KM’s Evolution: the “Connected Organization” and the Emergence of Knowledge Networks

CHARLOTTE, NC. April 2012, by 

Knowledge Management can flourish in organizations where the interplay of ideas is valued, where insights are prized as critical raw materials. Unfortunately, that’s not in enough places.  KM, as a practice, remains mired in old thinking.

Let’s take a fresh start:

It’s time for KM practitioners to start sketching out a new collaborative paradigm for the enterprise ..

No small strokes here. So let’s put some stakes in the ground.

For a foundation, let’s return to Ikujiro Nonaka (2001) who gives us 3 major themes that have more relevance today than ever:

  • Flow of Insights, as Process.  The most fundamental change in the KM paradigm must be moving from structure to one of flow as the prevailing metaphor. Insights flow through organizations, they don’t live in hierarchical boxes. When they live in silos, they’re often trapped there. KM must foster flow across silos, and sometimes (with appropriate policy and security) across the firewall. I believe KM’s convergence with social networks helps us think about how insight truly flows, representing a key inflection point for what is possible ..
  • “Ba” as Time, Space .. and Opportunity.  A Japanese term, “ba” can be thought of  (in my words, attempting to apply Nonaka’s) as “favorable conditions in time and space for knowledge emergence to occur”. It could be a conference room, an office, or space by the water cooler, but regardless of place, the chance for emergence is heavily influenced by culture and values. KM practitioners need to facilitate the creation of ba, and I’ll argue that in the 21st century, such places can be either physical or virtual ..
  • Care.  Many (people, organizations) have lost sight of their core values, the deeply felt imperatives that motivate and inspire us to act; in cases where they’re stated, they often fail to enter into our day-to-day use. Ownership and compassion make a difference in KM. Unlocking the value of KM requires a return to priorities, motivators, and intention ..

For a leg up on business context and the value of KM to the enterprise, I like going to Thomas Stewart (2001) with his clear perspective on challenges of how ideas are viewed in the enterprise space:

Value of ideas isn’t taught in traditional economics; it’s treated as a mysterious, outside force .. (but) a company in the information age is really a beehive of ideas, impacting how they should be setup, and run, and how they should compete.

An evolved, future-state KM needs more grounding in business and the business process, as envisioned by Nonaka and contextualized by Stewart. Sharing knowledge (first as insights, then ideas) must become second nature.

The adoption of this thinking has, in many ways, remained painfully slow. Andrew McAfee (2009) helped to set a new baseline for what’s possible, but he’s quick to point out that tech adoption often takes much longer than we’d prefer.

But it doesn’t stop us from charting a course.

Framing KM as a new paradigm allows us all to rethink what happens when insight truly begins to flow more freely through organizations. Hold this mental model:  insights are the raw material of new ideas. New knowledge is the downstream outcome, the catalyst and source of innovation.

We need accessible semantic framing for KM to have a chance.

I like to think of a new, emergent KM as “Getting Smarter, Faster” .. a more conversational, real, and tangible frame for KM and the flow of insights. Many of the terms and concepts in traditional KM (include some used in this post) won’t resonate with C-Levels, including, unfortunately, “ba” and “social” ..

As we rethink the framework, let’s try this:

Enterprise 2.0 may ultimately transform KM .. so that what emerges will be the “Connected Organization” .. creating new chances and spaces for people to exchange ideas and redefine possibilities ..

Connections like these happen at many levels, often spontaneously and in the moment. Email is not effective for this. Encounters at the water cooler leave too much to chance.

Ultimately, we are social creatures. We have an innate desire to connect with each other, and at some level, to help each other. But such thinking doesn’t go far in our commercial spaces.  This is where we need to rethink and apply Nonaka’s “care” as a focus, a priority, a core “intention.” My take on the challenge:

Corporations, in general, have failed to recognize the tremendous generative power in fostering white space and open linkages ..

Let’s take a confident step in the direction of E2.0, taking McAfee’s lead (in my words):

Social technologies offer the potential to serve as a KM catalyst, helping people connect in intuitive ways, when the need becomes apparent .. and we need to find ways to leverage them ..

Collaboration DNA (2012) .. my first book .. is where I’ve assembled the scaffolding for these ideas over the past 3 years. It will be out on Kindle soon. I’ve acquired a deep appreciation of linkage between KM and the collaboration process, and the role that technology can play to transcend historic barriers.

Both KM and collaboration depend on the exchange of insight; both aspire to create synergy from the engagement of independent thinkers; both struggle to function across organizational silos.

Steven Johnson has had many powerful things to say about the flow of ideas of late, but I think it was Peter Senge who first pointed out that KM and collaboration are two sides of the same coin.

Let me tie all this together:

KM needs to traffic in the flow of insight, building formal and informal Knowledge Networks as foundations of the Connected Organization ..

Exchange of insights, in the end, is the catalyst that makes innovation happen. Yes, there must be a process, and KM can help us invent the new one. It needs to be embedded in operations. And ultimately, it must have time, space .. and intention .. to flourish.

We’ll be expanding on these ideas here, and elsewhere.

Many of you have helped shape and validate my thinking, each insight a catalyst for the next. Thank you for your many contributions. But we’re only just getting started ..

As always, there’s still much work ahead, and as always, I’d love your insights.


Notes: see Suggested Reading side bar re: Goleman (1995, 2005), Kuhn (1962), Senge (1990), Wheatley (1996), Johnson (2010); links to books by Nonaka, Stewart and McAfee are in-line above. 

11 thoughts on “KM’s Evolution: the “Connected Organization” and the Emergence of Knowledge Networks

  1. Hi Chris

    I think the main problem of KM is that it’s evolved, changed, and innovated what it has to be in the organization – but few of the original practitioners have changed with it. In refusing to change (or not realizing that the change happened) they’ve fallen victim to the same trap that so many now defunct companies have in ignoring the direction the market went – choosing instead to concentrate on being the best in a market that no one really cares for anymore. They have, in effect, been disrupted.

    I admit that may be a bit of a harsh statement – but KM always suffered from 1) having too wide of a remit and a defining umbrella and 2) Not being focused on driving realizable value into the businesses that implemented them. It was the first iteration onto what’s since become the collaborative and social movements – that have effectively built on the fundamentals that KM pioneered – and added to that the concepts of scale and focus.

    The value of KM in the early days was, as you rightly pointed out above, the identification of knowledge as a valuable “thing” – one that companies could capture, manipulate and maximize much like other resources. But at some point KM stopped being about the knowledge “thing” and started being more about the knowledge “process” – and now even more about the enablement of flow. In my mind, knowledge and collaboration aren’t two sides of the same coin – they ARE the same coin – but with different dates.

    The need for old-school KM in the enterprise is now very limited – just like the need for pure mathematics is – it’s the application of those fundamentals towards driving new sources of value in the enterprise that holds real interest in the business world – and, in my mind, Innovation is the instantiation of that evolution.

    In that same vein though, I would put it to you that looking at the exchange of insights isn’t quite the right way to think about this either. Insights are very much in the old knowledge “thing” way of looking at this I think. Instead – I’d think about the knowledge “process” of stimulation – and the stimulation that drives Innovation outcomes can come from multiple different “things” and multiple different methods of applying those “things”. It could be as simple as visual cues, or as immersive as topic focused lectures. It could be provided in an instant or delivered over days and weeks. It could be provided in person or electronically. Our job is now to find the right “thing” to stimulate the right person in the right way to achieve the right result for the organization – no?

    Looking forward to your book :)



  2. YES. Excellent insights, Boris, a super response. We’re covering lots of ground, but that’s okay; there’s much to be tackled:

    • traditional KM has largely (completely?) been disrupted
    • the process of insight/idea emergence is a far better way to look at knowledge in the organization than structured methods of the past
    • new focus is learning the right motivators/attractors for KM (if it’s even “KM”?) to function, which includes making it operationally centered and business/requirements driven

    I think we’re together on these points. If not, correct me. Might we add this to our top line framing:

    KM must redefine itself, working to regain relevance.

    Re: the “things” dilemma I introduce “flow of insights” as metaphor not to keep “things” in the mix, but to find a more accessible alternative to “knowledge” .. KM has enough challenges without being battered by semantics of abstract ideas ..

    Re: org learning I see “flow of insights” is an intentional step in the direction of a fluid process, a dynamic (not static) frame for how organizations can learn. Think Wheatley, Argyris (double loop) ..

    Re: technology there’s a social element lurking in our future, an enterprise flavor of Twitter and WordPress that, when integrated and ubiquitous, will be needed to give org collaborators a way to get people talking inside the firewall as freely as we do on the outside.

    Some major culture issues to address .. which you’ll find in soon to be published Chapter 10 :)

    Always a pleasure Boris .. keep those good ideas coming.


  3. KM can’t redefine itself. As Indian lore would suggest, it must die in order to become something better than what it was.

    That said, there are many organizations that never really ever embraced KM — they still just have content repositories. And there are many, many more that are just going through the motions.

    But it all fundamentally goes back to the fundamental design proposition: what problem were we trying to solve? The problem wasn’t to manage knowledge. The problem was to connect resources to answers. More often than not, the context of the question was not fixed, meaning the answers could not be fixed either and that the answers were only to be discovered through other people, not some content repository.

    The problem has ALWAYS been a social one. The solution was in denial.

  4. Thanks for the input Paula. Enjoyed the Business Sutra episode: the cycle of knowledge as generational, the wise passing back to the youth.

    Definitely echoes Nonaka on “care” .. “intention” .. social responsibility ..

    In terms of KM missing the point, hindsight again proves to be 20-20. Much easier to frame the problem in the social context now. But in the pre-social media 1990’s could we even imagine social technology? What the internet would be capable of? I wonder if KM reflects the silo structures of its internal customers .. with hierarchy being the only model for org structure, communication channels and authority that was (and often, still is) embraced by business and IT alike?

    Actually, it may be best to train our creative energies on the path forward. Can we incorporate design thinking in the future state of the collaborative enterprise .. the “connected organization”?

    Making me think, as always .. and always appreciated.


  5. Let me just echo support for all the lines of thinking here. Especially like Paula’s insight that it has always been about social. We just keep forgetting that, whenever a shiny new toy comes within sight.

    The “care” piece is interesting to me. John Hagel et al get at something like that in the Power of Pull. Gary Hamel talks about it (passion) similarly. Others do as well. The point is: There is something that makes connectedness worthwhile in term of generating insights….we need a language for that.

    Also like your use of “insight.” Resonates with some work I’ve seen that talks about “temporary convergence” – where in online communities you have divergent thinking temporarily (and in small pockets) converge. Downside is that it’s temoorary and fleeting. Upside is that it’s an insight, I suspect. And there’s lots of it.

  6. Thanks so much for the comments, Jeff. When ideas start to resonate, I know we’re making progress!

    Glad that “insight” resonates with you. To me, insight is the raw material of contextualized ideas, and their value is neglected .. perhaps due to their ephemeral nature or high volume ..

    Care comes in many packages .. Nonaka, Hagel, Hamel, Wheatley .. but it seems the solution language wrapping around the Connected Organization it would be the same as would be required for framing a culture of learning:

    A place that encourages learning via the flow of insight, fostering the emergence of new ideas that lead to the development of deeper understanding, enhanced stakeholder value, and new knowledge-based capabilities ..

    Capability is another key word. To me, that’s the linkage back to business value. Knowledge itself isn’t actionable. Capabilities mean we can do something we couldn’t do before ..

    Food for thought. Maybe we can we add to this, and make it better?


  7. So why modify “capabilities” with “knowledge-based” then? And apologies – I may be thinking more serially than conceptually – but wouldn’t new capabilities lead to enhanced stakeholder value? “…the emergence of new ideas that lead to the development of deeper understanding, new capabilities and enhanced stakeholder value.”

    Am in total agreement with you that “capability” is a key word linking to back to biz value. And what you’re writing here is key – connecting the dots between the importance of flow and what it ultimately does for an organization.

    Cheering you on from the sidelines on this one. Need more people articulating the solution language in ways that redefine KM (or whatever we call it!).


    • Excellent feedback Jeff, couldn’t agree more re: logical sequence. And there’s no need to qualify “capabilities” .. any new/enhanced capability scores a win ..

      Not sure this frame reflects enough re: care / purpose / intention ..

      Let’s keep this going. Maybe we’ll get input from other quarters. Don’t look now, but we’re collaborating. Nothing like “eating our own dog food” to test the theories :)


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