Idea management requires shared power

Nancy Dixon discusses The Three Eras of Knowledge Management, an excellent read on how lead organizations are using idea management. This post confirms, in my mind, the three principles of net work, or how work gets done in the network era. The description of convening  is similar to openness, though in the explanation below, it is a more deliberate process than what might be thought of as a community of practice. .

The NASA example illustrates the three enablers of the third era, 1) convening, 2) cognitive diversity and 3) transparency.

1. Convening
Convening is the skill and practice of bringing groups together to develop understanding of complex issues, create new knowledge and spur innovation. It is about:
• designing meetings as conversations rather than presentations
• identifying who needs to be in the conversation, including those who do the work and are impacted by it
• framing the question in a way that opens thinking
• arranging the space to facilitate conversation
• using small groups as the unit of learning
I have written about convening and the role of the leader in The Power of the Conversation Architect to Address Complex, Adaptive Challenges

Cognitive Diversity
Cognitive diversity is the deliberate use of difference to bring new understanding to an issue. When faced with complex issues our inclination is to collect more data, survey, or assign a task force to conduct interviews; when what is needed is a new way to frame the issue. Cognitive diversity brings people trained in different heuristics, problem solving strategies, interpretations, and perspectives into the room. Cognitive diversity can be found in different parts of the organization (e.g. marketing, finance, engineering), in different disciplines (e.g. biology, neuroscience, archeology), or outside the organization (e.g. suppliers, customers, consultants, academicians, alliances).

Transparency includes the willingness of management to say, “I don’t know” and therefore to employ the organization’s collective knowledge. It is also about management providing all the available information and data on an issue so that those convened have what they need to do the work of sensemaking. Organizational members also have a role in transparency, that is, to be open about what is happening at their level, rather than hiding or discounting bad news to appease management – to bring the best available knowledge to bear on organizational issues

What I find implicit in the notion of idea management though, is shared power. Just doing idea management, like narration of work, is not enough. If the high-value work today is in facing complexity, not in addressing problems for which a formulaic or standardized responses have been developed, then learning and solving problems together is a real business advantage. If idea management requires those in control to say, “I don’t know”, then there are many organizations where this will not happen. If idea management requires  employees “being open about what is happening at their level”, then personal knowledge management skills need to be widespread (something I have yet to see in most organizations).  Command & control remain the major stumbling blocks in effective idea management. However, it is great to see that there are lead organizations, like NASA,  setting the example.

3 Responses to “Idea management requires shared power”

  1. Jon Husband

    Upon reading Nancy’s post, so far I find the notion of managing ideas much more compelling, easier to ‘grasp’ and much more practical than “managing knowledge”.

    Kudos to her for making that important distinction.

  2. Rick Ladd

    I’ve long subscribed to Russ Ackoff’s spectrum of learning, which has five levels: data, information, knowledge, understand, and wisdom. That kind of notionally puts knowledge management in the middle of the spectrum; probably not what most of us are after. Like Jon, I find managing ideas far more compelling, though I suspect there’s far more to it. Still, I do think it’s a step forward in our never-ending quest to work better together.

    I’m also intrigued by your pointing out the value of shared power. One of Nancy’s three issues for this third era is that of transparency and she specifically mentions the openness of management to saying “I don’t know”, as well as organizational members neither hiding nor manufacturing information to mislead their leadership into thinking all is well.

    I also think there’s a level of openness required of knowledge workers that says, “I don’t know how what I know might fit in to what others are doing or what we might be able to do, but I want to make my work observable (findable) so that others can discover it and make use of it.

    Of course, all of this requires an understanding of systems some people aren’t quite capable of mustering. Also, the graphic of what those NASA participants were willing to commit to left me far from impressed. Seriously, when I think of the money and firepower put to bear on these issues, there sure seems to be a large component of what I can only call “Motherhood” statements. It looks like my former company’s stated aspirations from nearly 10 years ago.


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