…one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to pursue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chase the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them.

Samuel Johnson

The Velocity of Knowledge in Flight

“I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.― Mark Twain

Knowledge in flight – faster flight

As you focus on knowledge in flight, you see the power of accelerating the sharing of knowledge.  You also start to be able to see where knowledge has value and is moving.  Focusing on these movements pushes us to think about how we can accelerate the systems of the flow of knowledge into and through our organisation.  Savings of time, waste and rework arise when knowledge can move quickly to where it is most needed.
Nobody wants to accelerate the velocity of knowledge as speed for speed’s sake.  If anything one of the challenges of the digital age is we have to much quick data and information.  Instead, we need to accelerate the effective use of knowledge to create additional value across the organisation.  To do so, we will need to accelerate the sourcing, sharing and the practical application of knowledge.
How to accelerate sourcing, sharing and use of knowledge?
  • Map expertise and tacit knowledge: Tangible knowledge is increasingly searchable.  However too many talents are hidden inside people’s heads.  Do you know all the Postgraduate degrees that your team has?  What about their blogs, conferences, memberships and followers? Networks, skills and experience may not align with roles or responsibilities
  • Reward frequent flyers: Encourage people to share all of their expertise and to explain aloud the tacit knowledge to benefit others.  Track successful contributions back to source & give credit.  Celebrate people’s talents and reward their many contributions beyond their roles.  Build this practice into your organisational culture & systems.
  • Increase flight connections:  The better connected the networks of knowledge in your organisation and your organisation to others the more ways there are for knowledge to flow.  Work to network your centres of excellence, gurus, communities of practice internally and externally. If you use an enterprise social network or external social networks focus on building following and using @mentioning to add new connections and trace paths to knowledge.  Importantly this also incease the opportunities for serendipitous meetings to add value.
  • Build flight paths & schedules:  You travel faster on paths that are mapped in advance and where your path is managed for you.   If there are common requests or known experts, make those paths easier to navigate.  An operating rhythm of sharing allows everyone to plan and participate in a consistently level of the activity.  It may also mean getting slow moving traffic or lower value out of the high traffic routes.  Regular moderated Q&A sessions or knowledge cafes can be a great way to deliver this rhythm in an easy way.
  • Manage delays:  Some times a stop-over allows the overall journey to go faster.  Include time for thought, reflection, planning, documenting, feedback, learning, sharing, collaborating and addressing issues in execution.
  • Reroute flights: Avoid single points of failure for the flow of knowledge in your organisation.  Who else knows and could help if something goes wrong?  What other ways can people access this knowledge?  How do you share jams (leave, large projects, heavy workloads, etc) publicly to let people route around the issue themselves?
  • Cancel flights quickly:   Mark Twain’s quote above is amusing but it underlies a truth.  Organisations which have a culture that allows people to admit lack of knowledge, errors and doubt can move faster and far more effectively.

Data and information is flying around faster than ever.  Even so, we would all like to accelerate the flight of knowledge that can add value to our organisations.

What are you doing to accelerate your organisation’s knowledge in flight?

Track Knowledge in Flight

Man’s flight through life is sustained by the power of his knowledge. – Austin ‘Dusty’ Miller

Too much knowledge dies in storage. Much is lost in people’s heads or files never again to be used. Any dead knowledge will be painstakingly and wastefully recreated, only to be lost again. Knowledge management systems that are about creating new stores of knowledge rarely realise their potential.

Knowledge isn’t a stock. We need to focus on its flow. We need ways to see or track knowledge in flight so that we can better use it.

  • Movement means visibility: When knowledge is put into action, especially in collaboration we have a chance to see it. Often an organisation does not know what it knows until its people begin to discuss and answer questions
  • Movement means relevance: We are rightly more interested in the knowledge that is being used by others. The fact that someone else finds it relevant and wants to share and apply it signals that it is of value.
  • Movement means context: Documents and files can lack the context that is necessary to fully understand and use information. This is one reason that effective knowledge management systems focus on the role of people to provide context. Seeing information move provides a path of people who can share context.
  • Movement means others: Action attracts attention. That is likely to draw in others who can add or leverage the knowledge.

There are many ways we can accentuate the visible movement of knowledge. John Stepper talks about the power of ‘working out loud’, sharing work in progress to enable others to see and collaborate. Social tools provide a platform for moving and recording movement of knowledge in a public and searchable way. Communities of practice can become bazaars of knowledge movement and custodians of rich records of use.

Where is knowledge in flight in your organisation? How can you make that movement more visible?

Concentrate on the Flow of Knowledge

Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge – Plato

John Stuart Mill was once described, no doubt erroneously, as someone who knew all the knowledge that it was possible for someone to know in his era.  The possibility that there is a finite stock of knowledge is one that tempts us.   Even the concept of ‘knowledge as power’ assumes a scarce stock of knowledge to be allocated out for influence.

In an era of rapid change and high levels of connectedness, what matters is not an individual’s stock of knowledge.  The value of an individual stock of knowledge is falling as new knowledge is being created fast, search costs are reduced and there is an increasing focus on collaborative knowledge work.

Individuals have greatest impact now through their ability to contribute to the flow of knowledge.

Managing the flow of knowledge in networks takes new and different skills:

  • Creators: who add new ideas to the flow of discussions to build knowledge
  • Connectors: who know where to source and distribute knowledge in and around organisations
  • Context providers: who know how to provide new knowledge with context that adds to its trust, value or meaning
  • Community managers: who build enduring communities across boundaries, aid their sharing of knowledge and building of consensus

A pile of publications, patents and Ph.Ds might offer temporary bragging rights.  However, real and enduring value of knowledge comes from its application in our everyday fast moving interactions.

Focus on the flow of knowledge in and around your organisation and you will see better the individuals who are accelerating that flow and creating new value.

The knowledge revolution needs an assembly line

The industrial revolution was transformed by technologies like that of the assembly line which dramatically changed productivity and redefined the industrial model for a century. What will be the assembly line of the knowledge revolution?

From an era of mass manufacturing

Mass manufacturing arose when innovative manufacturing processes, such as the assembly line, arose to take advantage of the required capabilities like consistent & efficient power sources, better transportation, better communications and other technological advances. A number of large social changes came with the arrival of the era of mass production in the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries:

  • A shift from artisan manufacturing to factories & loss of power in the guilds (an end to skill as power) 
  • The management of work inputs in the right context and at the right time with less waste by bringing work to the worker, reducing work-in-progress & reduction of the manual effort through assembly lines and other manufacturing changes 
  • Specialisation and reduction in the task of the worker 

These changes also had a wider impact as the productivity and value created further social change, particularly as it drove a culture of mass consumption and the rise of the knowledge and service economy. Importantly, the development of this industrial revolution was largely guided by a purpose of shareholder return. With a few rare exceptions, employee engagement and fulfilment, environment or social purpose and other purposes often played a deeply secondary role.

Further phases of the mass manufacturing model whether robotics, lean/kaizen, logistics or outsourcing have been evolution on the basic revolution that began when production shifted from task oriented workshops to process driven factories. To a lesser extent, these efforts have sought to address broader social purposes.

To an era of mass collaboration

We are likely facing into a transformation of knowledge work on the scale of the industrial manufacturing. We are beginning to see new models of knowledge work and collaboration coming to life in our increasing social and digital information capabilities.

We now have the information storage and processing power, the mobility solutions and the social context that can drive insights and low-cost sharing. The coming together of these technologies offers us the opportunity to deliver information to knowledge workers when they need it (leveraging mobile and the cloud) with insight & context (from data analysis and social).

From entrepreneurs to large corporations the focus of innovation in the future of knowledge work is on how to develop new ways to leverage this technology. However for all the innovation we may not yet have seen a defining innovation on the scale of the assembly line. It cannot be far away.

By analogy, knowledge work will change dramatically in an era of mass collaboration:

  • Shifting the work from a knowledgeable expert to an digital algorithm, social network or most likely both (an end to knowledge as power) 
  • Reducing the search for information, the cost of sharing information and bringing knowledge to the worker as and when required for the task 
  • Provision of information in a richer more relevant context and with greater insight enabling new methods of the discovery, use and dissemination of knowledge, which is likely to mean new knowledge itself. 

Shaping purpose and outcomes

Managed with a focus only on shareholder value creation, this transformation could be massively disengaging and alienating for the knowledge workers of the global service economy. Managed with a focus on purpose (taking account of social value and economic value), this transformation could deliver massive productivity improvements, increased discretionary effort and an era of increased engagement and meaning in work.

Component parts of this transformation are being created now with innovation in enterprise social & cloud solutions, new mobile capabilities, big data and other innovations. The time to influence the direction and breadth of purpose of this innovation is now. The challenge that surrounds us is to develop the management innovations that will leverage these new capabilities to great social benefit.

The new era of knowledge work calls for its entrepreneurs and the simplicity & power of an assembly line for knowledge.

Do you agree? What would the assembly line for knowledge work look like? Can a broader and more balanced purpose guide this innovation in knowledge work? Which paths will we take as the knowledge revolution develops?

Concepts in this post borrowed from:

  • Richard Sennett, The Craftsman and Together
  • Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus 
  • Gary Hamel, The future of management 
  • Umair Haque’s HBR blog

When I’m asked about this on occasion, I hedge the question too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners – and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.

Wyslawa Szymborska. Nobel Prize lecture