KL Types Knowledge managers define knowledge as something that gives you the capacity to do something better than would be possible without it. In business, knowledge is further delineated by its position on the knowledge value chain – ‘raw’ data, information that has been distilled and had context added, insights that analyze the information to assess what it means, and actions that prescribe what to do about it. At the upper (insights and actions) end of this value chain, there are six main types of business knowledge:

  1. Leading Practices & Business Models: Reports on what some divisions of the company, or some competitors, do uniquely  or exceptionally well, e.g. Wal-Mart’s practice of selling ‘shelf space’ to suppliers instead of products to customers
  2. Benchmarks: Exemplary performance levels (usually quantifiable) that market leaders have achieved, that other companies in the industry can aspire to, e.g. reducing inventory to a small fraction of annual sales by the use of just-in-time inventory management techniques
  3. Stories & Lessons Learned: Histories of what a company or a division did spectacularly right or wrong, with a clear ‘moral’
  4. Industry Trend Analyses: Surveys of what is happening in an industry and what is differentiating winners from losers
  5. F.I.S.T. & Five Forces Analyses: Comprehensive studies of a company’s or division’s competitive position, with recommendations for action
  6. Thought Leadership: Highly insightful perspectives or ‘points of view’ about a company’s products, processes and technologies, and recommendations for action

Unlike the other five types, Thought Leadership is generally the result of an inductive (creative), rather than a deductive (logical, analytical) process. If you have access to deep knowledge about a company’s inner workings, culture, business processes and key people, you can produce any of the other five types of knowledge, but Thought Leadership requires more: an ability to think ahead and laterally, to ask creative and even serendipitous ‘what if’ questions, and an ability to take knowledge and learning gleaned in some completely different domain and context and apply it to solve a burning business problem.

Here’s an example: It was recently discovered that butterfly wings have absolutely no pigment in them, since the aerodynamic requirements of wings cannot tolerate the weight of pigment. What gives the wings their illusion of colour is the way the cells of the wings are layered, so that light reflects from them prismatically. A Thought Leader could take this esoteric discovery and apply it, practically and economically,  to ideas for producing more lightweight, and hence efficient, airplane wings, say, or ideas for creating un-counterfeitable currency.

What makes a Thought Leader? Clearly it requires some deep, specialized but un-myopic subject-matter expertise, some right-brain core competencies, an extremely broad range of interests and readings, and networks and tools that filter and feed the firehose-volume of daily news and information into a manageable stream. I think there are three main Thought Leadership styles, that are pictured in the chart at right, and which depend on individual temporal orientation and knowledge processing behaviour:

  1. Guru: Exceptionally innovative yet practical. Typical follower ‘aha’ response: How’d she ever think of that?
  2. Visionary: Future-oriented, able to ‘think people ahead’. Typical follower ‘aha’ response: Now I see where we have to go.
  3. Facilitator: Canvasses and synthesizes others’ perspectives and points of view. Typical follower ‘aha’ response: This guy knows everything that’s happening and what it all means.

Life isn’t easy for thought leaders. They are often seen by management as intimidating or impractical. They may be culturally out of sync with the company for whom they work. To do their job right takes a lot of time and resources that must compete with the day-to-day resource needs and priorities of the company. They need permission to be wrong, since a lot of new ideas and predictions that look right on paper don’t pass the market test.

Some companies have been much more successful at innovation, at remaining agile in the face of market changes. Such companies tend to attract thought leaders, to give them the roles and resources they need to capitalize on their skills and knowledge and bring them to fruition. They also tend to have business processes that encourage and enable gurus to come up with breakthrough ideas and products, visionaries to steer the company into the future profitably ahead of its competitors, and facilitators to capture, build on and act on others’ leading-edge ideas.

Until very recently, knowledge management has been about capturing employee knowledge and know-how, and because of the practical difficulties of codifying and leveraging such knowledge, has fallen on hard times of late. KM may have a second chance if it can design the enabling architecture for business innovation and thought leadership. That will require knowledge leaders to refocus their attention from the bottom line, where KM was expected to have the greatest impact, to the top line and to the connection with customers, where its greatest promise always lay.

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  1. This is very impressive stuff, Dave. Whose ass would I have to kiss to reprint this in my monthly business mag? This is head and shoulders above what our nationally syndicated columnists send us every month. Excellent work!

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Very kind of you, Christopher. Anything that appears on my blog can be reproduced anywhere with attribution. If it’s business-related I’m usually described as ‘Chief Knowledge Officer for a major international professional services firm’. If you want to use my employer’s name, e-mail me with the name of the publication and I will tweak it accordingly and get the OK from our Communications folks.

  3. Mitesh says:

    Dave,Though i do appreciate the way you have expressed artistically the problem associated with thought leadership and knowledge management one thing still goes unnoticed in your column and that is the motivational aspect for engaging oneself in these different activities which at the end of the day are governed by bottom line (Monetary or Customer satisfaction attributed to any product/service). Please write back to me if u think i was unable to read between the lines.

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