August 06, 2011



The Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) had a lively discussion on the situation in the Chinese-controlled province of Xinjiang on August 6,2011. The discussion was initiated by ShriD.S.Rajan, Director, Chennai Centre For China Studies. The following is an elaboration of my interventions during the discussions that followed:

(1).There are two Uighur ethnic movements confronting the Chinese. The first is a pro-human rights, pro-democracy movement spearheaded by the Munich-based World Uighur Congress (WUC), which adopts peaceful methods of advocacy like those of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and enjoys the political, material and moral support of the US and other Western countries. The second is the jihadi movement spearheaded by the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan (IMET), which has an ideology similar to that of Al Qaeda and is based in Pakistan.The WUC projects itself as a purely Xinjiang-centric ethnic rights movement. The IMET projects itself as a Central Asia-centric pan-Umma movement. The Chinese concerns are mainly over the threats which they perceive to the security of their peripheral regions, which are populated by non-Han ethnic groups, as a result of the activities of the WUC though peaceful on the one side and the IMET, which is violent, on the other.

( 2 ). After the recent incidents of violence in the interior areas of Xinjiang during July, there has been a plethora of over-assessments regarding the strength, capabilities and reach of the IMET and the likely impact of its activities on China’s relations with Pakistan. I estimate the total strength of the IMET at present as not more than 200. Their Islamic motivation and jihadi determination are high, but their capability for sustained and spectacular terrorist actions of the Taliban or Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) kind is low.They have not so far shown any evidence of having modern weapons or being well-versed in the use of modern explosive devices and other techniques.They are not yet technology savvy.I have not come across any confirmed instance of modern copy-cat terrorism---such as the use of mobile telephones as triggers for improvised explosive devices or use of ammonium nitrate as an explosive material or use of projectiles in IEDs to increase fatalities etc. Explosive control measures inside Xinjiang as well as on the border with its regional neighbours seem to be tight.The result: The IMET has been facing difficulty in acquiring modern explosives.There have been no confirmed instances of suicide terrorism, but many instances of suicidal terrorism (Fedayeen attacks).In the absence of modern techniques and modern material, the IMET has been adopting home-grown techniques such as stabbing, hijacking a motor vehicle and running it over its targeted victims, using poisoned needles to spread panic etc. It unsuccessfully attempted a sky jacking which was thwarted by alert Chinese sky marshals.

(3). Though the IMET has been active for over 10 years now, it has not been able to create an insurgency-like situation in Xinjiang. It started as a hit and run movement with no attempts at territorial control and it remains so today. Despite the ruthless measures taken by the Chinese to neutralise the members of the IMET, it has maintained a capability for sporadically taking the Chinese by surprise and killing innocent civilians and members of Chinese security forces.One could see without difficulty that the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, which controls the police and is responsible for internal security, has a poor capability for intelligence collection and analysis in Xinjiang. The widely-alienated Uighur community has not been co-operating with the Police.The Han community, which remains cut off from the Uighur community, cannot provide useful sources of information. Since the IMET still uses word of mouth communication and avoids or has no access to modern communication technologies, the flow of Technical Intelligence (TECHINT) seems to be as poor as HUMINT. What we have been seeing in Xinjiang is an on-again-off-again battle between pre-modern terrorism and pre-modern counter-terrorism.

(4). In the absence of the use of modern, community-friendly techniques by the Chinese security forces, the ethnic and religious alienation will continue to be strong and instances of sporadic acts of terrorism with the use of brutal methods by both sides would continue. The Chinese are hoping that the rapid economic development of Xinjiang to bring its economy on par with that of coastal China will gradually make the Uighur movement wither away with the depletion of local support for externally-based organisations.So long as the ethnic and Islamic grievances remain strong, this is unlikely.

(5).Chinese concerns over the inability of Pakistan to deal with the sanctuaries of the IMET in Pakistani territory remain strong, but they have avoided giving open expression to these concerns at the central level in Beijing. Their present policy is praising Pakistani action centrally in Beijing, but criticising it regionally in Xinjiang.Pakistan, despite its anxiety to help the Chinese, will not be able to deal effectively with the IMET sanctuaries unless it acts strongly against Al Qaeda-related sanctuaries in North Waziristan, where the IMET is also based. So far, the Pakistan army---either because of collusion or of lack of confidence--- has failed to act in North Waziristan in response to US pressure. Will it do so in response to Chinese pressure? It is unlikely because North Waziristan is an important rear base for the operations of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Afghanistan. Pakistan would not like this rear base to be weakened by undertaking a major counter-terrorism operation, which could result in acts of retaliation by Al Qaeda-related groups.Pakistan will continue to follow its present policy in North Waziristan of seeming to act, but refraining from acting---whether the pressure comes from the US or China. To keep the Chinese happy, the ISI will continue to act vigorously against the Uighurs in the rest of Pakistan, but not in North Waziristan. This will cause ephemeral, tactical strains in Pakistan’s relations with China without any strategic impact of an adverse nature. The Chinese will not allow their dissatisfaction over the inadequate Pakistani action affect their strategic relationship with Pakistan. To expect a US-Pakistan like denouement in the relations between Pakistan and China due to Chinese concerns over the IMET bases in Pakistan would be unrealistic.

(6). The chances of the Chinese acting on their own against the IMET sanctuaries in Pakistani territory are weak. They do not have the capability. Nor is it their policy till now to get involved in counter-terrorism operations in foreign territory. All that one can visualise is that the ISI, which has strongly resisted increasing US intelligence presence and activities in Pakistani territory, will allow the Chinese intelligence to increase its presence in Pakistani territory to give the Chinese an independent and enhanced capability for the collection of HUMINT and TECHINT from Pakistani territory. ( 7-8-11)

( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: . Twitter: @SORBONNE75 )

From Data to Knowledge

data cake

August 05, 2011

British Diplomatic Service: Knowledge Management

Knowledge management and diplomacy: Reflections on the demise of the valedictory despatch in the context of an informational history of the British Diplomatic Service by Alistair Black and Antony Bryant

In October 2009 the BBC aired a short series of radio programmes entitled Parting Shots. The programmes featured a series of final communications, called valedictory despatches, from British ambassadors leaving their posts to take up duties elsewhere or retire from the Diplomatic Service. As opposed to being merely vehicles for conveying reflective and summary knowledge about countries for the benefit of successors as well as the Foreign Office in London, some despatches contained discourteous and injudicious comments about ambassadors’ host countries and their people. The sensitive nature of these types of despatches, combined with their ease of dissemination electronically, made inevitable the severe circulation restrictions that were placed on them in 2006, leading to their effective demise. Our new knowledge of the past existence of the valedictory despatch immediately raises the question of the history of diplomatic communication, including issues related to the mediation of diplomacy by technologies and techniques conducive to knowledge sharing. This article synthesises evidence from secondary sources on the history of British diplomacy that highlights its information and communication aspects. Primary sources are also exploited in the form of valedictory despatches from British ambassadors abroad and publications on diplomacy contemporaneous with the time being studied. The traditional, stereotypical image of the diplomat is that of gentlemanly intellectual, ‘bon viveur’ and adventurer, socially adept and thus skilled in the art of negotiation. However, an investigation of the history of diplomatic information and communication practices — from the era of manuscript and messenger through to the ages of the telegraph and telephone, and now that of the Internet — reveals the diplomat less as gentlemanly negotiator than as knowledge manager, as a collector and conduit of information designed to enhance the knowledge of policy–makers. The historic knowledge–management role of the diplomat highlights the part technology has played in the world of diplomacy, including the relationship between the ambassador abroad and the political centre. It also offers a further perspective on the ways in which technologies open up new possibilities, intended and unintended, often fraught with ambiguity and potential for enhancement and disruption. In turn this offers lessons for further consideration of what can be termed the Dark Side of Knowledge Management, and for organizational communication in general.


Before the Nineteenth Century: The diplomat as information conduit and early knowledge worker
The Nineteenth Century: The diplomat and the communications revolution
The Twentieth Century: The diplomat and the information revolution
Past into present: Twenty–first century diplomacy and knowledge management in the digital age
So what did kill the valedictory despatch; the enigmas of knowledge management?


Suddenly, the secret world of international diplomacy is not so secret. The initial ‘dump’ on the Internet in November 2010, by the international whistle–blowing new media organisationWikiLeaks, of over 250,000 classified and sensitive U.S. diplomatic communications caused a worldwide sensation (Shane and Lehren, 2010) [1]. However, this was not the first disclosure of such documents in the age of the Internet. A year earlier, in October 2009, the world was introduced to a new kind of document — yet one that, although having existed for centuries, had already begun to meet its demise three years beforehand. In a BBC Radio 4 production entitled Parting Shots, listeners were treated to a series of embarrassing extracts from what in the Diplomatic Service and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were termed ‘valedictory despatches’ (Bryson, 2009). The radio series has since spawned a book carrying the same title (Parris and Bryson, 2010).

The despatch per se is a formal communication from the head of mission abroad to the Foreign Secretary (or vice versa), and also from one head of mission to another [2]. A valedictory despatch is the final communication home, addressed to their peers as well as to their more restricted run–of–the–mill audience, in which outgoing British ambassadors have historically been given the freedom to write whatever they wanted — about the governments they had served, the Diplomatic Service of which they were apart, or the post and country they were leaving: also to include ‘some predictions for the future course of events in the country concerned and thoughts about how policy might accordingly be shaped towards it’[3]. The writing and communication of a valedictory despatch has always been a voluntary act. Its virtually complete disappearance has been due to ambassador’s knowing that their final flourish would now not receive an audience of any great size. In 2006 the circulation of future valedictory despatches was severely restricted by order of the then Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett. This was in response to a leaked valedictory despatch that criticised the burgeoning ‘management–consultancy culture’ in Whitehall [4].

Until 2006, valedictory despatches had been widely circulated, read by hundreds across government, the Civil Service, and in the Diplomatic Service. The producers of Parting Shotswere naturally keen to focus on writing that showed ambassadors to be less enamoured with their hosts and host countries than normal ‘diplomatic’ discourse disclosed. Particularly candid were final despatches communicated by ambassadors on the point of retirement. Probably the most eye–catching missive came from the Ambassador to Nicaragua, Roger Pinsent (quoted in Bryson, 2009), who in 1966 offered the opinion that: ‘There is, I fear, no question that the average Nicaraguan is one of the most dishonest, unreliable, violent and alcoholic of the Latin Americans’. Writing in 1967 from Bangkok, Sir Anthony Rumbold (quoted in Bryson, 2009) was equally embarrassing, insisting that the Thais had ‘no literature, no painting and only a very odd kind of music,’ and that ‘their sculpture, their ceramics and their dancing are borrowed from others … that their architecture is monotonous and their interior decoration hideous’. In addition, ‘licentiousness is the main pleasure of them all,’ he opined. Nor did countries closer to home escape the valedictory writer’s wrath. Writing from Helsinki in 1972, Sir Bernard Ledwidge believed that:

It could plausibly be argued that it is a misfortune for anybody but a Finn to spend three years in Finland, as I have just done. Finland is flat, freezing, and far from the pulsating centres of European life. Nature has done little for her and art not much more. Until yesterday the country was inhabited only by peasants, foresters, fishermen and a small class of alien rulers who spent most of their money elsewhere. The rich cultural past of Europe has left fewer traces in Finland in the shape of public and private buildings of quality and the objects of art that adorn them than anywhere else in the Western world save perhaps Iceland. Finnish cooking deserves a sentence to itself for its crude horror; only the mushrooms and the crayfish merit attention (quoted in Parris and Bryson, 2010).

The despatches from which these extracts appeared (those from recent decades were obtained via request under the freedom of Information Act; those of older vintage are freely accessible, though often deeply imbedded, in the National Archives) can be viewed on theParting Shots Web site (; and a much larger selection is printed in Parris and Bryson (2010).

Of course, the study of international diplomacy — ‘the method by which international relations are adjusted and managed by ambassadors and envoys’ [5] — is not usually a light–hearted matter. In fact, its image is quite the opposite: weighty and elite–focused. An even sharper image of seriousness, sterility and dullness is generated by diplomatic history which, despite the part it played in the appearance of professional, source–driven history in the early nineteenth century, has struggled in the shadow of the ‘new history’ and ‘people’s history’ to shake off the label of a historical subject that, like political history, its parent, has been seen as ‘dry as dust’ (Samuel, 1981) [6]. Its denigration has been aided by the mobilisation of common place quips, such as G.M. Young’s observation in 1953 that: ‘What passes as diplomatic history is little more than what one clerk said to another clerk’ [7]; or John Bright’s assessment in 1858 that British diplomacy and foreign policy–making was simply ‘a gigantic system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain’ [8]. But the type of diplomatic history highlighted in Parting Shots shows that there are ways into the subject which can be imaginative and popular. Similarly, by addressing the informational aspects of past diplomacy — including bureaucratic processes, knowledge and information management and modes of communication — as opposed to concentrating on traditional issues of great events and great men, this paper offers a counterpoint to traditional approaches in diplomatic history.

What led to the demise of the valedictory despatch — aside from the workings and benefits of the Freedom of Information Act — was the emergence of e–mail as the preferred medium of communication, since it made copying, distribution and leaking of documents so much easier, and on such a magnified scale. This is the case even for encrypted e–mail messages, as theWikileaks saga demonstrates all too readily. The valedictory despatch could technically have continued in a more traditional form, but by 2006 information management in the worlds of the Foreign Office and the Diplomatic Service, as elsewhere, had moved on, irrevocably, from the days of pen and ink, typewriters and even telegrams. Instant and mobile communication technologies had become deeply imbedded in organisational culture and management, and such channels, now in a position of dominance, were deemed simply too dangerous for the transmission of such a sensitive form of document in an age when spin, PR (public relations) and the burying of criticism have become critical in the operations of government and the prosecution of politics.

The historian knows well that the meaning of a document from the past can only be interpreted effectively with an accompanying knowledge of the audience the writer was addressing or trying to influence. In the case of ambassadorial despatches, as John Tosh has observed, these ‘may convey a greater impression of bustle and initiative … than is actually the case; and he may censor his impressions of the government to which he is accredited in order to fit them to the policies and preconceptions of his superiors’ [9]. From the 1820s onwards, despatches were also coloured by the knowledge that they could appear in the public domain (more about this later). The valedictory despatch was thus significantly different from other despatches, in that an ambassador was freer to express his opinions, if he so chose. In this respect the valedictory despatch was akin to the original, eighteenth–century concept of an individual’s ‘memoirs’: a personal chronicle written by a figure in public life but published after death, so that material could be included that might have been inappropriate, indiscreet or evasive if published during the author’s lifetime [10].

Because the existence of the valedictory despatch was revealed centuries after it came into being, questions naturally surface not only about its history but about the despatch per se. Moreover, given that the demise of the valedictory despatch was mediated by ICT, one is also prompted to examine the history of the despatch (not just the valedictory dispatch) and the work of the diplomat generally in the context of communication, or information, history. Our focus differs, therefore, from that of Parris and Bryson (2010) who are mainly concerned to highlight the valedictory despatch as a tool for analysing the recent history of foreign policy and the recent and changing culture of the Diplomatic Service; as well as, quite obviously, for entertainment value.

Further, in being designed as a briefing document for incoming ambassadors, as well as the government at home, and senior colleagues around the world, the valedictory despatch can be construed as a document which performed a ‘knowledge management’ (KM) function; if, that is, we define KM as the management of the ‘creation of knowledge’ for individual members of organisations and thus within the organisation as a whole: that is to say, a key aspect of organisational learning (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995). The valedictory despatch is thus in the tradition — in fact one might say that it pre–dates or even establishes the tradition — of the periodic bureaucratic summary of an organisation’s past (including recent) organisational and administrative developments which constitutes, in effect, a formal sharing of information that enriches the knowledge base of the organisation and its individual members. Early examples of the periodic ‘knowledge audit’ were the reports (based on internal documentation, later organised into archives) that large companies, from the late nineteenth century onwards, began to write on the past evolution of their internal structures and on the way they had taken advantage (or not) of market and technological opportunities. The motivation behind this was often the celebration of the importance and ancestry of organisations through the production of their history. But the preservation of the corporate memory was also beneficial to future decision–making [11]. A classic example of this kind of KM were the reports commissioned by the head of Britain’s counter–intelligence service, MI5, in the wake of each of the two world wars, which aimed to provide a basis for setting the future direction of the agency (Black and Brunt, 2000). Diplomats were early pioneers of such KM. This is evident in their voluntary production of the valedictory despatch, as well as the ‘first impression’ despatch written shortly after the start of a posting [12], the more bureaucratically rigid reporting that was forced on diplomats after the Napoleonic Wars, and the system of annual reporting instituted in the early twentieth century (more about these diplomatic knowledge developments later). It is not an exaggeration to argue that historically the culture of the Diplomatic Service has been ‘wrapped up in its prose’, as Parris and Bryson[13] concisely put it. This is seen both in diplomats’ less formal communications, where writing takes the form of an art (as in the case, at times, of the valedictory despatch) and in their formal, ‘knowledge–audit’ reporting.

Complementary to the concept of KM is the notion of ‘knowledge work’. An early — if not the earliest — use of the term can be found in the work of the management guru Peter Drucker in his 1957 book The Landmarks of Tomorrow [14]. The case for the validity of the concept was furthered by Fritz Machlup’s The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States(1962) which conceptualised the ‘knowledge industry’ and ‘knowledge professional’. Drucker’sAge of Discontinuity (1969) was saturated with references to the term ‘knowledge worker’; and in 1973 Daniel Bell argued that the main characteristic of the changes then being experienced by society was the rise of theoretical knowledge and the emergence of a new professional class of ‘knowledge workers’. The term has continued to gain currency ever since (Brinkley, et al., 2009). Although defining the ‘knowledge workers’ with accuracy and confidence has always been problematic (Cortada, 1998), the occupation of diplomat — alongside the teacher, the lawyer and the scientist — certainly fits the term.


Before the Nineteenth Century: The diplomat as information conduit and early knowledge worker

The figure of the resident ambassador, as we know and understand it today, first emerged in fifteenth century Italy as a product of the intense rivalry between the city states of the region[15]. Britain’s first resident ambassador was appointed in Paris in the early sixteenth century[16], and although by the 1520s England’s diplomatic network in Europe had taken shape and regular reporting home had begun to be a key aspect of ambassadorial duties [17], the diplomat’s credentials as a knowledge worker first became visible in the Enlightenment, which some have posited as the first authentic information society (Hoare, 1998). For Jeremy Black, the scientific revolution of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and its effect on the promotion of ‘political arithmetic’ — that is to say, self–consciously instructed decision–making in the world of politics — turned the diplomat into a public information gatherer and conduit, as well as someone who could comment on that information and even influence its content and dissemination. These were roles that chimed with the emergent scientific methods and systematic approaches of the age, and with the growing realisation that the measurement of phenomena, the investigation of cause and effect, and the disclosure of universal laws could be applied not just to the natural world but also to the human world, including the fields of diplomacy and foreign relations. Enlightenment thinking was also reflected in ideas about the balance of power between states; seen as akin to Newtonian mechanics and reliant on the lubrication of good information collected by states, which was translated into informed decision–making that protected the interests of each party and the equilibrium of the system as a whole [18].

In this context, detailed and knowledgeable assessments of the strength of opposing states were at a premium. Accurate information was required not only on such obvious matters as military strength, but also in connection with population, geography, existing treaties, financial resources and national culture. Only a limited amount of information could be obtained at court, this essentially being the views and communications of the prince and his counsellors for transmission home. Thus, tied to the court and unable to travel to any great degree around the country, diplomats relied upon cultivating informants, something achieved either through ordinary social courtesy or through financial reward. This approach shaded into espionage, with reports emanating from undercover agents not officially linked to the embassy on such easily observable activities as the building of fortification, the deployment of fleets and military forces. They also relied on printed works for less ‘visible’ information. It is no coincidence, indeed, that some diplomats became energetic book collectors [19]. A good example of the kind of useful information envoys were expected to collect, interpret and despatch to the government in London, as well to fellow envoys, was the map. Maps began to improve markedly as cartography became, as Daniel Headrick [20] puts it, ‘scientific’, and as it became increasingly recognised that maps are ‘weapons of war, tools of administration and incentives to development’ [21]. Detailed, accurate maps were critical in negotiations over territory, the establishment of frontiers and the formulation of treaties. Before the assembly of large map libraries — which did not begin to appear formally until the nineteenth century with the advent of government map production [22] — diplomats were a major source of cartographic information.

In an age of an expanding and increasingly critical press, the diplomat adopted what would be described today as a PR (public relations) role, working to suppress or influence coverage in the foreign press that was unwelcome to the British government. This function also involved dealing with complaints from one’s foreign hosts concerning adverse reporting in the British press. Reading, analysing, summarising and interpreting foreign newspaper reports — and, indeed, books and pamphlets deemed to be opposed to British interests — was a primary function of the early professional diplomat.

In addition to these new ways of intelligence gathering, diplomats relied on traditional, if not ancient, methods. Allusion has already been made to the employment of spies. This was supplemented by the practice of message interception by the Post Office. However, the crucial factor in this kind of intelligence work was the deciphering of the message. Interception was commonly practiced across Europe, but the British Diplomatic Service led the way in competent deciphering which, along with ciphering, was a time–consuming business. Very important messages were sent via the messenger service. In a variety of ways, therefore, even before Britain’s rise to world hegemony and extensive diplomatic influence in the nineteenth century, the diplomat had become a manager and distributor of knowledge, a role which fits well with the definition of diplomacy as ‘the application ofintelligence [our emphasis] and tact to the conduct of official relations between the governments of independent states’ [23].


The Nineteenth Century: The diplomat and the communications revolution

As the number of nation–states and their importance in geo–politics grew, diplomatic representation abroad and the need for specialist local and regional knowledge increased. As the foreign environments in which diplomats operated became more complex, their reportage grew and became more detailed. Whereas in 1821 the Foreign Office received just over 6,000 despatches and other papers, by 1906 it was receiving over 143,000 on an annual basis [24].

The expansion of the Diplomatic Service in the nineteenth century was accompanied by a process of gradual modernisation. Whereas the eighteenth century diplomat had not been bound by bureaucratic routine, reforms commencing after the Napoleonic Wars and continuing throughout the century introduced codes of conduct, regulations in diplomatic correspondence, regular salaries, entry through examination, and advancement through assessment of performance [25].

Moreover the increased focus on information gathering seen in the eighteenth century made it easier to assess the effectiveness of envoys; while the removal of senior diplomatic appointments from the political arena, in the 1850s, marked the displacement of patronage by professionalisation [26]. The gradual professionalisation and regularisation of diplomacy in the nineteenth century is seen in the appearance of codes of practice, such as Karl von Martens’ (1790–1863) Manuel Diplomatique (1822) and Ernest Satow’s (1843–1929) A Guide to Diplomatic Practice (1917).

An early and prominent reform, in 1824, was the formalisation of written communication. A preferred structure for despatches was set down and this official format was distinguished from the private letter, which had previously, but paradoxically, served as part of the official communication network of the Diplomatic Service. One of the reasons behind the establishment of the distinction between the private letter and the official despatch was the Foreign Office’s decision to reserve the right publish the latter, or at least a selection of them, in the government’s Blue Books (government publications named as such because they were bound in blue covers of stronger quality than the inside pages). The publication of foreign policy documents, including despatches, increased markedly after the Napoleonic Wars. This ‘policy of publicity’, inaugurated by George Canning (Foreign Secretary, 1807–1809 and 1822–1827; and briefly Prime Minister 1827) became an instrument of foreign policy and negotiation if not propaganda: documents such as telegrams were presented selectively and often edited to be consistent with current policy [27].

Publication of despatches in the publicly available Blue Books sometimes led to tensions between British diplomats and their host countries. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, it was common for foreign powers to be consulted before documents were made public [28]. Evidence of published despatches can be found in Robert Vogel’s A Breviate of British Diplomatic Blue Books (1963) and in Harold Temperley and Lillian Penson’s A Century of Diplomatic Blue Books 1814–1914 (1938) [29]. The continuing existence of the private letter offered an attractive alternative to the formal and potentially public despatch. Knowing that they would not reach the public domain, in private letters diplomats could afford to include more sensitive information and argument, deal with hypothetical possibilities and come nearer to frank assessments than would otherwise be the case. Realising the value of private letters, from the 1850s Queen Victoria was apt to ask to see them to be better informed [30]. The private letter was thus similar to the valedictory despatch in terms of the confidentiality it afforded.

As the diplomatic service became more ‘professional’, the informal and relatively independent ‘family embassy’ of the eighteenth century declined. This culture of independence was explained by Harold Nicolson, a diplomat who served at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and who became the chief theorist of diplomacy in the years immediately either side of the Second World War: ‘In former days it took months before a despatch could be received and answered and ambassadors abroad were expected to use their own initiative in the instructions they had received before leaving home’ [31]. Some ambassadors, Nicolson continued, ‘relished their independence as enabling them to indulge in personal eccentricities and romantic affairs’ [32]. But it wasn’t so much that the independent ambassador in the age of slow communication was a loose cannon, making policy unilaterally and pro–actively. Rather, most ‘adopted a purely passive attitude, missed opportunity after opportunity, and spent their time writing brilliant reports on situations that had entirely altered by the time their despatches arrived’ [33].

Gradually, the Foreign Office began to exert greater control, and the independence and discretion of the ambassador were eroded. Diplomats were increasingly expected simply to execute policy formulated at the political centre. What was known as the ‘English system’ — the conduct of negations by envoys abroad, rather than the Foreign Office at home — was slowly dismantled. The system had developed because it was thought that more accurate information about foreign affairs could be garnered by allowing diplomats to operate with considerable independence close to those with whom negotiations were being conducted. But as channels of communication improved, the government in London was able to be more directly involved in discussions. The boundaries between the once distinctive spheres of Foreign Office and Diplomatic Service thus became blurred [34]. Whereas at the start of the nineteenth century the Foreign Office was very much the junior partner of the Diplomatic Service, by the twentieth century the former was in control, its power symbolised by the erection of the grand classical building in Whitehall which became its home from 1867 [35].

By the end of the nineteenth century, the ambassador had become, as Jones [36] puts it, a mere ‘marionette, his strings manipulated from London’. But this statement requires qualification and needs to be examined in the context of the communication revolution of the nineteenth century. The speed of communication quickened as a result of the introduction of the steamship, the railways and improved postal systems. After 1815, the diplomatic messenger service was vastly improved and was made more professional and managed, in keeping with the wider reforms inaugurated in the Diplomatic Service [37]. Improved communications certainly facilitated increased control from London but they did not cause it, for in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars the political will to increase the power of the Foreign Office was already clearly in place and was growing in strength.

The electric telegraph — viewed by Anthony Giddens [38] as the watershed technology of the information age by virtue of its real–time communication — accelerated changes in the balance of power between ambassadors and London which were already well underway. The world’s first electric telegraph service was introduced in 1844, along the early stages of the route of the Great Western Railway, running out of London’s Paddington Station. London was connected by telegraph to Paris in 1852 and to Berlin in 1853; the first transatlantic cable was laid in 1866. The Foreign Office was connected to the telegraph in 1858, despite objections from some who feared that the technology would mean that the Office would need to stay open day and night. Occasional interruptions to communications were caused by less–than–efficient private companies who provided the telegraphic service. But the nationalisation of the service in 1870 effectively secured the ‘wires’ [39].

Before the coming of the railways and the telegraph, the international communication of messages was painfully slow. In the early nineteenth century the speediest journey to St. Petersburg would take about two weeks, and much longer in bad weather. Time lags meant that diplomats had to be trusted to use their judgement. Instructions sent by London could not be synchronised with changing events. This meant that diplomats had to think on their feet, being unable to correspond in a timely fashion with their political masters in London. As such, the despatch can be seen as an ‘ambiguous technology’, carrying ambiguous information and productive of ambiguous knowledge. Whereas it is generally thought that disambiguation was historically the key to managing organisations over distance, as the history of communication in the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church shows, less precise information about how to do things could make it possible to get better results; in other words, instructions that are not specific allow their recipients to use their discretion to interpret them in accordance with local conditions and requirements (King and Frost, 2002).

As telegraphic communication was expensive (by 1900 it was costing the Foreign Office £50,000 a year — roughly £5 million by today’s standards), diplomats were encouraged to be brief in their correspondence; a form of de–skilling, one might surmise. The brevity of telegrams tended to make them peremptory in style and less nuanced [40]. One British envoy spoke of the ‘telegraphic demoralisation of those who formerly had to act for themselves and are now content to be at the end of the wire’ [41. Diplomats complained that the telegraph prompted hasty decisions, resulted in garbled accounts and provided an unsatisfactory record generally [42]. Nickles [43 has gone to the extent of arguing that the telegraph accelerated the speed of international crises. On the one had, therefore, it can be argued that the telegraph turned diplomats into mere functionaries. On the other, telegraphic communications from London were invariably brief and could sometimes be at odds with the longer version of the message that arrived later. Erroneous and premature instructions or requests for information required the exercise of superior judgement on the part of the diplomat. Consequently, in some ways the telegraph made the job of diplomats more testing, meaning that they had to be well trained and ready to use their discretion in an age of fast–moving communication [44]. Further, there is evidence that the telegraph made diplomats more determined not to be hurried [45]. In addition, diplomats were assisted by the fact that certain types of information became more plentiful. So, even though ambiguity was theoretically dissolved by real–time communication, it was retained in the brevity of the communication that the telegraph demanded. Thus, the telegraph might be seen as a useful and usable tool, and not just a constraint. This was certainly the opinion of Harold Nicolson who wrote in 1954 that he did not agree that ‘improvements of communication have essentially diminished the responsibility of the ambassador’ [46] who, even though he could be contacted in an instant, remained into the twentieth century ‘the main source of information, above all the interpreter, regarding political conditions, trends and opinions in the country in which he resides’ [47].


The Twentieth Century: The diplomat and the information revolution

Although in the nineteenth century the volume and complexity of diplomatic activity mushroomed, in the twentieth century the diplomatic map expanded ‘beyond recognition in terms of the number of countries involved and the subjects of multinational negotiation’ [48]. By 1938 the Foreign Office was receiving over 224,000 papers and despatches annually [49]. The ‘deluge’ of the First World War had led to the popular attitude that it had been caused, to put it in Nicolson’s [50] words, by the ‘vice or folly of a small minority’, including diplomats working, and failing, behind closed doors. This gave impetus to the further professionalization of the diplomat and the erosion of the image of the diplomat as eccentric independent — something which Nicolson [51] carefully conveyed in describing the daily bureaucratic, official and informational activities of the typical ambassador on the eve of the Second World War. The seriousness of the ambassadorial post was amplified by the information management reforms that occurred in the Foreign Office in 1906 when a central Registry was established to ensure ‘better methods for collecting, circulating and keeping papers’. This no doubt resulted in demands for greater bureaucratic rigour on the part of those reporting to London, and heads of foreign missions were asked to prepare annual reports for their countries [52].

As in the nineteenth century, technological developments facilitated changes in the balance of power between the diplomat overseas and the centre. The late twentieth century information revolution reinforced the central role of the London offices and removed the room for initiative and individual action, or as Zara Steiner [53] has put it: ‘The ambassador may have only a few hours, while their London masters are asleep, when they are freed from the tyranny of the airwaves’. The increased speed of communication has meant that: ‘There is little time for thought; queries and answers follow in relatively short progression’ [54]. Increased speed of communication in diplomatic work entails risks, and sometimes, it has been observed, mistakes follow as a consequence [55].

Sir Alan Campbell (who died in 2007 and who held a string of overseas appointments after the war culminating in ambassador posts at the Court of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia from 1969 to 1972, and in Rome from 1976) detected the gradual development during his career of a greater personal dimension in diplomatic relations, something which chimes with the definition of diplomacy as ‘the conduct of relations between states through the personal (our emphasis) activities of the official representatives of those states’ [56]. Amongst other causes, the greater emphasis on personal contact has been brought about by improved telephone communication which, although valuable in some respects, has sometimes, we are informed, led to misunderstandings [57]. Campbell also believed that e–mail has led to a deskilling in written communication in the Diplomatic Service. In earlier years much higher standards were expected: ‘Sloppy drafting would be smartly sent back to its author, whereas good work would usually be recognised and commended … By contrast e–mails nowadays are often badly written, I fear, as well as being far too numerous’ [58].

Today’s diplomats recognise the information overload that e–mail has brought with it, but beyond its ‘exhausting’ dimension, e–mail is also seen as ‘equalisingg’ and ‘empoweringg’[59]. The arrival of digital information technologies in the Diplomatic Service brought an end to an information management regime that had changed little in decades. Alyson Bailes [60], who joined the Service in 1969, has recalled that in the early years of her career ‘stapling machines, hole–punchers and metal–tipped “Treasury tags” for binding documents together were all of war–time vintage, and our paperwork at working level was exchanged in manuscript written with fountain pens.’ Such was the information management time–warp in which diplomats operated, that office props and furniture for the new War Rooms museum, opened in 1984 and re–creating Winston Churchill’s war–time headquarters, were provided by virtually a single raid on the Foreign Office [61].

When on service as a diplomat in Hungary in the early 1970s, Bailes would readily pick up hitchhikers in the hope of obtaining ‘grass–roots gossip’; this being a throwback to the ‘knowledge worker’ identity of the diplomat that surfaced in the eighteenth century [62]. She also recalls a world of skilled and ‘considered’ document preparation. The telegraph, carrying messages in terse ‘telegraphese’, was reserved for fast–moving crises and negotiations; the receipt of a telegram was an infrequent, ‘adrenalin–boosting event’, in contrast to today’s floods of e–mail messages [63]. Important diplomatic reporting, even on one–off events like elections, was done in despatches that could take weeks to draft. Young diplomats would frequently have their drafts criticised and re–written, perhaps several times, and signed off by another. More sympathetic mentors would guide–less experienced colleagues through manifold revisions of documents. Today, however, the availability of instantaneous communication has meant that ‘the temptation is to prioritise tactical over strategic thinking, articulacy over grasp and expression over substance’ [64]. Nonetheless, this regression is compensated for by a continuing ‘esprit de corps’ in the Diplomatic Service as well as the ability of its staff to brainstorm and ‘think the unthinkable’ in intellectual contexts [65].


Past into present: Twenty–first century diplomacy and knowledge management in the digital age

The paradoxes of diplomacy are revealed to some extent in the development of the valedictory despatches outlined above; in particular in the ways in which the coming of digital ICTs and digital technology in general impacted upon diplomatic practices. If valedictory despatches made any sense at all, it was largely in the context of an audience very different from the usual one addressed by the diplomat in the normal course of events. It has been said that a diplomat is someone ‘sent to lie abroad for his country’ (in connection with the use of the word ‘his’, it should be stressed that diplomacy was largely a male–dominated profession until relatively recently) — but the deliberately arch ambiguity in the word ‘lie’ was assumed to be strictly one–way: diplomatic communications back to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) were surely meant to be candid and truthful — ‘full and frank’ (the FCO was formed by the amalgamation of the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Office in 1968). They may well have been couched in some form of diplomatic, coded language, but their import would have been clear to the intended audience — often possibly no more than a handful of specific and familiar colleagues.

In this sense the valedictory despatch was indeed something different, remaining within the confines of a limited audience; perhaps an order or two of magnitude larger than other forms of communication, but still essentially one centred on people having a level of familiarity with or similar background to the author — or both. So perhaps in such despatches the author was not so much ‘telling it like it is’, as ‘telling it more like it is, to more people’.

The advent of ICT had significant impact on diplomatic practices, but the true nature of these changes appears not to have been widely appreciated and understood. The earliest diplomatic despatches would have been hand written, and delivered under seal in some manner to their designated recipient. Once telegraphic communication became possible, in the mid–nineteenth century, telegrams became the norm; involving some openings for indiscretions and leakage at the various points of transcription, reception and so on. But these weaknesses could be guarded against to some extent by use of codes, coded forms of language and so on. Highly sensitive communications would probably have been sent using a trusted courier — and in some cases would have been encrypted in some manner (see above).

Yet for valedictory despatches any use of restricted forms of expression would have militated against the objectives of addressing a wider audience, and using the opportunity to express unambiguous and ‘non–diplomatic’ sentiments and observations. Accessibility to the despatches themselves would not have been an issue as long as the communications loop only included those meant to be in the know — i.e., members of the diplomatic service and appropriate others in the FCO and rarefied government circles. But once access was widened the paradoxes of diplomatic practices, and particularly the normal forms of communication, became apparent. The BBC programme posed the question: ‘What killed the British ambassador’s valedictory despatch?’ But it only hinted at an answer.

The programme itself mentioned several reasons, many of which can be understood more clearly against the paradoxical nature of British diplomacy itself. In popular terms this can be encompassed in the contrast between what might be called the ‘Ferrero Rocher’ view of international diplomacy (‘Oh! you’re spoiling us Mr. Ambassador’), and the far more mundane one centred on trade missions, endless meetings and incessant demands from representatives both of the host country and visitors from the U.K. Moreover, if diplomacy is also seen as sometimes shading into espionage, then the contrast could also be couched in terms of Ian Fleming’s James Bond against John Le Carré’s George Smiley. The world of James Bond is replete with all manner of gadgets and gizmos, while George Smiley’s ‘Circus’ relies on the far less exciting and human–centred ‘tradecraft’. Real–world diplomacy seems far nearer to Smiley’s world, albeit under incessant pressure to move forward, making better use of available technology.

This is evident from the programme itself which referred constantly to the despatch as being in the form of a telegram. Thus the despatch from Sir Ivor Roberts, which has been identified as the one which finally brought the practice to an end, was sent in 2006. ‘Hours after this telegram was sent, ambassadors received word from Whitehall that the practise of distributing valedictories widely around the service was to be discontinued.’ This is misleading or incorrect since BT actually terminated their traditional telegram service in 2003, having earlier launched ‘Telegrams On–line’ in 2001. In 2003 this service was itself sold off as a separate private company. So it must be assumed that either Roberts’ despatch was sent via the online site or in some other, electronic form. Or perhaps the term ‘telegram’ was simply a hangover from the past, and Roberts was using e–mail?

Once the move is made from a telegraphic to an electronic form of communication, the possibilities for wider distribution change, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Previously telegrams could have been photocopied, but this would have taken some effort; circulating the copies would have required further effort and some thought with regard to the choice of recipients. Once these despatches exist electronically, both the copying and the circulation can be accomplished simultaneously and with virtually no effort at all; and with at best minimal consideration on choice of recipients! Moreover the recipients of such copies can then repeat the process in the same easy or careless manner. So it is not surprising that leaks occurred, with circulation extending beyond the confines of the FCO and government.

The result was not only an increasing tendency for these despatches to end up in the wrong hands — or rather the wrong in–boxes — but for the more salacious sections to be later found on the front pages of newspapers or used elsewhere in the media. Sir Peter Ricketts, who in his role as head of the U.K. Diplomatic Service formally and finally put an end to the practice of valedictory despatches in 2006, expressed his concern about these leaks and the damage it did ‘to the confidence and trust that has to exist between ministers and officials’. This was a well–founded concern, but Roberts’ despatch was not controversial because of hard–hitting comments about the Italians or other foreigners (he retired from the service after a period as U.K. Ambassador in Rome), but centred on the ways in which the U.K. Diplomatic Service had fallen victim to the ‘excrescences of the management age’ — i.e., a critical tirade aimed at Sir Peter and his immediate circle. So perhaps in an earlier age Roberts’ despatch would not even have been circulated within the FCO itself.

The issues around these despatches can be considered in the context of KM in the digital age, rather than merely as amusing examples of quaint British–ness and a relic of empire. Sir Ivor Roberts justified his strongly–worded missive in terms of the desirability of sharing his ‘accumulated wisdom of someone who has served for almost 40 years’ as widely as possible, rather than allowing his critical observations to be conveniently ignored and buried. In this sense such despatches can be viewed as neat encapsulations of the paradoxes of KM. On the one hand KM can be regarded as the technological practice permitting the sharing of ‘wisdom’ or knowledge in the manner desired by Roberts; on the other hand it can be seen in more sinister and Orwellian terms as the strategy of controlling access to certain insights and information, while at the same time allowing the circulation of other, perhaps less critical ones.

The digital age can be seen as simultaneously promoting and undermining both tendencies — and this is in evidence in the background to the demise of the valedictory despatch. With regard to the sharing of knowledge or wisdom, the valedictory despatch could be seen as a way of imparting long–lived experience and expertise to a wide audience of colleagues and subordinates; perhaps simultaneously offering various amusing anecdotes at the expense both of fellow diplomats and one’s hosts. Roberts and his earlier colleagues probably saw their ‘parting shots’ in exactly this light, although whether they were seen in similar terms by their audience is questionable. If the despatches of recent years were seen as embarrassingly critical, the ones from the 1960s and 1970s were sometimes embarrassing in other ways; expressing very old–fashioned views, and making patronizing or insulting comments about foreigners often in racist terms. So their value in terms of ‘wisdom’ and insight was probably not as high as their authors might have thought. In this sense digital communication permits widespread promotion and dissemination, but without discrimination; leading to information overload and an increasing tendency to feel overawed as one’s in–box fills up and the number of blogs and other websites increases exponentially. One need only witness the plethora of Web sites, blogs and the like — many of highly questionable provenance, value or veracity — to understand that ‘more’ might not always mean ‘better’.

Within the realms of the Information Systems community, KM is too often seen in largely technology–centred terms; a continuation with Sir Ivor Roberts’ sentiments — i.e., use of technology for storing and disseminating the knowledge of the experienced and sapient. Yet there are critical voices that have questioned the effectiveness of KM technology, and some that see the entire KM project as ill–founded and misinformed [66]. From these critiques it is only a short step to see KM as something more ominous: there is a Dark Side of KM (see Bryant, 2006). From this perspective digital technology facilitates ever greater and more powerful manipulation of knowledge or information, rather than merely giving greater access to information resources to an ever–increasing number of people.

In fact the development of ICT is very much a double–edged sword. It permits a range of new possibilities for dissemination, but in the form of the Internet it makes effective and centralized control of communication almost impossible. The current default may well be one of openness and accessibility, with perhaps the only real exception being North Korea; although some states continue to try to exert various forms and levels of control. But openness has its downside: It has been said that ‘on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog’, and this form of what seems like anonymity has been extensively used and abused. For instance Web sites can masquerade as offering disinterested advice, when in fact they are fronting for specific, often commercial interests, and anyone reading comments sections on blogs will quickly realize how easily people descend from civility to crass and offensive invective.

Yet all too often people trying to hide behind an e–mail account or assumed identity fail to understand how simple it is for this facade to be penetrated. Furthermore, once something has been posted on the Internet it is almost impossible to prevent it being circulated: deleting it won’t help as someone will already have copied and stored it. Against this background the pre–digital mentality of communicating on a ‘need to know’ basis is highly inappropriate and downright perilous once electronic communication takes centre stage. The problems encountered by the U.K. Diplomatic Service are no different from those encountered by social network users who repeatedly experience their job applications being rejected once prospective employers locate their Facebook or similar profiles. People are slowly beginning to understand the full impact of digital communications in a context of openness and legislation slanted towards freedom of information. The makers of the Parting Shotsprogramme noted that whereas previously diplomats had taken advantage of a guaranteed wall of confidentiality. ‘Now they operate in the knowledge that their frankest report or e–mail is just one Freedom of Information request away from being public property’ (Bryson, 2009). The implication seems to be that modern diplomatic practices will move towards more guarded, covert or coded forms of communication; yet this must always have been the case to some extent, otherwise what would have been different about valedictory despatches?

What seems to emerge, albeit inadvertently, from the programme is that although diplomats were meant to be a group of high–minded, well–educated, carefully selected professionals; in practice many of them were as likely to be just as opinionated, bigoted and narrow–minded as the population from which they were drawn — largely restricted to the British upper classes until the latter part of the twentieth century. As the FCO and Diplomatic Service extended their recruitment strategies in the course of the twentieth century, the background and experiences of diplomats themselves similarly grew more diverse, albeit only to a limited extent. This may not have been as readily apparent in the usual mode of diplomatic communication, but is indicated in some of their final ‘parting shots’. Hence the examples of a colonial mentality in those dating from the 1960s are augmented in later ones with sentiments railing against FCO ‘management excrescences’ (Roberts), laments about the failure of the Diplomatic Service to shake off the image of diplomats as ‘bowler hated, pin striped and chinless with a fondness for champagne’ (Gore–Booth), and observations that while ‘we’ may see some cultures as strange and primitive, ‘they’ see ‘us as a Godless society … deeply offensive to many here’ (Green on his time in Saudi Arabia).

As such it is not surprising that some valedictory despatches became overtly political, crossing what might have seemed to some diplomats and civil servants as a clear and unbreachable divide. Dame Glynne–Evans writing in 2004 was clearly critical of the politics of expediency, aiming her barbs at those who wished to make ‘slight’ departures from humanitarian law, which she saw as ‘like being just a little bit pregnant’. This was clearly aimed primarily at the Americans, but in arguing for the importance of upholding ‘principle’ against ‘expediency’, she was contrasting this with what she saw as the prevalence of precisely the opposite view within the FCO and U.K. government policy at the time.

A far earlier example of an overtly political valedictory despatch can be found in Peter Jay’s dating from 1979 — ‘The West: The Peril Within’. Jay wrote this at the end of his tenure as U.K. Ambassador to the U.S.; a position that was relinquished when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, not least because he himself was the son–in–law of the outgoing PM, James Callaghan. Jay’s despatch was a wide–ranging series of observations, anecdotes and nostrums, and one can only wonder how these were received by the incoming Conservative government, particularly Thatcher herself and her Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington. The despatch was referred to in the programme, but it stands apart from other examples: Jay himself was far more of a political appointee, and not a career diplomat; his despatch was clearly written for the incoming government rather than for diplomatic colleagues; it was far more extensive, even rambling, and the tone was directive if not hectoring — certainly not anecdotal or intentionally amusing in any manner. It is unclear how widely if at all it was circulated at the time, and it really only achieved wider notice in the current decade having been scanned and posted in PDF format, since it had been typewritten at the time.


So what did kill the valedictory despatch; the enigmas of knowledge management?

We can now reconsider the question posed by Parting Shots — ‘What killed the British ambassador’s valedictory despatch?’ In short, the answer is that the age of digital communication led to its demise, but it was a process aided and abetted by diplomats themselves and the ways in which the FCO and government circles in general failed to get to grips with the promises and perils of digital technology. The breakdown in trust between diplomats, civil servants and ministers, alluded to by Ricketts, almost certainly pre–dated digital technology. Indeed, we have highlighted the tension between the diplomat and the political centre created by the growth of telegraphy and the telephone. But the ways in which communication and dissemination have changed in the past 30 years or so have exacerbated this, and made remedial actions and overall management of communication far more complex and problematic.

This is encapsulated in many examples such as those referred to by the retired diplomat, Oliver Miles (2010), in a recent article in The Guardian tellingly entitled ‘Stop the Blogging Ambassadors’. Miles was writing in response to the furore created when the U.K. Ambassador to Lebanon, Frances Guy (2009), blogged about her admiration for Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Fadlallah who had recently died — Fadlallah being in diplomatic terms ‘a controversial figure’. Miles, obviously from a previous era of diplomacy, points out the dangers of blogging and other forms of digital communication, while Brian Whitaker (2010) in an earlier article on the same topic refers to the CNN journalist who was forced to resign for expressing similar sentiments using her Twitter account.

Miles’ argument is very simple: diplomacy is about measured and deliberative thinking, and the proffering of advice that in many cases will be in the form of ‘on the one hand … but on the other’; as such ‘the problems they [diplomats] deal with are almost by definition controversial and many–sided. Sometimes they have to act quickly, but where possible it is better to think long and hard, and if necessary consult the ministry. As everyone knows who has used them, blogs and e–mail are not conducive to that way of working.’

Miles concludes by noting that although there are benefits in using modern media, they are far outweighed by the risks [67] — ‘Leaving aside the trivia, the issues with which ambassadors have to deal are better dealt with penseroso rather than allegro. Blogs by ambassadors were bound to end in tears.’ Frances Guy has certainly found this, and it is not restricted to U.K. ambassadors. The U.S. Ambassador to Eire was lambasted for the equivalent of his valedictory despatch early in 2009, and the form and phrases used echo those exemplified in the BBC programme.

One general lesson is that in the digital age, KM needs to be taken seriously; not simply as some straightforward technological fix requiring the constant sustaining of a balance between the potential for ever increasing openness, accessibility and sharing of insights, and the Orwellian, manipulative Dark Side. All this taking place against a context in which it is understood that there are downsides as well as benefits to each tendency. Miles concluded his article with a good Yorkshire saying: ‘Hear all, see all, say now’t’. But this is no longer possible; and a diplomat following this apothegm would not last long in post. A more modern version might be as follows, itself an update of an earlier saying: ‘Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink; and above all never put it in e–mail.’ The irony is that the updated version was coined by Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced ex–Governor of New York, forced to resign after involvement in a prostitution scandal — he was caught by a wire–tap rather than e–mail interception (Wikipedia, 2010)!



The advent of digital technology has changed the scope, scale and speed of communication in ways that we are only slowly beginning to understand. It is not surprising that the world of diplomacy, marked by tradition and trappings of the past, has been slow to appreciate the promises and the perils that come in the wake of these upheavals. Although we can lament the demise of the valedictory despatch, it is clear that the future will bring a steady and plentiful source of faux pas from diplomatic and all manner of political sources; but while we may find these amusing we should also treat them as salutary since anyone of us could find our private musings made public in such a manner that our own valedictories need to be prepared ahead of our chosen schedule.

The conclusions we draw from this study are not simply derived from the details and history underlying the scandalous valedictory despatches revealed in 2009. These tend to emphasise the traditional, stereotypical image of the diplomat as gentlemanly intellectual, ‘bon viveur’and adventurer, socially adept and thus skilled in the art of negotiation. It is our new knowledge of the past existence of the valedictory despatch that is important; for it prompts an investigation of the history of diplomatic information and communication practices which reveal the diplomat as knowledge manager, a collector and conduit of information aimed at enhancing the knowledge of policy–makers — from the era of manuscript and messenger through to the ages of the telegraph and telephone, and now that of the Internet. This historic ‘knowledge management’ role of the diplomat highlights the part technology has played in the world of diplomacy, including the relationship between the ambassador abroad and the political centre. It also offers a further perspective on the ways in which technologies open up new possibilities, intended and unintended, often fraught with ambiguity and potential for enhancement and disruption. In turn this offers lessons for further consideration of what can be termed the Dark Side of Knowledge Management, and for organizational communication in general.

In his landmark essay, Tom Wilson (2002) coined the phrase ‘The Nonsense of ‘Knowledge Management’’; in so doing he sought to undermine the term KM itself, quite correctly stressing the adequacy and propriety of the term ‘information management’. But KM has taken on a life of its own, and it is crucial that the full implications of the term are stressed and understood. What can be gleaned from consideration of the valedictory despatches, and diplomatic activities in general, is that use and appropriation of ICTs is not simply a case of plug–and–play; adopting new forms of communication can and usually will have a range of unintended consequences, possibly with unpleasant outcomes. E–mail, wikis, and blogs may well enhance volume and range of communication, seemingly facilitating the passing on of knowledge, wisdom, and experience; but that is not all it does as recent developments around WikiLeaks has demonstrated all too readily. Grandiose claims are often trumpeted to herald some technological advance, paving the way for its acceptance and adoption, but all too often this is undermined by later experience. Joe Weizenbaum made the point in telling fashion in his reply to Daniel Bell’s declaration in the 1970s of the arrival of the information age. He reminded us of the discourses of people like Herbert Hoover, U.S. Secretary of Commerce (1921–1928), at the dawn of commercial radio broadcasting, and those who later witnessed the arrival of mass TV. Mockingly, Weizenbaum [68] articulated a euphoric dream of a not–too-–distant time when

these media would exert an enormously beneficial influence on the shaping of American culture. Americans of every class, most particularly children, would, many for the first time, be exposed to the correctly spoken word, to great literature, great drama … The technological dream was more than realized … But the cultural dream was cruelly mocked … magnificent technology … [an] exquisitely refined combination of some of the human species’ highest intellectual achievements … delivering an occasional gem buried in immense avalanches of everything that is most banal or insipid or pathological in our civilization.

For supporters of freedom of information, the Parting Shots and WikiLeaks disclosures have encouraged dreams of libertarian societies where rulers and powerholders — including diplomats — cannot hide from accountability. However, history tells us, as Weizenbaum implies, that utopian visions generated by ‘technical fixes’ are mere mirages. Diplomats will find ways to circumvent the piercing eye of digital technology, just as in the past they negotiated their way around, and indeed exploited, the communication revolutions of print, telegraph and telephone in order to consolidate their roles as knowledge managers servicing the knowledge needs of their political masters. In the aftermath of WikiLeaks they may, however, have to find new forms of circumvention or circumlocution. End of article

About the authors

Alistair Black has been a professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign since January 2009. Previously, he was Professor of Library and Information History at Leeds Metropolitan University.
E–mail: alblack [at] illinois [dot] edu

Antony Bryant has been Professor of Informatics at Leeds Metropolitan University since 1994 and is currently Director of Research in the University’s Faculty of Arts, Environment, and Technology.
E–mail: a [dot] bryant [at] leedsmet [dot] ac [dot] uk


1. The first leaked documents were published simultaneously on 28 November 2010 by five newspapers: The New York Times (U.S.); The Guardian (U.K.); Der Spiegel (Germany); Le Monde (France); and, El Pais (Spain). The cables, as the media termed them (quaintly it has to be said given that the messages were sent by e–mail), were between the U.S. State Department and its diplomatic missions around the world. Some 220 documents were released by WikiLeaks on 28 November, the plan being to publish the remaining cache of documents gradually on the Internet, on a daily basis. Earlier in 2010, WikiLeaks had published U.S. government communications in connection with the Iraq and Afghan Wars.

2. Berridge and James, 2003, p. 69.

3. Berridge and James, 2003, p. 270.

4. Parris and Bryson, 2010, pp. 1–2.

5. Jones, 1983, p. 3.

6. Although Pedersen (2002) points to a healthy revival in, and re–positioning of, political history.

7. Young, 1953, p. 103.

8. Quoted in Jones, 1983, p. 216.

9. Tosh, 2000, p. 62.

10. Tosh, 2000, p. 41.

11. Black, et al., 2007, p. 116.

12. Parris and Bryson, 2010, p. 6.

13. Parris and Bryson, 2010, p. 379.

14. Drucker, 1996, p. 122.

15. Mattingley, 1955, p. 12.

16. Jones, 1983, p. 4.

17. Tosh, 2000, p. 45.

18. Black, 2001, pp. 118–145.

19. Black, 2001, pp. 118–145; Mattingley, 1955, pp. 246–247.

20. Headrick, 2000, p. 98.

21. Headrick, 2000, p. 99.

22. Seavey, 1994, p. 413.

23. Satow, 1917, p. 1.

24. Mösslang and Riotte, 2008, p. 5.

25. Mösslang and Riotte, 2008, p. 4; Jones, 1983, pp. 215–216.

26. Still, the service continued to recruit from the political and social elite; see Black, 2001, p. 132; Jones, 1983, p. 216.

27. Berridge and James, 2003, p. 12.

28. Temperley and Penson, 1938, pp. viii, xii.

29. Two examples from these sources of published despatches on well–known issues are:Despatch from His Majesty’s Minister in China, Forwarding a General Report by Sir Alexander Hosie respecting the Opium Question in China. China No. 1, 1909, p. 281. Cd. 4702 (1909). L/C, HC, 23 June 1909; HL, 24 June 1909; and Despatch from His Majesty’s Ambassador at Washington Respecting the Panama Canal Act. Misc. No. 12, 1912. Cd. 6451. L/C, 9 December 1912.

30. Jones, 1983, p. 121.

31. Nicolson, 1954, p. 81.

32. Nicolson, 1954, p. 82.

33. Ibid.

34. Jones, 1983, pp. 137–138.

35. Jones, 1983, p. 2.

36. Jones, 1983, p. 219.

37. Jones, 1983, p. 118.

38. Giddens, 1985, p. 25.

39. Jones, 1983, pp. 124–125.

40. Nickles, 2003, p. 44.

41. Quoted in Nickles, 2003, p. 45.

42. Nickles, 2003, p. 195.

43. Nickles, 2003, p. 191.

44. Jones, 1983, pp. 123–124.

45. Nickles, 2003, p. 193.

46. Nicolson, 1954, p. 83.

47. Nicolson, 1954, p. 82.

48. Steiner, 2005, p. 19.

49. Adamthwaite, 1977, p. 20 — a significant increase on the 143,000 in 1906, noted above.

50. Nicolson, 1954, p. 84.

51. Nicolson, 1939, pp. 195–196.

52. Steiner, 1969, pp. 78–82.

53. Steiner, 2005, p. 19.

54. Ibid.

55. Campbell, 2005, p. 175.

56. Mösslang and Riotte, 2008, p. 1.

57. Campbell, 2005, pp. 169, 171.

58. Campbell, 2005, p. 176.

59. Bailes, 2005, p. 190.

60. Ibid.

61. Ibid.

62. Bailes, 2005, p. 191.

63. Bailes, 2005, p. 197, n. 2.

64. Bailes, 2005, p. 195.

65. Bailes, 2005, p. 196.

66. Wilson (2002) being the paradigm example.

67. Parris and Bryson, 2010, pp. 7–8, argue that the FCO encourages its diplomats to blog and tweet.

68. Weizenbaum, 1980, pp. 553–554.


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