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        Harnessing Cognitive Assets: A Hallmark of Agile Organizations

        Organizations universally desire the business outcome of improved organizational agility — in other words, the ability to quickly and effectively identify and respond to business risks and opportunities, typically through workforce-related actions. Being agile requires that an organization be adept at two things: harnessing cognitive assets, the knowledge and ideas that comprise the intellectual capital of a workforce, and deploying and using technologies that channel those assets where they will have the greatest impact.

        One of my favorite examples of organizational agility was when IBM leadership around four decades ago decided to radically change its business model, shifting from preeminent mainframe manufacturer to one of the largest professional services organizations in the world. They were responding to the rapid rise of smaller computers with very powerful microprocessors. To accomplish this, the organization’s HR leadership had to quickly take stock of what skillsets were transferable, who possessed these skillsets, and then revise and execute staffing plans accordingly.

        Having the right competencies across the workforce and deploying them judiciously, while a major part of organizational agility, is considerably easier than curating and making use of cognitive assets such as ideas and insights. Historically, these assets have either been invisible or too scattered and disconnected to easily be applied to a particular business issue or topic. Moreover, while competency-driven learning experiences won’t be going away, learning management will need to adapt to the needs and working styles of younger employees who are demanding modern, engaging learning experiences and efficient technology to deliver them. Tomorrow’s workforce will increasingly expect to have available cutting-edge tools that can tap into the collective intellectual capital within their networks and across the enterprise. These learning experiences, and the technology tools to serve them up, will be used to help fill in the knowledge and competency gaps resulting from new business strategies.

        While best-in-class learning management, social collaboration, knowledge management and performance support platforms all involve harnessing and applying cognitive assets — that is, what’s in people’s heads — major technology-delivered business benefits are often more due to serendipity than to design. An employee might have a great insight into a problem or an idea how to capitalize on a market opportunity, but all the technology in the world notwithstanding, a bit of good fortune is needed to ensure that thought finds its way to the right other people at the right times to allow them to be used for maximum business benefit.

        Case in point: I have a great idea that might help the customer success team be more responsive to customer issues, and I believe the idea warrants quick attention and consideration, and maybe collaboration with others. What do I do with my idea? Tell my manager? Post it to a social collaboration or knowledge management tool? Will it become something actionable, and if so, how long might that take? And will the inefficient path it takes to actionability be distracting and discouraging? 

        Productivity improvement is often measured by quantifying how much time or cost is shaved from a business process. Frequently, organizations assess employee productivity using management feedback in performance reviews that may or may not be framed in terms of productivity. In truth, productivity should be measured by one’s contribution to achieving critical business outcomes in the most efficient manner. But outside the realm of a sales executive delivering revenue numbers, what quantifiable metrics might reflect this, and more importantly, what is the process for deriving those metrics?

        HR departments are now rightfully focused on mitigating the potential for employees to become overloaded and overwhelmed. Workers are subject to a deluge of email messages, texts and lengthy reading materials that take too long to sift through, decipher, prioritize and act on. In the course of pursuing this goal along with the broader goal of fully utilizing the workforce to deliver a competitive advantage, HR leaders should be investigating emerging technologies designed to address both overload and employee effectiveness at the same time.

        These new technology tools, situated somewhere between learning management, social collaboration and knowledge management tools, constitute an emerging category of HCM technology I call “nano knowledge management services” (NKMS). Here, nano refers to content that can be consumed in 10 minutes or less. Traditional knowledge management focuses on storing information and content and making it accessible and indexable. NKMS technology is about curating and applying very small units of knowledge, ideas and insights so that they have the most impact in the shortest period of time.

        Every employee idea or insight, whether triggered by an article or blog post, a video, an industry event or an internal meeting, has the potential to be game-changing to an organization, perhaps opening up new revenue channels or solving a vexing business problem common to many. Sometimes both of these positive outcomes are achieved simultaneously. NKMS capabilities enable the rapid cataloging of ideas related to a business issue or topic, both original thoughts and insights gleaned from reading material or conversation. Then others in the organization can find them in seconds and flag them for relevance to the task or problem at hand.

        With far too much knowledge to consume, assess and apply in our work lives and too little time, NKMS technology is an idea whose time has come. Some of an enterprise’s intellectual capital can be found in documents or knowledge management systems but most of it can’t. And even when an organization manages to capture its intellectual capital and harness its cognitive assets, consumers of it must invest considerable time to curate the most relevant ideas.

        I recommend that organizations seeking to harness its workforce’s best ideas and insights investigate NKMS tools as they continue to emerge in the market.


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        Ventana Research, now part of Information Services Group (ISG), is the most authoritative and respected market research and advisory services firm focused on improving business outcomes through optimal use of people, processes, information and technology. Since our beginning, our goal has been to provide insight and expert guidance on mainstream and disruptive technologies. In short, we want to help you become smarter and find the most relevant technology to accelerate your organization's goals.


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