Collective knowledge is the next step beyond knowledge sharing for organizations. More than just making use of the existing knowledge employees have, collective knowledge makes use of the sensemaking capabilities of employees.
Sensemaking is the very human act of creating meaning out of the incredible amount of data and input that continuously surrounds everyone within an organization. Sensemaking is a creative act, not an act of discovering or uncovering what is already there. The meaning created through sensemaking did not exist before the conversation that created it. In conversation the meaning that is created alters as new data and new patterns in the data emerge. The understanding that results from sensemaking is not a definitive answer, rather it is an understanding that is adequate for the organization to plan and take its next action.
The need for leveraging collective knowledge arises when organizations face difficult, complex issues – the kind of situations that are marked by disagreement on what the problem even is and certainly disagreement on what would constitute an acceptable solution. I have written a number of blog posts about organizations that have faced such issues, e.g. the US Army facing the issue of changing how doctrine is produced, the World Health Organization’s eradication of smallpox, the cancelation of NASA’s Constellation program.
Understandably most leaders see it as their responsibility to come up with answers for the complex issues their organizations face, ascribing to the manager-as-problem-solver model of leadership. That has certainly been the predominant model for thirty years - taught by most (but not all) business schools, management development programs and propounded by best-selling management books. However, over the last few years a new way of thinking about leadership has been gradually emerging. The leaders of the organizations I have written about in this blog are people who have come to understand that no one person has the sensemaking capacity needed to deal with truly complex issues, no matter how highly placed the leader is. These leaders have redefined their role from problem solver to conversational architect, designing ways to leverage the knowledge of the whole organization when faced with complex issues.
Collective Knowledge can be accessed at different levels within an organization, that is, the whole organization, divisions, teams/groups, or even between two individuals. Here I am focusing on accessing the knowledge of the whole organization.
I told the first story about a leader recognizing that he needed the sensemaking capability of the whole organization in a book I published in 1994, The Organizational Learning Cycle. It was the story of Ralph Stayer, the CEO of Johnsonville Foods. Johnsonville Foods was faced with a complex issue in the form of an opportunity. It was a small, family owned sausage company known in Minnesota for its quality. The issue the company faced was whether to “accept an offer from a food-processing company to buy large quantities of product on a regular basis. It was a complex issue because Johnsonville did not have the capacity to handle the job so accepting it would mean everything would have to change.
Stayer called a meeting of the whole organization, giving them all of the information he had and asking them to work in teams to answer three questions: What will it take to make it work? Is it possible to reduce the downside? Do we want to do it? The teams struggled with the questions for almost two weeks, wrestling with the risks, which were considerable, and figuring out how they would have to operate to accomplish that much increase in production. In the end the teams almost unanimously recommended taking on the new business. Reflecting on the process, Stayer said, ‘If you issue orders you’re telling people, don’t think; just do. But if you’ve got 1000 people, you’ve got a 1000 minds. And if you issue orders from the top, you’re using only 3 of them, or 2, or one. That’s stupid.’”
The second story is one that Ron Heifetz wrote about in Leadership Without Easy Answers. I’ve summarized it here but the full story is woven throughout his book and he uses it to build the case for leaders moving from the role of problem solver to convener of the conversation.
William Ruckelshaus was the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1983 when he dealt with a case involving a copper plant near Tacoma Washington. The Asarco plant was the only one in the nation to use copper ore with a high content of arsenic. Ruckelshaus was expected to decide what to do about the plant; in particular, he was expected to determine what constituted an "ample margin of safety" in the plant's operation to protect public health.
The plant had spent 40 million dollars on equipment to reduce emissions even before the EPA got involved. They were ready to install new converters at a cost of four million dollars that would reduce deaths from cancer from four persons a year to one. But there was no technology available to reduce the emissions further.
If Asarco were to close the plant it would be a devastating economic blow to the region. The former mayor of near-by Ruston, told reporters, "I've worked in the plant all my life. So have my brothers, and so have my neighbors. We're not sick. This town was built around that plant. People came here looking for fire and smoke in the 1900's to find work. Now the government's complaining about that same smoke and trying to take our children's livelihood away."
Ruckelshaus refused publicly to decide on his own. He said, "For me to sit here in Washington and tell the people of Tacoma what is an acceptable risk would be at best arrogant and at worst inexcusable." He wanted to solicit the views of those that would be most affected by the EPA ruling. He decided the usual public hearings would be preceded by public workshops. The three public workshops held that August were controversial and packed with people, including a large number of smelter workers, union representatives, local citizen organizations, and environmental groups. After a formal presentation by EPA, the audience was divided into small groups to discuss the issues while the EPA staff circulated to answer questions.
The workshops and hearings surprised the EPA staff. As Ruckelshaus put it, local citizens had shown that they were "capable of understanding [the problem of the smelter] in its complexities and dealing with it and coming back to us with rather sensible suggestions." After the three EPA sponsored workshops, local groups began holding their own workshops.
It was not easy for Ruckelhaus to take such a radical position. Throughout the months of discussion Ruckelhaus was frequently vilified in the press. He was likened to Caesar who was asking the crowd to signal thumbs up or down on whether a defeated gladiator should die. The Sierra Club said it was the EPA’s job to protect the public health not to ask them how many people should die from cancer.
Through the EPA workshops and the community’s own workshops, local people began to see the situation in a new light. Rather than view it solely as a conflict between jobs and health, many people began to see a new possibility, the diversification of the local economy. That idea was obvious in retrospect, but at the time no one had seen it. By the time the plant closed in 1985, (due to falling copper prices) Ruckelhaus had still not made a decision, but Tacoma and Ruston had already begun the task of diversifying its economy. People had come to the early workshops displaying buttons labeled either "Jobs" or "Health." By the final workshops, people were sporting buttons that said "BOTH."
What a conversational architect does, as illustrated in these two stories, is to convene a conversation about the tough issues that the organization needs to face. The leader brings together those who are impacted by the issue and creates a setting in which he/she can draw on the collective knowledge to arrive at a workable solution.
In the post The Power of the Conversation Architect I discuss the critical tasks of the leader/convener in detail:
• Frame the conversation
• Identify who needs to be in the conversation
• Design highly interactive activities to fuel the conversation
• Use small groups as the unit of conversation
• Forge connections before discussing content
• Configure the physical space to serve the conversation
In Part II I will describe some of the conversational processes (e.g. Future Search, Appreciative Inquiry, Knowledge Café, etc.) that organizations have found useful in leveraging the collective knowledge of the whole system.