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Dialog: Running Light One-On-One

Marvin Manheim is co-founder of the Black Forest Group and a professor at Northwestern University where he has appointments in the Kellogg Graduate School of Management and the General Motors Strategy Research Center.

RL:  How did you get into knowledge management

MM:   In essence, I've been working in knowledge management all my life. Since I was a graduate student I have been concerned with how people work on complex problems and use information in appropriate ways. Years ago I worked on architecture, urban design, and transportation problems. Now I work on business strategy, product planning, and product design problems. The issues are the same. How do you create new knowledge, and gain perspectives that allow you to view the world differently, and then translate that into action that can be followed through by large numbers of collaborative partners? That's the core of knowledge management.

RL:  So you see knowledge management as having been around for many years in one form or another?

MM:   Absolutely. It's amazing to me is that now that knowledge management is a major industry trend, how little people have looked to the past to understand the real issues. There are some people who are very thoughtful about knowledge management, but the IT industry does not show real depth. It is not developing the products and services that could really touch the core of knowledge management. It is exploiting very simple, obvious technology but not dealing with the core issue.

RL:   Where do you think that the industry should be headed?

MM:  Over the years, there have been just a few products that have addressed the pieces of what I consider knowledge management, but these tools have not been put into an overall architecture. Instead of a lot of mid-range computing software searching for a market, we should see consultants, system integrators, OEM vendors of components, and other tools for putting together powerful management strategies in a real organizational context.

My good friend, Christopher Alexander, who is a renowned architect, wrote a book called "Notes on the Synthesis of Form" describing the application of information technology to complex problems in architectural design. The application took an architect's personal map of the knowledge of the design problem, analyzed that map and gave the architect back not a solution, but a heuristic guide to creative design. The right software tool for knowledge management would enhance the power of the individual mind. That's where I think the industry will be heading in five years.

RL:   If an enterprise were trying to approach knowledge management, what are some of the things it should to focus on?

MM:  I've been working with a number of companies in developing practical knowledge managing strategies. These are the essential questions: How do I build a culture that values knowledge? How do I create incentives and rewards that recognize knowledge contributions and knowledge sharing? How do I create processes that are integral to core business processes and that result in knowledge capture and knowledge availability? How do I create processes that increase the likelihood of insights being generated and the crystallization of new ideas? How do I create incentives that allow new ideas and perspectives to be accepted in the organization?

RL:  : What are some of the barriers to the adoption of knowledge management strategies?

MM:  To be competitive today, a company has to have low cost, short time cycles, and high quality. That pushes companies towards standardized business processes and very lean organization. At the same time, to strategically use knowledge for competitive advantage, companies must be able to customize processes quickly for each new customer and each new competitive event. Managing the dichotomy of stable, well-defined business processes and customized processes is like managing schizophrenia.

RL:  Tell me a little about the direction of your research in knowledge management.

MM:  My fundamental theory is an extension of Nonaka's theory. Nonaka deals with knowledge management as an organizational process. Iíve gone to the next level, to examine how people think and act. Cognitive science suggests that we perceive and act on the basis of schemas that we've learned, and that we change those schemas as we act. I have been working for nine years to develop patterns for managing strategy and other critical business processes. The core of my approach is the dynamic interplay of tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge. The process of making tacit knowledge explicit involves taking knowledge that is in the form of schemas and articulating it in the form of patterns. Those patterns may be simple or more complex knowledge clusters. Then the patterns may be combined, used to build joint patterns, and create new patterns. Now what does the technology have to do with that? Nothing. But if we ask, "How do I build a corporate learning environment where I want people to pay attention to patterns that are of high value and learn them so that they become highly internalized? " that's knowledge management. Now I can talk about downloadable modules, practice routines in environments, simulation, and other tools for managing knowledge.

RL:  How do you get people to change their patterns from which they work?

MM:  We are doing a lot of work on that, trying to formulate a set of practical tools for how to manage the process of patterns in what we call a "pattern culture." The danger of patterns is, of course, the danger of rigid, bureaucratic behavior. So one needs to have high level process patterns that emphasize continual questioning and dialogue and a legitimacy of alternative points of view.

RL:   That's almost as a second level pattern--the pattern of recognizing patterns that are no longer effective.

MM:  Absolutely. In fact, in a paper in the "Sloan Management Review" Gary Hammel sketched out the need for a new paradigm of strategy in organizations in which there was open conversation, open debate and dialogue, and innovation from all levels of the organization. That's precisely the recipe for an effective knowledge management strategy. Youíve got to have an open participatory culture, but people must also accept the fact that youíve got to resolve debates and get on with it.

RL:  If you were to design a curriculum for knowledge management professionals, what would it look like?

MM:  I would want knowledge management professionals to understand business strategy, marketing, organizational change management, incentive and reward systems, and social networks. I would want people to understand things like organizational learning, Nonaka's theory, and cognitive psychology. I would want people to understand IT at a deep level including process knowledge, process support, groupware, workflow, and what I call ìpersonal action management,î which is the next generation of personal information management. A professional with all of those skills could work with senior executives to shape and implement a knowledge management strategy

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