February 6th, 2008
We recently had to deal directly with a Very Large Phone Company, on whom most of the businesses in my Manhattan neighborhood ultimately rely for both their telephone and Internet connections. In the process of getting a new phone system installed after our recent office move, my staff and I witnessed some of the most primitive “knowledge” behavior I’ve ever seen. We noticed that, at least once a week during our ten-week (!) wait for service, a new team would arrive to scout the connections entering our new building on the street level. Rarely the same team twice. And each time, the team seemed to be asking similar questions about where wires came from, where they ran, and so on. And each time (you guessed it) their report that there were not enough lines coming into the building was oddly familiar.
Our building is a 100-year-old former medical equipment warehouse in the High Line district on the Hudson River just south of the Javits Center—now a thriving art gallery district, and soon to become a thriving business district. The building was not originally built for telephones. As a result, connection boxes are in odd places, wires run where you’d not expect—you really have to know what you’re doing.
I’m always curious about how information flows (or not, as the case may be) in complex organizations. So one day I asked a guy on the latest team if there was some database or map—or even some way, however simple, for these various teams to share with each other the basic information about our admittedly idiosyncratic building.
The answer was, in effect, No, our people don’t like to share this information. And I was hearing the subtext, That would cut down on the amount of work that needs to be done, which would reduce the amount of overtime pay each of us gets.
I’ve never heard a simpler, or more graphic, description of why organizational knowledge doesn’t flow where it should. If there’s a will, there’s a way—and conversely where there’s no will, there’s NO WAY. Someone, somewhere, for some reason, doesn’t want it to happen.
Appalling and distressing? Yes…but how many other organizations run this way in some respects? If my experience of working with roughly a hundred of the largest companies in the world is any example, I’d say a good majority of them. Just as “nature abhors a vacuum”, human nature abhors sharing information. It is just not “natural”, since nobody wants to compromise their value as an individual for the sake of the collective good.
If sharing information is not “natural”, as I’m proposing, it must therefore be a managed process if it is to be done at all.
And if not, we’ll all get lots of overtime. So either way, we really can’t lose.