Looking out for number one

From my experience over the last couple of years in the field of knowledge management, both as a “knowledge advocate” and as a “knowledge officer,” most of us involved in this type of work take a very big picture view of things – a system view, using system thinking. Although we may look at “small” problems, helping individuals and teams to do things better, our overall goal really is to make the larger organization work better to provide the most value possible to all the stakeholders, whether it is share holders, customers, employees, etc. At the extreme this translates into an interest and desire to, quite literally, save the world.

You just have to look at the people that make up the field to see that they are mainly interested in how organizations work and figuring out how to make the organization work better. In my case, this description of my personality type (INTP – Utilitarian Rational, from the Kiersey Temperament Sorter) pretty much sums it up:

Utilitarian Rationals focus on competence, repertoire, and the need to improve everyday. They do not have a strong interest in actions as such, but work under a stringent self-imposed standard of excellence, and they live for their work: work is work, play is work, fun is work. THey often communicate at a level of abstraction others might find unintelligible and they tend to put work aside when the real challenge has been mastered. They have no function-lust like the Artisans and they are not always sensitive to the complexities of inter-personal relations. They are science and technology people, and posess “strategical intelligence.”

Even though I kind of knew this already, I had an epiphany of sorts in a meeting not too long ago in which I realized that most people really don’t care about the big picture. They are, in almost every way, looking out for themselves with very little interest in the effect it has on the larger picture. And if they do have concerns about the big picture, it is primarily in the context of what impact the effect on the big picture will have on themselves.

“Looking out for themselves” obviously has many interpretations. At the most basic, individuals do what is in their individual best interest. If a member of a team, the individual will do what needs to be done to ensure the success of the team, but still with a strong desire to benifit individually. Similarly, team leaders want success for the team which means success for them as an individual. (Another way to look at a team leader is that he/she is the “conscious” part of the team, that looks out for the team as an “individual”.) All the way up the ladder to the very top of an organization.

My point here is not to say how bad these people are, thinking primarily of themselves, because this is really just human nature. In fact, it is probably crucial that most people look out for themselves and their teams instead of thinking of the best picture. From an ‘evolutionary’ standpoint, the individual or organization that is best able to meet its own needs while at the same time supporting the “survival” of the larger organization [bio-sphere / econo-sphere] is the one most likely to survive and grow. And the organization or individual that is able to do this intuitively, as part of their regular business, has even better chances than one that has to make a conscious and deliberate effort to fit in. (Mainly because the former has more resources available to allocate to their own business, while the latter has to dedicate valuable resources external to their own efforts.)

But it is important to keep this fact in mind when trying to sell an organization-wide KM solution that benefits the whole organization. You have to make sure that the solution provides benefit to the people that will actually use it. Too often I’ve seen KM or decision support systems designed for top leaders of an organization that required a significant amount of effort on the part of subordinates but provided absolutely no benefit to those subordinates. It was just something else they had to do because someone told them to. As more team resources are diverted to non-team business, less resources are available for the team to do what they need to do.

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