Category Archives: knowledge gaps

The Circumlocution Office

Circumlocution, is appropriately enough, a detour from what I set out to look for in Little Dorrit.

A small little gang of us (let’s call ourselves the Moral Compass in Finance Massive for now) has been mulling over the future of banking while we’ve been mulling our Christmas wine. What happens, let’s say, when an American investment banker is also a Dutch civil servant? Even the Evening Standard on 21st November was asking itself about the City in a new age of moral capitalism:

Frippery has been abandoned. Companies are asking serious questions about their purpose and how they relate to others. Nobody believes capitalism is dead but it has changed.

The article cites the publication that week by the John Templeton Foundation of a Templeton conversation ‘Does the free market corrode moral character?’

It seems a strange and delightful coincidence that the crashing around our ears of material and capital assumptions should have happened on the very day that the Sparknow report on the relationship between museums, libraries, archives and business in London was launched. Smashing. I was already on the lookout for what I’m broadly calling ‘resilience’ or ‘cultural substance’ strategies – not CSR to spice up brand values, which I often find to have misplaced the cultural relationships into a place in the business where they can’t do much real day to day good. The mess of human and cultural encounter which triggers some raw and uncontainable emotion is surely essential to the formation of judgement, empathy and moral compass. Of course the measurable, sharply defined, tidied up targets for mobile phone component recycling or whatever are worthwhile, but how are the people whose conversations with each other and with suppliers and clients make up the swell, the meaning, the substance of to and fro, to act from a place of soul and substance if they don’t get their hands dirty and if their hearts don’t ache from time to time? To swell the coffers, surely you need to well up from time to time? So I’d offer that cultural strategy, or resilience, should place the archive, the history, the collections and traditions which are the heritage of the place into play as provocation, a key to employee engagement, a way to create interior monologue in the people, the place and ultimately the purpose.

The banking crisis has lured me back into the dark heart of the beast I left a long time ago. I suspect, with a pretty long background in derivatives, leverage and operational risk, I might understand a bit more than most about what’s gone on. I was playing with ideas of reinsurance futures before the crash of Lloyds. I was lobbying the authorities to make a case for portfolio insurance not causing the market crashes of the late 1980’s. We most certainly had it coming. And we had it coming because of all sorts of things I might write about another time. But the point is it has come. And it’s not all a story of Greedy Bankers. It’s a story of what’s gone awry at a much more fundamental level than that.

In any case, I find myself in the situation, for the first time in 13 or 14 years, of caring that banks care for themselves and their staff and those they serve in such a way that the insert themselves back into the role in society that my uncle, who was my bank manager, had in Hove, or Windsor.

So, very strangely indeed, I find myself willing to go back into the belly of the beast I came to detest, and see whether there are places there that I can put to work some of what I’ve learned about how organisations line up their internal and external conversations so that both come from a coherent, authentic and embodied place.

To that end, I’ve also started reading around debt, capitalism, moral capitalism, philanthro-capitalism, organisations as orchestrations of networks – to try and find the size and shape of the black hole, find it’s edges and then look at what’s needed to fill it. And in those wanderings, am reading Little Dorrit, following on from an article in the Guardian Review by Colin Burrows about what literature owes to debt. It traces the shift in the literary coverage of debt from being a lens through which to examine society to being a metaphor, in part because the nature of debt has become so complex that it’s difficult to put it at the heart of the writing.

The separation of the financial sense of credit from its various moral and social senses is the reason debt doesn’t figure centrally in fiction today. We have fictions about financial meltdowns and sudden losses of money. There is a vast number of films and thrillers about people who owe money to their drug-dealer or to the mafia. But debt no longer functions in literature as a subject through which to explore how people and societies connect together. The climax of Martin Amis’s Money is not a debt, but a loss of credit: John Self’s Vantage card is returned to him cut up into four pieces. Money treats money as the stuff that enables Self to be selfish, but it’s about how money comes from and returns to nothing, rather than about the ways in which debts link people together.

All of which leads me to the delights of the Circumlocution Office, which has little direct bearing on this blog, but which is the best description I’ve ever come across of beaurocracy sprawling, corrosively, out of control.

The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.

This glorious establishment had been early in the field, when the one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a country, was first distinctly revealed to statesmen. It had been foremost to study that bright revelation and to carry its shining influence through the whole of the official proceedings. Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving—HOW NOT TO DO IT.

Please note, Gordon Brown. To tackle the moral compass, the resilience, of the finance sector (and of London where the sector matters so much) is to tackle only part of the problem of the abdication of personal responsibility at every level in citizenship, government and business.

It’s a ramble, not very penetrable to the passing reader, but at least it upholds my commitment to myself to go exploring and parks what I’ve been thinking about somewhere I can find it again.

2009 is going to be very very interesting indeed.

Knowledge transfer of unlikely kinds

I think I must be tuned in to the unlikely meeting of worlds otherwise alien to each other. In any case, here are two offers of ‘knowledge transfer events’ which I think should get the juices flowing.

First, from Saturday’s Guardian: Freerunning goes to war as marines take tips from EZ, Livewire and Sticky

“We found some of the moves were relevant for battle,” .. “For them it is about artistic expression. For example, they will run along a wall keeping a low profile because it looks good, but we need to do the same thing in urban combat to stay safe.”

The other example that struck me over the weekend has an altogether darker underbelly. I was watching a programme about wreckers presented by Bella Bathurst who has also written a book on it. The original wreckers, who stripped wrecked ships for a living in dangerous circumstances, often leaving survivors to drown, are in fact the same families in many cases as those who are committed to the life boat cause. Same skills, different motives.

I write this, in fact, as I’m listening, in the background, to a virtual lecture by Clive Holtham about the role of artists sketch books in reflective management practice, which is another crossover moment. And then there are the blurring of boundaries between high and low culture with the popular classical raves going on for a few years now in Berlin clubs.

So all kind of knowledge is crossing all kinds of gaps, and in it’s transfer is generating new energy, commitment and ideas. This is, to me, true knowledge transfer of an unpedestrian kind. Hard to see, but inspirational when one gets a glimpse of it.

Brothels in Bangladesh – a direct consequence of climate change

As I come to the shift of gear, the dreamy limbo of writing up the museums work we’ve been doing for the past few months and starting to clear a space to think about the work on horizon scanning and futures which hoves into few and will take up most of my thinking and unthinking space from February to July, I’m quite alert to tiny fragments which pack a punch. I’m finding a surprising amount in our mla database which seems to connect directly to the hsf thinking in ways that are almost frightening. For example I wrote recently about poetry as a kind of horizon scanner – the poetry library gets a surprising frontline view of what matters to people.Then in the Guardian this week I was startled by an article on the rise in prostitution in Bangladesh:

“The brothel opened 20 years ago, making it the newest and largest of the 14 recognised brothels in the country. It is set on the meeting point of two vast rivers, the Jamuna and the Ganges (known locally as the Padma), which makes this a very busy place to catch a ferry. Trucks carrying rice, jute, sugar cane and fish from the west and south-west of the country queue here for two or three days at a time to cross the river for the drive to the capital, Dhaka. In Bangladesh on a BBC World Service boat to look at the impact of climate change, I was surprised to find that an unexpected consequence of rising water levels is the growth in demand for prostitution. River erosion has meant the closure of some ferry berths, so men wait even longer to cross the river. And, while they wait, many of them pass the time in the company of Daulatdia’s women.”

We spent some time this week at a workshop imagining scenarios for mla relationship with business (banish mla as concept, replace it with a sense of extended learning places and resources essential to the rounded worker, then ‘backcast’ from that to the present day to see how one would achieve that symbiosis over, say, 20 years).

Anyway, my question for a couple of days has been, take a scenario (not good or bad, hopeful or unhopeful, just a confluence of circumstance) and imagine backwards from that circumstance how would would have forseen it in some way.So I’m interested in the idea of taking brothels (one can deconstruct brothel of course in quite a feminist way – poor endentured women with no prospects, men with too much time on their hands and not much inclination to do cultured things) in Bangladesh (low-lying land, under-resourced in flood management, having to react rather than act, most likely to be one of the frontiers where we witness the consequences of climate change, etc).But working back from brothels, Bangladesh, flooding, too few ferries, downtime. How might one, 10 years ago have forseen this thing? What kinds of horizon scanning might one have done in, say 1997? What kinds of different policies for prostitution and flood transportation might a reasonably accurate prognosis have led to?I think it might be interesting for our hsf governance work to come at it sideways, and find some unlikely events, from history and the present, and consider what a well-scanned intelligence process might have thrown up by way of a different policy path.What’s so interesting here is how little we prize the insights that people can bring from their daily witnessing. I’m witnessing a great deal of unlikely stuff because of where I sit. But I’m not a scanner or a futurist, and there’s no-one whose sleeve I can tug about most of it. I do it because it interests me and puts a bit of pep into my daily work. Think of all those scanners out there. If, instead of simply using people’s excess computing power to calculate space things,we used their witnessing power to help us see further, think of the changes that could bring about.

It happens a bit of course. Say the RSPB and birdwatching. There’s a model of participatory scanning that it’s worth looking more closely at, and I know Natural England so some interesting scanning using Cognitive Edge techniques. And it’s all trendy to talk about the wisdom of crowds. But I’m not talking about exactly any of that here. I think I’m talking about something a bit different that I’m trying to find and describe better.I’m off to read the Guardian and let it settle for a bit while I think about what it is I want to say next.

But before I do, a tiny, gorgeous little thing from my second visit to Louise Bougeois, accompanied by sketches of skyscapers as people – perhaps three of them standing together:

“One man was telling a story, it was a very good story, and it made him happy, but he told it so fast that nobody understood it.

Yup, that happens a lot.

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. 

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.                

‘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.



Mind the Gap: knowledge work and the UK construction industry

I’m close to the final thing, or the first thing, depending.
Here’s the synopsis. This feels like a beginning to me in some way I’m not yet able to describe. Rather like the article ‘One continuous accident mounting on top of another’
in which Francis Bacon describes his creative process, if that’s not too pretentious of me.

Q: It often happens, does it, this transformation of the image in the course of working?

It does, but now I always hope it will arrive more positively. Now I feel that I want to do very, very specific objects, though made out of something, which is completely irrational from the point of view of being an illustration. I want to do very specific things like portraits, and they will be portraits of the people, but, when you come to analyse them, you just won’t know – or it would be very hard to see how the image is made up at all. And this is why in a way it is very wearing, because it is really a complete accident. For instance, the other day I painted a head of somebody, and what made the sockets of the eyes, the nose, the mouth were, when you analysed them, just forms which had nothing to do with eyes, nose or mouth; but the paint moving from one contour into another made a likeness of this person I was trying to paint. I stopped; I thought for a moment I’d got something much nearer to what I want. Then the next day I tried to take it further and tried to make it more poignant, more near, and I lost the image completely.
Because this image is a kind of tightrope walk between what is called figurative painting and abstraction. It will go right out from abstraction, but will really have nothing to do with it. It’s an attempt to bring the figurative thing up on to the nervous system more violently and more poignantly.

Well, of course it’s pretentious, but better than not going right out on a limb.

The moreoreless finished article (or opening chapter?) ended up around 9,000 words plus footnotes on knowledge work in the UK construction industry which seems to have turned in some way into a founding essay for Sparknow’s next ten years. Here are the synopsis, and Sparknow’s founding essay. If you’d like a copy of the whole paper and are willing to comment on it, please email me.

I’ve also promised to go back through and assemble the various works on knowledge and space, and on slowness, which Clive Holtham and I wrote over the years, and make them available here.

Next year when I’ve more breathing space, I’m inclined to play with a wiki which starts to thread the whole thing together into a position on knowledge work and workplace design for knowledge work.

‘MIND THE GAP’: A View of Knowledge Work in the UK Construction Industry
This paper explores the following questions:
1. What is knowledge work?
2. Who is a knowledge worker?
3. What are the characteristics of a high knowledge economy and a firm in it?
4. What kinds of knowledge issues are there in the UK construction industry?
5. What kind of knowledge- and collaboration-intensive processes work?
6. What kinds of encouragement do people need to engage in knowledge work?
It makes six main points:
1. Everybody is a knowledge worker. The construction industry as a living knowledge system challenges the view that knowledge work is done in the head.
2. The dominant metaphors of knowledge work hinder. A move towards metaphors of ecology, culture and environment and away from metaphors of capture, capitalisation and resources would help.
3. Knowledge lies in the gaps in between – between participants in a project, in the time between the generation of an idea, the execution of a project and its subsequent management, between disciplines. Knowledge is activated only in context in a particular moment. Only information can be codified.
4. Information infrastructure, economic incentives, innovation systems, and education and learning – the four pillars of the knowledge economy – are a useful lens through which to assess the state of knowledge in construction.
5. The UK construction industry, by its nature has a lot of ‘gaps in between’. It’s knowledge-rich, but not yet very able in managing the gaps to generate competitive advantage.
6. Tools and techniques might be under any label, of which knowledge is only one, but are subordinate to an intent to create values and a culture which encourages effective knowledge behaviours at all levels.

Sparknow Founding Essay: Designing Spaces for Knowledge