Is average an option?
Yesterday Nick Milton wrote an interesting blog post on Knoco Stories “Consistent mediocrity beats inconsistent genius” in which he suggests that in some companies (and I suppose organizations) seeking to be consistent and error free is a better strategy than trying to innovate and risk inconsistency, and further knowledge management is a good tool to support being consistently average.
I immediately wrote a comment disagreeing – I mean who wants to be average? who doesn’t want to innovate and improve their work? But then thinking about it a bit more, of course the answer is not always so clear cut.
Let’s take an extreme example to illustrate Nick’s point. Running a nuclear power station is a knowledge intensive business – it is highly technical with precise complicated procedures to be followed. On the one hand you want your employees to know exactly what procedures to follow and how to quickly find the information they need to cover any eventuality. On the other hand, you don’t want them innovating or taking risks. You would want them to log down their experiences in implementing procedures so these can be carefully reviewed, and if appropriate fed back into improving the guidelines. And yes, this is knowledge management.
The question is, when is this type of knowledge management strategy useful, and when is it not. And for me the answer comes back to complexity theory (see here for a nice explanation of complexity theory applied to humanitarian aid). If you have an engineering problem that is fairly well mapped out then it is possible to reduce it fairly reliably to a set of rules and procedures which can be consistently applied to produce predictable results. In complexity theory jargon such problems may be complicated – but not complex. In the commercial world this might be the equivalent of a mature market where the “best” procedures for production and marketing are well established and so competitive edge comes largely from execution. In the aid world this might be complicated, but well established procedures for logistics such as delivery of supplies, cold chain and so on.
But many real world situations we face, particularly in the world of development aid and humanitarian assistance, are not complicated they are complex (see here for a previous blog about complex systems in aid and ways to address them). They can’t easily be reduced to precise procedures with predictable outcomes since they are not fully understood, and are highly dependent on contextual factors such as politics and culture. Guidance and procedure still is important to ensure consistency in those parts of the work where good practices have been established through experience, or where there are requirements in terms of fairness or financial responsibility. But autonomy of programme managers to adapt their approach to the situation is key here and knowledge management needs to provide them with the skills and knowledge to adapt effectively. Here you want some degree of innovation and adaptation, and even instinct – but you also want to capture, share and compare experiences and network advice and support so that country managers can make informed decisions.
Even in well established and mapped areas of work taking an approach of “being average” is only a viable option in the short to medium term. This is because someone else can always come up with a new innovation, be it in physical technology (think mobile) – or in work process (think outsourcing) – that can quickly change a whole area of work leaving behind those who are taking an average, standardized (and thus slow changing) approach. Environmental changes – such as climate degradation, but also political and regulatory changes, financial crises etc. can also rapidly change the game, meaning that standard well established models no longer apply. The problem in being average and consistent is that it doesn’t adapt well to a rapidly changing world.
In the aid/development world we have an added dilemma. It’s much easier to raise money for a tangible, well established programme, and an organization with a long history and a simple message - than it is for something that is complex, changing, innovative but not proven. Yet in order to make a real change in development, while doing the tried and tested is valuable, it’s clearly also not enough, perhaps not even good enough. With the global challenges we are facing it’s no time to be average, and we shouldn’t be emphasizing the knowledge management tools that help us be average and consistent, but ones that encourage us to be innovative, and evolving.