During the last decade or so, journalists and executives of
many organizations have talked a lot about a set of related words that includes
knowledge, expertise, talent, human capital, know-how, capabilities and capacities,
skills, and intelligence. I'm sure readers of this column have heard
some of that talk. This focus on terms associated with knowledge is not particularly
surprising. In the past few years, organizations in the United States spent
as much on knowledge and knowledge-supporting tools and activities as
they do on capital goods. This is a first for an advanced industrial (or what
used to be an industrial) nation. Although the event wasn't much noted
in the popular press, it is a significant milestone on the road to a twentyfirst
century knowledge-based economy.
So those words are undoubtedly important, but there is no real consensus
about what we mean by them and, even more disturbing, I don't think leaders
of organizations have a precise idea of why they spend so much time and money
hunting for employees with the elusive qualities those words represent.
Well, one answer is obvious. You just can't do some tasks, and especially
complex project-like tasks, without people who have the expertise needed
to do them and by expertise I mean know-how based on experience,
not just technical information available in books and manuals. This kind of
know-how accounts for much of the efficiency in project work, since it relies
on rules of thumb (or, to use a fancier word, heuristics) developed
over time that make it possible to make good decisions and choices quickly
and avoid pitfalls that experience teaches people to expect and recognize.
The undeniable importance of this kind of expertise is one reason organizations
spend so much on what, for lack of a better word, we can call knowledge.
You just can't do some tasks, and especially complex project-like
tasks, without people who have the expertise needed to do them and
by expertise i mean knowhow based on experience, not just
technical information available in books and manuals.
And yet, all this scurrying about after knowledge and intelligence misses
something important. Is an organization's value and effectiveness merely
a function of its brainpower and its expertise at particular tasks, even in
an economy that works more and more with ideas and less and less with things?
Would you want to invest all your savings in a company that was a pure meritocracy
of skill? I suspect many of you would answer no, possibly without being especially
clear on why you feel that way. But you'd be right. Winning the war for
talent is no guarantee at all that an organization will thrive, if talent
is defined too narrowly as technical skill and knowledge. In fact, you might
want to bet against it.
What these equations of individual expertise with effectiveness leave out
is the simple fact that knowledge, however we define it, is profoundly social,
both in its origins and in its use. It is not a stand-alone entity
a Spock-like brain ready to give brilliant answers to any question or implant
all its knowledge in someone else by way of a Vulcan mind meld. Terms like
human capital suggest that the value of knowledge resides in individual
brains but, in real life, knowledge needs just as much coordination as logistics
or manufacturing. How does this coordination happen? Not necessarily through
leadership (though that isn't a bad thing) but thanks to the social skills
of people who help generate, develop, translate, encourage, transfer, and
distribute knowledge throughout an organization. Being smart is important,
but so are different mental skills like empathy, articulateness, imagination,
cooperativeness, and patience. I'm not saying that people with those
qualities aren't very bright; often they are. But those social skills
are different from what we usually think of as knowledge. Without them, though,
knowledge is unlikely to thrive or be put to productive use in complex organizations
or in teams working on challenging projects. I have heard people at NASA say
that they know within the first week or two whether their project will succeed.
Almost always, that judgment has to do with whether the team has the right
mix of social skills, not whether it has the requisite technical knowledge.
Many of the articles in ASK illustrate the importance of social
knowledge to project work in fact, to any situation where two or more
people work together toward a common goal. Social knowledge tells people how
to earn and build trust, encourage cooperation, inspire commitment, communicate
openly and clearly, and deal creatively with conflict and disappointment.
It creates the conditions that make it possible for groups to pool their technical
knowledge to solve problems together.
I know of organizations that refused to hire very skilled individuals, people
renowned in their fields of expertise, because they were solo acts, operating
in isolation. While they might accomplish some demanding tasks, employing
them would be sending a destructive message to other employees: We don't
care about social values or cooperation only individual talent.
In the long run (and probably sooner rather than later), this would be a disaster
for collaboration and overall success.
The sort of employees that knowledge-intensive organizations should hire
need to balance expert knowledge and high social skills that support knowledge
coordination. In fact, it's possible that knowledge about knowledge
and about how people share and use knowledge will prove to be the resource
organizations will need most in our ever more complex world.