“Luck is where the crossroads of opportunity and preparation meet.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca
“Chance favours the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur
One of the oft-cited benefits of use of social media in the workplace is serendipity – the possibility of finding useful contacts, information and expertise seemingly by chance that you most likely would not have discovered in the past. This serendipity is especially credited as an engine for innovation since it introduces you to new ideas and perspectives that might help inspire you or help you solve a problem that you otherwise would have struggled with if you could only draw on your past experience and existing knowledge.
Last week Nick Milton blogged about NOT being a fan of serendipity being a major part of a knowledge management approach, considering it rather a last resort. He argues that while serendipity might be useful in the early stages of setting up a knowledge management system, once that system is mature with a culture of knowledge sharing and tools to support it then we shouldn’t be relying on chance to make sure relevant knowledge is shared and is being put to work.
Unusually, I find myself disagreeing with Nick, but I think it might be because we have a different understanding of what serendipity is in the context of knowledge sharing, and just how it works. We’re not at all talking about finding someone or something you need to know entirely by chance. Instead what we mean is finding ways to dramatically increase the odds of finding what you want, and this is equally important in an organization with mature knowledge management systems as it is in an organization just starting out to think about this.
Allow me to illustrate. Suppose I need some information or expertise to help me complete my project. If I know exactly what I need and where to get it (e.g. through a review of the guidance manual, the lessons learned database or the expertise roster) then there is little need for chance. But what if I don’t know exactly what I need, what if the exact experience I’m looking for isn’t in the database (yet), or if the expertise I need is outside the organization? What happens if someone else has an insight that I hadn’t thought of that could dramatically improve my programme but we don’t know each other and don’t know about how our experiences could relate to one another? These are times when serendipity comes in handy.
But here’s where good knowledge management systems come in handy too. Encouraging staff members to maintain personal profiles, getting them to participate in communities of practice, organizing knowledge sharing events where different people can share their work and interact with one another all greatly increase the chances that people will connect with the knowledge they need or the people they want to learn from or collaborate with. Even with great databases of lessons learned and comprehensive and regularly updated procedures and manuals, people often don’t instinctively look for knowledge that could be helpful for them, or at least if they do they don’t do it in a consistent or systematic way. A lot of knowledge sharing and collaboration depends on trust and also on their personal interest/attention. Knowledge management approaches that help support the building of personal relationships and reputation both by surfacing potential areas of collaboration and then by providing the mechanisms for these to be strengthened and followed up on can greatly increase the “chance” of successful learning. Supporting work related social networking and other interaction with people outside the organizational firewall or at least outside their usual internal contacts and professional groupings inside the organization also greatly increases the chances of cross-fertilization of ideas from different points of view.
Similarly finding ways to expose your staff to new or different ideas greatly increases the chance that these will inspire new thinking to help solve existing problems. Training and support to help staff members be better prepared to recognize and take advantage of relevant knowledge and connections when they see them will further increase the possibility of productive “chance” encounters.
No matter how much knowledge you collect and share you can never be sure that you will have the knowledge you need at the time you need it, or that it will eventually be used. But there are a number of things you can do to increase the chances of productive knowledge exchanges – not only by increasing the supply of available knowledge but by working on increasing the flow of knowledge from one person or team to another. Promoting serendipity is not about leaving it to chance – it’s quite the opposite – it’s about doing everything you can to increase the chances of successful knowledge exchange when you can’t predict who will need what, when and from whom.