Despite being probably the hottest topic in management in the 1990s, wrote John Hagel III and John Seely Brown on HARVARDBUSINESS.org, Jan.19,2010, knowledge management didn’t succeed to the degree many enthusiasts expected. “Most knowledge managers lost sight of the fact that the real value is in creating new knowledge, rather than simply ‘managing’ existing knowledge,” they continued. “New knowledge comes into being when people who share passions for a given endeavor interact and collaborate around difficult performance challenges.”
Consultants Hagel and Brown based their observation on their research into gaming environments like World of Warcraft. They related how one player stunned the gamer world with feats made possible by the tools and resources available to his team in the “vast creation space” surrounding WoW. Creation spaces, they explained, are “places where individuals and teams interact and collaborate within a broader learning ecology so that performance accelerates.”
To learn more about the construction and application of creation spaces to business environments, TMR turned to Christopher (“Chris”) Dede, Ed.D., the Timothy E. Wirth Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard University’s School of Education and a consultant to NC State University’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation (email@example.com).
An expert in learning technologies and related policies, Dede was awarded the annual Friday Medal last year for his work on improving education around the world. His current work with the Friday Institute involves emerging technologies in education and how those technologies can be used to teach 21st century skills. Consequently, we began by asking:
How do you view Hagel and Brown’s stress on new knowledge and the importance of forming creation spaces?
Dede: I agree completely with their characterization of the knowledge management movement of the 1990s. I think it was a very hyped approach. I think it did fail badly because people did not understand the nature of knowledge.
Knowledge has been defined by Davenport and Prusak as “a message, usually in the form of a document or an audible or visible communication. As with any message, it has a sender and a receiver. Information is meant to change the way the receiver perceives something, to have an impact on his judgment and behavior…. it follows that the receiver, not the sender, decides whether the message he gets is really information….” (Working Knowledge, p.3, Harvard Business School Press, 1995).
Davenport and Prusak’s definition suggests how difficult it is to communicate knowledge from one person to another.
Hagel and Brown are correct that a powerful way of learning is to engage in simulated experiences and to reflect on those experiences because that gives the opportunity for mentoring and apprenticeship and understanding what you went through together watching somebody model how to be effective is a terrific way to learn, especially if you can interact with them afterwards and ask questions about why they did this and why didn’t they do that.
However, I believe the World of Warcraft example is a little misleading because in that or any other online game, everyone has the same experience. That’s not typically the case in business. If you’re in some kind of creation space that you might design and you start to talk about what it’s like to run the semiconductor fabrication line in your factory and somebody else starts to talk about what it’s like to do that in their factory, they’re going to be talking about two things that are similar but not identical. And that is more complicated.What would you say to the manager who wants to create a creation space in her company? How would she go about that?
As part of a graduate course on emerging educational technologies, my students and I studied 10 forms ofWeb 2.0 tools in terms of their potential to enhance learning by promoting creativity, collaboration and sharing. These interactive tools are free. I’ve categorized them into three groups:
• Communal bookmarking
• Photo and video sharing
• Social networking
• Writers’ workshops and fan fiction
• Online discussion forums
• Wikis and collaborative file creation
• Mash-ups and collective media creation
• Collaborative social change communities
These Web 2.0 media are designed to create and share knowledge, whether it’s something as simple as sharing tags you find on the Internet or as complicated as working together at a wiki to co-author a document. They are designed around individual expression, knowledge creation and knowledge sharing. Some of creating what Hagel and Brown call a creation space is using a lot of these Web 2.0 media in ways that complement and align with one another. We see that happening a lot in the research community where teams are now starting to share their insights across distance using different kinds of these media.
Another piece of it is the immersive interfaces, virtual environments, that Hagel and Brown identify. Someone can build a virtual environment on how they have accomplished an innovation and other people can visit that virtual environment and gain a sense of how it’s similar to or dissimilar to their own environment and what they might do to adapt thainnovation into their own setting. Knowledge is knowing how to adapt somebody else’s insights into your own situation.
Let’s assume, for example, I’ve developed a powerful new method of teaching introductory psychology. I can build a virtual university environment where I show how I’ve changed the teaching of undergraduate psychology. It will have virtual classrooms that have different architectures, virtual syllabi that show a set of readings, and simulated lectures where my avatar demonstrates how I interact with the students. People from different universities come and look inside this little virtual world and they say, “But my undergraduates are different from yours and so I can’t alter the architecture of my classrooms.” Or, “My dean doesn’t like thus-and-so and so we could never get that policy through. Is there a way I could modify this and still have it work?”
That kind of a dialogue is a dialogue about knowledge. It’s a dialogue about whether the knowledge that one person has about how to accomplish innovation can be useful knowledge within another person’s environment.
Are you aware of any corporate environments doing this? What advice would you give to a corporate person who wants to adapt your university teaching model?
There are corporate environments using Web 2.0 media to set up common portals where people tag and share the interesting things they find with one another. These are rich artifacts that other people can discuss, contribute to and take back to their own environments or communities of practice.
There’s a whole literature on communities of practice. Many of those communities now in corporations are using Web 2.0 to share the kind of experience-based learning that Dorothy Leonard and Walter C. Swap have called “deep smarts” in their book, Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom (Harvard Business School Press, 2005).
However, I don’t know that many companies are using virtual worlds. The contribution of this Hagel/ Brown article is to show there is a kind of modeling that can happen in virtual worlds that you don’t get by sharing tags or videos or syllabi or anything else, and that this is an open possibility for corporations.
That said, corporations are very reluctant to share the knowledge they have. If you have some insight that really has made you more effective as an organization you’re not likely to share that in the community because you’re going to see that as a competitive advantage.
That’s a barrier.
Inside your company, though?
Inside your company the trick would be to design environments like this behind a firewall that nobody else can get to. However, I don’t think it’s as well understood right now how to create a virtual environment behind a firewall that people within can participate in and people outside can’t. That’s kind of the next step for the CIOs or CTOs in corporate settings.
What’s the next step beyond sharing information in communities of practice?
It’s moving to actually transfer knowledge. In a community of practice, maybe Joe posts something that says, “We’ve got a new way of teaching psychology,” and Fred says, “Great. Why don’t you send me the syllabus?”
And so Joe sends the syllabus. Maybe he sends a couple of other things using Web 2.0 media. Fred takes them over to his faculty and says, “Here’s a new way of teaching psychology.” And the faculty respond, “This would never work here. We don’t think this reading makes sense. The dean doesn’t let us do that. Our students don’t know how to do this third thing.” And so Fred says, “Oh, okay, I guess that isn’t going to work.”
Knowledge transfer, on the other hand, would mean going back to Joe and saying, “This is what my faculty are saying. We need to adapt what you’re doing — it isn’t enough just to get this syllabus. Let’s meet in the virtual university, my faculty and yours, and while you demonstrate for us we can interact with you to see exactly what you’re doing and get suggestions from you about how we might adapt or modify it without doing anything that would be lethal from your perspective in terms of the quality.”It’s in that kind of a step up to a richer interaction based on more detailed information and a kind of dialogue that the power lie.
Those of us who work in immersive interfaces are very interested in this. But right now it’s not something that has even reached the pilot stage in terms of being developed. I think it would be terrific if there were interest in the business community in trying to put together a pilot of this sort of thing because it’s first going to take place somewhere that has deeper pockets than education does.