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The undiscovered country

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We launched the Enterprise of the Future program along with this column back in 2006. It was a time when change and complexity in the marketplace were increasing at an astonishing rate. So, it made sense to strive for creating an environment that enabled rapid learning and innovation. As part of that initial effort, we identified three key attributes which would characterize such an enterprise: 1) fast learning; 2) adaptive leadership; 3) increased self-awareness. In fact, our first article in this column was titled, “Learning fast to stay relevant in a flat world.”

On the learning side, we aimed to make creating, capturing, and sharing knowledge habitual. You might call it the KM version of the old Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. This resulted in better quality and performance through best practices, less redundancy, and a reduction in repeated errors. Productivity and ROI became the driving force when justifying investment in these capabilities.

Looking back, we can see that we haven’t been paying nearly enough attention to the innovation side—the creation of knowledge. We’ve been rearview-mirror focused at the expense of being forward-looking.

Diving deep into the uncharted waters of the tacit realm

Capturing and sharing what you already know is good; and with today’s data and text analytics tools, it has become much easier than when we’d first begun this journey. But the acceleration of change and complexity has seriously diminished the overall effectiveness of such efforts. The exploding volume of explicit knowledge is quickly becoming only a small percentage of the knowledge we truly need to create new levels of performance. Most of that knowledge still remains locked deep inside our heads, hard to describe, and difficult to move out and apply.

We need to ask ourselves: “Why do we continue to spend most of our time making what’s already known accessible instead of focusing our attention on creating the new knowledge needed to thrive in this environment?” The answer is simple—it’s because what we get paid to do is relatively easy. Especially since there are other disciplines that help, such as information management, communications, and training and development.

But we know easy isn’t often best. The more difficult question is: “How best to do it?”

A key first step in tacit knowledge creation, capture, and transfer has been and still is a people element, specifically: changing behaviors. This often means going against deep-rooted cultural patterns and fears. Changing from a pattern of mistake-avoidance to “learn fast, fail fast” is both freeing and frightening. It means you don’t always have to be right. It means creating and cultivating a challenge/opportunity-based mindset that says: “There’s always a better way.”

You can even look at this as going “beyond tacit.” Tacit is what you don’t know what you know; beyond tacit is discovering or creating what you don’t know. The way to do this is to be wide open to change, with no constraints, and not shutting down new ideas too soon. As our colleague John Lewis, author of the book Story Thinking: Transforming Organizations for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, puts it, it’s a matter of systematically and purposefully moving from “won’t work” to “could work” to “does work.”

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