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The undiscovered country

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Here’s the big difference between yesterday and today. Past tacit knowledge capture methods focused on tapping that one, top expert in your organization or network who had all that critical knowledge inside their head. For well-defined problems with proven past solutions, that approach was sufficient. Not so in today’s environment, which is characterized by “wicked problems,” many of which can pop up out of nowhere and have no single answer. The same can be said for pop-up “wicked opportunities.”

The basic underlying approach, which can be simply viewed as “asking for help,” is the same, except you’re no longer going to a single knowledge source. Rather, you need to mine the network. It takes a widely diversified community, not only of experts, but novices and practitioners as well.

For example, in 2001, Rob McEwen, chairman and CEO of Goldcorp, issued an extraordinary challenge to the world’s geologists: “We’ll show you all of our data on the Red Lake mine online if you tell us where we’re likely to find the next 6 million ounces of gold.” The prize: a total of $575,000, with a top award of $105,000. Over 1,000 geologists from 50 countries took the challenge and identified 110 targets on the property. Since then, 8 million ounces of gold worth $3 billion have been found.

Goldcorp’s approach has become the new standard practice for problem-solving. This often means that you’ll likely need to go far beyond the traditional boundaries of your organization, reaching out to your entire business ecosystem— buyers, stakeholders, users, you name it. This includes people from the C-Suite with budget authority all the way down into the trenches where the real work often happens.

Steps to take

Innovation often involves a long discovery process. The challenge is, how best to accelerate? One tried-and-proven discovery method we’ve used is what we call “diverge/converge.” In other words, generate a list of any and all ideas, no matter how random or “off- the-wall” they might seem, and lay them out (diverge). Then engage relevant communities to look for hidden insights, patterns, and synergies, and reassemble (converge). Peanut butter bumps into chocolate.

Also, have a “parking lot” for the ideas and the thought trails that went into investigating and developing them. It may turn out that it’s just not the right time, but at least you won’t have to go reinventing the wheel if and when conditions turn favorable. Simply pick up where you left off and re-evaluate.

Referring to our second attribute, adaptive leadership means changing the focus of your strategic planning efforts from making predictions about the future and attempting to redirect your assets accordingly, to actually co-creating the future through discovery and foresight. This means daring to embark in areas that are completely unknown. How else are you going to move forward if you don’t boldly go where no one has gone before, i.e., “the undiscovered country”?

All of this requires our third and final attribute: increased self-awareness. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this attribute is admitting to yourself and others what you don’t know. In many organizations, this is a sure-fire way to limit upward mobility.

Be among the first to break the pattern. When you understand what you know, realize what you don’t know, and honestly admit it, you open up the floodgates for new knowledge to flow to you from others. It forces you to begin asking questions you were afraid to ask and challenging assumptions that never seemed right in the first place. “What if” and “Why” become a routine part of your language.

New, expanded role for KM

We now know that innovation in today’s world is a highly diverse, collaborative endeavor. The good news is that the mindsets we’ve created as we’ve been building and cultivating CoPs and knowledge/value networks over the years are the same mindsets needed to fuel innovation.

Here’s an exercise you can try with your team in order to get the discovery process rolling. Simply ask: “What do you think your future self would want to tell you that you need to know today?”

Or more formally, seek out strategic learning opportunities for you and your organization. Ask your team: “Where can we put some time and effort into something that will better inform our thinking about our strategic objectives and intent?”

Our natural tendency as KM’ers is to remain in our content-rich comfort zone. But recall that it wasn’t easy getting there. And just as we’ve paved the way to get to where we are today, we need to do the same to activate the much-needed innovation side of the cycle. Even if it means changing established KM practices and mindsets. As Goldcorp found out, the potential rewards are worth it. Let’s set the example and break the mold once again.

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