Sunday, May 22, 2011

“The whole world is being reorganised in my head”

At dinner this week, my friend Megan pointed out that I have not reported back on my interview with Manuel Flury from SDC in Bern, which is very true and remiss on my part. The full profile is waiting to be written but as I’d been a little nervous of the approach we chose to take, here are my reflections on how we collected Manuel’s KM story.

Manuel met me from Bern train station at midday. He is a tall, bearded gentleman with an open, friendly face and, like many continental Europeans, has an impressive grasp of English (among other languages). We spent the first hour or so talking over a pizza and salad, and then continued the interview walking around his beautiful city.

There was barely a cloud in the sky. The warm sunshine on the 15th-century architecture, tree-covered mountains and the startlingly green-blue river Aare has left me with an enduring technicolour image of Bern.

Beginning the interview at a restaurant felt more natural: table, dictaphone and face-to-face interaction all at hand. But I’m not a fan of interviewing over food. It’s rather unfair on the interviewee who can’t eat and talk, and ends up wolfing down mouthfuls in between questions. The interruptions are also harder to control with waiters, noisy neighbours, jarring music, and, in this instance, a local TV crew filming chefs tossing pizza dough beside our table.

We covered a lot and I quickly realised how little I know about the world of international development. Thankfully, the recording played back Manuel’s stories and examples pretty clearly and we continued talking while walking around Bern for the next couple of hours.

The lapel mic securely fastened, I put my faith back in the dictaphone, and this time upped my listening and retention skills as I no longer had a pad for scribbling questions or comments.

Natural flows and pauses

Replaying the recordings, I can hear a definite difference in the tone, speed and flow of our conversation. At the restaurant we struggled to hear each other and Manuel’s voice seems more forced and his answers almost come in chunks. While walking, his words seem freer and more fluid, he speech slows and his pitch is more natural.

I had been worried about distractions. But just as we walked from one spot to the next, pausing to take in the vibrant views or for a snippet of local history, it was easy to pick up our thread again.  And as I learnt about the system of Swiss cantons and social hierarchies, his recollections of when he first encountered Sparknow at a conference in the Hague moved easily to SDC’s initial work with story, his thoughts on locked frames and measurement practices, and onto his hopes for the future.

Listening back, the background noises don’t interrupt but rather help me remember my reactions to Manuel’s projects or his opinions on KM. The echo from an enclosed alley, my gasp as I see the river Aare for the first time, birds singing, children laughing at the bears, the blustery wind when walking by the water.

In total, we talked for about four hours. There is no way we would have been able to do that sitting in one space, especially not a sterile meeting room.

While walking we had natural pauses that allowed us to take a break from the interview without it affecting the flow. When working in an office or at home, I have to go outside and do something different to clear my head and come back to projects with fresh eyes. Interviewing outside felt like I was both working and creating space in my head at the same time.

We ended the interview over coffee at an open-roofed café/bar right over the Aare. It gave Manuel the opportunity to show me photos of a nomad, his object that he says reflects his work with knowledge, and some slides he uses to explain knowledge. More of which in the proper write up.

As I headed home on the train along the coast of Lake Geneva I jotted down what had stood out from Manuel’s experiences and lessons learnt, which I hope will give a nice taster of what’s to come:

  • Focus on practice over concepts and philosophies
  • Find the momentum in the organisation – that’s where you focus knowledge management
  • You can’t measure everything through direct relationships. What will be the impact on innovation and knowledge sharing from excessive reporting and planning?
  • Create legitimacy and credibility for your work – prove yourself and build on the trust
  • KM is closely tied to learning and quality
  • You can’t force change
  • Don’t talk about KM, use the language of the business
  • Work with the grassroots
  • Be known for something: KM at SDC is well known for its facilitation skills, which helps to get KM involved in many meetings
  • The Swiss system of direct democracy where everyone represents themselves also has an impact on knowledge sharing
  • Don’t underestimate how well you need to know or understand the organisation to be successful with KM

The quote I’ve used as the headline is how Manuel describes his ‘aha!’ moment when the power of storytelling clicked for him. Having been nervous about the logistics of this outdoor interview, I’ve adopted it too.

I knew it would be different, but I don’t think I realised the impact that walking while talking would have on the content, its pace, how I listened and what I took away.

Also posted on the Sparknow blog.


  1. shiggison posted this