What follows beneath:
- How to build your social organisational learning system
- Why organise your business’s knowledge to drive its learning?
- How universal internet social literacy makes getting smarter possible for every business
- Collective knowledge can now be captured, tamed and put to work
- Why is Wikipedia-type technology our model of choice as a conceptual learning framework?
- The value proposition: Why every business will want to manage its knowledge
- Why even what we don’t know we know now matters to business learning
- Objectives in building a platform for modern age organisational learning
- Process: Setting up your Wikipedia learning system
- System safeguards
- Quality problems to be avoided
- Process: Daily system growth and quality control
- Upholding editorial quality and sense-making
- Summing up
No business can put to best use knowledge it can neither reach nor organise.
Against this reality, this post is intended to help executive decision makers solve the conceptual problem of capturing, organising and growing the intelligence and aptitude their business contains.
This resource is not a luxury, of course, but is something a business is already paying for, and it can be stimulated and its value grown.
And those who demonstrate clear method to organise, motivate and steer the generation of new ideas and new revenues through productive collaboration that everyone understands, and in which each workplace member can participate fully, will certainly find themselves a long way ahead of rivals that haven’t yet figured this out.
Nonetheless, if we are to encourage quick take-up of any system, there will ideally exist some familiarity with the processes with which we wish its future users to engage.
So, written for those seeking a demystifying way forward, we use the familiar structure of Wikipedia as the guiding conceptual framework for an entirely workable social organisational learning system.
In its own page, The essence of Wikipedia, Wikipedia’s expresses its goal as documenting “the sum total of human knowledge.”
It explains that it is based on the idea that, “No one knows everything, but everyone knows something.” When its pages’ editors get together and collaboratively bring what they have, a fuller picture emerges, much greater than any one of them could envision.
Emulating this principle within your own organisation to extend what it knows beyond which anyone within it can imagine is an entirely reasonable and achievable proposition.
It is also one that can be managed using long-established principles, similar to those underpinning Wikipedia, that guarantee the reliability of its content. This post outlines how this may be done to increase the effectiveness with which your business competes using the knowledge it both already has, and can build and attract.
We are still only in the earliest years of the internet. Yet, in this increasingly networked, digital age, the new experience of work and of the constant adaptation the process of workplace digitisation requires is already very different from that of the mass-industrial era.
In digital business transformation, no matter how smart they are, the shifting array of possibilities suggests no individual executive is likely ever to be able to think through all potential developments, outcomes and scenarios.
They are equally unlikely to be able to create, model and test any solution single-handedly.
As LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, himself clearly no slouch, wrote, “No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team.”
So, on the lip of this unfolding age, the greater the uncertainties and the more simple adaptation for survival is at stake, the greater becomes the need for effective, objective-focused, guided, collaborative learning.
And as every business contains more intelligence, understanding and experience than it ever puts to use as it acts against the unknown, each must learn how to apply better the collective insights and experiences of the minds on which it is built.
As our use of and familiarity with using the social internet grows, we have reached an age of unprecedented opportunity in managing the intelligence of the web-age business.
In the wake of Facebook, everybody now knows how to use social media to write online, upload and share material and to make comments about those items uploaded by others.
We could describe our proficiency in using this new form of shared online communication as “internet social literacy.”
Because everybody knows how to search and can respond to enquiries on the web in writing, we are also able to communicate easily with each other online to encounter, tease out and bring attention to many more, often unexpected, ideas.
This new fluency of communication is found in every employee in every business, and in every socially internet literate customer.
And when such communications are in writing, those documented thoughts, ideas and wishes can be gathered, summarised and reported on.
When this can be done, executive decisions can be made and actions taken, and anything considered worth exploring further can be taken aside and tested in greater detail.
Through this, by working together in productive, thought-out and well-designed collaboration, we can find better ways of doing pretty much anything.
Previously, it used to be hard, if not impossible, to capture and transform into usable information the knowledge and insights of those across an organisation.
Yet, with mirroring, private, Facebook-like technologies now available to every business, what was once out of reach is no longer beyond our grasp.
Therefore, people across the workplace may engage with these tools to contribute to, and to help shape the intelligence of, the organisation in which they work, based on what they know, believe and have experienced, or can learn independently and bring to it.
It is now within the reach of every business to get organised in how it learns, and to accelerate its capacities to meet, stretch and exceed its learning goals.
If managed well, the explicit, written source of information a company sits on offers a formidable growth potential in every business, as management can tap into diverse perspectives and intelligence that was previously both unknown and unreachable.
Instead, it now has access to an abundant and renewable resource, whose creativity may be limited only by its imagination in what it asks for.
Because what is written can be tested, our now wholly connected intelligence and resourcefulness can become a driving force for new inventiveness.
The network-driven organisational learning and change this will spur will become an unstoppable force in reshaping our world.
However, the challenge still lies in knowing where to begin in organising it for the first time.
We can be sure that people won’t use information whose structure lacks logical arrangement or that they can’t understand, and if either of these statements is true, they either won’t contribute to it or will do so without enthusiasm or commitment to its quality.
What follows beneath outlines how a Wikipedia-like structure, using a media editing process to give quality assurance, may be adopted to organise this learning within your business.
Abstracted from Wikipedia’s own definition, a wiki, “is a knowledge base website on which users collaboratively modify content and structure directly from the web browser … wikis have little inherent structure, allowing structure to emerge according to the needs of the users.”
In a wiki set-up, then, anyone can create a page that in turn anyone anyone else may edit or to which they may add comment.
For managing an organisation’s knowledge, this is its strength, as it enables a new document that is knowingly raw and incomplete to be created with minimal effort.
But when applying the disciplines of editorial checking and correction perfected over the centuries since the invention of the printing press, the wiki structure also facilitates each step in the process that ensures that the quality of a document can grow incrementally over time, such that it can reliably become fit to drive or augment learning.
Please note, however, that our purpose here is neither to endorse the Wikipedia aesthetic nor to invalidate other internal learning methodologies or collaborative technologies, of which there is an ever growing choice.
Many of these are perfectly well suited to the task they were designed to tackle, and in every organisation, the choice of tools and methodologies it uses will be completely bespoke.
Instead, our purpose is to illustrate a conceptual, connective, integrative glue, as the most powerful thing any organisation can do is to determine to learn, in context, from itself, in reflection of the changes, challenges and opportunities constantly presenting themselves in its own external environment.
Every company needs a reliable repository of learning it can count on as its circumstances change and as people come and go.
Because of its speed of document creation and amendment, a wiki is well suited to meeting this requirement.
An effective strategy for managing its collective knowledge will ensure a business, at minimum:
- Makes the most of the intelligence it contains.
- Gets every mind in the business focused on the future more competitively than rivals.
- Defines better shared goals, determined by cultivating the narrative of what it learns and the new knowledge it creates from that learning.
- Is sensitive and agile because it understands better the details of the constantly shifting competitive environment in which it trades.
- Makes a strength of adapting to whatever the future throws at it by bringing order to the chaos of what it knows, can detect and can learn.
- Is able to build better practices and processes.
- Strengthens its workplace cultures.
- Is more nimble in seizing marketing opportunities otherwise lost to others.
- Attracts and retains the most self-motivated learning staff.
- Is better able to iterate, conceive, create and design new business models.
- Makes finding ways to stimulate creativity a purpose across all dimensions of its activity.
- Increases its base of ideas to give it a greater range of strategic choices.
- Captures more opportunities for innovation and NPD.
- Wins opportunities for favourable publicity and media attention.
- Builds reputational advantage for advances on sustainability.
- Improves integration across divisions post merger and acquisition activity.
- Builds superior ways of anticipating the future.
- Feeds to leaders, investors and owners key information on which they can make better decisions.
- Drives superior, objective-led learning across its value-creation and value-delivery processes.
- Becomes infinitely better at managing its enterprise risk, knowing its best defence is always found in a mix of perspectives, awareness, experience, knowledge and communication.
- Is better equipped to gather expertise and call on knowledge to report for purposes of compliance.
- Is more greatly valued by investors and shareholders, attracted by its mission and strategy to learn and improve.
Eminent management author Peter Drucker predicted 40 years ago that the future belonged to knowledge workers and that only through effective knowledge management could businesses enjoy a competitive advantage.
In that view, there are three ways in which a business can remain competitive:
- By generating new knowledge continuously.
- By disseminating new knowledge across their organisation in a systematic manner.
- By applying the new knowledge to develop new technologies, products and services.
Most companies sit on valuable knowledge assets they don’t even realise they possess. When this is so, it makes the effective management of such resources to extract value unlikely, at best.
Such unrealised value is found in the second of the following two forms.
The two types of knowledge are:
- Explicit knowledge, which is available through systems, processes, technology, patents, and so on. As this knowledge can be documented, it can be shared and taught, and through technology transfer, it can be acquired.
- Tacit knowledge, which exists within the individual and does not reside in standard operating procedures. This knowledge is also context-specific and acquired through experience. It can be defined as skills, ideas and experiences possessed by an individual.
The term “tacit knowledge” was reportedly first coined by Hungarian-British polymath Michael Polanyl in 1958, who said, “We can know more than we can tell.”
This kind of knowledge can only be revealed through practice in a particular context and transmitted through social experience.
Examples of tacit knowledge shaped in this way include the ability to speak a language, to play a musical instrument, to drive a car, and so on.
Because it is not codified, written or verbalised, such knowledge is difficult to transfer from one person to another.
People are not often aware of the tacit knowledge they possess or how it can be valuable to others.
Reinforcing the value proposition above, growing value will increasingly be found in that knowledge that exists in our heads that often may be hard to articulate even to ourselves.
Tacit knowledge adds to explicit knowledge (facts, data, and so on) the unconscious knowledge generated by our actions, our intentions and experience and the emotions we produce from it.
The key to acquiring tacit knowledge is experience. It is both created and revealed as we confront new situations, and its value lies in reflecting and teaching us from the changes occurring around us in our unique, first-hand contact with the world.
It may even result from something as simple as reading someone’s facial expression in reaction to something we tell them. (The expert tacit knowledge of the best sales people is based on exactly such interpersonal sensitivity.)
Most people may not know what they know, but tacit knowledge gives us insight, and, as the best preparation for change, development of tacit knowledge needs to be encouraged in any workplace.
Without some form of common experience, it is extremely difficult for people to share each other’s thinking processes.
Tacit knowledge is essential to competitive advantage because it’s difficult for competitors to copy. Their wealth of tacit and explicit knowledge is the reason some firms pump out innovation after innovation while other firms struggle.
Effective management of tacit knowledge won’t happen by accident, but any company can benefit when it can build recognition of its importance deliberately into its human resource planning and knowledge management strategy.
Further, tacit knowledge can help the organisation to benefit also from the possible leaps of insight and imagination-driven learning stemming from new concepts’ exposure to “beginners’ minds” across an organisation’s workplace.
Every Uber, Ebay or Amazon had its origin somewhere not obvious to others.
In a sense, breakthrough innovations have “missing links” in their evolution; a sudden non sequitur that brings together disparate technologies and unanticipated needs.
Evidently, there is some capacity within highly innovative minds that enables the bridging of intellectual chasms and the merging of seemingly unrelated pools of knowledge.
These leaps of creativity are perhaps the least understood aspect of product innovation, yet they provide the greatest potential for sustainable competitive advantage.
Mascitelli, R, 2000, “From experience: Harnessing tacit knowledge to achieve breakthrough innovation,” Journal of Product Innovation Management
Our purpose is to organise the collective mind of the institution into which the process of organisational learning is introduced, to provide a platform to which all can contribute.
- This platform should motivate contribution, by presenting benefits to those seeking personal advancement and recognition for their insights.
- It should link users seamlessly to the information they seek, and, although secure, it should be as open as possible to users.
- Recognising how to use it should be instant, and it should take no time to understand and to master.
- Apart from when contributing, its management should be as hands-off as possible for users, and its processes understood.
- The quality of content it delivers should be consistent and maintained in accordance with, at a minimum, the standards and expectations all users hold of the media they confront daily on the web from other trusted professional publishers.
- And the support it provides for those contributing must constantly improve with use.
If you want to be successful in publishing pretty much anything, and you want users to be able to use your content, you begin with an index, also known as a table of contents (TOC).
The TOC tells you what information can be found where, and how it relates to other information.
It clearly sets out the order and rationale for what is being documented, against which context can be understood and purpose can be inferred.
As such, the TOC presents the best place for any business to begin organising its knowledge, specific to the content which will best drive learning across its workplace.Obviously, this may vary enormously, and this is strictly illustrative, but to begin with you might conceive of creating a series of pages clustered around these headings relating to your organisation’s own business:
- Strategy and purpose, including an explanation of the strategic vision and outcomes that fulfil the reasons the business was created, where it is going and how, and why. Against this can be generated reports that measure its actual progress.
- Current initiatives: An articulation of whatever is happening within the business to which its leaders wish to invite intellectual attention and input.
- News and newsletter: Whatever the business’s leaders feel they wish to communicate in the moment, or whatever other links can add value for reflection and learning.
- People: Profiles of the known expertise and experience of those within the organisation, such that what these people know can be drawn on readily in times of need.
- Reference: Background materials of relevance to the business
Anyone’s social learning publishing mechanisms need an overarching plan, because even the best tools can’t make up for a lack of publishing process.
So, at a glance, basic quality control dictates that:
- You need a process for commissioning and managing the introduction of new material.
- You need an effective process for retiring aged content.
- You need a process of review by appropriate experts as the check that everything that should have been included in a commissioned document has been, to the levels of quality expected.
Without the safeguards in place, systems with too many contributing authors, with too little discipline imposed on their efforts, will certainly result in a mess.
The likely results of an inadequately “curated” wiki will be found when:
- There is no system of indexation or ready retrieval.
- You can’t find a document you are sure you had read before.
- You can’t understand what you are reading because it is either poorly constructed or badly written, with little attention paid to the needs of the reader.
- What you are reading lacks context and you don’t know what its background is, or even if what you are consuming is the most recent version.
- Detail is included without any introduction that guides readers as to what follows, and absent of any summary or explanation as to its appropriateness for purpose.
- You can’t validate what you are reading because the author has omitted key references as to the sources of its content.
- No one has declared what you are reading complete, a draft or an initial scoping of a work in progress.
Precisely to avoid the problems articulated in the last section, the daily management process we propose here contains parallels with media production. Using this model, someone – a custodian, manager or editor – puts out a request for knowledge and information, and invites system participants to contribute.
The quality of the way in which what is asked for matters, as asking good questions opens people to new ideas and possibilities, and how such requests are framed will determine the quality of the responses they attract.
In publishing, this expression of what is wanted and expected is known as “commissioning” and an editor who makes the request for something to be written by a writer or journalist as a “commissioning editor.”
The more explicit the editor can be about what they need, the better.
As a commissioning editor is likely to be an expert in their subject and must be certain about what they will receive back, and by when, they will typically be quite specific in making their request.
For example, they may express an expectation that a response should comprise a certain word count, contain references to other specified material and, to present different arguments that give readers an understanding of the issue in question, incorporate the views of two opposing interviewees on the subject of the piece in question.
In our example within the organisation, the responses received are then submitted by their contributors to a wiki page, which, although crude and underprepared at this stage is little more than the earliest stage of an aggregation of raw words to be refined. As such, this page will enable not just the pasting of new screeds of text, but also, perhaps, comment on what has been posted by others beforehand.
The process of sifting and making sense begins at this point.
Obviously, what is contributed will be of highly varying quality, but over the ensuing hours, as sense is made of what is supplied and how well it accords with what was asked for, this can then be tested with the manager who issued the request.
A critical challenge to overcome is that of managing the language a business uses to itself. This matters because it can speed or slow its learning.
One significant and predictable obstacle is that while their intelligence, their ideas and suggestions may be good, not everyone has the same gift, comfort with or care for writing. Many people write poorly, don’t like doing it, or record information in ways that may be imprecise and unsuited to use by others.
We can also predict that without proper guidance, or checking, not all contributors will be as diligent about the consistency with which they tag, reference and index their own contributions.
Yet, effective indexing and search are really important to the learning experience by providing for ease of consumption, continuity of thought, attention and understanding for users.
Unless the right information is available and can be found consistently by applying a similar set of rules that benefit every search, learning will be inconsistent and undependable.
Poor quality documentation will deter readers, and knowledge that isn’t organised with a plan from the outset is very much harder to learn from later. (It is also much harder to want to use.)
As such, our purpose is to accelerate the business’s learning by bringing to it clear referential structure, plain English and sense-making.
The process must ensure that translating poorly written material into checked, verified content that everyone can learn from and build on will be as seamless, invisible and painless as possible for all participants.
This is simply system management.
However its graphical interface evolves over time, a business’s internal wiki will build a map of its workplace’s knowledge, and its supporting processes must chart the organisation’s learning toward certain objectives.
That now accessible and connected knowledge, experience and insight must be transformed into an indexed, structured and fully keyword-searchable platform.Through materials that seamlessly aid rather than hinder comprehension, this vehicle will be managed to become capable of supporting consistent, usable, targeted collaborative initiatives to meet your business’s defined, sequential, competitive, commercial learning objectives.
When you can define the rules determining the priorities of content creation, you can offer guidance to writers and set expectations for quality and consistency which can feed back into improved system design, and more reliable learning.
The alternative is to own the tyranny of an index and store of poor quality content that grows of its own volition, yet which, without proper intervention, only ever yields only a fraction of the value intended.
In the coming years, however, organisations that take the lead will be those building deliberate but open learning cultures. In them, better-rounded, learning workers will increasingly be empowered to look across traditional departmental silos to suggest and discover innovations that improve both customers’ journeys and the organisational capacities needed to deliver them.
In such organisations, the responsible information officer’s ability to manage mission-critical learning may now prove one of the most potent emerging differentiators in driving a business’s competitive knowledge creation, transformation, advantage and responsiveness to change.
Yet, if only on the basis of time and attainable focus, not all workplace leaders will be equally equipped to do this.
For most, the publishing know-how it entails may also not be core business, and if it is not in their background, there may therefore be some uncertainty even about the skills required.
In any highly functioning community’s development, however, effectively acquired and disseminated knowledge is the route to all breakthrough.
And, the more workplace knowledge becomes fragmented by change with people working off site and remotely, the more important will become the use of workplace social technologies in capturing, containing and distributing organisational learning by turning to advantage the knowledge that exists.
Certainly – as long as human beings remain a key feature of the workplace mix – those best able over the long term to organise, plan, articulate and develop the knowledge their organisations contain, keeping it simple by communicating it clearly via both recognised, proven and evolving publishing-quality models, would appear to stand the best chance of engaging the workplace in making the journey of perpetual digital transformation an enduring success.
Graham Lauren, firstname.lastname@example.org
When writing for professional purposes, every writer needs a second reader, and I extend my great thanks for reading and commenting on preceding drafts of this document to my friend, Stephen “Bunny” Bunyan, whose input has proved invaluable. So, having said that, I now have to own any howlers readers may find here, and if you do, I’d be really grateful if you’d be kind enough to let me know if and where you come across them. Thanks.
About the author
My understanding of what I have written above is based on my own insight, related professional experience and study, and I can guide you in how to use private social technologies to turn what your people and your customers know into better products and processes.
Professionally, I used the same private workplace social tool to make sense of and turn into workable documentation the contributions of a diverse range of workplace contributors when working on a deep digital transformation project in the 200-strong software development team of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia at its Sydney headquarters. (Reference happily supplied.)
At the CBA, I used each day proven, local, Atlassian technology, in a proven commercial application, in the country’s biggest bank. What I have written can and will be done and it is not an abstract fantasy.
By background, I am a former sub-editor (an editorial sense-making and quality control role) on the pages of the Australian Financial Review newspaper group at Fairfax Media in Sydney.
I also have a first, business degree, majoring in marketing, and an MBA (Technology) from the University of New South Wales in Sydney. The forward-looking focus of that latter qualification is on creating and managing the organisations of the future, both driving and in response to changes in technology.
Through it, my experience, and my skills and subsequent study, I discovered a fascination for documenting and transforming knowledge to drive social organisational and community learning, for its many applications, using the best technologies ever invented for the purpose.