#Procuring #knowledge

I think that one of the most interesting articles this week (beside the one on a potential “dark matter” ring around the Earth) is at last something about “big data” uses that does not involve “Big Brother”-esque scenarios or pre-empting customer/citizen choices (e.g. as disclosed by Ford marketing, about the data that they collect from cars that they sell http://aje.me/KHwyuW):)

The idea? From “big data”, maybe we could get “big science”- i.e. we are collecting so much data (e.g. just consider how much information was collected by all the “sensors” that we placed around our Solar System), that we have a huge backlog.

And maybe, just maybe, people focused on new ways to “mine” those data could find unexpected phenomena, or, as it happened with popular “gamification” of science (creating proteins as if it were a videogame, or RNA manipulation), it could end up enabling a mass of citizens with a limited set of skills and science background become part of a collective effort, as it happened in the past with SETI (ok- we haven’t yet found our BEM- Big Eyed Monster- but the SETI technology and concept has been used in other initiatives): http://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/at-work/innovation/gordon-moore-giving-big-to-big-data-scientists

But I am digressing, as this afternoon I posted something else on Facebook:

I had planned a full day on risk in Italian in a couple of libraries (part of my update, of course!), but the afternoon library will not be accessible until Monday

So, I will refresh my Chinese Headstart2 so far, get through week 5 of my course on risk on Coursera and post my week-end article

This time: on knowledge and procurement (but probably some of my FB friends knew that I was heading there, from what I posted over the week)

Ok, now some disco-in-a-bus (I think that today is Pink Floyd-esque), before I will get at my keyboard:)

After yesterday’s really short night (not for fun, for neighbors and their side-effects, courtesy of a spillover from my last period working in Brussels, in 2010), with a long series of previous not-so-long nights, today was quite tiresome- but useful.

In December, as I had since October to do a fall-back vs. my original plan to improve few language skills and recover+improve maths and German, I completed preparing my new service- which either will become my next consulting activity, or I will turn into a further book and multimedia.

Actually, I did this afternoon some “knowledge provisioning” for something else that I will talk about another time, and then my refresh of the first two units of Chinese Headstart2, so that I can keep on my plan to have, with just a modicum of investment (e.g. by doing writing exercises in my travels lasting 30 minutes or more), to get back toward the HSK1- plus completing another Headstart2 course (and get a certificate for that).

And while writing I am doing the other bit, the first run of “week 5” on risk from Coursera.

Until late September, the plan was to actually spend until the end of 2013 to complete some “step up” on my German and HSK1, and then in the first half of 2014 prepare that new activity and some books, while also refreshing my knowledge on various skills that I first studied in the 1990s, and refreshed regularly until 2007, but did so erratically since 2008, when I started trying to settle in Brussels.

Let’s just say- if I had stayed in UK in 2003 and got a job there after folding my companies, instead of trying to get back to Italy and then to Brussels, I would have probably switched passport (as I had been resident in UK officially since 1999, actually since late 1998), and… avoided wasting plenty of times running around a spinning wheel as if I were an hamster:D

Anyway- whatever doesn’t kill you, is a learning opportunity: and certainly in the last decade I learned a lot (maybe also because I had almost two decades in business to rely on).

Now, I had three published books (two that I will use within my new activity), few more in the pipeline, improved some language skills, and had, thanks to the limited functionality of my arm between October and December, plenty of time in libraries, speeding up my knowledge refresh.

There are a couple of interesting elements: if you live abroad, you end up learning more details on what you already knew- but in a different language.

When I was doing my refresh over the last few months, I “resurrected” business books (e.g. on strategy, risk, banking, organizational design and analysis, history, political science, economics, finance) that I had left with my parents- and noticed how, almost as if by magic, my library since the late 1980s gradually lost its “Italian side”, and became mainly filled with English books, with few exceptions: books in German, French, Spanish, and few other languages, plus business books that I had to buy to comply with my “learning method” in business.

I wrote about it in the past, and you can read more about that within the free version of my book on change, at http://tinyurl.com/BFM2013, but basically I did first for political activities, then from mid-1980s in business, have to be able to have a conversation about a variety of subjects, industries, technologies, etc- not to be an expert, but to be able to a) deal with experts b) act as a “communication channel” between the “operatives” and the “business side”.

If you are working in a large enough business, you are probably familiar with the scenario: you need to do something, but you lack the expertise required; so, you invoke a colleague from another part of the organization, or even an external expert, and… you end up wondering what the hell they are saying.

So, I always made a point of buying books before each new assignment in an industry where I had not worked before, or a business domain I had no prior knowledge about, not to “pass as an expert”, but just to be able to get into a “listening mode”, while reassuring the customer that I understood their “lingo”, and that therefore they could try talking and thinking as they usually did, and I will raise a flag if I needed help, instead of doing what they usually did with other generalist consultants: “rationalize”.

If you do not know what I mean… when you interview or try to obtain information from somebody, if that somebody is willing to cooperate (don’t think about anything spooky: consciously or unconsciously, whenever you change the way things are done, people already in the environment could be less than cooperative), s/he will try to explain to those who s/he doesn’t acknowledge as skilled enough to understand what they say or do, and usually this “explanatory act” has few side-effects:

1) they “dumb down” their lingo; to my Mensan friends: yes, in business you knowledge is akin to IQ- when talking with somebody “slower in the field”, you slow down and streamline or simplify what you say to ensure continuous communication

2) as a further step, they try to convert into a sequence of clear steps what maybe is “more fuzzy”

3) when you do 1) and 2), you usually end up skipping something that either is too complex to explain, or you take for granted, or you consider “minutiae”.

I could continue, but you get the picture: this “rationalization” process to make things understandable usually remove information- and if what you are saying is then used to train others, or produce a book, or, even worse, design a new process or software, what you obtain is “structured chaos”.

Usually, the first casualty of this process is the removal of “complications”- exactly what you need to be aware of when things go wrong.

But it is an everyday experience: freshly trained “by the book” people are unable to cope with nuances, ambiguities, unexpected events, while people who have been at the same set of tasks for a while (at least, the best and most committed of them) simply seem to be able to get through it as if it were a second nature to them.

So, in my experience (e.g. in late 1980s I was switching industry on a daily basis, also if I was always an “expert” in decision support models), a small “knowledge building investment” beforehand is worth doing.

Nowadays, I still get puzzled when I see younger consultants who feel guilty or unprofessional about checking on suppliers’ websites information on what they offer, or specific software, or even Wikipedia to then check documents, standards, laws, etc- and end up ignoring anything that wasn’t in their course books.

Even worse: after few years, they will get into the capital sin- cease to update (or a least check if it is up-to-date) the knowledge that they will use into a new activity.

To make it simple: addition and subtraction are still the same- but if you are used to do it by hand on paper while everybody in your new environment is using the calculator on their mobile, chances are that you will be slower than they are (and maybe look a little bit “unusual”;) .

Permanent learning (and permanent checking of what you learn, at least before each new assignment) should be a mandate- pity that our schooling system is focusing too much on exams about transmitted information, and not enough on “how to learn” or “how to use your skills”.

Yes, I am a little bit extreme- but you can have a look on http://www.linkedin.com/in/robertolofaro and see why: I worked across multiple countries, cultures, industries, technologies, and therefore I did not have the luxury of getting a “knowledge cocoon” that I could rely on for all my life (I wonder who does).

Incidentally: as I wrote once in a while, I think that transmitting knowledge to others is a wonderful way to improve and “stabilize” your own knowledge- no, I do not think that those who know do, and the other teach.

In business, I always pushed people to try to transfer knowledge to others, as a way to make them deal with ambiguities and “lost in translation” situations: a way to evolve from a mere working bee following other working bees, to a working bee that, when feasible, could actually show the way to others.

Yes, I think that knowledge “consolidation” should start not form the top, but from the bottom, who should then be involved in ensuring that whatever has been consolidated is still relevant to everyday business reality.

And this, at last, brings up the reason for the title:D

In my case, yesterday was a “procurement/update day” for my knowledge on banking- but expressed in Italian, as the previous time that I had to study Italian regulations was in the… 1990s (ok, on risk and related also a decade ago).

Today instead was on risk: in both cases, using a “twisted” approach.

I get through few books that I selected online within the library catalog, have a quick run cover-to-cover, study the structure of the text, read what looks like key parts, and, if I think that further study is needed, I take one or more books on loan.

I work anyway using a “pipeline” method, as if it were a business development initiative.

When working with customers on business development, one of the first items, notably in consulting and software, was to convince them that you have to consider different potential customers as a continuum, with varying degrees of “maturity”- some might turn into customers in mere days, others are still just people you are trying to explain to what you do, others are existing customers that might be interested in something that you haven’t yet offered them, and so on.

A purely sequential approach (i.e. following a potential customer from stage A until Z, then turn to another one) is, at best, a waste of resources, and quite often a waste of opportunities.

The same is with my knowledge update: I have multiple, parallel threads, and each one is in varying degrees of “maturity”.

The first step is having a look at what I have already in stock (in this case, a blessing in disguise was the constant stream of requests for variants of my CV to highlight this or that), then get through a pile of books with the “quickread and survey/fact finding approach”, then schedule were to get into details (e.g. a first introductory book, followed by more detailed ones- yes, also the “sequential approach” is useful).

As an example: on risk, beside what I knew already, and some updates, I went through books that I had studied in the 1990s, updates that I did in the 2000s, and so on; then, I rummaged through few books this morning (I was planning to do more in the afternoon- ok, next week).

The course on risk on Coursera is supposedly to be followed by doing all the required readings etc- but assumes that you only followed a prior introductory course on risk.

As I have been “crunching” those concepts for decades, I decided to use a feature: download:D

So, my first run is just watching lectures each week (I did the same with other courses that can be downloaded, e.g. from MIT or Yale), to check how much my knowledge and experience is relevant, how much the lingo changed, etc; at the same time, I am doing my “book quickread” in libraries.

Once I will be done with the first run through the ten weeks, I will do a second run through that course- this time, with all the required readings, and comparisons with my older books, and maybe borrowing some books from libraries.

Procuring knowledge (and updating it) is a sedimentation process- if you studied archeological methods or cultural anthropology, maybe you are familiar with these concepts (e.g. we talk about Troy- but there isn’t just one Troy- there have been many, as there have been many Rome, as a layered cake).

What is interesting is that, in this case, my “procurement” has a key element: I am relying on my own prior knowledge to guide me through the process, and sort out the relevant from the irrelevant or trivial.

But in a complex organization… you need to ensure consistency without using just one person- and this usually implies setting up a procurement organization.

Yes, I did some activities in that area too, but I like to share a couple of anecdotes that I derived from my own experience in business, notably in trying to sell consulting services.

Long, long ago, a procurement manager told me that they started again involving people from “operations” in decisions after once somebody looked for an Italian programmer able to speak English… and, through the traditional “standardization”/”rationalization” procurement process they delivered… an interpreter from English to Italian who had done translations within the computer industry:D

A more personal case was when, in late 1990s, I helped a partner to design a SAP consulting service.

As an obnoxious bookworm, I checked with my contacts, and ended up following the SAP R/3 computer based training through most of the modules, buying some CDs from SAP containing training on the first version of what eventually became their business intelligence tool, and other material (I also eventually entered their mailing list).

Then, I went with my partner to present our approach to a potential customer, and, as I am focused on cultural, organizational, technological change, I talked on how technologies that cover more than one business function usually “embed” their own concept of how a company should work, and if you ignore that, either you end up adapting to an exogenous culture (in this case, the one provided by SAP), or trying to “tinker” (technically: “customize”;) , i.e. pushing your own culture within the software (which, usually, implies massive amounts of consulting activities).

You can avoid both mistakes- but you need to assess where you are, have somebody with the product expertise and an understanding of its “embedded culture”, and defined a cultural/organizational migration process (e.g. changing processes, deciding which parts of the software should be used, which should be avoided, and those that should be “customized”- priority setting): at the time, many companies still believed that a software could be a magical tool that in two or three months would bring a company from the XIX century to readiness for the XXI.

As I reminded yesterday over the phone while discussing about a potential SAP project, and wrote today, about an updated CV that I sent

I did not add the “SAP service creation” in late 1990s and the associated SAP R/3 CBT learning (I went through all the modules, focusing on FI/CO)…[with the] purchasing request asking that I take on the role of “cultural change and convergence” re SAP

The reason why I did not add it is that the person who received the request passed away few years ago, but I shared yesterday my first reaction: my partner built on the “dramatic effect” and told me that the customer had asked for a person with that profile- and I told him that it was too early, as we had only possible “hands-on” people.

Then, he added: but they asked explicitly about you- and I started laughing.

I told him that it was an obvious misunderstanding about my skills- and when we talked again with a business (but operational) contact within the customer I clarified; it was still understood that anyway it was mainly a “change” issue, not a “SAP change”, and therefore we discussed a little bit longer…

Eventually, it was axed on the typical element: price:)

Few years ago, while in Brussels and “in between” jobs, I found an interesting course organized by SAP and local authorities focused just on those issues (and some module)- a decade had passed.

Eventually, I wasn’t accepted- but I understood why it was done with local authorities: the training would last 9 months, and deliver a highly qualified person.

Few companies would finance for 9 months an expensive full-time training of one of their own expert employees, only to end up having somebody able to basically decide her/his own salary, or otherwise be quite confident to be able to find a higher paycheck elsewhere…

Somebody could say that the “interpreter instead of a programmer” and my own identification as a potential candidate for a position that, from the face of it, I found to be not qualified enough for, are both cases of misguided procurement.

But, in my experience, that is not the case: it is a matter of communication management, i.e. ensuring that the right people are involved if and when needed, and that they keep having “day-by-day” reality checks (i.e. they must be those working on that).

When I designed a new procurement function for a customer, I was against transferring people from “front-line” units into a procurement office, as they would quickly become detached from everyday reality, while still acting as a filter toward those coping with reality.

In my view, it was better to have a function ensuring the “procurement process”- but splitting in two roles: a) a kind of “in house consultancy” to support those who need resources to acquire them b) a coordination/audit role to ensure compliance with corporate purchasing rules.

Personally, in my experience is possible to have the same people cover both roles- it is simply a different balance in each phase, first to help to define “what”, and then follow the process- but always keeping them within the loop during the procurement process.

Foreign Affairs is often considered a political science magazine: but, frankly, since I first read often articles from its pages (mid-1990s, after attending a couple of summer schools at LSE in London), I often found articles that are more relevant to business change than those published by famous magazines published by famous MBA schools.

I will not name names- but many articles are “ego trips” for those presenting yet another “model” that they will help companies to implement, or maybe just to sell books; instead, often articles within Foreign Affairs have a “ex-post analysis of experience” quality that can inspire something more.

If you subscribe to the digital edition, it is available few weeks before it comes on the newsstand, and therefore in late December 2013 I was reading the January-February 2014 issue.

It was interesting to re-read yesterday an article about procurement at the Pentagon, as I posted on Facebook:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XtlQn5lmTk [it is “Pentagon War”, on how NOT to design a new piece of equipment]

I wrote once in a while about the BPRCD, a side-effect of that attempt at “streamlining the way government is doing business”, obviously with plenty of advice (and influence) on procurement, e.g. including a whole library and a software to do your own data-based business process redesign (I used it once in a while).

The funny part? It was free, and the DoD sent me a copy for free, telling me also that I could share it around.

The library? Beside articles, as examples it contained full procurement policies, regulations, etc: yes, it was the pre-9/11 world, when you can find online almost any information about anything.

I think that continuous learning, now that gradually life will get longer worldwide, will challenge our assumptions about schooling (yes, social networking too will help: have a look at the other free book online, http://tinyurl.com/business-social-2013

Have a nice week-end!

PS as I completed watching in the background to the Week 5 of my course on risk, it is now the right time to… switch to something less serious- so, I will post the article now, and do the spell- and syntax-checking tomorrow morning, Saturday: I apologize for any typos, and I will add a “Post-Post-Scriptum” with the result tomorrow (yes, this was an exercise in writing almost 4,000 words in less than 2 hours, starting from just a couple of ideas in my mind :D)

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