Monday, September 20, 2010

Molotov cocktail = Weak ties x complicated knowledge

Some time back, I was asked to conduct knowledge transfer sessions for a new team member. Here is an outline (rather cryptic) of the situation. The italics are intended to draw attention to points of note.
1.       She was experienced but came from a very different domain from mine. We lacked a common frame of reference to begin with.
2.       I didn’t know her, and that was the first time I got to meet her. I was in a dilemma.
3.       I knew that the kind of work experience I had to transfer contained more tacit knowledge than explicit, and the problem lay in being able to codify everything  and do a successful “transfer” in about a span of two weeks. The whole “mini project” gave me quite a few sleepless nights.
4.       Instinctively, I enlisted the “help” of another team member asking her to sit in during my KT sessions since “we shared a common frame of reference.” I was afraid that most tacit knowledge would be lost unless I had someone with me who “understood” what I meant.
5.       Anyhow, the sessions were duly completed. We made brave attempts to capture the tacit knowledge in the form of mind maps, checklists, excel sheets, questionnaires, and video recordings. I maintained a standard disclaimer. “Everything I share here is generic and will need to be made context-specific when dealing with a client or a real situation. To be used as guidelines only.”
At that time, I was unaware of the Molotov cocktail concept.
Yesterday night, rather this morning around 3:00 a.m., I finished reading the book Collaboration by Morten T. Hansen. I had my Eureka! moment when I read about the Molotov cocktail concept, and that is the topic of my post. 
Hansen’s research sheds light on many aspects of collaboration, which will be the focus of later posts.
He refers to the Molotov cocktail concept as a part of Network Building rules. With years of research and data to back his discovery, he hits the nail on the head when he mentions how “weak ties” between teams/units/individuals can hinder the transfer of complicated knowledge. On the other hand, there are ample evidences here and by other researchers that show how weak ties are more “useful” than strong ones because they bring in that much-needed diversity and breadth, bridge the structural holes, and move people away from homophily.
Knowledge that is concrete, codified, and data-and-fact driven can be easily transferred; however, any knowledge that is hard to articulate orally or in writing, that presumes a common frame of reference—in short is tacit and complicated, more experience based with fine nuances—needs strong ties for the transfer. And this is where I ran into my dilemma. How do I even begin to share what I know?
Instinctively, we started out not with sharing knowledge but with getting to know each other. Just sharing our work experience and beliefs—unknowingly moving towards a common ground and thus building a strong tie. Only when I read the book did I realize that what we had done to increase our comfort level with each another in fact has scientific backing.
Perceptive leaders keen on facilitating collaboration and helping their teams and organizations move toward a collaborative mode of working, would do well to focus on these aspects.
With the need for cross-functional teams across diverse locations to work together on product development, sales, innovation, business processes, software development and other such work requiring the sharing of complicated knowledge rapidly increasing, leaders have to be skilled in facilitating network building of the right kind to prevent the Molotov cocktail from exploding.
The Molotov cocktail exploded for Sony and their Connect, leaving Apple with their iPod the sole market winner.  
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