Is Yours a Know-How or a Know-Who Organization?

Have you ever read something you wrote a long time ago and then compared it to the way you think today? Cleaning up my home office on the weekend I came across a review I had written about 10 years ago about some research published in Harvard Business Review. The original research article was about knowledge management practices in a number of different organizations. Titled “What’s Your Strategy for Knowledge Management?”, it made an impression on me at the time.

 The researchers identified two generic approaches that organizations use in order to get value from what they know:

Codification: Efficient reuse of experience within a firm through documents and software tools that enable information storage and retrieval.

 Personalization: Build creative capacity through direct, person-to-person sharing of information and insights into underlying reasoning.

By showing how these strategies played out in different types of organization the authors made a case that all organizations need both strategies but one should dominate. Organizations that depend on knowledge assets that are created once and used many times should focus on codified knowledge, the “know-how” material recorded in procedures, templates and other documents that helps people get work done. Organizations that tend to deal with unique situations or solve complex problems should be more concerned with personalization – bringing people together so they can collaborate on a problem. Understanding which one is more important in a given organization should influences hiring practices, organization of work and, of course, the role of technology.

Word Map of Web 2.0 technology

So, what has changed in 10 years? The obvious thing is enabling technology with a whole generation of social computing tools used on a scale that was unimaginable a decade ago. Then, only large organizations could afford the technology to consciously support a knowledge management strategy. Now, tools like SharePoint, WebEx, and a host of on-line collaboration software are easily in reach for smaller organizations.

What hasn’t changed is that more technology is just more tools; organizations still need to understand what they do well enough to distinguish between tools that help and those that simply distract people from the business at hand. Try answering these questions about how your organization adds value for its customers:

  • Do you offer standardized or customized products and services?

  • Do you have a mature product or service, or do you depend on innovation?

  • How often do people in your organization have to work together and share what they know in order to solve new problems?

 If you found your answers leaning toward customization, innovation and problem-solving then you probably live in a “know who” organization. People are creating new knowledge; knowing who to bring together on a problem matters to you. Chances are that a technology investment that makes it easier for people to connect with each other will help, especially if you work with virtual teams. Consider a closer look at tools that encourage social networking, informal information sharing and face-to-face communication. Structured information retrieval tools are still important but mostly for organizing the reference material that aids the process and for providing access to the lessons learned from past projects.

 Social interaction creates knowledge

If your answers tended to lean the other way yours is more of a “know how” organization with a focus on consistent, efficient delivery of a mature product or service. For example, if you operate a customer support centre quick, accurate and consistent service responses matter, and fast retrieval of the information people need in order to respond customer inquiries is critical. Social networking tools have a place, but mostly to help people collaborate, sharing insights on new situations that come along and validating new material as it is being added to the knowledge base.

Good management practice should enable operating efficiencies through knowledge reuse and also the capacity to innovate through knowledge creation. It’s a balancing act at the best of times, and applying just enough discipline to balance the structure of “know how” with the emphasis on relationships that is implicit in “know who”. It’s not a static picture either; the balance point can change over time as business needs change. Technology choices are at the centre of this discussion, so be prepared to experiment a little and encourage adoption of new tools in small steps help people add value through what they do.


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