Human Capital – The Last Differentiator: Conrad Taylor writes

The speaker at this meeting was Rooven Pakkiri, who describes himself as helping business managers in organisations to use social media tools to further ‘Social Knowledge Management’.

RoovenPakkiriWhen he was working for the National Westminster Bank in the late nineties, Rooven attended a training session introducing the Internet, which for him was a transformative experience. He concluded that, as this technology would ‘level the playing field’ between large and small organisations, the main differentiator between successful organisations and those less so, was how they made use of ‘human capital’.

For me this begs a few questions. For a start, what is human capital? I think that Rooven specifically equated it with knowledge and, to be more specific, with ‘intellectual knowledge’. This is probably truer in some business contexts than in others – and, of course, it’s an opinion well tailored to appeal to Knowledge Management types. However, there are fields of collective human endeavour where plenty of other human attributes contribute a great deal to the success of organisations – for example, empathy and kindness, loyalty, patience, attention, bravery, honesty and imagination.

It also seems clear that there are many kinds of organisation where the key to success is a very material form of capital, where, for example, you need money to invest in building plant, access to cheap electricity and perhaps political leverage, as well as hiring people with the requisite knowledge and skills.

Rooven asked us to recall when we first used Google. (Actually, I thought further back, to the ‘fast’ aggregated search facility on GeoNet, to Gopher and, when the Web came along, to Altavista and OpenText.) The reason we are able to find out so much online, he said, is because it is in human nature to want to share information.

He also set up a dichotomy between broadcast television and ‘the Internet’ (I think he meant the non-social-media side of the Web) on the one hand, and the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on the other. The first set he characterised as ‘broadcast media’, and rather old hat, and the latter group as made up of user-generated content.

I’m less inclined to see these as opposed; rather, each form has its strengths and weaknesses and we combine them in ways that work best for us. Many tweets and Facebook postings contain short-form URL links to blog posts, YouTube videos, online articles and other more considered forms of exposition.

There was some discussion about the degree to which people are prepared to share their knowledge, especially if their relative monopoly of it confers status and power. Rooven talked about some organisational practices, and technology deployments, which could be used to encourage people to share knowledge within their organisation, for example ‘reverse mentoring’, where a junior person shadows a more senior and more knowledgeable employee and writes blog posts representing the senior’s knowledge and insights.

There is an issue here about what kind of organisational culture encourages people to part with knowledge, the possession of which may well make them more secure in their position and less disposable. It reminded me of one of David Gurteen’s knowledge cafés at which someone from the HR department of a consultancy enthused about their knowledge sharing culture, while in discussions after, people from PWC said you’d be mad to give any advantage to your ‘colleagues’, who were always scrambling to climb over you to the top of the heap.

Then Rooven cited Deloitte as saying that, these days, employees have to be treated more like customers than subordinates. Again, I think that can only be true in certain organisations and work-roles. I see no evidence that the modern shop-worker, bus-driver, nurse, teacher or fast-food restaurant worker is treated with this sort of consideration.

Rooven’s next foray into knowledge transfer looked at the enhanced opportunities for self-directed learning which the Web gives us access to, for example videos on YouTube, TED talks and participation in online groups. I think Rooven’s view is largely that any sufficiently self-motivated person can, by dint of tracking down online training materials and doing a lot of study, succeed in learning anything. He spoke approvingly of Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that 10,000 hours of study and practice can turn anyone into an expert. (This is from Gladwell’s book Outliers, which Steve Pinker has described as made up of ‘cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies’; I certainly think that autodidacticism doesn’t suit everyone and that interpersonal knowledge transfer still has its place.)

What does it take to make knowledge transfer an ongoing phenomenon in an organisation? Rooven’s business is based on working with HR departments to get collaboration and knowledge sharing going, using network software platforms such as Yammer, Jive and Connections. Here I would have liked more use cases, though I guess Rooven is hampered by issues of confidentiality.

There is, however, some literature to draw on here, such as Julian Orr’s study of Xerox photocopier and printer repair technicians, and Etienne Wenger’s case study of staff at a medical insurance firm, which informs his book Communities of Practice. But this can fall flat, as seems to have been the fate of the Local Government Association’s Knowledge Hub.

Rooven suggested that people who act as ‘connectors’ between people and networks are amongst the most valuable people in companies. This is virtually identical to Wenger’s thoughts on the role such people play – he calls them ‘brokers’.

Towards the end of his talk, Rooven mentioned a computer game where the player has to put together a winning football team by choosing the best mix of players with different talents. He asked, what if companies similarly assessed the human capital attributes of their employees (and potential recruits) and put together ‘teams’ fitted to solve the important problems of the day? Here at least Rooven appeared to acknowledge that intellectual knowledge is only one of a number of desirable aspects of human capital.

I was less impressed by his suggestion that the business world should move towards a general ‘labour on demand’ model, shopping around in a skills marketplace and using short-term contracts to get jobs done. Doubtless that is the logic of capitalism, but it is a poor recipe for human security and development.

Rooven spoke for longer than is usual at a NetIKX meeting and, after the tea break, he offered to continue with a demonstration of some of the software platforms he uses, but we opted to stick with the NetIKX tradition of syndicate groups, of which there were three, each discussing a separate question.

I was in a group that discussed whether business is moving increasingly from the domain of the Complicated to that of the Complex. That is, is the world of business akin to the engine of a Ferrari, which a competent mechanic can disassemble, fix and reassemble? Or is it like the Brazilian rainforest, a complex ecology of interplaying organisms and factors, where not only is it impossible to know everything about the system, but you can’t even know what factors you don’t know about? (The ‘unknown unknowns.’)

Rooven said this was from an article in the Harvard Business Review: ‘A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making’ by Dave Snowden and Mary Boone. It appeared in November 2007 and you can find it here: The article presents Snowden’s ‘Cynefin Framework’, in which a situation requiring decisions to be made is analysed as belonging to one of four possible Domains: Snowden labelled these as Simple (later changed to Obvious), Complicated, Complex and Chaotic. Rooven’s question focused on the middle two domains.

Although the basic either/or question was hardly worth discussing, we pushed the topic further. Organisations have a dynamic life in which some aspects are complicated, but rules have emerged to regulate them. Sometimes the organisation finds itself struggling with complexity where the dynamics are hard to figure out, but that’s not cause for despair. Snowden’s recommended response is to probe the situation by devising experiments that are ‘safe to fail’, and see which of these interventions move the situation in a desirable direction.

So, we had quite a lively syndicate session, even if the connection between the question we’d been posed and the topic of Human Capital was very loose.

I’d like to extend this topic towards other human attributes, and towards know-how and tacit knowledge, not just what organisations think they can squeeze out of employee’s brains.

Human Capital – The Last Differentiator: Lissi Corfield writes


At our seminar on 19th January,  Rooven Pakkiri spoke about – “Human Capital – The Last Differentiator”. If you want to hear a recording of the talk, then you need to join NetIKX ( For another view on the meeting, see Conrad Taylor’s comments in the next post.

Human capital 1 croppedDoes our knowledge management work fit the model of Kew Gardens or Richmond Park?  Rooven Pakkiri picked his metaphors well!  This one provided two excellent images to highlight the different scenarios knowledge management might face in their places of work.  His slides were a powerful part of a very coherent look into the future of organisational knowledge management.  Feedback from those attending the seminar made clear that this had been a very enjoyable as well as valuable session.

Let’s start with some ideas that are already familiar to us all.

Knowledge Retention

How can an organisation tap the knowledge of experts so that it does not leave when they do.  He suggested ‘reverse mentoring’ where you pair a bright young employee with your elder expert, to blog about their ideas.  This is a bit more dynamic than than the rather sterile and late in the day ‘exit interview’.

Or how do we flesh out increasing training provision while enabling the organisation to become a learning organisation.  Rooven advocates the power of self directed learning, where the trainee can proactively use web resources to meet their needs at a pace and time to suit themselves.  Youtube and Ted talks were his favoured choices, but of course, this could be mixed with the ever increasing array of MOOC’s and other resources available on-line…

And the familiar issue of culture – do we as humans ‘like sharing’ or do we naturally withhold our knowledge to emphasise our own power.  I really appreciated his perspective on this, focusing on the sharing that goes on with social media to suggest that we have a strong instinct to share with our social groups.  If this does not happen at work, perhaps we should investigate the barriers to sharing that the workplace presents.  Where companies only reward individual performance in isolation from the wider team work, humans are likely to curb their sharing nature to play the system.  Changing the system then might be more appropriate than trying to dabble with ‘culture change’.

Human capital 3 croppedChallenges in the workplace

Rooven then moved into less familiar territory for knowledge managers.

How do we ‘manage’ information and knowledge flows between people when digital is changing so fast? Once BYOD (bring your own devices) flummoxed IT departments who wanted to control all the parts of the IT system.  Where do we stand when people have even more autonomy and BYOA takes over (bring your own applications)?  How will we, as information professionals cope with no control over any of the digital systems that staff are using within one office?  The advantages for staff themselves are very apparent though; as they work with the applications they enjoy using, rather than those enforced by the organisation.  But working out how to integrate the resulting communication and sharing links looks like chaos.  Will we cope?

Human capital 2 cropped

We considered the fate of numerous well-known brands that have been knocked out by digital change. One prime example was Blockbuster, a firm whose business model rose and fell within our own lifetime.  Netflix was their nemesis.  Rooven asked us to face these ‘Black Swans’, changes that can come out of the blue and disrupt business patterns entirely.  Again, it is easy to see the advantages – if you love opera and theatre and now can watch the best productions live streamed to your local cinema.  But we all have to be aware that ‘out of the blue’ amazing changes may affect our own patch of the world of work.

One more example that I found fascinating was the growth of gamification.  I had seen this as about rather crude reward systems based on kids’ games.  But Rooven introduced us to a key aspect of FIFA, the football game that has been popular for a few years now.  The key was not prizes and rewards, but the skill of building a cohesive team that would play together.  Clearly not a team of top stars – even someone who has no interest in football could see that this would be a team overloaded with prima donnas!  The football game player is encouraged to consider the way teams work and meld a team that will bring out the best in everyone.  Now that is a skill that clearly has resonance in our working lives.  So will people willing to take the roles of ‘lynchpin’ and facilitator become more vital than subject experts once so much knowledge can be accessed across the web.

Unknown Knowns and Known Unknowns

If we have looked at the unknown knowns and the known unknowns, the only place to finish was in the unknown unknowns!  The really scary stuff – or is it the really exciting place to be?  We talked about where knowledge and information professionals and librarians may be developing in the future.  As we know, the key knowledge resources are primarily in people’s heads, but with digital changes, are we now moving to a world where multi-faceted relationships brush aside organisational hierarchies?  Where knowledge management does not become easier or any less important, as it has to be ready to move with the unknown opportunities that will emerge.  We may be tending our internal glories, as Rooven modelled in his image of Kew Garden.  Or will we be looking at open systems, more on Richmond Park lines?  His talk left our heads reeling in a most stimulating way.  The images did look enticing (see!

Questions for the delegates

Here are the three questions that Rooven set us to discuss in the seminar sessions:

  1. Did the group agree with Robin Dunbar’s assertion that humans can associate with a maximum of 150 people?
  2. Google allows us to know how to find something, rather than actually knowing anything – what are the implications for KM and Human Capital?
  3. Is it true that business is moving increasingly from the domain of the Complicated, to the domain of the Complex?

Questions for you

Three questions for members (and others) reading about this seminar:

  1. What changes to your work have unexpected digital revolutions caused?
  2. What ideas do you want to contribute relating to Rooven’s three seminar questions?
  3. Are there ideas here that you would like followed up in a future seminar?

We would be interested in your feedback.

Some relevant Tweets from Rooven

(See – @RoovenP)

Power of social interaction…

3 Nov 2015: “More knowledge is created in social interaction than can ever be found in a database.” @grantgross … via @CMSWire

Self directed learning…

12 Nov 2015: Self directed learning – The L&D world is splitting in two … via @C4LPT

A culture challenge!  

18 Dec 2015: imagine HR tagging indivduals and their content for 1 month – calculate the impact in terms of inclusiveness, culture shift and credibility