bell curve Part of the job of a Chief Knowledge Officer is to understand the knowledge culture, the collective knowledge behaviours, of the organization you work for. A phenomenon I have observed over the past decade is that such behaviours tend to evolve as the employees learn more, and as the tools available for learning and research become more complex.

In the typical company, roughly 20% of employees have a ‘self-service’ knowledge culture. They do their own research using both the intranet and the public Internet, and do their own analysis of what that research tells them. At the other end of the spectrum, another 20% (generally older, more senior employees) have what I call an ‘intermediated’ knowledge culture. They assign subordinates to do both the research (the accessing and distilling of relevant knowledge) and the analysis (interpretation and reporting of its meaning) for them. The remaining 60% fall in between, usually preferring a librarian, subordinate or administrative assistant to do the research, but putting their own spin on the results and packaging it themselves.

When people join a company right out of university, they usually eagerly join the ‘self-service’ knowledge user constituency. The people retiring tend to be ‘intermediated’ knowledge users. These two trends comprise the phenomenon called dis-intermediation. You would expect therefore that, over time, the curve above would shift to the left. However, what I’ve observed is that as young employees move up the ranks, and the opportunity-cost of their time increases, they move quite quickly to the middle category and ultimately, if they trust their subordinates, to the ‘intermediated’ category. As a result of this tendency, which I call re-intermediation, there is a remarkable equilibrium of knowledge behaviours in most companies.

In the decade since their invention, intranets have generally become much more sophisticated, with the addition of advanced search tools, portals, community-of-practice spaces and collaboration tools. Much of this sophistication has been added at the behest of ‘self-service’ knowledge users. But as they become ‘intermediated’ users, we have observed that the administrative staff assigned to do research find some of these tools too complex. This leads to two unexpected results: disuse of some of the more powerful intranet tools, and an acceleration of the rate at which the less tech-savvy new employees (overwhelmed by the complexity of the intranet) move to the middle category.

Aggravating the situation, while the ability of employees to leverage knowledge leads to an increase in revenue per employee, it also prompts a reduction in proportionate intake of new recruits, and hence a reduction in the company’s leverage (the ratio of junior to senior employees). And, in an effort to monetize the value of this leverage, many firms reduce the administrative/professional staff ratio, expecting that self-service productivity tools should enable professionals to get by with fewer administrative assistants.

Can you see what this is does to the overall dynamic of the knowledge culture? The scarce but overworked administrative assistants can quickly learn the power of the more complex intranet tools, but because they are not professionals themselves, nor directly involved in the task that the research is wanted for, lack the context to be able to make effective use of some of these tools: Like the librarians of old, they know what knowledge is wanted but not why. At the same time, the few new recruits see an incredible opportunity to become indispensible knowledge gurus in the organization, and clamour for even more sophisticated and complex tools to improve their productivity. But then, as they quickly advance, they shift to the middle category and leave the burden of basic research to others.

And that isn’t the end of it. The middle-category and ‘intermediated’ knowledge users now start to become dissatisfied with the quality of the research they are receiving from overworked, context-deprived assistants. These dissatisfied users try to reassume responsibility for their own research, but often find the tools, with which they are no longer familiar, too complex to do so.

A solution to this is to re-intermediate: employ full-time specialized researchers with sufficient business knowledge to understand the context of user requests. They can quickly become ‘power’ users of the complex intranet tools they have at their disposal.

But this isn’t the ‘self-service’ model that many businesses had expected would result from the knowledge economy. It’s actually remarkably similar to the old intermediated knowledge model of hard-copy libraries staffed by generalist librarians. Under such a model, relatively few intermediaries become the prime users of the intranet (just as they were the prime users of the hard-copy libraries). Even with some dissatisfied senior employees re-learning how to do their own research, the ranks of the ‘self-service’ intranet users are unlikely to exceed the 20% level of the heyday a decade ago. To some extent, knowledge culture has come full-circle.

It’s an interesting dynamic, and one that will undoubtedly continue to change, and challenge the ingenuity of intranet designers and managers for years to come.

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  1. Rayne says:

    *WARNING – generalization ahead* Don’t you think a large part of the reason why librarians/admin assts. are required AGAIN is that the most senior population in large organizations are also those most likely to be 1) technophobic and 2) culturally disconnected from the internet? See latest study at: http://www.ccp.ucla.edu/pages/internet-report.aspThere’s the argument that sending a lower-cost employee to seek and consolidate information is more cost-effective than insisting a higher-cost employee to fetch for themselves — but the trade-offs are potential dilution of information and the continued disconnect of senior employees from knowledge technology, as well as the lost opportunity cost of personnel hours required in knowledge transfer. FWIW, as a former admin. assistant, I’ll tell you that those managers who needed help the most finding information whether on the internet or in hardcopy were typically the least effective. (Picture the classic Dilbert cartoon pointy-hair manager here.)

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    No fair making fun of my ‘generalization’ warnings. I think you’re generally right about the ‘seniors’ (and I’m now one of them), but I also think many senior people are just too busy to learn to become ‘power’ users and hence gain productivity by DIY vs. delegating research to others. I find middle-managers the worst, because they have both the highest admin burden and the heaviest ‘people-managing’ loads, both of which squeeze time away from doing things online. The dilution of information is the real problem: the disconnect between the ‘knowledge wanter’ and the ‘knowledge getter’ not only kills productivity, it yields poor quality research and analysis. We still hear people asking their assistants to ‘print out everything you can find on X’ – no objective or context communicated.And don’t get me thinking of you as a Dilbert character when I’ve already got this image of you as a WeatherPixie. Talk about scary mixed metaphors… Wonder if Scott Adams has a blog?

  3. Rayne says:

    Hah! I’m not buying that self-deprecation. If you’d managed to teach yourself some HTML and insert it into your template, you are NOT in the technophobic seniors group! I had a manager who would stand over my shoulder and watch me surf for him — he wouldn’t even use his mouse. He’d ask me to copy Word files to diskettes for him. *K-A-A-C-K* Now that’s technophobic. What a maroon…The scary part is that this is the same guy an admin assistant could mess with easily. Sure, I’ll print out EVERYTHING possible on that subject, no problem. 5 reams of paper later, the pointy-haired manager has an attack of apoplexy: I’m supposed to READ this? Next time he makes the same request, the admin assistant “can’t find a thing” (for which he’s secretly grateful). How easy is that!? fastest way to streamline one’s workload.The technophobes are the dinosaurs; if they can’t “get it” with a reasonable amount of training and some sink-or-swim time, they should be led off to a fossilization pasture where they cannot interfere with the productivity of others. Call it ageism on my part, but good senior managers know when they are in the way. Bad senior managers don’t and must be forcibly led off to the elephant graveyard.Yeah, picture me, the WeatherPixie, manipulating the pointy-haired manager. Picture the same WeatherPixie herding a 30+ team of IT guys into doing her project bidding. I kinda’ like the image. (Sorry, don’t see a blog at Scott Adams official site – wouldn’t that be fun, though?)

  4. Celeste says:

    Very interesting hypothesis. Having worked with very overwhelmed/tasked senior managers who don’t even have time to take a break, I can speculate that your hypothesis has some merit. Thanks for bringing it up.

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