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.