Friday, March 27, 2020

Latent Knowledge and Innovation in Times of Crisis

Innovations emerge from a wide range of circumstances. Crises are a very potent trigger for innovation.  Crises give us the motivation and (potentially) something very specific to focus on.  Here is a recent example about shortages of ventilators and the innovation it triggered

On the surface, it's a clear case of general crisis leading to very specific critical challenges that trigger innovative responses by specialists who are able to come together quickly with a solution.

Without knowing the background, it's hard to tell how this exactly happened but I was wondering if they didn't have a curated collection of ventilator designs that they had worked on over the years that, for one reason or another, had not been commercialized.  Did they really create this new ventilator out of thin air in a short amount of time?  Not likely.  They were able to do it because of their accumulated knowledge base and prior experience. They probably recycled a lot of existing knowledge and put together a solution that met the very specific need that was emerging. 

The story (for news purposes and probably for the company's marketing purposes) will be that this was a great innovation that saved lives.  The less glamorous reality may be that this design (or something very close to it) existed but didn't have a market until today.  It was latent knowledge, knowledge that we have but have not yet harnessed.  Perhaps innovation is precisely that, the harnessing of latent knowledge to respond to specific challenges.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Knowledge Management and Critical Thinking

Tara Mohn led a presentation and discussion today at the monthly face-to-face meeting of the KM Community of DC Meetup about mindful KM facilitation.  The discussion reminded me of two related discussions:

1. Words matter in KM conversations and the terms mindful and mindfulness are so often associated with meditation that they may not be appropriate for some workplace cultures.  There are alternatives that can get the same message across.  One such alternative is "critical thinking."

2. Some components of KM, such as the development of job aids, best practices, templates, etc... which are designed to ensure that employees do not unnecessarily reinvent the wheel can go overboard by being too prescriptive.  Equally important, and potentially dangerous within a younger and less experienced workforce, SOPs, templates and similar knowledge management tools can lead to "mindless" cut-and-paste and the absence of critical thinking, which in the end is the opposite of what a knowledge management effort should encourage.

When pressed to deliver under tight schedules, employees are looking for shortcuts.  Knowledge Management efforts need to find the right balance between facilitating access to job aids, templates and SOP on the one hand, and the critical thinking that is required to use those tools effectively, knowing when and how to adapt them to specific needs.



Sunday, November 17, 2019

Exploring some Polarities in Knowledge Management

Once in a while, I come very close to reinventing the wheel.  The "wheel" I am creating is new to me, therefore it feels as if I am creating it.  Nothing is created in a vacuum, so this new wheel is just a repackaging of many different things that have accumulated and are getting connected in new ways in my mind.  The combination (C of the SECI model) leads to new insights.  The real aha! moments often come when I start sharing what seems like a new insight to me, with other people.  This week, as a result of doing this kind of "working out loud" sharing of half-baked thinking, I was introduced to the concept of polarities and polarity maps.  That has generated new thinking and has allowed me to reframe what I perceived as intractable problems.

The easiest polarity to understand is breathing.  We inhale and exhale in a continuous cycle.  Inhaling and exhaling are opposites and we need both.  Too much of one and the cycle stops, we stop breathing... that's not good.  Too much of the other and the same thing happens.  The challenge isn't to find a middle ground where the right amount of inhaling and exhaling is happening at the same time -- which is impossible --, the challenge is to manage the continuous cycle to avoid unnecessary extremes, to watch for warning signs that we've gone too far in one direction and take corrective action.  Luckily for us, breathing is on automatic pilot most of the time.

Once I understood the concept, the work-in-progress I had been doing (reinventing the wheel to some extent) acquired a new dimension, and it turned into the visual below:





This represents two different, yet interrelated polarities.  On both of these dimensions, it's not an an either/or choice.  Both are needed.  It's not one or the other, but it's not necessarily about finding the right balance and sticking to it because that wouldn't be very agile either.  It's about managing the cycle between the polarities because we are always in motion towards one or the other extremes and at any given time we may need a different mix rather than a constant middle ground.  The cycle isn't represented on this diagram.

There are tensions between focusing attention on the past by capturing knowledge from experience through lessons learned and the identification and dissemination of best practices on the one hand, versus focusing on creating new knowledge through innovation in order to address new and evolving challenges for which there is no experience to rely on. Without innovation, reliance on "old" knowledge will prevent the organization from staying competitive and addressing evolving challenges.  Without adequate traditional knowledge management focused on "old" knowledge, innovation will fail because it will become an exercise in reinventing the wheel, failing to use the organization's existing knowledge as a solid foundation for innovating. 

Another set of tensions is illustrated along the vertical axis.  External knowledge sharing (also referred to as outreach) is essential to ensure that the broader industry, including potential clients, are aware of the organization's capabilities and experience.  Yet there is very little to share externally without a solid foundation of internal knowledge management.  Alternatively, an exclusive focus on internal knowledge sharing would isolate the company from broader networks and interactions that are critical to sustained growth.

Before being introduced to polarities, I thought of these issues as pendulums going from one extreme to the other in a never-ending dance.   Now every problem appears to me as a polarity that needs to be managed.  Perhaps I'm going too far in that direction.  Not every problem is going to be a polarity.

Related resources to understand polarities:






Sunday, November 10, 2019

Brainpickings - must read to recharge, reset, reframe

Once in a while I check some of the unread emails in my personal inbox and I am reminded to go read something, anything, on the Brain Pickings site.  This is so much better than cat videos on YouTube.  It fires up the neurons. It has a calming, reassuring effect.  It reminds me that some people still read, write and think.  It encourages me to seek out and keep up with that crowd regardless of the nonsense and chaos of the day.

Today following an email trail to the site, I ended up reading 13 Life-Learnings from 13 Years of Brain Pickings, which is full of things that resonated with me, including the following:

  • Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.
  • Build pockets of stillness into your life (ride your bike going nowhere in particular)
  • Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work.
  • When people tell you who they are, believe them.  When people try to tell you who you are, don't believe them.  You are the only custodian of your own integrity.
  • Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.
A little dose of Brain Pickings could be my daily therapy, like my apple a day to keep the doctor away, but for the brain.