Smart Leaders Leverage Abundant Knowledge


We embraced the advantages and opportunities of our businesses becoming computerised.Now digital technology shapes every aspect of business. Mostly there’s no going back – nor wish to look over our shoulders – at our pre-digital ways. But I’m seeing cases where technology has confused and misled.

In particular, the Information Age created an illusion. There was an imaginary future, where all company knowledge could and should be documented. This vision created an appetite that could never be fulfilled. Practices and know-how move on too quickly. Deep expertise and vital insights cannot readily be extracted from individuals. Missing pieces and emerging intelligence lie beyond organisational boundaries.

Leaders clinging to these outdated beliefs place businesses in danger. In this case, just because information can be captured does not mean it is worth doing. It’s equally hazardous for company knowledge to sit in the heads of key individuals. Operating at either end of this spectrum can produce a scarcity mentality toward knowledge and ultimately constrain growth. In order to thrive in the connected world, it is imperative to update your beliefs and practices.

Look for tell-tale signs. A small number of experts are constantly in demand to solve problems. Business-critical activities stop if someone goes on leave. People working in different locations or departments barely know each other. People work in isolation on the same problem or opportunity. Corporate memory walks out the door if someone leaves.

These symptoms indicate a scarcity mentality. A belief that knowledge is scarce leads to attempts to control it. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve overheard, “Document everything Bob knows before he leaves. Turn it into procedures and training courses.” Other controlling mechanisms include limiting access to the internet. Forbidding people to discuss their work on social media. Relying heavily on training courses to develop skills.

Attempts to control knowledge have significant shortfalls. The Information Age began over two decades ago. During this era digital storage, transmission and processing of information exploded. It was comforting to think that all know-how could be documented and managed. Organisations who tried to do this found it time-consuming and frustrating.

You just cannot document everything. Yes, some things are easy to document and worth doing so. Whether simple or complicated, they can be ‘known.’ In these instances, cause and effect are clear. Rules and standard practices can be defined.

However, there are many situations where standard approaches and cookbook answers don’t work. Novel problems arise. The context is chaotic or complicated. Additionally, some insights are difficult to express. How to identify what is really troubling an unhappy customer. How to develop a lasting client relationship. The way a production line sounds when it’s not running quite right. Even if it were possible to document everything, it takes too long. It also goes out of date quickly.

But there is very good news for anyone leading a business. Knowledge is no longer a scarce resource. We have passed from the Information Age into the Connection Age. Existing and emerging knowledge are now abundantly available. You’ll need to become a part of the network to access them.

Up to date intelligence is always available in the network. The network is where people connect with others. They can do this both internally and beyond organisational boundaries. Thanks to the internet people can find and interact with each other across the globe.

The cost to access the network is low. The upside is incredibly high.

I was asked to help reduce the impact of the pending retirement of an engineer from a manufacturing business. He was a Bob. Of course, documenting anything he knew that could readily and usefully be captured was a good start.

We went deeper to understand communication across the maintenance teams. We asked engineers and maintenance technicians who they contacted and what they discussed. We examined how they solved problems and improved processes and practices. Suppliers provided insight. Some commented, “Your people should speak to each other more.”

Having understood the existing network, we strengthened it. People were supported and encouraged to participate. It became easier for them to find others with common challenges and relevant expertise. Relationships developed through interaction. They helped each other to solve problems. Collective experience was combined and applied in new ways. Better ways to work were generated.

The pressure reduced on those who were chokepoints. Their capacity increased for higher value strategic work. This included engaging outside of the organisation to discover new ideas. Suppliers, vendors, researchers, customers and industry peers are valuable network members. Bringing the outside in renews your organisation. Innovation arrives when knowledge is not treated as a hostage.

In order to leverage knowledge for competitive advantage, treat it as an abundant resource. Flip your thinking. Knock down the walls between your people. Open the doors wide to the outside world. Connecting your people with others is sound business strategy. The result is a smarter organisation positioned to innovate and thrive.

Demolishing walls and opening doors are two of my favourite hobbies. Get in touch if you’d like help to tap into the abundant flow of knowledge and experience sitting in the network.

 

Michelle Ockers works with leaders who want to build agile businesses. She helps build business momentum and impact through continuous learning. Michelle welcomes contact from senior leaders who want to harness learning and make it a key lever to achieve business results. Her recent clients include Qantas, where she has guided strategic transformation of L&D.

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  1. #1 by Bruno Winck on October 31, 2018 - 5:44 am

    Your claim that “The cost to access the network is low.” reminded me when in IT we realized that accessing the Internet became comparable accessing local hard disks in price and time. That was the starting point of moving all the storage on the cloud.

    I understand your idea as that leaving knowledge in workers mind and intensifying the network possibility vs trying to codify everything.

    Yet some requirements came with the cloud. Interestingly some map to humans cloud storage of knowledge as well:

    Always on. Those with knowledge will be constantly interrupted. People may prefer to pick others brains than to do the effort to search by themselves or in documentation. They also need to be always available. Mobile phone made it possible but at the detriment of people’s life.
    Redundancy. You can’t rely on single sources. You still have to replicate knowledge between people.
    Directories: Who knows what. Building some directories and classification of knowledge is still necessary to prevent broadcasts of questions or hoping from people to people to reach the right person.
    Performance to serve. Being an expert on a topic don’t mean you are good at sharing and explaining, especially when there is a large competency gap or a pressure to respond right to the point, cutting through all reasoning.

    The cost and friction may very well be at the end point of the network: those who know. That’s what I experienced.

    I think most KM strategists gave up the dream of codifying everything long ago already. Some things are so complex to codify it’s easier to transfer directly to new people.

  2. #2 by Michelle Ockers on November 3, 2018 - 9:51 am

    Hi Bruno,

    I’m not sure if I’m interpreting some aspects of your comment correctly. I’m uncertain whether you are agreeing or disagreeing with some of the points I’ve made in my post. I apologise if I’ve misunderstood anything.

    At first I thought you were agreeing with a lot of my points. But having re-read your comment several times I think the point you are making is that opening up networks causes more friction on experts rather than less. I respect your experience of this as an expert (I think this is what you are suggesting). My observation from working inside organisations is that there are often a small number of people with deep expertise who are called upon over and over. And others who are hidden, their potential to contribute their knowledge unrealised. If set up and supported well over time the burden on experts decreases rather than increases.

    I do suggest that there is still a place for capturing what can readily and usefully be captured. There is still a place for training. However, it is equally important to support people to build networks so that knowledge can flow between them. It also helps to surface more of what could be captured.

    Improving network connections spreads knowledge more widely. You can capture what is being shared (e.g in searchable discussion forums or through creating assets from user-generated content shared in the network) hence reducing the demand on a small number of experts over time. Answer once, share many times – rather than interrupt the expert to answer the same or similar questions many times. Being part of a network does replicate / spread knowledge between people. This creates desired redundancy.

    I agree that directories are a very powerful tool to help people find and connect with relevant others. Well-constructed and supported communities of practice help meet this goal too.

    You make the point that experts are not necessarily good at sharing and explaining. They’re already in demand to do this anyway – one of my key points. So if this is a problem for an expert it will be a problem regardless of how people are finding them. There is definitely an opportunity / need to help experts build skills in sharing their knowledge and to make it easy for them to share and others to find what they are sharing.

    Happy to discuss further.

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