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Special Report - Unlocking Knowledge and Wisdom in the Enterprise

By Daniel Burrus

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Every company has both information and knowledge. What’s the difference? Knowledge is something that’s actionable and that generates value for the receiver; it’s dynamic and causes action. Information, on the other hand, is static and is not actionable. It’s simply compiled data.

For example, if you received a list of all the sandwich shops in your state, you’re now informed, but you don’t have any real knowledge of how to make a sandwich. However, if someone showed you how to create a great sandwich that tastes better than any other sandwich you’ve ever had, you now have something actionable. The person shared with you some knowledge based on his or her experience. You can go home and recreate that sandwich again. That’s knowledge.

The good news is that knowledge increases in value when it’s shared. Think about it … have you ever learned from a co-worker? A customer? A stranger in the coffee shop? Of course you have. But you didn’t learn by giving the other person basic information. More than likely, you were in a dialog. You shared your knowledge and they shared theirs. In the process, you both learned something new and valuable.

Unfortunately, human nature is to horde and protect knowledge because we think we only have a certain amount of knowledge in our head. If this were true, then we’d certainly want to covet it dearly. In reality, each person is a fountain of knowledge and new ideas based on personal experiences, meaning the knowledge well is deep and won’t run dry. Additionally, when you share your knowledge, you don’t lose it.

Think of it like this: Suppose you’re in a large, dark room with hundreds of other people. Everyone in the room is holding an unlit candle, except for you -- you have the only lit candle. Your lone candle provides the only glimmer of light. What happens when you walk over to someone holding one of the unlit candles and light it with your flame? The room is brighter, yet you don’t lose your initial flame. What happens when you use your flame to light another candle, and then another, and then another, and so on? Do you still have your original flame? Yes. Only now the room is more brightly lit because you shared your flame.

The same thing happens when you share knowledge. You still have your ideas, but by sharing them with someone else, you have the potential to improve those ideas well beyond what you previously thought possible. You make the ideas glow a little brighter. That’s why knowledge sharing is so powerful.

Knowing that knowledge sharing is valuable, it makes sense to capture and leverage knowledge in your organization. But how do you do that? Putting knowledge in a file cabinet or on a hard drive isn’t enough. You need to have your company’s knowledge on your network so it can be accessed anytime, anywhere, and via any device. People need to be able to not only view the knowledge, but also add to it and utilize it. That’s how knowledge evolves, stays relevant, and gets more valuable.

Additionally, realize that organizations today are facing a major knowledge drain crisis. Approximately 78 million Baby Boomers in the United States are headed for retirement. When they leave, they’re going to take all the knowledge and wisdom that’s in their head with them. Unfortunately, no one can change the fact that so many people will be retiring. But you can decide whether the retirees in your company are going to take their knowledge with them or if you’re going to capture it.

Knowing all this, it makes sense to develop knowledge sharing networks within your organization. The question is, how do you create one?

It all starts with the CIO

Harnessing the knowledge within your organization can’t happen without the CIO’s involvement. Why? Because one of the key tasks for the CIO and the IT department is to create new added value and competitive advantages for the organization. That’s precisely what a knowledge-sharing network delivers. The only way knowledge sharing can work organizationally is by putting it on a network.

In order to create a knowledge base containing the collective knowledge within the organization, you need networks that allow for instant access to the knowledge that’s gathered. A working, dynamic, real-time knowledge base is more powerful than any database or information base.

For centuries, knowledge sharing has been done on a small scale without technology, such as when people hang out around the water cooler, have casual lunches together, or go to a meeting. It’s during these times that people share lessons learned and best practices.

Unfortunately, such meetings are sporadic or only last a short time. Additionally, only a limited number of people receive the knowledge. And since it’s not captured, there’s no way for people to continually access the knowledge that was shared. But the CIO can put the company’s knowledge into a dynamic state by using simple networking technology. Capturing and leveraging intellectual assets is an area where the CIO can be highly strategic and can add value to the organization in ways no other executive can.

Knowing how vital your role as the CIO is to creating a knowledge base, it’s time to start getting people involved with the process. Again, your role is to drive the initiative and spearhead the process and technology. Others in your organization can set up a means to pull knowledge out of people.

Here’s how:

Knowledge Pull - There was a movement in the 1990s to capture knowledge that resided inside organizations, but few had luck with it. Most of the knowledge they were sharing was really just information, and many companies made the sharing process too time consuming and complex. To make knowledge-sharing work, you need to engage in a process I call “knowledge pull", where you pull the knowledge out of people.First, realize that all knowledge needs both context and content. For example, a good storyteller can’t just give you the punch line. They have to set it up first by giving you context -- the punch line that follows is the content. The same is true with your knowledge pull approach. You have to get people talking or writing about the context before the content has any meaning.

So let’s suppose you have a sales team and you want to pull knowledge from them. To begin, you’d set up an internal secure sales force knowledge base that all the salespeople have access to. This is called creating a community of practice, meaning that all the people who have a common profession come here to share knowledge. You can also create a community of practice for your HR team, your accountants, your engineers, etc. Communities of practice can be for virtually any group of people you have in your organization.

Then, you ask the community of practice for two short paragraphs each month. Why only two paragraphs? You don’t want to take a lot of their time. Additionally, the paragraphs you’ll get will be so powerful that you’ll have a lot of knowledge to learn from and act on. If you have 100 people on your sales team, you’re getting 100 knowledge entries a month that’s a lot of knowledge!

The process is very easy. Each paragraph is answering a question. The first is a context question, the second is a content question. Here’s an example of how the questions would work in terms of setting up the context and content:

To encourage participation, give examples from the company’s executive team, showing the CEO’s, CFO’s, and other C-suite executive’s biggest mistakes and what they learned from them. After all, if the company leaders won’t share, why should anyone else? But if the top executives are sharing, then everyone else will feel compelled to share as well. The executives’ participation makes the process both “safe” and powerful.

If each of the 100 salespeople posts their biggest mistake and what they learned from it, you now have 100 bits of knowledge and powerful lessons that you can categorize. Then, the next month, you ask two more questions:

Keep doing this two-question approach every month and your company will quickly have a wealth of actionable knowledge that can be used to rapidly solve problems and spread innovation.

Does anyone lose any of their knowledge by sharing it? No. Does the entire organization gain exponentially through the knowledge exchange? Yes! And if people leave, due to retirement or other reasons, at least you’ve captured some of their best knowledge instead of letting it all walk out the door. When someone new comes on board, you simply have him or her access the appropriate community of practice knowledge base network and start reading … and contributing.

Even better, you can pull knowledge externally as well as internally. For example, you as the CIO can be in a community of practice with other CIOs in companies similar to yours. The same concept would work for your CEO, CFO, etc. Even though everyone in the external community of practice would be working for competing companies, the reality is that the power of knowledge sharing is more powerful than competition. In fact, when competitors start sharing knowledge, they stimulate each other and get better ideas that each can go back and apply.

Remember, you can create new knowledge by sharing existing knowledge. And just gaining the knowledge isn’t enough; you then have to apply it. How you apply knowledge versus how your competitors apply knowledge will likely be very different and that’s a good thing. That’s how an industry evolves and how innovation occurs. You want to make sure you’re on the leading edge of that evolution and innovation. Sharing knowledge is the best way to do that.

Wisdom Pull - Once you get your knowledge network growing, you can take it a step further by tapping into your company’s wisdom and creating a wisdom base.

What is wisdom versus knowledge? Wisdom is a guiding principle that can usually be expressed in one sentence and that tends to be timeless and cultureless. For example, the saying “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, has been around for a long time. It’s one powerful sentence that many people use as a guiding principle. If you’ve ever read a quote that resonated with you, it was likely a one-sentence message that helped guide your thinking.

You can tap into the wisdom your team holds by creating a wisdom base where everyone shares their personal quotes. The process is simple: Tell the different communities of practice that you want to start collecting and sharing their guiding principles. Make it easy. Ask for only one principle stated in only one sentence a month. If someone can’t articulate their wisdom yet, that’s okay. Allow them to post a quote that contains a guiding principle from someone else for now.

The fact is that each person has a wealth of wisdom inside. However, most people don’t keep track of it, much less write it down. Here’s a great way to start tracking some of the wisdom you share every day: When you’re speaking with someone, every now and then you will say a guiding principle. When it happens you know it, and you probably wish you could stop and write it down. But if you’re like most people, you don’t want to interrupt the conversation, so you keep talking, thinking you’ll remember that great quote you said later. However, the powerful sentence goes into a part of your brain that’s short-term memory, and unless you write it down immediately, you’ll forget it.

Next time when you’re talking and you say one of your powerful guiding principles, stop and repeat it. By doing so, you’re shifting the words into a different part of your brain that gives you more time to write it down later. By saying it a second time, you’ve given yourself five to seven hours to write it down before it’s gone. As a side benefit, the listener gets to hear the wisdom again, which helps make it stick in his or her mind too.

Again, everyone is loaded with wisdom. You simply have to pull it from people so everyone can learn and benefit from each other’s experiences.

Time Well Spent - At this point you may be thinking, “This all sounds great, but I’m busy. And everyone in our organization, from the CEO to the entry level employees, is so busy that I don’t see how we’ll have time for this.”

Yes, you are a busy CIO. And all the people who report to you are busy, as is the CEO and everyone else down the line. But answer this: During the five years before Lehman Brothers disappeared (which surprised many people), were all the executives, the CIO, and employees very busy? Yes. But it didn’t help them much, did it? During the five years before General Motors went bankrupt, were all the executives, the CIO, and employees very busy? Yes. But it didn’t help them much either, did it?

Being busy is not going to help you at all. What is going to help you is taking the time to leverage technology so you can create business and competitive advantage. And that’s exactly what creating a knowledge- and wisdom-sharing network does. This is about taking your most valuable resource -- the knowledge, talent, and wisdom of the people in your organization -- and leveraging those capabilities in order to bring the organization to higher profitability and accelerated growth.

Additionally, the time people in your organization spend answering the two questions per month will save them even more time, making it time well spent. In fact, it’s so crucial that I even suggest you reward the behavior to ensure everyone takes the time to answer the questions. Here’s an extreme example of how to get everyone’s involvement: Tie the completion of the activity to the person’s paycheck. In other words, if they don’t take the time to answer the two questions each month, they don’t get paid. Do you think that would get people motivated to answer two small questions each month? You bet it would. And by doing something that extreme, you’re showing everyone that you think that knowledge and wisdom sharing is that important.

By sharing knowledge and wisdom, everyone in your organization can get smarter faster. As a result, those in your company will generate more and better ideas, develop more meaningful relationships with each other and with customers, and ignite the spark for true innovation and long-term profits.

Daniel Burrus is considered one of the world’s leading technology forecasters and business strategists, and is the founder and CEO of Burrus Research, a research and consulting firm that monitors global advancements in technology driven trends to help clients better understand how technological, social and business forces are converging to create enormous, untapped opportunities. He is the author of six books, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal best seller Flash Foresight: How To See the Invisible and Do the Impossible as well as the highly acclaimed Technotrends.