KM and Innovation


My friend Dinesh Tantri posted a question over at the KM India community (will need to login) about whether KM is a prerequisite for innovation. Now this is an interesting question, and if you become a member of the community you will find some answers which are quite interesting and prompting you to think.

Now this is a question which is quite heavy and not something which can be answered in a simple way. Or maybe it can be if we try not to think too much about the semantics of the processes of knowledge-sharing and of innovation. To put it simply i dont think formal, structured KM is a prerequisite. But then i also believe that all innovation is directly or indirectly knowledge-based. Ok, so i said indirectly simply because it sounded fancy. Look at it closely and you will find that any innovation is the result of an idea which arises either from a recognized or latent need which needs to be fulfilled, or from a problem which needs to be solved. Either way knowledge is what is brought into play along with a willingness to think something different from others which leads to innovation in some form or the other (lets not get into incremental vis a vis disruptive, i am just saying innovation) and this is where the dichotomy probably comes in.

Let me explain why. First, i believe that innovation, or if you want me to not use jargon, new ideas (more so because innovation i see as a process of taking ideas to fruition) arise from the intersection of knowledge. This may be the intersection of existing knowledge with new knowledge elements, or it may be the intersection of the knowledge elements of two different people. Either way if you look at it closely there is an element of KM which you find somewhere behind the whole thing. This is because this intersection of knowledge can be created only by sharing of knowledge, and thats what we mean by KM, dont we?

And this is where i believe that KM is something which has been around since the dawn of humanity probably. Cave art is a form of knowledge-sharing dont you think? Move ahead in time, you will find the Guru-Shishya parampara as a shining example of the Guru transferring insights on life to the disciple in a way which is very different from the education system of today, primarily because of the belief system it inculcates. Moving ahead in time, medieval Europe found the apprentice concept to be quite useful at knowledge sharing, and with time this got further shortened into training. But whichever way you look at it, this is knowledge-sharing. Simply put, man is a social animal and if we accept that knowledge-sharing and learning are social in nature, we can come to the idea that social interactions are also a form of knowledge sharing. What this means is that formal KM initiatives are not a prerequisite for innovation.

Having said that, we also need to look at the idea that formal KM initiatives are the catalyst which can lead to more effective, streamlined knowledge-sharing. Why i say streamlined is because in todays organizations where expertise is distributed and at times diffuse, formal KM initiatives can be the one platform for people to find people, content, and expertise much more easily. This is also the reason i believe that social KM is the way KM needs to take. If we look at this aspect, we can see that formal KM initiatives are the catalyst which can drive innovation to a level which it probably could not reach given the nature of organizations today. In other words, facilitate, catalyze … words to think about?

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