The nature of knowledge in organisations
Attracting new talent, engaging internal subject matter experts, embedding a continual learning culture and better leveraging information and data assets are frequently stated as high-level goals by many organisations I interact with. Despite their importance, often a gap exists in understanding what they mean or how to achieve them. Additionally, there are also some larger macro influences that are changing the nature of what it means to ‘know something’ or learn as an organisation.
Being part of a social group or tribe is important part of being human. It is also an important construct in how we generate knowledge and take action. I currently work for a very large organisation, within which I belong to a smaller ‘tribe’ and various formal and informal networks. In this article I’m going to write about why this is important, the paradox that is often present and the challenges with trying to balance kinship and scale.
Firstly, it’s important to explore some of the dynamics that play out as we convert information to knowledge and (hopefully) wisdom.
Knowledge can’t be emailed
Information doesn’t become knowledge until you do something with it; develop a skill, make a decision, solve a problem, teach, etc. Knowledge can be simply defined as ‘an enhanced capacity for action’. It takes on this form because it has meaning, history, a context.
A definition like this implies that knowledge doesn’t exist apart from “knowers”. As soon as it gets ‘codified’ or recorded in a digital or paper like form it reverts back to information — ready for a new owner.
Another implication of this definition is that knowledge is only valuable when acted on. Therefore, its value to us is in how we apply it and leverage it in networks. We also know that the ‘half-life’ of much of our information and knowledge is becoming shorter because of the pace of change in our environment. Therefore, we need to be continually renewing and validating what we ‘know’. At the same time, we are being bombarded with more information and data than ever.
Knowledge is what we know, it is influenced by — and connected to — beliefs, value systems, culture, and experience.
When knowledge is captured in some tacit form it reverts to information. Only when it is reused is it re-transformed to knowledge. Knowledge becomes wisdom when we understand the principles behind what we do or what happens to us and we are able to apply it elsewhere. This is the ultimate aim of any organization that has any intent to evolve and remain relevant.
The cumulative effect of what I have proposed above is that knowledge (and wisdom) can only exist within people and is enhanced in human networks. This is because knowledge differs to information and data in that it consists of meaning, experience and heuristics, in order to enhance our capacity for action. If this is true, then if a group of people share enough context or experience then shared knowledge can also exist within a network.
There is wisdom in crowds
The organisation I currently work in is very large, global and full of knowledgeable people. We aim to communicate well, connect often and share what we do — to differing degrees of success. The intention is to enhance a key differentiator for the market, that we are a large collection of talented people who can bring to the customer the full power of this large collection of knowledge and experience. Leveraging the wisdom of the crowd!
When done well, this can be incredibly powerful and fruitful for the people we work with. But it’s hard to do well because of the nature and complexity of our organisation, the nature of knowledge, variations in context and more importantly, the unique conditions we face each time we approach a new challenge.
What we are talking about here firstly is wisdom (being able to apply what we know to another arena or context) which is different to knowledge or information because it has more dimensions. Wisdom not only knows, but it also understands, which is more fluid and inspires flexibility. The way we create wisdom is through creating more connections between the knowledge we have accumulated.
Each node of knowledge in our mind is a mental model of some aspect of reality, but that mental model isn’t fully complete until it has been stripped down and re-contextualised in light of the information contained in other mental models of knowledge around it.
The same goes for shared knowledge and an organisations capacity to generate wisdom. This capacity comes from the strength of the information network combined with the ability to strip down the components and mental models to their essence and re-contextualise or shift perspective. A well-connected organisation, that is empowered to re-contextualise and perspective shift is the basis for organisational wisdom. The illiterate of the 21st century will not just be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.
In our recent work exploring our own organisation and how it acquires knowledge, leverages networks and generates outcomes we observed some interesting phenomena. One of the highlights for me was the interplay between the need to increase connectedness while also feeling overwhelmed by it. We spoke to many employees who indicated their struggle with information and connection overload while also discussing how powerful it is to be part of such a large organisation with so much potential. I explored some thoughts about the specific need to design for the overwhelmed in a recent article here.
Wisdom comes from connecting, but also from time and space to reflect and evolve.
We need safety of the tribe
In our work we observed the need to create a ‘tribe’ or a small group of people who we shared a strong network tie in order to cope with the complexities inherent in a large system. People told us stories of how they often rely on the same network to talk through complex thoughts or new ideas. In a number of cases, this tribe was formed long ago, with people who shared a common experience, and then meticulously cultivated over a long period of time to maintain its health.
One leader told us how they had a trusted group of advisors they turned to when faced with a particular novel problem. The members of this tight network were from various backgrounds and disciplines, all connected via a common experience. Membership included a COO, an artist, a horse trainer from New Zealand, among others. I find this a great metaphor for how we turn knowledge into wisdom, combining experience from elsewhere and re-contextualising.
Another reason why this case is important is that this leader relied on this network because it was easier, and they trusted them. The larger organisation was just too big to develop this trust or to easily find the right people at the right time. And without the ability to easily transfer context, any advice or contribution could be compromised because it lacked nuance. This leader would qualify and re-contextualise in a smaller, trusted tribe first. Once a level of comfort was achieved, they would then expand the network and call on looser ties or even new people to help the process of social validation and the evolution of the knowledge. But it started in a small group of trusted and accessible ‘friends’. We heard this over and over again. Both from people who were in such tribes and from people who felt like they lacked their own.
Another interesting example came from another leader who told us the joy they got from bringing people together in their functional area. Their main method for this was social events, large and small, sometimes at their own house. They believed this was one of their most important functions as a leader, to connect people. But of particular interest was the cultivation of a network and sub-networks (tribes). The leader had a smaller group of trusted advisors and ‘doers’ (about 15–20 people) who formed a core group that had a fairly stable membership but would be ‘refreshed’ each year with 2–3 people moving away and a similar amount being selected in. These people were trusted, and selected on their mindset and not necessarily their raw talent.
Both of these examples highlight something happening on a deeper level. These leaders believed a key part of their success was the ability to leverage their networks and apply learning elsewhere. They achieved this by cultivating a tight, trusted network. It also represents a challenge for any organisation attempting to leverage the wisdom of the crowd. Some of the challenges and questions that we explored were;
- How do we nurture tribes while also encouraging new and novel connections?
- How might we better target information flows so that people don’t feel overwhelmed at reduce their ‘network capacity’ too much?
- How might we create spaces where people can connect serendipitously so that we increase the likelihood of new tribal connections forming?
- How do we help people who are new to the organisation or field of expertise establish their own networks quickly and effectively?
- What structures, models, tools and cultures are best suited to the leveraging of the crowd and the safety of the tribe? Especially given the increasingly short ‘half-life’ of knowledge?
- How might we expand our support for this to elements across the organisational boundary, involving customers, community, and even competition?
Another phenomenon we observed was a feeling of being overwhelmed with information and communications. The organisation has created a lot of content, channels and messages in its quest to connect and leverage expertise. However, this has also created noise and in some areas an excess of information. The organisation cannot be held solely accountable for this as we heard evidence that people weigh up their capacity (and tolerance) holistically — assessing all of the connections and channels in their life together and not work and home life separately. The organisational tools and messages have to compete with the personal ones. Also, networks are increasingly formed across boundaries and not necessarily be tied to an organisational construct. Two very important pieces of information for any organisation attempting to do something in this space.
Achieving success requires a difficult balance of the crowd and tribe
As outlined above, wisdom comes from understanding — but this is not enough. Its value lies in the application derived from the understanding. Wisdom is applied understanding.
Our experience showed that application of knowledge and wisdom most often requires more than one person, but not too many. The conditions for wisdom require an accumulation of new connections, but also the right conditions that allow us to reflect, pay attention and re-contextualise. If we haven’t established a relationship based on trust and shared experience, then we are unlikely to be able to act wisely. Similarly, if we are overwhelmed with information then we are unlikely to have the capacity to ‘upscale’ that information into knowledge and ultimately wisdom.
The nature of knowledge means it’s self-organising. The self that knowledge organises around is organisational or group identity and purpose. This process becomes even more important as we attempt to create wisdom. Tribes provide a level of safety, relatedness and trust that help us with this process. We check our understanding, evolve it safely and re-contextualise with those who are like us. Then it’s safe to expand our field of influence and attempt to leverage it on a broader scale.
This process, and an openness to a broader context is critical part of the story. We have seen with the emergence of online ‘echo chambers’ and extreme tribalism can lead to a reduction in shared growth and group health. When we cling to conviction as a signifier of belonging we find it easier to turn our gaze inwards rather than venture into a sphere of knowledge and discovery. We know in our organisation that we need to cultivate courage and creativity alongside connection and kinship.
The kinship in tribes is not replicated at scale — and this is ok!
The scale of our organisation (and many organisations) means that forming networks and tribes is a reality that should be enabled. This is an organic and complex process that needs the right conditions and cannot be overly engineered in the traditional sense. Our hypothesis is that this process needs custodians, curators and coaches.
We need to ask ourselves (and the organisations we work with);
- Where are the areas of exceptional practice that can be studied?
- What forces are in play that we can leverage?
- What is our balance of crowd and tribe? (Different organisational designs require different topologies)
- How can we create the right conditions that allows for constant improvement, so we can cope with the need to constantly update what we know?
- Who are our custodians, curators and coaches?
- How can we nurture continual learning and un-learning?
- How might we support greater fluidity of a workforce that allows talent to flow more freely in and out as its required (and accumulates knowledge externally and across networks)?
Effectively dealing with the ‘tribal knowledge paradox’ isn’t easy. We know that business success is dependent on knowledge and the connections we make, even though our structure, process and management often conflict with the need for effective information flow and forming of relationships.
Wisdom is applied understanding. But understanding can be so personal.
Transformational Strategist / Experience Designer / Ambassador for seeing new possibilities / Explorer of the world