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December 14, 2005

Knowledge Needed; Access Denied

I recently spent an hour or so talking about the value of personal networks as sources of knowledge with a group of sixty project managers. During the discussion, I described various uses of the technique (formerly known as “social network analysis”) that Rob Cross of the University of Virginia now calls “organizational network analysis.”

We were not in a setting where it made sense to do a network analysis (and I don’t have enough experience to do one well), but I wanted people to think about their own networks. Taking a cue from some of Rob’s categories, I asked them to jot down the names of people they went to for knowledge and information, people they went to for advice, people who added energy to their networks and people who sucked energy out of them. And I asked them to list people who were inaccessible but had knowledge they needed to do their work. It was a valuable exercise; I recommend it.

This last category generated the most discussion. About a third of the sixty project managers said, Yes, there were people who had important knowledge they were unable to get access to when they needed it. I asked them how many of those inaccessible people were their supervisors or others above them in the hierarchy.

The answer won’t surprise you: all of them.

They told stories that are probably familiar to anyone who has worked in a large organization: projects suffered from the absence of vital information on budgets or changes in direction that only unavailable bosses possessed; they needed but couldn’t get the opinion of an experienced senior manager on a critical element of the work; they needed an approval but couldn’t get on their leaders’ calendars. Emails requesting a meeting or information went unanswered.

The result: projects ground to a halt or drifted off in what eventually proved to be the wrong direction.

We’re not talking about finding time for a long meeting; in most cases, people needed only ten minutes or so of their bosses’ attention, and still couldn’t get it. One project manager said he dealt with the dilemma by coming to work early and standing outside the boss’s office to waylay him before he retreated behind the protective barrier of his secretary.

Sometimes work place design helps avoid this problem. Senior managers in open offices near people who work for them (rather than on mahogany row behind a phalanx of executive assistants) can be available for these quick, essential exchanges. A (very) few leaders set aside “office hours” for just such interactions.

But the difficulties remain. If you have stories of similar problems or good ideas for solving them, let me know.

Posted by Don Cohen on December 14, 2005 01:42 PM | Permalink

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Hi Don, I've just has a similar experience. Last week we completed an organisational network analysis where we ask, among other things, who would you like more access to in order to get you job done more effectively. In most cases it was the person's manager. We wondered whether this was a reflection of how resources were allocated in the organisation--ie from the top. In this organisation, however, the general response was that they had the access they needed which is a good sign.

Your point of leaders having office hours reminded me of when I was leading the KM practice for Lotus in Australia and the Lotus CEO at the time had office hours via instant messaging (using Sametime). It worked well but was highly public and orchestrated.

The office hours approach is one professors are very familar with. I wonder if there are any lessons there that can be translated to a corporate environment.

Posted by: Shawn Callahan | February 12, 2006 01:08 AM

Hey Don

Happy New Year!

Boy, can I relate to the frustrations voiced by these project managers.

As for solutions, I believe that James in right when he says that it sounds like a breakdown in project management.

But that answer itself needs to be broken down into some of the elements that might provide a solution.

For example, managing expectations.

Every project thrives on the life-blood of information and resources. There must be access to the folks that provide these. Without such access, the project will ail, flounder, and die.

Information and resources typically come from (or are acquired with the help of) the project's sponsor.

Part of managing expectations is that the project manager and the project's sponsor need to have a mutually-developed and agreed upon understanding of these needs. Without that, I'd question the commitment of the sponsor to the project.

And managing expectations is not a one-time event during the lifetime of a project. Things change. So expectations need to be revisited and reconfirmed.

Grab the good life in 2006!


Posted by: Terrence Seamon | January 2, 2006 10:34 AM

Sounds like a breakdown in project management. Did you also note a breakdown in enterprise architecture?

Posted by: James | December 19, 2005 06:38 AM

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