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Upcoming: the Knowledge Wave paper

Friends and colleagues (and some very curious and kind souls) may have noticed that I stopped talking about the second «Visions of KM for management» paper, before summer. There’s a reason: while I believe it was essentially solid, it had a very big flaw and another serious one. It lacked focus and (as Rosanna Tarsiero put it) it had a «style» problem. So it’s been sent back to factory.

The paper that is emerging instead looks like a book, but there will be a white paper version in the usual format :-). Here’s a bit of the draft intro. As usual, comments will be appreciated (publishers especially welcome :-D)… and I expect to have some more chewable stuff soon.

«The Knowledge Wave (intro draft Sept 07)

In the 1980s, Jack Welch turned GE around by its ears and cast it into practically the only thriving large conglomerate in a world of specialization. He did it by raising the pressure (and the bar) for results, and by enabling the means to achieve them. And one of the main ways was sponsoring, pushing and enshrining a series of knowledge-sharing initiatives among managers that spread good practices and new ideas around the divisions and the conglomerate, turning GE into one big business-improvement hothouse. Among the many stories he tells, there’s a fine one about a man saying all those years they had paid him for his hands, when they could have had his brains too for the same price.

In the 1990s, Mr Welch realised that not even GE was large enough to contain all the best answers, and began casting outside for better ones. This he called «boundarylessness», and predates the «Open Business» concept by a few years.

Another «boundary-less» example is brought by iconoclastic Steve Jobs. Upon his return to Apple he forcefully eradicated the «not invented here» mentality to turn Apple into a leader… by skillfully integrating its core abilities with the best solutions out there, pioneering consumer USB and Wifi, drafting in UNIX, reinventing the MP3 player, and blasting away the smartphone market with the iPhone. All of them are fundamentally outside concepts turned into a new product.

These are only two examples, but you can see many more around you. Ever since the 80s (and probably earlier) competitive pressures have forced ambitious companies to focus on the flow and acquisition of business-relevant knowledge, both inside and outside the firm. Some have managed, some have tried, some are being overrun and pushed down-market.

At the same time, technology as been reaching a tipping point. The adoption and evolution of internet-based technologies has enabled communication in ways that were not even dreamt of (save in some brilliant science fiction), and in the last few years are seeing the erosion of the last barriers to adoption: cost and complexity of use. Tools that were the preserve of tech-intensive, cash-rich companies at the turn of the century can now be used (in improved versions) free as an online service. Personal publishing is non-news. Online fora are everywhere. Wikis are mainstreaming. Teleconferencing is old hat. In short, information sharing is becoming cheaper and faster, and does not require courses or formal executive meetings to take place. Which is not to say they are no longer needed.

Nowadays, knowledge workers generate knowledge flows in every direction. Some are taking place inside your organization. Some are taking place across it, as employees share with colleagues from outside the firm. Some are happening beyond them, thus depriving you of competitive advantage.

The knowledge wave has hit the world of business. You can either ride it and make the most of it to improve your business, or you can be submerged.

You may have realised that both companies and leaders chosen to illustrate the point did not simply add a few systems or talk kindly to their people. Managing knowledge is managing the whole business, and doing it well means changes as much as it promises rewards. I suggest viewing «Knowledge Management» as just as another management discipline to improve the profitability of your assets… by letting them use their brains.

In this paper, we will be exploring a few ways to do it.»


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