The Collaborative Knowledge Ecosystem

Since the seventies and for a number of decades, Knowledge Management has represented a real obsession for private companies, public institutions and non-profit organizations. Thanks to dedicated skills, newly born responsibilities and technology based solutions the collection, transfer and re-use of knowledge assets have long been considered levers to drive performance, differentiation and innovation.Unfortunately this massive market-wide effort has delivered very limited practical outcomes convincing more than one author to claim the dead of knowledge management.

While the overall idea of extracting knowledge from employees’ brain and saving it for organization’s benefit has met substantial roadblocks, the need to let solutions, best practices, templates and other valuable project artifacts flow across departments is surely not gone. Learning from failed attempts, knowledge management is thus back under a new moniker and for dramatically different business reasons:

 

Among its many merits, the excellent work of John Hagel has clarified how knowledge comes in two flavors, stocks and flows:

“As the world speeds up, stocks of knowledge depreciate at a faster rate…. In more stable times, we could sit back and relax once we had learned something valuable, secure that we could generate value from that knowledge for an indefinite period. Not anymore. To succeed now, we have to continually refresh our stocks of knowledge by participating in relevant flows of new knowledge.”

Stocks are mostly about static, codified, explicit knowledge. Flows are much more related to fresh, fluid, constantly changing tacit knowledge that comes from the edge of the organization to face increasingly complex customer expectations and competition from adjacent markets, startups and dramatically different business models.

In the past, knowledge stocks have represented valid sources of both competitive advantage and operational efficiency. Even today they are perfectly fine as long as your business is mostly predictable, repeatable and linear. Under such conditions, individuals and teams’ responsibility is all about collecting what the firm knows and organizing it in a way that is easy to understand, find and use.

Nowadays most companies aren’t anyway that lucky. Their work is first and most of all about improvisation, tailored solutions and reinventing themselves every single day. With John Hagel’s words, it’s not knowing what but knowing how. Answers to customer requests don’t come in the forms of ready-made documents or repositories but through a creative connection, conversation and confrontation. Knowledge decay is so fast as to require constant adaptation and perpetual learning through communities of practice, internal social networks, groups of experts, distributed decision making. Trust along the hierarchy and even across company’s boundaries thus enables collaborative creation of fresh knowledge. More than efficiency, having the right information at the right time in the right place unlocks agility and innovation.

What happens though when, as in most real world situations, both static and dynamic knowledge are required? How do they influence each other? How to best apply knowledge assets to the day-by-day work?

Knowledge follows a full life cycle that goes from creation, to codification, transfer and application. Different flavors are complementary, interact and build one on top of the other.

The low hanging fruit of knowledge sharing is of course operational improvement as knowledge stocks provide guidance, help and critical information to get the job done. Nonetheless there is much more than this:

  • Support. As a basis, explicit knowledge repositories act as a support to operational practice.
  • Require. Previously unmet customer and project needs demand for original solutions and thus the creation of new tacit knowledge.
  • Reinvent. New solutions are tested, validated and refined on the ground to be then transferred to other teams, groups and departments as best practices. The know how becomes diffuse.
  • Nurture. Once approved, broadly replicable and highly valuable solutions are consolidated and codified to become additional stocks of explicit knowledge.

Conclusions

A global and competitive customer driven market is pressing organizations to rethink the way they create, share and leverage knowledge. Instead of being dead, its management is alive and kicking even if according to revisited paradigms that account for the increased opportunity of connecting expertise, creativity and passion across departments and even organizational boundaries.

Connected organizations are exploring enabling roles that let them match and mix knowledge stocks with knowledge flows in a never ending loop of knowledge reinvention, validation and use. A stronger relational dimension guarantees that knowledge to be tightly coupled to real operational issues and customer requests.

Along the collaborative knowledge ecosystem, the organizations accelerates its learning, efficiency, innovation and agility.

This post is also available in: Italian

Emanuele Quintarelli

Social media enthusiast and Social Business Leader in EY. Research, reports and reflections about the introduction of web 2.0 inside the enterprise.