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 »

Bad Night for Big Data

I have a nightmarish pet scenario that as we as a society gain non-stop access to ever-increasing data, there is a risk that we actually get progressively dumber — as we lose the ability to process and analysis that data sufficiently.

My idea got a workout this week during election night when the polling industry, most of whom had predicted a single or even double percentage point Clinton victory, got it monumentally wrong.

When we hear on TV every ten minutes about how Watson is curing cancer, among other breathless hype about Big Data, an error of this stunning magnitude seems at first paradoxical.

But the more you think about it, the more it makes a perverse kind of sense.

“Dewey Defeats Truman”

Embarrassing election errors are nothing new — witness the iconic photo of President-elect Truman gleefully displaying the newspaper headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” the day after the 1948 election.dewey-defeats-truman

People claimed then that the error was due to a combination of slow reporting and the print-era need to prepare headlines hours in advance of publication.

What IS new is that polls are now easier and cheaper to field, and as a natural consequence there is a proliferation of them. And, as they are invariably deemed newsworthy, they feed the hungry news-cycle monster. They generate eyeballs and click-bait — and they’re fun, especially when your own pick is ahead.

Especially toward the close of this 18-month campaign, it seemed like a new poll was appearing every other day. We became so collectively absorbed in the twitching poll dashboards that we neglected the fleeting opportunity to discuss in any depth the serious challenges facing our country and our society.

Read the rest of this entry »

Value Gets Lost

“I’m stuck at the bottom of the pyramid.” “My value is unclear to people who matter.” “I’m invisible.”

In conducting “Points of Pain” exercises during TKA’s workshops and on-site clinics, too often we hear things like this from competent and hard-working knowledge producers. In study after study, roughly half of the challenges expressed by PRODUCERS of organizational knowledge or intelligence involve questions or concerns about the value they generate.

More often than not, the questions are not about producing value per se — usually producers are pretty clear and confident about that. The major gap is that their client USERS do not understand this value — and that therefore they have trouble attributing the value of knowledge back to those who originally produced it.

Our output is their input

In economic terms, any knowledge or intelligence work product, while typically the OUTPUT or end product of a knowledge or intelligence process, is subsequently the INPUT or raw material for a client’s work stream. Knowledge users take over where knowledge producers leave off — that’s one of the fundamental lessons of the KVC framework. During the handoff — the Communication step — the knowledge work product is transformed into intelligence — the basis for decisions, actions, and the production of “enterprise value” (for example, a product that brings revenues into a business).

A KVC Clinic client recently pointed out to us that the KVC triangle graphic makes it appear as if value is only produced by people and processes at the top. This was a fundamental misunderstanding of the model — for which (of course) I take full responsibility.  And hereby try to correct, please read on…

Triangle and trapezoid

The Enterprise Value (EV) Triangle

The Enterprise Value (EV) Triangle

What we mean by the word Value in the “little triangle” at the top of the KVC triangle is more properly specified as “Enterprise Value” (EV). Value is produced at each one of the seven steps in the KVC process (see the KVC Handbook p. 54). But value is only realized — i.e., made manifest and measurable in terms of revenues or other organizational outcomes or results — at the top.

Using one of my favorite analogies, the people who pick the grapes ultimately get paid by the people who buy the wine — but there is a value chain of activities that separate these two economic events in time and space.

The Knowledge Value (KV) Trapezoid

The Knowledge Value (KV) Trapezoid

With knowledge services, the problem is that the production of “Knowledge Value” (KV) — what another client called “the trapezoid” below Communication — is often separated from the production of EV, in two respects: (1) separated in time, and (2) separated in organizational location.

Read the rest of this entry »

More News from the Dark Side

I pay close attention to feedback I receive on the KVC and other analytic frameworks we are developing.  Many times I make revisions based on this feedback — that’s why the KVC Handbook is now on its fourth major edition.

One of the things I’ve heard is that the KVC model is too idealistic.  Even as I confess to being idealistic by nature, I think that’s a fair criticism.  And thanks to your feedback I use this blog (and my Knowledge Clinics) to address things not in the current edition of the book.

In the private sector, examples of damaging deviations from the ideal are as easy to spot as this morning’s Wall Street Journal.  Last month, for example, I outlined the issue of what happens when the Knowledge Value Chain is broken by chance — or corrupted by intention.

Intelligence in war

This month we examine a case that has been in play for a while, from public affairs in the US.  (Though even our readers in South Africa and elsewhere should take note — things like this could happen there too!)

In general the issue is the reliability of intelligence in an active war theater — here the ongoing actions against ISIS.  Does this sound familiar?  It should — read my earlier post about General Michael Flynn’s criticism and subsequent reshaping of the intelligence effort in Afghanistan.

And those of you who (like me) are baby boomers will remember this issue as it played out in Viet Nam.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Value of Knowledge Makes Headline News

Information has its greatest value when it is most available to, and accessible by, people for immediate use in understanding their world. I not only believe this, I put this insight to work in my consulting and teaching.

To implement this, I often use stories from the headlines to illustrate my key points. There are so many examples illustrating the KVC in the news that I am confident that I can pick up a Wall Street Journal at random and find a real-world illustration of a key point.

I call this technique a “flash case” — since it has the teaching value of a standard business school case — but it has the key advantages that (1) it can be developed quickly and (2) it evolves over time as the actual events play out.

The Deutsche Bank Case

For example, I recently used the warning letters from the NY Federal Reserve Bank to Deutsche Bank (DB) about deficiencies their capital requirements reporting process. Yes, all that detailed, boring, low-level stuff — that can gut the fortunes of enterprises heretofore thought unassailable.

Deutsche Bank logoGraduate students in my audience at Columbia University were able to identify each aspect of the knowledge-value relationship in the case. Much of the discussion focused on this pivotal issue: was this a technology shortfall, or rather a systemic problem in corporate culture originating at the top? More the latter than the former was the class consensus — a view that has been largely borne out by subsequent events.

Around the same time as the capital reporting issues, DB was involved in the LIBOR-rigging scandal, in which several huge banks were found to have essentially fabricated data used to set key rates in the world financial markets. In April 2015 the bank was fined $2.5 billion by US and British authorities for its role in the scandal — more than any other single institution.

These and related issues led to a top-management shakeup at the bank in June 2015. DB’s stock currently sells for 1/3 of what it sold for at the beginning of 2014, and the cost of insuring the bank’s debt has risen significantly — a clear signal that the once-dominant institution is now considered a risky asset.

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.