posted 31 May 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 9
The knowledge revolution
Jerry Ash follows the evolution of knowledge management, from the tail-end of the industrial revolution all the way up to the ‘knowledge revolution’ that is already underway.
Knowledge management leaders and practitioners are always hungry for case-based reports because the field is young; there are no fool-proof ‘cookbooks’ or guaranteed maxims, though common practices are emerging. Case reports can hardly be called ‘best practices’, but they are helpful known practices full of ideas and outcomes that may provide starting points for the next generation. Knowledge management (KM) is still emerging; the next generation is as close as the next conversation or experiment.
For the past five years the Association of Knowledgework (AOK) has been hosting a monthly STAR Series Dialogue moderated by some 60 international ‘thought leaders’ and practitioners, with hundreds of other consultants, researchers and learners engaging in the discussions.
Conversations have taken place by e-mail on a Yahoo! list serve, producing an archive containing millions of words and countless insights into the continuing evolution of KM.
This report compresses a couple of years’ worth of those conversation into just 2,000 words. If you have been looking for one document that sums-up knowledge management in a nutshell, this may be it.
Managing knowledge is not simply the latest management ‘fad’. It is a shift in the value of knowledge due to fundamental changes in technological, political, social, economic, business and work environments, brought about by the passing of the industrial age and the arrival of a knowledge economy.
In the industrial age people were not paid for what they knew, but what they did – and their employer told them how to do it. Management strategy was to turn raw materials into finished products ever more efficiently and effectively. People were liabilities – expensive tools that represented the largest cost of doing business. Not-for-profit ventures followed the ‘for-profit’ model because there was no other.
Managers who still follow the old rules and attitudes of assembly-line manufacturing, however, will find themselves clinging to outdated strategies, either because they are still in the manufacturing mode or they believe they can use the assembly-line process to leverage a less tangible but more plentiful resource – human knowledge.
Peter Drucker coined the term ‘knowledge worker’ nearly 50 years ago and by the 1980s and 1990s, the world began to realise that open and global electronic communication was causing a sea-change in social, political and economic order. In 1995, Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi published The Knowledge Creating Company and, for the first time, Michael Polanyi’s distinction between the ‘tacit’ (or intangible) and the ‘explicit’ (or documentable) was introduced into common business language.
Consultants and software vendors were suddenly competing with each other to capture the hearts and minds of the early adopters of knowledge strategies. Industrial era executives and managers were more apt to buy into the apparent explicitness of process than the squishiness of people. After all, they had already invested heavily in information technology with disappointing results. Perhaps, they thought, a little investment in this new knowledge management software might of an organisation lies between the ears of its employees, not in the computers or the company safe.
Today there is no such thing as a non-knowledge worker and, together, knowledge workers are the new shop floor of every organisation. Knowledge workers are everywhere. They are not only inside the organisation, but also outside: suppliers, allies, partners, customers and even competitors.
It is the practise of people – what they actually do – that brings the business process to life and breathes life into the process. We all know there is a big difference in what people are supposed to do in their jobs as compared to what they actually do. That difference has always existed.
People at work have covertly used short cuts, informal communications, bootleg files and a whole host of guerrilla tactics to help them work better regardless of official protocol. The new order of the knowledge age will encourage them to get out of this stealth mode and into covert initiatives. Savvy managers have begun to think of these knowledge resources not just in terms of ‘intellectual capital’, but also in terms of ‘social capital’, because those resources represent a complex mix of knowledge and production – thinkers and do-ers.
In short, people are no longer ‘personnel’. They are the company. That is an unsettling message for managers stuck in the industrial age. And those managers continue to inhibit the full transition to knowledge-based enterprise, relying on narrowly defined job descriptions, vertical organisational charts that resemble human assembly lines, clearly documented procedures and guidelines – all leaving little space, if any, for individual creativity or cross-functional collaboration.
Reluctant managers talk among themselves about the new value of people and the imperatives of knowledge sharing and individual initiatives. But their employees are the last to know about the new order and their place in it. Those who are finally informed do not understand it because it is so foreign to their everyday experience.
Many are intimidated by hierarchical structure and cope by adopting a ‘stick to the knitting’ code. Many are fearful they will be ridiculed or ignored, or that others will take the credit. After all, they are in competition with each other, hoarding their knowledge to climb the corporate ladder or protect themselves in a downsizing.
The ‘knowledge is power’ myth (which has not protected knowledge-holders during recurrent cycles of downsizing) may have worked in the industrial era when knowledge took years to become obsolete and hoarding knowledge therefore provided leverage for those who built their own domains. Today, however, the shelf life of knowledge is much shorter.
The new model of power is a cycle of learning quickly, sharing what has been learnt while it is still valid, unlearning what no longer works and then re-learning. The current set of behaviours is based on power as a function of understanding, facilitating information and knowledge flow.
Meanwhile, many business leaders feel threatened by the untidy and cross-cutting nature of bottom-up initiatives that could undermine their control. Those who are hostile to the notion of distributed empowerment may never see the true value of the new perspective.
Some are in denial, rejecting the ‘knowledge phenomenon’ as just another fad. Others delay and avoid acceptance by operating with a traditional lens that resists change. They seek justification, analysis of competition, best practise examples, business case examples based on traditional return on investment criteria and so on, to avoid action rather than having to plunge headlong into the uncharted, fluid imperatives of the new order.
Two domains grapple for primacy in the modern workplace. One, the domain of power and hierarchy, which is secured by decision making and control; the second, the domain of knowledge and expertise, the foundation of creativity and innovation. The first domain is ruled by ‘Whoever’s calling the shots’. The second is ruled by ‘Who’s got the smarts’.
The person calling the shots can take measures to enable or disable the person with the smarts. Disablement was too often the tactic of choice in the industrial age. In the 20th century, the emphasis was on trying to arrange and re-arrange things so the person who called the shots could get better control of the one with the smarts. This game has been one of diminishing returns.
All economic sectors are going through major and rapid transformations. Economic success in this fast-paced environment requires considerable agility and adaptability which are hampered by the snail’s pace of a directive and decision-making system based on a chain of command.
Communities of practice (CoPs) are moving centre stage as the place where raw knowledge combines and combusts to gain and maintain competitive advantage. CoPs are environments of empowerment, high trust, knowledge sharing, collaboration, creative thought, initiative and accomplishment. They are not the same, however, as teams appointed by management to carry out specific tasks. At the same time, some see CoPs as a formal part of the hierarchy, receiving requests from management to produce agreed-upon outcomes.
There lies strong controversy over whether CoPs perform work, some believing CoPs are spontaneous gatherings of like-minded people where the freedom to think and share is undisturbed by the push of management. This controversy is thoughtful disagreement about a concept that is still in the formative stage. There are many different types of ‘communities’ at work in an organisation – communities of interest, of learning, of purpose.
CoPs, some say, are very special kinds of communities where the focus is on practise – the ways and means of accomplishing a work function, how we do our jobs. At this type of community, the core is a collaborative effort to learn and improve practise based not on protocols, but on the way people actually do (or think they should do) their work. Sometimes existing communities become CoPs when they are utilised for some purpose. Other CoPs form where organisations seed them and provide functional support.
Finding a balance between freedom and purpose is a key issue that must be resolved before any organisation can effectively nurture CoPs. That balance can best be achieved when organisations encourage and support communities of practise outside the hierarchical structure, while integrating them into the organisational strategy. Achieving such a balance calls for major culture change among executives, middle managers, supervisors and employees.
Knowledge management and learning are converging. In the knowledge-driven environment, employees are expected to learn while they work. CoPs are places where people learn from each other in the course of knowledge sharing. When employees are totally engaged in knowledge work, training and development appear to be as old fashioned as command and control.
In the new perspective, training and development is done to people; learning is done by people. Too often, organisations take big people and put them in little boxes, held apart by steel girders, then give them a half-written script and expect them to play a role. And, the minute they start to be themselves, their scripts are stuffed in their faces with the demand they get on with their prescribed duties.
The organisation that genuinely re-organises its philosophy to build an environment of initiative and collaboration will find a change in employee culture occurring rapidly because learning and sharing is in the DNA.
The common misconception has too often been that employees have limited or narrow capabilities, are untrustworthy or even disloyal. And yet, no one’s goal in life is to do a mediocre job at a company he or she hates. In fact, most people want to do a terrific job on meaningful projects at a company they care about and with people they like.
This is the potential power behind empowerment and trust. We want to – some of us even need to – trust and have the freedom to act both independently and collaboratively.
In the right environment, enterprise is as natural as breathing. People do it to survive and succeed, individually and collectively. In the perfect next-generation model, managers are valued not because they are in control or because they know more than their staff, but because they can quickly communicate the things they do know and get staff members to do the same with each other. Leaders build environments of trust and mutual respect where creative contribution is nurtured and employees at all levels understand that being successful in this networked world increasingly requires collaboration; up, down and all around.
A true knowledge-intensive organisation is comprised of self-motivating, empowered workers who know their knowledge is important to the performance of their organisations. Such a change in culture has developed significantly in recent years. It has changed the way staff work, share, learn, and respond to clients’ needs. It has increased productivity and created communities within organisations; it has fostered a culture where staff is eager to share knowledge and wisdom.
These are the evolving realities of the next generation of KM. Although they could not yet be considered ‘rules’, they are lessons repeated often enough over at least the last 20 years to merit constant attention and action by today’s business leaders. The change taking place in the enterprise today is not simply a fad promoted by vendors, but a quiet revolution fueled by a ‘biological’ shift in social, political and economic order that is fait accompli.
This summary of findings is based on an indispensable new report, ‘Next Generation Knowledge Management’, which details the thoughts of 59 of KM’s biggest names and pioneering practitioners, including Stephen Denning, Leif Edvinsson, Karl-Erik Sveiby, David Snowden, Hubert Saint-Onge, Carl Frappaolo, Debra Amidon, Ash Sooknanan, Richard Cross and Carol Kinsey Goman. The report is published by Ark Group, for more details, please contact Adam Scrimshire, firstname.lastname@example.org n
Jerry Ash is founder of AOK and special correspondent to IK. He can be reached at email@example.com