The Future of the Future:EOF update: report from the trenches

This article appears in the issue July/August 2008, [Vol 17, Issue 7]


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I’ve always liked to keep one foot in the academic world and one in the "real" world. Universities are good at developing theory, which provides foundational principles on which we can base our business decisions, actions and observations. In previous articles, we’ve presented a simple theoretical framework, which has proven to be successful across a wide range of organizations. It consists of the four pillars of leadership, organization, learning and technology. Let’s take a look at how each of these pillars has been playing out, and how you can benefit from what we’ve learned so far.

Leadership

You’ve probably heard this more than a few times: "We’re behind you 100 percent, just don’t ask for any money." My response is always the same: "You can pay me now or pay me later." Of course, money is tight, which requires always prioritizing and, if necessary, reallocating resources to where they will do the most good. There should be a mix of short- and long-term initiatives. Keep one eye on the horizon, and the other upfront and close.

Behavioral change tip:
Break the habit of saying "No, that’ll never work here. We don’t have enough _____ (people, time, money, etc.)." Rather, develop the habit of first asking, "What would it take to get this to work? Is it worth the effort? If so, let’s figure out a way to do it."

Organization

Self-organizing is good, but it can be chaotic. The hierarchy brings a sense of stability, yet it’s too restrictive. In the enterprise of the future (EOF), you need to use both. Communities of practice are good examples. At the outset, you want to create a free, unencumbered environment for people to gather and learn from each other. Once participation starts ramping up, carefully watch what’s happening and listen to the feedback. Then start adding structure and formality.

You may have heard the stories of college campuses that build elaborate walkways, only to find them mostly unused, while footpaths appear in the grass. Better first to wait and see where people are walking, then pave those areas. The same idea applies to communities of practice, lessons-learned repositories and organizing content in general.

Behavioral change tip:
Don’t get caught in the trap of having to choose between two opposite approaches: structured vs. unstructured; networked vs. hierarchical; centralized vs. decentralized. Usually, the best solution is a balanced blend of both.

Learning

Continuous learning doesn’t occur unless you are willing to make mistakes. Therefore, don’t punish mistakes, especially if you can learn from them.

An even greater obstacle is the inability or unwillingness to accept a proposed KM initiative. Many still don’t get KM. One reason is they don’t see the relevance—either to them personally or to their organization. I often hear things like, "Well, that may work for Toyota, but we’re not a manufacturer."

Whether you’re a KM manager, practitioner or consultant, work overtime to create a clear understanding of the relevance of what you’re doing. The new mindset should be: "If it works at Toyota, let’s see how we can adapt it to our situation and make it work even better."

Behavioral change tip:
Reward the innovators, especially when the innovation has a measurable and sustainable payoff. There are lots of simple, yet effective ways to do that: a day off, gift cards, a box of cookies or a bottle of champagne. How hard is that? Do little things mean a lot? No, little things mean everything, especially when it comes to getting people to change.

Technology

The battle between the IT and KM departments must end. For example, very few knowledge portals deserve to be labeled as such. They are, for the most part, electronic document repositories. While they may contain some valuable wisdom and advice, it tends to be buried under mountains of other stuff.

The situation persists because IT still remains data-centric; the mindset is files and folders. Knowledge, on the other hand, naturally occurs in bite-sized fragments, which need to be de-aggregated and reassembled, often in a just-in-time fashion.

Behavioral change tip:
Think nuggets, instead of documents.

As I write this, many are concerned about current economic conditions, including rising prices, rising debt and an uncertain job market. Salaries in the United States have been relatively flat, while prices of essentials such as food and energy are steadily increasing.

Under such circumstances, the natural tendency is to hunker down and fall back into the old ways. The exact opposite is needed. Actions that seem to ease the pain in the short term will only postpone the inevitable.

Whether you’re reaching for a major breakthrough or taking small, incremental steps, always keep an eye on the future. What you eventually end up with will depend a lot on what you do today.


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