Steve Denning on Knowledge for the Future

Just going back through about a month of actKM listserv posts and found this snippet in a gem from Steve Denning.  Steve’s book on the Secret Language of Leadership is one of the seven sitting neglected on my bedside table. 

[There was a] Q&A panel at the recent KCUK conference in London, where Victor Newman,  formerly of Pfizer, had some interesting things to say, when someone asked (inevitably) whether KM was dying.

Victor distinguishes two kinds of KM. One is KM related to supporting the company’s existing strategy. The other is KM related to supporting the strategy that the company will need to survive in tomorrow’s world. His assumption is that most companies are dying in the sense that the strategy they are currently pursuing will not provide long-term survival, a premise supported by the fact that roughly half of the Fortune 1000 companies of 20 years ago no longer exist. And all the signs are that the death rate is accelerating.

So it’s not so much a question of whether firms will have to change their strategy, but rather: when? And how much time have they got? In effect, every strategy has a sell-by date. The knowledge angle on this is: the knowledge that you need to be successful today is not likely to be the knowledge that you will need to be successful tomorrow. The easy, the convenient, the comfortable thing to do is to keep focusing on the knowledge that makes you successful today, and delivering that knowledge more efficiently. At best, this buys you time, not survival. The more important, more difficult and more uncomfortable thing is to focus
on what knowledge you will need to be successful tomorrow.

I particularly liked how Steve has put into words my approach to link KM and futures.  The key aspect of my “future” work is not in developing strategies for getting current knowledge to workers but in identifying the knowledge strategies required to discover, create and share knowledge for the future direction and viability of the organisation.  

Now many would think that of course that is what a knowledge strategy should contain, identifying the future knowledge requirements.  But many, if not most, do not.  They fail to question assumptions, explore uncertainties or consider the longer term.

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4 Responses to Steve Denning on Knowledge for the Future

  1. Brad says:

    Luke,

    I am not sure that a planned strategy is any gurantee for company survival in the fture if the strategy is based on a set of pre-programmed decisions in the expectation of what may or may not happen in the future. I mean, how many strategic plans come through after the event in tact? If we all had that kind of foresight and precognition, we’d be doing quite a bit better than we do now.

    Your illustration about the changing membership of Fortune 100 companies may reflect the internal contradictions of the capitalist model and the falling rate of profit, economic features endemic to the system. Perhaps there is a strategy to overcome these contradictions but I haven’t seen too much of it in the economic history of most corporations!

    Surely KM is best equipped to enable preparedness – the ability to respond quickly and sensibly to changing circumstances, rather than in trying to second-guess the future. I mean, what are the future knowledge requirements of corporation X, Y and Z in 2015 or 2030? Maybe you can list them and we can test the knowledge future in seven and 22 years time!

  2. Thanks for the comment back Brad.
    I totally agree with you that KM is best equipped to enable preparedness. This is exactly why I see KM linked with futures work – which is not to predict in a linear sense what the future will be but to open our minds to the possibilities of what the future could bring. If there is one thing about the future that is true, it is that most predictions are wrong. But if our future thinking can be open to alternatives, that we have mapped some strategies (even KM strategies) if those alternatives eventuate, then we can be more prepared to deal with changes to the organisational environment when they occur.
    As an example, many people in Australia are working out how to attract and retain Gen Y people in their organisations. But the wider demographics tell us that this approach will only ever be partial as organisations face the exodus of older staff coming up to retirement. Alternative strategies to work better with older staff (by retaining them in some shape or form) are also critical.

  3. Brad says:

    Luke,

    I am a partial fan of scenario planning for the same reason you mentioned – opening thinking to different and possible future alternatives so that there is greater preparedness. I am only a partial fan though because I recognise there will be significant events we cannot plan for.

    Preparedness is, however, the key.

    Regards,
    Brad

  4. Brad
    The most important aspect of scenario planning is not the end-scenarios in themselves as predictive possibilities of the future, but the strategic conversations that arise from examining future uncertainties and their impact on the organisation.
    I am reminded of an anecdote of a fellow foresight practitioner who was facilitating a workshop and they discarded as beyond the realms of probability the event of a major terrorist event occurring in a large US city. The date of the workshop was 11 September 2001. Suffice to say that the following day, they took that discarded item and had a very lengthy discussion about it.
    Luke

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