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Provide an Ongoing Context for Knowledge Exchange

Effectiveness of knowledge is multiplied if itís in the form of a conversation where people can educate each other.

If you think that everybodyís got a leg of the elephant, youíre never going to collectively construct the elephant by sending each other memos about the part you have. You need to have an interactive discussion that helps you adjust how you describe your point of view to another person, based on what you learn about their point of view by communicating with them formally and informally over time. Just putting it in a memo misses the opportunity for the kind of misunderstandings and readjustments that take place in conversations.

Thereís also the knowledge problem in organizations thatís been described (http://www.spcomm.uiuc.edu/iknow/) as "who knows who knows what?" When people have regular conversations about not only direct work-related problems, but also about more general discussions of the direction of the industry or the direction of the company, and other things which may otherwise seem to be totally off the topic, they co-create an atmosphere in which people are more likely to remember things that they want to share with other people.

A large New York university includes more than twenty colleges spread out over all five boroughs from Brooklyn to Staten Island. It can take hours to go from one campus to another. Like many of the key executive groups, the Council of Personal Officers meets monthly, usually at the university headquarters on the Upper East Side. Monthly meetings consist mainly of reports on various administrative and legal matters followed by lunch and informal networking. Sometimes, there is also an afternoon program to provide opportunities for learning. Although every member of this group has a wealth of experience that bears on the issues and challenges they all face in common, the University Personnel Director was frustrated that there never seemed to be enough time for sharing the successes and failures that could help them learn. He was concerned that they weren't able to really connect at the regular meetings and the distance between colleges made it impractical to create informal opportunities for getting together and doing the things needed to build stronger relationships.

This group wasn't ready to give up its regular monthly face-to-face meetings but they were willing to try adding something new to their process. They decided to create a temporary online social network to provide a different way to connect with each other between their meetings. An online environment was created that provided space for focused discussions on some important issues that were hard to address in the time allowed at meetings. In order to support relationship building, they didn't limit the online space to content-based discussion. The online university Café became a favorite hangout. "I was amazed at what I've learned about people I've worked with for years," said one participant, referring to online conversations about everything from local theater to fiction to favorite vacations. "I was surprised at how much closer I now feel to colleagues after just this short time online." One member of the group who had a very low profile at f-t-f meetings turned out to have a wonderful sense of humor, which came through in his contributions to the café. At the next face-to-face meeting of the group, his relationship to others had changed significantly as he was now "one of the gang" and so more likely to be seen as a resource for others.

Attune everyone in the organization to each other's needs

People who engage in this kind of knowledge exchange are also more finely attuned to what other people in the organization need to know. You donít share ideas with an organization; you share them with other people. Most people find that itís easier to be open and share ideas with people after informal conversations; exchanges about beer-brewing, or their dogs, or collecting Mexican folk art over in the café.

But itís not just the informal quality of these conversations that create the connection between people, itís that the experience is interactive. The more we go back-and-forth in a conversation, the more we know about each other and can tune our questions and comments to be more aligned with each others interests and needs.

Think back to when you were in 5th grade and went to the library to write a report on dinosaurs. A good school librarian interacted with you (or maybe already knew you) to find out what aspect of dinosaurs would be most relevant and interesting to you. That interaction was much more effective than just getting the card catalogue list of the hundreds of books and resources on the topic. Instead, the conversation you had with the librarian enabled you to narrow down and focus your search and make it both more efficient and more valuable. Humans are remarkable information/knowledge filter-ers. Getting information as part of a juicy interaction can be much more effective than just getting it "dry."

Responsiveness is rooted in relationship. The closer our relationship, the more likely I am to take the initiative to provide you with "intelligence" and the more Iíll take the trouble to add value to the raw material. When I come across a great article in a magazine or meet someone who could be a key resource for someone in my social network, my instinct is to share it. If the network is supported by online technology, the likelihood of sharing is increased because itís so easy.

Multiply intellectual capital by the power of social capital

Everyone talks about how knowledge is the important asset. But it has to be applied to be useful. It gets applied via the processes associated with social capital.

In order to realize the benefits of working as an aligned, interdependent, system everyone needs to have conversations that are diverse, complex, and deal with everything from key routines to major strategies. Collaboration can be thought of as a network of different conversations.

A common problem for distributed organizations is that their conversations deteriorate to being about logistical details, routine reports, and administrative matters except during infrequent face-to-face meetings. This just doesnít provide the "juice" you need to support the essential creative energy of teamwork because, in many cases, these conversations are the only shared experience groups have for long periods of time.

Organizations must create time and space for groups to have multiple, rich conversations between meetings - which means that you need to find ways to use a range of communications technologies to support these conversations.

A prominatant eduction association supports not only it's own national staff but also scores of other key people at local and state organizations. The association holds many conferences and meetings throughout the year to bring together various staff groups, stakeholders, and committees. However, it was not until they held their first online conference that they were able to mix groups that ordinarily aren't at the same meeting. Although there were several specific topical themes for the virtual event, one of the expressed purposes was to create an online social network that would allow people from different levels and parts of the organization to see themselves as part of the larger whole Ė and to understand how they could contribute significantly to each others' projects and initiatives. "Using online space allowed us to draw outside the lines of the organization chart," explained one of the project sponsors.

Create an ongoing, shared social space among geographic and departmentally dispersed people

The shared social space provides a sense of the whole Ö that enables members of a widely distributed group to see themselves in context. Shared social space actually creates the identity of the group. There are many good examples of how this works from other aspects of life -the "home room" Ö the campusÖ the town square Ö These are the contexts that help us define who we are as members of a particular group or community.

One of the most difficult challenges for people in a distributed organization is maintaining an image of itself as a whole. This is critical so that the team becomes more than just a loose collection of related parts. Working as a whole is what makes a team powerful. What is the context within which we are interacting?

Co-located teams can develop a shared image of themselves through experience Ė sitting in a conference room, meeting in someoneís office, having lunch together. In a distributed organization, people lack these images so you need other strategies for creating a sense of the whole so the team doesnít feel fragmented. A team space within an online network can provide a "home room" for the team where none exists in the physical world.

Good meeting facilitators often begin each meeting with some kind of "ice-breaker" to get the group started productively. These activities often involve discovering common affinities among members of the group Ė common pets, families, vacation experiences, or hobbies.

The purpose of these activities is to help you feel that you have enough of a relationship with that guy in Engineering so that when something comes up where you really need to be getting some information or talking about Engineering, youíre comfortable going to that person. You have confidence, theyíll listen to you and that youíll listen to them. People know each other through conversations, not through documents. People connect with other people more strongly than they connect with other people's organizational roles.

Itís just human nature. If you know somebody in Engineering, you donít care what his or her job title is, you may actually need somebody else. But you go to the person you know to help you get to where you really ought to be.

People who are geographically separated or on the road need a way of maintaining contact with their peers, whether theyíre in their specialty or a project team or in the company as a whole. The one or two times a year you do go to London you already have a relationship there. You can hit the ground running. And London knows whatís happening in LA, and there is less reinventing of the wheel, and more coherence with a national or global corporate culture. An online social network can provide a means of creating these connections even when face-to-face meetings are infrequent or impossible.

Thereís always a problem of people across disciplines not speaking to each otherís language. Turf boundaries and incomplete understanding of each other's specialties are always potential obstacles in modern organizations. The problem is exacerbated and leads to conflict when projects put people under pressure and they canít get what they want because someone with a different kind of need or goal is sequestering a resource, or is in line ahead of them. Or things get done, and hey turn out not to be what was required, because they were done in a vacuum, without any attunement to other parts of the system.

So the "who knows who knows what?" problem is in part solved by having a large network of people, who would not ordinarily interact but who share a broad and deep common cause (such as working for the same company, interacting regularly, doing some problem-solving and some socializing. That creates a context in which when somebody really needs to know an answer or solution, others are likely to provide the right knowledge.

One of the most difficult things in a distributed organization is for members to "see" and feel whatís happening above and around them in the organization - how does their part relate to the whole? They donít have a "line of sight" to key parts of the system and so feel disconnected which reduces their effectiveness.

When groups are co-located, members often sit in on briefings, company announcements, and meetings of related groups. In distributed organizations, itís not unusual for the group manager to be the only one in regular contact with the group sponsor or other key players in the system and, therefore, the only one with a good view.

This problem is exacerbated when there is a critical mass of members in one location and smaller groups elsewhere who will always feel that they are missing out on the action.

CCíing people on meeting minutes isnít adequate, they need the stories, the feel, the picture, the emotional tone which is the essence of what they are missing by not being physically present at the meting. Online social networks can provide some of that in-depth communication.

Amplify innovation

Groups of people can use online social networks to think together in new ways. When the affinity or common goal shared by the group is strong enough, mastery of group communication media leads people to invent things together in new ways.

The "low hanging fruit" of innovation in organizations is when one part of the organization can take something developed in another part, add something to it, and make it into something new and useful for them. The right kind of online social network can first of all identify when that kind of opportunity is possible, and second, it can bring the right people together with the right tools to facilitate the communication necessary to make this productive knowledge-transfer happen.

Create a Community Memory

Organizations run on conversations, but conversations are rarely structured and almost never recorded. Those strategically important conversations that are recorded in the form of minutes are not indexed to ongoing operations, so they could be used as a store of knowledge. Asynchronous, web-based conversations in the form of multimedia webconferences can structure and organize conversations and the support materials, including graphics, tables, links so that conversations automatically become valuable searchable knowledge basis. As experts on packet switching or organizational development share lore in an online discussion, the record of the discussion is indexed by category, keyword, and other means.

But a key thing to remember about these repositories is that they get VALUE by being used as referants for new conversations, not by just being an archive of information. So what we need is a living system that taps into the knowledge base but that is continuously talking about new information.

Creating a place to put questions and answers, speculations and factoids, about marketing your product in Japan or how to use the new email system, and fostering social relationships among network participants, causes people to think in new ways. They might think something, read something, or hear something, and tag it for posting later in the appropriate online discussion.

Give people a community memory thatís mapped well enough and that has a social element to it, so when an idea occurs, and youíre on the bus home, you tend to think, "Iíll bring that to Group A in Place B, where weíre discussing Topic C, which is really related to what I saw on that billboard there." That thought wouldnít have occurred, and that transmission wouldnít have occurred if you had not created the place, made it easy for people to find containers to put knowledge, and created a social context for it.

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