On hollowing out….

Author: Stephen Phillips, Executive Director Morgan Stanley and BIS Editorial Board Member

Please note this post contains the personal views of the author and are not connected with his employer.

Earlier this year Stephen Dale wrote a fascinating article on corporate memory for the May edition: “Are we destined to forget everything we already know”.  As I reflected on his narrative, I felt the need to explore this topic further, as organisations appear to have become “hollowed out” as they focus on cost to deliver short-term efficiency and opportunity.

I also felt the need to re-interpret some of the terminology used to define information, knowledge and memory.  The vocabulary for these concepts has become interchangeable in many organisations as they continue to search for increasingly challenging opportunities to realise further benefits from managing this space.

A quick search on Google (I know!) reveals the first definition of knowledge to be facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject”. Nothing contentious there, but the second definition cites it as “information held on a computer system”. The latter was a new one to me; since when did knowledge become defined as information held on computer systems?

Another interpretation rang more true to me: “awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation”.  To my mind, this speaks to the human nature of knowledge – it is much more than facts and information; it is about awareness, familiarity, experience, consciousness, perception and appreciation.  All nouns that reflect human nature and remain technological aspirations; at least for the time being.

Whilst it is important to recognise and appreciate the capabilities of the latest developments in AI, machine learning and neural processing, it is more important to recognise their limitations and appreciate the benefits associated with tenured people and their accumulated know how in their respective roles.

The most impactful force in the resizing of the business information industry has been the empowerment of “knowledge workers” to do their own information seeking.  However, investment in these workers and their information skills has lagged behind, leaving a workforce that know which buttons to press but who are poorly informed about what underpins the information and technologies they use every day.

Redundancies, outsourcing or offshoring of business information specialists compounds the issues.  New entrants that come into the industry find it difficult to secure positions with their limited experience which is incompatible with the expectation to operate at a level without the benefit of strong foundations of basic, practical information handling experience.

Meanwhile, the “new knowledge workers” increasingly rely on technology not just to bestow them with the facts and information they need but also to skilfully manipulate it into a finished product.

Does it matter?

What happens when the technology fails?  Who has the knowhow or experience to check the product is accurate and is as expected? What happens if it fails the quality check?  Who figures out what went wrong?

Technology is a wonderful thing; I really do love many new technologies.  Organisations are recognising the value of people and particularly those with tenure and the depth of understanding they bring to the business; but we cannot be complacent.  When the technology fails, there is growing dissatisfaction with the lacklustre quality of services; when a problem arises, it requires depth of knowledge and experience to fill the gap.

A number of professional services organisation have begun re-aligning their KM work with Talent Development.  Recognising that knowledge and knowhow are part of the intellectual capital of the organisation.  Acknowledging that experiential learning associated with employment is something to nurture and pass from person to person, not programmed into a machine and regurgitated ad infinitum.  This is especially the case when these standardised routines appear at odds with the need to differentiate an offer by building bespoke solutions to meet specific needs and expectations.

I remain optimistic that our industry will respond and reposition in light of continuing advances.  Unfortunately, this is only one part of the equation.  If we are to thrive, we must continually demonstrate our value to convince our leaders that we have a place in the future of our respective organisations.

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