How Collective-We Firms Eat Exclusive-We Competitors for Lunch

Poorly managed organizations are likely to function – or, I should say malfunction – with frequent use of a divisive verbal tactic called the exclusive “we” (sometimes called the royal “we”). When someone uses the pronoun “we” to refer to everyone – except the person being spoken to – they are using the exclusive we, typically to single out that person and stifle communication.

collective-we-cartoonFor example, I’m willing to bet most people have heard a so-called “leader” make a cutting remark like this:

We don’t do things that way here.”
“Will you stop asking so many questions? We don’t tolerate ‘fishing expeditions’ around here!”

This kind of behavior is also a sign of a dysfunctional company culture, in which information sharing is discouraged in favor of information hoarding. Hardly a recipe for business success. 

Successful companies use the word “we” a lot too – but in a much better way:

“What should we be doing that we aren’t doing now?”
“These questions are important. We need to be able to answer them.”

Now that’s more like it! This time the speaker is invoking the collective “we” to equally include everyone in the room to foster open communication.

True leaders are builders of a collective-we culture, actively encouraging and supporting information sharing and collaboration. A collective-we organization is therefore much more likely to utilize knowledge management (KM)/enterprise information management (EIM) tools effectively. Doing so enables the organization to not only solve problems more quickly, but also proactively find problems before they turn into a crisis.

Know What You Don't Know by Michael RobertoIn his excellent book Know What You Don’t Know, business school professor Michael Roberto urged organizations to develop problem finding skills.

Michael Roberto recently discussed three key ways KM/EIM solutions can enable the collective knowledge, the collective-we, of your organization:

1. Organizations must answer, “Why did we fail?”

Take a hard look at a failure that took place in the organization. Ask yourself… How could we have seen this coming? Were there some telltale signals we missed? Why did we miss them?

Such an unflinching self-assessment after a business failure will often reveal misinformed decisions caused by incomplete information that did not include critical business signals. These signals usually do not reside within structured data sources such as data warehouses; rather, they are often found within unstructured content: text-based information buried within documents, customer notes, wikis, email, news and websites.

A modern KM platform will integrate and harmonize disparate enterprise data sources – structured and unstructured, internal and external – for fast, on-demand access by knowledge workers. This capability is a key prerequisite to becoming a collective-we organization capable of effective problem finding.

2. Boil large quantities of information down to what really matters.

If you write a 100-page report, no one is going to read it. The answer is not a big report… The most important thing is boiling it down into key bullets… and technology can play a role to effectively share those key takeaways.

A unified KM/EIM system will index, find and present the key takeaways from every “100-page report no one is going to read” on demand, so users can utilize them whenever they are needed to help directly address any given matter at hand.

In a real world example, a level 1 IT support rep for a leading financial services firm resolved, in the first call, a critical stop enterprise application failure incident with no known workaround. The rep used the company’s KM system to search for a possible resolution. Success! The system found the answer, extracted from a 100-plus page application development transitional document written by one of the original programmers.

Few people had probably ever read that entire document, or even knew it existed; and yet, the company’s unified KM/EIM platform empowered the company’s collective-we from halfway around the world to solve a serious problem, by finding and presenting the key points from that document precisely when it was needed.

3. You can’t chase down every piece of information yourself… so ask for help! 

Part of the job of the leader is to recognize that you have talent around you that can help you. But you have to actively seek out that help.

The most effective companies, particularly global companies with people spread out around the world, are using new tools to get people sharing their expertise and information across different silos.

The same financial services firm mentioned above also added to their KM system useful information about their own employees, including each worker’s areas of subject matter expertise. Through such “expert finder” capabilities, a worker within a global organization can find and seek help from co-workers, whether they’re down the hall or anywhere else in the world – once again, empowering the organization’s collective-we to cross international boundaries.

Collective-we organizations fully leverage the power of KM/EIM to fully leverage the collective intelligence of the entire organization. They find business problems well before they become serious issues, as well as seize new business opportunities before the competition even knows they exist. How about you?

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