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Steve Barth consults to international government, NGO, academic and corporate clients. Recent work has focused on organizational learning and KM strategies in economic development and peace and security. Award-winning writer specializing in organizational intelligence and knowledge worker productivity.
Recent Activity
Do not be afraid to weep Do not be ashamed to shake Do not be too proud to ask: Are we so “exceptional” that we can’t we do better? Continue reading
Posted Dec 15, 2012 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
A new article by David Collinson, Lancaster University Management School: This article critically examines excessive positivity in leadership dynamics. It argues that the tendency for leader positivity to become excessive is a recurrent but under-researched medium through which power and identity can be enacted in leadership dynamics. Drawing on the metaphor of ‘Prozac’, it suggests that leaders’ excessive positivity is often characterized by a reluctance to consider alternative voices, which can leave organizations and societies ill-prepared to deal with unexpected events. Prozac leadership encourages leaders to believe their own narratives that everything is going well and discourages followers from raising problems or admitting mistakes. The article also argues that followers (broadly defined) are often quick to identify leaders’ excessive positivity and are likely to respond through various forms of resistance. It concludes by considering the extent to which excessive positivity... Continue reading
Posted Aug 3, 2012 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
"The Five Paradoxes of Leadership Development in Asia" condenses the findings from a recent, joint study by the Center for Creative Leadership and the Human Capital Leadership Institute (HCLI) about how to accelerate leadership development. They are presented in the context of Asian needs and, perhaps, Asian philosophy as a set of seeming contradictions. Paradox #1: To achieve success, learn from failure Paradox #2: To develop greatness, practice humility Paradox #3: To foster learning, emphasize doing Paradox #4: To accelerate development, slow down Paradox #5: To excel at the task, harness relationships Click through to read explanations for each paradox. The study interviewed key personnel from five "best practice" organizations in Singapore. "Too often, leadership is considered in isolation," says Dr. Mano Ramakrishnan, HCLI's head of research. "For this study, we accounted for the dynamics of a rising Asia; where... Continue reading
Posted Apr 25, 2012 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
Sales guru Geoffrey James has a great article up on Inc. "The best managers have a fundamentally different understanding of workplace, company and team dynamics," he says. "I learned that the 'best of the best,' tend to share the following eight core beliefs." 1. Business is an ecosystem, not a battlefield. 2. A company is a community, not a machine. 3. Management is service, not control. 4. My employees are my peers, not my children. 5. Motivation comes from vision, not from fear. 6. Change equals growth, not pain. 7. Technology offers empowerment, not automation. 8. Work should be fun, not mere toil. I'm generally leery of lists that tend to confuse correlation with causation, but as principles, James really gets it. Don't stop with the list by itself; read his short article that gets right to the point: "Eight... Continue reading
Posted Apr 24, 2012 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
One of the happiest days of my life was being stuck with Max Boisot in the back seat of a Range Rover on a fiver hour drive from Heathrow to Durham. I've met billionaires who are so casually generous that you never feel embarrassed when they treat you to a $500 per person meal. Max was like that with his incredible wealth of knowledge. Sharing so clearly made him happy. Whenever I told him what I was reading or working on—regardless of what the project was—he always had insights and experiences that were incredibly relevant and useful. Even when you realized how wrong you had been, you never felt stupid for it. My wife, who only met him twice (in Barcelona and at our home for dinner) nevertheless declared him her "favorite person ever!" I cannot pretend that there isn't... Continue reading
Posted Sep 15, 2011 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
As the Space Shuttle program comes to an end with this final flight of Atlantis, I've been thinking again about the value of such lofty endeavors. I published this short essay in KM Magazine in 2003 after the Columbia tragedy. ICARUS, FALLING Why are so many of us so deeply affected by those searing contrails? Is it possible that—about suffering—they were wrong, the Old Masters? Brueghel painted Landscape with the Fall of Icarus to suggest that even magnificent failures are just a peripheral splash on the vast canvas of disparate industry. "It takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along," WH Auden wrote. But perhaps Brueghel assumed that Icarus fell unnoticed because he flew unnoticed. Should we soar so high? That question is inevitably asked this week in articles and conversations around... Continue reading
Posted Jul 8, 2011 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
The difference between travel and tourism is simple. A tourist experiences disconnected sights and sounds and enjoys them without drawing meaning. A traveler roams the earth, digests what he sees and hears, and collects them in a framework of understanding, which he both brings to his travels and deepens with travels. The former is a pleasant interlude in your life. The latter is about life itself. —George Friedman, STRATFOR Founder & CEO via Continue reading
Reblogged May 11, 2011 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
Recently, but not for the first time, I found myself struggling to articulate why something as useful and reliable as science could sometimes be a dangerous distraction from the real answers to important questions—and why, as a visible and explicit process, science often requires too much bandwidth for effective communication. Then I came across this passage from Francisco José Ayala's 2007 Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion: Science is a way of knowing, but it is not the only way. Knowledge also derives from other sources, such as common sense, artistic and religious experience, and philosophical reflection. In The Myth of Sisyphus, the great French writer Albert Camus asserted that we learn more about ourselves and the world from a relaxed evening's perception of the starry heavens and the scents of grass than from science's reductive ways. The anthropologist Loren... Continue reading
Posted Dec 13, 2010 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
Coping with the complexity of today's business environment is not about predicting the future or reducing risk. It's about building the capacity, in yourself, your people, and the organization to adapt continuously and learn speedily, in order to maximize the chances of seizing fleeting opportunities. Three articles in the May/June 2010 issue of Ivey Business Journal are devoted to the tricky issue of managing complexity in today's global business world. The above quote is from "Coping with Complexity" by Niels Billou, Mary Crossan and Gerard Seijts. As business leaders, policy makers, the academic community, the media and an outraged public search the rubble of the global economic crisis for clues as to what went wrong, all fingers point to a common perpetrator, poor risk management. But while risk management, or lack thereof, played its part in the disintegration of the... Continue reading
Posted Sep 4, 2010 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
Large international non-governmental organizations face extra challenges in knowledge sharing and organizational learning. They pursue important goals that are simultaneously urgent and elusive, such as maintaining peace and security in conflict zones; alleviating poverty, hunger and disease; or building sustainable economic and political structures in transitional or post-conflict societies. NGOs often operate in harsh or hostile environments and with constrained resources, ad-hoc multicultural teams and complex interdependencies between actors and agencies. The largest of these organizations achieve economies of scale by operating globally in diverse locations. NGOs typically enjoy exceptionally committed employees, leading to strong informal networks, but internal and external dynamics can create highly bureaucratic organizational structures that discourage use of formal knowledge-sharing systems. Above all, NGOs constantly need to demonstrate results based on intangible outcomes. I will be leading a workshop at KMWorld 2010 called KM Platforms and... Continue reading
Posted Aug 23, 2010 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
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Mar 15, 2010
A nice message in my inbox today both complimented the time I've spent (often lonely) focusing on personal knowledge management, but also confirmed my conviction that individual, independent efforts are critical if any of us hopes to make a contribution to the collective. Dear M. Barth, I've read your work for 10 years now and I want to thank you for this. I recently published a book (in French) about information management in organizations and the last chapter is completely focused on PKM. In addition I published an ebook of 60 pages with 28 structured practice sheets. The global model that I proposed is simple. I wanted to let you know about this and thank you again for the inspiration you gave me. Sincerely, Christophe Deschamps Deschamps, Christophe: "Le personal knowledge management au service de l'efficacité personnelle." In Le nouveau... Continue reading
Posted Feb 22, 2010 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
A critical key to learning from experience is the ability to openly and honestly discuss the risks, errors, mistakes, variations, surprises and even failures that inevitably occur in any complex or difficult activity. Such honesty requires courage in any organizational setting, especially if people are afraid they'll be fired for either screwing up or speaking up. The question is, what can you do to facilitate, stimulate, protect and reward such courage so that knowledge workers can trust that their honesty will not be used against them? Harvard professor Amy Edmonson developed the concept of "psychological safety," to explain how individuals perceive the consequences of interpersonal risks in the workplace. Psychological safety governs specific, short-term, micro-behavioral decisions based on self-preservation. As such, it complements related concepts such as trust (giving others the benefit of the doubt over time), group cohesion (maintaining... Continue reading
Posted Feb 16, 2010 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
I'm honored to again blog at Cognitive Edge Feb. 14-28. The pioneering ideas of Dave Snowden and collaborators such as Max Boisot, Bill McKelvey, Cynthia Kurtz and Pierpaolo Andriani—about the real-world implications and applications of complexity theory, cognitive anthropology and other sciences—have been invaluable in my practice and I'll be reflecting on how my own understandings and interpretations have evolved over the past 11 years. The work centers on "pragmatic ways to manage under conditions of uncertainty, understand the power of business narrative and discover new ways to use human networks." In particular, I'll be sitting in on the San Diego accreditation course and SenseMaker™ workshop Feb. 17-19 and posting my notes. It will be interesting to compare how the theories and methods have changed since the first sessions in 2003. Continue reading
Posted Feb 15, 2010 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
Sorry Bill, clicking "Managing Knowledge Across Borders” took you to the page summarizing the article, at the bottom of which was a link to the PDF, As follows: Sorry for the confusion, Steve
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A recent discussion at The Braintrust Knowledge Management Group asked how cultural dimensions affect learning and knowledge sharing. I really like Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars' book "Building Cross-Cultural Competence" as a basis for understanding the challenges and opportunities you face and Hall's "Values Technology" approach to leveraging the differences. This issue is further complicated, complexified and/or mitigated by the uniqueness of organizational, professional and departmental cultures—and don't forget that there are often nested subcultures to these as well. For example, Japanese are said to have a very unique and cohesive culture that permeates their corporate behaviors. However, when I studied Japanese corporations invested in the US, I found huge differences between, say, Hitachi, Ricoh, Toyota and Seiko. I also found every site and subsidiary had unique attributes based on the character of the managers, the local staff, the region, etc., as... Continue reading
Posted Jan 28, 2010 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
In December 2000, I published "The Power of One" as the cover story in Knowledge Management Magazine. Although a number of people were already combining the three words, the article was one of the first widespread mentions of the idea of "personal" knowledge management. It seems obvious, but it is not often said that knowledge management works best when knowledge workers take the initiative and responsibility for what they know, don't know and need to know. Doing so not only makes the individual more valuable to the corporation, it also enhances the value of intellectual capital for the corporation. The original article is reprinted HERE. Many of my subsequent articles, columns and book chapters on PKM are HERE, along with a reading list of useful material by others. Continue reading
Posted Jan 18, 2010 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
I recently created a reading list of materials on PKM. The idea of a "personal" approach to knowledge management has been a focus of my work for more than 10 years now. Originally there were very few of us writing about this topic (Pollard, Skyrme, Cope, Frand, Dorsey, etc) while the idea had some vocal critics (you know who you are). In the past few years, the subject has become both popular and socially acceptable. Along the way, my own views have evolved considerably. In general, I'm interested in how the individual fits into increasingly social, collaborative and networked views of knowledge, learning and work. On one hand, I have explored the principles, values, skills and tools necessary for each of us to make our best contributions to collective efforts. On the other hand, I have increasingly focused on the... Continue reading
Posted Dec 24, 2009 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
Alice MacGillivray ( has a great riff on the arguments for/against ambiguity. She points out how important it is to choose precision or ambiguity based on the challenges of the situation, adding "I have also seen ambiguity nurture diversity: an important attribute of complex systems." In particular, Alice asks some penetrating questions about the value of clarity. 1) Can the idea of “carefully choosing our words” put too much emphasis on presentation and not enough on questioning and working to deeply understand? Surely if we become experts at choosing the best words, others should “get it?” 2) Might the description of knowledge management as “identification and capture of the critical insights” be an example of #1? 3) Does the assumption that one can “lock in” definitions put too much emphasis on objective, external truths and too little on internally contructed ones? Will people ever share the same feelings and truths with locked in definitions of “poverty,” “progress,” “ethics,” “knowledge,” or even “leadership”? Don't miss the rest of her post, "Food for thought: how do we think about ambiguity?"
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Chris Jones has an interesting post "On Semantics: Ambiguity is the Enemy." As someone who has spent 30 years writing professionally, I think he makes some very good points. Our messages get misunderstood, if not ignored, when we're not careful in choosing our words. It's worse if we fail to consider what filters our audience may use to interpret them. But speaking as someone who has spent 10 years working with disparate cultures, organizations and stakeholders, I find that, quite often, ambiguity is a reliable friend. No matter how precisely we choose our words, we can never assume they will be heard or interpreted exactly as we intend by every recipient. Instead, I find that being deliberately ambiguous forces project participants to collectively negotiate the meaning that will apply to the context at hand. And for the duration, they will... Continue reading
Posted Dec 18, 2009 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
Writing for the New York Times, Bruce Buschel is compiling a list of "100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do" for his new seafood restaurant: Veteran waiters, moonlighting actresses, libertarians and baristas will no doubt protest some or most of what follows. They will claim it homogenizes them or stifles their true nature. And yet, if 100 different actors play Hamlet, hitting all the same marks, reciting all the same lines, cannot each one bring something unique to that role? He makes a great point. Working with organizations that want to document and replicate "best practices" I always struggle to balance the advantages of efficiency with the danger of stifling adaptation or innovation. One way is to focus on "worst practices," not best. This warns people away from behaviors or processes that tend not to work, but also encourages them... Continue reading
Posted Nov 4, 2009 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
Thanks for emailing the New York speech by Geert Wilders. My first reaction was simply to delete for the same reason others were clicking forward. But the email helped me understand something I've been working on about the difference between knowing, learning and the replication of information. My ancestors in Europe (and America) were themselves ostracized, restricted, blamed, persecuted and evicted because of their middle-eastern origins, adherence to timeless religious and cultural beliefs and dietary preferences. So my instinct was to dismiss Wilders as a demagogue. His rhetoric has been used before, almost word for word, to stir fear about Chinese, Catholics, Jews or other groups. Judging by the American panic his speech has created, Europeans are somewhat more inoculated to it, having been infected before. Are the Dutch any more inconvenienced by Halal than they are by Kosher consumers?... Continue reading
Posted Oct 7, 2009 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
I like to tell people that there is no better knowledge management technology than a good coffee machine. Coffee is an attractor, bringing people into an ideal state for reflection, insight, conversation and collaboration. In 2005, we bought a super-automatic espresso machine, as a consolation for not remodeling the whole kitchen: Gaggia Synchrony Compact purchased from Whole Latte Love for about $650. It was Achille Gaggia who invented the modern espresso machine in 1938, which uses steam pressure to extract the best flavor and aroma from ground beans, along with the signature crema—the golden brown foam of nitrogen bubbles that smooth out the experience of drinking an espresso. A super-automatic is essentially a coffee-making robot, Put whole beans in the hopper and fill the water reservoir, and the Synchrony grinds and pumps cups of espresso or crema coffee at the... Continue reading
Posted Oct 2, 2009 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
Comparing "traditional knowledge" (as in indigenous communities) to "traditional science" (as in scientific method) offers a useful metaphor—and perhaps a better model—for the problem of constructing KM solutions, which are typically approached as an extension of "scientific management" even though organizational interventions respond better to anthropological approaches rather than technological ones. Knowledge in the Wild The International Council for Science defines traditional knowledge as the accumulated learning, skills, and practices maintained by communities with long experience in their environments. That knowledge informs day-to-day decisions and long-term worldviews on practical and fundamental aspects of a group's practices. "Traditional knowledge" suggests (wrongly) that this knowledge is rooted in the past without necessarily renewing itself, which it does. "Indigenous knowledge" is a better term, emphasizing the situation of knowledge: its inextricable link to place and context. This situated knowledge is almost always framed... Continue reading
Posted Sep 20, 2009 at Steve Barth | Reflexions
The Cistercian Brothers of Caldey Abbey upgraded last summer to 30mps broadband beamed over from the mainland. The first monastics settled on the Welsh island in the 6th century. But lately, Caldey's online perfume business has outgrown dialup. According to the lamentations of the Abbot, Father Daniel, "Patience is one of the characteristics of monastic life, but even the patience of the Brothers was being tested by our slow Internet." (If you ask me, they were an ideal candidate for cloud computing.) I visited the monastery on a wintry Christmas weekend when I was a travel writer during the 1980s and published a sketch in Islands magazine … Paradise is a concept invariably associated with islands. Caldey has no barrier reef, no blue lagoon or swaying palms. But there are many different kinds of islands. And many different kinds of... Continue reading
Posted Sep 8, 2009 at Steve Barth | Reflexions