Seed and Soil

Siddhartha Mukerjee, the brilliant Columbia oncologist and Pulitzer-winning writer, has struck again. In a recent New Yorker magazine (September 11), his article “The Invasion Equation” describes a striking leap of insight that could transform cancer research. This insight, called “seed and soil,” brings ecological or systems thinking to studies of cancer research — and could equally be applied to management interventions.

Mukerjee is, as always, dazzling in the depth of his historical knowledge that brings us to any given point. A key issue in cancer treatment is whether any given cancer will stay in place — and be treatable there by surgery and/or chemotherapy — or whether it will metastasize into cancers in other parts of the body. It turns out that this has less to do with the nature of the cancer itself, and more with the nature of the host tissue. The fundamental research question Mukerjee addresses is, “Why do cancers spread more often to certain parts of the body than to others?”

What determines cancer’s journey?

Mukerjee traces his work back to that of a 19th-century doctor Stephen Paget, who noticed that cancers spread more often, for example, to the liver than to the spleen, in spite of the many similarities of these two organs. The characteristics of the cancer cells, in other words, play only part of the role. It is also something about the tissue that plays “host” to the tumor that makes metastasis more or less likely.Seed and Soil

Paget termed this “seed and soil,” a concept that will be resonant with those who have studied ecology or systems thinking. Mukerjee claims that this is coming back as an avenue of inquiry after lying largely dormant for the past century.

Mukerjee displays leaps of insight that would delight any creative artist.  He goes on to show how the seed and soil metaphor applies to other areas of biology — the overbreeding of mollusk populations in the Great Lakes, for example.

Is consulting like cancer? Or like clams?

Organizations are made up of people, and people are biological entities — so it often makes sense to apply biological models and metaphors to organizational phenomena.  When I read about this breakthrough thinking, it occurred to me that the seed and soil concept also translates directly to the work we do as consultants. We have our favorite techniques and interventions, things that have worked with other clients, things that are heralded widely as “best practices”. This has become a whole industry, with books and articles advising organizations on how to replicate the success of their peers.

A more experienced consulting practitioner will realize that it is often the characteristics of the host — the client ecology — that determine whether a given intervention will succeed, as much as the intervention itself. The client (the “soil”) may be receptive, it may be skeptical, or it may be dead set against change, or even hostile to it. These factors, every bit as much as the design and execution of the invention itself (the “seed”), determine whether any given intervention will take root (to extend the metaphor) and eventually succeed.

Intervention = change management

I’m always amused by the study of “change management” as if this were some specialized branch of consulting. All consulting is change, or at least intended to be so — and all consulting must therefore consider how to effectively catalyze and manage that change. The goal of any meaningful intervention is to move your client from Point A (the current client state) to Point B (the desired future client state.) Any intervention plan that fails to describe clearly the conditions and actions that will enable this movement — for that individual client — is fundamentally flawed.

Why does a consulting intervention that worked in one client situation fail to produce the same result elsewhere? The seed may have been right, but the soil was not receptive. Knowing how to assess and condition the soil (i.e., the enterprise culture) thus become critically important in creating successful client outcomes.

Columbia IKNS Residency – August 2017

As a faculty member of Columbia University’s Information and Knowledge Strategy (IKNS) program, I have a variety of duties and responsibilities. One of these is to actively participate in the “residencies,” a twice-yearly physical coming together of the students — many of whom live and work outside New York City, and some of whom are outside the United States.  (See the great 2017 cohort below.)IKNS 2017 Cohort

It’s always exhausting, due to the string of 16-hour days and the need, as a faculty member, to always be “on” for advising students. My job consists primarily of counseling student teams who are working on live consulting projects within sponsoring organizations, many of which are large and complex — NASA and the United Nations, for example.

“Year of the KVC”

This cycle was especially challenging — and rewarding — as the students had clearly embraced the Knowledge Value Chain model to an extent that had not happened in previous cohorts of the program. This was not only hugely gratifying to me, it was a substantive assist to my work. As students engaged the model on behalf of their clients, many of them also engaged my help in determining how the model could benefit their clients.

While the students were respectful of my time, and even apologetic in some cases, I pointed out that this is how the KVC model grew in the first place — with input from clients and interested friends. And that is how it will continue to grow in the future — so I regard no question or application as off-topic or non-fruitful. It’s all good!

Read the rest of this entry »

What is the Difference Between Information and Knowledge?

In my KVC Handbook v. 4, I draw a clear distinction between knowledge and information — essentially that knowledge is a more “processed” version of information. In speaking with people I find that this difference is still not totally understood — so will amplify here.

The short version

Simply put, the distinction is this: information is essentially inanimate — organized data that has been captured in databases, papers, books, news articles. Information is essentially mediated — by definition it exists only as embedded in a medium like those mentioned.

KVC_Triangle_FNL_RGB_w_name_jpegKnowledge, on the other hand, is essentially human. What we mean when we talk about knowledge is invariably embedded in an animate being. (I’ll allow that this definition could recognize that animals have knowledge — but until such time as they can write or talk understandably to us about it, I’m willing to let that line of speculation go.)

A book on the shelf is information — until a person reads it, understands it, and absorbs it. Then (and only then) it has been converted into that person’s knowledge. (When the person subsequently socializes that knowledge and applies it to make decisions and/or take actions, then it has become intelligence. But that’s a discussion for another time.)

But what about “explicit knowledge”?

There are those who speak of tacit knowledge — implying that there are also varieties of knowledge that are non-tacit, i.e., explicit knowledge. The scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi is said to have first coined this distinction in the late 1950s, which has become widely-accepted, even canonical, in the Knowledge management field. In 1995, Nonaka and Takeushi developed a model (“SECI”) for how individual tacit knowledge is converted into explicit knowledge, then socialized within the enterprise.

We think a wrong turn was taken. The KVC framework finds “explicit knowledge” a contradiction in terms; we define all knowledge as quintessentially tacit. Knowledge that has been mediated — by speaking it, writing it, entering it into a database, etc. — is what we identify as information.

We fully agree with most experts — and this was Polanyi’s original driving insight — that “we know more than we can speak.” Indeed, we find this a titanic understatement. It is a mere fraction of what we know that we can capture in its mediated form (information). Read the rest of this entry »

Building Knowledge Value in Practice

My basic work and message have been steadfast for a couple of decades: helping companies use information and knowledge more effectively in the service of functioning and competing more effectively.

However, I find that the way I express this core message varies based on the level of sophistication of my audience and on the level of the opportunity it represents.

In speaking recently with students at Columbia University’s innovative Information and Knowledge Strategy program, I used a technique recommended by many successful speakers — distilling a complex message down to core “principles of practice” that can be readily applied.  I’ll briefly describe below what those are.

The inspiration for my talk started one year prior, when Larry Prusak had spoken to a previous group of students, and observed that, “We have to figure out how to SELL this knowledge stuff.” Larry is a pioneer in the knowledge field and has a knack for knowing — and saying — what is really happening. So his words resonated deeply with me, and I vowed to use my training in business strategy to help these students “sell” their work.

To me, selling anything is primarily about getting the potential buyer to recognize the value of what you are selling — after that, the stuff sells itself. I believe this insight applies not only to knowledge but to all B2B sales — and B2C too.

Knowledge producers and practitioners, though often acting as internal staff resources rather than outside agencies, still must “sell” their work and its value. When they do not understand this, or know how it applies to their work, their contribution is undervalued, their careers can suffer, and so on. It’s not a happy situation.Key_Principles

I believe that the key to escaping this low-value loop is to understand and practice these six principles: Read the rest of this entry »

Positioning Knowledge for Value

The early-winter holiday break is an opportunity to recharge our batteries and refocus our strategies. Amidst visiting with family and friends, I took time to reflect on the recent past and what the future holds.

Among other things, I realized that over time my clients have been paying more attention to the top half of the Knowledge Value Chain (how knowledge is used) and less about the bottom half (how knowledge is produced.)

What drives knowledge strategy?

Ideally, knowledge strategies spring from, and are tightly linked to, top-level enterprise strategies. In practice, however, many of the problems in knowledge production spring from misunderstandings of, or lack of clear linkages to, enterprise value.  Some of my research on this is cited in the KVC Handbook.  This knowledge-value gap raises several existential questions about knowledge-centric activities, among them:

  • How does knowledge support our enterprise mission and strategies?
  • What tangible benefits does knowledge provide us?
  • Is our knowledge strategy optimized in an economic sense?

Any lack of clarity at the top of the pyramid tends to get driven down through the chain, where it causes tactical and executional confusion and ineffectiveness.  Those of you in the trenches will know what I mean…

Benefits-driven positioning

If you are a knowledge producer, do not wait for those problems at the top to get sorted out — seize the initiative yourself!

We’ve been advising our clients: Always position your product (and I use this term to include services) from the point of view of the needs of, and benefits to, your user/customer/client/patron. Not — as so many of us do instinctively — from how your product works, why it is wonderful, or even why it’s better than your rivals’.  The diagram below summarizes TKA’s discovery process for working with clients on this. Read the rest of this entry »

Busy Season

I hope each of you is enjoying this new year — whenever it is that you celebrate its beginning.

For me, 2017 is already full of new beginnings and revelations.  To recap:

Launch of KVC Clinic v.2.0

In the fall of 2016, we launched an expanded version of our KVC Clinic. KVC Clinic elementsThis includes three days of on-site work with each intelligence or knowledge services group, as well as depth interviews with internal clients. It’s a hybrid event incorporating experiential team learning, organizational diagnosis, and customer research.

We received enthusiastic engagement from our initial host team, and were able to quickly develop a solid set of recommendations going forward. We are delighted that this client has added the KVC as a major 2017 initiative in their knowledge services program. Read the rest of this entry »

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    COMPETING IN THE KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY is written by Timothy Powell, an independent researcher and consultant in knowledge strategy. Tim is president of The Knowledge Agency® (TKA) and serves on the faculty of Columbia University's Information and Knowledge Strategy (IKNS) graduate program.

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    "During my more than three decades in business, I have served more than 100 organizations, ranging from Fortune 500s to government agencies to start-ups. I document my observations here with the intention that they may help you achieve your goals, both professional and personal.

    "These are my opinions, offered for your information only. They are not intended to substitute for professional advice."

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    E SCIENTIA COPIA. Knowledge is the Engine of Value.