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Toward a Knowledge Ecology for Organizational White-Waters

Notes & Explanations

Strategic View of Knowledge Ecology: Balancing the Minds and the Machines

I consider the perspective of Knowledge Ecology discussed in this keynote as a strategic perspective that takes into consideration organizational, behavioral and technological aspects of the firm's survival and competence. This strategic perspective is based on the complementarity of the creativity and innovation of human minds and the information processing capacities of the advanced information technologies.

Why I call this view a 'strategic perspective'?... Very simply... an era of increasing, radical and discontinuous change imposes upon organizations a need to shift their 'focal lenses' from internal view of optimization-based efficiencies to a more holistic and systemic view of anticipation of surprise. Incidentally, most organizational control and information systems are still designed for the era of predictable change. This scenario poses some interesting questions that have significant implications not only for organizations but also for their individual members.

How can organizations gear up to devise non-linear strategies for an era of non-linear and discontinuous change? What is the role of advanced information technologies in fulfilling the new organizational mandate? What is the new role of knowledge workers in the redefined organizational mission? How can organizations focus on internal efficiencies while ensuring that their theories of business remain aligned with dynamically changing external reality of business? These are some of the issues probed in this keynote presentation.

Anticipation of Surprise

In my thinking, 'anticipation of surprise' is not tied to the implementation of any specific technologies. Rather, what is important is how the [collaboration and conflict] technologies are deployed for executing certain strategies for 'anticipation of surprise.'

Perhaps it might help if I elaborate on this key notion of 'anticipation of surprise' and how it relates to the dynamic / active view of knowledge. Here, 'surprise' implies an unforeseen situation... For instance, given the emphasis on 'best practices,' anything that runs counter to the known 'best practices' may represent a surprise. However, in an era of decreasing half-life of 'best practices,' ongoing assessment of the _current_ interpretation of 'best practices' is essential. Explicit divergence of meanings provides one specific means for achieving this process. [However, such 'dialog' is feasible when there is a high degree of trust and community elements that are explicated by the Knowledge Ecology framework outlined above. ] More details on this notion of "anticipation of surprise" are available at:

http://www.brint.com/cgi- bin/search.cgi?PA=anticipation+surprise
There are four strategies suggested by examples of companies that have seemed successful in deploying them for 'anticipation of surprise.' These strategies are not claimed as being mutually exclusive or comprehensive, however, they seem to drive the point home.

The Quest for Being Number One: The notion of anticipation of surprise is outlined in my keynote in the words of Steve Kerr, the Chief Learning Officer of GE:

"The future is moving so quickly that you can't anticipate it...We have put a tremendous emphasis on quick response instead of planning. We will continue to be surprised , but we won't be surprised that we are surprised. We will anticipate the surprise." -- Steve Kerr

GE pursues this model of anticipation of surprise in terms of its quest of being number one in all areas of business in which it competes. Hence each of the business area is continuously on the watch, to maintain and sustain its position as number one against the competitors. A keen sense of own versus competitors' strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facilitates an ongoing reassessment of the 'way things are done' to ensure that each business area remains ahead of the game.

Strategic Planning as Sharing of Schemas: In this model, proactive facilitation of multiple meanings is seen as the key goal of strategic planning rather than explicit consensus on any one shared interpretation of the 'best practices' toward achievement of future goals. The process of strategic planning at Shell under Arie de'Geus provides a vivid illustration of this model. Within this model, the emphasis is not on consensus about 'what is the best strategy.' Rather, various participants share their own views of the future and what could be the best strategy given their 'view.' In this context, various participants in a knowledge ecology network share their own interpretations (kind of subjective notion of 'best practices'): such interpretations could be complementary or contradictory ('deadly enemy') in nature. However, the process of exchange - rather than the immediate end result - is more important: it resulted in each member becoming more aware of many other 'world views' besides one's own. Given, the complexity and multiplicity of 'meanings' of information, the participants were better equipped to anticipate potential surprises.

Further details on this strategy of 'sharing of schemas' are available at:

How to Facilitate Knowledge 'Sharing'?
Knowledge Management for the New World of Business

Only the Paranoid Survive: This is the key mantra of companies such as Intel. They tend to obsolete their own products before they are obsoleted by the competition. Hence, this strategy materializes in the form of a 'best practice' such as: Obsolete yourself before others do so. However, the driving paradigm in this case is the continuous questioning of the given 'best practices' toward what could be better 'best practices.' Such companies remain on the leading edge by "obsoleting themselves before others can do so." Hence they are obsoleting their own "internal theories of business" to redefine the game, i.e., "external realities of business" for their competitors.

Further elaboration of this point is accessible at:

Knowledge Focus: Internal vs. External

Technologies of Foolishness: Companies such as 3M are representative of this strategy. They deploy notions of irrationality, technologies of foolishness and so forth that underlie the generation of human creativity and 'frame-breaking' ideas? On one hand the inventor of 3M 'Post Its' [which were discovered as an 'error' in some other pursuit] may be called a genius... on the other he may still go around shaving his face with sandpaper trying to convince of its viability as a better replacement for shaving blades. However, such a culture is sustained by encouraging ongoing experimentation by isolating 'ideas' and 'identities.' Technologies, such as groupware may help, however the issues are more of culture than of technology.

Further elaboration of this point is accessible at:

Knowledge Creation: "Game" or "Work": On Motivation and Commitment
Trust : Suspension of Judgment: 'Ideas' vs. 'Identities'

Moving Beyond the Blinders

One may consider watching own versus competitors' strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats as a process of triangulation. In this process, instead of generating the 'flexibility of interpretive schemas' based on Shell's Strategic Planning process or 3M's Technologies of Foolishness, the 'flexibility' is generated by observing various approaches to sustenance and survival in comparable 'landscapes.' The process may be considered akin to learning from own experience and learning from voyeuristic experience (the essence of most business intelligence activities).

As noted in the above comment, besides triangulating the 'blinders,' the other relevant process (and more important than the former), is that of developing a keen sense... an ongoing reassessment of the 'way things are done'. Looking out is critical to remaining ahead of the game in such a scenario.

Or as noted in the above keynote presentation:

Within such systems, the best practices would represent optimizations based on past experience, but they would not serve as de facto benchmarks for guiding the future course of action. The primary purpose of such best practices would be considered as sharing and communication of information. In this view, the best practices stored in organizational knowledgebases would not be viewed as a set of instructions to be followed without questioning. Rather they would serve as ideological devices to define potential, but not exclusive, courses of action.
Problems with most benchmarks... are often engrained in the benchmarking process: the question is benchmark against whom. Specifically, should the progress or competence of the firm be assessed relative to other competing firms or relative to its own state within a temporal frame of reference? I think both issues are relevant... we need to monitor the external environment... and align with the changing reality of business since most change is externally generated. However, in real terms we need to ensure that the organization has 'progressed' beyond its original benchmarks. To elaborate on the last point, here is a small anecdote based on first-hand story from early 1980s.
A young engineer had joined an organization known for its management and technological prowess as a production 'shop floor' engineer. In the process of being familiarized with the 'way things are done,' he was advised by a senior engineer who had been in that department for the last 3 years or so: There are two ways of getting ahead... one by stretching oneself to move beyond where one is... the second... by pulling the other person (competitor) down... However, the young engineer pondered... if I pull the competitor down... have I really gotten ahead....
This is the trouble with most benchmarks.... as you have very pointedly suggested. The same point is more vividly illustrated by Intel's strategy listed in above explanations as Only the Paranoid Survive. Specifically, obsolete your own products before others do so. Questioning of the 'givens' may be considered as a real benchmark ;-) for knowledge-creating companies. Several related quotes and references on this process are accessible at:

Changing Nature of Organizations and Work

The point about 'emergence of popular organizations' is well taken... it rhymes with the recent individual and corporate interest in the notion of virtual communities of practice. Historically, such informal 'communities of practice' have played a key role in significant developments that had large scale impacts at a global level. Examples include the development of Unix operating system and the currently dominant server software Apache that is completely developed by self-selected 'volunteers' without any central control or coordination. Some time ago, WSJ chronicled the story of eight key individuals who are all 'volunteers' - who act in their discretionary time as the traffic controllers for the major percentage of global data flow across the Internet.

The notion of discretionary time has key implications for the emerging nature of 'work' and 'organizations.' With the advent of the communities of practice interconnected by global networks, one can sense a new kind of intelligence... a collective that is larger than the isolated individuals or the computer networks that connect them. Increasingly, with greater access and sophistication of technology and the redefinition of work suggested above, we may see emergence of such informal communities of practice. One may ponder: "Are organizations of self-selected individuals with shared interests less real than the more formal, traditional organizations that we are familiar with?" Not necessarily if one observes the contrast between the traditional organizational forms and the more recent 'emergent' virtual communities on the index of knowledge sharing and creation of new knowledge.

I think the self-selection process mentioned above works - in all organization forms - formal and informal - in which humans are involved. There is an argument that most traditional reward and incentive structures that underlie the structural and control frameworks of most organizations may only result in temporary compliance. Individuals would still do [or at least long to do] what provides them with personal satisfaction and personal happiness. Given increasing interest of the new generation of knowledge workers in the quality-of-life issues, it seems that most individuals are trying to seek a better balance between self, family, work and society, while coping with the increased strains of global competition.

It has been suggested that the traditional form of governments are already loosing control of key functions such as the control on the global exchange of their currencies. Two interesting, but seemingly paradoxical, trends are also being observed. On one hand, one observes an increasing consolidation across various service industries - most of them are attempting to emulate the 'business ecosystems' phenomena by becoming major global players. On the other hand, one is observing increased interest in, and relevance of, virtual communities of practice that act as safe havens for sharing 'interesting' ideas with lesser apprehension of judgment and censure (re: the trust and community aspects of Knowledge Ecology).

In any case it is a debatable question if the intellectual capital may be listed on the firm's balance sheets - given that such assets can walk out of the door along with their 'keepers.' Firms can exercise control on their 'intellectual property,' however it is dubious that they can exert the same kind of control on their 'intellectual capital.'

The recent era of downsizing and the redefinition of the employment contract between corporations and their denizens has reinforced the view that each employee is responsible for keeping ones knowledge bases and knowledge profiles current with market demands. Even though corporations may attempt to limit the emancipation of their intangible assets by means such as noncompete clauses [which are often restricted by court judgments], in the final analysis: real knowledge belongs in the minds of the individuals... and so does creation of new knowledge for breakthrough innovations.

On Compliance versus Internaliztion

You have mentioned that: "Even when you have a community of people who have internalized innovative ways of thinking, the organizational context can lack the elements to connect with and spark with that thinking .. to engage thinking to catalyze action." The issue about internalization versus compliance mentioned above is in sync with your observation. One may consider compliance of 'performance objectives' in terms of compensation and promotion structures. Alternatively, one may also consider compliance vs. internalization in terms of organizational control and organizational culture. In that sense "artifacts, pathways, patterns of interaction" are archetypes of organizational control mechanisms and organizational culture.

The sensation of a "vampire environment because it sucks life out of the people in there" seems to remind one of compliance based mechanistic structures in which people do things because they have to do, not because they want to do. Given this context, groups and individuals who internalized multiple schemas off on the retreat have a real struggle in executing those schemas in day-to-day activities. Undoubtedly, the most creative and innovative employees may amount to negligible knowledge creation if the overarching organizational controls emphasize compliance with the 'given' procedures, rules, 'best practices,' 'expert systems' and so on. To unleash the creativity and innovation, the organization needs to encourage a reasonable degree of latitude or flexibility as illustrated in the above story of 3M's intrapreneurs. The intrapreneurial culture of 3M may be contrasted with the later days' culture of Ms. Fields' Cookies in which the store managers were expected to obey the commands of expert systems based on artificial intelligence. Given such an environment that emphasized 'obedience of rules' over 'detection and correction of errors' w.r.t. the dynamically changing reality of the business, not surprisingly, it resulted in the downfall of the company. It may be suggested that such 'hi-tech hidebound' systems are out of alignment with the dynamically changing reality of the new world of business.

In sum, the "organizational context," as you very rightly pointed out, is often the key enabler or disabler of the organizational knowledge creating processes. However, given the reality of 'skunk works' that may thrive despite the 'organizational context,' one may speculate that schemas truly internalized will find a way to create the knowledge flow... within or outside the formal structure of the organization...

Of Process, Fixed Mindsets, and 'Common Sense'

The key problem is the mechanistic nature of the thinking about any 'process,' not the 'process' per se. We need to have the consensus and agreement on the fundamental rules, procedures and logic [such as those underlying 'best practices'] so that the efficiencies could be built into the processes, and replicated in other processes. However, we also need to have the unravelling process that questions the logic and assumptions lying under the current definition of 'best practice.' Otherwise, as noted above, the 'process' becomes 'hi-tech hidebound.' Such 'rigidness' of the process may not only be a result from unquestioning faith in the 'programmed nature' of technology, but more frequently results from the 'programmed nature' of human beliefs. That's why, organizations must emphasize 'best practices,' however they need to explicitly observe the caveat: This is what has worked fine so far. Use it if you think if it makes sense in the context of your application. Question it - and let everyone know - if it doesn't make sense in your specific context. Hence 'hi-tech hidebound' reference is not only applicable to the routinization and mechanization of business processes based on technology, but also routinization and mechanization of business processes based on human thinking or lack thereof.

However, instead of blaming the programmed nature of technology, I would like to reflect upon the following quote by the renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner:

"The real problem is not whether machines think, but whether men do."
Also, one would also think: why creative and innovative people often do not generate any creativity or innovation in certain organizational environments (such as one pointed above by Lisa). One may reflect that one of the possible reasons [as observed by Pulitzer-prize winning Harvard professor Howard Mumford Jones] could be that:
"Ours is the age which is proud of machines that think, and suspicious of men who try to."

'Inside / Outside the Box'

I think what may be more interesting to do is to look both inside and outside the box because it is the contrast that generates insights and discoveries. If there are those who always look inside the box or always look outside the box, they may never realize if they are inside or outside. Peter Drucker's observation about the downfall of GM and IBM from their pristine glory in his HBR (1994) article underscored how theories of business of such companies become misaligned with the dynamic reality of the business environment.

Hence, if organizations look outside the box and change their frame of mind to the new insights - they are now 'inside the new box' if they don't look outside it. Hence, it is important to look inside the box for operational efficiencies, and to look outside the box for long-term effectiveness. Why? Because, what is their current 'out-of-box' thinking may [and certainly would] become 'inside the box' thinking as time passes... That is the essence of seeking simultaneous processes of convergence and divergence... what I referred in the keynote as loose-tight knowledge management systems.


Drucker, P.F. "The Theory of Business," Harvard Business Review, September/October 1994, pp. 95-104.

On the Essence of Human 'Being'

The schism between 'being' and reflecting is very pertinent to the 'hidebound' notion of human thought discussed above. This dialog reminds me of the renowned quotation 'Cogito Ergo Sum': I think therefore I am. Hence, the essence of human 'being' is reflection. However, what seems to have happened is that most of our control systems that have been aimed at convergence have overly emphasized 'consistency.' The argument is not against congruence, convergence or consistency... it is against the mechanistic notion of control that imbues most aspects of the educational, societal, organizational and technological systems. As observed elsewhere, it leads to conformance for the sake of conformance not necessarily because it 'makes sense' in the 'here and now' of any activity.

This seems to be the reason behind recent emphasis on issues such as 'creative conflict' and 'creative abrasion' [which seem to have various connotations of 'dialog' discussed above] as not only desirable, bur critical for organizational survival and competence. There have been some articles in Harvard Business Review, particularly those by Ghoshal & Bartlett, that have discussed these issues with reference to specific company case studies such as Kao. Also, last year, HBR carried some interesting articles by Dorothy Leonard Barton and Kathy Eisenhardt on the above ideas in its July-Aug Issue.

With reference to Einstein :-), here is another quote from The Gold Mine of Knowledge:

"Imagination is more important than Knowledge."
Apparently, he was emphasizing the continual process of 'reflection' over and above any given static notion of knowledge.

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