Knowledge Flows and Collaborative Learning



In Thomas Friedman‘s latest book Thank You For Being Late, he talks about “the Big Shift,” a phrase coined by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison (Abandon Stocks, Embrace Flows, Harvard Business Review, January 27, 2009). What is the big shift? Previously, if you (country/company/individual) knew something valuable that no one else could access, you made money by selling those “stocks of knowledge.” By protecting that knowledge you could deliver  a variety of products and services. It was a time when we went through structured education (k-12, college), joined the workforce and leveraged the knowledge stocks we had acquired to generate revenue.

In the new world where the pace of change keeps accelerating, Friedman, Hagel, Brown, & Davison make the case that there’s “reason to believe that value is shifting from knowledge stocks to knowledge flows.” Knowledge flows will be more important than knowledge stocks. “As the world speeds up, stocks of knowledge depreciate at a faster rate. As one simple example, look at the rapid compression in product life cycles across many industries on a global scale. Even the most successful products fall by the wayside more quickly as new generations come through the pipeline faster and faster.

In previous times, when you learned something valuable, there was some security in knowing that you could generate value from that knowledge indefinitely. As Friedman says . . . “Not anymore. To succeed now, we have to continually refresh our stocks of knowledge by participating in relevant flows of new knowledge.” Tapping into knowledge flows is an ongoing process and it requires reciprocity. “You have to contribute to them as well to really be ‘in the flow’ and you can’t participate effectively in flows of knowledge—at least not for long—without contributing knowledge of our own.” According to Hagel, Brown, & Davison, participants in knowledge flows want to build relationships, and expect others to contribute knowledge as well. They are not keen on “takers.”

What about risks associated with knowledge sharing?  Per Hagel, Brown, & Davison, “damage from IP theft diminishes as the rate of obsolescence increases. At the same time, the rewards from knowledge sharing go up substantially.

Friedman concludes that a big challenge we face with all of these energy flows moving in many directions, is that “competition can now come from so many more directions, individuals, and companies.

Over the last few years I have accumulated multiple client stories of how we have had to move quickly to adjust to rapidly changing situations.  We had to assemble the right experts, access and make sense of the right data, and tap into the right “flows of knowledge” to create unique solutions that addressed the challenges that rapid change brought. At a recent learning conference, Learning2017, a panel of CLOs from four major corporations were asked the following question “What is keeping you up at night? All four answered “the pace and complexity of change.” Tapping into knowledge flows is one way to zero in on this challenge.

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