I grew up in Devon, (south west England), surrounded by fields and sheep. A beautiful area, but sadly too remote to be a practical base for a much-traveled management consultant! One of the things about sheep is that you can see where they've been on the hillsides. Their propensity for following each other leads to paths being worn away over the generations of sheep - becoming, quite literally, the path of least resistance.
We can identify similar patterns in our organisations. We can discover who the go-to people are, and we can reveal how they interact with their colleagues, how technical advice flows, how requests for help are requited and where ideas are incubated. That’s basis of organisational network analysis, which can be an excellent tool for determining the focus of a KM strategy or Community of Practice plan.
Of course, if you’re a sheep, and your landscape is unchanging, then a well-worn path is a good thing.
In most cases though, parts of our business landscape are changing. Yesterday’s hill is tomorrow’s valley. However, it’s easy for sheep-like behaviour to persist, because the tracks are entrenched.
Contrast the behaviour of sheep with the waggle dance of the honey bee. There’s an excellent 7-minute documentary about this on YouTube, but here’s a quick summary:
When a bee identifies a source of pollen, it returns to the hive and performs a ‘dance’ in the presence of the other bees. The dance follows a figure-of-eight pattern and includes a pronounced waggle. The direction of the waggle relates to the location of the pollen source – a precise angle in relation to the sun (even when cloudy) in relation to the hive; the duration of the waggle indicates the distance to the source. It’s an amazing piece of design, and the documentary explains it very well.
In contrast to the sheep, the sources of pollen are short-lived - perhaps just a few days, for a few hours of the day. This action of discovery-broadcast-sign posting reminds me of the way in which organisations are using micro-broadcast tools like Yammer. I was privileged to get some insights into the way Deloitte (UK) are using it recently, and was impressed by the buzz(!) of discovery and sharing which it had generated.
So reflecting on the sheep and the bees, I'm left with a belief that:
i) we need to understand the sheep paths on our organisations. They may be positive and worthy of reinforcement, or they may be historical patterns of a "ghost" organisation, rather than a current picture of where the optimum knowledge flows should be.
ii) we also need to encourage the bee-haviour (sorry!) and enjoy the discovery of resources - and subsequently the discovery of shared interests, expertise, passions and ultimately informal networks.
So perhaps the ultimate knowledge-sharing dish is roast lamb glazed in honey?