Monday, 25 May 2015

A critical friend - early thoughts

Image (c) Horia Varlan. Licensed for
reuse under CC-BY-2.0
Recently I have been asked to join a Knowledge Management project group for another department within the Welsh Government. I can't profess to being a KM expert; indeed it's not an area that I feel well qualified to talk on at all. However, this project will provide an important focus for me to develop this knowledge and expertise. In the meantime my role may be best described as being one of critical friend, or external challenge.

It's very early stages but what have I learned about this role so far?

Support, reality check, and challenge appear to have been key aspects of this role so far. 


There's lots about supporting the project team in this role. Not, so far, as practical support, or knowledge / expertise supply, but lots of emotional support and reassurance. I found myself saying repeated comments of approval, support and encouragement. My interjections often encouraged re-focus of the meeting, prompting return to the item under discussion. Just occasionally my support also enabled someone to say something new, a new contribution that was really of value, or help to our task.

KM is much about cultural change and, as such, it's a long-term project. To me the focus for KM should not be on technology but should be on people, their knowledge and expertise, and the future needs of the organisation to be able to use, re-use and build on this knowledge. Cultural change and technology are both areas where many of us will value friendship support, encouragement and reassurance!

Reality check

A couple of times I found myself questioning whether some suggestions were of significance or would helpfully impact on the achievements of the group. At times of confusion I also provided a "big picture" view and summary, hopefully giving greater clarity and focus to the meeting.

Voice of constructive challenge

Questions such as:
  • "what are the difficulties at the moment?"; 
  • "what would you hope to achieve through this?"; 
  • "what are the really important priorities here?";
  • "is this really as significant as it seems to be?".
These questions provoked discussion that teased out aspects of significance, sought explanations of hidden thinking, and enabled the group to come to a new understanding of perspectives, issues, thought-processes and concerns. Open acknowledgement of these was significant, providing opportunities for challenge, support or new perspectives. This provided a point to move forward from, a new consensus of agreement or understanding, and a point a which a firm decision could be made.

Much of this support appears to impact most strongly on clarity of purpose for the group, staying on task, and focussing on top priority areas. It also appears to offer external challenge, providing a view at distance, and perhaps enabling a wider range of options to be considered prior to decision making.  It also encourages explanation, understanding, and perhaps challenges to group think, assumptions, or hidden thinking. However, most significantly this role  has to be about friendship, support, reassurance and encouragement.  An overly critical or challenging external panel member will not be appreciated, and will sideline their value.