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People smart

By David Weinberger

By now we've all learned, thanks to Howard Gardner, that there are multiple types of intelligence. There's book smart, practical smart, and the type of smart that makes you really annoying when you play "Trivial Pursuit." But what does it mean for an organization to be smart?

Since "smart" applies to organisms with minds, and since organizations aren't organisms and don't have minds, it's not clear that an organization actually can be smart, any more than it can be afraid of heights or freckled. What are the characteristics of human smartness, and how can they be mapped to an organization?

Smart people know lots of stuff. Many people in your organization have minds like libraries. The organization becomes smart if it can find these people and can encourage them to make their knowledge available widely. Since "knowing stuff" is part of very few people's job description, this may require changing job descriptions and rewarding people for picking their heads up from their own work to help out others.

An organization can also know lots of stuff by encouraging people to build shared libraries of links, and by indexing everything that can be found, of course.

Smart people learn from experience. It's hard for some people to learn from experience, since often that means admitting you were wrong. It's even harder for businesses to learn from experience because most organizations reward people for being right. Further, going wrong in business often costs lots of money, so there's a temptation to deny the error for as long as possible. That's yet another reason why as much of a KM system as possible ought to come bottom up: The further up the pyramid you are, the more incentive you have to prolong your state of denial.

Smart people see patterns and connections. Lots of interesting tools help businesses discover patterns. While those tools can be very useful, they sometimes institutionalize one of the obstacles individuals experience when trying to do breakthrough thinking: The more obscure and unexpected the connection, the less likely we are to notice it or credit it. So, these tools may find day-to-day and highly profitable correlations while missing the mind-blowing ones. For that we probably need people.

Smart people go out of their way to learn new things. It's not enough for businesses to commit to continuous learning. They have to be willing to "waste" their time enabling people to learn what may seem to have no relation to the business. That's where real innovation comes, and that builds the sort of web of knowledge that is a condition for businesses being able to swerve as the market veers (and, of course, veer as the market swerves).

Smart people are curious. See above. I'm repeating this because curiosity is such an important component of human intelligence. Without curiosity, your intelligence is going to waste.

Smart people are able to answer questions. This is actually more important to business than having lots of knowledge locked away in one's head. Answering a question requires several skills that don't necessarily come together. You have to have the answer or be able to get it. You have to be able to express the answer in a way that makes sense to the person asking. That in turn requires a sensitivity to the social and personal contexts in which the question is asked: What is really being asked and how best can the asker hear the answer?

Smart people know how to do things. Of course being smart doesn't mean simply having lots of facts encoded in one's neurons. Knowing how is more important to a business than knowing that. An organization that knows how to do things probably is harvesting and sharing something like "best practices" ... or, better, "practices that work," since for most things there are more than one.

Smart people have interesting conversations. We take conversations too lightly. They are the substance of social networks. They are where the great ideas are developed. Even if an idea comes to you while you're showering--forgetting that it probably came to you because of a conversation you had the day before--conversations are where great ideas are validated and improved. Smart companies encourage smart conversations, giving people plenty of opportunities to shoot the breeze with people they know and don't yet know. Most conversations don't result in great ideas, but by learning how to talk together, we're learning, as an organization, how to be smart together.

David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization" , e-mail self@evident.com

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