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Social, mobile, cloud and big data: knowledge as a product

As your organization starts rolling out initiatives on the big IT trends of social, mobile, cloud, and big data, employees often get caught in the eye of the storm. Seeing how complex it is to actually realize the vision that looked so great in PowerPoint, they may get discouraged and  wonder why everybody is doing that. Aren’t things okay the way they used to be? If “the old way” worked for the last 20 years, why do we need to change? Midway through our inroads in those four areas, our work seems to be getting more complex and difficult, not simpler. Not long ago, office life was 9 to 5, email was manageable and easy to understand, job roles were clear, small data was safely stored in the hard drive of our desk, and social was about what happened after 5 pm. And you know this is not just nostalgia playing its tricks: work life was simpler in the late 1990’s.

To make sense of this madness, we need to take a step back and understand why what worked so well before is failing us now. At the end of the day, many of us who work in offices still do something very simple: no matter if you are the CEO or work at the mail room, your work consists of an inbox, an outbox, and what happens between them. From that perspective, not much changed from 20 or 40 years ago. Even when you go beyond the individual level and think about departments, project teams, program offices, and lines of business, that metaphor still holds true: each one of those organizational levels are all about taking input and processing it into desirable outcomes.

The mental model for knowledge workers is still the same, but what changed dramatically is the scale and the speed of how that inbox > process > outbox is expected to play out. The amount of information that comes to us in our inbox increases dramatically year after year. Likewise, we’re also expected to deliver more with less resources, even though the day still has only 24 hours. Has the world gone crazy? Well, yes and no. What you are seeing now happened many times before in the past, but it was a bit easier to visualize as it typically happened to physical goods or even people, so the changes were visible. This time around, the change is happening to an intangible product: knowledge.

The history of humanity has been deeply influenced by the technological discoveries that allowed us to accelerate the way people or physical goods proliferate or move from the place where they are originated to the place where they are needed. Stone tools made life easier for early humans to hunt animals, and get better clothing and shelter. Learning how to control fire enabled us to cook food and stay warm, meaning that we could move more easily and conquer places that were not reachable or  livable before. Ceramics, the domestication of animals, agriculture, the invention of the wheel, canoes, steam power, movable type, electricity, and the production line all contributed to this pattern of progress being highly correlated to our ability of having more people, more goods, and moving both more efficiently. Every time each of those advances happened, a huge opportunity was created for those who could understand the newly unleashed potential and seize the day, and left behind those who could not adjust. We built moderns roads, automated factories, warehouses, cargo ships, satellite monitoring systems, free trade blocs, sophisticated marketing, and just-in-time processes to make goods flow freely to create demand and meet it with enough supply. However, by now we maximized our ability to multiply and move goods and people, and found ourselves in the state of diminishing returns, at least until some new major breakthrough happened.

On the other side, our ability to move knowledge is still in the bronze age at the workplace. We move knowledge mostly via conversations, email, office documents, and old collaboration suites based on shared folder models. And those vehicles are painfully slow to move knowledge. If we could “see” knowledge the same way that you see an orange or an iPhone, we would start realizing how inefficient we are in originating, moving, and transforming it.  Just try to imagine each piece of information you have in your organization as a physical inventory item. As it moves from an idea in somebody’s head to words in a meeting, to meeting minutes, to action items, to doing the work, and finally delivering the final product, be it a PowerPoint deck, a software program, or a new HR policy; there are plenty of inefficiencies slowing that process down, creating duplication, waste, and delays. If each piece of knowledge we exchange at work was an orange, our offices would have the bitter smell of millions of fruits rotting all over the place.

Thus, social, mobile, cloud, and big data are not target states or just buzzwords. They are not even the final or only destinations. They are just our latest attempts to break the old model and try to move knowledge around more efficiently. They are the new roads, cargo ships, warehouses and trade blocs of our knowledge economy. It’s hard to see where were are going when everything still looks like a construction site, an endless travel across the ocean, or forty years through the desert. That’s when looking at the big picture is important. The moment we start seeing knowledge as a product, and technology as the way to improve it and move it more efficiently, we’ll be able to see social, mobile, cloud, and big data not as threats or new ways to make our lives miserable, but as advances that will allow us to enhance our relationship with work, and keep our sanity while doing that.

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Aaron Kim

Aaron Kim is the Head of Digital Social Collaboration at the Royal Bank of Canada, and led the efforts to bring social business and social collaboration to an organization of 79,000 employees. He’s also been a public speaker at several events across the globe, from the Web 2.0 Expo to JiveWorld, from Singapore to Barcelona. He has a passion for innovation and for making work smarter, more meaningful and rewarding to all. Born and raised in Brazil, to a Korean father and Japanese mother, he also volunteers in several diversity initiatives, inside and outside RBC. In the past, he worked as a consultant both at IBM Canada and Unisys Brazil, having played the roles of solutions architect, Basel II analyst, performance engineer, Java programmer, Unix administrator and environmental biologist. He holds an MBA from the University of Toronto, and a bachelor’s degree in Biology from the Universidade de São Paulo. He lives in Toronto, Canada, is married to Tania and have a son, Lucas.

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