Frontiers are interesting places. Historically, they were the buffer zone between civilisation and wilderness, between the law and lawlessness. Frightening for many, though exciting and liberating for those with an adventurous spirit. Many of us now find ourselves pondering a knowledge frontier. At our backs is the order and structure of our organisation, be it a business or a public-sector agency, with its formal processes and information systems. Ahead of us lies the wilderness of ‘the internet’, with its overabundance of information opportunities and threats.
Frontiers are where we erect borders to divide the old and the new, the trusted and the unknown. In times of conflict the borders become castle walls, but in peacetime the barriers evolve to enable varying degrees of permeability.
Most nation states now accept that hard frontiers are counter productive.
Innovations in communications and transport taught us that there was more to be gained by accessing and harnessing the knowledge and industry of other folks, than by relying solely on that of our own people.
Similar dynamics are starting to play out in organisations. Transaction cost economics tended, in the past, to favour the integrated organisation with firm borders. Operational processes and information flows were costly and oriented internally to optimise product or service creation and delivery.
Useful knowledge tended to be generated internally and there were good reasons to keep it controlled and managed within the organisation.
The internet has caused a major shift in transaction cost economics, dramatically reducing the cost of finding and sharing information and coordinating activities between different organisations.
This is enabling more decentralised, differentiated, approaches to organisation and different ways of thinking about knowledge. A well — known example is the decentralised mass collaboration efforts of Wikipedia.
Organisations are increasingly driven by their interactions, rather than their internal processes and transactions — by flows across frontiers rather than flows contained within borders. In all industries and sectors, the modern organisation is increasingly part of a complex network of relationships and interactions with customers, suppliers and partners — many of whom play multiple roles.
The rising popularity of social networking platforms and web 2.0 mash-ups points to radical new ways of thinking about using technology to create and share information. Web 2.0 is currently a knowledge frontier and we should remember that, in times gone by, breakthrough innovations and opportunities often come from the adventurers on the frontiers while the good folk at home focused on protecting the status quo.
Fixmystreet.com, for example, illustrates the power of allowing customers to directly issue work orders to local councils in the UK, combining photos and maps to efficiently communicate what needs to be done and where. Individual citizens are now able to interact in a more direct way with councils, and councils are held transparently accountable for the speed of their response.
Another example is the New Zealand government’s safeas.govt.nz public consultation on road safety policy, which enabled a transparent public discussion using interactive online forums.
These are examples of opening up the frontiers of the organisation and allowing ideas and knowledge to flow freely across borders.
Success on the frontier, however, requires more than just an adventurous spirit and an optimistic outlook. The real winners are those that can mobilise both the commitment to take advantage of new opportunities and the ability to deploy their organisations strengths in the new territories. The rise of the British Empire on new frontiers around the world, for example, was enabled by both the explorer’s passion and the nation’s military strength and logistics capabilities.
Web 2.0 platforms are changing our concept of knowledge management by shifting the knowledge frontier outwards. As knowledge becomes more external to our organisations, perhaps even created by customers themselves, success is increasingly dependent on how internal and external information is combined, analysed and acted upon.
For example, it can be assumed that many UK councils were sceptical of fixmystreet.com — removing them as it does from direct contact with their rate paying citizens. The new reality, however, is that they now need to accept, vet, act on and provide feedback on these work orders under a brighter performance spotlight. This requires all the traditional back-end operational processes combined with the new capability to interact and share knowledge with fixmystreet.com.
Work out who the adventurers are in your organisation and send them to the frontier to see what opportunities exist. When they come back dusty and excited, listen to them and think about how you can deploy your organisation’s strengths to take advantage of any new realities they have discovered.
Dr Steve Hodgkinson is research director public sector for Ovum in Melbourne.