Developing Effective Collaborative Knowledge Spaces

Conrad Taylor writes:

During 2017, which is a 20th anniversary year for NetIKX, a number of eminent speakers have been invited to lead meetings, speakers who for the most part have addressed NetIKX before. At the meeting on 18 May 2017 the speakers were Paul Corney and Victoria Ward.

Paul worked for 25 years in top management in the City of London financial sector (Saudi International Bank and Zurich Reinsurance), and for the last couple of decades has pursued a ‘portfolio career’ as a business adviser, facilitator and business coach, with clients in 24 different countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and several African countries.

Paul is also a managing partner at the Sparknow consultancy, which Victoria Ward founded in 1997. Victoria’s background is similarly in knowledge management in the banking sector. Sparknow approaches organisational KM using narrative enquiry methods, and Victoria can list amongst her former clients, a number of banks, government agencies, museums and cultural organisations, the World Health Organisation and the British Council.

Recently, Victoria and Paul have been working with Clive Holtham of the Cass Business School on a project looking at how the arrangement of space impacts the working environment, and knowledge sharing within that. Paul has been conducting a kind of rolling survey across various locations around the world. We in NetIKX would be the latest to add our thoughts; and Paul intends to publish a report as the summation of this enquiry.

Points of view

Paul and Victoria set up an exercise in which the forty or so people present were clustered into three groups, out of earshot of each other. Each group was then quietly told what ‘profession’ we were to adopt as our collective point of view. We were to carefully make an assessment of the room we were in, from that assumed profession’s point of view, and list the positive, and difficult, characteristics of the room. Then each group, through a spokesperson, would tell the others about their list of good or bad room features – and the other groups were supposed to guess that group’s profession!

Group One commented that the room was very white and light; that there were lots of power points. They notes there was quite a lot of furniture, but the tables were on wheels and easily moved; there were lots of nooks and crannies, and lots of potential for mess around the coffee machines. We guessed that they were cleaners! Group Two mentioned the functional design of the room; the low ceiling and narrow form of the room; and lots of natural light from the windows. They were interior designers!

I was in Group Three and I think we had the most fun assignment. We talked about there being a couple of useful exits including a fire exit onto the roof (with presumably a way off that down to street level); various valuables conveniently next to the door, and some rather nice looking IT equipment; perhaps too many windows to be able to operate unseen, but no CCTV cameras. Yes, we were the thieves!

That was a nice, fun ice-breaker, but it was also more than that, as Victoria and Paul explained. Things (and not just rooms!) look different according to your point of view. They had come across this exercise used in a very large gathering at the Smithsonian Museum, and it’s especially useful to deploy at the start of a meeting when you want to draw attention to how a thing, or a situation, might look very different from somebody else’s perspective; something that’s good to bear in mind when there are many stakeholders.

Perspectives on Knowledge Management

KM, or Knowledge Management, has been described as ‘a discipline focused on ways that organisations create and use knowledge’. However, said Paul, beyond that there is no single accepted definition of what KM is, and it’s a field with no agreed global standards as yet.

Paul works around the use of knowledge within businesses. In his newly published book ‘Navigating the Minefield: a practical KM Companion’ he has suggested some characteristics which could define ‘a good KM programme’, such as it being in support of a business’s goals, and aligned with its culture. One focus will be operational, seeking to cut the costs of doing business (in money or time) – in practice, this is the focus of four out of five KM projects in business. Some projects look in more strategic directions, towards innovation and future business benefit.

One paradox of KM is that many of the people who practice it,do not stay long term with their employers, but move on every few years to a new appointment. This can lead to the pursuit of short-term goals and ‘fighting fires’ rather than more strategic approaches.

How can you effectively transfer knowledge from an expert, to a wider community? One positive story Paul shared was of work he did with Cláudia Bandeira de Lima, a leading authority on childhood autism and language development in the Portuguese-speaking world. The solution they devised was to run a foundation programme in the methodology, PIPA (Programa Integrado Para o Autismo), teaching courses and accrediting practitioners.

To represent another aspect of KM, at the personal level, Paul used an image of a laptop. If it is stolen or breaks down, you can replace the hardware and the applications, but if you haven’t backed up the documents which constitute your knowledge resources, ‘you’re toast!’ In doing knowledge audits, he and Veronica often found that sloppy attitudes to managing digital knowledge resources were rampant. An American survey from a few years ago estimated that a typical cost to replace someone in a senior business position is in the region of $400,000 – because when the previous incumbent moved on, they took their knowledge with them, and nobody had done anything to ‘back it up’.

Drivers and definitions

What is driving this thing called ‘knowledge management’? Why do people do it? To Paul it seems that a major driver within many businesses is compliance with regulations; and in a couple of years, when ISO standards for knowledge management appear, it will likely be about compliance with those standards as well. ‘Already today, if you want to sell a locomotive, one of the criteria is that you engage in knowledge management, and are seen to do so in a very professional way,’ explained Paul.

A second driver is around innovation and process efficiency; people believe there is benefit to doing things better with what you have. And a third driver is the management of risk. And then, in some organisations at any rate, there are concerns about using KM to support governance, strategy and vision.

Paul used a simple ‘three pillars’ diagram to represent the above scheme, but his next diagram, giving some examples of motivators/drivers for KM in the real world, was more complicated and so we reproduce it here as an image, with his permission. He represented five different industrial sectors as examples: nuclear power, the regulatory sector, government, industry and the services sector.

In the nuclear industry, a key driver is planning for the complex process of decommissioning power plants at the end of their lives. Companies anticipate that when that time comes, they will be downsizing, and at the same time losing people with maybe 40 years of nuclear operations and decommissioning.

In the regulatory industry (as Paul and Victoria found through interviews in Canada some years back), a large problem is around succession planning as people at the top retire. This is similar to the driver for Shell’s ‘ROCK’ programme (Retention of Critical Knowledge), which they called it ‘The Great Crew Change’.

In government, ‘flexible working’ has been invoked as a mantra. As Paul and Victoria discovered in interviews at the Department of Justice, a possible effect of this is the diffusion of specialist knowledge, as working becomes more generic. But if this can be managed, services can be improved.

Enhancing manufacturing processes is a key driver for industry. Paul described a recent three-year project he ran for Iran’s largest company, which aimed to shorten the time it took from coming up with an idea, to bringing it to market.

In the services sector, including finance and legal work, Paul said that the key to business efficiency is the effective re-use of precedent; it is in this sector that ‘artificial intelligence’ is likely to have the greatest impact.

At this point, Jonathan from Horniman Museum said that he could identify with all those drivers; but in addition, their raison d’être at the Museum is the curation and transfer of knowledge to the general public. Victoria responded that she’d done work about ten years ago for the Museum Documentation Association, funded by the London Development Agency, looking at what museums contribute to the knowledge economy of London. (The MDA shortly relaunched itself as the Collections Trust.) Two things which she remembers well from that project, which were not represented by Paul’s diagram, were:

As work gets more ‘nomadic’ and fluid, workers in various industries need somewhere they can think of as an intellectual ‘home’; for fashion, it would be the V&A. But when that MDA study was conducted, it seemed that museums were overlooking their rôle in relation to certain professional knowledge networks.

Knowledge Transfer Officers can play a vital rôle as a ‘cog’ or enabling connector, between the more entrepreneurial innovators in the organisation and those whose instincts are more curatorial and conservative; between ‘fast cultures’ and ‘slow cultures’, if you like.

Co-working hubs

Costs as a driver

Paul referred to a 2013 UK government report on Civil Service reform, authored by Andy Lake of and called The Way We Work: a guide to smart working environments []. This pointed out that the costs of providing working environments, both financial and environmental, can be reduced by switching away from dedicated desks and PCs, to co-working hubs.

Paul hasn’t worked in an office for 20 years – his ‘office’ is just wherever he finds himself with his Mac and his ’phone and other devices. Sparknow had an office for about five years, but the team decided it wasn’t necessary as long as people were disciplined in their collaboration practices. An executive recruitment firm in the USA has offered the opinion that perhaps by 2020, 40% of people will be mobile workers (I presume they refer to office jobs only), and that they will be freelancers. The benefits will be lower operating costs and higher productivity..

With Prof Clive Holtham, Paul has been advancing the view that as these developments occur, organisations will have to ensure that working environments – be they physical like co-working hubs, or virtual like arrangements for remote working – will be conducive for effective Knowledge Management. (This is what we were going to be looking at for the rest of the day.)

Finally, there was about 20 minutes left. Rather than having some kind of delegated report-back from the table groups, as many might do, Ron improvised another Gurteen-like feature: he asked the groups to reflect on the process they had experienced and what they had learned from it; then half way through, asked half the people at each table to move to the next table and continue the same discussion.

Victoria Ward noted that when they first started doing Knowledge Audits, people never included looking at their ‘knowledge spaces’. They would look at their networks, their disciplines, but it always surprised the clients when they were asked how the physical workspace functioned. When asked to conduct a Knowledge Audit, they now ask to take a look at such spaces, and ask questions about how they are supported.

Good and bad knowledge spaces

‘Did you know that the average desk is occupied for only 45% of office hours?’ asked Paul. That’s what Will Hutton noted for the Work Foundation in 2002, in a report for the Industrial Society. The foundation claimed that the workplace (the office workspace, that is – not fields and factories, shops and warehouses) was being reinvented as ‘an arena for ideas exchange’ and a drop-in workspace for mobile workers: a place where professional and social interaction can occur. And the foundation noted that workspaces which are badly designed or badly managed can actually damage the physical and mental wellbeing of staff.

The firm of Ove Arup believes that the future of (office) workspace will be a network of locations – many of them on short leases or even pay-as-you-go, shared spaces rather than highly ‘territorial’ ones. Also, they believe there will be a corresponding flexibility in working interactions, operating across both physical and virtual environments.

The Edge. In January 2017, Paul was helping to run some events around the KM Legal conference in Amsterdam. At a Smart Working summit in 2016, Paul had heard of an amazing office building in Amsterdam called ‘The Edge’, so on this trip he made a visit to the place, and was shown around by the architect and the building manager. The building’s developer was OVG Real Estate and the design was by London-based PLP Architecture. The building’s main tenant is the consulting firm, Deloitte. There is a video about the place on YouTube – at – and Paul showed it to us. (There is also a Bloomberg article at

The video claims that The Edge is ‘certifiably the greenest building in the world’, with its extensive use of natural light, and harvesting of solar power (the building is a net producer, not consumer, of electricity). Heat pumps circulate water through an insulated aquifer over a hundred metres below, to warm the building in winter and cool it in summer. From the viewpoint of our meeting topic, however, what is significant is how it is structured as a place for a new way of productive working, what the Dutch call het nieuwe werken.

Nobody gets a desk of their own at The Edge; Deloitte’s 2,500 workers there share 1,000 ‘hot desk’ locations, and can also access tiny cubicles or shared meeting facilities, some with massive flat screens which sync with laptops or mobiles. Workspaces are assigned to you according to your schedule for the day, and your ‘home base’ is any locker which you can find empty for the day.

Access to these facilities is driven by a smartphone app used by every worker, and a system which notes everyone’s location and needs and preferences and adjusts the local environment based on your preferences; this is supported by a distributed network of 28,000 sensors.

Paul also commented that people do really want to come to work at The Edge – that’s been a driver of recruitment, there is little absenteeism, and it is somewhere clients want to visit too.  Another thing that users of the building repeatedly praise is the use of natural daylight, which supplies 80% of lighting needs (including through a huge central covered atrium).

Ellipsis Media is a successful content management company, which started above a toy shop in Croydon. They used to have meetings around a particular table in the pub opposite, and as they grew into new premises, they bought that table and installed it as their own little bit of history. Paul mentioned other instances of companies (HSBC, Standard Chartered) using their office space to curate their history – the history of their internal community and its journey.

BMS. Paul also described his engagement with the world’s largest reinsurance broker, BMS, which used the opportunity of their move to One America Square near London Fenchurch Street station. The move brought 13 different federated business units into one shared location. As part of the move, BMS created collaborative physical spaces, including a meetings hub called ‘Connexions’ and an adjacent business lounge with the very best coffee, subsidised snacks and high-speed mobile Internet access. This had a great effect in helping people to break out of the silos of the formerly isolated business units (see Paul’s account of BMS’s journey at

KHDA. During 2016, on his way back from Iran, Paul went to see friends in Dubai. The Dubai Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) manages secondary and higher education in Dubai. He showed us pictures of their open-plan workspace – you’ll often see the Chief Executive sitting there. It’s a very informal place – Paul even had a budgerigar fly past his head!

Asian Development Bank. Victoria and Paul worked together (as Sparknow) in Manila, on a project for the Asian Development Bank. ADB’s shared atrium space at the time included a touchcreen with a huge Google Earth display. Victoria added that ADB had long had a traditionally styled library, but had remodelled it, moving the bookshelves to the edge and creating an open central space. The Google map was put there, and used as an ‘attractor’ to cause people to slow down and encounter each other, to cut across the boundaries in the organisation. ADB used the space for a number of knowledge-sharing events, including ‘Inside Thursdays’.

ADB got Paul and Victoria to run a three-day workshop in that space, exploring the use of narrative in the ADB. They were able to construct a temporary collaborative knowledge space, with a long timeline laid out over connected tables, and workstations at which participants could mark out a map of the ADB’s history, and their hopes for its future – and to identify where interviews should be conducted with the oral history practitioners, and what kinds of questions should be asked.

That event was very memorable for its visual components, too. That pop-up knowledge space, and the shared creation of the timeline and other artefacts, created a useful and engaging memory for people when they then looked later at the products of the knowledge work.

ADB has published a paper about this in 2010, called ‘Reflections and Beyond’ (184 pages) which can be retrieved as a PDF from There is also a concise Sparknow narrative about the project at

Exercise set-up: the Knowledge Space Survey

Before we took our refreshment break, Paul gave a little background to a rolling project he has been co-ordinating, called the ‘Collaborative Knowledge Space Survey’. This qualitative enquiry had already gathered contributions, some by email, and some at events such as at a Masterclass he ran in March at the International Islamic University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. Now it would be NetIKX participants’ chance to contribute!

Paul’s collaborators in collating and reviewing the results are Prof Clive Holtham and Ningyi Jiang at Cass Business School.

Ron followed this observation by some stories about how the COPD patients have been benefitting from the drop-in sessions, and how much they valued it.

To capture people’s ideas about ‘knowledge spaces’ at work (both physical and virtual ones), the survey has ten set questions, but the answers could be open-ended, in textual and often narrative form. There were certainly no multiple-choice answer mechanisms.

Around the walls of the room in which we were meeting, nine posters had been set out, each one with one of the survey questions (except the first question, ‘Which continent do you work in?’), and the space below left blank in readiness for our contributions. Paul asked us to peruse the questions during the break, and choose which of them we would personally like to work with. The nine remaining questions were:

  • Question 2 — Where do you have your most interesting work conversations and do your best work?
  • Question 3 — Do you think your own workspace encourages collaboration? Tell us about a recent incident where this happened and who was involved.
  • Question 4 — Are there any parts of your building or workspace which you associate with memorable moments of work? Tell us about a time and place when this happened.
  • Question 5 — How does where you work reflect the way you work?
  • Question 6 — Have you ever witnessed a company change its physical workspace radically? What happened?
  • Question 7 — What you you understand by the term ‘digital workspace’?
  • Question 8 — In your experience, can you now replace physical workspace with a digital workspace? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • Question 9 — Does your organisation have a workspace strategy, and if so does it include a digital workspace? Please tell us about it.
  • Question 10 — ‘Any Device, Any Time, Anywhere’ is how one organisation now defines its approach to remote working. Looking forward to 2020, what changes do you foresee in the way you work and the devices you will be using?

Each of us should gravitate towards the question that interests us most, and an ideal group size would be 4–6 people. Grouped around our question of choice, we should consider, is there a pattern or theme that we might use in a checklist? And what keywords might we use to ‘tag’ the responses which we chose?

The exercise process

The way our NetIKX group approached the Collaborative Knowledge Space Survey is not the only way it can be done. For a start, the way we assigned ourselves to particular questions meant that by and large each person contributed to thinking about only one of the nine questions – even though Paul declared the Open Space ‘law of two legs’, and we could have moved from one group to another. But the separate group discussions went well in the 30–40 minutes available.

Nobody was attracted to Question 4, and for obvious reasons Question 1 was off the table. Thus we collected reactions to eight out of the ten survey questions. It is decades since I had anything like a ‘regular job’ and worked in a workplace, so I chose to work in the group clustered around Question 8.

After we had filled our posters, Paul prompted each group in turn to share thinking with the rest of the room. You can see the posters themselves which Paul afterwards embedded as images within the slide set, and accompanying this blog post. I also took my recording gear with me around the room to capture what people said in more detail.

Q2: Where do you have your most interesting work conversations, and where do you do your best work? — This group discussed the value of having both quiet places and busy places. Melanie described the Hub at DWP, which is a large area with a coffee bar and lots of different tables. On the poster, the group had noted that humour and banter, for example around the kitchen, brings people together and leave you feeling motivated. When you’re on a journey, on a train, even just walking between places, this has value in freeing up ‘internal conversations – you often need silence ‘so you can hear yourself think’.

The keywords the group chose were human – flexible – adaptable – informal – fun – balance (between external and internal conversation, and between physical and digital) – mindfulness. Emma added that the most interesting and significant conversations are usually in an informal setting, and are often serendipitous.

Q3: Do you think your own work space encourages collaboration? — This group had started by comparing their own workspace experiences. Lissi referred to her ‘collaboration cocktail’ of spaces, ranging from attending NetIKX meetings to sitting up in bed to do her work. Victoria Ward had a range of spaces and reported positively on ‘Slack’ ( , a cloud-based service which describes itself as ‘real-time messaging, archiving and search for modern teams’ (it’s an acronymn for ‘Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge’!)

Graham Robertson works largely alone and his workspace is a room with no windows. ‘Radical uncubicalisation’ was a phrase that came up from two organisations that are trying to draw people out of their cubicles. Edmund Lee (Historic England) said that when people get a taste of this, they love it, but you need other kinds of constraint in place to make things happen.

Collaboration, said someone, involves interaction between human and human, also human and information. Information has its own kind of structure around the workplace; but humans, it must be remembered, have other goals in life, even when they are at work: getting on with people, getting something to eat, whatever.

Q5: How does where you work reflect how you work? — Naomi Lees (DWP) said that the culture that you work in reflects the physical aspects of where you work. For example Ayo Onotola is a librarian who works in a prison. (It is a compulsory requirement for every prison to have a library as part of the process for the reform and rehabilitation of the inmates.) He said that it may surprise people to know that quite a proportion of the prisoners are illiterate; and many don’t have English as their first language; so the prison runs a number of educational programmes for them. The library is key to that.

But – when you work in a prison library, it is a bit like being a prisoner yourself! When there is some trouble in the prison, there may be a general lockdown, then nobody comes to the library all day. Prisoners’ behaviour in the library is quite different from how they behave in their cells; ‘they see the library as a cool place to come and chill out’, Ayo said. And they are keen to collect books to take back to their cells. (On the poster, there was a note that recently the library has been moved to the canteen space, and is now getting more use.)

David Penfold’s example was the university, which has many different possible work environments and people – staff and students both – move between them and find those that are most conducive to what they want to do right now. And people also do much of their work from home.

Q6 — Have you ever witnessed a company change its physical workspace radically? What happened? — ‘Hot desking’ inevitably came up within this group; one person spoke of a transformation to open plan, hot desking and a clear-desk policy, including senior managers. Yes, there was resistance to this at first, but people have come to realise how working together in this way has encouraged the sharing of ideas quite naturally through conversation. It has to be said that the facilities provided were very good. Prior discussion with the users had raised the need for spaces for private conversation, and they had been provided. There are also ‘meeting pods’ set in the middle of the canteen area.

Good space design is crucial, said another person. Consultations with staff in advance is the key. When he worked at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, they had discovered that often there were serendipitous meetings in lifts that then continued to an adjacent space to continue. In another job, at a research institute, staff had been worried about the place becoming too noisy for concentration; this was met by setting up booths with acoustic shielding, for study or for private conversation.

Canteen spaces are particularly ripe for creative use, and that goes well with a culture that encourages people to take lunch away from their desks. (I remember that when I was doing a series of training workshops at Enterprise Oil, their staff canteen provided lovely food free of charge, which was certainly a motivator in that direction!)

Q7: What do you understand by the term ‘digital workspace’? — This group understood a digital workspace to be something that was open and without boundaries, both boundaries of physical space and time, able to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They noted that this requires broadband that is fast enough. It should enable you to do what you would do in a ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ workspace, but allows for collaboration and the sharing of information.

Paul referred to work he had done in Africa, where there is usually very poor access to the Internet. But people adapted to that by communicating via WhatsApp – short, asynchronous conversations that can be picked up again after a communications breakdown.

Q8: In your experience, can you now replace a physical workspace with a digital workspace? If so, how? If not, why not? — This was the group I was in, with Edmund Lee, and the first thing we decided was that the afternoon’s conversation had had an unspoken bias towards office-type work. If you are a plumber, a farmer or construction worker, a social worker or a surgeon, a shop assistant or other front-line customer service worker, what you can achieve in a digital workspace will be strictly limited. So no, you cannot replace physical workspaces with digital ones, except in some narrowly defined fields.

For most of those at today’s event, a so-called digital workspace can substitute for many aspects of the physical workspace, but that is dependent on how good a digital surrogate you can create to replace the physically of that with which you work. Edmund works with archaeological excavations, and he noted that before you can consider implementing a digital workspace for such work, you have to find a way to make a digital surrogate of the things you work with. An example would be an expert in Roman pottery who has access to the physical artefacts, but nothing more than a digital representation of the site where they were found.

Another issue is the functionality and ‘affordances’ of the digital tools available. There are bandwidth and infrastructual constraints, and there are human factors. When conversations take place over a digital medium, can they convey body language? Paul agreed that is a huge issue, and he had just been running a workshop with Chris Collison on improving work in virtual teams and communities. [Note that Chris Collison is the speaker at the September NetIKX meeting.]

There are also new skill requirements and support issues. Edmund told of how their IT department had installed large digital whiteboards in the main meeting rooms, but didn’t tell anybody how to use them. So, the technology worked for the IT department but for nobody else!

Q9: Does your organisation have a workspace strategy and if so, does it include digital workspace? — This did not result in a poster, but Malcolm Weston reported on their successes at Aecom, which now has grown (by a process of acquisition and amalgamation) to 187,000 employees across 150 countries. That process required workspaces to be brought together, and collaboration between the business units to be enhanced. And so Aecom did set out a formal workplace strategy, to be implemented in every office worldwide.

The implementation in London involved internal change management consultants, and interior design consultants, talking to different teams within the organisation asking them what they liked about their current workspace environment, and what they didn’t like, and what they wanted changed. The new environment was created in the offices in Aldgate Tower.

Aecom staff now work in ‘neighbourhoods’, with the colleagues in their team, though not always at the same desk. Teams which would naturally want to collaborate on delivering work are situated adjacent to each other. There are internal staircases between four of the floors, with open plan breakout areas around them all. There are also small ‘walled sofas’ suitable for taking part in a conference call, meeting rooms which can be booked via a phone app, through to a small lecture theatre. No-one has a fixed computer; everyone has a mobile phone and a laptop; there is secure WiFi. You can also work from home via the VPN.

One of the drivers was to improve customer satisfaction; another was to avoid costly redesign by getting things right through collaboration, first time around. It also meshed with Aecom’s collaborative selling initiative; clients like to come and have meetings at Aecom’s place.

Q.10: Looking forward to 2020, what changes do you foresee in the way you work and the devices you will be using? — This team described a Lloyds Bank demonstration of virtual presence, using a VR headset. They thought one of the challenges of the future might be the emphasis on self-service, and the variety of devices, and perhaps a decentralisation of information storage. The team chose ‘change’ and ‘disruption’ and ‘managing complexity’ as key phrases.

Steve Dale spoke of having recently finished some work for an international organisation spread across thirty countries. Their policy is ‘extreme BYOD’ (bring your own device – no rules at all about what equipment or software to use. They did an audit, and discovered sixty different systems in use. And there were concomitant problems – a lack of collaboration across teams, and how the hell do you find Stuff? They did interviews between stakeholders, and discovered a split between people who like this freedom, and others who flounder in this lack of structure (particularly people newly joining the organisation).

Wrapping up

Paul skipped a number of his slides, which review the survey responses from Lisbon, Kuala Lumpur etc. A couple of slides also pulled out some of the insights which are beginning to emerge in the analysis Paul is doing with Clive Holtham and Ningyi Jiang at Cass Business School.

Paul referred to a meeting he and Victoria had recently had with Neil Usher at BSkyB. Neil has a twelve-point checklist: Daylight – Connectivity – Space – Choice – Control – Comfort – Refresh – Influence – Storage – Colour – Wash – Inclusion. Paul didn’t have time to unpack what these mean; apparently they are explained on Neil’s blog ( The two most important aspects, according to Neil, are natural daylight, and giving people choices.

Paul finished the afternoon workshop drawing attention to some closing slides which give contact details for himself and for Victoria.

Paul J Corney – paul.corney[at]knowledgeetal

On Twitter: pauljcorney

On Skype: corneyp

On mobile: +44 (0) 777 608 5857

Victoria Ward — victoria.ward[at]

A personal thought on ‘digital’ vs ‘virtual’

Paul and Victoria contrasted physical spaces where people meet and converse, and digital ones. I would prefer a contrast between physical and virtual spaces. My reason is, that I wish to give the nod to old traditions of knowledge sharing, which used correspondence and publication — instances of which are the so-called Invisible College. Collaboration minus face-to-face did not need an electronic medium to get started; it required shared language, writing, and a means of sending messages.

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Gurteen Knowledge Café – 16 March 2017

Conrad Taylor writes:

In 2017, its tenth anniversary year, NetIKX is running a series of meetings with speakers who have spoken to us before. In March we invited David Gurteen to speak around the topic of ‘entrained and entrenched thinking’, and other constraints on knowledge sharing – and, what we can do about it. Specifically we wanted him to run one of his Knowledge Café events for us, in part because that process incorporates features designed to widen the scope of conversation and the consideration of diverse points of view.

As usual, these notes are constructed from my personal perspective.

About entrenched and entrained thinking

‘Entrenched’ thinking is something we pretty much understand. It’s when people refuse to consider the validity of any idea but their own, and it is often encountered in groups that see themselves as actively in opposition to another group. They are ‘dug in’ and refuse to budge. We’ve seen a lot of that in politics in the last year, but it occurs in all sorts of social and business environments too.

The phrase ‘entrained thinking’ is less familiar. It may have been coined by Dave Snowden and Mary Boone in their article in Harvard Business Review in 2007, where they define it as ‘a conditioned response that occurs when people are blinded to new ways of thinking by the perspectives they acquired through past experience, training, and success’. They note that both leaders and experts can fall into entrained thinking habits, which cause them to ignore both insights from alternative perspectives and those offered by people whose opinions they have come to disregard as irrelevant.

Evolutionary biology suggests reasons why falling back on available quick-and-dirty patterns of thinking (heuristics) has survival advantages over thinking everything through carefully from every conceivable angle; as Dave Snowden says, when you come across a lion in savannah country, it’s best not to analyse the situation too thoroughly before legging it up a tree. In his book Administrative Behavior (1947), Herbert Simon referred to such just-good-enough thinking as satisficing, and a study of the nature and role of heuristics in decision making was also central to Amos Tversky’s and Daniel Kahneman’s argument in Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (1982), which also introduced the concept of cognitive bias – a concept to which David Gurteen made reference.

However, there are times and situations in which it is good to cast a wider net for alternative ideas, which may turn out to be better than the established, so-called ‘tried and tested’ ones. The technique of brainstorming was pioneered in the field of advertising by Alex Osborn in 1939, and Edward de Bono introduced the concept of lateral thinking in 1967, following that with a veritable spate of books on creative thinking techniques.  (Note: The brainstorming process has been brought into question recently; see

In this seminar and Knowledge Café workshop, David Gurteen focused on those blockages to ideas production and sharing that can occur in meetings and group conversations, and the actual practice of his Café technique shows some ways this can be done. So let’s get to understand the Café process, then move on to how David introduced our session, and close with a brief report of what came up in the closing in-the-round plenary session.

Introducing the Café process

David’s Knowledge Café process is a version of the World Café technique first devised in the mid 1990s by Dr Juanita Brown and David M Isaacs, an American couple who work with organisations to unleash ‘collective intelligence’ through ‘conversations that matter’. (See These techniques have been used by industrial companies, such as Hewlett-Packard and Aramco, and by local governments and non-profits in the context of social and economic development and community relations.

David says that he adopted the format as an antidote to ‘Death by PowerPoint’. He started running his Knowledge Café series in September 2002, in the Strand Palace Hotel. A number of NetIKX members have taken part in free London Knowledge Café events, which David facilitates about six times a year. More information can be found on his knowledge café website

David has also run such sessions professionally for organisations across Europe, Asia and the Americas. They seem to work well in a wide range of cultural settings – even, he said, in those Asian cultures in which people often defer to authority. In a small group, it is easier to speak up about what you think, though as an organiser of such an event you may need to ensure that the groups are made up of equals.

The essence of the Café technique is to enable discussion around an open-ended question. Participants are divided into groups of three, four or at most five people, sat around tables (note: this is smaller than the typical size of a table group at a NetIKX workshop). In David’s events, the starting question is framed by having a speaker make a very short initial presentation of the topic – typically ending with the posing of such a question.

After the discussion around tables has gone on for some time, generally 15 minutes, the facilitator asks the table groupings to break up and re-form – for example, two people might stay on the same table while two move off to join other tables. After another 15 minutes’ conversation, the table groups are once again re-organised for a third round. David never uses more than three rounds of conversation in his own practice. The general aim of such Café techniques is to help people to accumulate a cascade of perspectives, and to widen their thinking.

There are variations on this theme. One World Café practice is to put a large sheet of paper on each table and encourage people to jot down ideas or doodle pictures during their conversations, so that the next group gets a sense of what has gone before. Another version appoints a ‘table host’ who stays with the table, relays ideas from the previous round, and encourages the new group to add ideas and perspectives to what has gone before. Such a person might also act as a rapporteur in a closing plenary session.

David’s practice dispenses with table-level facilitators (and doodle pads and rapporteurs), which makes a Gurteen Café easier to organise. The accumulation of perspectives tends to happen anyway, as people tend to share, with their new group, the ideas that came up in the previous one.

In David’s version of the Café, he said, there is no reporting back. The café’s outcomes are about what each individual takes away in his or her head – and that will be different for each person. As Theodore Zeldin says, the best conversations are those from which you emerge as a slightly different person.

However, David later qualified that by mentioning circumstances in which gathering and reporting the ideas that surface can be very valuable as a contribution to a problem-solving process – for a company or project, for example. His own general events tend to end these days with a closing session bringing everyone together in a circle for freeform sharing of ideas ‘in the round’ – space permitting. We did this at the NetIKX Café.

David explained a few guiding principles. The Café is about dialogue, not debate – it’s not about winning arguments, but nor is it about seeking consensus. The idea is simply to bring ideas and issues to the surface. And it is OK to drift off-topic.

Asked whether it is different to run a Café session inside a particular organisation, David responded that he’s found that the format can be used for brainstorming or as an adjunct to problem-solving; in that case, one should start in advance by defining the objective, and design the process accordingly. For such gatherings, you probably do want to include a method for capturing the ideas that arise. But any such capture mechanism must not get in the way of the conversation – giving one person a flipchart and a pen will put them in charge and distort the free exchange of ideas.

Our meeting topic

David explained that in his short pre-Café presentation he would touch on some challenges that we need to overcome in order to make better decisions, and to be more creative in coming up with ideas. In the café process we would then discuss how we might mitigate against these challenges.

Cognitive bias. David recommended that we take a look at the Wikipedia article about ‘Cognitive bias’. That in turn links to a page ‘List of cognitive biases’ — something like 200 of them, although it has been argued they can be grouped into four broader categories, arising either from too much information, not enough meaning, the need to act/decide quickly, and limits of memory. One of the ideas that has made it into common parlance recently is ‘confirmation bias’ – we tend to pay heed to ideas that reinforce our existing views.

Entrained thinking. This seems to be a relatively new idea, put forward by Dave Snowden and Mary Boone as described above. The idea is that we are conditioned towards certain ways of thinking, and it can be because of our education and training. We are also influenced by our culture, the environment in which we have grown up, and our experiences. These influences are so subtle and ingrained that we are probably not aware of them.

David asked me (Conrad) if I see things the same way. I replied that I do – but that although ‘entrained thinking’ appears to be a new term, it isn’t really a new idea. When I was studying the History of Science at Glasgow University, an influential book was Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) – the book that introduced the phrase ‘paradigm shift’ to the English language. Kuhn argued that scientific progress was not, as generally assumed, a matter of development by accumulation of facts and theories, but more episodic, involving the overthrow of previously prevailing ways of seeing the world. And until the new paradigm prevails, the old one will have its deeply entrained defenders.

One example that Kuhn analysed at length was ‘the Copernican revolution’, which argued that the earth orbits the sun, rather than the other way around. Darwin’s theory of evolution also met with strong opposition from people invested in a creationist narrative and Biblical timescale for earth’s existence, and more recently the theory of plate tectonics and continental drift was resisted and mocked until the 1960s – yet it is now one of the ground truths of geological science. So Kuhn’s idea of a ‘paradigm’ – as a way of thinking that one considers normal and natural (but may later be replaced by a better one) – does carry in it a notion similar to ‘entrained thinking’.

Entrenched opinions. People may be resistant to taking new ideas on board – they take an entrenched position. Such people are not prepared to listen; they ‘know they are right’ and refuse to consider an alternative interpretation. In this case people may be very conscious of their views, which are closely bound up with their sense of themselves.

‘Speaking truth to power’ is a phrase that we hear a lot – it could mean not being afraid to say something to your boss, even though the consequences for you could be dire. The phrase recognises that power relations influence whether we choose to express our thoughts and views openly.

Loss of face. If you’ve always got to look good, it’s very difficult to speak up.

The Spiral of Silence – also called ‘social silencing’ – is an idea David encountered only recently. It’s a concept in political science and mass communication theory put forward by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, who argues that fear of isolation, of being excluded or rejected by society because you hold a minority opinion, may stop you from speaking out. She also argues that the media not only shape what ideas are the dominant ones, but also what people perceive to be the dominant ideas, even though that perception may not accord with reality. (Much of the mainstream media is telling us that the British public are united in a determination to leave the EU, for example.)

A related critique of social media – Facebook, for example – is that it encourages people to live in bubbles of confirmation bias, connecting us to people who share the same ideas as ourselves.

Groupthink is a well known term. Perhaps people in a meeting do all think the same way – or is there a sizeable group who think differently and just don’t want to rock the boat?

Last on David’s list was facilitator bias – was he, for example, in a position to bias our thinking?

The questions for the Café

So here were a few barriers that can get in the way of a good conversation, and thus impoverish group creativity and problem solving. David invited us to go into Café mode and talk about how to overcome these problems.

In the promotional text for this meeting, we had asked three questions, and David suggested that perhaps each ‘round’ of the Café might look at these.

  • The first question is, what factors in people’s backgrounds, professional education and culture, lead to them having a ‘blinkered’ view of the range of available opinions and policy decisions, especially at work? How might this be mitigated?
  • Second, when we meet together in groups to decide something in common, to come to a practical decision, what meeting dynamics are getting in the way of us accessing the broadest possible range of opinions and inputs? Could we be running those meetings differently and getting better results?
  • Finally, what are those two questions forgetting to consider?

Big Circle discussion notes

After three rounds of ‘Café table talk’, we rolled the tables out to the edges of the room and created a circle of chairs (there were about forty of us), and continued the conversation in that mode for about 25 minutes. I’m not going to report this blow by blow, but highlight some ideas put forward, as well as comment on the process.

It’s worth pointing out that the dynamics of discussion in the larger group were (as one might expect) very different from in the small groups. Some people said a lot, while about half said nothing at all. For the first nine minutes, about ten people spoke, and all were men. There was a tendency for one person to make a point that was reacted to by another person and then another and so on, in a ‘chain reaction’, even if that meant we drifted off topic. For about five minutes, the tone across the room got quite adversarial. So while the technique of making a big circle does help to gather in what had been thought across the table groups in a Knowledge Café, it can have its demerits or perils.

Meeting management methods. Steve Dale mentioned that at the LGA’s Improvement and Development Agency, there was a manager who used to take his team out on a walk – about ten people – and they talked as they walked. People wondered how practical that was! David Penfold suggested that if they walked and talked in groups of three, then they could stop at the pub and have the whole-group session – a Knowledge Café on legs!

Steve also pointed out that in some meetings – with fixed time and a business agenda – a free-flowing conversation would waste time and get in the way. Various people noted that one could loosen up thinking with a Café-style session or brainstorming, and follow that with a decision-making meeting – preferably after a fallow period for reflection.

Someone outlined a method she finds useful for eliciting a wide range of contributions. Pose an issue and get people to reflect on it individually for a while, in silence; then ‘pair and share’ with one other, to practise articulating your own ideas and also listening to others. Then you can progress to groups of four; then feed back from the groups to the whole assembly. When you are divided into small groups, we noted, the dominant types can only dominate a small group!

Dominance in group situations. Gender dominance or imbalance can affect the dynamic in discussions; so could dominance by age or ethnicity. Clare Parry spoke of occasions when someone from a minority makes a point and it is ignored; then someone from the majority says it, and suddenly it is a fantastic idea. These biases might be subconscious; but a younger person thought that discounting the opinions of younger people could actually be a quite conscious bias, based on the opinion that older people are more likely to know what they are talking about.

Bad paradigm shifts and entrainment. I (Conrad) thought it would be a mistake to think that paradigms always shift in the right direction! An example might be an assumption that information management is something that computer people do… We debated for a while whether this assumption was as widespread as 20 years ago: opinion differed.

Dion Lindsay, in his work around both information and knowledge management, finds that information professionals make a huge assumption that they are the best people to lead an organisation’s efforts in knowledge management. They see a continuum between librarianship, information management and knowledge management – which is not how the rest of the organisation sees things. And that, he said, is an example of entrained thinking (on both sides, perhaps).

Unfortunately, but predictably for this NetIKX crowd, this issue of IM and KM and IT set off a long series of exchanges about the rights and wrongs of managing information in a technology environment, which strayed right off the point – and got quite heated!

Influencing culture from the top down. One table conversation speculated that if a bunch of people at board level have got stuck in a rut with a particular way of doing things, it could be mitigated by bringing in someone with different thinking – like a football team appointing a maverick football manager to shake things up. On the other hand, this could backfire if ‘the old guard’ react by resisting and subverting the ‘outsider’.

An open, learning culture. Stuart Ward argued that organisational culture can be a positive influence on how decisions are made  – if the people at the top visibly promote diverse thinking by asking people for inputs and opinions. Nor should people be penalised for making mistakes, if the result is learning that can be shared to improve future results.

We came to no shared and agreed conclusions – but that’s not what a Knowledge Café does.  Everyone took something different away in their heads.

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Survey Results

Naomi Lees, NetIKX Membership Secretary writes:

Thank you to everyone who responded to our NetIKX survey earlier this year. We had some very interesting and useful responses.

Here is a brief overview of the points raised, and what NetIKX plans to do over the next 12 months:

Programme Planning

We had some very useful feedback on the seminar topics you would like to see, especially around the future and value of KIM; as well as practical KIM tools and techniques. You will be pleased to know that we will be covering all these aspects and more in our programme in 2017 and early 2018, so check or for details of future events.

We also had some other useful suggestions for future seminar topics, which our programme planner has taken away for further cogitation! Watch this space for further updates.

Events outside London

You said that you would like to see more events outside London – we are currently looking at ways we can make this happen. If you are keen to host an event outside London, please get in touch.

Partnering with other KIM Groups

We had some very encouraging feedback on developing partnerships with other KIM groups. You will be pleased to know that we have a KIM Communities event coming up soon. We are always interested in building connections with other KIM groups, so please get in touch if you have any ideas for joint-working.

NetIKX Website

We received several comments on the website and we are really grateful for this feedback. You will be pleased to know that we are currently working on a new website, with lots of the features you have asked for, such as more KIM resources and the ability to make electronic payments.

The survey results can be viewed here:


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Information Design, with Conrad Taylor and Ruth Miller

On 26 January 2017, the speakers at the NetIKX meeting were Conrad and Ruth. Conrad has written up the two talks below. A fuller account of his own talk can be found on his Conradiator site at, as he notes below.

Photo David Dickinson

For some comments on the meeting, by Claire Parry, see the very end of this report.

Conrad’s Account

The topic of the NetIKX seminar on 26 January 2017 was ‘Information Design – approaches to better communication’. Information Design (ID) is a collection of practices using visual design, clear writing and thinking about human factors, to making information easier to understand – especially information for the general public. Information designers work across a range of types of media, from road signs to government forms, user manuals to transport maps, bank statements to legal contracts, and increasingly information presented through computer interfaces and Web sites.

I was the first speaker, running through a background history and the theoretical underpinnings of ID, and showing examples with a strong visual component. Ruth Miller then took over and focused on the Plain Language side of things. Both Ruth and I have been active around the Information Design Association in the UK (IDA) for 25+ years.

Here, I’m giving only a brief summary of my own presentation; as I had prepared it in written form with illustrations, I’ve thought it best to convert that into a kind of stand-alone essay; you can find it at Ruth’s contribution, however, is presented below at greater length, as it isn’t represented elsewhere.

Introducing Information Design

In my opening presentation I explained that the awkward label ‘Information Design’ emerged in the late 1970s as a rallying point for a diverse bunch of folk committed to clarity and simplicity in information presentation. That led to the founding of the Information Design Journal, a series of conferences, and organisations such as the IDA. Some people came into this from a graphic design background; some were committed to the simplification of written language. Psychologists, linguists and semioticians have also contributed their insights.

Despite this avowed interdisciplinarity, the ID community has sadly kept aloof from people in information and knowledge management. One of the exceptional people acting as a bridge is Liz Orna, long associated with NetIKX and its predecessor the Aslib IRM Network. In her writing, Liz has long emphasised the important role of ‘information products’ as artefacts designed for conveying knowledge.

Visual examples across the ages

I then conducted a whistle-stop history tour of innovation in making complicated stuff easier to understand through pictorial and typographic means, including:

  • Tables, a surprisingly old way of handling information (reaching way back to Sumeria in about 2500 BCE). My table examples included tide-tables, ‘ready reckoners’, and text in tabular formats.
  • Diagrams/drawings, ranging from more exactingly accurate ones such as anatomical atlases and sea-navigation charts, to line drawings and schematic diagrams which remove unnecessary detail so that they can focus on communicating (for example, how things work).
  • Harry Beck’s London Underground diagram got a special mention, given its iconic status. It is often called a ‘map’ but in reality it is a service network diagram, and this approach to transport information has been copied worldwide.

Harry Beck urderground diagram

  • Charts and graphs including Joseph Priestley’s first timeline, William Playfair’s invention of the line and area chart, and Florence Nightingale’s ‘coxcomb diagrams’ for presenting statistics.
  • Data maps, such as John Snow’s 1854 plot of cholera deaths around the Broad Street pump in Soho.
  • Network diagrams as used to represent links between entities or people, or to explain data flows in a software system.

I also mentioned business forms and questionnaires as an important genre, but I left this topic to Ruth who has more experience with these.

Where did Information Design thinking come from?

The above examples, which I illustrated using pictures, illustrate trends and innovations in the presentation of information. Next I looked at how the quest for clear communication became more conscious of itself, more bolstered with theory, and better organised into communities of practice.

This seems to have happened first in improving the clarity of text. In the 1940s, Rudolf Flesch and Robert Gunning proposed some objective ways of measuring the readability of text, by calculations involving the length of sentences and the average number of syllables per word.

Flesch Readability Chart                                                                Flesch Readability Chart

In the UK, Sir Ernest Gowers formulated a guide to plain English writing to educate civil servants, culminating in the famous book The Complete Plain Words, which is still in print after six decades and a number of revisions.

In the Second World War, the technical sophistication of weapons plus, in Britain, the need to engage the public in war preparedness seem to have been drivers for innovations in technical documentation and the creation of training materials, and the job description ‘Technical Author’ came into being. As this trend in technical documentation continued in the post-War era, technical communicators organised themselves into associations like the STC and ISTC. In the richer industries such as aerospace, technical documentation also pioneered the use of early WYSIWYG computer systems like Xerox Docomenter and Interleaf for document composition.

In 1943, the UK Medical Research Council formed its Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge, initially to investigate how to help armed forces personnel understand and cope with information under stresful conditions. Post-war, APU researcher Pat Wright went on to investigate factors in text legibility and comprehension; Don Norman contributed to the establishment of Cognitive Science as a discipline, and helped Apple Computer as its first User Experience Architect.

In 1978, NATO sponsored a conference in the Netherlands about human factors and the design of non-electronic information displays; the papers were published as Information Design in 1984. The Information Design Journal was set up in the aftermath of the event and was then the focus for a number of conferences in the UK. As for the IDA, it was launched in 1991.

Some issues and developments

I rounded off my presentation by touching on three issues which have been woven in and out of Information Design practice down the years:

  • Desktop publishing’, which put typesetting control and on-screen design into the hands of graphic designers, was a powerful enabler for information designers in particular.
  • Understanding the reader remains a challenge for anyone who truly seeks to communicate clearly. It’s dangerous to make assumptions about what will make sense to a user community unless you find out about that community. Today there is growing sophistication in using qualitative research methods and even ethnography to inform more effective writing and design.
  • Prototyping and usability testing – making prototypes is easier than before. Testing them with a sample of people representative of the eventual users can provide very useful insights, as Ruth would later illustrate from her own experience.

I closed my section of the meeting by speculating that the realm of information and knowledge management has hitherto tended to be dominated by librarians and like professionals, who focus on curating and organising collections of information resources. I would like there to be more engagement between this group and those actively engaged in designing and creating the information products which Liz Orna has described as having a central role in conveying knowledge between people.

Liz Orna on the chain of communication

I then handed the meeting over to Ruth.

Ruth Miller on plain language

ruth-millerRuth explained that she did not train to be a plain language communicator; she fell into it and found it a perfect match for her personality. Like many people who work on improving communication, she notices things that are odd or confusing in everyday life, and wonders how they could be organised better. She would describe herself as a Simplifier: someone who looks at information and thinks about how to make it easier for people to understand.

More recently, Ruth has had the experience of teaching English to unaccompanied minors, as a volunteer at a refugee camp in Greece.

Plain language is not new. ‘Let thy speech be short, comprehending much in few words,’ it says in Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) (32:8), which dates from about 200 BCE. From Ptolemaic Egypt, we have a letter from a Minister of Finance to a senior civil servant, saying ‘Apollonius to Zeno, greetings. You did right to send the chickpeas to Memphis. Farewell!’ These quotes are from a 1988 pamphlet called ‘Making it Plain: a plea for plain English in the Civil Service’, with a foreword by Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher promoted plain language writing. Early in her first government she engaged Derek Rayner, former CEO of Marks and Spencer, to commission a series of reports on efficiency in government, the ‘Rayner Reviews’. One of these, Forms into Shape (1981), analysed the use of forms in the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS), and recommended the setting up of specialist Forms Units in government departments. Ruth would have more to say about forms design later, from her experience inside one of those units.

Ruth showed an illustration from the horticulture manual Flora, Ceres and Pomona by John Rea, beside an excerpt in which Rea says that he ‘has not inserted any of those notorious lies I have frequently found in books of this subject, but in plain English terms, set down the truth in every particular’. This is the earliest use Ruth has found of the phrase ‘plain English’ – it dates from 1665.

When plain language explanation should be unnecessary!

In many circumstances you shouldn’t need an explanation. Ruth showed a photo of a bathroom tap with a square knob set some centimetres to the right of it, from a British hotel. She couldn’t figure out how to make water come out of it. Evidently she wasn’t alone in this: the hotel had added a sign saying ‘Tilt Taps to Operate’ – which only made matters more confusing (the tap does not tilt, and there is only one of it). ‘Turn knob to operate tap’ would have been better – but even then, it’s an example of information as a prosthesis; had the artefact been better designed in the first place, it would not be necessary to help it with an information crutch.

Ruth also showed a photo of a fine mahogany boardroom table she had encountered at a business meeting. It’s useful to have a table on which to place your bag, so you can unpack the things you need for the meeting. On this table was placed a sign, ‘Please Do Not Put Briefcases on Tables as It Damages the Surface’. Ignoring points of dubious grammar, and the strange capitalisation… isn’t it just daft to provide a table you can’t use as a table?

‘If you go away from this meeting with only one thought,’ said Ruth, ‘it should be: think about the whole situation and challenge the need to explain, however clearly, something that is nonsense in the first place.’

Siegel and Gale experience

After working in government service, Ruth moved to the communication consultancy Siegel and Gale. This was an exciting time when computer technology and laser printers were changing how personalised documents such as utility bills and bank statements could be delivered. Now less ‘computerish’ fonts could be used; layouts could be more sophisticated; type size and boldness could be used for emphasis.

Siegel and Gale caused a stir in the 1990s with their redesign of the British Telecom phone bill. This put summary information on the front page, and more detail on follow-on pages; it used simplified language, and logical grouping of items. As a result the number of customer billing enquiries fell by 25%. BT also found that customers paid bills more promptly.

Siegel and Gale once won the Design Effectiveness Awards with a humble Royal Mail redirection form. Before the redesign, that form had an 87% error rate when customers filled it in, costing Royal Mail about £10,000 a week. The redesigned form paid for itself in just 17 days!

Siegel and Gale also moved into the redesign of bank statements. For Barclays, they changed the technical language of ‘Debits’ and ‘Credits’ to ‘Money out’ and ‘Money in’. In other words, name things the way people think about them, in the language they are used to.

Conrad had mentioned ethnographic research in passing; Ruth refers to watching people use things. Once she had worked on a booklet for TalkTalk, to help people set up an Internet router at home. They then embarked on research to see how effective the booklet design had been. What had really helped was the inclusion of photos: this is what’s in the box, this is what it will look like when you have set it up, and so on.

This project did have its moments of comedy. There was a particular router which doubled as a picture frame: you could slip a photo into a slot on the front of it to ‘domesticate’ the thing. Ruth overheard someone telling a friend that she had just about set her router up, and had managed pretty well – but she wasn’t quite finished; now she had to find a photo! (Perhaps they should have added the word ‘optional’?)

Plain language: campaigns for awareness

The case for plain language use was championed within the public sector in Britain, Australia and Canada. In the USA, the lead was taken more by private business. In the US financial sector, they wanted people to understand things like investing. The US Securities and Exchange Commission pressed for consumer agreements to be written in language that people signing up to them would understand.

In the UK, the Plain English Campaign deserves credit for raising awareness and getting the bandwagon rolling. They were and still are a force for good. They were also very clever at marketing. Doesn’t ‘Plain English Campaign’ sounds like a publicly-funded body, or an NGO? In fact, they are a commercial business.

The ‘Crystal Mark’, which the PEC invented, was a brilliant idea and a money-spinner too. Many companies believed that getting a Crystal Mark on one of their documents was a mark of quality, like a kite mark. If you saw a Crystal Mark, the implication was, no-one should have a problem understanding it. But that isn’t necessarily true, partly because PEC is financially motivated to award Crystal Marks, but also because their focus is far too narrowly set on language construction. An over-long and complicated set of Terms and Conditions, set in small and hard-to-read type, would still get a Crystal Mark from the PEC – if they deemed the language to be ‘plain’.

Recent experience

More recently, Ruth has worked freelance, and she showed some small examples of projects which have brought her pleasure. She has enjoyed working with Standard Life, simplifying their policy documents, and materials about investments and pensions. What got them walking along the road to simplification was a letter from a customer who complained:

My degree is only in mechanical engineering. I can understand differential calculus, I can design all the machinery for a sewage treatment works, I can design you a bridge but I cannot understand what my policy is worth.

In the redesigns, they introduced summaries, and contextual notes, and made use of two-colour print. She added: these may be humble documents; but when you do them well, it can actually get noticed, and besides, it improves the quality of people’s lives.

Form and function: lessons from the DHSS experience

Ruth has long enjoyed doing battle with forms. When she was a civil servant, the language used in forms was from the 1950s, and they were very difficult to fill in; no wonder that the launch of the Campaign for Plain English was marked with shredding forms in Trafalgar Square!

Ruth once worked in a unit in a government department (the DHSS); this team had a brief to radically improve such forms. The team included writers and designers, and had a decent budget for research and testing too. They had input from Pat Wright, the applied psychologist Conrad had mentioned, and the Adult Literacy Basic Skills Unit; RNIB providing input about impaired vision. They investigated what trips people up when they try to fill out a form – type size, vocabulary, question sequence, whatever.

The unit was supposed to redesign 150 forms and in the first two years they managed about eight! However, that seemingly slow progress was because the research and testing and analysis was very ‘front loaded’ (it paid dividends later).

With forms, there is sometimes a trade-off between length and complexity. Some forms in her collection are booklets of 28 or even 36 pages! People appear to prefer a long but easy to understand form. Reorganising questions so all you have to do is tick a box is helpful – but it takes space. Clear signposting to take you to the next relevant part of the form is good – and also takes space!

Many forms have an introductory paragraph which tells people how to fill in the form (write clearly, write in block capitals, use a black pen…). However, research shows that hardly anyone reads that bit. In any case, people’s behaviour is not changed by such prompts, so why bother?

If you want to provide guidance as to how to fill out specific parts of a form, provide it at the ‘point of use’ – embed your explanations, and any necessary definitions, right in the questions themselves. An example might be the question: ‘Do you have a partner?’ Then you can clarify with something like ‘By partner we mean someone you are married to, or live with as if you were married to them’.

It’s useful to establish what graphic designers call the grid – a set of rules about how space is to be used on the page to lay out the form. For example, the questions and explanations might be placed in a leftmost column, while the space for answers might span the next two columns. Ruth showed some examples of gridless and chaotic forms, later redesigned according to a grid.

Once upon a time, forms would be made up only of type, plus solid or dotted lines (for example, in letterpress printing of the early 20th century). That has created a set of norms which we don’t have to feel bound to these days. Today, lithographic printing permits the use of tints (printing a light shade of a colour by using a pattern of dots that are too small to be individually distinguished). Tints can help to distinguish which parts of the form are for writing into (with a white plain background) from those parts which ask the questions and provide help (where type is set on a tinted background). A second print colour, if affordable, can also be helpful.

Testing also found that it was very helpful to re-jig questions so they could be answered with tick-boxes. Boxes which are used to determine a ‘yes/no’ condition should follow a ‘yes’ kind of question, as in ‘Tick this box if you are married’.

Some such yes/no questions, if answered in the affirmative, will lead to others. Perhaps controversially, Ruth’s team in the DHSS reversed the usual order so that the ‘No’ tick box came before the ‘Yes’ one: this helped them to lay out the subsidiary questions more clearly. (In an online form, of course, such subsidiary questions can be made to disappear automagically if the answer is ‘No’.)

Ruth mentioned ‘hairy boxes’ – those pesky ones with vertical separators that are intended to guide you to place one letter in each demarcated space. They’ve proved to be a complete disaster. Someone mentioned the US Immigration form for filling out before the plane lands, which has this feature.

That’s not the only problem with that US Immigration form, remarked Ruth. It’s very bad at conveying the relationship between question and response space: people often assume that the space for the answer is the one below the question. Only when they come to the last question do they find that the questions are set below the spaces for answering them.

Signposting is important in complex forms, helping people to skip questions that don’t apply to them (‘If you answered ‘No’ here, go forward to Section C’).

For the benefits claim forms, the DHSS team realised that many claimants don’t have the fine motor skills to write small, so they made more space for the answers – and left a substantially larger space for the signature.

Many forms end at that point, but the DHSS team added a section to tell the form-filler what to do now, what supporting documents to attach, and what would happen subsequently. It helped manage expectations and gave people a sense of the timescale according to which DHSS would respond.

Quick exercise

Ruth got us to work in pairs on an exercise based on the competition which the Plain English Campaign used to set in the pages of the Daily Express. She had multiple copies of three or four real life examples of gobbledygook and invited us to simplify the messages; we wrote our alternatives on the small A4 white-boards which she uses in teaching, called ‘show-me’ boards in the trade, so we could hold them up to compare alternatives across the room.

One of the original offerings read: ‘We would advise that attached herewith is the entry form, which has been duly completed, and would further advise that we should be grateful if you would give consideration to the various different documents to which we have made reference.

One suggested rewording was ‘Please note the documents referred to in this form’; another was ‘Here is the entry form; please note the referenced documents.’ PEC’s original winner was ‘Attached is the completed entry form. Please consider the documents referred to’ – though she personally preferred that ‘Here is’ version. We went through another couple of examples too.

Problem areas which people noted include:

  • use of the subjunctive mood in verbs
  • use of the passive tense in verbs
  • long sentences with multiple clauses

In the wording of contracts, it may be unclear who is meant by ‘we’ and ‘you’  in something  the customer is supposed to sign. Jane Teather said that the company had commissioned the form, they should be ‘we’ and the customer ‘you’.

Something else that occupied us for a few minutes was the changing norms around the use of ‘shall’ versus ‘will’.

Four Cs

Ruth offered four Cs as ideals — Clear, Consistent, Concise and Compelling.

The ‘consistency’ ideal suggests that if you set up a convention in the communication – such as who is ‘we’ and who is ‘you’ in a text, and what something is to be called – you should stick to it. This is defiance of a literary concept of ‘elegant variation’, the idea whereby you ransack the thesaurus in a hunt for synonyms, rather than re-use the original term; that may make for a fine essay, but for these purposes, bin it. Once you have called a spade a spade, stick to it.

In written communications with a broad public, subsidiary clauses and relative clauses are probably confusing and best broken out into separate sentences, said Ruth. Likewise she pronounced a fatwa against parenthesis: anything in brackets or between en dashes. They are not bad English by any means, but you risk confusing the wider audience. In any case, stuff in parenthesis is at risk of being thought as of lesser importance (though you might move ‘bracketed bits’ to the end, she said, which is what I am doing now).

A question was raised, in response to a redesign Ruth showed of transforming a bullet list into a tabular layout, about the implications of using tabular data online for accessibility for blind computer users. My own feeling, confirmed after discussion with others, is that an HTML table will ‘linearise’ nicely when reduced to readable text e.g. for voice synthesis presentation: first the header row will be read, then the first body row, then the next, and so on. However, this isn’t good enough. A table is an inherently visual device which allows the reader pay selective attention to rows and columns. Really, the information should be completely re-organised to make an audio presentation meaningful to a vision-impaired person. (Think about how you would present the information on radio!)

Ruth’s overall approach to making textual information more accessible includes these tips:

  • Look to patterns in the text which can be exploited, for example by reorganising material into bullet lists. If Ruth sees a series of clauses linked by ‘and’, she considers bullet points as an alternative.
  • If a list of bullet points gets excessively long, analyse to see if it can be broken into two shorter lists.
  • Break up large slabs of text; Ruth avoids paragraphs which are more than three or four lines long.

Four mantras

Here are four other thoughts which Ruth offered in the course of the afternoon:

  • ‘Nonsense in plain language is still nonsense!’ – as someone in Standard Life had remarked.
  • Rob Eagleton, an Australian practitioner in plain English: ‘It’s the writer’s responsibility to be clear, not the reader’s responsibility to understand.’
  • ‘Clear writing stems from clear thinking.’
  • ‘Simplicity isn’t simple to do.’ Communicating well is an art, a craft, a skill, and it is not that simple to do well. Because writing is something everybody does daily, it’s tempting to think that everone can do it well. Testing reveals this is not true! There is scope here for learning and for training.


We would be interested to hear people’s reactions to this topic. Meanwhile here are some thoughts posted by NetIKX committee member Claire Parry:

  • Given the constraints of a half-day seminar, we inevitably only scratched the surface of this vast topic. Several participants commented afterwards that they would have liked to discuss design issues specific to online forms – maybe a topic for a future seminar?
  • I also wondered how we could take the discussion forward to apply information design principles to the Internet of Things, the need for documentation to be readable by both humans and machines, the ‘mobile-first’ philosophy and the move towards embedding user manuals in products.
  • As these are all areas where there is a clear need for interdisciplinary collaboration, it was encouraging to see participants from both information management and technical communications backgrounds contributing to the seminar and acknowledging our common aims. In an era of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’, clear and accurate communication is more important than ever.
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Survey completed

The NetIKX survey is now closed. We thank everyone for their comments and contributions. We hope to make the results available shortly.

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2017 is an important year for NetIKX, as we will be celebrating our tenth anniversary! We would really appreciate it if you could tell us what you would like to see from NetIKX in 2017 and beyond. The following link,, will take you to a short survey – it shouldn’t take more that 10 minutes to complete.

The survey will be open until 24th January 2017. Any feedback you are able to give would be much appreciated.

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Evidence-based Decision Making

Conrad Taylor writes:

On Thursday 3rd of November 2016, about thirty people gathered at the British Dental Association to discuss the topic of ‘Evidence-Based Decision Making’, in a workshop-like session led by Steve Dale, who practises as an independent consultant as ‘Collabor8Now’.

The NetIKX difference

Before I give readers an account of the meeting, and some thinking about it, I’ll describe a few things that often make NetIKX meetings ‘different’ from those in other organisations devoted to information and knowledge management. This meeting was a good expression of those differences.

For one thing, NetIKX is not dominated by academics – most who come to the meetings work with knowledge and information in government departments, business corporations, agencies and the like. That majority is then seasoned with a sprinkling of consultants who work in those kinds of business environment.

Secondly, the pattern of most NetIKX meetings is to have one or two thought-provoking presentations, followed by discussions or exercises in ‘table groups’ (called syndicate sessions). This on average occupies a third of the time, followed by pooling of ideas in a brief plenary. That’s quite different from the pattern of lecture plus brief Q&A encountered at so many other organisations’ meetings.

When you combine those two features – the nature of the audience and the participatory table-group engagement – the Network for Information and Knowledge Exchange does live up to its ‘network’ title pretty well. The way Steve organised this meeting, with a heavier than usual slant towards table-group activity, made the most of this opportunity for encounter and exchange.

Setting the scene

Steve explained that he had already delivered this ‘package’ in other contexts, including for the Knowledge and Innovation Network (KIN) associated with Warwick Business School ( We know Steve is also interested in the idea of ‘gamifying’ processes: he hoped the work he had prepared for us would be fun. There would even be an element of competition between the five tables, with a prize at stake.

Steve started with a proposition: ‘Decisions should always be based on a combination of critical thinking and the best available evidence’. Also, he offered us a dictionary definition of Evidence, namely, ‘the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid’.

The first proposition, of course, begs the question about what you consider to be the best available evidence – whose opinions you trust, for example. That, it turned out, was the question at the heart of Steve’s second exercise for us.

As for that ‘definition’, I have my doubts. It could be interpreted as saying that we start with a ‘belief or proposition’, and then stack information around it to support that point of view. That may be how politics and tabloid journalism works, but I am more comfortable with scientific investigation.

There are at least two ways in which science looks at evidence. If an explanatory hypothesis is being tested, the experiment is framed in such a way that evidence from it may overthrow the hypothesis, forcing us to modify it. And very often, before there is yet a basis for confidently putting forth a hypothesis, ‘evidence’ in the form of observed facts or measurements, and even apparent correlations, is worth taking note of anyway: this then constitutes something that requires explaining. Two cases in point would be field notebooks in biology and series measurements in meteorology.

Similarly, ‘evidence’ in a forensic investigation should float free of argument, and may support any number of causal constructions (unless you are trying to fit somebody up). That’s what makes detective fiction fun to read.

Certainly, in our complex world, we do need the best possible evidence, but it is often far from easy to determine just what that is, let alone how to interpret it. I shall end this piece with a few personal thoughts about that.

Correlation and causation

Steve’s following slides explored what happens when you confuse ‘correlation’ (things, especially trends, which happen within the same context of time and space) with ‘causation’. For example: just as Internet Explorer was losing market share, there was a parallel decline in the murder rate; from the start of the Industrial Revolution, average global temperatures have been trending upwards, closely correlated with a decline in piracy on the high seas. Did the former cause the latter, or the other way round?

Those, of course, are deliberately silly examples. But often, correlation may usefully give us a hint about where to look for a causal mechanism. The global warming trend has been found (after much data collection at an observatory in Hawaii) to correlate with an increase in the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That observation spurred research into the ‘greenhouse gas’ effect, helping us to understand the dynamics of climate change. As for the field of medicine, where causative proof is hard to nail down, sometimes correlation alone is deemed convincing enough to guide action: thus NICE recommends donepezil as a palliative treatment for Alzheimer’s, though its precise mechanism of action is unproven.

Data visualisation

Steve then moved the focus on to one particular way in which information claiming to be ‘evidence’ is shoved at us these days – data visualisation, which we may define as the use of graphical images (charts, graphs, data maps) to present data to an audience. He mentioned a project called Seeing Data, a collaboration between British and Norwegian universities, which is exploring the role of data visualisations in society (see According to this project, the key skills we need to work with data visualisations are…

  • language skills;
  • mathematical and statistical skills, including a familiarity with chart types and how to interpret them;
  • computer skills, for those cases where the visualisation is an interactive one;
  • and skills in critical thinking, such as those that may lead us to question the assumptions, or detect a ‘spin’ being put on the facts.

Steve showed a few visualisations that may require an effort to understand, including the London Underground ‘Tube map’ (more properly, a network diagram). Some people, said Steve, have problems using this to get from one place to another. Actually, a geographically accurate map of the Underground looks like a dense tangle of spaghetti at the centre with dangling strands at the periphery. Harry Beck’s famous diagram, much imitated by other transport networks, is simplified and distorted to focus attention on the ‘lines’ and the stations, especially those that serve as interconnectors. But it is certainly not intended as a guide to direction or distance: using it to plan a walking tour would be a big mistake.

One might therefore say that effective understanding of a diagram requires experience of that diagram type and its conventions: a sub-type of the factor (2) in the list above. Charts, graphs, diagrams and data maps are highly formalised semiotic expressions. Partly because of that formalism, but also because many visualisations are designed to support fast expert analysis, we would be wrong to expect every visualisation to be understood by just anyone. Even the experienced technicians who recently did my echocardiogram defer to the consultant cardiologist, when it comes to interpreting the visualised data.

Critical thinking in focus

For our first exercise, Steve wanted us to apply critical thinking to ten given situations, set out in a document, copies of which were shared with each table group. Five of these puzzlers were illustrated with a graphic. To prime us, he talked through a number of images. In one case, a chart indicating changing quantities over time, the vertical axis representing the quantities did not start at zero (a common phenomenon): it gave the impression of a large change over time, which wasn’t warranted by the data. A map of referendum voting patterns across the counties and regions of Scotland could skew one’s impressions owing to the vast area of the sparsely populated Highlands, Galloway etc., compared to the small but densely settled zones of Glasgow and Lanarkshire. Other examples illustrated problems of sampling biases.

The exercises were quite fun. One of my favourites, and it did bamboozle me, showed a side elevation and plan picture of a twin-engined Douglas Dakota cargo plane marked with loads of red dots. The accompanying text said that the RAF had responded to losses of their planes to German anti-aircraft fire by examining the ones which got back, to see where the damage had occurred. They had aggregated the data (that is what the red dots indicated) and analysed the diagram to determine where to apply protective armour. What we were supposed to notice was that clearly, as those planes had managed to return, being struck in those marked places was usually survivable. The fact that no such dots showed up on the cockpit or either engine was because strikes in those locations tended to be fatal.

I won’t go through all of the examples in the exercise. In one case we were supposed to analyse trends in death by firearms year after year, but the y axis had been inverted, turning the curve upside down. In another case, the y axis was organised by a geometric progression rather than a linear one (each extra increment represented a doubling of quantity). That was quite a weird example, but bear in mind that logarithmic scales are common in some scientific graphs – and are used appropriately there, and understood by their intended audience.

It was fun working with the team on my table. We were pretty good at identifying, in some cases, multiple points of criticism. That rather undermined our score, because Steve decreed there should be only one criticism per example, and his answers had to be regarded as the right ones for the purpose of the competition! But the real benefit was the process, analysis and discussion.

Whose evidence do you trust?

The second exercise painted the scenario of an Italian company developing software for the retail sector: the concern was to know whether introducing performance-related pay would improve productivity in the engineering teams.

Steve had concocted eight forms of ‘evidence’ from various sources: a senior external consultant who said ‘no, you need to develop the leadership skills of supervisors’; a trusted friend who pointed to a study from the London School of Economics; an article in the Financial Times; a Harvard study of productivity amongst Chinese mineworkers; various responses to the question posted on a Human Resources discussion forum; what the HR director thinks. There were also two bits of evidence closer to the company: data about discrepancies in performance between the existing teams, which seemed to indicate that the most productive teams were those with a high proportion of senior engineers; and information that the union representing most of the engineers had resisted previous attempts at performance-related pay differentials.

We were supposed to rank these inputs on the basis of how trustworthy we thought their sources to be; my table found it quite hard to avoid considering how relevant the offered evidence might be. For example, we didn’t think the circumstances of Italian software engineers and Chinese mineworkers to be remotely comparable. I found it interesting how many of us tended to regard people like consultants and top management as trustworthy, whereas, when employees’ union was mentioned, people said, ‘Oh, they’ll be biased’. There is obviously a lot of subjectivity involved in evaluating sources.

If one thinks more broadly of evaluating the relevance and validity of evidence on offer, it appears to have at least two components: the degree to which the experience or model offered has both internal coherence and similarity to the situation for which a decision is being sought; and evaluation of the ‘messenger’ bringing those ideas. Thus there is a danger that useful evidence might be disregarded because of bias against the source.

Personal reflections

This was certainly a lively and highly engaged meeting, and Steve must be congratulated for how he structured the ‘table work’. The tasks we were set may have been artificial, and I thought some of the conclusions reached could be challenged, but it made for a lot of discussion, which indeed continued when we broke into unstructured networking afterwards, with drinks and snacks.

Clearly, it is valuable to learn to be critical of data visualisations, especially now they have become so fashionable. Data visualisations are often poor because their creators have not thought properly about what is to be communicated, and to what kind of audience, or haven’t considered how these highly abstracted and formal representations may be misunderstood. (And then, of course, there’s the possibility that the purpose is deliberately to mislead!)

There is a whole different (and more political) tack that we could have explored. This was the last NetIKX meeting of 2016, a year in which we have witnessed some quite outrageous distortions of the truth around the so-called ‘Brexit’ referendum, to name but one field of discourse. More generally, the media have been guilty of over-simplified representations of many very complex issues.

This was also the year in which Michael Gove exclaimed that we’d had enough of the opinions of experts – the kind of attitude that doesn’t bode well for the prospect of ‘evidence-based government’.

In respect of Evidence-Based Decision Making, I think that to rise to urgent environmental, social, developmental and political challenges, we definitely need the best evidence and predictive modelling that we can muster. And whatever respect we as citizens have for our own intelligence, it is hubris to think that we can make sense of many of these hyper-complex situations on our own without the help of experts. But can we trust them?

The nature of that expert knowledge, how we engage with the experts and they with us, and how we apply critical thinking in respect of expert opinion – these are worthy topics for any knowledge and information management network, and not something that can be dealt with in an afternoon.

At the meeting, Dion Lindsay spoke up to propose that NetIKX might usefully find a platform or method for ongoing and extended discussions between meetings (an email list such as the KIDMM community uses is one such option, but there may be better Web-based ones). The NetIKX committee is happy to look into this – so I guess we should start looking for evidence on which to base a decision!

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