posted 23 Jan 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 5
The knowledge: Dorothy Leonard
Working in or consulting for organisations as diverse as the Peace Corps, Kodak, AT&T, Stanford University and, now, Harvard Business School, Dorothy Leonard has studied innovation and knowledge flows for over 30 years. She talks to Simon Lelic about her career so far and the impending crisis facing companies across the world.
As with so many of the early pioneers of knowledge-management thinking, Dorothy Leonard’s involvement with the discipline owes as much to chance as it does to design. Leonard, now William J. Abernathy Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, started out after college by joining the Peace Corps. She spent the next ten years in south-east Asia, where she also started working as a freelance journalist. It was during this period that Leonard’s interest in the subjects that would eventually fuse into a broader understanding of the issues surrounding knowledge management and innovation really began to blossom.
“My late husband and I spent a total of five years in Thailand and five years in Indonesia,” she says. “During that time, I began looking at technology transfer, and the way that technology often failed to transfer. For example, in 1975 the Indonesian government’s oil company, Pertamina, wanted to give something back to the country’s people, so it sent $1m-worth of oceanographic equipment to the University of Aceh in Sumatra, which was really only a couple of buildings. I was privileged to go up to Aceh at the time, and I met the person who was supposed to direct the use of all this equipment: he had a Masters degree in chemistry from the US, and a small diesel engine from which to run the equipment.
“I saw lots of examples like that – of the transfer of knowledge that was embedded in equipment for which there were no receptors of knowledge, no ability to use it because there was no knowledge about how to operate it and no infrastructure to support it.” Since that time, Leonard has been fascinated by knowledge flows and the diffusion of innovation. By the time she wrote her first book, Wellsprings of Knowledge: Building and Sustaining Sources of Innovation, in 1995, Leonard had been studying these subjects for more than 20 years. “When I wrote Wellsprings, it was before people were talking about knowledge management, but it was already apparent to me that knowledge was absolutely key to innovation,” she says.
Leonard cites Everett Rogers as having a huge influence on her work. It was Rogers who first coined the term ‘diffusion of innovation’ in 1962 with the publication of his book on the same subject. More recently, Ikujiro Nonaka’s work on tacit/explicit knowledge and the process of knowledge creation has also impressed her, although before The Knowledge-Creating Companywas published in the same year that her own book appeared, Leonard was unaware of just how well Nonaka’s work complemented her own. “I met Ikujiro in the early 1990s, but we had never talked about knowledge per se,” Leonard recalls. “We had talked a little about culture but it’s as if those two books simultaneously and spontaneously sprang from a similar interest in innovation and organisational culture.”
Since then, Leonard has continued to work at, as she puts it, “the intersection between knowledge and innovation”. After Wellsprings, which focuses on organisational capabilities and strategies for developing knowledge, Leonard went on to co-author When Sparks Fly: Igniting Creativity in Groupswith Walter Swap, a book that looks much more closely at ideation and sources of knowledge, in particular how companies are able to generate innovative ideas. Right now, Leonard is working with Swap to produce a follow-up, which Leonard maintains will sit between Wellsprings and When Sparks Fly in that it will focus primarily on how ideas are taken to implementation.
“Walter and I have spent a couple of years working on this,” says Leonard. “We started in 2000 and finished data collection about eight months ago.” Fortunately for Leonard and Swap, their research period coincided with both the height of the internet boom and the bursting of the bubble, allowing them to study how the entrepreneurs of the time, who needed to learn very quickly in order to survive, managed that learning process. As Leonard says, “We were observers during what you might think of as an international experiment in rapid knowledge transfer and knowledge acquisition.”
Neither the publication date nor the title have been confirmed as yet, but Leonard is confident the book should be released a year or so from now. “At the moment, we’re calling it Ways of Knowing, but it turns out there is a book by that title already,” Leonard says. “Basically, though, that is what it is about: both the benefits and limitations of the ways people access knowledge when they’re trying to learn rapidly.” And while writing is now commandeering the majority of Leonard’s time, she is already looking towards her next topic of research.
“I’m very intrigued by the issue of knowledge loss,” she says. “I’ve always known that knowledge is partially experience based, but it has really become apparent to me how imperative it is for those interested in knowledge management to recognise the role of experience in knowledge development. In the next few years in the US, and indeed worldwide, we have a demographic bubble of people retiring. With them will go an enormous amount of knowledge, some of which should be replaced and some of which is irreplaceable. At the moment, nobody is doing much about it except wringing their hands, and that’s partially because we don’t really understand how to identify and preserve the knowledge worth keeping.”
In Leonard’s mind, this is one of the biggest issues that knowledge-management practitioners will have to grapple with over the coming years. Already, as Leonard says, the defence industry, the pharmaceutical sector and the larger oil and gas companies, among others, have started to comprehend the depth of the crisis they are facing, although in many cases it may already be too late for them to do anything about it. “The trouble is,” says Leonard, “you really have to anticipate it. By the time you realise that valuable knowledge is walking out the door, it becomes much harder to capture it. It really is an extraordinarily large issue that we need to think about.”
A second concern, which Leonard feels isn’t even on the radar screen for many companies yet, is the process by which companies are able to acquire innovative knowledge. “Knowledge management is still very internally focused, looking at ways of re-using the knowledge that we have,” she says. “That is totally appropriate, because it’s a good place to start, especially in a bear market, but it seems to me that an issue coming up is how to help companies acquire new knowledge.” Leonard points to the number of alliances that modern companies are forced to enter into in order to bridge the gap left by the closure of so many industrial research centres and laboratories, but argues that not enough attention is given to structuring those partnerships to support knowledge flows effectively.
Underlying both these issues, according to Leonard, is the role of experience in developing knowledge, something she feels is still not understood on a deep enough level. “For example,” she says, “talking about knowledge loss, if you ask people in an exit interview to transfer their critical knowledge to you, they are likely to give you the most common experiences of their careers. They are not going to think about those rare occurrences or events unless you create a way for them to do so.” While the internet has given people access to tremendous amounts of structured knowledge (‘know-what’), Leonard continues, they don’t have access to skill-based knowledge (‘know-how’), which is only learnt through practice.
“Knowledge management as a field has to come to grips with how one can stimulate guided experience,” says Leonard. “At the moment we are still too focused on data and information.” Already there is a danger, she continues, that knowledge management will go the way of re-engineering – that the freight the discipline now carries will obscure its original meaning. She nevertheless maintains that the majority of the concepts KM embodies retain a great deal of value, and is encouraged by the increase in understanding and sophistication she has seen since the mid-1990s. Yet at the heart of the majority of the issues knowledge management currently has to contend with, says Leonard, is the need for people to understand that you cannot create experience over night. Only if practitioners recognise this and work to further this level of understanding will the discipline continue to prove its worth.
1. Leonard, D., Wellsprings of Knowledge: Building and Sustaining Sources of Innovation (Harvard Business School Press, 1995)
2. Rogers, E.M., Diffusion of Innovations (The Free Press, 4th Ed, 1995)
3. Nonaka, I. & Takeuchi, H., The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation (Oxford University Press, 1995)
4. Leonard, D. & Swap, W., When Sparks Fly: Igniting Creativity in Groups (Harvard Business School Press, 1999)