Category Archives: openmindedness

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.

Rejected letter to Sunday Times about Jeremy Clarkson

Complete with rejecting email and outline of my next plan of attack.

Dear Ms WardThank you for your interesting letter. We would like to have been able to publish it, but there is space in our correspondence columns for only a fraction of the letters received each week. A copy of your letter has, of course, been passed on for the information of Jeremy Clarkson and the News Review Editor.

Yours sincerely
Parin Janmohamed
Letters Editor

From: Victoria Ward []
Sent: 21 January 2008 16:43
To: Sunday Times Letters
Subject: Mr Clarkson’s bullyboy tactics, this time with telephone number

Dear Sir,
Mr Clarkson’s views about the Arts Council cuts, expressed last Sunday, are sit very uncomfortably with me. I’m fine with him having strong views, even with him having politically incorrect views. But the distasteful, ill-informed and bigoted way in which he has chosen to express himself serves no useful purpose except to add another layer of ill-gotten gains to his already swelling coffers. And that’s really only useful to him isn’t it? It’s probably just as well that the only time we’ll see him on the underground is on posters. Otherwise he’d probably get a lively earful from a passing arty person of some kind of ethnicity which doesn’t appeal to him (or two, or three, or even some of us middle-class, middle-aged whities might join in). Oh, and perhaps we’d invite Benjamin Zephaniah along to write a poem about it.

Let me try and explain, more seriously, why this is so important to me.

Mr Clarkson is a man who could use his unreconstructed white, middle class comfy conservatism and well heeled, bully boyishness (with it’s inexplicable popularity), to engage all kinds of people, the kinds who don’t normally, in holding intelligent and lively conversation about the role of culture in a democratic society, and how this can best be supported by a mix of private and public backing. It seems a shame that all he sees fit to do is demonstrate an ugly, ill-considered and provocative ignorance.There is something here which we should be grappling with, in all it’s complexity, neither with simplistic ranting nor with the kind sentimental support for multi-culturalism which I find equally distasteful. Neither dilution through prize-days-with-no-prizes, nor polarised caricature and contempt are the answer for a democracy such as ours. Neither namby-pamby or nimby suits us.

Britain is a nation jam-packed with cultural entrepreneurship, festival and celebration expressed in the widest possible range of ways and it’s mature enough to have some pretty hard conversations about what should, and should not, be going on in the arts. We are witnessing the resurgence in all things art, (in which I include all kinds of art, music, multi-media, history and heritage, philosophies, debate, theatre, performance, events etc) as an important way to break down retrenchments and hostility associated with identity, violence and confrontation. And in more subtle, but exciting ways, there are many signs of attempts to relocate work and community in people’s lives as having some kind of cultural substance. In short, we are rediscovering meaning, and culture is a key vehicle for such rediscovery. (I should know, its a subject I’m researching at present.) In fact Mr Clarkson is proposing exactly the opposite of Mr Jenkin’s recent view in the Guardian that the British Council now take the lead in British diplomacy in all but the most politically sensitive countries. (,,2242835,00.html “Russia’s assault on the British Council reveals the true nature of diplomacy.” The first line says ‘Western democracies propagate their values more effectively through cultural exchange than through bullying rhetoric’ Perhaps Russia would suit Mr Clarkson better than the UK?)

By all means lets have a lively conversation about what kinds of cultural enterprise should be backed, and for whose benefit. This is not that conversation. It’s a self-opinionated, poorly researched rant by a man unqualified to offer any kind of commentary in this arena. Mr Clarkson should either get back behind the wheel and stay there, or step forward properly and use his public position and following to engage thoughtfully in this important subject and draw into it those who would not otherwise engage.

The BBC should be ashamed of having given him a platform from which to rant so ill-advisedly, and the Sunday Times should be even more ashamed of having published such an article.

Victoria Ward

So here’s what I said back:

Thanks for letting me know. I’ll put it in my blog instead then and have an unheard rant like a tree falling in the forest. I’m going to write to Mark Thomson too and have a bash at the BBC about putting the license fee towards things it’s needed for like the World Service and not wasting it on Jeremy Clarkson and Jonathon Ross. In fact I think, given the position that these figures have in society, and the salaries they command both of which far exceed political influence by any one politician, and these are salaries which we, the citizens pay for, the BBC Trust should insist on a kind of community service principle. Anybody contracted to them has an obligation to be political, with a small p and productive in engaging the politically disenfranchised in new forms of debate, across all platforms.

Good examples of this at work might be Monty Don and Jamie Oliver. Or of the BBC doing a cross platform thing on obesity.I haven’t quite worked out what I’m going to say yet, but I’m certainly going to be saying 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.

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.     

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

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

Poets and clowns

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.’