Alice MacGillivray is a systems thinker, most interested in complexity thinking, who enjoys helping groups and organizations work through challenging problems and opportunities.
She strives to work her way out of jobs, leaving organizations with greater capability, capacity, and resilience. Although often asked to make presentations, Alice believes that engaging people in different forms of dialogue and deliberation is much more powerful and effective.
Alice’s work involves the strengthening of leadership throughout organizations or communities and improving the generation and flow of knowledge across boundaries. It is frequently inspired by principles and examples from natural systems. One of her areas of interest and expertise is the design of learning environments where people build their knowledge, confidence, and skills for work with complexity.
She is a self-described nexialist (one skilled in the science of joining together in an orderly fashion the knowledge of one field of learning with that of other fields) and boundary-spanner (someone who builds connections across organizations, helps teams bridge gaps and work together, and enables knowledge to flow between silos). She lives in Gabriola, British Columbia, Canada.
Her specialties include:
- knowledge management
- leadership development (especially for complex work)
- qualitative research to help organizations better understand key issues
- communities of practice
- park and environmental management
- organizational culture
- organizational development
- application of complexity thinking and natural systems principles to organizations
- Fielding Graduate University
- PhD, Human and Organizational Systems, 2004–2009
- Certificate, Dialogue, Deliberation & Public Engagement, 2007–2008
- MA, Human Development, 2004–2005
- Royal Roads University, MA, Leadership, 1998–2000
- Athabasca University, BGS, education and environmental management, 1992–1998
- Nexialist, Author, Boundary-spanner
- Principal, 4KM, 2005 — Present
- Associate Faculty Member. Royal Roads University, 2001 — Present
- Communities of Practice: Facilitating Social Learning in Higher Education edited by Jacquie McDonald and Aileen Cater-Steel — Chapter 2: Social Learning in Higher Education: A Clash of Cultures?
- Complexity and Knowledge Management: Understanding the Role of Knowledge in the Management of Social Networks edited by Andrew Tait and Kurt A. Richardson — Chapter 12: Metaphors from Nature for Knowledge Work in a Complex World
- Handbook of Research on Knowledge-Intensive Organizations edited by Dariusz Jemielniak and Jerzy Kociatkiewicz — Chapter 27: Knowledge Intensive Work in a Network of Counter-Terrorism Communities
- Establishing a Successful Knowledge-Driven Culture edited by Fiona Prowting — Chapter 1: Cultural context — A complex whole
- Successful Knowledge Leadership: Principles and Practice edited by Helen Roche — Chapter 7: Knowledge leadership on the edge
- Research and Presentations
- Semantic Scholar
- Google Scholar
SIKM Leaders Community
APQC: You have a great blog post where you were very passionate in saying KM is not top-down. You mention that, when people need knowledge and answers, they probably aren’t going to a tool or repository. They will seek out an actual human being. Does a culture of collaboration begin with great leadership at the top or grassroots below where people are getting stuff done?
Alice MacGillivray: Well, first let me clarify the point about knowledge management not being top-down. There are several things behind that generalization. KM work is — in my view — primarily about human connections, relationships, and resulting synergies. It involves curiosity and trust and a desire to improve. There are many intrinsic motivations in that sort of work, and you cannot legislate those things from the top. In the absence of pushes from other directions in the organization (bottom-up, middle-out, edges-in and so on), the best you will get from top-down is compliance.
That said, organizations do not make much progress with knowledge management unless they have top-down support. Senior leaders are very influential. An executive who clearly and explicitly values knowledge and expertise — and models those values in his or her work — will open doors for knowledge flow and enhanced collaboration, decision making, and innovation. It would be foolish for a cautious, career-focused manager to put much emphasis on KM if top-down direction does not support such values, strategies, and practices. There might be a few good communities of practice in such a climate, but I have never personally seen learning from such communities flow easily into their home organizations; their knowledge and innovations tend to get stuck within community boundaries. In my experience with clients, some executives are extremely supportive of knowledge management (though they may use different framing and terms). They tend to be bright, ambitious — for themselves, their organizations, and their staffs — good listeners and networkers, and have enough experience to realize that some of the standard practices they were “raised on” in a less complex world aren’t delivering as planned. In other words, they are systems thinkers and change agents.
With regard to your comment about people going to people to build knowledge, I want to give credit to the work of Robert Cross, Andrew Parker, and Steve Borgatti. It is one thing to speak from experience and common sense, but it is wonderful to have thoughtful scholar-practitioners do serious research to explore elements of knowledge management. Although they maintain the personas of neutral and objective scholars, they are tackling some important and controversial issues. For reasons I wish I fully understood, there is a huge temptation in organizations to invest most knowledge management resources in repositories. I wish I had a dollar for every million invested in repositories that sit quietly waiting, just in case the content is needed. I recall being invited to view a high-end knowledge repository of a large well-known company that had won a prestigious prize for their KM work. After the tour guide entered search terms, there was a very long pause before a list came up. The guide opened the top file (again, a very slow process), which happened to be a PowerPoint presentation. There were no metadata about the context or why it had been prepared and presumably presented. There was no feedback and no way of asking questions. The tour guide said this hadn’t been a great example, as he didn’t know the presenter or how knowledgeable she was on the topic. We went on to talk about other things.
That “tour” gave a concise snapshot of common repository problems: lack of 1) context, 2) links to business priorities, 3) trust, and 4) opportunities for dialogue and re-contextualization. I’ll describe one of many examples of Cross and Parker’s work, in this case collaborating with Borgatti and Prusak. They published their results in a paper called: “Knowing What We Know: Supporting Knowledge Creation and Sharing in Social Networks.” They recognized that collaboration and innovation are critical, and that technology alone does not yield the successes we need. They interviewed 40 managers for this study; all the managers had recently completed successful projects. The managers were asked to describe where they got information that was central to each project’s success. They wrote: “these managers overwhelmingly indicated (and supported with vivid stories) that they received this information from other people far more frequently than impersonal sources such as their personal computer archives, the Internet or the organization’s knowledge management database.”
And just as interesting is the work done by Borgatti and the other team members to help us visualize the networks and communities that underlie those seemingly rigid organization charts. Yet — in my experience — some managers seem reluctant to think through a network lens. I have seen several experienced managers who are nervous about the implications of this work. I often imagine how interesting it would be to monitor current and potential resilience, agility, and innovation through network analysis work, and I know a few organizations do that, but it is rare. We remain more comfortable with the illusion of order and control and machine metaphors such as staying on track and leveraging resources. So if we launch a training initiative, we are more inclined to say that 2042 employees took the course than monitor changes in the social network maps in relation to ongoing application of learning. Organization charts show structure, order, and clear boundaries. But I pose the question: Is that the best way to work with knowledge as a key asset?
APQC: If collaboration is critical but less common than it could be for knowledge generation and sharing, what do leaders most commonly overlook when it comes to building a culture of collaboration?
Alice MacGillivray: I’ve not seen research on this, but my sense is that they may overlook the artificiality of many boundaries. At least in our dominant Western cultures, we have been taught to take things apart, compartmentalize, label, simplify, and measure objectively. We have invested so much in these ways of thinking and acting that it is difficult to know how to do things in other ways. The scenario we just talked about — a machine-like organization chart contrasted with a less-known social network model — is one example. Even in recent months I’ve heard of people getting in trouble because they communicated or collaborated (ethically and with good intent) with the person in the box beside them on an org chart, rather than going up the chain, across, and down the next chain to that person.
Our reward systems are built around artificial boundaries. We have probably all seen examples of units working independently within a company, and perhaps meeting or surpassing targets, yet the entire company or organization might have done better if they had collaborated.
Our communication systems are built around artificial boundaries. Almost weekly I see examples of people thinking they understand each other when they are using terms in ways that make sense only in their “silos.” One of my faux pas was after spending time with scientists and reading the work of Karen Knorr Cetina, where she found that physicists working in the field of high-energy physics were psychologically drawn to collaboration, in contrast with microbiologists who were not. Different disciplines have different cultures. Later that week I was in a meeting with human resources professionals who were curious about why parts of their organization were less collaborative than others. I mentioned the high-energy physicists and microbiologists, and one person replied that made perfect sense, as people with high energy tend to reach out to learn new things. That story sticks in my mind, because I couldn’t find a way to bridge the communication gap and maintain the energy of the room, despite my being a professional with such things.
Our practice systems are also siloed. Perhaps some APQC members have been unfortunate enough to have dealt with a family illness where a surgeon says one thing, an allergist something else, a nutritionist something else, and so on, and it has taken a huge amount of effort to get specialists talking with each other to eventually determine an accurate diagnosis or effective treatment.
Perhaps most importantly, our egos and identities become associated with artificial boundaries. We see this a lot with mergers and acquisitions. We see it with nation state boundaries and with hierarchical boundaries. Part of the baggage of being human is to feel proud to be part of Group A, which is clearly better than Group B. But what if respecting Group B led to the growth and success of both groups?
So my key point is that all of these boundaries are social constructs. Yes, they can have important implications. No, we can’t always toss them aside. But I am amazed that leadership development rarely even touches on boundary work. Gerald Midgley calls “boundary” the central idea in systems thinking. Our colleague Kurt Richardson (a physicist) talks about the fact that boundary assumptions usually go unquestioned, resulting in flawed understanding, flawed decisions, and flawed actions. Even by raising our awareness of boundaries, recognizing them as human and social creations, and reflecting on their ethical implications and their impacts on effectiveness, we could improve knowledge work in our organizations and communities.
A Business Lens on Business Intelligence — Twelve Tips for Success with Andrew Faulkner
Business champions and leaders can avoid many traditional BI pitfalls by adapting the following approaches to their organizations’ unique cultures:
1. Reflect Before You Act
As a leader, think long and hard about your personal values and the values of your organization. If you share a willingness to look outwards beyond the traditional boundaries within and around the organization, a strong belief in people, diversity, teams and synergy, and are interested in pursuing the potential of business intelligence tools, the rewards can be tremendous. If you and the organization are more comfortable with traditional hierarchies and silos, and reward practices that maintain those boundaries, this technology will not be an easy fit. This stage of reflection is particularly important if you do not have formal management authority. Although top managers can rarely effect significant change in isolation, a lack of formal authority adds to the types of work and amount of energy needed to generate discussion, explore options, make solid decisions, and move forward.
2. Base Your Plans on Urgent Business Needs
In you are with the private sector, assess these tools in the context of customer service, efficiencies, business planning, competitiveness and sustainability. If you are with the public sector, assess these tools in the context of public good, budget transparency, accountability, the interdisciplinary nature of public sector benefits, and the public’s desire to have easy access to information about government programs, services and facts.
3. Become an Amateur Anthropologist
Assess not only the business needs these tools must address but also the culture in which they will be addressed. Consider how your organization treats information. Choose tools supporting that approach and that can expand as your business and culture evolve. Analyze your unique strengths and challenges, and identify the challenges that might be turned into strengths.
4. Plan for Success
Assess how the organization is apt to judge success. Will those measures work for you, or do you also need to build support for new forms of success? Manage expectations in that context, planning for incremental successes, which are recognized and celebrated.
5. Be Curious
Whatever your background, you have a lot to learn, and everything you learn will add value to the project. Become a three-year-old again; ask “why” on a regular basis. Senge (1990) and Kouzes and Posner ((1997) are among leadership authors who emphasize challenging assumptions and fostering a spirit of inquiry. Is proportionally too much effort being put into collection and storage? Why? Are people using lots of jargon? Why? If people pretend to understand (which is often the norm in boardrooms, especially when there are different corporate sub-cultures at play), important questions will go unasked.
6. Treat Your Project as a Fundamental Change Initiative
Architecture, standards and other technical factors are important. But cultural or business issues such as good metacontent (Kucera & Faulkner 1998), collaboration amongst work units, senior management support and the willingness to share information, can be just as important and much more challenging. Plan for, and actively address, these and other potential challenges common in BI initiatives. Business challenges will typically need the most, and the most sustained, attention. A CBC Newsworld item (April 8 2000) explored the apparently revolutionary changes SAP (Sapphire) technology has brought to some companies. A man interviewed spoke of SAP as a Trojan horse, and about what a shock it can be to realize that the purchase was not simply of software, but of approaches to decision-making, culture and philosophy as well. The interviewer said “but it’s a philosophy driven by software.” The reply was “It is a philosophy enabled by software.” If you are trying to achieve a philosophy enabled by software, treat it as such. Move ahead thoughtfully, and with respect for the persons who may find the changes difficult, or even threatening.
7. Dialogue, Dialogue, and More Dialogue
If you embark on a business intelligence project, place particular emphasis on high quality communication, particularly where [potential] overlaps between information technology and business communities exist. Model and encourage whatever is required for dialogue to build between these communities, regardless of whether this seems time consuming, frustrating, or beyond the traditional roles of the players involved. Discourage elitism, one-upmanship, passive resistance or apathy. A Hewlett-Packard knowledge project manager words this as aiming for “egolessness.”. Businesspersons need to gain understanding that information management is vital in an information age. They also need some basic information technology knowledge and skills, just as the technology persons need business knowledge. As people recognize they are all learning from each other, they build a common language. If you already have staff members who speak both languages and understand both worlds, recognize their extraordinary value. We use the word dialogue, which includes authentic openness, focused listening, and potential synergy: much more than what most persons think of as communication, education or training.
8. Let Networkers Help You Build the Leadership Web
Actively recognize the importance of networking leadership. Executive and line leadership are critical for successes, but networking leadership skills are particularly important for integrative projects, and often under-recognized and undersupported. Watch for “first contact specialists,” a term we use to describe the IT counterparts to business champions, and celebrate their successes. IT specialists who interact well with businesspeople, and help them understand what the tools can do to further organizational goals, are critical.
9. Be Proactive; White Knights are Obsolete, even in BI
Anticipate resistance to change and the resulting limits to growth. Prevent the need for “heroic business intelligence interventions.” The best technology and specialists cannot fully compensate for poor data management practices and awkward links between data sets. Moreover, if BI professionals are seen as obstructionist, critical, or as forcing businesspersons to “re-do perfectly good work,” the knights won’t be white, and they will need armor. If you have the luxury (and labor) of building a new organization, make the effort to plan so that structures, functions and data fit together as seamlessly and flexibly as possible.
10. With Big Enough Levers, You Can (Almost) Move the World
Look for innovative ways to leverage strengths and resources. Sometimes a lot can be done with little, especially if the core systems are well-designed and integrated from the start. Learn from others. Many experts are willing to share information through publications, online or in person.
11. Assess Costs of Not Using Business Intelligence Tools
There may be direct costs such as data entered in many places, and parts of the organization having to repackage the same data in time-consuming ways for other parts of the organization. There may also be indirect costs. Knowledge may not be reused effectively. Traditional, professional programming often hides data entry and definition issues from business staff, which BI tools can uncover for discussion and correction. The sense of team and direction that comes with collaboration and use of collaborative tools can boost morale, and build a culture that is cohesive, decisive, visionary and flexible.
12. Consider the Big Picture
Finally, realize how important BI is in your organization’s evolution. Museums are great places to see the significant artifacts of the past: stone scrapers, arrowheads, ploughs, sawmills, and printing presses. What are the emerging cultural artifacts of the twenty-first century? Would you expect their development and application to be easy? If you are working with business intelligence, you are a knowledge economy pioneer, and pioneering is always hard work. Find ways of sustaining your energy and commitment. The results make it well worthwhile.