Insight No. 10

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Knowledge Networking  
No. 10

What Is It?





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.

Properly used, computers have an important role to play in helping knowledge workers:

  • Think - by helping the user organise and cluster concepts and discern new patterns in data.

  • Find information - through searching databases both locally and on external databases, and increasing dispersed networks like the Internet.

  • Communicate - use of email and conferencing brings experts together who might otherwise find it difficult to be in the same place at the same time. Ongoing 'conversations', with additional benefits of deeper thinking and considered meaning, can take place over days and even weeks.

  • Debate - properly managed (or moderated to use the more precise term) computer conferences (forums, bulletin boards, notesfiles) can create a level and quality of debate not normally achievable within the conventional work environment. This is partly because they attract highly motivated and knowledgeable individuals to address tough real challenges and engage in conceptual arguments.

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.

Problem Solving
Somebody has a technical or management problem. They cannot get the help they need from their regular contacts or sources. They pose the problem on a notesfile. Within hours an expert who has already solved the problem may reply. More often than not this starts a debate as to which approach is best in this particular circumstance. Off-line or one-to-one conversations can then take place outside the conference - but the link in the knowledge network has been created. Thus, a customer service manager in Atlanta may receive the information they need to help the customer from a specialist in Finland.

Decision Support
An important decision has to be made. Several alternatives are mooted. But do the people making the decision have enough wisdom to know how potential implementation difficulties with each option? Do they see the potential effects on other parts of the organisation that they had not considered? Debate is invited. New avenues are opened. Helpful criteria are suggested. Groups who may be affected make the organisational impact clear. Many product managers use this approach to help them decide which product features are important. Other management teams use such a forum to help prioritise investment decisions.

Project Management
During a project many different people are involved, and different aspects become important at different phases. A computer conference with properly structured headings, allows information to be collated and readily shared. Such shared information helps track assumptions behind certain decisions and gives a useful record for newcomers to the project. In one specific example over 100 people from all over the world, coordinated work on sales bid, pooling expertise in a way that would have been impossible by conventional means.

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.

© Copyright. David J. Skyrme. 1995. This material may be copied or distributed subject to the terms of our copyright conditions (no commercial gain; complete page copying etc.)


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.

See also Knowledge Management Resources for more resources and WWW links on knowledge networking and knowledge management.

Related Insights on these pages include No. 11 The Knowledge Asset, No. 12 Innovation through Knowledge Networking, No. 25 Intranets for Knowledge Sharing, or see full list.

Back to: Top - What Is It? - Benefits - Examples - Guidelines - Resources - Feedback

Management Insights are publications of David Skyrme Associates, who offers strategic consulting, presentations and workshops on many of these topics.

Additional coverage of these topics can be found in our free monthly briefing I3 UPDATE/ENTOVATION International News, various articles, publications and presentations.

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