The Virtuous Cycle of Shared Knowledge and Innovation

Inspiration is an iterative process, where the first idea is rarely the right idea. More often than not, innovation comes through an iterative process of idea generation, review and feedback, and refinement. Organizational innovation requires a shared understanding, and the ability for ideas to be captured, then expanded on and re-worked, often with one or more changes in direction. Reaching that shared understanding can be incredibly difficult. And let’s be honest — capturing corporate knowledge is hard.

And if identifying and capturing corporate knowledge wasn’t hard enough, now classify and tag it for long-term retrieval.

One of the most difficult scenarios for organizations is the process of not just capturing knowledge, but making sure it is both relevant and accessible. We spend vast amounts of our limited budgets and engineering resources on data capture, integration, and search so that we can get content and knowledge out of the heads of our teams and into a format that can once again be leveraged by others. And if all goes well, this documented knowledge can be used to solve future business problems. Generally speaking, we’re incredibly bad at this.

The problem is that our data — most of it unstructured in Office documents, email, and social conversations — is not easily reassembled into some kind of usable context. And without context, the individual artifacts become less useful, less relevant.

Classifying Knowledge

Consider your co-worker, about to retire from the company. In the weeks leading up to their departure, someone realizes that critical knowledge and experience is about to walk out the door — and that it should be captured somehow. The soon-to-be-retired employee spends the last few weeks in the office documenting a lifetime of knowledge and experiences, except a lot of this wisdom is difficult to articulate— at least in a way that can be reassembled and used later. Behind every process diagram is a narrative, a story or explanation that is difficult to transfer. As the employee hands off the completed documents to a co-worker who will soon be tasked with owning the related processes, the team attempts to fill in the gaps by asking questions, taking notes, possibly recording these discussions.

No matter how much you document, there is tremendous value that comes through informal conversation and instant messaging — because it adds additional context. That’s why social collaboration can be so powerful, even essential to modern knowledge management.

For example, in a social conversation two users might point to seemingly disconnected projects or documents and identify important points that link them together — connections that may not be easily identified through the formal classification and taxonomy process, and otherwise lost.

Conversations serve as a connecting node in a broader social web of content, discussions, and ideas.

Sharing Adds Context

Here’s an example that I often share when discussing the power of social collaboration: There are two documents of equal value, with similar titles and metadata, that are indexed within a collaboration platform. While the former document remains in place and unchanged, the latter document is shared with the author’s peers, who tag it, Like it, rate it, comment on it, and add additional metadata (both formal taxonomy and informal folksonomy, or end-user generated tags). They also share it with other co-workers, who repeat the process of tagging, Liking, and sharing the document within their own project teams. With each interaction, the latter document gains richer metadata and greater contextual relevance. Weeks or months later, as information workers search for content, the latter document has become more relevant and “findable” within the system because of all of this rich metadata and contextual links from other people and projects, while the former document slips further down the search results page.

Sadly, we provide more metadata and context to our documentation than we do to our business knowledge and expertise.

Supporting Innovation

Innovation requires the right organizational atmosphere in which it can develop. By providing a centralized interface for collaboration, and capturing the rich social interactions — beyond simple documentation, organizations will find it easier for team members to generate and iterate on their own ideas, and the ideas and inputs of others. Employees will feel more empowered to share their knowledge and ideas rather than keep them hidden — and with more content and rich metadata, teams will be better able to identify patterns within their corporate knowledge, and more readily leverage the collective experiences of the group.

Innovation should be an unfettered process — it requires an environment where people can think outside of the box, where they are encouraged to share their ideas, or add to the ideas of others. Most organizations are fairly structured in how they allow new ideas to be introduced, and even strategic planning can be a defined and orderly process which may not inspire people to be open and share their ideas. Having a shared vision, and allowing people to add to that vision over time, can help unlock creativity and innovation.

We are our own biggest critics, and we often filter our own ideas before sharing them with team members. However, with the right tools and proper facilitation, team-based idea creation (“ideation”) can be a highly rewarding experience, and greatly benefit your organization. At the core of the ideation process is a map of the problem space and proposed solutions, offered up without criticism. By allowing individuals and teams to better capture and share thoughts and ideas, others will be inspired to build on those ideas, provide supporting ideas or artifacts that may not otherwise be surfaced, and generate collective solutions that would not otherwise find their way to the light if not for the team effort.

Innovation, like capturing corporate knowledge, is hard. But the easier we make it for people to capture and contextualize their knowledge and experiences, the greater the resources from which people can draw from and innovate.