Ford’s production lines have marked a turning point in human history. Business had to change and whoever did not understand the need for automation and series production was to be crushed by industrialization itself. After nearly 100 years, Skandia marked the official beginning of “the knowledge era”: Leif Edvinson was hired in the early 90’s as a CKO (Chief Knowledge Officer) in order to capitalize intangible assets of the organization. At Skandia’s size, it was obvious that there were a lot of resources wasted and they spent a lot of time “reinventing the wheel” rather than facilitating transfer of expertise, innovation, lessons learned – in a word, knowledge.
Two years ago I began to work on “capitalizing” knowledge in a territory stretching from northern countries to South Africa and from UK to India which made me look with great interest on this topic. I found that knowledge management is perceived differently from one company to another (with some elements in common) and what works in some parts of the world as formal structure has no relevance in another cultural environment. Also, the literature is divided, sometimes the KM (knowledge management) function being located in the organizational chart somewhere similar to internal audit, sometimes subordinating it to the CEO, Business Development or, in early literature, integrated or confused with IT.
Out of the box
Only after I began to think “out of the box”, I understood that knowledge management comes in fact to maintain the organization’s brain, to keep it active, to develop it so the organization is able to work and innovate. Organizations that have dysfunctional knowledge management begin to suffer the same effects that the Alzheimer disease has on human brain: intellectual abilities are lost, even reach inability to think abstractly, the coordination is limited, and they have trouble performing daily activities. As a result initiatives become increasingly rare till they disappear completely.
Since the evolution is similar to an organization’s brain, I named this disease Knowledgeheimer. Thinking about an organization as a patient appeared to be making more sense to me when dealing with knowledge management. Knowledgeheimer allowed me to identify knowledge management problems without being limited by structures, tools and frameworks.
Organizations can live longer than people who created them, and the disappearance of founders should not bankrupt the companies they founded. The most important condition to avoid such major danger is a healthy organisational brain that leads to effective coordination and the capacity to constantly adapt the business to the realities of the time. As organizations grow, the “brain” is no longer a person or a group, but rather the result of collective intelligence.
Knowledgeheimer is very sensitive to some risk factors and advanced age is one of them. However, Knowledgeheimer is not necessarily installed due to the passage of time, but to the inability to utilize and share knowledge. Organizations can stay young as long as they keep an active brain, responsive to internal and external stimuli.
Although they do not solve the problem, investments in distribution systems and retention of information, collaboration platforms within the organization and between organizations and customers are a turning point. Without them, Knowledgeheimer is already installed. However, creating an organizational culture that encourages knowledge sharing and teamwork is the essential driver so that investment in technology is not in vain.
Any organization needs information from external sources as no one has complete ownership of all the knowledge in this world. Lack of access to external information sources and lack of an external performance assessment is also one of the causes of Knowledgeheimer. The effect is breaking out of reality which leads to schizoid behaviour and functional retardation.
Prevention and treatment. About Steve Jobs’ toilets.
In 1991, Knowledgeheimer’s treatment involved maximizing the organization’s intangible assets. Later, however, innovation was in the forefront of concerns – materialised into projects like Skandia Future Centre, a prototype to test the operation of new methods of capitalization of knowledge and, in particular, human intelligence within the organization. The basic principle was to stimulate new ideas and creative processes. This successful project was then replicated by the Ministry of Finance in Denmark with what they called “Mindlab”. However, as I said, the need for specific medications leads to the need of each organization to open its own lab.
Sometimes treatment methods relate to patients’ creativity. For instance, Steve Jobs has been criticized by employees that he moved water dispensers and toilets in the middle of the building. In this way, each of them was forced to get out of their own perimeter. Discussions from the water dispenser often end with views of company processes and products. This soon led to an informal environment for expression of collective intelligence.
Just as with Alzheimer’s, to combat Knowledgeheimer, the organization’s brain should be looked at consistently and intentionally, in a pro-active manner. Access to knowledge retention and its capitalization should be part of the daily workflow.
A look into the future
I’m reluctant to “one size fits all” when it comes to knowledge management. I believe in the individuality of each organization and believe that a keyword for the future of knowledge management is “creativity”. Approaches will have to be creative, even if they are based on similar tools: databases, networking platforms, expertise location, or collaboration systems for communities of practice. Knowledgeheimer is already the most common form of organisational dysfunction and, if not treated properly, worsens as it progresses, eventually leading to death. As we become more and more knowledge-driven societies, its incidence is increasing from year to year.
Article published by Money Magazine, July 2012 edition. Click here for the original printed version.