The Two Halves of KM And Why I Partially Agree with Don Tapscott’s View on KM

I stumbled upon Don Tapscott’s article on KM in Mckinsey website. In his interview with Mckinsey, Tapscott reiterated his views that he described in his book: Wikinomics about how social collaboration can boost productivity at work by reducing the need to meet face-to-face.

I liked the way Don Tapscott articulated clearly on the value of KM to the organisation, which is improving productivity though collaborative tools such as wikis, shared calendar, document library, etc. But I think he is being bias towards his own work, which is about promoting the use of collaborative tools at work. He didn’t put enough emphasis on the importance of having quality conversation during face-to-face meeting. He may not see how KM can improve the quality of conversation.

What’s so important about the quality of conversation? Low quality conversation is also a productivity killer! You are probably have experienced being stuck in an unproductive face-to-face meeting where the participants are locked in their respective views and they are unable to decide on the best approach to reach a common goal. In this kind of meeting, you and other participants did not collaborate and did not learn. To put it simple, you and the other participants aren’t practicing KM.

What would happen, if you go ahead and implement the social collaboration tools in the organisation that doesn’t have the habit of high quality conversation, is that you’d only gain few believers (i.e. early adopters) and – even with CEO’s blessing – the practice of using collaborative tools will not spread beyond the small band of believers.

Furthermore, you will not be able to bring the practice of social collaboration to its pinnacle of excellence: Information Findability though best practice Information Architecture and Staff Engagement through active discussion forums, wikis, and blogs. The reason is simple: what the staff practice on face-to-face platform will be “projected” onto social collaboration platform.

Here are some illustrations of behavior projection from face-to-face platform to social collaboration platform:

  • No habit of meeting project deadlines? Then forget about using collaborative tools (e.g. shared calendar) because people don’t see the need for using the tools.
  • No habit of presenting ideas in coherent manner? Then forget about information architecture because their mindset is fixed on “doing information download and leaving it to the audience to interpret”. People will not embrace the idea of organising information and especially the practice of tagging for future findability. People would just stick to their habit of uploading documents and then forgetting where the documents are stored.
  • No respect/trust on others’ ability? Then forget about collaborative tools because they would rather create something new from scratch than build upon others’ work – even if that means they would be unproductive. And people will not seek others’ knowledge in the social collaboration platform because people don’t trust that their colleagues can produce anything that is useful.

I hope I have convinced you that you can’t advocate and successfully inculcate the habit of using collaborative tools if you haven’t inculcate the habit of having good quality conversation. And that you can’t get others to cooperate and to collectively use the collaborative tools unless you cultivate the culture of openness where people are willing to discuss and test new ideas.

You probably have heard the above argument before and are agreeing that cultivating knowledge sharing culture is important. But I’m encouraging you to pay more attention than just cultivating the right culture. I’m talking about having a coherent KM approach. I’m encouraging you to synchronise both parts of KM when implementing KM.

Understand that both parts are meant to reinforce one another. Attempt to implement one without the other, and I can guarantee that you would, at best, achieve partial and limited success. I can guarantee that you would fail most of the times. Link both parts of KM and communicate the interrelation between the two. You will see KM comes to life and becomes part of the organisation’s DNA.  

Good luck! Any thoughts?

The Rock That A Social Business Is Build Upon


Perhaps you have been reading this blog for quite some time, and you can’t quite figure out what’s this blog is about. I probably talk about too many things that I confuse you, dear reader. Fret not, the day of reckoning is here. I’m going to share the ties that bind the vast topic that  I have been talking for the past four years. The one thing that unites topics in this blog.

First thing first, you are probably wondering about what do these terms have in common: social media, social intranet, social business/organisation, social collaboration, knowledge management (KM), and gamification?

Well, the answer is (drum-roll please) people! 

Pardon me if the answer seems so obvious. I know. I have ranted about how the KMers shouldn’t just emphasise on people just for the sake of talking about it. Putting people at the centre of all the big terms mentioned above requires action. Action makes the biggest difference.

But how should you act? What can you do to make people at the centre of your action? I have been mulling about this question for some time, and finally I had an epiphany recently. No it’s not about technology. And social technology, or user experience (UX) doesn’t quite answer the big question.

Chris Brogan has been talking about “human business” for a long time. And it finally cross my thick skull that Chris is right. It’s all about nurturing human relationship! That’s the whole point of having social media, social intranet, social business/organisation, knowledge management, and gamification.

The commonality between my opinion and Chris’ ends here, however. The “human business” (i.e. social business) that I’m referring to, is beyond than just social media or having a great conversation with people.

The social business that I’m referring here, is about creating and maintaining the whole ecosystem to support relationships within an organisation.

Social Business = Ecosystem within an organisation that supports relationship with yourself and relationship with others.

There are two kinds of relationship that needs to be nurtured and supported for every employee in every organisation:

  1. Relationship with yourself. (Also known as personal mastery or emotional intelligence).
  2. Relationship with others. (Also known as social intelligence).

Why do bosses need to care about the two relationships? Because helping people to nurture and manage the two relationships can impact business bottom-line big time.

Zappos helps their people to manage the two relationship by getting the new hires to think about themselves (i.e. whether they really want to work in Zappos), and inculcating great company culture such that people can have a great working relationship with one another.

A healthy relationship with yourself will lead to a happier (and a more productive) you. You will be motivated and engaged in your work. And you will have a more resilient mindset – which would boost your capability to bounce back from setbacks at work and in personal life.

While a healthy relationship with others will also lead to (surprise!) a happier you and those who work with you. Naturally, the level of trust would increase and people feel comfortable sharing their knowledge, or providing constructive feedback, via social technologies, i.e. social media and social intranet.

Building the two relationships is critical for the success of social business. Resilient employees (people who have achieved personal mastery) can build healthy relationship with other employees, customers, and partners. This could lead to co-creation on problem-solving, innovation, and productivity.

Managing relationships is the rock that social business is build upon.

So if you are thinking to transform your business to be a social business, think about how you can help people to have a healthy relationship with themselves and others. Reflect on this, will you?

Wishing all reader Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 2013!

Greg Smith, The Secret of Viral, And The Chamber of Engagement

This article was published in Social Media Today on 18 March 2012 by the same author.

Check this out: Greg Smith, a vice president in Goldman Sach, posted the reason for quitting his job in the New York Times. And said that his former boss was at fault for the deteriorating corporate culture. Goldman, he said, cares more about profit than its customers.

Greg Smith stories went viral on the internet. And scores of career consultant throw their hat into the ring by offering opinions on career management. Did Greg Smith commit a career suicide? You bet. Whatever Greg Smith does in the future, it won’t be related to the banking industry. His banking career is over!

I totally agree with Amber Mac, a respectable career consultant, on why you and I shouldn’t follow Greg Smith’s example. Like Amber Mac said in the article, you should quit your job gracefully when you know it is over. And one way to do so, is to keep your (negative) opinion about the job to yourself. Just because you want to quit, it doesn’t mean you have to burn the bridge.

Since this blog isn’t about career management, I’d like to offer social business’ perspective to Greg Smith’s story. There are two thought bubbles that pop up in my head when I read the story: (1) Why did Greg Smith’s story go viral? What’s the secret sauce of viral stories?; (2) What should be the platform for real conversations between management and rank-and-file staff?

The Secret Sauce of Viral Stories

Greg Smith’s story is by no means unique. Watch the above video clip. And you would see another man, Joey DeFrancesco, who also quit his job publicly. And like Smith’s story, his story went viral in the internet. This begs the question: Why the seemingly ordinary stories of people lives can go viral?

The main reason is empathy. We can empathise with both stories because of the bigger picture. DeFrancesco quits because the unfair treatment that hotel employees usually receive. He becomes the voice of all hotel employees who silently suffers from the gross mistreatment. While Smith quits because the deteriorating corporate culture in Wall Street (read: greed).

Those reasons appeal to many people. And because we can relate to Smith’s story and DeFrancesco’s story, we feel the urge to like or to forward the story to our friend, colleagues, or family members. That’s how the story went viral.

So the secret sauce of viral story is the emotional hooks that the story has. Can you position the story to appeal to many people? Can you make people feel emotional through your story? If you can do that, then there is a high chance that your story will go viral.

Social Intranet is The Right Chamber for Employee Engagement

Greg Smith and Joey DeFrancesco wouldn’t be folk heroes if what they say doesn’t make any sense. Organisations need to do more about employee engagement than just conducting the infamous corporate climate survey.

It is unfortunate that Smith and DeFrancesco used the wrong media to tell their story. In the age of social intranet and social organisation, they could have expressed their displeasure within the corporate walls, i.e. via internal blogs, discussion forum or video repositories.

If they are brave enough to tell their opinion in social media, then surely they are brave enough to share it with all their colleagues. The management could then conduct closed-door honest conversation with the relevant people.

No matter how bitter they are, Smith and DeFrancesco should have given the management a chance to tell their side of the story. By going public, they are killing off the opportunity to do real dialogue between them and the management. The social intranet, not the social media, is the right chamber for engagement and conversation.

Arguably, a real dialogue is only made possible if the management doesn’t punish people for expressing their opinion in the social intranet. But at the very least – you, I, and other rank-and-file staff, should extend our hand and give the management an opportunity to prove that they care about employee satisfaction.

When all else fails, look for another job! Discreetly of course.

Comments? Do you agree with me?

How Google+ and Twitter Whack Facebook in the Nym Wars (Or The Case for Established Pseudonyms)

This post was published on Social Media Today.

Finally! In a stunning reversal, Google listens to the internet crowd and allows the use of established pseudonym in its Google plus real-name policy. By doing so, Google follows the footstep of Twitter – who is a long time supporter of pseudonym.

Of course, allowing the use of established pseudonym also means Google and Twitter are whacking Facebook in the nym wars. Unlike Google, Facebook stubbornly cling onto its draconian real name policy. Such tyrant attitude can make Facebook the loser in the nym wars.

The Nym Wars

Nym wars (#nymwars) involve not only the major web 2.0 players, i.e. Facebook, Twitter, and Google, but also people who needs to manage online engagement platforms (i.e. discussion forums, blogs, webinars, Twitter townhall, etc). Yep, we (KM-ers) are in it.

At the heart of the nym wars, is the dilemma on whether people should be allowed to be anonymous or to use pseudonym/moniker (fake name), or should be forced to use their real name.

On one hand, you want to promote freedom of speech/expression or even to promote a free flow of ideas. On the other hand, you want to promote accountability so that people can give a more thoughtful and constructive feedback – instead of any feedback.

Of course, the million-dollar question here is: whose side you’re on? I used to be a staunch supporter of real-name camp. But not anymore. I’m leaning on the dark side, i.e. anonymous/pseudonym. Though I support a variant of the dark side, called persistent (established) pseudonym - not the real dark side, i.e. a complete anynomity.

Here is why.

The Issues With Using Real Name

The champions of the use of real name are China (the usual suspect) and Facebook (shocking?). Enforcing its real name policy, Facebook disabled Salman Rushdie’s account. Thankfully, Rushdie fought back and won. Others like Wael Ghonim (the face behind Egypt’s Arab Spring), and a chinese dissident Zhao Jing (a.k.a. Michael Anti) are not so lucky – their Facebook account is disabled.

I like the idea of using real names. Partly because, by using real names, people are held accountable for whatever they say. Thus, eliminating the negative side of anonymity: disparaging, irrelevant comments.

However, people may be afraid to speak their mind or opt to sugar-coat every words that they say. In other words, ideas can get stiffled.

The problem with real names doesn’t stop here. Another problem is the complicated nature of our identities. This best illustrated using Lady Gaga example. Lady Gaga is a stage name – not a real name. But the woman prefers to called as lady gaga. The whole world knows her as lady gaga. Could we then insist: “kindly use your real name”?

The Trouble With Being Anonymous / Using Pseudonym

The anonymous / pseudonym camp is championed by civil rights groups like EFF. They argued that anonymity is required to allow people to freely share their ideas without fear of being reprimanded.

I don’t completely buy this argument. I don’t agree with it because total anonymity also means anarchy. People can give disparaging comment, irrelevant comment, or personal attacks, without any implication. It’s like getting away with murder.

In fact, I believe anonymity encourages spams and trolls more than constructive feedbacks. Look at what happened to REACH portal (Singapore government feedback portal). It is full of rubbish, angry comments! (here is an example).

How Persistent / Established Pseudonym Wins the Nym Wars

Liz Gannes in her All Things Digital article argued brilliantly that the gist of the nym wars is about having unified online identity – which would allow Facebook or Google to analyse our web footprints more accurately across multiple platforms. But Gannes’ article doesn’t fully explain how unified online identity is the key to win the nym wars.

Well, thank God Mathew Ingram plug the gaps in Gannes’ article. In his GigaOm article, Ingram explained that unified online identity, or established pseudonym, allows people to protect their privacy and build reputation at the same time. And when reputation is attached to a pseudonym, people can establish an online identity (distinct from their real name), attract like-minded folks, and build communities around common interests.

This is the reason why Google+’s revised real name policy is a wonderful policy. It is now flexible enough to accommodate established pseudonym. Furthermore, to gain access to myriad of Google tools, you need to have a unified Google identity. So Google is subtlely promoting the use of established pseudonym (yes it is a sneaky but superb move).

Another policy that I like is that of Twitter. Twitter has no real name policy – but acknowledges people for using their real name. And like Mathew Ingram pointed out, Twitter doesn’t need such policy. Pseudonym in Twitter is heavily attached to reputation. To gain reputation/credibility in Twitter, people need to stick with their chosen pseudonym.

I believe established pseudonym is going to be the new norm. And whoever allows the use of it will win the heart and soul of the digital natives.

Randi Zuckenberg, are you listening?

KM Is About People. Really? So What?

Most people understand that “KM is about people”. You don’t have to repeat this over and over again. What you need to do is to explain the meaning of people-based KM. I think the manifestation of “KM is about people” is three-fold: facilitating conversation, cultivating communities, and designing social intranet and user adoption strategy.

I came across this situation many times. KMers rants-and-raves about KM is being hijacked by technologist, and enthusiatically sends a message that sounds like a gospel: “KM is about people”. Wow, what an insight (sarcasm intended). I’m totally not impressed. Here is why.

First of all, everything is about people. Could you name one thing that isn’t about people? Last time I checked, every organisation’s function is about people! From Finance to HR, and from operations to technology, people is the center of every function. This is common sense. It’s not something that we (KMers) should stress mutiple times. Most people get it! They are not dumb. They understand that people is important for organisation.

Second, when you say “KM is about people”, what do you mean? What is the “call to action” that you want to convey? Check out what the KM experts are advocating, and you would find different meaning to “KM is about people”, for e.g. Dave Snowden advocates complexity and decision making; David Gurteen stresses the importance of conversation; David Griffiths talks about talent/human capital management. This is where the problem lies. There are mixed messages beneath the simple truth: “KM is About People”.

Don’t get me wrong. I think KM is about people. Alas, I also think that we fell in love with this message so much so, that we forgot to clarify the “call to action” beneath it. We think people don’t understand what we are saying, when actually they aren’t sure about what we mean. Words are slippery! Same words can carry different meaning to different people.

To succeed, we need to do a better job in translating what do we mean by “KM is about people”. Allow me to share my thought. The call to action should be three-fold:

1. Facilitate Conversations. We need to facilitate conversation – especially the difficult one – so that people can share and capture their knowledge. This means KMers have to be quality conversation facilitators. We have to tell people that they can look for us when they need help in capturing knowledge or in facilitating AAR/Retrospect. We should also organise and moderate Townhall meeting where the top management can have a dialogue with the people.

2. Cultivate Communities. Communities (or Tribes) are natural occurring in any organisation. However without proper intervention, the right communities may not have the resources to produce strategic results. They may not even survive. We need to cultivate communities, that are strategic for the organisation, through a combination of top down and bottom up approach.

  • Top down approach means we work with the top management to identify strategic areas and key people, so that strategic communities can be formed immediately and be visible to the management.
  • while bottom up means we also open to the possibility of people forming communities and producing important knowledge work. Our job is to highlight the deserving communities to the management so that they can get the resources that they need.

3. Design Social Intranet and User Adoption Strategy. KM technology has to be human-centric (this is one of the manifestations of “KM is about people”). That means, we need to have social intranet because it uses social technology. Social technology is a human-centric technology, because it connects people and allows them to promote relevant contents. We also need to have user adoption strategy, i.e. making sure that people use the social technology.

There you go! I have explained my thought about people-based KM. What do you think? What’s your version of people-based KM?

Stop Tweeting: How I Avoided Heated Online Discussion

Conversation is never easy, especially when you are talking about deeply divisive emotional issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict. The key to manage difficult conversation is have such conversation face-to-face. Don’t use social technology platform for holding deep, emotional conversation.

Online conversation is ten times more difficult than face-to-face conversation, because on social technology platform, you can’t see the person’s facial expression, or read their body language (that gives you hints on the person’s emotional state and ability to empathise with that person).

That’s why social technology platform is simply a poor medium to hold quality conversation (i.e. difficult conversation that can stoke negative emotions / strong reaction). Social technology simply can’t substitute the “richness” and the “trust-building factor” of face-to-face conversation.

To have a deep quality conversation with people, you need to explore/discover the tacit assumptions, beliefs, feelings under their strong views. Now, you can’t easily do that in social technology platforms – where you can only articulate your thoughts and feelings through limited text string/images/videos and where you’d have difficulty in projecting your full empathy (your strongest weapon in conversation).

If you must conduct a quality conversation, my advise is to hold such conversation offline, i.e. face-to-face, in an informal, warm environment like cafe (I think Starbucks is an ideal place for conversation, because it has round tables). Keep the conversations in social technology platforms for information and knowledge-sharing purpose.

But life isn’t always ideal, is it? Sometimes you found yourself in situation where someone “attacked” your views/values during an online conversation. I was in that difficult situation, on 4 Sept, when I re-tweeted @Harrisvederman tweet that said Palestine shouldn’t be allowed to become a state.

I got a rude shock when I received a tweet from @Thabo99, that said “What a load of poo (translation: shit) RT @roanyong…”

My initial reaction was, “Huh, how dare @Thabo99 called me shit”. Then @Harrisvederman replied. He tweeted “…Poo (shit) you @roanyong”. I was like, “Damn! @Harrisvederman called me shit too!”. In my mind, I was tempted to tweet, “Poo both of you! @Harrisvederman @Thabo99″. But thank God, I didn’t.

After re-reading those “offensive” tweets again, I realised that both @Thabo99 and @Harrisvederman were trying to engage me in the heated online conversation. They weren’t actually called me shit (I hope).

So what do you do when your views are “attacked” in social technology platform? Well, keep your cool and don’t reply! Yes, don’t do anything foolish. Just ignore whatever hurtful words that they typed-in. Use this opportunity to understand their views as much as you can. And then invite them to have face-to-face conversation over a cup of coffee/tea (if the issue is important enough for you to pursue).

Nuclear Crisis? Tell Me What’s Going On. Why Japanese Leaders Don’t Share.

There is a piece of history of the World War II (WWII) that most of us knew. Japan surrendered after their cities – Hiroshima and Nagasaki - were bombed (using atomic bombs) by the US. This gives Japan the (rather silly) reputation as the only nation that has “tasted” nuclear devastation.

History tends to repeat itself. 8.9 ritcher-scale earthquake and tsunami knocked out Japan – especially her nuclear energy facilities. As this blog post being written, Japan is griped by fear of the repeat of WWII nuclear disaster.

But let’s not talk about how to prevent nuclear plant meltdown. I have neither sufficient knowledge nor interest to talk about it. I would like to bring your attention to the leadership issue underneath the nuclear crisis. Strangely, the Japanese leaders don’t share adequate information about the nuclear crisis. Why is that so?

At the core of Japanese leaders’ failure to share adequate information, is concern about whether Japanese can take “the truth”. Not every Japanese can take “the truth”: the fact that nuclear energy poses a great risk to the country. Nuclear technology is both sensitive-and-controversial topic for the Japanese – they are constantly reminded of how nuclear energy was being used against their country during WWII. Unfortunately for Japan, in the context of exploiting nuclear energy, evoking the memories of WWII defeat can be bad.

Here comes the problem. To “manage” public perception of  nuclear energy, Japanese leaders painted rosy pictures of how safe nuclear technology is. In fact, Japanese politicans and business leaders worked hand-in-hand to build the nuclear energy facilities in the country. Tepco, the operator of troubled nuclear plant, has history of cover-up. In 2002, Tepco was caught falsifying safety data.

Horrified? I think I can see why.

The Japanese leaders were caught in “commitment trap”. Commitment trap is a decision-making bias where earlier decision sways your future decisions. The easiest way to explain this is when you have invested your money in a certain stock, you would tend to stick with it eventhough the stock price now is much lower than what you have bought. The Japanese leaders have invested too much time and effort to build the nuclear facilities and to shape the public perception. They can’t say that they shouldn’t have built the Fukushima complex (in which flawed design of nuclear reactor was used). It’s too late. For them, covering-up mistakes and justifying the need for nuclear technology make perfect sense.



I find that the leadership issue in Japan’s nuclear crisis, mirrors that of typical organisations. How many times your boss doesn’t tell you what’s really going on – whenever “management issue” crops up? The “cliche answers” that the top management usually gave are eerily similar to those given by the Japanese leaders: (i) “We don’t have enough information at the moment”, (ii) “the top management is looking at the issue”, (iii) “staff will be notified of the top management’s decisions”

Despite all the “feel-good” talks about the need for “open and honest communication”, the reality is the top business leaders don’t see how sharing “sensitive” information to staff could help solving the problem. This is rather peculiar. Let’s examine possible reasons.

An unacceptable reason would be, covering-up for mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes at some point of their careers. But if the mistake leads to a crisis, it makes no sense to cover it up. I know it’s easier said than done. Sometimes camaraderie takes precedence to common sense. To counter this, organisations could schedule independent audits, or create a clear whistle-blowing policy.

A valid reason would be the top management think the lower level staff, i.e. the rookies, are too inexperienced to give valuable contribution. Sharing “sensitive” information, to inexperienced staff, can create more panic and reputation-damaging rumours. Nevertheless, I’m sure there are some good rookies who can offer sound advice. The onus is on the top management to identify these quality people – although they are just rookies in the organisation – share “sensitive” information with them, and empower them if action is required. Again practising this is difficult. How would management assess their talents’ capability objectively? There is no easy answer, but I believe one possible answer is creating platform where staff can showcase their expertise and build their credibility, e.g. discussion forums / blogs, “how-to” video repository (such as


Recommended Readings:

Tabuchi, Belson, & Onichi (2011). Flaws in Japan’s Leadership Deepen Sense of Crisis. URL:

Pilling, D. (2011). Patience wears thin at Tepco’s bungling. URL:



How to have a quality conversation and preserve relationship

As Knowledge Management (KM) professionals, we have to converse and build relationship with people. This may not be easy for most of us – as we need to juggle between various roles / identities. We need to be a friend, so that we know what our colleagues’ knowledge needs are. And we also need to be a gardener, to cultivate knowledge sharing and learning culture (as a gardener, we may need to removes some weeds). Therein lies the problem – conflict may arise and relationships may turn sour.

How can we maintain positive relationship? can we have a quality conversation with our colleagues? I believe we can.  To do so, we must have a keen insight on people’s characters (I’ll offer some tips on how we may do so in later paragraph). Once we know ‘how people perceive the world’, we will be able to manage perceptions. We need to manage perceptions to ensure that conversations do not take the wrong turn and become heated debate.

Although, debate, or conflict, sometimes is necessary to spot the ‘error of our judgment’ and thus allows us to gain insight through conversations, we should be cautious not to let a debate becomes a heated debate. We do not want a heated debate because it will cultivate an ‘us-against-them’ mentality – and once this mentality forms, opportunity to build trust and gain common understanding will be lost.

It worth underlining that conflict – whether it is small or big - is risky and potentially detrimental to relationship buildings. But, we also know that it is impossible to avoid conflict entirely. So what should we do to manage conflict and preserve relationship? Let’s take a clue from how Singapore manages her relationship with China. As PM Lee Hsien Loong described it:

“It’s not possible for your relationship with China to be uncomplicated. There will be tensions, there will be differences from time to time, frictions. But it’s vital to avoid a clash and both sides have a lot to gain by working together and should manage issues with a view to the longer term.” (taken from Channel News Asia, 13 July 2010).

The key learning point here is: disagreements and tensions are ok, but avoid clash at all cost.  This holds true not only for the asian people, but also for the western folks. As Dale Carnegie described it in his classic bestseller ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ ,

Criticizing people won’t get you anywhere.  Naturally, people don’t blame themselves for anything – no matter how wrong they may be.

But what about all those advices that say ‘debate should be encouraged’ or ‘conflict is good’? They are good advices. BUT you need to know that debate, and especially conflict, takes a toll on relationship. So before you engage in a debate, you should have a strong relationship with the person, i.e. never debate with people you’ve just met – unless you have no interest in building relationship with that person. And after the debate, remember to ‘patch back’ your relationship.

Let’s return to the point on having a keen insight on people’s character. The thing about ‘seeing the world through the other’s lenses’ is - it has to be quick. This means we can rule out getting people to do personality tests like Myers-Biggs so that we can ‘understand them better’. Personally, I think it’s hard for people (other than the HR folks) to ask others to spend some time doing a personality test. Moreover, we can always ‘game’ the personality test so that it reflects who we want to be, instead of who we are.

I believe people’s character is not fixed, but rather it is always changing from time to time depending on the situational context. So people may change their character, especially if there is a disconfirmation (shock). There are plenty of examples of a criminal (bad character) who becomes a pastor (good character) after he serves his jail time (disconfirmation). In this example, the situational context changes too, he may meet pastors (who evangelize in jails) and is away from his partner-in-crime (who gives bad influence).

Though people may change their character, it does not mean we can change people’s characters by ‘sitting down and having a quality conservation with them’. Only disconfirmation (shock) can propels change in people’s characters / attitudes / behaviors. Having a quality conversation with people is definitely not a disconfirmation.

So, here are two tips on how we can ‘see people’s character’ and thus allows us to have a quality conversation and steer clear from heated debate and conflict.

  • Observe repeated words, behaviors, or habits. If you can find a pattern, then it pretty much describes who that person really is.
  • Notice their choice of words, especially when they are using ‘loaded’ words – those are words with strong emotions. For example, a colleague of mine said, “we should do something to shut her (another colleague in other department) mouth up“. The underlined words are the ‘loaded’ words as they reflect a strong emotion to avoid criticisms from a colleague in other department. The ‘loaded’ words also hint that the person who said them, is someone who has strong concern of ‘not looking bad in front of others.’

10 Teamwork Lessons from Invictus

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner. – Nelson Mandela -

I watched Invictus recently. If you haven’t watched the film, you should because it is more that just “an-underdog-team-overcomes-all-odds-to-be-a-champion” kind of movie, it offers lessons on cultivating teamwork*. And as we all know, teamwork requires unity – something that South Africa lacks of, in the mid-1990s, post-apartheid era.

Nelson Mandela - former President of South Africa

Nelson Mandela (picture taken from Wikipedia)

We also know that teamwork in any organisation, is easier said than done. Though we are all aware that “teamwork is good”, we aren’t doing it because we don’t have a good working relationship with our colleagues. Working relationships deteriorate when we disagree with our colleagues on “how to get things done.” And if this disagreement doesn’t get resolved, then there will come a day when we can’t work with those colleagues of ours. Unconsciously, we will form the “us-against-them” mentality. We will start to think that “they can’t appreciate what we are trying to do.” What happens next is, we do things our way, and “they” do things their way.  The virtue of teamwork is forgotten. Teamwork is dead.

Teamwork is about creating common ground – a common cause to unite people with diverse views – and in this regard, lessons from the film Invictus can be applied to organisational life, beyond the issue of unity of a multi-racial country. Teamwork is important in any organisation, because a typical modern organisation consists of people with different education, experience, expertise, and social background. These people often have diverse views, which are great (diversity is a necessity for Innovation to happen), so long as the views can be “brought together” to achieve the common organisational goals.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. – Nelson Mandela -

To unite diverse views in the workplace, we can draw the following lessons from Invictus:

  1. “See the world” through the other person’s eyes. Mandela argued against discarding the South African rugby team name: the Springboks, which according to the black South African, represents the apartheid era. Mandela said that when he was imprisoned in Robben Island, he studied the Afrikaners’ (the White South African) habits and culture, in order to understand “the enemy.” Mandela also emphasized this need of understanding the other’s view, when he argued with his daughter – who dislikes the Afrikaners – and told her, “you criticize without understanding.”
  2. Explain the reason behind your decision. Mandela explained the reason behind his decision to support the Springboks. He explicitly said, “let me tell you why ….”. Francois, the captain of the Springboks, also explained to the team, the meaning behind the new anthem of South Africa (Nkosi Sikeleli Africa): God Bless Africa, when he asked the team to sing the new anthem prior to the match.
  3. Don’t be afraid to do what’s necessary, even though it is unpopular. When Mandela’s secretary tried to persuade him not to support the Springboks, he said, “If my people elected me as their leader, then it is my duty to inform them that they are wrong!”
  4. Have a compassion towards your co-workers. Mandela has strong compassion towards his subordinates. He makes an effort to remember each staff’ name (even the name of a tea lady). He also asks about their family well-being.
  5. Forgive and forget. When Mandela first took office, he noticed that the white staff are packing their stuff because they thought a black president would not want white staff in the office. Mandela hold a staff meeting immediately and told all his staff, “What past, past.” He added, “we need your help…we want your help…” Note that the white South African imprisoned Mandela for 27 years. So it took an extraordinary effort from Mandela to “forgive and forget.” and yet he had done it effortlessly and sincerely (at least that’s how the movie portrayed him to be).
  6. Observe teamwork issue in your organisation and address the issue by giving a common task. Mandela has good sense of disunity in his country. He observed that the white South African supported their team – the Springboks, while the black South African did the opposite. i.e. they cheered the opponents of the Springboks (the South African Rugby team in which only has one black player). To forge unity between the black and the white, he implemented at least two “forced interactions” between them: (1)when the team had to conduct “rugby clinic” for, and to play rugby with the black population, as part of the team’s PR effort; (2) when he asked his bodyguard’s team leader, who was black, to work with additional bodyguards, who were white.
  7. Change when situation demands it. “If I can’t change when circumstances demanded it, then I have failed as a leader”, Mandela answered when he was asked why he supported Springboks now when he did not support the team in the past. Francois – trying to persuade his team to conduct “rugby clinic” for the black population – said, “Time change, probably we should as well!”
  8. Moral support is important, as team with high morale performs better. Mandela understood this and supported the Springboks wholeheartedly. He flied on a helicopter to bid good luck to each team player, before a crucial match against Australia. He asked the Sport minister for a report on All Black (the powerful opponent of Springboks in the final) team profile. He told his personal assistant to free up his schedule on the final match day, so that he can support the Springboks and watch the final game. And guess what he did to support Springboks? He wore the team’s jersey on the final game! (That jersey used to symbolize the Apartheid policy)
  9. Let the experts do their job. Though Mandela wondered how Springboks can beat the powerful All Black, he did not intervene on the Springboks’ play strategy. When the Sports Minister suggested calling the Springboks’ coach to discuss the team strategy, Mandela told him, “No! I did want to disturb their focus, not even for one minute…” Mandela knows he is no expert in rugby, especially in devising a rugby game strategy against a powerful opponent.
  10. Don’t underutilise the word “Thank You”. When South Africa defeated New Zealand, Mandela said to Francois, “Thank you for what you have done to your country!”. When his domestic helper made his drink according to his preference, he said, “Thank you, you have been good to me.” When the tea lady delivered tea in the afternoon, he also said “Thank you”. The point is: No one is too big or too small for Mandela to say: “Thank You!”


*Teamwork is often used interchangeably with collaboration. In this blog post, I’m referring to collaborative teamwork whenever I mentioned teamwork. But, Collaboration and Teamwork are not necessarily the same thing. Collaboration is the highest form of teamwork, and thus collaboration is a subset of teamwork. There are three kinds of teamwork: (1) Coordination – where teamwork is about coordinating who does what; (2) Cooperation – where teamwork is about getting the other party to work according to our plan (this kind of teamwork often happens between boss and subordinate); (3) Collaboration – where teamwork is about collective action among peers. Collaboration happens when the parties involved, are inspired and engaged to achieve a common goal. For more details, please see my previous post: Will The Real Collaboration Please Stand Up?