The Nature Of Knowledge

This is a great post by David Weinberger on the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom pyramid and why it completely misses the point about the true nature of knowledge. Towards the end, he says :

But knowledge is not a result merely of filtering or algorithms. It results from a far more complex process that is social, goal-driven, contextual, and culturally-bound. We get to knowledge — especially “actionable” knowledge — by having desires and curiosity, through plotting and play, by being wrong more often than right, by talking with others and forming social bonds, by applying methods and then backing away from them, by calculation and serendipity, by rationality and intuition, by institutional processes and social roles. Most important in this regard, where the decisions are tough and knowledge is hard to come by, knowledge is not determined by information, for it is the knowing process that first decides which information is relevant, and how it is to be used.

This is one of the best descriptions of the nature of knowledge I have come across. This dovetails well into what Ross Mayfield had to say a few years back about leaving complexity where it belongs – in social networks.

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Evolving A Collaboration Strategy

Evolving a collaboration strategy is a complex affair – there is no one right way to do it. Having worked in two dramatically different organizations over the past 8 years or so, here are a few things I think are key :

  • Who and how you hire will eventually affect your ability to build a collaborative work culture. This in my experience is one of the most obvious and often over looked areas when evolving a long term collaboration strategy. And to add to this, HR/OD/OB strategists are rarely involved in these strategy sessions. Key to building collaborative capability is to look for traits that matter to make collaboration happen – empathy, trust & respect  to name a few. Irrespective of the tools we deploy, people have to choose to share and collaborate and these are voluntary decisions people make.
  • Physical Workspace Design. Building and workspace design is another area that needs to be factored in. Do your physcial workspaces allow seamless collaboration? Are they flexible enough to be reconfigured? Can employees move seamlessly between heads-down and group work and will workspaces assist them in doing this?
  • Understand decentralized decision making. Re-looking at Thomas Malone’s decentralized decision making structures would be interesting given where we are with Enterprise 2.0/social software. Understanding the right structures for the right scenarios will enable decision makers to choose the right set of tools. New experiments like SAP’s 12sprints are interesting in this context.
  • Prepare for porous enterprise boundaries. There are numerous theories around the development of organizational capabilities and RBV has been one of the earliest ones. Resources no longer need to reside completely within the enterprise and models like Innocentive have proved this. Preparing for a future where knowledge flows seamlessly within and outside enterprise boundaries is something a collaboration strategy needs to take into account.
  • Understand Incentives. This has been a very controversial and highly debated topic for a long time and will remain so given the complexity involved. Dan Pink’s TED talk on the science of motivation is a great source to get started on understanding incentives and rewards better. Understanding altruism, self-interest and everything in-between is challenging but any effort in this direction will have an impact on building support structures/mechanisms for collaboration to happen.
  • Foster Communities. Nothing new here but understanding informal communities and it’s role in building organizational capabilities is important. Fostering communities would also mean that decision makers acknowledge the existence of an informal organization.
  • Invest in social software. There is a specific reason why this is the last point – between throwing tools at people and they doing something with it, is one important magical thing that remains constant – the choice people make to use it or dump it – It is important to create the environment where people will choose to use these tools and then change manages itself. And creating that environment involves leadership,strategy and a commitment top-down and bottom-up.

Altruism In The Workplace

Enough has been written about how Enteprise 2.0 can possibly help with expertise location. A few days back, Mike Gotta highlighted some of the potential flaws in this argument by pointing out problems that we need to solve – with or without technology. Towards the end of the post he says:

However, I typically find “expertise” over-sold when framed in techno-centric manners or when it is based on altruistic participation and contributions that may not exist in many workplace environments.

As I was reading this, I was wondering if building altruistic work cultures was something HR/OB strategists need to be thinking about. Maybe, but then it is important to remember the tension between self-interest and altruism and how both of these are deeply influenced by the culture of the organization. Self-interest may not be bad after all within organizations as long as we have the mechanisms to relate those actions into a peer recognition model.

Warning: The example that follows refers to “mailing lists” – E2.0 purists please avoid.

Lets assume we have mailing list that a community uses within the organization. Someone posts a question and 10 people from around the world reply within a few hours and the person who asked the question thanks the people who answered the question. Let’s dissect this a bit – Why did the 10 people take time out to help this person who asked the question – Is it altruism? Is it self-interest? Is it a mix of both? What is the impact of the person who asked the question thanking the people who answered the question? This happens in the organization I work for almost every single time – almost every question gets answered on mailing lists – and at least in this case, I believe people contribute not because they are altruistic but because they want to let the community know that they have a point of view and use this as a way of positioning themselves in the community as an expert – and this peer recognition matters in this culture – the fact that peers look up to you for suggestions matters – This may not be the case in every culture. However, the point I was getting to was that people acting out of self-interest in a community is ok as long as there are mechanisms to ensure that this act is socially situated [ happens in a mailing list or a workspace of some sort ] , is visible and fits into a larger peer recognition model.