Knowledge organizations

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Risks and the Environment in Knowledge Organizations

Based on the work of Adrian "Zeke" Wolfberg at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Knowledge Laboratory, this white paper will be a [[Crowdsourcing]] project of the Federal CIO Council's Knowledge Management Working Group.


The Knowledge Organization

What are the characteristics of a knowledge organization?

Knowledge organizations

  • operate from a fundamental belief that everyone in the organization has a brain that is biologically pre-wired to process information from the world they interact with into personally meaningful knowledge.
  • promote rather than inhibit communication.
  • promote free flowing communication and open door policies.
  • allow employees a level of freedom in action
  • encourage employee initiative
  • analyze and cull lessons learned from success and failure
  • seek to recognize experiments as learning opportunities and chances to improve
  • seek out success as learning opportunities and chances to improve
  • seek to assume risk as a normal course of operation
  • refuse to stagnate or accept the status quo
  • view employees and the risks they are willing to assume as key to progress
  • encourage connection and conversation in an atmosphere of candor and mutual respect
  • remain curious and adaptable
  • relinquish command and control when experimentation and innovation is required
  • sustain trust compacts with participants from all levels
  • accept ambiguity as natural consequence of innovating

How is this different from a hierarchical model?

In a hierarchical model, power flows down from the top, from those who are presumed to be wiser. While that may have been a requirement when technology did not allow for information to be freely and accurately shared, such organizations are becoming more and more anachronous. Indeed, now that better means of sharing knowledge and directing resources are available, continued reliance upon such organizational structures imposes needless risk upon the community at large. (Owen Ambur)

  • The "hierarchical model" exists only on paper. It is a "map" that does not represent the natural "territory" where "actions" depend upon how people "think", and how they think depends upon what they "believe".. and these beliefs are first created from experience, and then changed by new experiences.
  • Russell L. Ackoff makes an interesting observation in his book, Management f-Laws, asserting an inverse relationship exists between the number of attorneys in an organization and the amount of innovation they will tolerate. This is, perhaps, a key reason why knowledge managers must make an active and ongoing effort to operationalize risk in order to achieve knowledge organization. Left to the organizational bureaucracy, innovation will not occur.

What are examples of a hierachical model, a knowledge organization model, and a hybrid of hierarchical/knowledge model?

Executives should carry a business card with them with leadership printed on one side and management printed on the other. This will remind them that the two activities are different but inseparable. In any organization, leaders should overcome the urge to manage all activity and instead foster change. These innovative activities are typically small, pilot projects, apart from regular production, and designed to discover efficiencies and better practices.

How then, in a true knowledge organization, is innovation proliferated throughout the organization as a new way of doing business? The boundaries of small pilot projects are lifted while the seeds of constant innovation and communication are planted throughout the enterprise.

Hierarchical organizations

  • Organizations that set up feedback mechanisms as a way of surfacing problems for their own edification. Typically, the respondents are patted on the head and thanked for the input. The efficiency of this form of communication is that no action is required on the part of the organization to change or improve.
  • Organizations that have rigid training plans and curriculum laid out as checklists that employees must process through are perpetuating a hierarchical organization. Often executives climbing the ladder take the required management courses, learn the skills they will need to apply in unique situations, but work through an entire career leaving such creative activities behind. Output becomes the echo in such a hierarchical organization without questioning why and what. It is the lack of critical thinking, innovative thinking, risky thinking that leaders should practice.
  • In a typical research laboratory, collaboration would appear to be a necessary requirement. In fact, debates are more the norm than dialogue leading to the defense and entrenchment, polarization of opinions rather than the discovery of the truth that lies between.
  • As an example of trying to incorporate positive changes in our hierarchical organization is their approach to mobile communication. At one time, the agency dictated all employees would have blackberries - clearly an overcompensation and misunderstanding of the value provided by such a tool. What is the positive value in giving a blackberry to every employee from the mail runners on up? In this same federal agency, their odd approach to promoting communication was warped by rigid, hierarchical thinking. Executive and senior level employees certainly have a need for and demonstrate the value to be gained by providing them access to mobile, rapid tools for communication. Where the problems appeared was in the abuse of and rules guiding such usage. Turning on the blackberry upon rising from bed in the morning was discussed in manager meetings. Stories of husbands dodging into side rooms on a Sunday to answer and avoid the reprimands of their wives were reported. The impact on the employees, their families, and the culture and atmosphere in the organization was detrimental. The collaborative tools meant to encourage flat hierarchies, shared governance, and empowerment of individuals cannot be forced into a hierarchical organization to serve the purpose of the hierarchy. The tools simply don’t translate well in that environment, and the opportunity for abuse is tempting to a bureaucrat. Yes, it is an asset to an organization to build a network to facilitate virtual groups, rapid response, and nimble operations. However, in one hierarchical organization the tools meant to promote such an atmosphere were corrupted by rigidity. Less innovation was possible in a culture where the organization was seen as infringing on employees and families. In the final days of such a culture, disgruntled employees banded together against the administration, amassed lists of abuses, and toppled it. The next administration, as a first communication with the rank and file, issued a new philosophy and limits to the employment of such tools, encouraging employee home lives, and sharing the way the most senior employees would embrace a reasoned approach to communications.
  • Ambassador John Bruton proclaims the European Union to be a knowledge organization and not old Europe in an interview on C-Span's Washington Journal Sunday, March 25, 2007. According to the Ambassador, The European Union has proven itself to be a very dynamic organization. Any organization that can go in this past four years from having just 15 members to having 27 members and do all that unanimously is an organization that has a terrific sense of forward movement and an ability to change. And I think the ability to change, the ability to accept risks, political risks, that's what marks success. And the European union is a risk-taking, polity entrepeneuring organization. The Ambassador reflects on the EU's ability to adapt and adopt standards across national boundaries. In recent times, the US failure to act has impacted our ability to set and influence international standards leading to a genuine lag in North America in the proliferation of the semantic web.

Knowledge organizations

  • Leaders are allowed to lead, rather than becoming managers. They are allowed to risk, encourage risk, and function outside the regular boundaries of production.
  • Google and Disney have created interesting work environments and conditions for their employees. Food is brought in frequently, fun becomes part of the regular work day, forced fun is conducted on occasion, laundry might taken care of for employees, bright colors and comfortable clothes encourage an atmosphere of fun. When the place in which you work is a playground, a catered affair, a place where everyday needs are fulfilled, employees tend to work longer and freer producing more innovative ideas. And not every idea must be golden, only one a year from each employee is gold in the bottom line.
  • NASA project teams are intentionally formed with participants from multiple generations. The most risk adverse being the more experienced generation with the most to lose. Generation spanners with the ability to work between generations are said to be “multilingual” and act as translators of ideas.

Hybrid hierarchical/knowledge organizations

  • The Department of Defense includes small pockets of lessons learned organizations with the sole purpose of discovering and improving ongoing activities. The Center for Army Lessons Learned takes an active role in times of conflict not waiting for the conflict’s end, but rather stepping into the arena to interview and report back as the conflict ensues. The value of After Action Reviews (AAR) has long been a standard way of improving the organization, but with CALL the speed at which change and innovation happens is exponentially improved. And in any conflict, the battlefield is a most collegial space.
  • At the Central Intelligence Agency's Center for Mission Innovation, Chief Technology Officer Calvin Andrus has stood up blogs and wikis in an attempt to race against time and speed the transference and transmission of intelligence. The CIO has created more than 10,000 internal blogs and an internal wiki with about 10,000 pages. At some point, CIA employees may adapt completely and swarm as bees around tasks and ideas in this virtual environment. The view presented currently is an ant colony where ants are situationally aware and find their own niche to serve the hive. ("Feds Look to Ants, Wikis, and Blogs", Federal Computer Week, April 21, 2006
  • Although still transforming the way they deliver curriculum and content to students, Duke University began to meet the students where they live and issue Ipods to incoming freshmen. Perhaps a subversive way to get them to do more? The initial findings show IPod and MP3 players increase class attendance because students are excited about the class content. With a six school national pilot underway, the question will be to what extent students begin driving the curriculum. As you expose students to new ideas, solicit their input, create an interactive classroom, surely the standard curriculum wil morph over time. In this case, it's the university faculty taking on the majority of the risk. See the 2005-2006 Duke Digital Initiative Report at

Generation of Value

What is "value" for a knowledge organization?

Value can be measured in organizations in many ways:

  • Improved ways of doing business
  • Increased efficiencies (doing more with less)
  • Decreased Expenses (not repeating the same mistakes)
  • Increased Revenues
  • More Talented Employees
  • Employees with Greater Skills
  • Increased Agility
  • Increased innovation

How does one create value?

An enterprise might approach an investment of resources as a way of increasing value in a number of areas. It could be an increase in human capital, income, output, or goodwill. Perhaps all a value of return on investment, really. A final assessment of the risk/reward will tend to guide an organization in similar future efforts. A well led enterprise will take a strategic view in this valuation with no one success or failure judged in isolation.

If a business unit allows employees time away, there is to be expected a drop in output. To what extent that drop in output is realized is somewhat a function of the value the employee attributes to the support being given. An employee may be persuaded to take training and see the time away from regular duties as a penalty of sorts because they are still required to produce the same amount of output. Only through consultation and agreement between supervisor and employee can educational opportunities be seen as a reward or an opportunity rather than an extra burden. An employee that values the opportunity will tend to absorb and apply the new training if they envision the training as valuable. Additionally, that employee is more likely to put in extra time and effort at their job in order to maintain a high output.

Unleashing the Power

Does an organization create value by allowing employees the freedom to innovate? By making a show of allowing an activity outside the normal course of business to continue, can an organization learn through observation while maintaining a hands-off approach?

For an organization to remain vital in an environment of rapid change, it must change. Stagnation is not a value, it’s a result of complacency and avoidance of risk. Even in an organization with rigid protocols, such as the U.S. Army, recognizing and unleashing the real power of the organization requires empowering individuals. The Army slogan, “ An Army of One”, typifies this shift in thinking. “Be all that you can be” might promise opportunity and lay down a challenge for individual achievement, but “An Army of One” communicates the totality of the experience as solely in the hands of the recruit. Not only is one empowered to improve, recruits can now design and build an individual experience within a unique Army tailored to individual specifications. That is true power in any organization!

When a few company commanders stepped out in their individual ways to lead others, communities of practice and discussion forums began to flourish at that level. As documented in Unleashing the Power of the Army Profession”, Nancy Dixon, Nate Allen, and Tony Burgess expound on the freedom taken and value created in the Army by the smart people who were allowed to do smart things outside the regular lines of protocol and chains of command. These professional forums were not started as sanctioned or supported activities handed down from the Army senior leaders, but rather as virtuous activities of a few good men who cared about reaching back to others that followed them as new leaders. Discussion among peers is an ideal way to share information; an open, friendly, welcoming environment for candid discussion with a buddy. The transition to a virtual environment for this knowledge sharing was a natural step for the x-generation comfortable in a cyber world.

Recall this activity was completely outside the bounds and control of the Army hierarchy. At a certain point, the forums were not only accepted by the Army but sanctioned and supported. The value of gathering and sharing the knowledge through such a venue was self-evident. The Army leadership could have quashed, to a great extent, the effort and reprimanded participants and to some extent do during times of international conflict. However, the Army took the long view in the case of Company Command permitting and ultimately accepting into the traditional training of new leaders how to take best advantage of such knowledge networks. As reported in the Army Times, the Iraq Survival Guide will be printed in early 2007 as further acknowledgement of the value of connection, communication, and content built through these cyber forums or knowledge networks. The Center for Army Lessons Learned has culled particular nuggets of knowledge from the cyber forums and sent them to print for handbook to soldiers in the field. Moving this tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge in such a grand way is perhaps a new best practice for federal entities. (“Iraq survival guide now online” from the Army Times January 30, 2007; online as of February 22, 2007 at

Genius Instigators Bennis and Biederman studied the common factors across several teams of geniuses. In Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration, the authors call the efforts Dreams with a Deadline. To protect the team from the rigidity and bureaucracy of traditional business managers, the team Parent works with the team Administrator to obtain a pass for the project members in most reporting areas while feeding back and where possible aligning with the organizational goals and deadlines. The Parent walks a fine line as leader pointing to the Administrator boss as the bad guy when deadlines have to be met.

The geniuses are assembled (recruiting and perceptive skills needed here), talent is matched to an appropriate task (motivating and systems thinking skills needed here) and the team is set loose without restriction so even the wildest thoughts and boundless dreams might become a reality. The Parent retains the role of protector of the team from the suits. Additionally, the Parent evangelizes the great adventure, acknowledges the risks and encourages risk taking, challenges team members to be courageous and confident that they can and will make a difference in the world through their work on the project. The Parent tends to the Mission Maniacs that have been put to task to save the world. Knowing that command and control kill creativity, the Parent fosters fearlessness, fun, a sense of family, passion, and hope that the team will improve the future of mankind.

Risk-related Strategies

One strategy is risk-management: drives out variation in the system. What value does a risk-management approach provide?

If an organization seeks to drive out all variation, it will only succeed in driving out innovation at the same time. Small opportunities for improvement, operating in a different manner will be squashed and prevented from taking hold and being replicated. Learning will be halted as attention is paid exclusively to adherence to the status quo. So an institution might seek to limit risk at certain times in certain ways, but can’t simply drive out all variance in the organization. Remember, the idea that word processors would replace typewriters seemed an absurd notion at the time. Perhaps this was an idea spread by the manufacturers of Write Out? Some risk must be assumed when improvements are sought, and the improvement itself as well as what is learned through the process are the values created.

Another strategy is risk-creation: brings new connections into the system creating turbulence. How does one create risk, and what happens when one does?

Adapting to a riskier, faster track

Howard Rheingold describes his vision of the impact technologies and social contracts will change the way people "meet, mate, work, fight, buy, sell, govern, and create" in his book, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution These changes can be empowering for individuals and organizations willing to assume the risk takers. Gen-X, Y, and Z will be overtaken by the so called "Thumb Tribes", an affection name for Tokyo texters known as oyayubisoku. In the Washington DC area, addictions to email devices termed "crackberries" have resulted in Orthopedists diagnosing patients with "overuse syndrome" or "BlackBerry thumb". A recent Rutgers University School study reports the addicted as unable to survive for a fwe minutes without checking for new mail.

And with a text/phone device in the hand of every member of the thumb tribe, home life and parental authority has been altered. The days of teenagers being restricted from using a land line telephone for a certain period of time or within certain hours are history. Described as "the softening of time", young people approach appointments and time slots in a different manner as the ability to receive a new or better invitation at any moment impacts a split second change in commitment. The younger generation tends to make more rapid decisions more often. Attendance via a remote device is, in some ways, as good as being there.

A recent presentation by MIT researchers at the 40th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, "Corporate Blogging: Building community through persistent digital talk" found that benefits were social and informational for the heavy users as well as moderate users and created unplanned connections which benefited multiple participants. In fact, the SeeIT researchers at MIT have discovered many benefits for organizations to include improved communcations, improved morale, and knowledge transfers for example.

Taking a risk by trusting In a risk adverse organization such as our federal agency, informal instructions were circulated before the staff from the Inspector General's (IG) office visited. Employees were to remain mum and avoid raising any issues that would draw the attention of the IG. As an individual trained in knowledge management, I saw this as an opportunity to call upon the IG for assistance with thorny issues. When the staff visited and it became a person-to-person discussion about concerns with the program, a revolution took place. By two people trusting each other, we found ways to work together.

As an individual matures and amasses wealth, it is a natural tendency to become more risk adverse. The ability to adopt new technologies tends to diminish as does the desire to do so. An employee who has been successful in a career tends to repeat the activity that has thus far proven successful. What need is there for new technologies? How do you encourage those employees to embrace the new technologies, risk the way they have always done business? Can an organization lead a horse to water only?

Creating Turbulence in a Closed System

Over time, an organization and an individual tends to create a comfort zone and, through repetition, a drone-like quality operating as a machine instead of a learning organization. Within an organization that tends to retain the same employees over long periods of time, such as the federal government, intergenerational collaboration simply doesn't happen. As cited in the NASA example above, teams are assembled with multigenerations with the goal to spread risk taking and infuse historical knowledge and innovation. Turbulence is created when an organization or individual steps out of the comfort zone, is assigned to a team where they are working with new people or dissimilar people, or when new ideas and concepts are introduced.

Within a closed group, such as a discussion list with approved membership, the membership tends to remain constant and new ideas generated from such a group diminish in number and intensity. There is an adaption to each other that takes place, a norming within the group that has gone through the formation of a team in order to perform (Tuckman's theory of team formation from 1965 Once a team has formed, introduction of new team members and new ideas becomes a challenge. The storming thus begins again in order a new norm to be found. Creating new connections in a system automatically unbalances that system.

The 21-year olds conditioned our agency to communicate through text messaging on a regular basis. Certainly it’s not the communication medium of choice for most, but the older workers had to communicate using text messaging if they wanted a timely response to a question. An email might not get attention for days, and forget reaching them by telephone which rolls to voicemail almost exclusively. The cell phone/pda/blackberry, however, is always turned on and watched constantly. Because text messaging is the medium of that generation, the other generations adapted over time. There is an immediacy in the exchange which is appealing. Wonder if the workforce in 2020 will shorten and impose shorthand as a method of conversation and how that will impact communications?

Embracing Ambiguity

Ambiguity has value for knowledge organizations.

Ambiguity in communication is generally considered undesirable imprecision, leading to miscommunication. Grammar manuals aim to dispel ambiguity, a famous example being the improbable best seller Eats, Shoots & Leaves[1], whose title exemplifies the miscommunication introduced by ambiguous punctuation. For grammarians, ambiguity is bad, period.

For the great comedian Groucho Marx, ambiguity was good. It gave him an opportunity to make a joke in his film "Animal Crackers"[2] when he said, “Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas,” then went on to muse, “What he was doing in my pajamas I’ll never know.” Groucho teaches us that in ambiguity, there is opportunity.

Eureka Moments

In Claude Shannon's celebrated model for a communication channel, “noise” is a type of ambiguity. Like a good grammarian, Shannon aimed to filter noise out of the channel, but he recognized that some measure of noise in a channel can be useful because it causes the recipient of a message to pay closer attention to the message—to become immersed in it—and to draw on his/her own tacit knowledge (he didn't call it that) to interpret the message, thereby adding value to it (he didn't use those words either, but he's easily drafted into the KM camp retroactively).

Shannon’s work at Bell Labs was the foundation of information theory, one application of which is the lossy compression used in JPEG files. To oversimplify, a JPEG file contains less information than the original image but people are able to fill in the blanks by drawing on what might be called their tacit visual knowledge, the same kind of knowledge they put to use when viewing a pointillist painting or watching television. If you’ve ever watched a child watch TV, you know how immersive television is.

In narrative communication like storytelling, KM guru Dave Snowden says there’s “a necessary level of ambiguity”[3] that prods an audience to examine different facets of the story. Consider detective fiction. All those red herrings (noise) cause the reader to become intensely involved in the story. That's why writers of detective fiction develop such dedicated fan clubs—think of the following that Conan Doyle still enjoys fully a century after Sherlock Holmes hung up his deerstalker cap.

This immersive effect of ambiguity invigorates knowledge communities, which are channels for knowledge transfer. In the seeking and sharing of knowledge there often exists a level of ambiguity that engages community members in back-and-forth communication, which can be seen either as time-consuming and wasteful or, in the spirit of Groucho, as an opportunity to explore varied points of view and emerge with something innovative. Ambiguity generates Eureka moments and Groucho wouldn’t be surprised to learn that these sudden insights take place in the same area of the brain that enables us to understand jokes.[4]

The Magic of Miscellany

Groucho’s joke hinges on the two varied points of view that his audience could take: he shot an elephant while he was wearing pajamas, or he shot an elephant that was wearing his pajamas. Varied points of view like this are a challenge for taxonomists.

The word “taxonomy” is derived from two Greek words, taxis, meaning “arrangement,” and nomy, which is a body of knowledge. In a knowledge management context, taxonomy can be defined as the arrangement of knowledge artifacts—documents, say—into ordered groups or categories within a library or repository of some kind.

A taxonomist is like an efficient housekeeper who abides by the adage that there’s “a place for everything and everything in its place.” For many people, however, living with a housekeeper who goes around putting away your personal artifacts in closets, cabinets and drawers where you can’t find them can be a trying experience. When a taxonomist is housekeeping for many people with varied points of view about what should be put away where, you’ve got the makings of lunacy, not comedy.

Fortunately, electronic documents aren’t like pens, glasses, ties, shoes, bracelets, loose change and other personal artifacts: they’re easily duplicated and put away in multiple locations, actual and virtual (i.e., in the form of links). Many varied points of view can be accommodated.

That sounds simple enough. But in practice, maintaining a taxonomy can make the labors of Hercules seem like child’s play. What happens to a taxonomy when a new go-to-market strategy changes the naming conventions of knowledge artifacts? Not only names change, but the relationships between and among artifacts also change, and new points of view must be accommodated as well. It’s like introducing a new suit into a game of solitaire—call it pips—and the jacks and queens of hearts and spades suddenly become pips. How do you sort cards to play the game now? The answer is: not easily.

New go-to-market strategies aren’t developed very often. More common is the need to deal with a unique artifact, or one not obviously related to other artifacts, like the name badge from a trade show that you took home as a souvenir. Personal artifacts like single-use name badges usually wind up in a junk drawer. As it happens, taxonomists provide a junk drawer for unique knowledge artifacts. This is the category called “miscellaneous” that you often see on checklists of tags when you publish documents into a repository.

A miscellaneous category is both a muddle of ambiguity and a font of innovation. It’s a muddle of ambiguity because the content contains an incoherent message. But as content accumulates, a housekeeping taxonomist periodically scavenges through this junk drawer and starts to notice some content cohering into patterns. Patterns of miscellaneous content inspire the creation of new categories. New categories nudge up against other categories like patrons at a singles bar, suggesting relationships. Soon people scanning the taxonomy notice these new relationships. Then Jack has a Eureka moment: those technology blueprints are really like business blueprints! And Jill chimes in: if you layer them, you’ve got a three-dimensional model!! Hmmm.

You may know how this scenario ends, with an innovation that Unisys Corporation calls 3D Visible Enterprise[5]. Why might a scenario like this develop? Because Jack and Jill became immersed in the relationships forming in the taxonomy. Because the taxonomist became immersed in the miscellaneous category. Because, to begin with, the taxonomist didn’t attempt to dispel all ambiguity, but rather embraced it by allowing for miscellany.

Flattening the Taxonomy

Embracing ambiguity in a taxonomy goes beyond allowing for miscellany. Taxonomies are intended to place things in context—seeing something in context is a reason to browse for content instead of searching for it. However, innovation often happens when you see something out of context, when you think about it out of the box that a rigorous taxonomy tends to put it in.

For people developing a taxonomy the trick is to balance the benefits of putting everything in its place against the costs of forcing users to follow clickstreams to ever more granular targets. The rule of thumb is this: it’s better to cluster similar artifacts and allow users to scan the clusters than to force users to drill down into boxes with singular artifacts. The eye is quicker than the mouse.

The main benefit of flattening a taxonomy like this is to pull content out of constricted categories and open it to examination in relation to a larger set of sibling content. It’s the benefit of being able to think about outsourcing in a global context rather than in narrower national terms. And if the similarity between siblings sometimes seems a little tenuous, we should be willing to embrace the ambiguity as an opportunity to seed innovation.

Support Mechanisms to take Risks

Learning: which one - outcome-based or behavior-based?

What are the impacts of an outcome and behavior based learning approach?

Trust: which one - externally provided (structure/design) or internally generated?

What are the characteristics of internally generated trust, and how can this be achieved?

Cultural Change

How/when does the benefit of knowledge creation and sharing outweigh the loss/cost of losing _____________ (fill in the blank)?

Thinking of knowledge creation and sharing leads me to think of the FEA activities. In our federal agency, leadership has allowed the mission to carry us through decades of business as usual. Without constant examination of the mission, certainly required by the OMB's Federal Enterprise Architecture, the agency and business units are allowed to become unfocused. Realignment of energies against the mission should be done intermittently to keep a check on scope creep and herd the employees in the same direction. With an FEA and the goal of collaborating across agencies, OMB seems to be preaching the gospel of Knowledge Management without calling it KM. There may be energy lost by reassessing, learning what's new in other agencies, but with the speed of business/technology/information an agency ultimately loses its way by NOT sharing knowledge, by not creating new knowledge within the agency. The idea that stagnation causes death seems to be the heavier weighted choice with "not sharing knowledge" ensuring an agency's demise. Do agencies only change when faced with demise? Or do agencies change when changing is less of a risk than the risk associated with remaining the same?

Maintaining U.S. preeminence in the Global Economy The speed of adoption and widespread acceptance of significant change in culture can be increased by the backing and support from the highest levels of government. Backing of well-respected research can spur adoption as well, if not thinking along alternative lines of solving a problem. Two U.S. Senators understood this need for research and recommendations they needed in order to move the legislative agenda and commissioned the National Academies to produce such a report as a cornerstone to instigating the change in policy and spending they sought.

The 90-day study by the National Academies Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy was published in 2007 (Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future) Among the recommendations were ones that would prompt agencies to explore their tolerance for accepting risks in order to spur innovation. As a whole, the report infers the culture found in U.S. organizations as a general finding predicts a dire future for the country.

With the National Academies report stating that the U.S. is slipping in its leadership in innovation, decreasing in the quality innovation produced while other countries rise in preeminence, a range of recommendations were made in this report.

  • Increase America's talent pool by vastly improving K-12 mathematics and science education;
  • Sustain and strengthen the nation's commitment to long-term basic research;
  • Develop, recruit, and retain top students, scientists, and engineers from both the U.S. and abroad; and
  • Ensure that the United States is the premier place in the world for innovation.

The way organizations manage change and innovation will be directly impacted by the management of human capital and innovation. Listen to the MIT World Lecture by George Whitesides on how to strengthen this nation's position in the global economy given that capitalism dictates that corporations get the best bang for the buck. The Incentives for Innovation were of particular interest to agencies seeking to describe, define, and scope levels of risk they are ready to accept. There is a host of bills in the Senate and the House making their way through the system as a result of a well orchestrated strategic plan for introducing ideas for managing significant change.

(Mention the OSTI contagion model here.)

What adoption strategies can be used for introducing new technologies, process or behaviors? At Lockheed Martin, as in many institutions, the lawyers shut down certain blogs. The business units are independent entities, seen as separate profit centers for accounting purposes. Therefore, there was no indemnity across business lines within the same company.

At Ford Motor, blogs have exposed the worst in customer interactions with postings from irate customers notifying all with internet access of the lack of service, quality, or value provided by the company. In private industry where each action is seen as having direct impact on the bottom line, how does one justify giving a megaphone to an irate customer? Does the risk of bad press from a disgruntled customer impact sales enough to cause the company to close down the blogs?

How can one think about top-down and bottom-up approaches?

Bottom-up approaches are based upon existing expertise, accumulated knowledge of the members of an organization, and enable multiple perspectives to be created for viewing the information provided. They are less intrusive, because they do not impose changes in the workflow. The drawback is the fact that complexity has to be managed, because it's not hidden. But top-down based approaches are more fragile, because they need to be replaced from time to time.

As the leaders in an organization pattern behavior, subordinates are likely to study that behavior and likely model their own by it. From the vantage point of a subordinate seeking to rise in an organization, I think of the Dilbert cartoon that emphasized the employee modifying their appearance to resemble the boss. Ambitious employees sometimes mimic their superiors or those who have been promoted within an organization in an attempt to gain the same positive results.

Alternatively, employees have power as a group over leaders in that organization. There is much strength in numbers. Many federal agencies have given up trying to prevent federal employees from using the internet for personal use. Instead, more reasonable guidance was issued that outlines how and when government provided computers can be used for personal use during the workday.

In general, there are behaviors that are adopted by choice because an individual has been enticed, persuaded, convinced of the value of adoption. And there are behaviors that become so prevalent in a population that they are accepted as standard practice, one that couldn't be changed but must be acknowledged.

About Crowdsourcing

The crowdsourcing phenomenon is not a new one in the KM world. Collaboration and teaming on projects has been experimented with, refined in, and made a staple of many knowledge organizations. [6]


The Networked Book by Ben Vershbow in Forbes 12.01.06 12:00 PM ET viewed December 5, 2006 at [7]

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