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The Future of the Future: Breaking free of old mindsets

This article appears in the issue April 2007 [Volume 16, Issue 4]


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Making the transformation to an Enterprise of the Future can seem overwhelming. Increased complexity, faster decision cycles and the need for constant innovation, brought about by unrelenting global competition, are just some of the many challenges leaders face.

Focusing on a few key areas will help. Here are three essential changes in mindset that will get you on your way:

  • moving from hierarchies to networks;
  • shifting the emphasis from documents to knowledge; and
  • embedding KM within every process, rather than treating it separately.

1. Moving from hierarchies to networks

MBA programs used to bang into our heads that there were two organizations: the formal and the informal. The formal was explicitly spelled out in the organization chart. Everyone had clearly defined line or staff responsibilities. We were also taught that the informal organization, made up of mostly back-channel relationships, was where the real work was done.

In a flat world, the hierarchy is slow and cumbersome. We still need it, but it needs to switch places with its phantom counterpart. The social network must be explicitly revealed. When new problems and opportunities present themselves, we need to quickly find people with the right expertise. Going through the formal chain of command is too slow. The hierarchy still has a role in maintaining "checks and balances," especially in a world fraught with regulatory traps and pitfalls. But it needs to move from the forefront to the background.

How well does your enterprise’s social network "see itself"? Is the social network as clear as the formal organization chart? If not, it’s time to bring the phantom organization to the forefront.

2. Shifting the emphasis from documents to knowledge

Most KM systems are really electronic libraries. XML metadata tags and other search tools provide some insight into what is contained in the document collection. But a user must still spend a great deal of time searching through the documents, finding the relevant information and extracting the knowledge. Often the knowledge being sought is implicit, and not even in the system.

Critical knowledge rarely makes its way into documents. Yet documents are given the most emphasis. On the other hand, conversations, "war stories" and the like, which are rich in knowledge, tend to receive very little attention (see Figure 1, Page 22, KMWorld, April 2007, Vol 16, #4).
To meet the challenges of competing in a flat world, a new, innovative approach to knowledge capture and transfer is needed—an approach that is truly knowledge-centric, not document-centric. An approach that recognizes that knowledge is exchanged primarily in stories, conversations and actions, rather than in documents (see Figure 2, Page 22, KMWorld, April 2007, Vol 16, #4).

Critical knowledge can be made explicit by capturing and delivering it in a variety of sensory-rich modalities, which are closer to the way humans naturally communicate. Tacit knowledge can be drawn from domain experts and senior practitioners, using multimodal knowledge elicitation techniques and knowledge representation schema. Knowledge about performing everyday tasks, research and analysis, problem-solving and decision-making, can be modularized, organized and
refined into reusable knowledge "nuggets." Those can range from "fast facts" and vignettes, to expert systems and expert tutoring systems, to interactive 3-D video simulations. Modalities such as audio and video, even kinesthetics, can enable the flow of knowledge far more effectively than using only symbols and text.

How much of your IT investment is focused on documents vs. modalities that are better suited to delivering knowledge?

3. Embedding KM within every proces

In many organizations, KM is treated as a separate function. The CKO is a distinct position on the organization chart, along with the CIO, CFO, COO, etc. Unfortunately, that often results in operational units, such as project teams, viewing KM in purely a support role, provided by corporate staff. To succeed, KM must be deeply embedded in every business process. If most of your organization’s critical knowledge flows selectively, in an informal setting, a separate branch in the organizational hierarchy is not going to be very effective. The only way to break the habit is to build systems and practices that make knowledge management simple, easy and worthwhile.

To what extent is KM a routine part of your day-to-day operation? Does each person in your organization take full responsibility for capturing, sharing and applying knowledge? Or do they see it as someone else’s responsibility?

The new enterprise order

Figure 3 (Page 24, KMWorld, April 2007, Vol 16, #4) shows the "old world" order, where knowledge is exchanged in secret, usually among a select few individuals. The formal organization is broken into silos, each with its own unique people, processes and technologies. The underlying infrastructure is what Gartner’s (gartner.com) French Caldwell refers to as a "spaghetti factory."

In the new world order (Figure 4, Page 24, KMWorld, April 2007, Vol 16, #4), there are few, if any, secrets, because communications are more open and transparent. The social network is clearly visible, business processes are more integrated and the learning cycle becomes firmly embedded within each. Technology serves as an enabler, rather than a barrier, to knowledge flows across the enterprise.

The new enterprise order need not be a long-term vision. It can be, and needs to be, today’s reality. But it cannot happen if we remain stuck in an industrial-age mindset. Change the mindset, and the structural changes, along with the performance gains, will follow. 


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