A good friend and colleague reminded me earlier in the week about a blog I had written nearly nine years ago about Lloyd’s of London. You may know the building: a Richard Rogers masterpiece which really does look like nothing else in the city and which famously displays its insides on the outside, so to speak. At the time, I had been struck how a strikingly modern exterior conceals a world that is profoundly Dickensian. The Lutine bell guarded by an assistant in his Victorian red jacket and top hat; a cabinet of Nelson memorabilia; a huge log recording ship losses in perfect ink calligraphy. And, around this museum-like core, a series of huge trading floors full of underwriters’ booths where brokers queued to place their risks face to face (or rather eyeball to nose as brokers sat two inches below underwriters to ensure the underwriters’ eye level was above that of the broker). I saw people carrying unfeasibly large bundles of paper (indeed, the more astute wheeled suitcases of the stuff) and risks were recorded not on a laptop or tablet but written on a chit of paper.
I had not realised it then, but this was a peculiarly liminal world. An unsettling locale where the starkly modern mixed with the quaintly traditional. And, so, surely a place of stories as well as transactions? For here, what lay at the heart of business, was a reliance on face to face contact as the primary way of doing business. Some commentators have used the analogy of the bazaar to illuminate the workings of knowledge management and it was not a huge leap of the imagination to see the Lloyds trading floor as a more starchy, peculiarly British version of a Moroccan souk. Business was transacted via, and underpinned by, the knowledge and trust that evolves via a network of direct relationships enclosed in a defined physical space. It was a true market.
At the time, it was an exciting reminder that KM can be a messy, chaotic thing that happens when you put people together in one place and they talk, and they get to know each other and the knowledge they learn in the process is filtered by and developed in the context of what they feel about that person and the extent to which they trust them. Think of the way lawyers are trained: a trainee lawyer, like a medieval apprentice, “sits” with a principal which means they don’t just learn technical legal knowledge but a whole raft of other essential expertise from negotiation and client management to delegation and business development. And a fair amount may occur through pure osmosis rather than conscious tuition: the physical proximity of sharing an office together. It may also involve stories – the unconscious recounting of examples, analogous situations – some mundane, some heroic, some minatory.
So maybe the lesson is for us to maximise opportunities for face-to-face contact, to facilitate the “osmotic moment”; but not in a mechanical prescribed way but by making it a natural part of working together and doing business. And who knows what stories may emerge.
And, talking of stories, Lloyd’s, of course, started over 300 years ago as a coffee shop. So maybe my next post will be about coffee; maybe…