Make the room smarter

The title of Dave Weinberger’s book, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room, describes what should happen in a room where knowledge is freely shared. However, in most organizations, invisible power structures influence communications and the flow of knowledge. Some of these power messages are even embedded in the environment, as the SPATIAL learning model shows.

Imagine a meeting room filled with many people, representing all the departments in an organization. The objective is come up with the best decision to address a current crisis. If this is run in typical fashion, those with power and influence will dominate the discussions. Now imagine if you could read everyone’s mind and were appointed the moderator. You could quickly scan and see who had subject expertise or who had the most current information. Often these people do not get a chance to air their views, or have been beaten back due to previous experiences of beng ignored. One could conclude that a meeting with completely transparent information would lead to better decisions. That’s the assumption of market capitalists, isn’t it?

The three principles of net work were developed as ways to improve networked organizational effectiveness, and may even improve efficiency over time. Narration, transparency and shared power help to get information into the open so the organization can make better decisions. Narration of work helps to metaphorically read people’s minds, at least in retrospect. The narration of what we are thinking and doing on a daily basis helps us to know ourselves and to better know others. Transparency means sharing as much as possible, and not assuming who has a need to know. At some point in time, someone may have a need to know, and management can never know in advance who this might be. If all information is transparent, anyone will be able find it. This is how much of the Web works. Finally, sharing power distributes decision-making authority throughout the organization. When this is done in a transparent environment, people can act responsibly, knowing their actions are observable by others. As US Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants“. It keeps organizations clean and healthy.

Narration of work, especially with some of the simple-to-use social media platforms available today, is the first step in making better organizational decisions. There have been many terrible decisions made in recent memory by corporations, governments and non-profits (Deepwater Horizon, Morgan Stanley and the Facebook IPO, WMDs in Iraq, the Catholic Church abuse scandals, etc). These organizations typically have strong hierarchies and significantly weaker networks. Decision-making is centralized, the power structure is rigid, and knowledge is hoarded. Practising narration, transparency and power-sharing can help to reverse this to weak hierarchies & strong networks and create more resilient organizations, able to deal with more complex issues.