Knowledge management, reinvention, and innovation

Earlier this year I wrote a column for the Enterrpise Systems Journal on the linkage between knowledge management efforts and innovation. You can find the column at:

Get Better at Reinventing the Wheel

To succeed with knowledge management, organizations should focus on getting better at reinventing the wheel instead of avoiding it.

The rant that provoked this column was in response to the frequent justification of knowledge management efforts on the grounds that “we don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” which I finally got tired of hearing. It’s one of those phrases that sounds like it means something useful until you actually take a look at it.

First, equating “knowledge” with “wheels” gets you on the wrong track by confusing knowledge with something vaguely product-like. I can’t think of many knowledge work processes where you could simply take a piece of finished work from elsewhere in the organization and drop it in place. At the very least, you need to understand the current situation and the available knowledge work “thing” well enough to come up with a way to adapt or apply the old thing in a new situation. Any attempt to sidestep that process is guaranteed to lead to trouble. Don’t encourage it by laziness in comparing knowledge work deliverables to wheels.

Second, if you are really doing knowledge work, then your customer, be it someone above you in the organizational food chain or a paying customer, is not interested in and will not pay for yesterday’s answer. You need to divine their unique perspective and explicitly connect your knowledge work deliverable to that unique situation. The value of having organized access to prior knowledge work deliverables lies in improving the quality and the speed of applying that knowledge as an input to the process at hand, not as a deliverable.

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