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The Future of the Future: Report from the trenches: progress & challenges

This article appears in the issue February 2010 [Volume 19, Issue 2]


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In many organizations, the transformation process seems to be going well. Whole enterprises are more closely wired together. Databases that only worked with one application and were completely disconnected from any others are being integrated into data marts and data warehouses. Single-login access is making vast storehouses of all types of data available—supplier inventories, CRM, employee skills and training, and vital signs such as key financial ratios, to name a few. Most of the information can be displayed in real time.

Workflow tools feed progress reports to the project manager’s digital dashboard. Meetings are better coordinated and everybody’s calendar is on the corporate intranet for all to see. Virtual workspaces are popping up in abundance. Documents are maintained in a single location and are searchable enterprisewide.

Yet, knowledge is still not being shared anywhere close to the level at which it needs to be. Mistakes are being repeated, the wheel is still being re-invented and lots of valuable knowledge—the stuff you really need to get your hands on—remains elusive. Or to put it another way, in spite of all the wonderful progress, Johnny and Mary still don’t share.

Why Johnny and Mary don’t share

An obvious reason is fear. Whenever fear is present, you can point the finger directly at the organization’s leadership, or lack thereof. People fear the unknown, and if knowledge isn’t being shared, it’s usually because leadership has not made it clear, through consistent word and deed, that sharing is a must and not a should. One obvious way to correct that situation is to loudly and publicly reward the right behaviors through incentives and recognition.

Most importantly, if any punishment is going to be meted out (one of the consequences that is feared the most), it should be for not sharing knowledge, especially when the lack of knowledge sharing has caused the organization to waste valuable time and resources. There cannot be the least bit of inconsistency in this regard, such as hanging someone out to dry when they make an honest mistake. A breach of trust is usually irreparable. At the very least, the damage will last for a long time, most likely too long for the organization to survive in today’s competitive climate.

Next in the beating-a-dead-horse category we have cultural barriers. Saying “that’ll never work in this culture” is a lame excuse and an attempt to dodge the really hard work. By hard work, I don’t mean changing the culture or trying to go around it. Rather, the hard work is putting a brain trust together and looking for innovative ways to work within a culture.

Let’s say leadership is setting a good example and reinforcing the right attitudes and behavior, and the culture supports rather than impedes the flow of knowledge. What if things are still stuck? In such cases, I have often found the main cause to be a condition that has been around for quite some time, but only recently has started to take on significance. It doesn’t have an official name, but because a new disorder crops up almost every week, we might as well have one of our own. I call it SSDD: soft skills deficit disorder.

Join the fight against SSDD

Let’s take a look at what some of those soft skills are, and why you and your people need to be constantly developing and improving them. In a recent series of articles in KMWorld, Dan Holtshouse, a senior fellow at the George Washington University Institute for Knowledge and Innovation, discussed the results of a survey he conducted with 125 professionals and executives. The #1 skill identified for knowledge workers 25 years of age and under is collaboration.  My experiences as well as those of my colleagues bear that out.

In fact, we have assembled a list of supporting skills that are needed to collaborate effectively. Some of the more important ones are:

  • ability to work with others both as a team player and leader,
  • ability to plan and lead projects,
  • ability to accept responsibility for individual and organizational performance,
  • passion and ability for creative problem solving,
  • desire and aptitude for continuous learning, and
  • ability to communicate.

That last one, communication, is the glue that binds workgroups and communities together so members can share knowledge and collaborate effectively. In this sense, communication means proficiency in areas such as:

  • employing multiple modalities (oral, visual, kinesthetic, etc.),
  • interviewing techniques,
  • storytelling,
  • cutting across multiple cultures and languages,
  • effective use of humor (great for relaxing tensions and putting people at ease),
  • facilitating dialog and the exchange of ideas,
  • improvisation,
  • summarization, and
  • negotiation.

For many individuals, one or more of those might come naturally. One thing is certain: All of us must be more vigilant in developing, nurturing and growing those skills, and practicing them on a daily basis.

Solutions to the complex problems and challenges we are facing cannot be engineered by brute force, as was often the case in the past. Although science and technology are important, success demands engaging brain trusts of individuals with expertise spanning a wide range of disciplines and perspectives. That means combining soft skills with technical expertise. In the enterprise of the future, soft skills are like budgets—surpluses are preferred over deficits.  


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