Wildflower meadows and verges were everywhere in 2021. Many councils are chosing to seed verges and central reservations with wildflower seed mixes. It is a whole new take on ‘Britain in Bloom’, and a thoroughly 21st century one. It managed to respond to both fashion trends—the move towards informality and ‘dress-down’ that has been emerging for years, but found a new lease of life during lockdowns—and important movements in gardening, such as concerns about falling numbers of pollinators.
However, there is a real question about what happens next year, and the next, and the next. Wildflower meadows caught the zeitgeist very precisely in 2021. But what will happen in future? Will the wildflower movement last?
In many ways, this mirrors the questions that people are raising about work in a post-pandemic landscape.
Changing ways of working
The remote working genie is unmistakably out of the bottle—and out of the office, too. However, not every workplace or employer, and certainly not every employee, is prepared to embrace it in the long term. For every person who says that they loved working from home, there is another who hated every minute during lockdown, and couldn’t wait to get back to the office.
It therefore seems likely that a hybrid workplace will become the norm. Some people may work in the office full time, but others are likely to be remote some or all of the time. This has huge challenges for organisations.
Let’s go back to our wildflower meadow. On the face of it, creating a wildflower meadow is simple: throw around a few flower seeds, and let them germinate and grow. They should self-seed, and hey presto, a self-renewing resource that comes back every year.
Or not. What actually happens in practice is that a few species become dominant over time. Without careful management, your ‘wildflower’ meadow quickly becomes grass again.
The same thing may well happen in organisations, and especially to knowledge management. Work from McKinsey is clear that without careful management, and deliberate effort from the organisation, the ‘office’ people will quickly come to dominate the culture. There is huge power to meeting in corridors, conversations by the water cooler or in the kitchen, and simply being able to pass someone’s desk and have a quick chat. Remote working cannot compete with that ease of access.
However, that doesn’t mean that it is not possible to create a strong hybrid remote–in-person culture. The McKinsey report is clear: each company has the opportunity “to fashion the hybrid virtual model that best fits your company, and let it give birth to a new shared culture for all your employees that provides stability, social cohesion, identity, and belonging.” After all, you can create a wildflower meadow, and keep it going. You just have to put in the effort.
A wildflower meadow—or a designed landscape?
But is a wildflower meadow really want you want to create, especially for knowledge management? The idea of letting a thousand flowers bloom, when and where they please, is lovely—but is it really practical? Nick Milton, a director at Knoco, a firm of knowledge management consultants, argued in a blog post back in 2019 that knowledge management should really be seen as more akin to creating a vegetable garden.
He suggested that a more deliberate approach may be necessary. His example was growing communities of practice, but the same would apply to any knowledge management approach. If you only support what is already there, you have little chance to grow the areas that you need. Sometimes you need to develop and nurture your own knowledge or communities in specific areas. This takes more effort, but is more rewarding in the longer term.
Michal Gil-Peretz, another knowledge management consultant, made a similar point two years earlier. She described differences between gardens that were cared for by a professional gardener, and those that were ‘home-grown’. She commented that there was nothing wrong with the ‘home-grown’ gardens—but the professional ones were just that little bit better: smarter, neater and more inspired. She suggested that knowledge management was the same: anyone could do it, but every organisation’s knowledge management system would benefit from a professional look every now and then.
We think that the current changes in workplaces provide an unprecedented opportunity to look again at how we organise work, including knowledge management. Let’s be deliberate about what we do—and identify the right form of nurture for our knowledge gardens.