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Transforming the enterprise

This article appears in the issue November/December 2006, [Vol 15, Issue 10]


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A group of government executives, university faculty and researchers, CEOs and other industry leaders met in Washington, D.C., Sept. 19 for a roundtable entitled: "How to Sustain High Performance in a Flat World." The setting was The George Washington University Institute for Knowledge and Innovation, home of the Enterprise of the Future program.

A wide variety of issues were addressed, all aimed at making the transformation to an enterprise that can learn, innovate and execute at the speed of change in the marketplace. Here is a summary of the findings:

Today's problems and opportunities demand unprecedented collaboration. The world has become so complex and is changing so rapidly that no single organization can succeed alone. We need a new theory of the networked organization, which is built on the principles of intelligent complex adaptive systems. Mountain Quest Institute Co-Founders David and Alex Bennet have been developing such a theory. David Bennet pointed out at the roundtable that decision-making in a complex environment requires a synthesis of new approaches. One approach is seeding, in which the complex property of emergence is closely monitored and nurtured to help achieve the desired outcome.

An example of a complex decision-making scenario is avian flu. The H5N1 virus is encoded information, capable of quickly replicating and spreading. Its ability to suddenly mutate makes it unpredictable. Preparing for and responding to a bird flu pandemic requires multilingual coordination, communication and collaboration across multiple disciplines and international boundaries. Veterinary public health officials must work closely with medical doctors in remote villages. Vast quantities of vaccines and antivirals need to be rapidly developed, produced, tested, shipped and administered. Government officials have to make difficult triage decisions, while maintaining public confidence and trust. It's an example of what Bennet called a "complex adaptive mess."

Whether the challenge is bird flu, or the Boeing dreamliner, which was also used as an example, Michael Stankosky, an associate professor at The George Washington University, expressed it best: "In a flat world, you only get one shot." Collaborate as if your life depended on it.

Learning must move out of the classroom, to the point of application. Despite the increased use of multimedia and e-learning systems, today's educational environment is still patterned after the centuries-old assembly line model. In the Enterprise of the Future, just-in-time learning means not only instantaneous delivery of content, but what Kent Greenes, co-director of the GWU Enterprise of the Future Program, and Greg Baker, CEO of Advance Consulting (advanceconsulting.com), call "fast learning by leading on the edge." That means applying a systemic approach that integrates learning from training and on-the-job experience, with workflow and common processes. It demands new competencies such as self-awareness, coaching and mentoring, sharing and group dynamics.

SoftAssist President David Goodman commented that "helping employees learn how to learn" is paramount. And you'd better learn how to learn fast.

Stop treating information management and knowledge management separately. French Caldwell, Gartner VP for research, described today's mishmash of stove-piped systems as a "spaghetti factory." Different applications are used for data warehousing, document management, search and retrieval, knowledge mapping and the like. Functional separation is equally prevalent, with different systems for payroll, purchasing, CRM, business intelligence, etc. Attempts at integrating those systems have been a nightmare. But such integration is essential if an organization wants to transform itself into a truly adaptive enterprise.

The solution is a services-oriented architecture built on what Caldwell called a new integrated information space. Each of the myriad systems and applications within an enterprise has its own data and logic. By separating the data and logic from the applications, removing redundancies and consolidating the remaining elements into a service-oriented portfolio, integration occurs at a finer level of granularity than was previous possible. The result is the enterprisewide flexibility and performance needed to rapidly adapt to changes in the marketplace.

Caldwell used the illustration that a small character string can be a single data point to one person and a valuable knowledge nugget to another. Treating data, information and knowledge separately unnecessarily limits access to vital information and inhibits the ability to present that information in the right context. Migrating to a service-oriented architecture means no more excuses.

Creating the right work environment is critical. Sam Hunter, assistant commissioner for Applied Science with the GSA Public Buildings Service, recently visited Google headquarters and saw firsthand Google's legendary amenities, including free gourmet meals, dry cleaning, onsite doctor's offices and day care. Yet, key people still leave the company, in search of other pursuits.

Dan Holtshouse, GWU executive-in-residence and research fellow, believes creating an attractive physical environment, although essential, is not enough. In order to attract and retain today's young knowledge workers, the workplace of the future must also take into account what he referred to as the cognitive, organizational and information environments. In other words, we need to create a total workspace tailored to how each individual learns, organizes his or her work and processes information.

The GooglePlex is just the beginning. Employers take note: Living, working and learning spaces are rapidly converging. Focus on results. While it may seem obvious, the need to focus on results came up repeatedly in the discussion. Forming new industry, government and university partnerships is essential to competing in a flat world. In the past, such partnerships have been plagued with conflicting goals. To be successful, the business goals of the joint enterprise, and each of the participating entities, must be clear. The role of each member must be defined and agreed upon upfront. Only with clarity of purpose and knowing the contribution of each individual can meaningful results be identified, measured and achieved.

None of these steps will be easy. But achieve them we must, if we are to meet the challenges of living, working and learning together in a complex world.


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