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In this era of tough global competition, organisations must look for ways of generating extra value from their assets. People and information are two critical resources increasingly being recognised as valuable. Knowledge networking is an effective way of combining individuals’ knowledge and skills in the pursuit of personal and organizational objectives.
Knowledge networking is not easy to define or describe. It is a rich and dynamic phenomenon in which knowledge is shared, developed and evolved. It is more than access to information, because it also delves into the unknown. It is more than using the rules and inferences of expert systems, because it is about knowledge that is evolving. Although it verges on simplification it is the computer augmentation (typically through groupware) of person-to-person communications resulting in the development of new knowledge.
A New Era of Computing
Over the last three decades the use of computers has steadily changed along the spectrum from aiding computation (data processing) to communications (email etc.). It is now entering a new era of helping cognition - human thinking and knowledge processes. However much information organisations store in computer only a small fraction of the knowledge needed to run an enterprise is encapsulated in this form or in manual procedures - 10%-30% is the figure given by most groups asked to estimate this percentage. The rest is the tacit knowledge and wisdom in people's heads. This knowledge becomes even more important in a dynamic business environment and is the key to an organisation's ability to respond in a flexible and timely manner. This is a role that knowledge networking can help fill.
In these first two modes the person is mostly interacting with the computer. In the following they are interacting through the computer to other people (knowledge experts). In all of these modes an individual has a symbiotic role with the computer and with their colleagues. There is no step by step procedure - it is a pattern of fast interaction where the outputs from one small step influence the thinking and decisions about the next step. All the time though networking (both to computer holding information and to individual experts) knowledge is being continually evolved and developed.
A Few Examples
Here are a few examples of knowledge networking in action. A fuller list of benefits of this type of working can be seen in Insight No. 9: Market Intelligence Systems.
Making it Happen
One way of making sure it will definitely not happen is applying the rules and processes of computing used for highly structured processing, This is about social computing and organising information.
In many cases we have observed the following features emerge consistently as those contributing to excellent dialogue and pushing the frontier of knowledge forward.
A degree of informality - many organisation try and continue their normal cultures over to the electronic environment. Knowledge development requires free flow of information and feeling and thoughts. People must feel able to express their inner feelings and have them respected.
Challenge and thought provocation - the best ideas come from the kinds of challenges that might be construed as negative in face-to-face situations. The slightly more “remote” nature of electronic communications helps here. The name of the game is to challenge, ideas but not the individuals whose ideas they are. There are techniques of phrasing responses to achieve this.
Knowledge authority rather than position authority - recognising people for their contribution, not their position in the company. In fact, sometimes executives do not divulge their seniority when participating on-line, so as not to stifle debate. They also get a better picture of what people in the organisation feel than through formal hierarchical channels!
Openness of communications; willingness to share information - the person who comes into a conference to gain information, then disappears without trace, is quickly ostracised. In the work of knowledge networking, people who have knowledge to contribute are expected to contribute it freely. Its a case of give and take. You give your expertise to someone, and someone completely different can reciprocate with information useful to you.
Co-operation not Competition - a belief that coordinating expertise from different people is better than going it alone. This is a difficult one to handle, since there is probably an element of competitiveness in each of us. However, over time as reciprocal relation develop collaboration increases. Very often, just the frequently of genuine two way communications aids the process of co-operation.
Developing a network of individuals with shared visions and goals - the most powerful moves forward come when a particular group committed to a similar end work in harmony. The computer network can act as the “marketplace for ideas”, doing a brokering role in bringing people together. I know of one product that came to market 6 months early, because informal knowledge sharing over the network helped to gel an ad-hoc team of people committed to the same end results.
A strong sense of responsibility to co-workers - this is where normal team development activities have a role to play. It is often found that interspersing networking activity with face-to-face meetings can greatly improve the degree of mutual understanding and strengthen team cohesiveness.
Self regulation of the network - in a network there are ‘norms’ and practice ‘netiquette’ developed over the years by participants in such networks (e.g. the early academic users of the ARPANET (1970s precursor of the Internet). Managers new to networks often think (wrongly!) that they can impose rules of traditional computer practice on such networks.
An important point to note is that different on-line places have different characteristics - each forum, discussion list or departmental network has a different often uncodified way of working and interacting with each other. Therefore it newcomers must take time to understand the specific protocols and culture of the network they are joining.
Knowledge Networking: Creating the Collaborative Enterprise, David J. Skyrme, Butterworth-Heinemann (1999) - The definitive book! There is also an accompanying set of Knowledge Networking web pages.
Fifth Generation Management, Charles Savage, Butterworth-Heinemann (1997). It was Charles who introduced me to the term knowledge networking. This book describes 'teaming in the knowledge era'. In includes a 'fly-on-the-wall' view of a week of knowledge networking. More Details.
Management Insights are publications of David Skyrme Associates, who offers strategic consulting, presentations and workshops on many of these topics.
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