Canaries of the Knowledge Age

Knowledge Canary in the Innovation Coal Mine

Dave Pollard’s blog “how to save the world” has a great article on how Knowledge drives Innovation. And in that Dave states that he believes that Knowledge and Innovation “are inseparable.”

And I have to say that this has long been my belief. And I completely agree with Dave’s suggestion that “Knowledge and imagination are the primary drivers of innovation in organizations.” I think that goes a long way to explain why there is currently such an emphasis being placed on increasing or driving innovations — from design firms to service firms to manufacturers…where there is a lack of knowledge, imagination and creativity there will probably be a lack of real innovation. So I think that it is a bit ironic that this increased emphasis is ongoing because at least in part, many of these same organizations have failed to capitalize on the value of organizational knowledge and all that goes with that — leaving them in the position of having to “frantically run about” looking for innovation in every dark corner.

I don’t want to replicate Dave’s post here (seeing that you can just as well to go read it there and he has some wonderful graphics to go with it) but I would like to point out that he discusses a “knowledge-powered innovation process” which includes twelve key components, most of which are knowledge-driven. So have a read at Dave’s blog (but then do come back here of course!).

What I’d rather do instead is talk a bit about innovation, knowledge, imagination and creativity.

I had the great pleasure of attending a workshop conducted by Roger Martin who is the dean of the Rotman School of Management. This was while I was about to moderate a Knowledge Management discussion panel at a non-KM focused conference and I had the great pleasure of catching Roger’s take on creativity and innovation. I happened to be sitting with Hubert Saint-Onge who was there to sit on the same panel, and as Roger went along I wondered who was taking more notes, Hubert or I. Roger was that good, that fascinating, and that tuned in with how to drive innovation.

Anyway…one of my favorite “sound bites” that came from Roger’s workshop was this little gem:

“Creative people are the canaries in the mine regarding innovation.”

Wow. That’s something. Really liked it, because it hits hard on the nail head of something that I believe in — creativity fosters innovation; yes innovation and knowledge management go hand-in-hand, but clearly the importance is trying to get a handle on where that creativity is and how to best use it to support innovation, and in tandem with the value/benefits of KM.

Which brings me back to that quote about canaries. If the organization is healthy for the creative people, then the climate will best support creativity and innovation. Sounds a bit like a no-brainer, yes? Apparently not.

Take a typical organization…and a typical organizational platitude — employee empowerment. I often say in my own workshops that most organizations empower employees…and those employees will in turn likely have an opportunity to explore the boundaries of empowerment when they discover that yes they were in fact empowered…as long as they made good decisions. But hoo-we (that’s a technical term), make a bad decision and they get to find out just how unempowered they really are.

Which brings me smack dab into the middle of organizational culture. If for example, an organization has a risk adverse culture — I don’t mean that they avoid what must be avoided, rather I mean that they will take no risks at all — then they will not only curtail risk but also creativity and innovation. Because it is often (if not nearly always) that some of the most significant discoveries are achieved….by taking a risk to try something. Measured risk, yes. Reasonable risk, of course. But risk.

So if you look around your organization and see a veritable ghost town when it comes to creative folks…recognize the situation for what it is — you are inside an organization where it is unhealthy for creative people, then most certainly there will be a lack of creativity and innovation. AND I will say with a high degree of certainty that you will also be looking around at an organization that also does not understand the connection between innovation and knowledge management. Which means that they aren’t employing knowledge management. Which means that they not only have managed to kill off the creativity, but also have become adept at letting knowledge flow out the door. No wonder they are lacking in innovation.

Back to Roger Martin. It would do an injustice to Roger to try to cover his entire workshop here, but there is one key concept that I think that I can extract that will play nicely on the above, as well as tie into what Dave Pollard has covered. And that is that in traditional organizations (read as lacking in creativity and innovation) they tend to focus primarily on deductive and inductive thinking. On the other hand, in innovative organizations there is a tendency to have a balance of deductive, inductive AND abductive thinking.

A key to abductive thinking is that you spend time thinking about the possibilities of what could be. And the one thing that you must above all else do, according to Roger Martin, in abductive thinking is to ban saying “prove it.”

Do you hear that little noise in the background? That would be a warning bell. The bell that should be going off inside your head the next time that you are discussing Knowledge Management with someone who asks you with regard to the value of KM, to “prove it.” The canaries have left the building. And the things circling overhead? Those would be the vultures circling ever so slowly, lower and lower. That’s because whenever you’re asked to “prove it” as the first course of inquiry, you will lose innovation because most of business you cannot “prove.”

Now don’t get me wrong — I’m not suggesting that KM get a “free pass” from performance metrics. Far from it. What I’m suggesting though is that those same “in-duh-vijuals” that are saying “prove it” and then stand waiting for you to pull the Return-on-Investment (ROI) rabbit from your hat, are the ones that are killing the canaries. My point being that if you had to “prove” everything before you did it, we’d all still be living in caves.

Roger Martin also suggest that Innovation fails in many firms because there is an imbalance between Reliability and Validity. Where Reliability looks towards consistent outcomes, limited variables, judgement minimization, bias avoidance….Validity looks towards outcomes that meet objectives, many variables, integrated judgement, acknowledgement of bias. Roger gave this example: In Procter & Gamble they conducted a survey related to disposable diapers and had a large survey sampling (Reliability) but unfortunately few survey takers were actual users of the product (validity).

So Reliability talks to things like shareholder value maximization, incentive compensation, Six Sigma, enterprise resource planning, etc. Validity talks to things like customer intimacy, design excellence, social responsibility, robust and evolving strategy, etc. And the general rule of thumb is that Reliability — because of its reliance upon current and past data — is better for current conditions. Validity on the other hand is better for emergent conditions…thinking again about Abductive thinking and the possibilities of what could be and how this fits together.

And…drum roll…the tie-in to Knowledge Management…the thing that I want to toss out for you to grab onto, the thing that supports and proves Dave Pollards discussion as well, is this: Data and Information deal with current and past and are less valuable then for Validity…however, if you accept that there is Knowledge Flow, Knowledge Creation, Knowledge Reutilization, it can be seen that Knowledge works well with emerging conditions which is what Validity is all about (think about customer intimacy as a prime example)….and that is exactly HOW innovation, creativity and knowledge go hand-in-hand. Knowledge is what is used to consider the possibilities of what could be and it is certainly a part of what will be when those possibilities become realities.

And this is why Knowledge (management), imagination, creativity and innovation are interrelated. And in organizations that “get that” workers are encouraged to take reasonable risks and are rewarded for solving “monster problems.” Those organizations that do not get it….there you’ll see things like status or power measured by the size of budget or number of direct-report workers assigned.

So, I agree with Dave Pollard, and think that what he suggests fits nicely into Roger Martin’s theory. Knowledge and imagination go together, supported by creativity and all the other things that lead to building a knowledge enabling environment. Maintain that balance between deductive, inductive AND abductive thinking and you’ll see an increase in creativity and innovation.

 

Dr. Dan's Daily Dose:
Look around you and if you see dead canaries…that’s bad. But beware as worse the organization that refuses to either believe in canaries or bogs down in arguing the technical specifications for the canary cages.

 

Originally published at ITtoolbox on 10/17/2006

 

About Dr. Dan Kirsch