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The Future of the Future:
Making the leap from the desktop to virtual space

If you were around during the pre-KM era, you may recall one of author Tom Peters’ favorite tactics. When advising executives, he would ask them to list their top priorities—those issues or goals that were of utmost strategic importance to the organizations they were leading. After they confidently rattled off their list, he would ask to look at their calendars. As you might guess, the calendars were filled with activities of every sort, with precious little time devoted to the top items on their supposed agenda.

I’ve always thought Peters got a kick out of doing that, so I’ve adopted a similar approach when discussing the Enterprise of the Future. I ask people who say they’ve bought into the whole transformation thing how steadfast they are in moving from a knowledge hoarding to a knowledge sharing organization. Of course, they nod their heads and solidly affirm their commitment. Then I ask to look at their desktop ... that is, their computer desktop. Most of the time, what I see reflects the old way of doing business (“old” meaning the way we did it 10 years ago). E-mail messages numbering in the tens of thousands. Hundreds of document folders and subfolders, many containing files that are either duplicates or near-duplicates of documents attached to the e-mails. Yet those cyber packrats are among the first to complain about having to spend so much time searching for documents they absolutely know they have.

Usually by this point I’m on a roll, so I start moving beyond the desktop to—for those more advanced organizations—shared drives. Guess what? Those futuristic enterprises have hopped on board the knowledge sharing bandwagon by creating virtual piles of folders and documents, with even more unnecessary duplication, easily totaling many terabytes in size. But, hey, it’s all there. You (and your team of highly paid professionals) just need to find it.

I keep going. Everyone’s into social networking, right? Let’s see how much time we can spend blasting those Outlook address books out to the world, in a race to see who can accumulate the most connections. Then there are communities of practice (CoPs), tens of thousands of them. I have personally viewed hundreds. With few exceptions when I land on a home page, the first thing I see is a long list of folders and documents. More mounds of data to cull through and, more likely than not, get lost in.

It’s good to see that so many people have ventured beyond their desktop and are moving out into the virtual, collaborative universe. Unfortunately when they get there, they find the same e-clutter, only multiplied many times over. The good news is it’s not that hard to fix. As with many of the other transformations we’ve talked about in this column, it all begins with a simple shift in mindset.

The illustration on this page (see KMWorld Vol. 19, Issue 1, Page 18) shows the key types of environments supporting virtual collaboration. The bottom level is the starting point for most folks. We all need to make a concerted effort to move from the 1990s model, “My Documents,” to the next level up, where the central theme is “My Site.” Platforms such as Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) allow you to easily create your personal site—your knowledge “sandbox”—and link it to the personal sites of close friends and colleagues. You can create as many subsites as you want, controlling access privileges for each. That is where many fun, informal ideas can and should be captured and allowed to germinate.

You are also likely to be a member of workgroups of various types: projects, tiger teams, committees, etc. Those involve people beyond your inner circle, from other parts of your organization, perhaps even external partners and other stakeholders. That’s when you need to kick it up to the organizational workspace level and begin to bake those ideas, design and plan change initiatives, improve existing processes, and manage and coordinate all types of activities. By using tools such as alerts, RSS and SMS, you should be significantly reducing time spent on e-mails and eliminating those attachments.

Finally, you’re ready to reach the summit, moving beyond the workgroup and into the community at large. That is where the generation and sharing of ideas and knowledge occur on a global scale, where the billion-mind brain trust begins to take shape.

Hopefully this brings some clarity to a sometimes-confusing subject. Let me leave you with a few tips for “virtualizing” and enhancing your collaborative work environment:

1. Please move the file folders off the front page and put them into a virtual e-library, even if it’s only one click away.

2. Hop on the tagging bandwagon, invest a few hours in training and boost your productivity by making your explicit knowledge easy to classify and locate.

3. Move from producing lengthy documents to more “nuggetized” knowledge artifacts.

4. Finally, make your workspaces more attractive and inviting. You’re competing with everything that can be rendered in a browser, including mobile phones. Organize your site along something other than documents. Think of what’s most important: a status dashboard, a Gantt chart, a flow diagram or maybe a plain old org chart. Make it easy for people to quickly see what your space is all about and easily find their way around, without having to read a user manual.

We’ve often mentioned the three critical performance metrics for the enterprise of the future: efficiency, effectiveness and innovation. You can’t hope to improve any of those when working in a 20th century desktop environment. Well-designed collaborative spaces that take into account various types of activities and group dynamics will go a long way toward boosting your personal performance and the performance of the many organizations with whom you need to be engaged.  

Jeff Lesher, COO of Applied Knowledge Sciences, contributed to this article.

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