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An all-too-familiar tale

A colleague from my days working for a major aircraft manufacturer gave me a call the other day after reading a copy of KMWorld. When we worked together, he was a remarkably gifted technical troubleshooter—more of an in-house systems integrator, actually. After I left that company, we promised to stay in touch, but we hadn’t been in contact for more than 15 years.

We spent a while talking about our kids before he chose to discuss the real reason he called. After three more years at the company, my old friend (let’s call him Dave) became so frustrated working for that global enterprise, he, too, quit. At the time, he was the program manager for an early supply change management initiative, which was destined to be implemented in a host of widely diverse departments in a variety of locations around the country and, in fact, the world. Initially, Dave was thoroughly passionate about his work. He was an early developer of open source solutions and had created an adaptable framework for managing the demanding requirements needed to fully implement a "just in time" solution. He was a rising star.

After working 60-plus hours a week for several months, he was rewarded with a sizeable staff. He started traveling from site to site giving presentations, putting in more than 70 hours a week. He launched some small-scale beta programs and got the go-ahead to begin broader adoption. And there’s where the trouble began. Faced with a near mandate of ultimate implementation, the once-supportive department heads to whom he gave presentations started throwing obstacles in his way. Department-level managers viewed the new system as a threat to their authority. The ever-accommodating Dave created both technical and cultural workarounds to assure threatened personnel their professional lives were secure.

Then, a few still-insecure skeptics tried to subtly sabotage some of the beta programs and even attempted to sully Dave’s reputation. What was once an elegant concept and design had deteriorated into behind-the-back name calling and juvenile behavior. The culture took its toll. Dave resigned from the company and started his own firm.

He has learned his lesson working with middle managers, who, he feels, are the least adaptable to change. But, he adds, he sees a new culture beginning to take hold. Fresh approaches to solving problems are now rarely viewed as a threat. No longer do workers expect to stay in one job for their entire career (as Dave, himself, used to believe). He still travels too much, but he continues to be passionate about, if not consumed by, his work.

Even if we don’t see at least a little bit of Dave in ourselves, I’ll bet we all know someone like him. I’m sure there’s a good chance, too, that we have had some working familiarity with a potentially poisonous culture. True knowledge management, top to bottom and in its broadest sense, is the only antidote. 

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