Monthly Archives: November 2007

Tales of Iraq under the shadow of Tower Bridge

I took this great photo while visiting City Hall, on the South Bank. (Although I’ve tried loading it twice and it comes up on its side both times so you’ll have to get a crick in your neck to look at it.)
Tales of Iraq under the shadow of Tower Bridge

There are big exhibit cases just outside City Hall, and while I was there they had a series of oral histories in from Iraq.  To see these short stories huddled together against the backdrop of Tower Bridge was a masterpiece of storytelling.It reminded me of something I heard Stephen King say on the radio about writing scary stories which is that it’s all about what you don’t say and how the reader projects into the gaps.  For the most part a horror tale has very little happen.  It’s the nothing which makes you gasp when there’s a something.  I think that might be part of my search for the gaps, shadows, structural holes, invisibles, unsaids, negatives, not-knowings, opposites, nothings which the imaginative space in which the somethings make sense.I’m increasingly sure you need to take everything way and then find out what’s left.Skeleton keys. 

He was an eminent marine biologist and world expert on the taxonomy of barnacles

Alan Southward

There’s a man to have been. 50 years ploughing the same marine furrow. At work the day before he died. Deeply expert in a narrow and important field. Who would not want to be remembered as a world expert on the taxonomy of barnacles. It’s magnificent.

I liked that part of working in the Islamic world very much. The koranic education invites a very deep reading and re-reading of a small number of texts which is not intuitively an approach we value in other educations where breadth counts for more than depth. I’m not saying dismiss breadth, but I do think that without depth there can be no third dimension.

Of course this can go wrong, but there’s much to be said, koanically too, for an intense, repeated, experience which takes you to deep understanding.

Negative space, the most important knowledge space

I’ve always been interested in the shadow side of organisations – beyond tacit, that dark underbelly of unstated, often collusive, collective behaviour which informs, and glues together, the official work of the organisation.  Sometimes its a good thing, somethings it’s a seriously bad thing, and gets in the way, but is impossible to clear away. I doubt I’m saying anything about shadows, intangibles, invisibles, informals, that others have not already said.  Although I suppose I could say that without the shadow you’d not be able to see the shape of the thing.  So anyone who cares to look at an organisation without it’s shadow side is doing something like trying to look at the shape, size and colour of an object at the height of the midday sun (when we know only mad dogs and Englishman are out anyway).  

Some nice work has been done taking Jung’s ideas on shadow identity and applying them to archetypes of leadership.  Wizard, king, something, something (I forget what typical modes of leadership were chosen), each has it’s shadow side and the leader must be aware of the effects of the shadow side in order to work to best effect and chose the right people to surround him/her.That’s shadows, anyway.

More recently, I’ve become obsessed with a different but related concept which I can’t help feeling holds the key to the next round of my thinking and practice (and so, inevitably) Sparknow’s thinking and practice.And that’s negative space.  A road partly travelled but I suspect with a long hard climb ahead.It comes from the idea that, in art, the space around the object is where attention needs to be for the artist.   It’s easier to draw the spaces round a hand, a leaf, a chair a tree, and allow the object to emerge from attention to the negative spaces.  Henry Moore said something like ‘the hole holds more meaning than the material surrounding it’.  A window frames a view and makes sense of it (which isn’t quite negative space but is about looking through rather than at.)

My tiny, but growing and excitable hunch, is that in this germ of an idea is a huge truth.  We’re stumbling across it already by seeing knowledge workers as navigators – people through whom you find access; by making a shape of someone by what they google or what they recommend on Amazon; cookie trails allow us to trace the outline of a person without ever having to see the person directly.  I think we can go one stage further and imagine, in thinking what knowledge is key operating knowledge, a two step process (with more steps to follow as I imagine it)

1.  trace the outline of a person, google-wise, or amazonishly, through social network analysis, by what they use, what they recommend,  who they consort with

2.  persuade the person then to step out of themselves and look back at the space left and then describe not what they do, but what isn’t happening now they aren’t doing it, preferably to an invisible or actual colleague who they care about, so that they want to describe the task(s) in enough detail that the other is able to carry it/them out sufficiently well for only the smallest number of organisational hiccups to occur.

This goes perfectly with two things which seem increasingly important to me from everything I see.  Both are to do with knowledge not being captured.Codified knowledge doesn’t exist.  Codified information does though.Knowledge can’t be captured, except in the most labour intensive ways and even then, like a map, the terrain is always inescapably larger and more complex than the map of it.  It’s impossible to make a map of the world which covers the world.  Or if not impossible, actually pointless since it would add nothing.  It’s the miniature form of the map as a guide which makes it portable, relevant, useful to the user.  A 1:1 scale map of the world would be useless.  Knowledge capture of the literal kind is exactly the same.  Useless.  Too big.   Compression, illumination, symbols which make useful patterns are reference points, are what is useful.

Information, guidance and reference materials can be captured, but in the end (Bruno Latour-wise) its the interaction of the agent with the knowledge-object which determines an action. More and more work is conducted in a non-linear way – not at your desk, not in a sequence, but in groups and simultaneously.  The knowledge exists in the presence of each other and of codified resources in an environment conducive to exchange (slow or fast, more or less documented, depending on your purpose.)  So the knowledge exists in a moment in time, the information which results can point to, but not replicate, the experience of that knowledge.  So knowledge is in gaps which are temporarily closed and then opened again when people disperse from a meeting, a room.  It’s a vanishing thing, leaving a more or less ghostly trace, with some embodied consequences for those who were present, and perhaps those in their networks. That’s the first thing about capture.The second is to do with the contract between organisation and individual, or between organisations, particularly in circumstances where knowledge of business processes must be retained during a move, or restructing, or merger or upheaval of any kind. 

Capture is a hierarchical, intrusive concept.  It implies minions, service, servitude.  It implies containment.  It’s entirely the wrong concept for thinking about how to retain what is needed in order to operate the business.  And it takes no account of the individual on the receiving end of the upheaval.Which is again where negative space comes in.  

An invitation to imagine themselves as vanished and see

1.  what work does not get done when they are not at work and

2. what work would need to get done by another filling their shoes

is a far more delicate and thoughtful conversation and one that can lead to the sense of knowledge as a donation.  

Firstly the indirectness of the question allows them to pay attention and describe something which sits not in the individual but in the space between them and their imaginary colleague and will allow for a much more open and trusting description.  Then also, by going through this imagining process, the individual who is up-heaved can also be invited to share something that they themselves will be a beneficiary of – they can donate what they know and also treasure it for themselves;  they can leave a legacy and take it with them.  And we know from oral history work that the process of valuing themselves expressly in ways that they perhaps haven’t before, makes them visible to themselves and others in ways they haven’t been before.

I’m almost out of time and I’ve not even referred to the thing which propelled this idea (which I’ve tried out a bit, but not found a way to communicate well yet) right up to the surface for me was Shibboleth, the exhibition at the Tate Modern.  It’s a huge crack, running apparently through the fabric of the floor in the Turbine Hall, the main exhibition hall.  And it’s astonishing.  I’ll write more soon, but here’s a short note from the Tate Modern website.Much more to follow while I try and find this idea and what it means for me.  


Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth is the first work to intervene directly in the fabric of the Turbine Hall. Rather than fill this iconic space with a conventional sculpture or installation, Salcedo has created a subterranean chasm that stretches the length of the Turbine Hall. The concrete walls of the crevice are ruptured by a steel mesh fence, creating a tension between these elements that resist yet depend on one another. By making the floor the principal focus of her project, Salcedo dramatically shifts our perception of the Turbine Hall’s architecture, subtly subverting its claims to monumentality and grandeur. Shibboleth asks questions about the interaction of sculpture and space, about architecture and the values it enshrines, and about the shaky ideological foundations on which Western notions of modernity are built.In particular, Salcedo is addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world. A ‘shibboleth’ is a custom, phrase or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group or class. By definition, it is used to exclude those deemed unsuitable to join this group.‘The history of racism’, Salcedo writes, ‘runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side’. For hundreds of years, Western ideas of progress and prosperity have been underpinned by colonial exploitation and the withdrawal of basic rights from others. Our own time, Salcedo is keen to remind us, remains defined by the existence of a huge socially excluded underclass, in Western as well as post-colonial societies.In breaking open the floor of the museum, Salcedo is exposing a fracture in modernity itself. Her work encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception.Doris Salcedo was born in 1958 in Bogotá, Colombia, where she lives and works. Amonographic display of her work can be seen on Level 3 as part of the Poetry and Dream collection displays.                

Drumming to the rhythm of James Joyce

I’ve a friend, Mark, who once coined the term ‘synthalpy’ for the next big movement which would wash knowledge management away into the past of tired, failed, organisational managements of once kind or another.  Synthalpy is the positive energy which flows when two worlds, hitherto unknown to each other, collide.    

When I look around, he gets righter and righter.  Except it’s not just two worlds I don’t think.  In Saturday’s Guardian was an article about the artist Anri Sala, whose take a drumless recording of a new Franz Ferdinand song, a gallery in London, and fragments from the text of Ulysses by James Joyce.  Visitors are asked to record the drum beat.  Their instructions  are extracts from Ulysses – ‘ bootless’ ‘lickitup’ ‘window-sash’ ‘boo-entity’ with some placing in context of the music.  The instruction, in essence, is that the rhythm of the word is the drum beat rhythm which is sought. The artist, Sala, ends the instructions with Joyce ‘With care repeated, with greater difficulty remembered, forgot with ease, with misgiving remembered, repeated with error.’ J

ohn Cage would be proud.I wonder too, what happens in the brain where the rhythm of a word is the instruction to produce a series of beats in a sequence.  

I’ve been reading, too, a marvellous book called ‘The Actor and the Target’ by Declan Donnellan, who founded Cheek by Jowl, the theatre company in 1981.  Essential reading for anyone interested in work and performance in any settings.I need to read it again, but have been most struck, in my vague meanderings through time and its meaning in organisational settings by his characterisation of Fear (capitalised) in particular. Fear, he says,  splits real time into two fake times to avoid you being present.  He splits time into the past, riddled with Guilt and the future, infused with Anxiety.  The guilty past and the anxious future do not exist, only the present exists.

I notice some move in me, with this and with the time in two modes (mackerel, memory) a lurching away from interest in the future and to being present, ever present.Donnellan also says that acting  (but life I think) is about the pursuit of seeing rather than of being seen.  Seeing, in the sense of using the faculties to be present and to see fully what is happening.I’ve an embryonic thesis that we mistake, hugely the value of planning and the value of reordering the past with offical, and officious, programmes of evaluation, lessons learnt, business planning, visioning, mission statements – the dross of illusory structure which deludes we are, somehow, captains of the organisational ship and have a choice where we can see it.  I’m thinking now that the richness of organisational life unfolds in an acute awareness of the present, an ability to look around and see what is, and, by seeing and describing it well, to open it up lines of sight which are otherwise blocked.  I think metaphor is permissable too, with all its dangers, to allow the heightened language to describe complex depths and darknesses which are not otherwise safely explored, or even explored at all. For some things, only the language of metaphor allows access.

This is social constructionism gone mad of course, but not gone bad I don’t think.  It does call into question the happier clappier parts of appreciative enquiry, the dreamy bits, imagining Chicago, imagining this, imagining that. But I think that might be necessary.  Untrammelled imaginings are whimsical in some way.  And I don’t think that’s where the valuable moments happen in the expression of dreams. I could be terribly wrong to do that.  But it does not diminish the value of the act of enquiry itself, which appreciative enquiry values so much, and rightly too. I think dreaming belongs in bed at night, and in taut forms, vehicles of expression like theatre, poetry, where the dangerousness or newness or impossibility of the imagining is contained, bounded and made safe for exploration by the traditional forms in which these things are contained.  

I think the double unboundedness of sprawling imagining, has less power to make change that either the imaginings bounded in literary or musical forms and compositions which give them density and punch, or by the permission to describe things and be listened to. The presentation of the unthinkable and unsayable in forms which have familiarity and create a certain sense of safety in the listener or viewer to engage seems important.

In the work we’re doing for museums at present, there’s a drumbeat recurring theme about the loss of touch, feeling and rawness in today’s worklife. Museums and archives are used, but in a tidied up, refined way, by interpreters of, say, brand, to package them for accessibility and purvey them to organisations who want things tidy. That’s one trend. Against mess, against the rolling up of sleeves and plunging yourself into the unknown (which is certainly where Fear splits time into two, with great glee). But there’s another trend too, towards treasuring the archive. And for more than just presentation purposes I think. In this world of ephemera and transience where people float in and out of work and work relationships and commitments, some lineage seems more then ever essential. Levi, John Lewis, organisations which are brand-smart, but also thoughtful, are finding that the archives must be made visible and feelable. Not just to plunder them for clever ideas and a kind of pseudo-heritage which might make things feel more solid and permanent. But in a genuine move to treasure and share the inspirational moments from the past so that they come forward and provide inspiration, context and meaning for those who relate to them in the present, which will, in some way change their future.

One person we interviewed said that all work is changing, becoming less linear, more reliant on simultaneity, in the present of a rich resource, in a place of character. These insights prompt me more than ever to the conviction that knowledge is not to be buttoned down, but only exists in the presence of others and in the presence of rich resources. It can only flow and cross gaps. In turn this leads me ever more to the conviction that knowledge is about not-knowledge. I’m taking a look at the negatives of things, the other sides, the shadows, the dark, the blocks, the gaps, the un-things, the not-knowing to see where this leads me.

This goes right back to Declan Donnellan. Acting, he says, is not about the actor, its about the target. The target is not a goal, or objective, or intention, or mission of any kind. Its something that exists outside the actor which fuels the actor. Like dancing with a bamboo stick. You’ll find, if you dance with a stick, that the more you allow the stick to lead, the more graceful, ambitious and dynamic the dance is. Surrender to the stick.

Matisse, and I’ve shared this before, had no idea what he was doing or why when he spent four years carving backs. He did it because it needed to be done. I’m not Matisse, I’m not Declan Donnellan, I’m not an artist of any kind. I’m unlikely to be a writer. I’m most likely to provide some kind of invisible mending and some spaces of invitation and conversation in different settings. But I do recognise the growing need to do something because it somehow needs to be done, rather than need to know why. And what needs to be done by me now is to understand the importance of absenting the future from organisational planning, reconnecting with rawness, and shining a light on the negative, hidden and lurking places which are where knowledge really lies.

I’m not quite sure where this rambling gets me but it feels like something important is flickering at the edges of my vision. I hope David Cooperrider writes in to tell me how wrong I am and persuade me otherwise.  Or anyone else for that matter.     

‘You don’t look at what you did before, you do the same shit all over’

The Wire.Everyone who has not yet watched The Wire should immediately go out and buy every series they can lay their hands on, then lay back and watch very slowly and patiently.  I’d probably find listening to something in French easier to follow but this is a perfect treasure of complex and extraordinary storytelling at every level.This quote comes from the third series, where McNulty (our gorgeous wild, naughty, good-hearted flawed hero) is looking back through closed murder files and is asked why. ‘You don’t look at what you did before, you do the same shit all over.’ Exactly.  When I get round to writing the book, which is, I can tell you, looming closer, that’ll be the quote on the inside cover.  I’ve much else to blog – Tony Harrison’s V, an extraordinary poem, an astonishing piece of storytelling and social commentary and an exemplar of how a poem can achieve things that no amount of Demos reports on social exclusion can come close to (and I speak as one who funded an early Demos report on social exclusion);  metaphor again – a riff starting with an Angela Carter quote and then travelling through Frances Yates’s ‘Art of Memory’ and Louise Bourgeois’s current exhibition; a salutory warning on what goes wrong when future storytelling goes bad and people mistake scenarios for predictions. But all that will have to wait for calmer moments. For now, I’ve a thing I want to note somewhere in a public arena, just to have expressed them.I have a plan for Sparknext and it’s a very good one.  I’ve been floundering without a plan, and the plan still allows for me to be mostly in mackerel time and memory time (see the last blog) – that is to say, be very present rather than constantly leaning forward breathlessly into an unlived future.Sparknow will be reconfigured to be jointly owned, and in partnership, we’ll pay attention to doing three things.  Doing, and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible through, narrative enquiries worldwide, of the kind we’re currently doing at; Being thought leaders and practitioners in understanding knowledge work and the implications for knowledge workers, their relationship with work, with organisations and with themselves in their career journeys;Consolidating into a lean, elegant methodology, what we know about how to retain business processes when people leave or any kind of upheaval or move takes place.We know exactly where we are with the first.  We just need to do more of it in new and familiar settings.  With the second and the third, I’m very excited because I think we can bring together some old and new insights which will transfer the conversation and action spaces in these areas.  Good. Phew.   It’s only taken 10 years.   I don’t know why I’m writing so breathlessly with no pauses but there it is.  I feel more Molly Bloom than Pinter but I don’t know how to change the formatting.



Time is two modes

From Freefall, written in 1959 by William Golding, he of Lord of the Flies (I do feel that there must be an EDRM joke in that – Lord of the Files?)  

‘Time is two modes. The one is an effortless perception native to us as water to the mackerel. The other is a memory, a sense of shuffle fold and coil, of that day nearer than that because more important, of that event mirroring this, or those three set apart, exceptional and out of the straight line altogether.’


Sparknow, the odd little network formerly known as Spark Knowledge is ten today.  I find that entirely extraordinary.  The shuffle fold and coil of ten years.    So many things exceptional and out of the straight line altogether, but so much effortless time, water as to mackerel.  I find, as I grow a little older that I want more empty space, in which to grow reflectively, and be present in the world, and have less appetite for the urge and push of constantly pushing things and people a little further together, a little further apart, dextrous manipulations or bludgeoning and hammering to make shapes and knots and spaces which will allow some new possibilities to unfold.  And at the same time I’m willing to invite in the unexpected guest of an unlikely and impossible challenge and see where it leads.  So my appetite for the unknown and unknowable seems to grow.  There’s nothing much I want in the way of challenges, but nothing much I’d turn down.  I’m not waiting, but somehow I’m ready.   I’ve made a few decisions though.  One is to find book time.  Time to write in some clearer and more backboned way of the work we’ve done, the thoughts we’ve had, the ways we’ve developed, the philosophical musings we’ve entertained.  There must always, in my view, be time to sit existentially at Les Deux Magots on the Left Bank, chain-smoking and speculating argumentatively on what is and could be.  All that nose-to-the-grindstone planning and product and delivery has it’s place of course. But without random ranting and guesswork about how the universe works, it means very little.  And that’s something else as I get older, everything, including doing nothing, must mean something.  An absence of mind, distraction from the essence of things by peripheral anxieties must make way for presence.  

Here’s my plan, in a different typeface for reasons that are beyond me.

I’m clearing a space, the biggest possible empty space, a breathing space.  And I’m going to breath it in.  I’ll only take work that holds meaning for me.  Not necessarily passionate meaning, but meaning.  I’ll look people in the eye as equals, with respect and honour and warmth and I’ll expect anyone I encounter in the context of work to do the same.   I’ll continue, as I strive to, to conduct myself with integrity, never lose my curiosity, and hold onto my instinct (which has never wavered, although has sometimes felt like a radio tuned into a faulty FM signal while pirate stations bounce their waves off Alexandra Palace) that there is a better, more soulful way to conduct work, which is not at the expense of science, or balance or rigour.   The language of narrative and metaphor bounces off the language of Facts (I want Facts, nothing but Facts, say so many in the world of work) and the space that is opened up in between in the space in which conversations can thrive and multiply.

The multiplication of conversations so that they weave an organisational fabric of a new and vivid kind is my goal I think. 

I want more mackerel time and I want more memory time.  And probably that’s all I want in life except the health and wellbeing of my nearest and dearest. 

And what of Sparknow?  Well probably plenty to be done in new narrative enquiries mostly.  And they too should be unembarrassed and straight-backed, standing tall. Humble, but not servile, although always servants to a cause, which is still to change the fabric of society in some way or another.  Not the end of the pier show, just because ‘once upon a time’ creeps in, and not some mystical voodoo.   Although there can be something profound, perhaps enchanting, about what narrative makes possible in work contexts, there’s nothing special about it really.  And I should know:

I made that armour myself.

Its not magic.

Its just shiny’

From the The Brothers Grimm, as one brother rides off into the forest to battle a monster, leaving the other behind. 

Will the logical Grimm brother to the beautiful maiden while Jake the storyish Grimm brother gallops off into the enchanted forest.