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The Future of the Future: Global knowledge entrepreneurship in action

Sixteen years ago, brothers Deepak and Sunil Shrestha left Kathmandu, Nepal, and headed for the United States, settling in the Virginia suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. While earning their advanced degrees (they each hold doctorates in engineering), they opened a training center for IT professionals. I was introduced to them by Chris Hekimian, who was one of their instructors while he was also working (virtually, of course) at our company, Applied Knowledge Sciences. During that time, Chris was holed up in a prototyping lab in the Technical Innovation Center in Hagerstown, Md., cranking out several patents, while earning his engineering doctorate as well.

In addition to their training center, Deepak and Sunil were running a government IT contracting firm called Universolutions. As a result of Chris' introduction, they ended up hosting the Enterprise of the Future website, enterpriseofthefuture.org, our corporate extranet, and various software demos we were marketing at the time.

On top of all this, the Shrestha brothers attended IHOP (International House of Pancakes) "University," where they learned the ins and outs of everything from the right way to break open an egg to keeping the restrooms spotless. With their graduation certificates in hand, they received their first IHOP franchise in Baltimore.

This wasn't a totally new experience, however, because they were already running a successful Dairy Queen restaurant in Springfield, Va. Their latest DQ is scheduled to open in Maryland later this year.

While all this was going on, they were the winning bidders on a World Bank program to set up and operate a retail store in Washington, D.C., featuring gifts and other products handcrafted by artisans from 30 developing countries around the world. They symbolically named their store Pangea, from a prehistoric time in which much of the world's land mass was joined together as one. The space was a unique combination of boutique, gallery, café, lecture hall and music room, all aimed at helping people at the bottom of the pyramid get a foot in the door as global micropreneurs.

More recently, Deepak negotiated an agreement with Nissan Technical Center North America to lend him an Infiniti Q45 sedan, fully equipped with instrumentation and sensing devices. Over a period of several days, he collected data on the driving habits of the highly congested and sometimes aggressive commuter population in and around the D.C. Beltway. The research results, which were published in his doctoral dissertation and presented to the Transportation Research Board at last year's annual meeting, provided valuable insights that may result in Universolutions obtaining research work in the new and exciting field of intelligent transportation systems.

It's all about connecting the dots ...

If you're having trouble following all this, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is running a 21st century enterprise isn't easy. If anything, it will continue to increase in complexity. The world is growing more entangled and virtual-into something that could be likened to a "digital hairball." Things just don't line up neatly like "ducks in a row" anymore.

The good news is that diversifying across seemingly unrelated industries has played a large part in helping the Shresthas get through the many twists and turns in the economy. But they are quick to point out that diversification alone isn't enough. You need to take full advantage of the many golden opportunities for cross-pollination, i.e., knowledge transfer, that are available.

For example, the cost accounting systems required in their government contracting business allowed them to quickly set up comparable systems in their restaurants. That helped them get a leg up on performing break-even, benefit cost and other financial analyses critical to site selection and other aspects of successfully opening and running a franchise. On the flip side, their experience in controlling costs through optimization of revenue-based labor was carried from their fast-food franchises into their other businesses.

All of their businesses benefit from shared experiences in recruitment, selection, training and retention for high productivity and low turnover, which are essential to survival in an era of unrelenting pressure on margins. They are in a constant state of renewal, having closed or sold some of their old businesses, such as the Pangea market, which lost a significant amount of foot traffic due to the recession, while opening new ones. In essence, there is no limit to the amount of valuable knowledge that continues to be transferred and adapted as they switch hats from student to researcher to instructor to engineer to CEO to importer to retailer to short-order cook to, well, you get the picture.

Become a lifelong knowledge explorer

If you're looking for an example of how to succeed as a knowledge professional entering the second decade of the 21st century, Deepak and Sunil's story is a great place to start. In essence, the two global knowledge entrepreneurs have done much of what we've been talking about in previous editions of this column.

Be obsessed with learning. Our Nepali-American friends have no fear of crossing over into totally different disciplines. By stretching and dissolving traditional boundaries, their enterprise of the future is continually changing along with the rest of the world. As the world moves toward socially conscious capitalism, they'll already be there. As government budgets shrink, they can apply lessons-learned from the tight-margined fast-food industry to remain competitive as government contractors.

Start taming the digital hairball. Take advantage of the infinite possibilities for making cross-connections, just as Chris did when he introduced me to the Shresthas more than seven years ago. In fact, Deepak, Sunil, Chris and I are likely no more than three hops away from you in your LinkedIn network (along with more than 5 million other knowledge professionals three layers deep). With reach like that, the opportunities to tap into new knowledge are endless.

Finally, enjoy the ride into the unknown. Become a knowledge explorer as well as a knowledge entrepreneur. Be sure to fasten your seatbelt, as the flood of new ideas may be swift and furious. In fact, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see Deepak and Sunil pull up into my driveway one day sitting in the back of brand new Infiniti, with no driver at the helm.  

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