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The Fault Lies Not in our Stars, but in Ourselves

I have been talking to leaders of technology firms in Brazil and it has been very interesting.  While it is not appropriate to post details, some of the general thoughts are applicable across a wide spectrum of endeavors and I will share them here.

Bridge between forest parks in Sao Paulo Brazil

One of the problems I have wrestled with has to do with the nature of knowledge and how to pass it within groups and organizations.   I find that this is a common problem and nobody seems to have developed a really robust solution.   I don’t think there is one; at least we cannot create a system that will take care of it.   Knowledge cannot be separated from its human carriers.  We like to use the term “viral” and it really fits here.  Passing knowledge just takes commitment and work by smart people.  Too often, organizations try to outsource their brains by giving the job of thinking and analyzing to consultants or computers.  Well, the buck stops with the decision maker.  He/she certainly doesn’t need to be an expert on all things.  Those consultants and computers can help inform decisions, but they cannot make them.   I was thinking about these things during our discussions.

Let me start by making a distinction between information and knowledge.  The two are synonyms and often used interchangeable, but in the deeper meaning information is the raw material that becomes knowledge when it is when it is understood and integrated into thinking.

Many management challenges are common to both public and private business and one of the most persistent is the difficulty of passing reliable knowledge and experience within an organization.  One of the most confusing circumstances is when information passes w/o the knowledge to make it meaningful or put it in proper context.   It is confusing because the recipients of the information may not perceive the problem.   They may feel satisfied that they are “informed” but remain misled. 

This is an age old problem.  As any organization grows beyond the size where frequent face-to-face contacts are common and easy, information sharing and knowledge production become an acute challenge.  It is especially true today in the fast changing and multifaceted environment created by the new media.  Information is held by specific individuals who may have very deep knowledge in a particular specialty, but not know how it fits into the bigger picture and may be unaware of the significance of what they know in other contexts.   In an information rich environment, the problem is how to arrange it to make it useful and how to tap into tacit knowledge that people may possess but be unable to properly express.  A learning organization is one where the total knowledge and expertise available to the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.   This condition is easier to aspire than achieve. 

Technology provides some help.  One way to address the challenge is through a wiki where everyone can contribute as well as see, consider and enhance what others have contributed.   In theory, a wiki can tap into the wisdom of the group.   It can be made available only to particular groups, to the entire organization or even to a more general public.   A larger group will create greater management problems, but will likely tap into a more diverse set of talent and knowledge.   Remember that no matter how good you and your colleagues are, the smartest people on any particular subject probably don’t work for you.  Your decisions will be better if you can think of a way to bring them in.

The amount of openness is a management decision.   However management cannot really decide if individuals in the organization will enthusiastically contribute.   Enthusiasm cannot be mandated, but it can be incentivized and those incentives must come from a true commitment at the top.   Good contributions must be recognized and the inevitable good-faith errors must be corrected but not punished.  

The new media allows and requires many choices.  The mix of tools changes depending on the situation and they change over time.  Yesterday’s solution is often today’s problem, but that does not necessarily imply that any mistakes were made.   Employees have to be confident that their good solutions that solve today’s problems will not be held against them when the situation changes tomorrow.  It takes a long time to build the kind of trust that lets people stick their necks out and months or years of work can be dissipated by one serious breach.  Leadership cannot indulge its emotions or look for people to blame when sound decisions are overtaken by events.  These are pernicious breaches of trust.

Another important aspect of knowledge sharing is to have the knowledge available to share in the first place.  Diverse and dispersed world-wide organizations tend to have information but it is often not translated into useful knowledge.  One tech fix is to make everything is available online in “the cloud.”  Groups working on particular tasks may not be near each other geographically or even in the same time zones, but they can be virtually side by side.  We have talked about this for many years, but technology has only recently made it practical, since real collaboration requires good connections and a lot of bandwidth.  

We have a great opportunity.  There is a lot of low hanging fruit and that we should take advantage of new technologies and interested participants right away.   Opportunities are out there.  It is there for us.  The most important obstacle is our own inability to take them and make them work.  We have to work to create learning organizations.  It is a steep hill to climb, but not beyond our ability.

Hill on street in Sao Paulo Brazil on May 14, 2009

Evaluate AND Take Action

They also emphasized the need to evaluate AND prune dead wood.  Sections are evaluated every six months to see what is working and what is not.   An organization in this competitive world cannot allow itself to hold on to programs and platforms that are not performing, no matter how many people work there or love them.   The less performing sections are cannibalized to support the ones that are doing better. 

This creative destruction is a challenge in government.   Private firms are not really better at anticipating the future than we are, but they are a lot more effective at getting rid of things that are not performing.   They just cannot afford to keep or pour more resources into the programs that are losing money.

The title of this post is a paraphrase of a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.   Let me end with another one that applies.   “There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads to fortune.”


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