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Wise Up

What is wisdom? To arrive at a satisfactory definition, let’s consider the continuum of knowledge. Raw data are numbers and facts, statistics in their most elemental form. People transform this data into information using their analytical and interpretative abilities. In turn, they use their imagination to further transform information into ideas. Ideas become useful knowledge when people frame and explain them using their intelligence; they offer the ideas in the context of what has been learned, giving the ideas credibility and cogency. When knowledge becomes wisdom, though, it gains real value. Wisdom suggests smart ways of seeing and doing things, learning through experience and applying that learning to gain greater insight and foresight. From an organizational perspective, wisdom can be used to do something faster, cheaper and better. It is actionable and innovative.

Wisdom networks are concerned with this process of turning data into wisdom. A wisdom network can take many forms, and these forms too exist on a continuum. Informal interactions can include everything from watercooler chats to slightly more structured intranet conversations. They may involve a cross section of employees with varying degrees of expertise, and their conversations may range far and wide. It does not mean, however, that these discussions lack wisdom. Typically, however, this wisdom isn't captured by the company and it may not be directed at a major business goal, but even at this end of the continuum, such discussions may produce real wisdom.

A community of interest is a more formal gathering of employees, which tends to be focused on a single subject; the participants may meet more regularly and attend more consistently. Still, they too may lack a mechanism for capturing the wisdom they produce and the groups may not be sufficiently divergent or focused on key business issues.

A knowledge center is a more focused knowledge exchange. Experts gather to share information about a wide range of topics—some critical to the business, some not so critical—but the knowledge center functions more like a resource center than an issue-driven community.

A community of practice responds to an organizational need—to an issue—to develop specific skills across departments and functions. For instance, a community of practice may emerge based on the need for project management skills in all functions, and this community's charge is to figure out a way to make this happen.

The goal-focused group is diverse in composition and, like a community of practice, clear about its objective. Typically, the group's diverse makeup is accompanied by a high level of expertise, as its members address a critical business issue. Although this group is more likely to add value because of its composition and focus, any of the groups on the continuum are capable of being a wisdom network, thereby maximizing the value they bring to an organization. In fact, organizations would be well advised to maximize the value of all these groups, beginning at the far left of this spectrum. If organizations can find ways to capture the wisdom that emerges around watercoolers, they may gain insights and ideas that can be useful to a community of interest.

How Well Does Your Organization Manage Wisdom?

Consider the following paired questions and ask what needs to be done in your organization to maximize the potential of wisdom networks:
Is knowledge management in your organization synonymous with content management?
Is your technological capacity to transfer data to the right people at the right time equaled by your capacity to share ideas that solve problems and capitalize on opportunities?

Is your company's knowledge management strength largely confined to homogeneous units such as functions, departments, teams and so on?
Is your company adept at helping people transcend traditional boundaries to share ideas and work together on issues that cross these lines?

Do you have communities of practice and other knowledge-sharing groups that often focus on relatively minor issues or topics of narrow self-interest?
Do you have communities of practice and other knowledge-sharing groups that often focus on cutting-edge business topics that are vital to your company's strategy?

Is your company's knowledge management process largely exclusionary? Does it exclude the majority of the workforce in favor of the top people in each department or function?
Is your knowledge management process largely inclusionary? Is everyone invited and encouraged to join communities of practice and other groups?

Are there a handful of acknowledged stars in your company who work on all the key business projects and are responsible for most efforts requiring innovation?
Does your company make an effort to bring the unacknowledged experts out of the woodwork and encourage them to become part of the knowledge management network and contribute their ideas?

To facilitate knowledge exchanges, does your company offer bonuses for participation and negative sanctions for lack of participation?
Does your organization make it known that sharing ideas and information across boundaries is a requirement for leadership as well as provide positive verbal and written feedback for people who share knowledge?

Does your culture reward people primarily for results achieved within narrow parameters—for example, achieving functional goals or job-specific tasks?
Does your culture have greater balance in what is valued, where experts who share knowledge around critical business issues are considered just as important as individuals who achieve superior results in their jobs?

Does your organization view innovation as being the responsibility of a relatively small number of people?
Does your company actively manage diversity to increase its innovation capability?

Is there an underlying assumption that people know how to communicate with other individuals throughout the organization and don't require any help in this regard?
Are employees actively encouraged to build and maintain networks and are there formal programs to teach the science of building strong networks?

Adapted with permission of the publisher from The Wisdom Network by Steve Benton and Melissa Giovagnoli. Copyright 2006, Steve Benton and Melissa Giavagnoli. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association. Click here for more information about this title. For information about other AMACOM books, visit www.amanet.org/books