You can’t commoditise knowledge

January 7, 2007

One of the 2007 predictions in the I, Cringely column caught my eye. It reads as follows:

Remember outsourcing and offshoring? That tide turns for a bunch of reasons but mainly because a new class of CEOs will say the old class of CEOs was filled with idiots.

I remember talking with some systems programers a few years back. They were about to see their work outsourced and were being subject to a knowledge audit. My recommendation was that they all joined the same agency and just waited to be hired back. Why? Because the audit was asking the wrong questions, take one example: Which operating systems do you have experience of? As one of the systems programers said, the question should have been: Which versions of which operating systems on which platforms with which applications for how many years? If you looked at any of them in operation during a crisis, they were not following work-flows or manuals, the just knew what to do; what appeared to be intuition was in effect compressed experience.

Now that story relates to a serious system, in which the consequences of down time are high. At the other end of the scale I have been attempting through four months of emails and phone calls to upgrade a BT service. I finally gave up and started the whole process again from scratch and found through trial and error the mistake I had made in attempting to set it up on line. A mistake by the way that a simple help message could have solved. One issue in dumbing down service to a set of over formal process is that ultimately you seem to rely on your customers giving up in despair and solving problems for themselves. If it wasn’t for my dependence on my btinternet email address I would have almost certainly left for another supplier. Over focus on process may also account for the success of the I, Cringely prediction number five in 2006!

So why would the new class of CEOs say that the old class were idiots? Well its simple: you can’t commoditise knowledge and you can’t create a process for customer service.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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