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August 17, 2012

The Insides of a Smarter Organization

Posted by Paddy Rao (View Profile | View All Posts) at 5:39 AM


Efficient organizations are commonly mistaken for smarter organizations. But a smart organization is way beyond efficient - it can reinvent itself as and when required, without external initiatives or intervention.   Recently, I wrote here, about the first steps in the journey towards becoming a smarter organization  -  building a learning organization.  Learning organizations disseminate and leverage knowledge to generate new ideas and innovate with business processes.  A corporate culture that is both self-reinventing and sustaining are as important as best practices, efficient processes and quality-focus.

Smarter organizations are efficient organizations first, and once best practices are in place they focus on other things - such as nurturing innovation by encouraging people to think differently or challenge the norm.  Most smarter organizations share some common traits, like:
1. a culture that supports or even encourages challenges to the company's belief system
2. an ecosystem of employees willing to define and share knowledge; and
3. processes, systems and technologies that aid knowledge-share

Why is it that  most companies are yet to become smarter organizations even as they invest heavily in knowledge sharing technologies?  I think two factors come in the way - Globalization and the Wiki culture. Let me explain.

Progress can be achieved quickly when dealing with an organization operating out of a single or few discrete locations. Here, it's possible to create a fairly uniform culture that encourages knowledge sharing. Building  a uniform culture in a global organization dispersed across a large number of locations - including client sites, delivery centers, and home offices is tricky. These typically have numerous "points of service" or locations that deliver to clients. These touch points are influenced by multiple cultures, policies, and value systems. What the organization then has is a composite of the environments at all these points of service.  Add to this an even larger number of "individuals" environs  - and you get a "bubble" of policies, beliefs and convictions that individuals operate in. While the aggregated environment might still be able to operate congruently, it is virtually impossible for individuals to do so.  Merely issuing policies and guidelines  won't help their case either.  Policies can only change behavior when they can penetrate through this bubble. That's why, beyond a consistent culture and clear communication, smarter organizations encourage behavior that enables knowledge sharing.  True knowledge sharing can only be achieved when it's treated as a practice or behavior and not managed by a function. And without coherent epistemological and ontological constructs, people share whatever they want and we end up with a Wiki , rather than a knowledge management system aligned with organizational priorities.

Now for the really tough part - challenging organizational beliefs and succeeding.  It's human nature to resist change.  Ironically, the same specialists that drive organizational efficiency may not be receptive to new or disruptive ideas. Although well intentioned, these experts may - knowingly or otherwise - create a caste system which only allows "experts" to share, shutting out the larger organization.  It's critical that every individual has a stake in knowledge sharing. Many times, knowledge sharing and challenging the organization starts at the top, with leadership engaged to drive an idea through the ranks. It's important that leaders tolerate and even welcome dissent, and demonstrate openness. In the absence of such behavior, employees will always hesitate to issue a challenge for fear of repercussion. Inspiring speeches from company leadership and posters plastered on walls can sometimes backfire too.  I once had a humbling experience as a division leader at GE where I was marched into the HR director's office and admonished for driving my unit a tad too hard to achieve stretch targets.  As no one protested, my belief was that everyone was just as committed as I was to meet the near-impossible goal, but such was not the case. 

Organizations address these bottoms-up and tops-down challenges with the help of "evangelists". It is the job of those responsible for building a smarter organization to identify and recruit evangelists - people passionate about their beliefs, and brave enough to share their thoughts with an indifferent or even hostile audience. Since evangelists are driven by conviction and not personal  reward, they are willing to persist with their beliefs and challenge the organization even at personal cost. Most importantly, they don't give up easily. While evangelists don't actually share ideas or knowledge, they create openness or belief in alternate ideas. Once this is achieved, transmitting new knowledge becomes easy.  But even evangelists cannot succeed in an organization that lacks the willingness to take risks.  

Needless to say, smarter organizations must have a risk appetite for change.  But, then again that is a conversation for another day!

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