Category Archives: interruption

The Fallen

The Fallen was on BBC2 on Saturday night and it was privilege to watch. A tribute to British soldiers who’ve been killed in Afghanistan. The makers were almost invisible and inaudible as the brothers, sisters, parents, brothers-in-arms, commanders, wives of the fallen told their stories. Stories of individuals were spliced together with silence chronological rollcall, pieces of documentary and news, collections of shared moments of terrible grief, of funerals, the shrines left behind, the moment the news broke and so on. The smallest echo of background music tied things together, and at the end the voices and music fell silent and all you heard (and saw, then only heard) was the chipping of the stonemasons carving a memorial and that sound cut through to the very grieving of the soul.

As tributes, rituals and acts of memorial go, this was an honest testimony that reached beyond any private grief and brought the incredible acts of bravery of these young men and women right into a place where you had not choice but to listen, and look and feel, and feel fully what it means to live in this amazing, muddled democracy of our, and how we trash that privilege daily. It also showed how much we need private and collective rituals of remembrance.

I was very much reminded of Tony Parker , an oral historian who died in 1966, who gave his work and life over to making room for the voices of the marginalised and invisible. I first came across his work when I read a review of ‘May the Lord in his mercy say a prayer for Belfast’ and then tracked down everything I could, about lifers, lighthouse keepers, people who lived in a towerblock in North London. He had a way of being present and invisible and of just lightly twisting the words and shape of the stories so that there were small and shocking moments of surprise and realisation. No manipulation here, but a marriage of the best of raw voice and the honing that a storyteller can bring to it to help it be heard.

I was also reminded me of an as yet unblogged experience I had when I went to see Black Watch (which I did blog). This was Steve Mcqueen’s Queen and Country

Steve McQueen's tribute postage stamps

Steve McQueen's tribute postage stamps

Steve McQueen, in collaboration with 136 families whose loved ones have lost their lives in Iraq, has created a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets, each one dedicated to a deceased soldier.

\The simple brilliance of the idea of stamps as a container for remembrance, used as political statement about how little we seem able to honour our dead is something I’ve been carrying with me.

There’s a French word, aider, which we don’t but should have in English, which means to be an accomplice in something simply by witnessing it. Aiding and abetting should have that meaning. It’s the job of the teller, the artist, the author, the actor, I think, to create spaces of witnessing from which we cannot step back. The privilege of access to an audience brings with it the responsibility to engage that audience in witnessing and becoming responsible both for themselves and for what they see over which they can have some useful influence.

This is something I feel strongly and have still, frustratingly, fully to bring to bear in my own daily practice. But I will never give up trying.

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Postcard stories, the sound of silence

What a cracker of a Guardian Weekend this weekend. Two themes whose ghosts hover behind everything we do.

First, small stories, most especially those that fit on a postcard. For years, Sparknow has been playing with postcards as a way of carrying the stories at the edges of organisations back to their heart or telling tales that move from place to place. We’ve even written a paper on postcards as a way of folding organisational time and place to create new adjacencies and hold onto the spirit of the personal. Yesterday’s Guardian had an article about Michael Kimball’s life story postcards which delighted me. In it, the journalist wrote:

I can testify to what Kimball calls “the unexpected intimacy” of the Postcard Life Stories project, which includes a blog of the biographies. Recently he wrote my life story. It felt like being exposed, but also strangely satisfying; the postcard doesn’t sum up my life, but what got me to where I am now. It’s a snapshot of a moment. There’s a strong sense of hope and joy in it that, while I don’t identify with it every day, makes me feel happy when I read it.

We’ve felt that satisfaction too. Flash fiction has some of the same qualities. I’ve noticed too that posting a photo to facebook with a note on it has something of a sloppy postcard quality to it. I was ‘ere. Wish you were here. Reminiscencee work has a nice technique where you imagine a picture or a snapshot of a moment that lives with you and you seek to describe the picture to someone in such a way that they could be there too. That’s nice. No onus to tell a story. The marriage of story, with it’s plots and twists and turns and surprisings and unexpecteds with the wry smile or banality or breath taking scenery of a postcard with a meaningless message on it is an interesting thing to play with. For us it’s always been about the umbilical chord that holds the experience and ties it, however, lightly, back to the teller, while the teller invites you into a world that they’re experiencing. I’m rambling. It’s late, but I didn’t want to pass it by. Kimball doesn’t pass up anyone’s request, which I think is also a lesson in a organisational context:

I don’t want anybody to feel as if their life story isn’t interesting enough. I have found that everybody’s life story is interesting if you ask the right questions.

I think his blog will be worth a good look later this week.

In the same magazine, Sara Maitland writes of her addiction to silence.

Chosen silence can be creative and generate self-knowledge, integration and profound joy; being silenced can drive people mad.

My assumption had been that silence was monotone; that it would be very pure, very beautiful but somehow flat, undifferentiated. But the more silences I encountered, the more silent places I inhabited, the more I became aware that there were dense, interwoven strands of different silences. Silence can be calm or frightening, lonely or joyful, deep or thin. There is religious silence; a self-emptying silence, and romantic silence – what Wordsworth called the “bliss of solitude”.

The qualities she hears in silence are of course Cagean

Being silenced does drive people mad.

We come across a lot of silenced people in an organisational context. And not much silence in the thrumming of the organisational timetable and the need to be heard (even while silenced) or be disappeared from the political structures. We’ve tried to weave more a more small silences into the work that we do, or encourage silences within the telling of, and listening to, stories. Non-interruption. Room to draw breath. Moments when nothing happens. I’ve always thought that you know when you are learning a language not when you can hear the words but when you can hear where one word ends and the next begins.

That is to say, you can hear pause.

At the next Golden Fleece in Washington in April 2009, I think there’ll be some work around the silence in which story takes place, but meanwhile I’m remembering a bit of a book that Jeannine Brutschin sent me last year The Way of Council which has a lot of merit. It tells of one council meeting where the son could detect nothing going on but somehow a decision was arrived at. The father, when asked, told the son that the decision had been shaped in the unspoken stories present in the council.

We imagine that the narratives of work can be seen and heard at our peril. They must be sensed and there needs to be room for that sensing.

There needs to be silence

Bridges & ditches

I walked up the footpath at the back of our land yesterday, to see the weather from a different place. The water was roaring down the stone gullies that have been dug out through the land, and hurtling down the path too. It is unstoppable.

Gullies running in orange alert weather in the Ardeche

Gullies running in orange alert weather in the Ardeche

At dinner with the neighbours last night we talked of the bewilderment of the summer tourist, who can make no sense of these great dry stone beds, with absurdly high bridges constructed over them. You need to winter here to understand, and then this Orange alert is making for weather rare even for the vrai Ardechois, born and bred to it.

We spent a long time, too, foraging for the right translation for combler la fosse, which in French is to fill in a ditch, to close a gap. In it’s context I went for building bridges, so with a twist of reconciliation, but in the dictionary afterwards it seems more likely it’s to bridge a gap. I wonder if there’s anything in the French effort to actually fill the gap, while the English blithely construct a bridge over it and leave it there? How high a bridge then.

Fred, who runs a supermarket near Toulouse, was talking about how easy it was, right from the beginning of the year, to detect the change in buying habits, although the sharp swing away from brands came in about May. Danone yoghurts down 9%, where before it was 3 freezer shelves stacked with President butter to one own brand, now it’s 2 and 2. Own brands have been winning out over the grandes marques for quite a while. For Fred, that’s fine, so long as he’s tuned early to the changes and can change his buying.

I was thinking about this in respect of some work on future story exercises I’m working on with Anecdote just now. Shawn, delightfully, uses William Gibson (science fiction writer)

The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed

Fred can see the future in the changed distribution of butter in his freezers, one tiny image which pretty much conjures up a whole picture of crumbling economies. Of course, for organisational visioning you’d like the picture to be rosier, in one way. But it is rosy too. The own brand comes into it’s own.

I wonder whether there’s something too in the ditch versus bridge difference. We’ve been imagining future stories as a way to build a bridge from the future to the present, using present anecdotes (Gibsons we’re calling them) about future signs as part of the construction materials. Perhaps we need to be thinking about filling in ditches, combler la fosse, rather than bridging a gap. Or perhaps we need to build very high bridges indeed, knowing that the winter rains will wash away lower ones.

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.  

About

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.                

The back catalogue

I’ve promised someone I’d assemble all the various pieces on physical spaces and on slowness in one place.

By way of a little amuse geule, perhaps it would be interesting to know that I’m listening to Basquiat Strings, a knowledge provoking experience if ever there was one:

1. how does a string quartet learn to be a good string quarter and then do it over and over again
2. how does the leadership work
3. how does the knowledge transfer work
4. most of them come from classical backgrounds and have migrated this knowledge into a jazz context, or had to learn to throw it away in a jazz context
5. Their influences are Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Stravinsky, Schubert, Bach, Tarif de Haidouks, Evan Parker, Prince…

We have so much to learn. And I do think that citation is important knowledge stuff. I’m trying to work out the design for a piece of work on knowledge retention when a business moves and loses most of it’s staff but can’t afford to lose it’s processes. What’s an elegant way to tackle that? I’ve some ideas and the first is to do a kind of Amazon-type citation thing which traces the influences on the worker and the resources and inspirations they draw on to get their jobs done. Make a space round the worker, as it were. Then subtract the worker and look at the space left behind. Half-baked thoughts but ones I’m enjoying.

In any case, here’s the list, which is links to the papers in the lurky bit of our old website which we’ve taken down while we decide what we’d like a new one to look and feel like and do.

Public Spaces in Knowledge Management

Physical Space in Contemporary Knowledge Management

Spaces for Learning

Designing for integration

Can the design of physical space influence collaboration?

Slow Knowledge

Slow Company

Collection to Connection

LIFTing the lid

Mass Migration

Tales from a Bedouin Tent

Sous L’arbre Parlabre

‘Those ain’t our rules’

‘Those ain’t our rules
We didn’t write’m
No need to read’m’
[From the film of ‘The Cider House Rules’ – the apple pickers come back each season and only when Homer Wells joins them and reads the rules out loud have the rules ever been shared. Rules, and doing the right thing regardless of the rules, are the core themes of the film, elaborated in the book.]

We come across that a lot. How to to make rules that work and are not just the voice of a pointlessly rigid authority. Three illustrations.

1. Early on in the life of Spark, Philippa joined us, rejoining having left the team for a while and gone via one of the Big Five consulting firms. She brought with her the dress code instructions (lipstick, belts, earrings, every tiny detail proscribed). We wondered why there could not be a rule which was ‘dress appropriately’.

2. There’s a health centre in East London which has a bunch of rules, protocols, guidance, around diversity, inclusion, whatever. Not a single one of these is displayed, or even taught. These lists are filed somewhere and come out when they need to be attached to a bid for money. The rest of the time, those who work or have been around the centre a long time walk newcomers over an invisible boundary into the space where certain behaviour is OK and other behaviour is not. This is a part of East London rife with racism, confrontation, social tension. But the rules are not ever articulated as explicit constraints. Rather, when someone steps over in a line in their behaviour, somebody who understands what does and does not go will gently, in companionship, prompt an interruption, a reflection, and indication of what will and won’t wash. It comes from within, a tacitly shared understanding of what this place means. It’s a place made over 15 or 20 years of repetition, reincorporation, embodiment of what the health centre stands for.

3. Last year we spent most of the year engaged in a substantial lessons learned review for the Chief Scientific Advisor and Futures and Horizon Scanning head of a government department. The intention of the work was to research, emerge lessons and lead to production of governance and good practice guidelines for commissioning, carrying out and disseminating this kind of work. We initiated the work with private interviews with those directly involved with the original programme, supplemented by 10 minute telephone calls with 70 – 80 of those more on the periphery. Then we used this raw material to create an annotated timeline of the key turning points in the first 5 years and pinpoint where lessons might be found and to frame more detailed questions to work through in short, recorded conversations supplemented by a week of structured cross-department events, using pinboarding and narrative techniques. All the audio and visual material was documented. The body of materials was segmented and analysed in a tailormade cataloguing and research device designed for us by Spanner (www.spanner.org) and the emergent insights used to construct provocative essays on aspects of governance – a way of reporting back to the client and inviting department-wide reflection on developing and upholding standards and behaviours in these emergent and complex areas of evidence-gathering. At no stage did will tell anyone what to do or that that was a definitive guideline. Rather, we gathered experience and presented this back in such a way that the recipient would be inclined to consider it and form judgements in relation to it which would affect how they acted in future.

It calls to mind the story of the hotel key, as told by Bruno Latour in a essay on knowledge claims. The question is, how do you get the hotel guest to return the key? Do you put up rules? (‘Those ain’t our rules’) Do you attach a huge wooden object to the key that is a constant physical reminder and makes it bulky, uncomfortable and easier to leave at reception? Are the rules outside the object, or prompts, embedded in the object? So do you get to rules by words, or by a kind of oddness which interrupts the flow, the autopilot of actions and reactions, and shifts the relationship between person and object without anything having to be said?

Of course nowadays, the key is a disposable credit card sliver of a thing which mostly doesn’t work and needs reprogramming after several increasingly irritable trips to reception.

[Latour, Bruno (1991) ‘Materials of Power: Technology is society made durable’ in John Law (ed.) A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination Sociological Review Monograph 38 Routledge, London, pp 103 – 132]