Tuesday 12 July 2011

KM and coffee machines

ubiquitous coffee machineI don't know if I am getting grumpy in my old age, but I seem to be on a run of blog posts which challenge popular models, approaches or analogues in Knowledge Manager. Today's challenge is to the analogy of the coffee machine.

Gerald, I am sorry, I am going to pick on you as an example of this analogy, but it is a pretty widespread analogy. The coffee machine is seen as somewhere we make connections, meet people, and share knowledge.

Intrigued by this, I have loitered around some coffee machines to see if this is true.

Firstly, very few of the conversations I overheard had anything to do with knowledge. Most of them were purely social, covering the weather, holidays, "How are you, fine thanks" and other social interplay, most of it of little value other than reinforcing social bonds (Yes, I know that has value).

Secondly, the bulk of material posted on the notice boards by the coffee machine were also purely social. Postcards, thank-you cards, items for sale, notices of forthcoming concerts or lectures, etc.

Once upon a time, when computers were used mostly for word-processes, I did use a coffee-area noticeboard to broadcast new lessons, as we had no other way of getting new knowledge into people's attention-space. But I have never seen it done since.

A coffee machine is therefore a good metaphor for any social media that you are introducing purely to form social bonds. And I know that there is a school of thought that says "all we need to do is form social bonds, and knowledge will flow". But for me, for our view of knowledge management, its a poor analogy. The exchange and re-use of knowledge is far too important an issue to leave to chance encounters at a virtual coffee machine.

As I said in this post on the water cooler metaphor, just imagine managing your finances the same way - "I need money for my project - I will go to the coffee machine and hope I bump into someone who can give me some money".  If you need knowledge for your project, it would be equally crazy to say "I will go to the coffee machine and hope I bump into someone who can give me some knowledge".

Knowledge management is too important to leave to serendipity. It needs to be a deliberate and managed approach to providing people with the knowledge they need, when they need it.

If you want  coffee, go to the coffee machine. If you want knowledge, you need something far more focused.


Stuart French said...

Hi Nick,

Some thoughts:
1) Yes, you are starting to sound like a grumpy old man :)
2) Thank God for grumpy old men! We could do with more of them and less idealists and cynics.
3) In Australia we have a large telco where large amount of official work is done in the coffee machine style. For example, allocation of resources is handled a lot of the time via direct cross-divisional requests to a gatekeeper of some sort. If you need server space for that project, or a new piece of software put on the approved list, then you need to know the exact person who can get it done for you and you better hope you have some sort of relationship with them. This gives a level of agility but can make it very hard for new staff to work out how you get things done.

Nick Milton said...

Sorry stuart - time for me to lighten up, obviously!

You add a very pertinent observation there as you describe the "KM through the old boys network" model. With your permission, I will expand that into another blog post.

Gerald Meinert said...

Hi, Nick,
some misunderstandings so I am very happy to contribute towards a mutual understanding:
productive discussion!

Nick Milton said...

Good post Gerald, thanks

Marina Hiscock said...

Hi Nick
Good post, I fully agree with the bottomline, "If you want knowledge, you need something far more focused". In my previous company it was said that if you need to know whats happening in the company especially the status of projects, and sometimes the noise in the company, take time out to join the smokers... Now I am not saying that I support smoking, I am just saying ... it was real and our (non smoking) senior managers and employees use to hang out with the smokers on a regular basis and they believed valuable and real knowledge sharing took place. Marina Hiscock

Peter said...

Hello Nick,
thanks for raising this question.
But the coffee-machine methaphor is taken out of its original context and this could lead to misunderstandings.
I also do not remember that anybody recommending to go to the coffee machine with an urgent knowledge need.
Its more about getting some new inspiration or connections you would not think about in the first place.
On the other hand it points to old research by T.Allen (MIT) about the average distance measured from their physical workplace, employees engage in interactions with their peers.
I describe this phenomen under the term "Raum Planung" (Eng: Work space design") at www.methodenfinder.de with some references to new research about this phenomen in service organisations.
Best wishes
Peter Heisig

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