I’ve not been writing much lately, having finished my dissertation on September 1st and hours later having handed in my notice at work, to take up a new post as Taxonomy Manager for the BBC. I was delighted to be offered a role that follows on directly from my studies of taxonomy work, and I can’t wait to get started.

I have been very busy during September handing over to my successor, so inevitably thinking about knowledge transfer. Records management has been for the most part fairly straightforward mainly due to the nature of the business, which has enabled us to be reasonably efficient records managers, but I found it very hard to express my tacit knowledge well except through stories. This reminded me of a post by Ron Baker on effectiveness as opposed to efficiency.
Good records management is the “baseline efficiency” you need to keep functioning. It is hard to gain a competitive advantage simply by having decent records management, because if you don’t, you won’t even meet basic professional standards. Effectiveness, however, is a much more elusive beast – relying on slippery concepts like tacit knowledge, judgement calls based on experience and intuition, even artistry.
Storytelling in business has become popular because it is such a natural way of communicating expressively, as has the use of scenarios and personas in marketing and design. However, what surprised me was how formulaic my stories were – even though they applied to different areas of the business and different situations. The same characters (including myself) followed the same patterns of behaviour, through technology upgrades, changing customer needs, and other staff coming and going. I have been facing the same dilemmas and worrying about the same things over and over again, while at the time believing that things were changing and situations were different, probably because I focused on the differences not the similarities each time.

This reminded me that managing characters is just as important as managing situations (or technologies or products) and also how useful it would have been to have tried some storytelling earlier on. However, it takes time to see patterns, so you need storytellers to stick around long enough to be able to grasp what is a repeating dynamic and what is coincidence. The fast turnaround of knowledge managers is an obvious barrier to this. At the very least, it means the knowledge managers have to identify the people who have been around long enough to see the patterns in the stories, rather than expect to find it easy to pick up patterns themselves. In an organisation, there are many intertwined stories operating at different levels – from the stories of individual careers, single projects, to the overall corporate history. The conflicts and resolutions in these stories – how the tanking project was salvaged, the difficult client appeased, the divided team reunified – and between the levels of stories, seem to me to be where you will find the secrets of organisational effectiveness.

It is very easy to see taxonomies solely as mechanisms of efficiency – classifying documentation related to very linear processes such as stages in a project – but they also embody characters and stories, reflecting what is culturally important, for example. Taxonomies for knowledge discovery in particular are most effective when they are able to work with stories – if you are looking for paint does that suggest a story in which you also want paintbrushes, white spirit, an easel, etc.?