Sunday, May 17, 2009

Knowledge Management Persepctives

You’ve got a pretty good boss, yet he or she still heeds the traditional creed of command and control. But it doesn’t work for you. You’re engaged in knowledge work and you’d like to tell the boss to back off. What do you do? Explain it to the boss first chance you get. Here’s a good way to do it.

Are you a fully engaged knowledge worker? If the answer is “No,” then the boss needs to know why knowledge workers can’t be managed in the traditional sense.

Here’s the message you need to convey to your employer.

The need for change to modern management is firmly grounded in our increasing insights regarding the power of “emergent” human behavior. Therefore, let’s briefly explore the importance of sharing “tacit knowledge” in the innovation process and make explicit certain key organizational principles that need to be adhered to, especially when dealing with knowledge workers.

Unmanaging knowledge

In the Industrial Age (and still in many instances today), people were primarily hired for the use of their hands and feet instead of their minds.

The thinking and directing was mostly the job of management. The workers also needed various forms of equipment and tools that these organizations owned in order to make a living. In other words, they had to have access to “means of production” since, with rare exceptions, they couldn’t afford to acquire the necessary tools on their own.

Knowledge professionals of today, who constitute almost half the US workforce, are faced with a completely different yet subtle situation. What is subtle is that they own their means of production – the gray matter between their ears.

Consequently, when they decide to join or leave an organization, they carry their means of production with them.

Knowledge workers are an investment rather than an expense. They not only desire considerable personal autonomy but also the responsibility and accountability for running at least some part of an organization. They need to be treated as partners or associates and not as typical Industrial Age employees.

As partners, knowledge workers are more likely to share their tacit knowledge (their smarts) with the people around them.

Hence, we need to develop organizations and networks that continually nurture the collaborative best from all members and, in turn, reward them equitably and not just from a monetary standpoint. The bottom line is that tacit knowledge cannot be “managed out” of people.

It must be allowed to emerge within co-evolving and mutually beneficial relationships.

Essentially, tacit knowledge encompasses ideas and abstractions at the individual level. More specifically, it is implicit knowledge that is:

* Grounded in personal experience and innate predispositions.
* Carried by people in their minds, which is difficult to access or share.
* Difficult to transfer to others without extensive personal contact and trust.
* Based on habits and culture that we do not recognize in ourselves.
* Stored in a different area of the brain than explicit knowledge.

The wellspring of new codified or explicit knowledge.Tacit or unrelated knowledge comes to the fore serendipitously and becomes explicit as individuals or small groups confront new or unanticipated situations.Tacit knowledge is a dynamic resource indispensable in the innovation process.

Further, tacit knowledge must be allowed to “emerge” through voluntary collaboration or self-organization. People are seldom aware of exactly what unrelated knowledge they possess until confronted with a problem or an opportunity.

Therefore, in order for tacit knowledge to properly emerge, people must first be surrounded by a supportive environment.

Organizational sweet spot

In such an environment, we will understand and respond positively to formal organizational goals and initiatives.

Also, in the process the organizational ‘We’ should remember that the more people are given a voice and implicit control in managing a venture, the more the informal networks (present in every entity) will begin to function more in the open and start making appropriate connections with other emergent groups.

The organizational sweet spot is like the sweet spot on the strings of a tennis racket. In a general sense, the sweet spot of the racquet is the area of the string bed that produces the best combination of feel and power. In an organization, the sweet spot is created by the overlap of a formal and an informal system.

Most importantly, under the right conditions the informal components will begin to overlap more and more with the formal elements of an organization.

This overlap is a very desirable state for any enterprise. That spot, in essence, represents the area where the formal and informal systems of an organization have reached “a meeting of the minds” over the fundamental goals, policies and processes of an organization.

What is particularly noteworthy about this agreement is that it’s not reached through any sort of formal negotiations. Rather, it is emergent.It is a natural outgrowth of day-to-day interactions, or self-organization by the people representing both management and the informal networks of a given venture. That’s where you can deliver your message.

Clearly, the larger that overlapping area is, the more engaged and productive people are within an organization.I have labeled this place of common agreement as the “shared-access domain.” More fittingly, the overlapping area is best referred to as the “organizational sweet spot.”

Organizational context/ecologies

So, how do we expand the organizational sweet spot? It’s not easy, especially when people are accustomed to the Industrial Age management processes.

Fortunately, it’s definitely worth the effort especially since we are already in the Knowledge Age. What we must keep in mind is that the sweet spot can’t be managed. What can be managed or adjusted is the organizational context or ecology that surrounds the sweet spot.

As I’ve suggested in Unleashing Intellectual Capital and in Hidden Assets, organizational ecologies, from my perspective, fall into the following two general categories:

Controlled-Access System: Where access to the resources of a group and its activities are controlled by one or a few select individuals.

Shared-Access System: Where resources of a group and its activities are impartially dealt with by all members of an organization.

In this classification scheme, a controlled-access system, whether tall or flat, is an organizational framework wherein one individual or a very limited number of people exclusively control access to all major resources.

All other members of the organization must first get approval from these executives before any of the assets can be used.

In a controlled-access system position power is the predominant force behind all key decisions; hence, “open” self-organizing arrangements are not encouraged or valued, limiting the development of voluntary co-dependent relationships and the sharing of tacit and explicit knowledge.

Compliance instead of commitment is prized in such organizations. As one might infer, such an organizational ecology doesn’t do much for the expansion of the organizational sweet spot.

Conversely, in a shared-access system, all organizational members have considerable autonomy in decision-making and in resource allocations. In a shared-access system, expert power instead of position power dominates.

Major emphasis is placed on situational leadership, open book management, and self-organization in solving problems or in pursuing opportunities. Such an arrangement clearly benefits from the continuous sharing of tacit and explicit knowledge.

Here, personal commitment rather than compliance is the dominant success factor. That, of course, enhances the expansion of the sweet spot.

Basically, a shared-access system minimizes or avoids many of the knowledge sharing “killers” that are prevalent in a traditional organization.

For example, knowledge workers in a controlled-access setting are continuously faced with some of the following or similar problems:

* I would like to download a free Web resource which will help me perform my job better, but the IT Department will not allow me to do that.
* I would like to work cross-domain, in an interdisciplinary way, with colleagues in another department, but my manager refuses to give me permission to do so.
*I would like to have access to cost information that pertains to the resources that *I am currently using so that I can make more judicious use of them. The Accounting Department, however, has informed me that such information is available on a need-to-know basis only to managers and I am not a manager.

In a controlled-access system the upshot, from a human nature perspective, is that people are more concerned with their own welfare instead of their co-workers or the organization as a whole.

Depends on smart people

Whether we like to admit it or not, all activities and interactions between people are governed by emergent relationships or self-organization.Therefore, we need to place greater emphasis on developing constructive social contexts that support the dynamics that allow people to establish meaningful relationships and in the process share tacit and explicit knowledge to the fullest extent possible.

Complex adaptive systems’ thinking is vital today in order to properly address never-before anticipated problems or new opportunities.Thus, where conventional approaches consistently fail to bring success, more pragmatic approaches need to be found and applied.

Multiple perspectives consistently lead to fresh and more insightful solutions than simply putting new faces on old failed concepts.

In the end, it all comes down to smart people dealing realistically with the unavoidable realm of “social emergence” and supporting the expansion of “organizational sweet spots.”
Sources: Professor Charles (Kalev)Unleashing Intellectual Capital (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000), Hidden Assets: Harnessing the Power of Informal Networks (Springer, 2005), The Organizational Sweet Spot: Engaging the Innovative Dynamics of Your Social Networks (Springer, 2009).
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