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Managing Knowledge Spaghetti

How collaboration platforms can help turbocharge your innovation efforts

Managing Knowledge Spaghetti

GUEST POST from John Bessant

Say the word ‘innovation’ and many people quickly conjure in their mind the wonderful ‘lightbulb moment’. But of course, innovation isn’t like this — that flash of inspiration is only the start of what will be a long journey trying to create value from that initial idea. It’s all about navigating our way through a landscape of uncertainty, learning to deal with a variety of roadblocks, potholes and other unexpected barriers.

And if we want to be able to repeat the trick, to give our ideas a fighting chance then the evidence is clear; we need some kind of a process. Over a hundred years of research has fed our understanding to the point where the kind of system we need to make innovation happen can be specified as an international standard. And in terms of pictures what we’re really looking for is less a lightbulb moment than a reproduceable process, something like this.

Clear Innovation Strategy Bessant

Which is fine, as long as we bear in mind one important truth. Innovation doesn’t happen like that.

Back in 1931 the mathematician Alfred Korzybski presented a paper to a meeting in New Orleans on mathematical semantics. It was pretty complex stuff but one phrase which he used has stuck in the wider popular memory. He pointed out that ‘the map is not the territory…’ In other words, a description of something is not the thing itself. The model is not reality. Which has some pretty important implications for the way we work with innovation.

Process models, however detailed, are simplifications, ways of representing how innovation might take place. But — like any map, be it a crumpled sketch someone has drawn or a sophisticated Google Maps picture — it is a guide, it isn’t the place itself. The map is, by its nature, a reduction of the process and in reducing it we lose some important information.

The reality, of course, is that innovation is more complex. And it’s all about knowledge spaghetti.

Just like a plate of pasta innovation involves many different strands. Only this time we are talking about knowledge — technical knowledge, market knowledge, legal knowledge, financial knowledge and so on. They need to be woven together to create value.

And these knowledge strands are held by different people, inside and outside the organization. We have to find them and connect them, link them together to enable us to innovate. Whilst we can superimpose structures on it to help us with this task, we shouldn’t forget that we’re really working with knowledge spaghetti.

Spaghetti solutions

So how do we work with it? Just like recipes for spaghetti there are many variations. One approach is to employ specialists and create cross-functional teams which bring together the relevant strands and align them towards a focused target. That’s proved to be a good model for developing new products and services, especially if we can find ways to bring in all the relevant players including users.

We can use a similar cross-functional approach to the design and implementation of major internal process innovations — things like introducing a new IT system or reorganizing to become more customer-focused. And a third approach involves carefully constructed strategic collaborations, bringing knowledge partners together with complementary strands of knowledge spaghetti.

One very powerful model is based on the idea that everyone in the organization has something to contribute to the innovation story — high involvement innovation. Here we’re working on the belief that even small strands of knowledge can be important and if we could bring them in to the story, we’d make significant progress.

Which history tells us we can. In countless embodiments the principle of high involvement has been shown to pay dividends. Ask people for what they know that might help solve problems around quality, cost, delivery, etc — and there’s no shortage of good ideas in response. The challenge has, historically, been one of working with such high volumes of knowledge and keeping the flywheel going by responding to employee suggestions and giving feedback on progress towards their implementation.

Suggestion boxes and schemes work but until recently had their limitations. Two recent trends have changed all that. The first, borne on the waves of total quality thinking and then the whole ‘lean’ movement, has shown us that in any context people are very effective innovators, well able to improve on what they are doing on a continuing basis.

And the second has been the emergence of collaboration platforms on which they can deploy their innovation skills. Today’s collaborative innovation platform resembles its suggestion box predecessor in outline only; it’s still a way of collecting ideas from employees. But it does so in an interactive space in which challenges can be posed, ideas suggested, comments added and shaping, and welding together multiple knowledge sets and experience enabled. And in doing so they open up the very real possibilities of high involvement innovation — getting everyone to contribute to the innovation story.

Emergent properties

But it’s not just the raw return on investment which collaboration platforms offer — though these benefits are impressive. Their real value lies in the way they enable ‘emergent properties’ — the innovation whole becomes much greater than the sum of its parts.

They give us new and powerful ways of working with the knowledge spaghetti. Not only can we handle the sheer scale of the knowledge challenge and focus it towards key objectives but we can do so in ways which yield surprising additional benefits. They effectively turbocharge our innovation system.

In particular they contribute in the following ways:

  • Reach — one of the obvious ways in which platforms can help is that they create a network which even remote users can connect to. We can spread the innovation net far and wide, can reach the parts other innovation approaches don’t. For example, recruiting ideas from people on ships at sea or working on an off-shore oil platform would have been impossible until recently. Now they can join the innovation conversation as simply as placing a phone call. Working under extreme conditions like in a humanitarian disaster area can now also be a space for crowdsourcing new and urgent solutions to problems. (We’ve seen this in Ukraine where the problems of getting urgent supplies in and vulnerable people out of a war zone are being addressed by many people sharing ideas across makeshift collaboration platforms based on mobile phone networks). We’re now able to involve people in innovation anywhere on the planet and on a 24/7 timescale.
  • High involvement innovation has always worked well in teams — that’s been at the heart of the success of lean approaches. But until recently that depended on the team being physically together, exploring and co-creating solutions — not easy if you’re working with a distributed team. Platforms solve this challenge, enabling virtual team meetings and collaboration and asynchronous collaboration.

    Organizations like Conoco-Philips employ around 10,000 people, globally distributed and often in hard to access places like off-shore oil platforms. Airbus has around 130,000, again globally distributed and engaged in multiple activities. And Bombardier have over 15,000 ‘knowledge workers’ around the world with whom they want to engage. Through the use of collaboration platforms organizations like these are able to achieve sustained high involvement and significant traction on their innovation challenges.

    • Richness — successful high involvement innovation isn’t just about assembling lots of people. By their nature people are different and diversity matters in innovation. They bring different perspectives, different ways of framing and working with the problem being explored. Plus they are not just cardboard cut-outs, they have a rich history of different experiences — their origins, their education, their work experience. All of this represents potentially useful strands of knowledge spaghetti, and platforms help us draw on this.

    Subsea7, a major player in the world of offshore services for the oil and other industries has used a platform approach to great effect. In one example a long-running concern with turnaround times for fitting out ships was solved when someone on the platform identified a solution which he had originally seen in action at a previous employer. The resulting savings ran into millions of dollars.

    People also bring with them networks of connections; knowledge is socially distributed and connecting to these networks can yield surprising possibilities. It means the innovating organization can access different skills and specialized knowledge inside and outside the organization. It’s classic open innovation, building on the idea that in even the largest organization ‘not all the smart people work for you’.

    • Refining — one of the powerful features of collaboration platforms is that they enable — well, collaboration! They make it possible to comment, criticize (constructively), modify and refine ideas, setting up a process of true co-creation. This fits well with recent research which argues that there’s a fundamental flaw in the model of ‘brainstorming’ used by many organizations to source ideas. The principle of postponing judgment has been replaced by a ‘no criticism’ approach in which every idea is accepted. But the reality is that good ideas need to be tempered, hammered into shape, worked on — and processes of constructive criticism are really important. Pixar, for example, has made this a core feature of its daily ideation process.

    And having access to the diversity of perspectives which platforms allow means that there is real potential for shaping and developing interesting ideas into great and value-adding ones. They provide a way of creating those magical ‘water-cooler’ moments in an online and distributed world.

    • Requiring — using focused campaigns to draw out ideas in particular directions. One of the limits of the old model of suggestion schemes is that they operate in ‘bottom up’ fashion, solving problems which are important and visible at a local level. But the real power of HII lies in mobilizing it to work on ‘top-down’ strategic challenges. The campaign model sits at the heart of many collaboration platforms and allows short intense ‘sprints’ focusing the innovation energy on a key problem area, rather like a laser beam.

    Conoco Philips Alaska have been using a process targeted at continuous improvement of their extensive operations; they run between 6 and 8 campaigns every year, involve around 1500 employees and generate savings running into millions of dollars annually.

    But it depends on several things — not least spending time to ensure the ‘right’ question is being asked. Simply setting ‘how can we improve productivity’ as a target is too vague, a bit like using that medieval weapon, the blunderbuss. Chances are some of your shots will hit the target but there’s an awful lot of waste involved.

    So it’s important to ensure we’re asking the ‘right’ question; a key feature of successful collaboration platforms is the amount of effort which goes in to this kind of front-end problem exploration. The sharper the question the better the quality of answers and the chance that new creative pathways can be opened up.

    • Recombination — ‘ if only our organization knew what it knows’ is a source of concern for anyone concerned with innovation. So much knowledge which might be useful is locked up inside silos and not shared. Worse, we don’t always know what’s inside those silos or whether and how it could be relevant to someone else. Platforms have the power to make this visible, not least by drawing it out in response to focused and challenging campaigns.

    There’s also the possibility that someone else in the organization may have experienced a similar type of problem even if they don’t recognize the relevance of their experience. A powerful principle in creativity is looking for analogous solutions — for example, the challenge of cutting turnaround times in airports for low-cost carriers was solved by applying principles originally developed for Formula 1 pitstops. And the same approach was then adopted by surgeons in London looking to improve the utilization of operating theatres.

    • Reverse reinvention — lots of effort is often wasted by reinventing wheels, solving the same problem in different places. Platforms offer a way of reversing this process, highlighting solutions which have been tried elsewhere and also inviting creative improvisation around those solutions, extending their applicability and effectiveness. A kind of creative re-iteration.

    The Canadian engineering company Bombardier have been using a collaboration platform approach for over ten years and one of the biggest benefits they have seen is a significant increase in the amount of knowledge being shared across their organization.

    • Retaining and recording — making sure ideas are retained even if they can’t be applied right now. One of the challenges of mobilizing collective intelligence is that we may well attract thousands of ideas. Some can be shaped and refined for immediate implementation, some require further work and investment. And for some there is the problem of being the right idea at the wrong time. In the past organizations hitting this problem would probably lose sight of the idea, leaving it buried in a file somewhere or gathering dust. But platforms allow for effective curation of ideas, not only tracking and recording all suggestions but also retaining them to match against future campaigns and challenges.
    • Rewiring — organizations are like people — they have ‘predictive minds’ . They are inclined to take a lazy approach, picking tried and tested solutions off the shelf when they confront a problem. But being forced to redefine, to reframe, can trigger a search for new approaches to those old problems. We see this effect often under crisis conditions where traditional solution pathways may not be available and we have to think differently — to make new neural connections across the collective mind. Creating novel campaigns to provide this challenge can open up new idea space — they can help us ‘get out of the box’.
    • Refreshing — at heart high involvement innovation is about people and the key ingredient to its long term success is finding ways to keep the motivation high. People are brilliant problem solvers but they’re only going to give their ideas if they see some benefit. Research has shown that money isn’t a strong motivator — but having your voice heard and having the opportunity to create the change you’d like to see around your organization is. There’s a wealth of research to support this going right back to the early years of organization studies; the message on employee engagement remains the same but the question is then raised about how to achieve this. Collaboration platforms by their inclusive and open nature offer a powerful new tool to help and organizations like Liberty Global consider this motivational aspect to be a key factor in helping build a culture of innovation across a large organization.

    Knowledge Spaghetti Success

    So whether it is an upgrade to continuous improvement activity, harvesting employee suggestions for doing what we do but better, or pushing the frontiers to create novel products and services, there’s real scope for using this turbocharged approach.

    But powerful though they are, collaboration platforms are at heart still software. It’s not a case of ‘plug and play’ — getting the best out of these systems requires hands-on management, something we’ll look at in a future blog.

    For more on innovation-related themes like this please visit my website

    And if you’d like to listen to this as a podcast please visit my site here

    Image credits: Pexels, John Bessant

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    Innovation is About Conversations Not Knowledge

    Innovation is About Conversations Not Knowledge

    GUEST POST from Greg Satell

    One of the most often repeated stories about innovation is that of Alexander Fleming who, returning from his summer holiday in 1928, found that his bacterial cultures were contaminated by a strange mold. Yet instead of throwing away his work, he decided to study the mold instead and discovered penicillin.

    What’s often left out is that it wasn’t Fleming who developed penicillin into a miracle drug. In fact, it wasn’t until a decade later that a team led by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain rediscovered Fleming’s work and, collaborating with several labs in the United States, ushered in the new era of antibiotics.

    For some reason, we tend to assume that great innovators are lone geniuses. However, in researching my book, Mapping Innovation, I found just the opposite to be true. Innovation is, in fact, a highly social activity and great innovators cultivate long standing relationships with trusted thought partners. This was always true, but Covid has pushed it to new heights.

    The “Martians” Of Fasori

    Like a lot of children, Eugene Wigner lacked confidence in math class. In Eugene’s case, however, the problem wasn’t any lack of mathematical ability, but that his classmate and friend at the Fasori Gimnázium was John von Neuman, possibly the single greatest mathematician of the 20th century. Outmatched, Eugene chose to focus on physics, for which he would win the Nobel Prize in 1963.

    The two were part of a group of Hungarian scientists that came to be known as the Martians, including such luminaries as Edward Teller, John Kemeny, George Polya and Paul Erdős, just to name a few. The group would help to revolutionize mathematics, physics and computer science for half a century.

    In 1939, one of the “Martians,” Leo Szilard, became increasingly concerned about the explosive power of nuclear energy, which was poorly understood at the time. He went to confer with his friend Wigner and the two considered the matter important enough to sound the alarm. They drafted a letter, which Albert Einstein signed, which was ultimately delivered to President Roosevelt and led to the development of the Manhattan Project.

    Each of the Martians was a genius in his own right, but combined they formed an important network of support that helped them all thrive and led to breakthroughs such as the first modern computer and the BASIC computer language. The world today is unquestionably better for it.

    The Olympia Academy

    In 1901, Albert Einstein was a recent graduate of the mathematics and physics in the teaching diploma program at the Zürich polytechnic school. Finding himself unable to find a job. he put an ad in the newspaper to attract students he could tutor to earn some money. A Romanian philosophy student named Maurice Solovine answered the ad.

    As it turned out, Einstein didn’t think Solovine needed lessons in physics, but the two hit it off and Einstein invited his new friend to come and visit any time he wanted. Soon, a mathematician named Conrad Habicht joined the group and the three friends began to refer to their meetings as The Olympia Academy.

    The meetings eventually began to take on a regular rhythm. They would read books from intellectual giants such as Ernst Mach, Henri Poincaré and David Hume, then discuss them late into the night and sometimes into the early morning hours. The debates were often vigorous, but always cordial.

    Einstein would later credit these meetings with helping him come up with the ideas that led to the miracle year papers that would shift the foundations of modern physics. Einstein would, of course, become one of the world’s most famous people, but he never forgot his two friends from the Olympia Academy. The three stayed in touch throughout their lives, exchanging ideas and debating finer points.

    The Bloomsbury Group

    Historically, most intellectual clubs were exclusively male. That was certainly true of the Hungarian “Martians” and the Olympia Academy, as with others such as the Vienna Circle, but the Bloomsbury Group of early 20th century Cambridge was an unusual exception.

    Although it was itself somewhat of an offshoot of the wholly male society of Apostles, the Bloomsbury included accomplished women such as Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. It would come to be highly influential in areas as diverse as art, economics, literature and politics

    It began in 1905, when Thoby Steven started hosting “Thursday Evening’s” for Cambridge intellectuals visiting London and his sister Vanessa followed up with “Friday Club.” The loose gathering’s became an informal network that included literary types like E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey, as well as such luminaries as the economist John Maynard Keynes and the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

    Although the group came to be seen as snobbish and out of touch, the accomplishments of its members cannot be denied. Nor can the fact that even as they grew in fame and had increasing demands on their time, they continued to see deep value in the dialogue they had with each other.

    Collaboration Is A Competitive Advantage

    What’s most interesting about groups such as the “Martians,” the Olympia Academy and the Bloomsbury group is not just that they exist, but how devoted their members were to them and how integral they saw the dialogue they produced to their own successes. For many of the same reasons, highly innovative firms often design workspaces to promote collaboration.

    That’s no accident. Decades of research, including a study of “star” engineers at Bell labs as well as one of designers at IDEO, found that the best innovators are not necessarily the smartest or even the hardest working, but those who actively build up a strong network of collaborators. Another study of 17.9 million scientific papers found that the most highly cited work tends to come from a group of specialists in a specific field collaborating with an outsider.

    Today’s technology creates new opportunities to collaborate and the impact is beginning to be felt. As Jennifer Doudna explained in The Economist, the Covid crisis is ushering in a “new era of science” in which collaboration is accelerating across national, institutional and disciplinary boundaries in ways that are unprecedented.

    What’s becoming clear is that collaboration is increasingly becoming a competitive advantage and it’s not just what you know, but who you talk to, that will determine whether you succeed or fail. The better networks we build, the more likely it will be that we stumble across that random bit of information or insight that can help us solve an important problem.

    — Article courtesy of the Digital Tonto blog
    — Image credit: Pexels

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    Leveraging Tacit Knowledge to Drive More Innovation

    Leveraging Tacit Knowledge to Drive More Innovation

    GUEST POST from Diana Porumboiu

    The value of intangible assets in organizations is nowadays five times greater than the one of tangible assets. In fact, 84% of value in S&P companies is currently represented by intangible assets, like intellectual property, knowledge, or brand recognition, compared to merely 16% for tangible ones.

    Even so, some leaders still have difficulties in grasping the power of knowledge and how it can be leveraged and managed to drive more innovation in their organizations. One of the biggest challenges for these leaders is that the majority of knowledge that makes more innovation happen is tacit, and therefore it’s harder to tap into its full potential through the traditional methods: processes, procedures and policies available in databases and documents.

    Unfortunately, companies that were not able to keep up with these changes in value distribution faced difficulties and were surpassed by those that leveraged tacit knowledge better. Now, the question that arises is how top companies tap into the full potential of tacit knowledge.

    So, in today’s article we’ll explain how different types of knowledge trigger innovation, what is the true value of tacit knowledge, as well as some practical tips on how to make the most of tacit knowledge.

    Tacit Brain Knowledge

    Explicit, implicit, and tacit knowledge and their role in driving innovation

    Before diving into the practical things, we’ll go through some theoretical aspects which can help clarify the reasoning behind some actions. There’s a lot of literature on tacit knowledge and knowledge management which you can explore more in depth if you’re interested, but for the purpose of this article we chose the essential information which can serve leaders, managers and decision-makers who want to tap into the potential of tacit knowledge.

    The goal of this article is not to offer a perspective rooted in cognitive science and we are aware that there are different interpretations and a variety of opinions on the topic. That being said, let’s get to it.

    Knowledge, especially tacit, is hard to quantify and measure, which makes it elusive and difficult to capture, but its role in driving innovation is undeniable. To exploit its innovation potential, it’s essential to understand the different types of knowledge, how they can be managed and how they come into play in an organization.

    For this, we’ll briefly explain the three main types of knowledge and their role in making innovation happen.

    First, there is explicit knowledge, which is the easiest to manage and understand. It’s the most basic type of knowledge that can be collected and transmitted throughout an organization. It comes from organizing, structuring, and processing data and it’s usually stored in databases or files like internal documentation, reports, analytics and financials, process maps, handbooks, and so on.

    For example, all metrics and KPIs are forms of explicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge supports everyday improvements which primarily leads to incremental innovations.

    Next is implicit knowledge, which oftentimes is put under the same umbrella with tacit knowledge. However, we prefer to separate the two because there are small differences in how you should manage them in practice.

    Implicit knowledge is essentially explicit knowledge applied: how we make use of existing information and put it into practice. Each of us has different past experiences and ways of thinking. As you’ve probably seen, that means that we can draw different conclusions from the same data, and thus apply the same explicit knowledge in very different ways.

    This is true especially when we think of how people communicate and transfer information. For example, when we create a report or a presentation, even if we work with the same data points and results, different people may choose to focus on different pieces of information and tell a very different story.

    Last, but not least, is the focus of this article: tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge refers to the wisdom we accumulate through experience but that is not codified or clearly expressed. These are the things we know but can’t really put into words. Think cognitive skills, mental models, intuition, and general know-how.

    Different sources are citing various figures of how knowledge is distirbuted in an organization. From 80% all the way to 95%, tacit knowledge seems to be the bottom of an iceberg, hidden under water. Regardless of what the specific number really is, it’s probably safe to say, that the vast majority of information is tacit.

    Tacit Knowledge Pyramid

    It’s believed that turning tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge is extremely difficult because of its nature. Many times, when we think we articulate or codify tacit knowledge, we might deal with implicit knowledge instead. Why is it then so hard to capture tacit knowledge — and should we even try to make it explicit?

    In practice, people often aren’t aware of the tacit knowledge they possess, and that’s a big part of what makes it so elusive. Transferring know-how and cognitive skills requires regular contact, interaction, and trust between people. When this can be turned into a conscious, systematic effort, that’s when we start to get its value and make the best of it.

    The importance of tacit knowledge and how to make the most of it

    In the era of information technology, it’s so easy to become obsolete, that retaining and acquiring knowledge has become a central focus for most organizations.

    Today most companies recognize employees’ talent and knowledge as a major competitive advantage. We’ll explain later in the article why most innovations and breakthroughs don’t come from explicit, but from tacit knowledge.

    Losing employees with the tacit knowledge that hasn’t been passed on can lead to the inability to complete projects or meet strategic targets. For example, an engineering company lost its dominant market position simply because it lost the experienced engineers that major clients were looking for. Typically, that relationship isn’t as obvious, but the same principles still apply. The most talented or experienced employees create dramatically outsized returns for the organization.

    As already mentioned, explicit knowledge refers to the public information, which would be easily accessible if desired, because it can be codified and transmitted in writing. As we know, such knowledge generally contributes to incremental improvements, but breakthrough innovations require truly novel knowledge, and that usually starts at an individual level.

    From a highly experienced floor worker who comes up with ideas to streamline processes to a researcher’s insights that help develop a new product, the key is to make this individual knowledge available to others. That is one of the main sources of competitive advantage in knowledge-centric companies.

    How tacit knowledge impacts organizational performance

    Traditionally, knowledge isn’t systematically measured against financial results, so some executives might not be aware of how knowledge loss impacts their performance. It’s understandable, given that it’s easier to measure and track the impact of tangible assets, so the focus usually goes in that direction.

    However, nowadays we have plenty of research that supports the idea that losing knowledge has a significant negative impact on an organization’s performance. This helps us better understand how losing tacit knowledge affects the bottom line. At the same time, if leaders can articulate the role of tacit knowledge, they can also assess the real costs of managing it and raise awareness on the investments required to create, retain, and transmit it.

    Losing knowledge capital can affect the performance of an organization in different ways.

    From reduced organizational capabilities or ability to achieve strategic objectives, to disruptions, increased time to accomplish tasks, increased costs, or reduced customer satisfaction.

    Let’s take the example of a company where a veteran sales executive who played a major role in dealing with important customers is leaving the organization. His strong customer relationships developed over the years could affect the firm, leading to a loss of up to $ 10 million. The business will not only lose significant revenue but its ability to acquire new ones will also diminish.

    In such cases, the external social capital is useful for the organization at large. Having access to a diverse external network allows people inside the organization to tap into a wide range of information.

    On the other side, when these connections are exclusively internal, politics can get in the way and affect the transparent flow of information.

    To summarize, losing knowledge capital can affect the performance of an organization in different ways. From reduced organizational capabilities or ability to achieve strategic objectives, to disruptions, increased time to accomplish tasks, increased costs, or reduced customer satisfaction.

    On the other hand, if you focus on developing a knowledge-creating company that encourages continuous learning, interaction, and constant dialogue you will see additional benefits, as well as positive impact on the bottom line.

    By now, you’re surely thinking what all this theory means in practice, so let’s take a look at that next by going through some methods that can help reap these benefits.

    How to capture tacit knowledge

    As already mentioned, turning tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge requires some work and effort, but by starting with baby steps like getting people to share thoughts, issues, or ideas on a regular basis you are already one step ahead.

    We believe there’s no need to overcomplicate things and the good news is that something as simple as gathering ideas will force people to turn their tacit knowledge into something more tangible. Obviously, each organization has its share of bad ideas, but even so, it’s still a great way of bringing people’s insights to the table because it can uncover new opportunities, sometimes even unrelated with the idea itself.

    It might not be the first thing that comes to mind when trying to access tacit knowledge, but an idea management tool can help you turn it into a systematic, continuous practice that on the long run, can lead to more innovation.

    Collaboration Unsplash or Pexels

    However, at the end of the day, a tool is just a tool. It helps you organize your processes better, automate tasks, and facilitates easy communication. The complexity and nature of such methods and processes varies greatly from one organization to the next.

    If you are operating in an industry with higher risks, codifying tacit knowledge becomes even more complicated. A continuous ideation process could reveal new creative ways of accessing it as well as maintain communication and a constant flow of information.

    To put things in perspective, let’s take the example of a maintenance technician who retired from a plant that produced soybean oil. After he left, the produced oil quickly started to go bad. It took the company two years and it cost them millions of dollars before they realized that the maintenance worker had been changing a seal on the machines that pressed the oil every week, instead of the eight weeks that was instructed in the maintenance manual.

    The first reaction would be to blame the technician for not transferring that information before leaving, but in reality, it’s the company’s responsibility to have in place processes that ensure smooth transfer of information and knowledge.

    Managers and leaders should be aware of these differences in procedures and in this particular case the mistake could have been easily avoided with a better process of documenting the steps taken to produce the soybean oil.

    As this example shows, different organizations need different processes at various levels of complexity. Developing those processes that support knowledge creation and retention is still up to you, so let’s have a look at three simple steps that can make a big difference.

    • Bring to the surface the knowledge losses and the risk associated with that. What knowledge supports the strategic objectives and business goals? To run a diagnosis process you could, for example, start with a series of interviews that will help you surface potential issues.
      Here’s where you want to identify the critical knowledge that might be lost and its impact, the interviewees perception of existing knowledge and the transfer processes and opportunities to leverage knowledge in case employees leave.
    • Map the employees and the roles whose knowledge is essential and play a key role in transmitting it. The previous step can also guide you in creating this map or list.
    • Create the environment and practices that encourage socialization and interaction. Since tacit knowledge is about the know-how and the skills we acquire through experience, these are best learned through emulation, imitation, and repetition.

    There are many ways to go about this, and in the best practice section we go a bit deeper into these details.

    Best practices for accessing tacit knowledge

    These are three first steps that could be applied in any organization, regardless of their profile. They can become the foundation for a more thought-through process which you can develop in time. On a more practical level, the methods and processes you decide on, can be supported by some of these best practices:

    Build a continuous improvement culture as it helps to reinforce the social capital.

    It encourages contribution and collaboration between people. It enables networks of relationships that help the organization function effectively. When these connections are strong and built on trust and transparency, they facilitate the transfer of know-how and other skills that otherwise would be lost.

    Encourage constant social interaction and exchange of ideas

    As already mentioned, tacit knowledge is about the know-how and the skills acquired through experience. These skills are better transmitted through emulation, mentorship, and repetition. This knowledge is deeply embedded in people’s minds and human interactions are essential to facilitate the transfer of information.

    Make idea generation and collection a systematic process

    This won’t help you just to find answers and solutions to specific problems but also to uncover opportunities that have an impact on the entire organization.

    Collecting ideas systematically enables the entire workforce to get involved and build on each other’s knowledge. Moving from a traditional “suggestion box” to a more wholistic and transparent approach with an idea management tool can dramatically help in sharing and making knowledge more accessible.

    Encourage storytelling in different forms

    You can create a “lessons learned” database where people can learn about successes and failures that lead people to acquire their knowledge. The best way to tell these lessons, might be through stories.

    Storytelling is a powerful tool because it allows people to reflect on their learnings. Essentially, you want people to share their (true) stories that serve as metaphors which make difficult-to-grasp information easier to digest and understand. Stories are powerful because they convey meaning and knowledge, not just unconnected bits of information. For example, you can put this in practice through internal newsletters, or casebooks.

    Create succession planning, retirement policies, and mentoring programs

    Retirement is one of the causes of knowledge loss and some companies don’t tap into the tacit knowledge of older employees. The loss of experienced employees can threaten core capabilities that rely on complex experiential knowledge. Organizations should have mentoring programs to train less experienced employees, as well as retirement policies and plans that help maintain the balance of the workforce.

    Examples of codifying tacit knowledge:

    As you’ve seen so far, there are different factors that can help you either capture tacit knowledge or turn it into explicit knowledge. And as mentioned, sometimes learning new things also comes from emulation and imitation. With that in mind, let’s see what other companies are doing to address the issue of tacit knowledge and think of what you could also learn from their experiences.

    Matsushita Electric

    The first example is one that helped popularizing the concept of tacit knowledge as well as the idea that it supports innovation.

    Kneading Bread Unsplash or Pexels

    In 1985 Matsushita Electric, now Panasonic, was working on creating a better home bread-machine. However, they lacked the knowledge a baker had. So Ikuko Tanaka, a software developer at Matsushita decided to learn from the best. He trained with the master baker at The Osaka International Hotel and observed the technique he had for kneading the dough.

    The know-how of the baker, his special stretching technique, was the tacit knowledge that Matshushita was lacking, and that Tanaka was able to uncover and reproduce through imitation and observation. After working with the baker, experimenting, testing and developing the product, Matsushita created a final product that led to record sales.

    Rolls-Royce

    Even though it’s not a recent example Rolls-Royce is still a good case to look into. Rolls-Royce turbojet engines powered Concorde, the aircraft that introduced supersonic air travel to the world. The Rolls-Royce engineers held most of the knowledge on how to maintain the sophisticated supersonic jet engines and many of them were preparing for retirement.

    Before the Concorde was retired in 2003 the company identified how the big number of retirements would impact their key capabilities. This helped them prepare for uncertainties and decide on future investments.

    Bessemer

    Last, but not least, an example that takes us even farther back into the history is Henry Bessemer and his patent for an advanced steelmaking process. Bessemer sold his patent, but he was later sued because they couldn’t make it work. So, Bessemer set up his steel company because he knew best how to do it, even though he wasn’t able to articulate it.

    As you can see from these examples, tacit knowledge spans its impact in various areas and at different levels in each organization. So, it’s important to remember that tacit knowledge plays an important role in all stages of innovation.

    It can be in the early stages, where there’s a higher degree of ambiguity so more knowledge to be harnessed. Or, it can be in the later stages of innovation, where execution and implementation require you to tap into the tacit knowledge of your employees to speed up the process and get better results

    Conclusion

    “We can know more than we can tell”, said Polanyi, the one to whom we attribute the concept of tacit knowledge. We couldn’t agree more. We can’t possibly articulate everything we know, so we need to find other means to go about it.

    As leaders, managers, or someone with decision-making powers, you have to maximize the opportunities of expressing this knowledge. You can choose to develop a culture of innovation where continuous learning, improvement and knowledge exchange are encouraged and sustained. With a strategic and systematic approach, the flow of information will become more natural and easier to manage.

    This article was originally published in Viima’s blog.

    Image credits: Viima, Pixabay, Unsplash, Pexels

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    Top 10 Innovations of All Time

    Accelerating Innovation Requires Accelerating Knowledge and Insight

    Accelerating Innovation Requires Accelerating Knowledge and InsightOkay, I admit it, I came across the History Channel’s series Ancient Aliens recently and I’m intrigued, mostly because it is fascinating (and frightening) to me how long it takes to develop true knowledge and insight, but how quickly it can be lost.

    Leaving the whole ancient astronaut theory thing out of it, it is obvious looking at the historical record that throughout history, civilizations around the world (more than once) have developed advanced scientific understanding only to have their civilization (and its knowledge) destroyed by a natural catastrophe or fade away for some other reason. At the same time, another thing that is clear as we look across our history as a species is that there are certain periods of time during which innovation accelerates and often this increase in the velocity of innovation is linked to an increase in the velocity of knowledge and insight sharing.

    The Renaissance coincided with the arrival of paper in Europe, culminating with paper making its way to Germany in 1400 AD and inspiring the development of the printing press in 1450, which then accelerated the spread of books, magazines, and newspapers in the 15th and 16th centuries.

    The Age of Enlightenment coincided with early semi-public libraries that were only available to a learned few, but those few were inspired to create important and transformative thought in the 17th and 18th centuries.

    The 19th century was a golden age of invention and innovation, ushering in the era of modern medicine, and technologies like the telegraph and the telephone which enabled information, knowledge and insight to finally travel faster than the horse.

    The modern public library, as we now know it, came into its own in the the United Kingdom in the 19th century and the United States in the 20th century (thanks to Andrew Carnegie) and new communications technologies like radio and television brought information and knowledge to the illiterate and enabled people to see and hear things they would never have imagined before.

    And by the close of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, human beings had gained the ability to learn from each other no matter where they live in the world, in real time, in words, pictures, and now even through the sharing of videos sharing knowledge and insight, and even by showing people how to do things.

    It is my contention that the pace of innovation accelerates when the speed of knowledge sharing accelerates, that knowledge acceleration leads to innovation acceleration. As we have developed more efficient ways of accelerating the pace of knowledge sharing, our pace of innovation has sped up.

    It is shocking to think that if you go back only two hundred years as a species we had no idea how disease was transmitted, couldn’t send a message from one side of an ocean to another without using a ship, and that most human beings on this planet would not travel farther than 50 miles from the place of their birth during their lifetime.

    Now we can travel to outer space, levitate objects using sound or magnetism, create life, destroy whole cities in an instant, build things smaller than the width of a human hair, and do some other things that even twenty years ago would have seemed impossible.

    We are inventing and innovating today at an astonishing rate, and for companies or nations that want to outpace their competition, they should be laser-focused on accelerating the pace of knowledge sharing if they are intent on being faster and more efficient than their competition at innovation. But it isn’t even the speed of knowledge or information sharing that is the holy grail, it is the speed of insight sharing that leads to faster and more efficient innovation, and many organizations mistakenly restrict access to the voice of the customer. And when you cut off your employees from your customers, how can you expect to can anything but inventions instead of innovations?

    It is because of these important linkages that I believe the below ten items are the Top 10 Innovations of All Time:

    1. Paper (105AD – Europe 10th century – Germany 1400)
    2. Printing Press (1450)
    3. Telegraph (1837)
    4. Telephone (1876)
    5. Modern Public Library (1850-1945 depending on country)
    6. Commercial Radio (1920)
    7. Commercial Television (1936 UK, 1948 US)
    8. World Wide Web (1991)
    9. Wikipedia (2001)
    10. YouTube (2005)

    Caution – We May be Becoming Too Reliant on Technology

    But there is a cautionary tale contained in this list and the Ancient Aliens reference at the beginning. You will notice that this list is increasingly dependent on technology – especially the existence of electricity.

    What would happen if there was a major natural catastrophe (flood, famine, major volcanic eruption or meteor strike, giant solar flare) and for some reason all of our electrical devices ceased to function?

    How much of our accumulated knowledge and technology would we lose?

    Despite the growing decline of print and rising usage of digital media, the book has one major advantage, it doesn’t require power to operate. Stone tablets don’t decay as fast as paper.

    Should we as a society be transcribing our most important knowledge onto something that could survive a major catastrophe (including the potential loss of electricity for an extended period of months or years), so that we as a species don’t have to start over again as we obviously have had to do in the distant past?

    Technology is wonderful and allows us to do many amazing things but we should be careful about becoming too reliant on it, or we risk potentially losing the knowledge that allowed us to create it in the first place.

    Just a thought…

    And if you are intent on accelerating the sharing of knowledge, information, insight and innovation in your company or country, let me know, I could help with that.

    Image source: kansasbob.com


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    Innovation Quotes of the Day – April 27, 2012


    “If you put fences around people, you get sheep.”

    – William McKnight (former CEO of 3M)


    “For people without passion and talent, information has no value.”

    – Jef Staes


    “We must find a way to strike a balance between what employees need to do for the organization and what they want to do for the organization. Otherwise, human capital is being wasted, flushed down the drain.”

    – Braden Kelley


    What are some of your favorite innovation quotes?

    Add one or more to the comments, listing the quote and who said it, and I’ll share the best of the submissions as future innovation quotes of the day!

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    Innovation Quotes of the Day – April 11, 2012


    “Innovation transforms the useful seeds of invention into solutions valued above every existing alternative – and of course widely adopted.”

    – Braden Kelley


    “Innovation is fostered by information gathered from new connections; from insights gained by journeys into other disciplines or places; from active, collegial networks and fluid, open boundaries. Innovation arises from ongoing circles of exchange, where information is not just accumulated or stored, but created. Knowledge is generated anew from connections that weren’t there before.”

    – Margaret J. Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science


    What are some of your favorite innovation quotes?

    Add one or more to the comments, listing the quote and who said it, and I’ll share the best of the submissions as future innovation quotes of the day!

    Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to get Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to your inbox every week.