puts it, from mere feedback and opinions. It has been so valuable to the company that they started several vertical niche groups to contribute to company strategic thinking. Actually, other than bringing together people who have something shared in common, in addition to being patrons of a particular business, I believe just about anyone treated correctly will have valuable input into their experience not only with your products and services, but with your competitors' as well. Now there is a bell curve of distribution where some will be more active than others, so the point is that along with good hosting, you can often draw out even more participation than is statistically and randomly encountered.
Nancy Rhine (nancy) Sat 9 Nov 02 09:11
Brian, re. offsite or onsite company/customer intercommunication areas, I think it depends on the conscious commitment of the company to allow, to encourage even, honest feedback. This often means for management to stay out of the way and let people talk. It also means listening, and occasionally, perhaps even on an invite basis, dropping by to thank the participants for their input and discuss various ideas with them. If the feedback is valued, it will come through and can be even more gratifying to participants than just speaking amongst themselves. In some cases, corporations have set up customer feedback areas and thought that they would have to heavily incent the customers to engage. What was found was that people were "starved" (one manager's word for it) for opportunities to give opinions and stories that were respected and appreciated by companies whose products they purchased and/or whose premises they frequented. No incentives, other than that, were required! So simple, and yet so true.
Nancy White (choco) Sat 9 Nov 02 11:42
Via Email from Denham Grey: Would you ask Nancy and Cliff about: a) the role of shared language, i.e. building common ground b) how to practice group inquiry c) and ways to support deep reflection as knowledge work practices in a loose network?. Thanks Denham
Cliff Figallo (fig) Sat 9 Nov 02 20:26
Hello to Denham and thanks for his good questions. I'll try to answer them in order. >>"the role of shared language, i.e. building common ground" We've been studying the idea of enabling global online conversations to join knowledge specialists and funding sources with people needing specific expertise and financing for their projects. Everyone we've talked to has emphasized the barriers of language and cultural perspective. This can be just as daunting when trying to connect two divisions in the same corporation. Marketing and Product Design are two very different head spaces in traditional businesses. Before strangers can truly open up to one another, there must be some kind of translation of good will. Reputation helps break the ice and establish initial trust, but some level of (if you'll pardon the expression) tail-sniffing needs to happen before strangers in an online business environment will engage productively. Eye contact is a very important element in face-to-face that, being absent in virtual meetings, must be replaced by other methods of validation. Perhaps, as a colleague of mine believes, some kind of social contract would be in order to establish a starting point for a conversation that defines the common ground and at least some basic elements of a shared language.
Cliff Figallo (fig) Sat 9 Nov 02 20:58
>>"how to practice group inquiry" That's a wide-ranging question. I think if people are serious about collaboratively finding answers to questions of mutual interest, group inquiry just happens. But some level of facilitation can help the iquiry to keep moving ahead rather than stall or go in circles. In many of the small groups who met online for the two weeks of Listening to the City, group inquiry was powerful. Facilitation clearly aided the process. The shared goal you could feel as you followed the dialogues was a healing from the memories of 9/11 and the pain of the past year. Motivation was high to have some effect on the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site. It's important, I think, that all members who consider themselves part of the group actually take part in and contribute to the inquiry. It's important that there be a person or agreed-upon process to guide the group forward in the inquiry and prevent it from stalling or circling inefficiently. And here, again, there's the idea of a contract that asks each group member to give "full value" to the conversation. I hope that's what Denham meant by "group inquiry." The travel industry, of course, has a completely different definition.
Cliff Figallo (fig) Sat 9 Nov 02 21:20
>>"ways to support deep reflection" I'm a member of an email prayer list. The idea of it is to take time to reflect on other people's needs. Well there's too damn much email to read in my limited time for me to pray much. Right now I'm probably a good example of someone creating so much for other people to read that they end up not having time to reflect on anything I've said. Yet I still recommend that people be precise ("pithy" as Mr. Brand would say) with their words and learn to say a lot in as few as possible of them. The better we all get at economizing words and communicating our true meaning, the more time we'll all have to reflect on that meaning. How much time are most corporate workers provided for productive reflection, really? We can only estimate the potential value to a company if its people could think about ideas like innovation, adaptation and efficiency. And a good conversation, like Stephen Denning's good story, can (and should) be a springboard to new ways of thinking.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Sat 9 Nov 02 23:23
Cliff, earlier you said about the dot-com thing that "The clear and massive lack of truthful communication seemed, in the end, to be so wasteful and dishonest." I totally agree with that but it seems like there's a certain amount of willful naivety underlying this conversation. Let's get down to brass tacks. The marketplace has always been a fundamentally dishonest place - if not outright lies, at least exaggerating the positive and leaving the negative unsaid. Public relations, advertising and salesmanship are fundamentally dishonest. Of course there are limits, both legal and the ones people place on themselves so as to be able to look at themselves in the mirror, but they fall short of true honesty. It's fundamentally buyer beware, and especially in hard times the first priority is usually to keep the organization going. Since there are always rumors and leaks, this also applies to internal conversation. Most organizations try to put out a positive image of themselves and hide any weaknesses. They want to "control the message." Allowing customers to talk in a public, uncontrolled forum is always going to be a little dangerous. Letting customers talk to each other is great when things are going well but when something goes wrong, bad word of mouth gets amplified. Under these circumstances, how can we really expect organizations to want open conversation?
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