The business of selling concepts

Recently I caught up with a dear friend of mine who I have not spoken to for a long time. After the usual gossip around inconsequential things, he asked ‘whatsapp’, or so I thought. When I informed him proudly that I do not use Whatsapp or for that matter, Facebook (Linkedin and Twitter take care of all my social media related needs), I was exposed to some choice words in Bengali, post which I realised that he meant was ‘What’s up?’ Now that is a fairly innocuous question for someone who has spent more than a decade in Knowledge Management, isn’t it? But I was stuck and promised to get back to him via a blog post. So here you go!

So what do I do to continue to earn my living via Knowledge Management? A little bit of introspection revealed that I have actually become the proverbial ‘Salesman’. Yes, I sell concepts these days. Throughout the day, I try to anticipate the needs of the businesses we support as a team and then come up with concepts (often backed by concept notes) to explain the idea to our stakeholders to seek their buy-in.

For example, the backbone of our approach has been storytelling. When the concept was floated, I took inspiration from one of the earliest surviving works of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh. To be more precise from these words:

“I will reveal unto thee, O Gilgamesh,
the mysterious story, and the mystery
of the gods I will tell thee.”

Now storytelling is not a new concept in Knowledge Management. But surprisingly, it has been grossly underused, especially in India, where Technology still calls the shots when it comes to how KM is defined and expressed to its stakeholders. While I was a bit nervous about the outcome, we went ahead and it seems to be working so far! Could you please touch every single piece of wood that you may have access to as you read this post? Thanks!

Selling a concept is just the start though. What I have realised is that it needs to be supported by enablers like the bandwidth of the team, the ability to weave the story to business requirements i.e. in terms of sharing insights that stick to people’s minds and share something that is often not documented as it is deemed ‘not important to be documented’.

What I have also realised that many a times the concept that seemed so alluring to me will fall flat on its face. It is important to move on and continue to be inspired by the words:

Ever Tried. Ever failed. No Matter.

Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.

–       Samuel Beckett

Please remember that ‘Failure is an option’ when you sell concepts. There are numerous examples of organisations making mistakes / projects getting into trouble. But that is where KM steps in. It helps us to recognise and
document productive failures as contrasted with unproductive success.

Let me end this post with a story involving IBM’s legendary founder, Thomas Watson, Sr. This story by the way is part of the company folklore. A young manager lost $10 million in a risky venture and was soon summoned to Mr. Watson’s office. The young man stepped into his office and said “I guess you want my resignation”. Watson replied, “You can’t be serious. We just spent $10 million educating you.”

Wishing you all a wonderful 2014!

I read the IBM story in an article published by Harvard Business Review entitled ‘Building a Learning Organisation’.


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