Saturday, 28 April 2012

Houston, we don't have a problem (but there is some weird stuff here)

I've just spent a wonderfully hectic week in Houston, Texas as a guest of APQC, the American Productivity and Quality Center, and ConocoPhillips


On Monday I spent the day with Dan Ranta, Yvonne Myles and their inspirational team. They took me through their plans for the imminent split of ConcocoPhillips and Phillips 66, the upstream and downstream parts of the business. This has profound implications for Dan's team, not least as they will move to be under the leadership of their VP for IT. Dan sees this as a great opportunity to help that group reposition itself as a change enabler for the organisation. Interestingly Yvonne's new team at Phillips 66 will be under HR, which also brings new opportunities; KIN has of course recently explored the synergies between Talent Management and knowledge transfer. I wish both teams bon chance for next week's split.


On Tuesday and Wednesday I led a workshop for APQC members on Knowledge Elicitation and Transfer. We had a lot of fun 'getting our hands on the knowledge', working in syndicate groups. They were a diverse and stimulating group of participants and as always, I learnt a lot from them too. The feedback was excellent, so we are hopeful that this course will be re-run in the not too distant future.


Thursday and Friday was the knockout APQC annual conference. KIN does its Quarterly Workshops pretty well, but the sheer scale and depth of this event was outstanding. 'Knowledge Management' events can be pretty samey and superficial, but the keynote speakers gave a really interesting tangential perspectives on knowledge and innovation in organisations. Similarly the breakout sessions gave a diverse  view of how a variety of organisations are approaching knowledge work. I must single out Susan Rosenbaum and Amar Singh's session on the merger of Schlumberger and Smith in 2010/11. Their approach was not only innovative, but clearly has had enormously beneficial impact on both organisations. APQC's planning and execution of this huge event was outstandingly impressive. Whilst the scale could have been intimidating, they somehow managed to allow everyone to 'seamlessly connect' (to borrow a phrase from the APQC Advanced Working Party work). I guess that's a good indicator of expert facilitation.


Finally, I had a meeting with one of the other big energy companies here, with whom I will be doing some work, through APQC, in the UK. Can't say whom yet, but I am excited to be involved in a big 'quality lessons' project.


This was my first visit to Houston, so I thought I would end with a few personal reflections of some of the more unusual things I observed. Everyone here has made me feel very welcome, but I couldn't help but be struck by these amusing, scary and downright strange experiences... 

  • On the freeway in from the airport there was a giant billboard advertising Dialyspa. Only in Texas can you experience a spa and manicure whilst you transfuse. Not sure if this is just for athletes who want to cheat and recuperate, or for those with renal failure and hard skin on their feet.
  • I caught a cab to a downtown location for an architectural walking tour of the lovely Montrose District (yes Houston does have some interesting and historic arhitecture). Incomprehensible immigrant cab drivers may be a cliche, but mine was a doozie (as I think it's called in the local dialect). Not only could he not speak or understand conversational English, but he was ANGRY and drove a Hummer; never a good combination. When I asked him to take me to the Menil Gallery, all he could yell repeatedly was 'Gimme black number'. Eventually we set off with me having no confidence where we were heading. Mr Angry was simultaneously jabbering in Farsi or Jedi to the dispatcher on his cellphone, fumbling with his satnav and wandering at speed across five lanes of freeway. I had to put a stop to this madness. Mr FURIOUS was not happy when I grabbed his Garmin, but I quickly figured out the Zip code and got him going in the right direction. I never did find out what a 'black number' was.
  • The Houston Galleria is my idea of Hell. I've not been to Westfield shopping centre in London, but I imagine that it is the little cousin of Texas' Finest and Biggest Mall. Tesla are famous for producing the world's first high-performance fully electrically driven car. In a defiant middle-finger salute to the Texas legislature, and the oil industry that controls it, Tesla have opened a car showroom in the middle of the mall, featuring their prototype four door sedan. It is a mighty fine automobile too. The reason that Tesla's presence in Texas' Finest and Biggest Mall is contentious is that, believe it or not it is illegal to sell, or even discuss the purchase of, an electrically driven ve-hic-le in the State of Texas. When I asked a member of staff how I might go about placing an order, she cleverly responded that she could only answer that question if we were to hold that conversation in the neighbouring state of Louisiana.
  • The Galleria mall's security guards travel on Segways, those slightly ridiculous gyroscopically self-propelled, two-wheeled, upright chariots. They are both fascinating and intimidating  as they zoom about imperiously. I suppose intimidation goes with the job, but the Segways also ensure staff are cut off from contact with customers. Hail one to ask the direction to Macy's and you are likely to just get mown down.
  • Nobody walks in Houston. Fact. During the hot humid summer months, I can see the attraction of going from airconditioned home to car to mall. However, as the temperature was a pleasant 75oF this morning, I decided to walk to the Houston Arboretum. It's about a mile and a half, but the concierge was most perturbed that I was going to use shanks pony. On the way there I crossed a junction at a set of traffic lights, where a disabled panhandler was holding his pathetic tatty cardboard sign for stopped traffic. I decided it would be pretty naff to take a photo, but it said simply 'homeless veteran, please help me'. I stopped and gave him a couple of bucks and asked him what his name was. He was remarkably guarded about why this foreigner had stopped to talk to him. It turns out that was the only person that he had spoken to in 3 days. He was so grateful that anyone had actually taken an interest in him as an individual, never mind the money. A sad indictment of the times. The arboretum was a pleasant quiet oasis of old oak trees and wildlife and blessed relief from metro Houston. Wow, the walk back was hot and sticky. Why on earth didn't I get a cab?

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