Work to be done is innovation’s invisible hand

Back in 1776 Adam Smith in his book “The Wealth of Nations” discussed the concept of the ‘work to be done.’ This has fascinated me for what we need to do for achieving any new innovation, it is the ‘work to be done’ that generates and pushes boundaries beyond the existing.  This ‘classic’ book has become regarded as the one that described the birth of modern capitalism as well as economics.

Adam Smith also introduced the concept of ‘the Invisible Hand as a core part of his thesis, that man’s natural tendency toward self-interest – in modern terms, looking out for No.1 – results in prosperity, not just for the individual but for society.  ‘The invisible hand’ is essential for free markets and capitalism, through how it generates wealth in competition for scarce resources. By maximizing their own interest as the direct intention, this ‘invisible hand’ also stimulates those around you and in the society you belong. As you seek to leverage your own assets, you are promoting society as a whole. Today this can be more by design, or through an unintended consequence of how knowledge flows.

Arguably the ‘invisible hand’ can today be seen as realizing all our potential, individual and collective, exploiting all available existing assets for benefit and gain. We call these our tangible and intangible assets.  Often overlooked, or under-appreciated are those more intangible assets, that can significantly differentiate, are surely today’s ‘invisible hand?’

The make-up of intangible assets

There are many thoughts around what makes up our intangible assets but these can be summarized as made up of 1) human assets– the knowledge, skills, experiences, our abilities to organize these within our thinking, 2) structured capital as the pool of knowledge made up in our institutions, our rules, norms, knowledge diffusion across broad communities, 3) the social capital that forms today more around our networking that relies on infrastructure, access to knowledge, exchanges and relationships.

It is the ability to combine our tangibles with our intangible capitals that allows us to think and explore all that is around, to discover and exploit the potentials within this ‘work to be done’.

The volatile world we are dealing with today.

Today we seem to live in more volatile times where it becomes more important for us to focus on the work to be done is, not the work done. We have to keep focusing on the future. The ‘work done’ is the accumulated knowledge; the built up ‘stock’ that has contributed and been embodied in the organizations results to date, seen in the past where innovation has contributed in part to this. We have built up ‘know how’ and competencies in the ‘work done’ but this needs improving upon and challenging.

The ‘work to be done’ is where we push forward and explore greater possibilities. Part of this is focused on how we are going to adapt to change, to add more knowledge. For instance, we have operated in the past in far more of a mass production era, where systems could be designed for stable, more homogenized markets, where we could extract the maximum effectiveness and efficiencies. The ‘work done’ was equivalent to the ‘work to be done’ due to this predictability. This is not the case anymore, markets have fragmented, and we set about to design for the individual’s needs or in modular approaches for example.

We are in a ‘race’ to win

Today much has changed; we are faced with rapidly evolving technology diffusion. There is a race among nations and organizations to ‘win’ in global markets. This is causing increasing disruptive forces to come into play, where constant change is becoming more the norm and the emphasis has changed from ‘just’ efficiency and effectiveness but to be constantly adaptive, fluid and have increasing agility.

We focus far more on building in ‘tailored’ service, based on knowing the customers’ needs and understanding, on designing around new business models and in this, the ‘work to be done’ is becoming far more important than the ‘work done.’ It is the realization that it is the contribution of the intangibles assets, our growing intellectual capital, are becoming the real differentiation point to exploit the future potential.

The intangible assets provide the intellectual capital base, these allow us to react to changing demand for the required future value creation so we can effectively compete and sustain ourselves. This constant search for the ‘work to be done’ is fueling what has to be done.

Work to be done is the make-up of learning new skills, develop a greater dexterity and judgement based on what we need to ‘actively’ go out and seek. ‘Work to be done’ is searching for our future growth and well-being and this is derived through our future innovation activities. So much of this is made up of the intangible parts that can combine with what we know, what we have previously achieved, in work done, to provide the new wealth of organizations, as we participate more actively in the knowledge sharing economy of today and the near future.

We can’t remain islands of limited knowledge, we must seek out others to combine and achieve the work to be done. We are arguably in the network era, yet so many are failing to optimize their intangible assets and exploiting different organization dynamics that would greatly benefit their growth, especially when you operate with scarce resource.

Today’s need is for increasing interactions, linkages and seeking new knowledge to stay competitive in global markets.

As we rely increasingly on our growing ‘interactions and linkages’ we need a system to manage this. Absorptive capacity was introduced as an idea and first explored by Wesley Cohen and Daniel Levinthal in a 1990 article (“Absorptive capacity: a new perspective on learning and innovation”) and can provide us the knowledge learning path for building a real “knowledge exchange” process. Innovation ‘feeds off’ knowledge, they are inseparable, like twins, needing each other.

We can learn to exploit innovation, both in learning internally through the process of purposefully searching, doing and using what we gain and externally, by exploring new discoveries, collaborating, exchanging and generally interacting and so gaining fresh expertise, insight and knowledge.

As organizations seek increasingly outside their own walls, the appreciation of how they are managing knowledge, learning and interpreting this, is becoming a critical aspect of a more ‘open’ collaborative innovation to be successful. There is a growing need to absorb, integrate and apply this in new and novel ways for accelerating the innovation performance.  As we seek out more to compete in global markets, the more the knowledge increases in complexity we add more to the ‘work to be done’.

Markets are in constant flux, rapidly changing and we need to manage all the new insights. The more we are relying on knowledge flowing into the organization the more we have to strength our inter-dependence and collaboration efforts to extract the knowledge we are acquiring for it potential value. There is a consistent self-interest in doing this for our prosperity as well as others – the invisible hand.

Are organizations recognizing the value of structuring their knowledge flows?

This is the make-up of much of the work to be done in managing the knowledge flows. We need to recognize the importance of this shift from (physical) ‘work done’ to (intellectual) ‘work to be done’ and reconfigure the changing capabilities and capacities required, so as to grow our future ‘wealth’ of organizations, of nations and within ourselves to learn and respond. We needs to understand that today’s ‘ invisible hand’ is how our intangible assets are increasingly crucial and need to be actively managed, for this essential work to be done.

Forget ‘work done’, that’s in our past, it is already in the (knowledge) bank, we need to focus on the work that needs to be done so we can compete and thrive, there is so much more to understand and learn from as the challenges become more demanding to deliver on our innovation efforts.

There’s so much work to be done.

Our future progress is tied up in offering meaningful work, providing that sense of purpose. Building greater capabilities to quote Saul Kaplan “are the amino acids of innovation.  They are the building blocks that enable value delivery”. We are looking at increasing “the random capability collisions” where new innovation will happen at different intersections that combine knowledge from global markets, other competitors, different cultures and a variety of disciplines.

We need to build new capabilities that are far more market orientated, from co-creation and knowledge acquisition, from sense making, tapping into collective memories across a vast network of understanding. We need to unlearn, we need to reflect. All of these are in the ‘work to be done’ to stay ahead, be relevant and compete in today’s world. A world that is far, far different from the world seen by Adam Smith and what he saw needed doing.

The value in his observations are still valid today, the ‘invisible hand’ is as important today through our successful utilization of our intangible assets as we exploit new knowledge and apply this to innovating our future. One that combines our need with societies, not just based on growth but also on well-being as well. It is knowing the ‘work to be done’ that is so necessary for innovation and much of this remains hidden, waiting to be discovered.

The real value of knowledge exchange

Continuing in the series on knowledge and education for innovation.

Part two – what needs to improve in innovation?

I asked in the first part of this series of blogs –How do we advance the learning needed for innovation?  So first, do we (all) agree that we do need to improve the education around the subject of innovation and its management? Do we need to recognize it as an essential discipline that should be fully recognized with our organizations? Today it is not central, it is not driving the business surprisingly when you stop and think about it, older more established practices drive the business and innovation is a responder. I think this needs reversing totally.

We live in knowledge-based societies and we need to constantly increase our share of understanding as this new knowledge becomes the building block for innovation to take hold and grow our wealth, create the next generation of products or services.

Our challenges are greater and more complex today.

Modern society is becoming a fairly intense place, it is growing in complexity, reducing constantly our need to reduce our reaction times so we need to ‘read and react’ far quicker than in the past. We are being highly challenged in adapting our existing practices and processes within innovation to speed up. In reality top of mind for CEO’s is the innovation gap, they want to quickly see and fill and secondly, their worry over the innovation delay.

We need to find new mechanisms on innovation to allow for a better transfer.

The appreciation of knowledge – its collection, its understanding and interpretation and in its transformation and exploitation are not being valued as highly as they should within this need to speed up, to close gaps and reduce delay but more importantly, to contribute to higher value outputs that “fuels”  new innovation activity.

The production and reproduction of knowledge becomes key –  it drives activity and direction for innovation activity. As we create, accumulate and disperse knowledge we become more engaged outside our own walls. We need to seek constantly a comparative advantage and to achieve this goal we are seeking more and more open exchanges to allow this flow of knowledge to be captured.

We are becoming increasingly interdependent and permeable to disturb what “we think we know” to “what we need to know”. Relationships, networks, dedicated resources searching; collecting and assessing knowledge all rapidly contribute to our growing need for new capacities. We then need to build the appropriate capabilities to translate and exploit this new knowledge. Our “need to innovate” is becoming our sole means to survive and prosper in this highly competitive world we continue to create and knowledge becomes the key to this.

Knowledge cannot be allowed to be left to chance today but needs a coherent, structured way to be captured, used and valued. “Our knowledge” is our potentially most highly prized tradable asset. The skills we build from this understanding allow us to build, explore and experiment so we can translate this into new innovations.

Content and Context are the essential partners.

As we look at innovation today, often one of four aspects are missing or under-served for what an organization is trying to achieve. The ‘context’ that innovation is set is usually the most poorly described part. The ‘content’ can fill rapidly but this tends to be full of endeavour and activity as the results have not been as clearly articulated as they should have been. The ‘purpose’ and the ‘process’ make up the other parts. Knowing the purpose comes from setting the context –  this clarifies the inputs that form purpose. Lastly we have the process where the activities should flow through. Each of these four dimensions is often not as solid or robust as they should be, and increasingly, new knowledge is not getting translated to leverage its potential due to these weaknesses within our management of innovation.

Absorptive Capacity becomes essential to understand

As we rely increasingly on our growing ‘interactions and linkages’ we need a system to manage this. Absorptive capacity was introduced as an idea and first explored by Wesley Cohen and Daniel Levinthal in a 1990 article (“Absorptive capacity: a new perspective on learning and innovation”) and can provide us the knowledge learning path for building a real “knowledge exchange” process.

We can learn to exploit both innovation and learning in the following ways:

Internal

  1. Learning by searching – as we formalize our search activities we absorb new understanding that leads to new innovation potential
  2. Learning by doing – as we accumulate knowledge gained, we gain experience and the more we establish repetitive activities through exploring, prototyping methods and reduce the ad-hoc activities the more we can learn and gain from this approach
  3. Learning by using – as we utilize and adopt more, through exploration and adoption of new products, new technologies and methods, we are opening up to experiment and possibilities to extend this new ‘experience or knowledge’ even further.

External

  1. Learning from advances in science and technology – as we absorb new discoveries we capitalize on adding further value or diffusing this even more
  2. Learning from inter-industry spillovers – the increasing value of cross industry collaboration and exchanges is going beyond ‘just’ spillovers, they are increasingly significant to our learning and applying different  approaches that lend themselves to a greater commonality
  3. Learning by interacting – we increasingly go ‘across’ organizations and equally move ‘up and down’ them to seek out interactions with other sources of knowledge and growing expertise. These are further augmented by external collaborative exchanges and cooperation activities allowing for deepening knowledge, greater experimentation and interactions to deliver potentially ‘richer’ innovation.

Each of these six points of learning need exploiting for innovation.

Finally in this part, I’ve discussed absorptive capacity in previous articles “making innovation practice spread”, learning to absorb new knowledge for innovation and moving towards a more distributed innovation model to provide a fairly comprehensive set of discussions on this critical aspect of innovation and knowledge provision.

We are equally in need to recognize differences and value in tacit and explicit knowledge.

The distinctions and discussions about tacit and explicit knowledge are equally important to our “knowledge exchange”. Ikujiro Nonaka discussed four different modes of knowledge conversion and subsequent organizational learning in his SECI model

  1. Socialisation (the conversion of tacit knowledge to tacit knowledge);
  2. Combination (the conversion of explicit knowledge to explicit knowledge);
  3. Externalisation (the conversion of tacit to explicit knowledge); and
  4. Internalisation (the conversion of explicit to tacit knowledge).

To explain this we need to distinguish between tacit and explicit I outlined some thoughts in a previous article “tacit knowledge rich in its innovation implications” and further explored this in “making the appropriate impact”. The critical message here is that tacit knowledge vs. explicit knowledge is where the interaction between these two is vital for the creation of new knowledge that leads to future innovation potential.

Knowledge for innovation needs to build in both formal and informal ways.

With the recognition that absorptive capacity and richer combinations between tacit and explicit knowledge needs a real recognition of their vital part they are playing within innovation’s future health. Without new knowledge we can’t explore the potential for innovation. We do need to explore these far more in our advancing knowledge and education for innovation

My last part within this knowledge exchange series I want to finish with the ‘coupling’ within the innovation system, our need for greater convergence and the dangers lurking in innovation. Each has its place within knowledge and education for innovation.

Tacit Knowledge- Rich in its Innovation Implications.

Imagine if we could understood tacit knowledge better—what it was, how we can set about to capture it and organise it effectively, once acquired how it can be built upon even further. How can we learn to recognize it more actively as as essential part of our lives, when to trust it, how to teach it to others, how to share what it has offered to us, as individuals, to others.

Then imagine what it could provide us for this knowledge to be leveraged within any broader community use, so it is knowingly valued by others as something they can gain from, not as we often do, simply reject it as not within ‘our’ experience. That could be pretty valuable. It could give us a deeper understanding and empower us to function better in many sorts of situations. Then surely we must search for understanding this more and what it means, as in this case, for relating it to innovation.

Let’s start off by stating tacit knowledge is inherently inefficient, so is good innovation; it is messy, often unstructured. Why do we continue to not give this TK sufficient ‘head space’ in our thinking? Is this because it is not tangible, that softer aspect that we reject as we don’t have time for it or simply we don’t ‘trust’ it like those ‘hard’ quantifiable measuring points?

Using Michael Polanyi as my main anchoring point here.

Michael Polanyi, was a scientist and philosopher, who while writing Personal Knowledge he identified what he calls the “structure of tacit knowing”. He viewed it as his most important discovery. He claimed that we experience the world by integrating our subsidiary awareness into a focal awareness.

To quote part of an entry in the Wikipedia and get the ‘heavy stuff’ out of the way:

Tacit knowledge is not easily shared. It involves learning and skill, but not in a way that can be written down. Tacit knowledge consists often of habits and culture that we do often do not recognize in ourselves. In the field of knowledge management, the concept of tacit knowledge refers to a knowledge possessed only by an individual and difficult to communicate to others via words and symbols. Knowledge that is easy to communicate is called explicit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge has been described as “know-how” – as opposed to “know-what” (facts), “know-why” (science), or “know-who” (networking). It involves learning and skill but not in a way that can be written down. The process of transforming tacit knowledge into explicit or specifiable knowledge is known as codification, articulation, or specification. The tacit aspects of knowledge are those that cannot be codified, but can only be transmitted via training or gained through personal experience.

Tacit knowledge (TK) is a crucial input to the innovation process

We depend on many of our different levels of tacit knowledge on how to innovate.

Firstly, new and novel problems require TK about ‘ways’ to tackle the unknowns associated with discovery and how to bring this out into a final innovative concept. The more we can form into teams and share what we know or why we do things in certain ways the greater the potential power of the collaborative effort. So the more interactions we have, especially face-to-face, direct contacts the more our tacit knowledge is seen and applied. The value of knowledge transfer to the innovation process is vital. Often we employ knowledge experts, subject matter experts and have a diversity of specialists collaborating as they are surprisingly as individuals, often unaware, often unable to articulate, communicate and describe what they know; it often requires others around them to bring it out. The important point is they know but often cannot articulate it without prompting or drawing out what they know in a ‘given’ context to make clearer meaning of it, moving it from tacit to explicit.

Secondly, tacit knowledge can be a real sustainable competitive advantage. The more you can transfer knowledge, tacit and explicit and embed it in group settings, to in-build in shared core values, assumptions and beliefs, the better but as we know, it is often hard to pin this down, to locate this, quantify it, map or value it. Especially without encouraging and stimulating the environment to allow time to draw it out.

Thirdly, TK makes up a large part of our human capital, the knowing part. To give TK the chance to spread or diffuse across the organization or outside, organizations not have to invest in their individuals but bring groups together to greatly increase this human capital. Also this knowledge has to  simultaneously be captured (if possible) so it ‘resides’ and can be diffused out even more. Knowledge management systems can help here if tacit knowledge was given the appropriate weight of focus it does need and a skill to decide the ‘what’ in its relevancy (and value) to any discussions.

Fouthly, and central to Michael Polanyi’s thinking on TK was the belief that creative acts (especially acts of discovery) are filled with strong personal feelings and commitments. He saw this as ‘creative tension’ where informed guesses, hunches and imaginings are part of exploratory acts and motivated by what he describes as our ‘passions’.  This is why there is always such a strong argument for innovation champions as well as the need to encourage anyone with a strong belief or insight, to find the time to explore it by clearing the path for them to do this as part of their work day- not just in their ‘free time’.

Conviction is always required for realizing innovation.

Polanyi talks of knowledge of approaching discovery. To hold such knowledge is an act deeply committed to the conviction that there is something there to be discovered -what we try to do through invention and innovation? It is through our determinations and beliefs we ‘push’ our tacit knowledge as we believe this is a path to go on bringing something new into the world, our new innovation. He placed a strong emphasis on dialogue within an open community- our networks for innovation to work. This is why open collaborative innovation is making such headway. We are allowing more ‘convictions’ to enter the innovation pipeline

Polanyi wrote in The Tacit Dimension, we should start from the fact that ‘we can know more than we can tell‘. He termed this pre-logical phase of knowing as ‘tacit knowledge’.

We need to move tacit knowledge out- into the open and main stream- so it can be shared.

Finally, tacit knowledge is certainly very personal, rooted in action and for us needing to acquire new experiences consistently we need to push ‘the organisation’ to find the ways to be more committed, involved and identifying with wanting to strenthen this. Organizations seek the knowledge owned by the individual as it is highly valuable to be shared, to be drawn out and not, as is often the way, the other way around, imposed upon individuals to bury their passions , guesses and hunches, the mistake we make today. A top down process by determining only the knowledge they need to know stifles creativity, enquiry and innovation discovery. We need a ‘healthy’ mix and open minds to allow discovery.

Management certainly needs to lead. It needs to give the context so knowledge can flow. For instance leadership inspires and identifies the right targets, while management identifies the right practice and encourages dialogues and sharing. We need to ‘codify’ as much as we can, hence why I argue, it needs to be built around context. This then allows people, time to explore, to exchange ideas and experiences so they all come together within the appropriate context or ‘spin out’ into something radical that leads to potential real breakthroughs. Finding time and making connections, simply being allowed to explore is rich for innovation possibilities, set around some even loose context.

Having a more open network that seeks out diversity and through this, delves potentially deeper in this often latent tacit knowledge that resides in the individual does needs significant focus and commitment to allow it to happen.

To encourage the free flow requires extensive personal contact and trust. Do we provide this in today’s organisation? Seemingly we are going the other way and perhaps knowledge attainment might actually be suffering?

For this blog I drew on an exchange I had with someone within my network, Jim Burke, Manager, Futures, Forecasting & Change Mgt at TASC, Inc.  These were in his private capacity for the exchanges we had that covered a range of different subjects we both wanted to explore our thinking ‘out loud’. Also I drew upon different references that explore tacit knowledge to help me in making some of the points expressed here.