posted 25 Jul 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 10
Generating the power of collaborative thinking
The inside story behind the Association of Knowledgework.
By Jerry Ash
A nameless group formed in January 2000 to introduce senior executives of professional and trade associations in the
Now known as the Association of Knowledgework (AOK), it is more of a community than an association and has many lessons to share, the greatest of which is arguably the power of collaborative thinking.
In this report, which follows on from my KnowledgeWorks column in the June 2006 issue, I am breaking from the usual journalistic rule of writing in the third person. You see, I am the founder of AOK and I would only be quoting myself.
Sometimes, the horse won’t drink
I founded what was to become AOK as a free service to my market. I was a consultant to senior association executives in the
I made a case to the original group of 200 or so association recruits, explaining the culture change in management from command to consensus, which was more appropriate in voluntary association management than the industrial age model. I also predicted that much of what they offered their members would soon be provided in an open-source market and that open source would do it better. I felt that they needed to understand and adopt the developing principles of knowledge management.
To give them a taste of what was happening I opened the group to knowledge management pioneers from outside the world of association management and they not only reinforced my points, they shared a treasure chest of rationales and ideas.
Well, I thought it was treasure, but it flew far over the heads of most of the association executives – too complex, they said, too theoretical, too uncomfortable, too much. They began dropping out, one by one, and today, the exodus is all but complete. The consensus has spoken!
Lessons: In a voluntary community you can, as they say, lead the horse to water but you cannot make him drink. Contrary to ancient wisdom (or myth), though, build it and they will come, but only when they are ready.
Knowledge phenomenon spurned, but not gone
Now associations are back in the KM game, but on the defensive, scrambling to establish communities of practice – which have become the bedrocks of knowledge sharing. C. David Gammel of High Context Consulting, recently wrote: “Self-forming groups are a phenomenon that associations must come to terms with. Activities that formerly required a national infrastructure to create can now be done rapidly and cheaply through services available on the web.”
Lessons: The knowledge phenomenon is ubiquitous and won’t go away. Its competitive advantage will affect you whether you accept it or not. It must be managed and requires a change in management style.
Forming community a natural act
Meanwhile KM pioneers, practitioners, thought leaders, learners, researchers and the curious from the rest of the not-for-profit world, government and industry took the seats left vacant by association managers. Still free, AOK membership eventually reached 3,000.
The forum was the greatest draw and it became evident these KM advocates were looking for a ‘home’, a place where they could be together, to share thoughts, theories and experiences. In a way, they were the architects of KM. They were hungry for knowledge and collaborative thinking, looking for a place to get new ideas, test themselves against approaches developed by others, or simply to keep abreast. Some were just looking for a place to preach ‘their way’. For whatever reason, they had a need for each other.
It turned out Steve Denning’s KM team at the World Bank also had that need. He and two colleagues had written a paper asking if some ‘rules of KM’ had already surfaced. One, Michel Pommier, suggested using AOK’s network to obtain feedback. While the results were modest, the excitement over having a celebrity moderator for an AOK discussion was spirited.
By name-dropping Denning as having been the first moderator of what I began calling the STAR Series Dialogues, I turned to friends and others to help stock it with monthly guest moderators. More than 60 of the world’s best practitioners, thought leaders, and advocates said “yes”, became members and continue to drop in on dialogues.
Lessons: The right environment will attract the right members. Whether a community is ‘founded’ or self-forming, its nature will spring (or not) from its members. The keys to community leadership are enablement, empowerment, organisation, advocacy. The goal is to maintain and increase the interest, value and satisfaction of members and assist in their dreams. The ‘leader’ works for the ‘led’, although they are not led; they are willing volunteers, the vessels of knowledge resource.
No such thing as a free lunch
Building the right environment and providing community leadership is not cheap. AOK had a sponsor of sorts – me. My retirement funds provided the finance, I provided the leadership and my wife provided technical, record-keeping and managerial services. An active website was necessary to build image and provide a virtual home where the work of AOK could be supported and reported.
The burden on our resources (energy, time and money) was substantial and we made more than one attempt to charge an association-style membership fee. When we received poor results we backed off and didn’t kick anyone out. I loved AOK too much to give it up.
Finally we came to a firm decision. We would ask for a modest $50 in annual dues and if it did not produce a certain minimum amount, we would shut it down. Our 3,000 members dropped to 300 and we didn’t make the minimum amount, but we removed all the no-pays and continued operating AOK. I still couldn’t give it up.
Lessons: Unfunded, unstaffed networks make great chat rooms, but if a community is to produce quality results, it needs financial and spiritual support. Whether founded or self-organised, communities need sponsors who provide encouragement, money and staff, given as a matter of leadership, not ownership. No one can ever own another’s knowledge or buy a share of it. I may technically ‘own’ AOK, but I don’t control it. Its members do. They decide whether to participate and if they don’t, there is no value or community regardless of my investment.
Return on investment
I have ceased association management consulting to devote myself to KM. That’s the biggest gamble yet, but I’m that passionate about KM, that stubborn and I’m that sure I’m getting a phenomenal intellectual return. For 12 years I have been learning, never faster or deeper than in the past six in what I regard as KM’s community of practice – the Association of Knowledgework.
For six years I have been at the feet of the masters, listening to them propose and oppose, agree and disagree, share and learn, adapt, change and adopt. I’ve been able to ask questions and get multiple answers from multiple points of view. I’ve been able to make up my own mind. I’ve grown, become an expert KM writer and coach, carrying my own flexible brand of KM bred from the minds of the world’s best thinkers and doers. This, not dreams of fame and fortune, are the rewards of those driven by the knowledge phenomenon.
I am not unique. Anyone who has invested the extraordinary amount of time necessary to follow the STAR Series Dialogues has the same advantage of broad expert knowledge. In no single place could they have accumulated such depth and breadth in the past six years. Like me, they are ready and able to put it to practice.
Lessons: The power of collaborative thinking is dynamic, individually and organisationally rewarding. The power is latent while it is confined, unlimited once released (unlike most tangible assets.) To manage it simply release it, enable it, serve it and share richly in its rewards.
The power of collaborative thinking
Ashok Soota, chairman and managing director of MindTree Consulting (see page 22), tells a story about golfer Mark O’Meara who, at 41, was labeled ‘the best professional golfer never to win a major’. When his next-door neighbour, Tiger Woods, adopted O’Meara as his mentor, Mark shared all his knowledge from his years on the tournament circuit.
Then an incredible thing happened. O’Meara’s own game suddenly lifted and he became one of the few people to win two majors back to back – the Masters and the British Open. Tiger obviously gave back a little knowledge of his own. Soota’s lesson: “The best way to learn is to teach and when you share with others you help yourself.”
In other words, knowledge sharing carries with it the power of collaborative thinking. It is a reward in and of itself and in the case of MindTree, a key component of its business process.
Jerry Ash is author of Next Generation Knowledge Management, an analytical synthesis of STAR Series Dialogues moderated by 12 KM luminaries. To order, contact Adam Scrimshire at firstname.lastname@example.org. To join AOK, please go to http://www.kwork.org/explain_join.html. To contact Jerry, e-mail email@example.com