Remote Control KM

I travelled this morning from Hong Kong to Singapore. When I left the hotel early in the morning I asked the taxi driver to take me to the Kowloon Airport Express station. He only spoke Cantonese, so while he recognized “Kowloon” he had no idea what the other words meant.

We repeated words at each other a couple of times and I was not confident about what he thought I was saying. I flapped my arms, and then worried he might take me all the way to the airport, which costs a bomb.

We both decided to seek help. I looked back towards the hotel staff at the entrance, thinking they could translate. He was quicker. He hopped out of the cab and ran to the taxi behind us.


Now when he had repeated my words back at me I really didn’t hear any resemblance to what I had said, and there he was, mimicking the strange sounds he thought he’d heard me say to his compatriot. But when he got back he seemed very confident. And indeed he got me to where I wanted to go in double quick time.

It struck me that he trusted his colleague with his shaky rendition of what he thought I had said more than a translation from the hotel staff. Directions by remote control can work if you trust your colleague to know his stuff about the destinations of foreigners checking out of hotels and going to Kowloon.

Remote control seems to have been a theme of the week. I’d been in HK to do some teaching for the HKPolyU (see picture above), and to help a client get trained up in how to run anecdote circles and extract archetypes to understand their customers better. In Cantonese.

I don’t speak Cantonese, as you’ll have gathered, so the training was essentially by remote control. After an initial training session in English, my Hong Kong colleagues ran a series of five sessions with their customers in Cantonese, with me observing and giving feedback after each one. As the week progressed, I coached them in how to observe and give feedback on each other.


Although I understood very little of the language in the sessions, in a strange way my ability to give useful feedback seems to have been enhanced by stripping away the language portion. I became much more aware of the importance of visual cues, timing of interventions, and managing the energy and attention of the group.

My Hong Kong colleagues were very switched on and eager to learn. By the end of the week they were already very good at this form of facilitation, they were self aware, consciously applying different strategies, keenly observant and very open about sharing feedback with each other. And they were starting to get some very clear archetypes that expressed the needs and wants of their target customer audience.

We occasionally encounter less pleasant instances where remote control does not work. In this scenario, a KM project in a client organization is overseen by a senior manager who refuses to get involved. He or she delegates everything to a junior and tells them to get on with it. This can work fine if the project is straightforward and very clearly scoped.

But as soon as things get complicated, or internal agendas change, things can go seriously wrong. If the senior managers can’t or won’t give their direct attention to the project, and when they don’t really know what they are doing, we start getting strange instructions or deliverables that smack heavily of “Don’t bother us with the details, don’t disturb our staff, just do your magic and give us the taxonomy / community of practice /knowledge strategy please – and oh, we’re in a hurry, so tomorrow would be good.”

Whenever this happens (and it usually happens just as you’re congratulating yourself on how well educated the clients seem to be getting these days), we invariably explain to our exceedingly bright and understanding interlocutors who have been told to handle us, why this won’t work, and how it can best be handled. Invariably they get it, and say they’ll pass it on.

Like my taxi driver this morning, they do their best to pass on what we say, but unlike him, they are unlikely to meet sympathetic or switched on ears. It almost never has any effect, and the mysterious exhortations to marvelous feats of wizardry just keep on coming back. This is particularly stressful for the junior manager who is held accountable for these impossibilities on the one hand, while having their irrationality carefully explained by us on the other.

So why does this kind of remote control not work? I think there are two main reasons.

(a) Unlike my taxi driver’s colleague, these remote managers don’t know their stuff. You can’t give sensible instructions if you have no idea what KM involves, and if you can’t be bothered to find out.

(b) Unlike my experience of training at one language remove, KM by remote control won’t work if you have no sensory or contextual input from the implementation environment. You just can’t do remote control of KM effectively by staying completely uninvolved.

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