Monthly Archives: September 2007

Poets and clowns

Metaphor.
It’s time.

I was chairing a conference on knowledge management yesterday and here’s (moreoreless) how I ended.

One of the most useful frames for making sense of this woolly subject is Max Boisot’s thoughts on knowledge. He suggest that we operate continuously in an information and knowledge continuum with conversation at one end and commodity at the other. An awareness of the continuum allows us to make the dynamic of the flow that much more effective – we can work it, and it will work for us, so to speak.

But the real moment of knowledge is when that continuum is located in a new environment and does work there.

So, for example, lets look at an article in the free newspaper Metro from 19th September 2007.

‘Patch needles out pain’

A revolutionary skin patch using printer cartridge technology coudl soon put an end to painful injections. The new ‘smart patch’ is similar to a nicotine patch and uses hundreds of tiny needles to deliver medication directly into a patient’s bloodstream.’

Nozzes from an HP printer cartridge were redeveloped. Here then, in one sense, the metaphor of a printer is transferred into the medical world and put to work (not so different to those old polio jabs of my youth though?)

Here’s the bit I didn’t get into with the delegates as I had no time.

Lets think about this as new conversation spaces. Habermass says in his theories of communication that conversations between people need to take place in a new space, unfamiliar to either.

And this, for me is where the muscle of metaphor can really show.

And I mean muscle literally (I’m back on the conference talk, we’ll come back to Habermass many times no doubt.)

Jonathon Miller’s book ‘The body in question’ is a beautiful masterpiece I’d recommend to anyone. And in it, writing about the heart, he talks of the role that metaphor played in understanding the heart. Doctors were puzzled, they couldn’t work out what the chambers were for or how the heart functioned and they got stuck. Then the invention of the steam engine came along and the metaphor of the technology of a pump allowed them to step outside their own world of understanding and see it from the viewpoint of that metaphor, leading to the insight that the heart itself was a pump.

So that’s where metaphor can play a transformative role of the very best kind.

In small ways it allows us to know how to behave in certain spaces too. So David Gurteen’s knowledge cafe, with which the conference ended, allows us, through the terminology, moreoreless to know what David expects of us in the session and we can settle into that.

Of course we can settle into that too far, or use metaphors in superficial branding attempts or allow the tired cliches of overused, out of the box, blue sky, black box metaphors to thud on the floor and lie there wriggling. There should be a ban. We once ran a session which my colleague calls ‘wank word bingo’ to flush these out and the glee of making a kind of dartboard of organisational jargon made for a lively time.

The metaphors which abound in knowledge management, a discipline (or often in-discipline) in search of a common language, also knock around doing as much harm as good.

I’ve lovely metaphors to go and fish out about fish, in fact which recast how we see time and story and ideas – Virginia Woolf, William Golding. But I’ve run out of time for now.

And there are metaphors and images (look at the way appreciative inquiry asks its questions ) which, well handled, illuminate the parts of emotion and difficult feeling, or allow for honest channels to convey negative thoughts without being aggressive. I’ll come back to that. But try, at the end of a lessons learned interview, asking people if an image or metaphor comes to mind that for them sums up the project and find out then the truths than can be conveyed in this more delicate way.

Darn it, must dash. I had so much more to say.

I’ll be back.

Let’s end with Ivan Illich again. Tools for Conviviality. So much an essential reader for our time.

‘Poets and clowns have always risen up against the oppression of creative thought by dogma. They expose literalmindedness with metaphor. They demonstrate the follies of seriousness in a framework of humour. Their intimate wonder dissolves cdrtainties, banishes fear, and undoes paralysis….Poetry intuition, and theory can offer intimations of the advance fo dogma that may lead to a revolution in awareness.’

‘Culture is the one thing we cannot deliberately aim at’

I see I’ve fallen silent for rather a long time. Holidays, laziness, avoidance. But most of all I’ve had in mind a blog on culture cooking and I’ve been looking for my copy of TS Eliot’s ‘Notes towards a definition of culture’ which he wrote in about 1940. I can’t find it, but googling gives me a bit of what I’m trying to look up as a starting point at least:

“For if any definite conclusions emerge from this study, one of them is surely this, that culture is the one thing we cannot deliberately aim at.”

This was brought to mind by a glorious description in Hari Kunzru’s book ‘The Impressionist’ (which starts very well and then gets a bit artsy and clever, but I’ll read his others) of a railway station in India earlyish last century:

‘The crowd on the platform at Fort Station throbs like a single body. Dirty-collared clerks, hawkers of tea and sweets, beggars, newspaper-sellers, pickpockets, raucous British Tommies all prickly heat and dirty songs, neatly dressed babus, clipped subalterns soon to be kicking the babus out of their reserved seats, displeased memsahibs leading lines of porters with trunks balanced on tehir rag-padded heads, peasant families sleeping three generations in a row using baggage for pillows,….and dining rooms – first second third and purdah, veg. and non-veg., Hindu Muslim and English all spin together….’

The scene this evokes conveys more surely than any abstract noun a kind of jostling vibrant culture. And reading it reminded me of the bit in ‘Notes towards a definition of culture’ where T S Eliot describes Englishness as cricket and strawberries, beetroot for tea and other things which now escape me.

I want to find a piece of work where the grandiose amibition of mission statement and value falls away and we work with the organisation through object, and observation and descriptions of how it is to make visible the raw fabric of the cultures (never just one) and weave together, through small stories and images, and properly condensed pithy and living description of how people want to live breathe play and work in that organisation.

People do it unofficially: they can describe with sharp and pointed insight the day to day reality of how the organisation gets work done (and often avoids getting work done), and the normally severe reality gap between those values the organisation purports to espouse and how it acts in practice. But that’s a kind of negative culture statement. The same acute witnessing could perfectly well be put to an appreciative exploration of what the organisation stands for and the cultural self-descriptions evolved from here collectively rather than imposed by the communications committee sub-committee on values.

We must stand up and fight for real words, stories and actions, imbued with the deep meaning of shared experience not the distressingly shrivelled, trivialising meaningless summary of the organisational mission statement, normally accompanied by the excruciatingly patronising values scrapbooks, tied to the threatening control of the appraisal system and to workshops through which the culture programme is ‘rolled out’ (and over people) which are either second rate and derivative or candyfloss entertainment whose impact lasts, in the coinage of Ratner, about as long as the shelf-life of a Marks and Spencer prawn sandwich. (Here surely is the pithiest and most honest culture statement ever to have changed the fortunes of a man and a company.)

We must make descriptions of what organisations are and aspire which vault over the prosaic thudding half-baked controlling ambitions of mission and mission control.

We must use poetry to engage the heart, not thump on about ‘heart values’.

It’s very important to be constantly restless in wriggling free of the strait-jacket assumptions that the designers and deliverers of culture and change programmes shove us into (and that includes me as a purveyor of such so-called products and experiences).

There must be a ceaseless toiling towards the vibrance of a lived reality.

This is not going to be easy.

I said in Sparknow’s founding essay (or at least I say about it) that we want to change the fabric of society.

I still mean it.

I must go away and gird my loins for the next battle.