Originally published on September 20, 2018
This is the 31st article in the Profiles in Knowledge series featuring thought leaders in knowledge management. Euan Semple worked at the BBC from 1986–2006, leading KM there from 1999–2006. He is now a leading social business consultant, speaker, and writer, and the author of Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do. I first met Euan at KMWorld 2006, and we have been friends ever since.
Euan has been a leader and an influencer in the ever-changing field of digital technology for two decades. An early adopter of social media, he implemented one of the first enterprise social network (ESN) systems inside the BBC. He also ran BBC DigiLab, a department whose purpose was to help the BBC understand new technologies across the range of its activities and make better decisions about their use and implementation.
Euan left the BBC in 2006 to establish his own consultancy and has subsequently worked around the world with a wide range of organizations, including BP, The World Bank, The European Commission, and Volvo. His work with them has been to help stretch their thinking about digital transformation in all its forms and to ensure that they end up doing the right things for the right reasons.
In addition to his consulting work, Euan is an experienced chair and facilitator, helping groups work through challenges and differences to workable solutions.
Euan’s specialties include knowledge management, social computing, blockchain, artificial intelligence, automation, informal learning, weblogs, wikis, forums, social networking applications, social business, Enterprise 2.0, culture change, leadership, communication, intranets, ESNs, internal communications, and public relations.
Euan Semple is an early adopter of digital technologies and an innovator who has worked with major organizations like Nokia and NATO. He believes that companies that are succeeding in the marketplace today are those that are beginning to initiate a dialogue with customers and staff to improve their operations and processes.
As a thought leader, Euan offers unique insights into how to make the latest technologies work. He has helped organizations, and more importantly the people in them, to get their heads around social media, social business, and the social web both inside and outside the firewall.
In his book Organizations Don’t Tweet, Euan identifies that there are remarkable opportunities to mine the intellects of senior managers, backroom operators, frontline staff and customers to create a more responsive business model. Euan believes those leaders and managers that stay connected to their community at work and with their customers have the best chance to survive and flourish in this new Age of Disruption.
- Social Business
- The Euan Semple theory of Knowledge Management
- Knowledge Management and the Ku Klux Klan
- So what is all this knowledge anyway?
- Knowledge Fishing vs. Knowledge Farming
- Management challenges in a connected world
- Blogging and the Buddha
- Ancient Reasons To Stop And Think
- Social Computing: Whatʼs in it for your organisation?
Forums, social networking tools, weblogs, and wikis are collectively known as Social Computing and their emergence in the business world has been driven by the experience and behaviors of millions of people on the web who use similar technologies day in day out to ask questions, get answers and seek out like minded individuals from around the world.
There are many benefits to this new informal, conversational online environment but it is unfamiliar and challenges many of our current assumptions about the workplace. All of the tools that are covered in this article presuppose a world in which staff are encouraged to say what they think, openly and freely, and to seek connections and collaboration with other staff. There are still significant cultural hurdles to be crossed before arriving at this envisioned world but putting in place an online environment that spreads the possibility of this way of working is an important start.
The BBC has been a pioneer in implementing these tools over the last four years and this article takes a look at how they are already being used there to help people carry out their jobs on a day-to-day basis.
Articles by Others
- Euan Semple Interview by Lilia Efimova
- The BBC’s low-tech KM by David Weinberger
- Working in a Wired World by James Coltham
- Social Media Briefing by Katherine Karvess
- Posts by Nick Reynolds
- The knowledge: Euan Semple by Sandra Higgison
Running the unusual line between rebelling against senior-management expectations and over-delivery on objectives seems to be Euan Semple’s forte. Since his appointment as head of KM solutions at the BBC, he has jumpstarted collaboration and knowledge sharing among employees on a budget that would make most software vendors squirm.
After winding my way through a maze of buildings, hallways and doors, I eventually reach the entrance to Digilab, the department where Euan Semple works as head of KM solutions for the BBC. Inside, sitting amid the stack of whirring servers and computers, and listening to the strains of New Order rehearsing in a nearby studio, it really feels as if I’m in the belly of the Beeb. And as Semple talks about his pioneering work to help employees communicate and collaborate, it is clear that the tools he has put in place, and his enthusiasm for his work, drive much of the innovation andknowledge sharing at the broadcasting company.
I’ve often heard Semple’s name mentioned by other knowledge managers describing their sources of inspiration. Many are trying to emulate his success at embedding new tools and encouraging more collaborative behaviours at their own organisations. Despite his obvious flair with IT, Semple insists he is not a technology person.
A glance at his desktop and a skim of his personal blog, however, hint otherwise. While he is certainly no spod in a cheap suit, he has an understanding of technologies that some people have trouble even pronouncing, as well as an ability to talk about them in practical terms with straightforward language that few can match.
While these technical skills take him a long way towards meeting his objective to help like-minded people find each other at the BBC and build their own communities of interest, Semple’s passion for networking and meeting people is also crucial to his success. At a higher level he says that his biggest inspiration is the power of evolution: humankind’s ability to route around damage, survive negativity and head in a life-enriching direction. In this vein, Semple has a view of what the future will look like and works to prepare his organisation for what he sees as inevitable, while also striving to make the web a more habitable place for his two daughters to explore.
As he describes his work, it is easy to sense his disapproval of the ‘knowledge management’ label, and I realise how, by his own admission and despite his achievements, he must be a manager’s worst nightmare. Semple resists ‘corporateness’, studiously avoids ‘real’ meetings and advises his peers to seek forgiveness after the fact, rather than permission beforehand, when getting things done. This informal approach to working with such an intangible, fluid and personal material as knowledge may fly in the face of more rigid methods based on 2x2 matrices and formulae, but it works, as Semple has shown during his 20 years at the BBC.
During this time, and partly as a result of his initial placement in operations, technology has been a means for Semple to get things done. “We had fun with it, were creative and didn’t worry about the rules,” he says, “If a machine broke and you needed it in order to go on air, you put in another. It was a more pragmatic approach to technology than conventional IT, which is risk averse and focuses on economies of scale.” Digilab was set up seven years ago with the advent of low-cost technologies that could be used to make programmes cheaply, which helped spawn the docusoap. “These tools were considered sub-professional by some and an opportunity by others. Digilab was set up to harness that interest.”
Semple started using the BBC’s intranet and website to keep people informed of his developments and maintained databases of who was interested in what. From his earlier career as a professional musician in rock bands and his work at the World Service, he had developed a strong sense of the differences between what was structured and ordered, and what was made-up and collaborative. About three years ago, Semple started writing papers about these experiences, which were picked up by senior managers in their search for a head of knowledge management.
Once appointed, Semple realised that the business expected him to bring in big corporate information systems to solve its knowledge needs. He, however, was more interested in individualistic, organic models and networking.
“I orchestrated a move out of the technology department into HR, as we are more about organisational development than IT,” he says. At the same time, the intranet was changing ownership and he was concerned that it would fall into the wrong hands. “I felt it was important to keep it as loosely owned as possible. It also meant I could begin to implement things without asking anybody but myself.”
Semple was quick to address an issue he had spotted as a manager. “As staff members spent all their time in cutting rooms, they shared more information outside the organisation and with people in other countries than they did with each other. We had to give them an infrastructure or mechanism to talk to each other online,” he says. “I wanted to introduce social computing tools on the intranet and started with a bulletin board.”
Taking a leaf out of Andy Boyd’s book, who was undertaking a similar initiative at Shell, Semple created talk.gateway to allow people to ask questions, find solutions and connect with each other. “Instead of giving it a huge marketing push, I wanted news to spread by word of mouth,” he says. “It’s in the nature of these tools that people need to trust and get to know each other online if they are to work.” This is a subject Semple is passionate about. “If you make systems too serious or too business like, people won’t use them.”
To describe talk.gateway, Semple uses an analogy of trying to build a collection of Cotswold villages with lots of footpaths between them. “You know where the pub and church are, you’re comfortable in the environment and you can locate yourself,” he says. “Corporate systems tend to be more like Milton Keynes. On the surface they’re efficient with lots of straight lines and signposting, but you get lost because everything looks the same.” He supports Dave Snowden’s assertion that you can’t manage knowledge, but you can manage a knowledge ecology.
The bulletin board is largely self-policing, self-organising and self-managed. To achieve this, Semple says you need a large and diverse group of people. “There’s always an early-adopter hump to get over until enough people are using it. Different interests must be represented for the environment to work as an ecology.” By not pushing the tool too heavily atthe start, employees heard about it, used it, found solutions to problems and told others of their experiences. Talk.gateway is now the second most visited site on the intranet, with 8,000 people connecting to it each month, out of approximately 25,000 staff. Discussions range from procurement issues to debates on the BBC’s decision to broadcast Jerry Springer the Opera.
Next, Semple brought in Connect, which is similar to BP’s people-finder tool. “I wanted employees to have a presence on our intranet that would reflect their interests and backgrounds,” he says. “It’s only been going for two years, but it already has ten per cent of the BBC population in there.” Employees can set up interest groups on any subject, and Semple’s next project is to combine Connect with the bulletin board. “This will let groups set up a forum and manage how closed or open it is,” he says. “People can have conversations that respect the ownership and privileges of the group.”
Web logs (blogs) were the third tool to appear. While many companies still debate their value within an organisational setting, the BBC now has 150 employees blogging. “A big leg-up was when Richard Sambrook, director of World Service and global news, started a blog, which is fan-bloody-tastic,” says Semple. “It’s really authentic. In his own voice he writes about the real issues at work, the challenges his department faces, and external factors and influences. It’s really brave.” Sambrook currently tops the BBC leagues, with 8,000 visitors in just over a month.
Semple’s personal experience with blogs has influenced much of this work, and has also had him presenting to the deputy director general about the impact of external blogs on the BBC’s business. Indeed, his views on the future of citizen journalism against mainstream media are powerful and, although not for discussion here, make for compelling reading on his blog, The Obvious. The site’s title reflects his initial reticence about stating what he felt was obvious.
“It was Socrates who said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living for man.’ You start to notice things when you’ve got somewhere to write about it. You become more aware of what’s happening.” Blogging at the BBC and in a personal capacity has not only given Semple an outlet for these musings, but has also created a large network of contacts and friends. One of the arguments against blogs is that they kill face-to-face time. “They refine your face-to-face time,” Semple counters. “As a consequence of blogs and networks, I have met some really interesting people. Business is based on relationships, and this way you actually talk to the people you want to talk to.”
Although social computing tools such as talk.gateway and blogs have been well received at the BBC, some question whether time spent on them is of value, especially when the threat of redundancy is hanging over some employees. “A letter in our internal newspaper said that the people with time to waste writing blogs should be the first to go,” he says. “It kicked off a huge debate, as others said it was up to them what they spent their time doing and that they found it valuable. It raises issues about what is productive. People go for cigarette breaks and chat on the phone. We employ them and should trust them to get their work done to a standard we’re happy with.”
To facilitate more formal engagement between employees, Sempleintroduced wikis about six months ago, which allow groups to work collaboratively on a project or document online. “We have about 400 people using the wiki, mostly to do procedural work on policies or manuals,” he says. “Any collaboratively written activity with Word is a nightmare, as people save it on a server hoping others can find it and everyone spends time checking who wrote what.” Once again, take-up is based on word of mouth and has received positive feedback. Semple’s next job is to join all these tools together using aggregation software so that people can have relevant updates from the blogs and bulletin board sent straight to their inbox.
With all these tools off the ground, Semple runs workshops to encourage employees to use them. Although the BBC may have a naturally conversational, individualistic and reasonably web-savvy culture — and Semple recognises that many of his peers are working in tougher environments — not everybody has taken to these tools like ducks to water. “Some are very enthusiastic, others are interested, while a third group, which is getting smaller, looks horrified and bored,” he says.
The warning he passes on to managers and employees is that this is what it will be like when their children start working at the BBC. “It’s going to happen anyway,” he says. “My eldest daughter is seven, she watches me blogging and asks what I’m doing. She now has her own blog. I first got into them because I was conscious my kids would spend more time than I have in this virtual space. If I wanted it to be habitable, I had to make it habitable. It’s like the Wild West: if you leave it to the gunslingers, then you can’t live in it.”
It is such foresight, passion and enthusiasm that have nurtured uptake at the BBC. “This isn’t going to happen if you don’t care about it,” he says. “You have to give people a real sense of ownership by not intervening too much. They’ll develop a sense of collective investment and see that these tools work.” The feedback from some employees is testament to the success of this approach, as they say they simply couldn’t do their jobs without them. “Almost everything we have done that’s been really useful and has stuck has been done by people who really care about the business, understand the context and have been ready to get their hands dirty. And we haven’t spent much money,” he says.
As Semple ponders his future at the BBC, he realises that in the coming 10–15 years, more companies will want to follow the example he has set. “I’d love to modify the workshops I do for the general public and turn the web into something other than just porn and e-mail,” he says. Demand won’t be slow in coming. Semple is already a popular speaker on the conference circuit and registers 300–400 visits to his blog every day. He counts some of the web’s leading minds among his close circle of friends and has the ability to engage, entertain and educate with ease. Whether he chooses to stay at the BBC or plough a new course, he is sure to shape the virtual space into a safer and more productive place.
- Lucidea — Thought Leadership: insights on what it means — and what it takes — to be a thought leader in today’s networked business environment
- Vicky Holdsworth — Workforce of the Future and Digital Technology
- Brian McKenna — Enterprise social media needs to transcend IT: warns against enterprise social media being suckered into an IT project
- Nicole Simon — his work at the BBC and the grass roots approach of turning them towards modern technology, what he today is passionate about, the human desire to “connect” and the change in the way we see ourselves, the dead hand of control of global IT
- Dawid Pacha — The state of social media: how organizations should implement social media tools and the future of social media
- Raphaël Briner — The impact of conversations on Information flow
- Martin Koser — Enterprise 2.0
- Suw Charman-Anderson — live blog of a conversation between Richard Sambrook
- Elizabeth Robinson — Digital Workplaces
- Martin Couzins — Taking small steps towards change with social tech: why organizations find it so hard to adopt social technologies and how they can start to do things differently
- Nigel Paine — Learning Insights: the changes in social media during the last ten years, reservations many companies still have when it comes to using social media, and an outlook on the future
- KMWorld — Managerial issues, social media, and KM
Cited and Quoted in My Blog
3. Threaded Discussions — Someone has to care
4. Wikis — Wiki Wise
5. Podcasts and Videos
6. Metadata and Tags: The web works because it is broken and not owned — written in reaction to someone rubbishing the semantic web and folksonomies
Yes, there is rubbish on the web, but the availability of relevant, accurate information at your fingertips has exploded in ways that even ten years ago most people couldn’t have imagined and which have never ever been delivered by “conventional” means.
There were naysayers then, and indeed there still are, but I would be cautious about assuming that the collective, applied intelligence of millions of people is more fallible than a small group of experts with the power to confer meaning.
7. Document Management Systems: Call me cynical but … — Document management systems — where knowledge goes to die gracefully.
9. My favourite Drucker quote — In a knowledge economy there are no such things as conscripts — there are only volunteers. The trouble is we have trained our managers to manage conscripts
10. State of KM
- Night and day — Compare Dave Snowden’s eminently sensible and insightful analysis of the current state of KM with this load of complete bollocks.
- What Happened to Knowledge Management? by Stewart Mader
Euan Semple points out two articles that examine the state of knowledge management. In Whence goeth KM? (and Part 2), Dave Snowden concludes that knowledge management is on its way out because it has changed so much since it first appeared in the early 1990s…
Today, social tools like wiki focus completely on letting people work together online the same way they’d work in person. The fundamental difference here is they approach knowledge as the product of that organic, non-linear human connection and collaboration… Social computing took over and has dominated as the overarching concept ever since.
For an example of an article that’s still stuck in the old mentality, Semple points to Modernizing Knowledge Management, which is pretty much a recipe for failure because it’s a how-to guide for the old way of thinking.
- KMWorld 2017
- C205: Industry Leaders Conversation: Change, Culture, & Learning — Recap by Mary Abraham
- Knowledge Café — Mentoring Morning
- W22: Communication: Ways to Improve for Good KM
- KMWorld 2016
- KMWorld 2015
- W2: Working Out Loud: Leading the Collective Intelligently
- A201: Measuring Value of Social Tech — Slides — Recap by Mary Abraham
- KMWorld 2010
- KMWorld & Intranets 2006
- The BBC KM Story
- Lipstick on Pigs
- Measuring the Value of Social Tech
- What WikiLeaks has Taught Us About the Web
- Organizations Don’t Tweet — People Do
- Shift with Megan Murray
- State of the Net with Paolo Valdemarin
- Innovative approaches to creating the learning organisation Composing the Future, Innovation by Design
- Mergers and Acquisitions with Matt O’Neill
- Writing to change the world with Alison Jones
- Interview with Nathalie Nahai
- E20s Special with Rogier Noort
- Getting started with social media with Gary Turner
— Foreword by Andrew McAfee
- We All Need to Grow Up
- Ten Steps to Success with Technology
- The Ultimate in Democracy
- Leaving a Trace
- Evolution on Steroids
- “Writing Ourselves into Existence”
- Literacy Re-discovered
- Mass Illiteracy
- Stating the Obvious
- Volume Control on Mob Rule
- Dealing with a Boss Who Doesn’t “Get It”
- The More You Give the More You Get
- “Ooh, That’s Interesting”
- The Network of Networks
- Real Leaders Have Followers
- Real Friends
- Too Much of a Good Thing
- Globally Distributed Conversations
- Conversations Can Only Take Place Between Equals
- Management by Being Interested
- Asking the Right Questions
- The Meaning of True Collaboration
- War of the Worlds
- The Inside is Becoming the Outside
- Your Staff are Your Best Advocates
- Creatively Messy
- Innovation and the Forces of Disruption
- No Such Thing as Conscripts
- Heading into the Great Unknown
- Be Strategically Tactical
- Back to Front ROI
- The Price of Pomposity
- Managing the Mess
- We Need More Rubbish
- Lines in the Sand
- Small Pieces Loosely Joined
- Unleash Your Trojan Mice
- Don’t Feed the Trolls
- When the Shit Hits the Fan
- Crisis Management
- The Best Way to be Safe is to be Open
- Radical Transparency
- The Revolution is Within
- It’s Your Party . . .
- A Final Word
— A Note About Technology
— Reading List
- Successful Knowledge Leadership: Principles and Practice edited by Helen Roche — Chapter 8: From knowledge management to connected leadership
- Early days
- Birth of the social web
- All about learning
- ‘Content management’
- Making a difference
- Towards connected leadership