Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Businesses must support sharing and use of knowledge



"The only irreplaceable capital an organization possesses is the knowledge and ability of its people. The productivity of that capital depends on how effectively people share their competence with those who can use it."

This quote by Andrew Carnegie is one of my absolute favorites. Although these words were spoken about 100 years ago, they are even more true today than they were back then. Not only has the amount of knowledge work in virtually every kind of business increased since then, but how we share and make use of that knowledge has become increasingly critical to the survival of a business. At the same time, knowledge work becomes harder due to globalization, a more complex work environment and a distributed workforce. Peter Drucker, who coined the term "knowledge worker", expressed this challenge as follows:

The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is to increase the productivity of knowledge work and knowledge workers. It is on their productivity, above all, that the future prosperity — and indeed the future survival — of the developed economies will increasingly depend.”

Most of us know and understand that knowledge is something that is in between two ears. It is not something you can capture and put in a can. The concept of knowledge as a separate object that can be put in a database in corporate possession is not only dead, it is downright stupid. This delusion has led us astray for years. We simply cannot manage knowledge. What we can do is to facilitate the creation, exchange and use of knowledge. So let’s go back to the key sentence in the quote by Andrew Carnegie:

"The productivity of that capital depends on how effectively people share their competence with those who can use it."

I’ve marked the two key words in this sentence: “share” and “use”. That is what we must focus on if we are to make the most of the knowledge that resides inside - and outside! - of an organization. Until now, we have focused too much on how to standardize, formalize and store representations of knowledge and much less on how to enable people to represent their knowledge in an effective way, to share it with others and how to consume the representations. This is where the principes of social media, Web 2.0 technologies and social software such as social networking platforms definitely have a role to play here, no doubt about it.

To round up this train of thought, researchers at IBM and MIT recently released a working paper in which they claim to have found that (according to Business Week) “certain e-mail connections and patterns at work correlate with higher revenue”. Here is an excerpt from the abstract:

“In this study, we mitigate this gap by collecting and mining the largest organizational social network ever collected. We find that not only does the population level topology of social network correlate with performance, attributes of the nodes in a social network such as human capital and status that can be beneficial to work performance. In addition to an individual‘s own human capital and network position, the human capital and status in one‘s network can be instrumental to one‘s success.

From the article in Business Week about the research:

"For IBM, research into the networked behavior of its employees promises insights about teamwork, innovation, and the transmission of knowledge and ideas within the company. This is especially important for global companies—say, where experts in New York might be unaware that colleagues in Singapore are untangling a similar problem. IBM researchers fine-tuned management of industrial supply chains a half-century ago; now their challenge is promoting the flow of knowledge throughout the workforce."

If you haven't checked out my "Information is like water" presentations on slideshare before, here they are again: