When you can edit your organisation’s knowledge, you can drive the transformation you want across your business
In most organisations, what the business knows isn’t articulated in plain view in simple language that decision makers can understand and act on.
Until now, it has been largely impossible to get to the state at which true workplace knowledge productivity could be galvanised by uniformly capturing and organising collective know-how, to stimulate creativity and capacity for breakthrough insight.
This is no longer so.
The ability to use workplace social technologies to tease out and direct the knowledge a business already contains may now prove one of the most potent emerging organisational differentiators in driving and adapting to change.
If you want to be the disruptor, not the disrupted, you may need a different principle for steering how your people think and learn.
There is now a disarmingly simple, universally known, solution through which workplace knowledge can now be harvested and tailored to need in plain language.
How to turn it to purpose and advantage is the subject of what follows.
Why try to get your organisation’s knowledge in shape?
The coupling of workplace social technologies with workplace knowledge, know-how and intelligence provides the most formidable formula we’ve ever known to thrive in a world of relentless business model innovation and hastening, discontinuous change.
It is hardly surprising that workplaces truly fashioned around the intelligence and knowledge-creating potential they contain have enormous implications for workplace strategy.
Against this backdrop, global management consultancy McKinsey writes that workplace social technologies are finally being adopted widely and are shifting the basis on which companies organise to compete.
I am not sure why this would be a surprise. However, in tandem with that uptake, for those able to transform collective workplace intellect into new knowledge productivity, or “kno-pro,” the low-hanging fruit opportunity for new value capture is profound.
Under-used knowledge exists within any business — it just isn’t just lying on the surface waiting to be found.
Its holders may never step forward, and if they have no strategies for capturing it, companies will every day keep on wasting the knowledge they contain.
But no matter how good or how popular the tools they use, managers can’t be hands-off about assuming the knowledge in a business will conscientiously form itself into a meaningful, useful whole.
McKinsey addresses this, saying the tools should follow — not lead — new ways of working.
So, there has to be a better model.
The following describes an organising principle through which, on the road to artificially intelligent (AI) workplaces, some people may get a lot richer by using workplace knowledge more effectively to shift the basis on which their companies compete.
They may start to do this simply by recognising how the existing knowledge of their organisations can, with purpose, be captured, documented, edited, transformed and built on.
Perhaps more profoundly, this may in turn reveal to management who its most able and willing knowledge holders and contributors are, such that it can learn to identify, specify and attract the talent it wants in its knowledge-driven future.
The sense-making challenge
This is the real challenge: many organisations are simply falling short of their knowledge-creating potential.
Even if they have appropriate technical talent and recognise the value of the knowledge they possess, they are still most likely not mining their people’s collective smarts such that they can be shared and built upon in a reliable, predictable way.
The problem no longer lies in the tools.
We already have the technologies and the media of storage, capture, reproduction and transmission to realise the opportunity to restart organisation-wide insight at will.
There is also a model. It is based on the historic prototypes of publishing and journalism. When journalism works well, it does so because it pursues a worthwhile question and relays the answer in a helpful, comprehensible way.
Media works to make things we don’t really understand more accessible to us.
So, what might be possible if you could read, plan and create the knowledge of an organisation like a book or journal?
The model of professional publishing that delivers such results has now been in place for hundreds of years.
It has unlimited applications and uses methods familiar to everyone.
It is the source of every new breakthrough in knowledge the world has ever known.
And, using it, any business can turn the under-used intelligence of its people into its primary strategic asset.
The spur for knowledge editing
Just because every television, radio news show or newspaper seems to be chasing the same story at the same time doesn’t mean there is a finite body of stories in the world ready-created and just waiting to be picked and published.
Instead, the story you experience is typically the result of endless, exhaustive, picky, independent, directed investigations by many people, each pursuing it according to their own agenda.
Competitors often provide journalists with their best leads, such that it seems many media outlets are simply publishing the same stories.
Yet, the inspiration to cover a story often comes simply because a rival has found it first.
Their competitors may be inspired just to explore it further, taking a different “angle” on the story which is better suited to their own audience.
The editor’s role
Editors make our sense of the world, pulling on threads until a picture forms through the work of their reporters.
Someone, likely a little more experienced, playing the editorial role, will be guiding reporters in their story investigation, saying, “Get me two minutes of this, or 800 words on that, and while you’re there, can you get me a contribution from the investigating officer to get her perspective.”
That is, as much as news is to be discovered, it is there to be made into a story that can be consumed and understood by the interested audience the newsmaker has identified.
This process is essentially the same for all media — consumer, professional and academic — across print, radio, television and the web, and its basic rules of production have been executed in broadly the same fashion in everything you and I have ever learnt from.
This is not magic. It is the result of a deliberate management process.
In the business context, sense-making within companies may be complex, because they are often opaque, even to insiders.
But businesses are certainly no more complicated than the entire external world, and their internal audiences have a lot more in common and a far greater shared interest in their successful continuation.
What’s the big deal about editing?
In the knowledge age, knowledge-creation and its purposeful transformation and transfer is central to, if not the sole purpose of, the work of its workplaces.
Reliable knowledge creation can only begin with material that can be made explicit, and editing drives the necessary sense-making to transform knowledge into something that can be extended and built on.
Editing is a foundational force for learning, bringing diverse streams of knowledge together, and guiding their development by exploring those most deserving of further enquiry.
It is questions and answers all the way down.
It guides future knowledge discovery because it always exposes the question of what must be learnt next.
The judicious eyes of editors work out whether the known streams of input work together, and if and how they should be joined to guide audience understanding.
Above all, they decide how information should be presented for the easiest consumption by the audience that is its target.
The rule that determines how any publication presents its matter to its audience is straightforward: information which can not be understood or consumed easily will not be, and must therefore be reconceived.
Everything from which any reader of this piece will have learnt has its origins in the hands of editors, even if that learning comes by proxy, by word of mouth, from friends.
It is also the rule that determines how in speaking, in the first thing we say, we give our listener the information most likely to affect them and then fill in the subsequent detail.
News stories try to follow this rule, summarising the body of a story in their arresting headlines and opening sentences.
We also can be on the lookout for “editors” who have a talent for searching out new edges and providing early perspectives on why these edges might be gaining importance…
When it comes to the written word, this new generation of editors won’t just edit content developed by their own publications, they’ll focus on curating a much broader range of third-party content available throughout the internet. Some of these editors will likely focus on tracking the emergence of promising new edges, searching out the most promising content from the edges to help their audience sort out the signal from the noise.
In this case, our serendipitous encounters will be with content that provides early visibility into the innovation opportunities arising on emerging edges. One role of this new generation of editors will be to help us to see relationships between new stories from the edge and our own passions and interests.
John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, The Power of Pull, Basic Books, 2010
In short, the knowledge workplace needs editors, because editors ensure things get investigated and documented to steer organisational enquiry and learning.
They plan for time, create the reports the managers around them need, and determine the resources to be applied to ensure deadlines get met.
The emerging machine-learning view of workplace knowledge
Within 20 years, and arguably much sooner, we will have businesses driven entirely by autonomous machine collaboration and learning.
In the age of machine learning and increasingly capable AI, their processes may occasionally be given a prod in a new direction by the interventions of a new super-bright mind, a super-learner introduced into its midst to shake things up a bit.
These organisations will be entities capable of making complete sense of the knowledge they contain and marrying it with the outputs of the various media of knowledge capture.
They will understand how to parse knowledge and understand its context, its wrinkles and connections to all other knowledge, both within and beyond the organisational perimeter.
They will be able to capture and make sense of knowledge precisely, regardless of the input language and nuance with which it is communicated.
At this point, organisations may comprise fewer people as they will be populated largely by smart machines.
They will create value principally for organisations that have grown to occupy the dominant niche in the industry value chain of which they are part.
Some of the largest digital organisations — Google, Facebook, Amazon — are clearly already on their way there, with some, tellingly, clearly based on a media model.
Perhaps such businesses will play a role in many parallel value chains, or even dominate the entire value chain of the industry within which they currently operate.
With their innate understanding and ability to interpret every other business model known either to man or machine, most of these controlling machines’ reach will be out to other dominant industry machines with which they can co-ordinate. If successful, the effect on the wealth and power of their owners seems predictable and upwards, although they will find themselves in a constant arms race.
Unless they occasionally need a new bucketful of human input, these organisations will likely be pretty much entirely self-programming.
If this is a future we expect or wish to benefit from in the short term, we should get busy on the learning practices that are their early internal fuel.
In this perhaps inevitable development, currently, most businesses aren’t even at the “concierge” stage of development, in which they take instructions, learn from human behaviour and transform them into meaningful algorithmic responses.
In this, knowledge capture and transformation is the start.
Sense-making lies at the heart of the learning organisation
In Peter Senge’s seminal The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, former Shell Oil planning director Arie De Geus said, “The rate at which organisations learn may become [their] only sustainable source of competitive advantage.”
Theory holds that an organisation can improve over time as it gains experience, from which it is able to create unique, proprietary knowledge where it needs it.
We now have the tools available in possibly a majority of businesses to accomplish what Senge could only dream of when writing in pre-internet 1990.
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.
“Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
Steve Jobs, The Next Insanely Great Thing, Wired, February 1996
Some knowledge-editing use cases
The application of idea mining might be used to guide collaborative organisational learning for, among other things:
- General organisational operational development and refinement
- As a check for organisational health and morale
- Change monitoring and sensitivity development
- Innovation, new product development idea generation and screening
- Strategy development
- Waste minimisation and sustainability
- Risk management and business continuity planning
- Attraction and recruitment
- Cultural and creativity development
- Security and threat management
- Continuing editorial system improvement, guided by usage
Directed, collaborative learning has immediate application to pretty much anything important to the continuation and well being of any organisation.
To get started, ask intelligent, provocative questions
To engage most immediate attention and focus in kick-starting your knowledge-capture initiative, you might have to reach out with the fuel of provocative, potentially heretical questions.
Those within the business, and particularly those at its outward-facing “edges” must be trained and guided to become more sensitive and to bring wider awareness of change in its environment. Provocative, existential questions might jolt this sensitivity and knowledge editing into use, such as asking:
- What would the business that will put ours out of business look like?
- What is changing fastest around our business and in our industry?
- On what assumptions is our business built, and which of these are most vulnerable to change?
- What do our people think our business most needs to learn if it is to survive?
- What will be our future’s most important critical success factors?
- What are the biggest risks our business faces?
- How can our processes for facing the future be improved?
- How can our processes for challenging what we currently think is working just fine be improved?
- Where are the greatest barriers to change you can see or have experienced in our business?
“The Web reminds me of the early days of the PC industry. No one really knows anything. There are no experts. All the experts have been wrong. There’s a tremendous open possibility to the whole thing. And it hasn’t been confined, or defined, in too many ways. That’s wonderful. There’s a phrase in Buddhism, “Beginner’s mind.” It’s wonderful to have a beginner’s mind.”
Steve Jobs, The Next Insanely Great Thing, Wired, February 1996
In a sense, breakthrough innovations have “missing links” in their evolution; a sudden non sequitur that brings together disparate technologies and unanticipated needs.
Evidently, there is some capacity within highly innovative minds that enables the bridging of intellectual chasms and the merging of seemingly unrelated pools of knowledge.
These leaps of creativity are perhaps the least understood aspect of product innovation, yet they provide the greatest potential for sustainable competitive advantage.
Innovations that are unique, original, and unexpected are far more valuable from a competitive standpoint than innovations that are predictable, incremental, or mundane
The ability to create new and valuable breakthroughs offers firms an unambiguous competitive advantage.
Although such original thinking may manifest itself in a variety of ways, its source is always the same: the creative power of the human mind.
Evidently, it is not the quantity of intelligence, but rather the type of intelligence, that determines a propensity for breakthrough innovation.
In a sense, the knowledge that we can express in speech, writing, and other explicit forms is only the tip of the intellectual iceberg.
Beneath the surface of conscious thought lies a vast sea of tacit knowledge, derived from a lifetime of experience and practice.
Raymond Mascitelli, From Experience: Harnessing Tacit Knowledge to Achieve Breakthrough Innovation
Taming the firehose
Responses can, and, most likely, will, often come back as an uncontrolled, random firehose of expression, in which there may be gems of information obscured by sheer volume of little quality.
While their ideas may be good, not everyone has the same gift or comfort with written communication, and sense-making, discerning and digging for the best is the editor’s work.
For guided investigation, the web is an enormous resource for learning and its content too vast for any single individual to search meaningfully, but connected teams can distribute roles and break up the task of investigation.
What they find must still be edited for sense and context, and there are two primary ways of imposing control.
First, to improve it at source, the editor frames the query and specifies the nature of response required. A well-asked question provides focus for those answering it. (In publishing, this is the work of a commissioning editor, who specifies what is to be written, in what volume, in what detail and how it is to be structured.)
Editorial scrutiny is then applied to what comes back, to clarify ambiguity, to drill deeper where value may be suggested, and in summarising the replies of multiple respondents.
Where these are of particular value, this may of course, lead to further enquiry and sense-making.
Seek diverse inputs
Different, fresh, perhaps expert, external minds might be invited to change the knowledge mix applied to an investigation, because fresh minds applied to the task of asking good questions opens people to new ideas and possibilities, and is the beginning point of much learning.
In such ways, where new understanding is found and can be forged, it can possibly change an organisation’s direction for good.
“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” ―Voltaire
A new organising principle
Until it fails, there is an effective organising principle around anything that works well. But, we’ve now seen many such established principles come undone in businesses broken by internet-driven business model innovation. Among these, to date, are music, print media, transportation and short-term hospitality accommodation.
Now it may be the turn of pervasive organisational learning to come to the fore, as the most likely source of all future business knowledge, creativity and adaptability to change.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” ― Charles Darwin
This is precisely why at the top of any organisation, the open enquiry as to the questions its strategy should next seek to address is so important.
In the social workplace technologies, we now have the tools to rethink the ways in which work is done and businesses are organised.
The time to start is now, because when you can capture and edit learning within your organisation, you can steer what it learns, and lead it in what you want it to learn next.
Organisations need to learn how to learn.
When you put knowledge-productivity forefront, you have choices about changing your organisation’s potential, repeatedly and forever.
Apply it to workplace strategy, and your business will never look the same again, because the best briefing on anything, and certainly its work environment, comes from capturing the best and most appropriate knowledge available. Those who occupy a space have a lot to offer in this regard.
In the knowledge age, work and the spaces it occupies are changing fast. As such, the absolute focus for all participants connected to the workplace must be on producing optimal knowledge-generating assets.
…in a world of accelerating change, the most valuable knowledge is highly distributed and may be embedded in the heads of people who are not well known and who are difficult to identify…
It’s not so much about finding which information is most valuable, as many of those who fret about information overload would have it. Improving return on attention is more about finding and connecting with people who have the knowledge you need, particularly the tacit knowledge about how to do new things.
John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, The Power of Pull, Basic Books, 2010
About the author
Graham Lauren is a newspaper-grade sub-editor and former employee at the Australian Financial Review newspaper group at Fairfax Media in Sydney, Australia.
He has an MBA (Technology) from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, whose focus is on technologically driven organisational change, business strategy and innovation.
As a director of the award-winning Shiro Architects, he has an innate interest in how the “knowledge architecture” of faster learning organisations will transform their workplace strategies.
Better briefing for the configuration of the workplace will, as anything, be the result of better knowledge capture. This must necessarily centre on the design of the work the organisation must execute and the knowledge it must develop to continue to do so.
Steve Jobs, The Next Insanely Great Thing, Wired, February 1996 https://www.wired.com/1996/02/jobs-2/