Knowledge Management & Learning From the Future

At long last, business is no longer ignoring the past. But the real challenge for managers is learning from what is yet to come.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, George Santayana said, and he was right. Henry Ford, on the other hand, said, “History is bunk,” and Ford was the better businessman.

Knowledge Management & Learning From the Future

Most companies act according to Ford’s (F) pronouncement.

They change cultural icons — as Carly Fiorina did at Hewlett-Packard (HWP), dropping the historic “HP Way” for a new “Rules of the Garage.” They change financial reality, taking “one-time” charges again and again, “so we can put the past behind us.” They send old files to the basement, then to a warehouse somewhere in New Jersey. You’re promised you can access anything you want from those files within 48 hours, but there’s no index to allow you to search for something you don’t already know about, and — sure as Secretariat — after a few years the warehouse in New Jersey burns down.

Test yourself: Quickly list the appointments on your calendar for next week. Now: Quickly list the people you saw last week.

A European study a few years ago revealed what your self-test probably did: Most businesspeople can tell you more about next week than about last week. We live our lives in the foreground. The past scrolls off the screen: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…. It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory….” The personal and collective amnesia is so bad that earlier this year an Australian lawyer, John Keogh, managed to secure a patent from his government for a “circular transportation facilitation device.” The achievement won him and the Australian patent office an Ig Nobel Prize, a dubious award given every year for scientific or pseudoscientific work that “cannot or should not be reproduced.”

In the past few years, the proponents of knowledge management, including your humble and obedient servant, have done a lot to help businesses avoid reinventing the wheel. Corporate intranets are chockablock with collections of best practices, lessons learned, experts, links to databases and references, and knowledge artifacts such as software code, templates for budgets and business plans, and the like.

What’s more important is that knowledge management has also helped companies create environments that make it easier, or at least more acceptable, to learn from the past. Every company, it seems, is acutely aware of the danger of the “not invented here” syndrome. IBM’s David Snowden and the World Bank’s Stephen Denning, among others, have shown how to use storytelling to capture and impart the lessons of history. Business being business — a culture where progress is an article of faith — it will never embrace Santayana wholeheartedly. But it is treating history with less contempt.

But “learning by reflecting on the experiences of the past” is only one kind of learning. It’s also possible “to learn from the future as it emerges.” The distinction is drawn by Claus Otto Scharmer, a lecturer at MIT, who thinks that the ability to learn from the future is a skill that’s both underdeveloped and increasingly valuable. Learning from the past is more relevant and productive in stable markets ruled by the law of diminishing returns than it is in tumultuous markets characterized by technological discontinuities and positive-feedback loops (increasing returns). “Leaders are confronted with a new challenge: to develop the capacity for ‘precognition,'” Scharmer says. In other words, Henry Ford had a point.

We’re always trying to see the future.

We do scenario planning, hire Faith Popcorn to read the economic tea leaves, employ demographers and market researchers, and do trend analysis. But it seems to me that learning from the future is subtly different from learning about it. Learning about the future is a sort of data processing; it produces likelihoods and to-do lists. (“There’s an 80 percent chance of rain; remember your galoshes.”) It’s a planning exercise.

Learning from the future is less about processing information and more about structuring it and seeing patterns in it. It’s less concerned with making plans than with producing capabilities. It is, as I said, a subtle distinction, but one worth making.

Most knowledge management activities look backward.

Even in the areas of research and development and marketing, knowledge managers collect, collate, and distribute the best of what is already known: Typical knowledge management projects in R&D;, for example, are libraries of chemical compounds to be used in the creation of new products and road maps for clearing regulatory hurdles; in marketing, data warehouses and customer relationship management mostly concern themselves with extracting knowledge from past transactions.

Conversely, rarely do the future-oriented projects make use of the disciplines of knowledge management.

Imagine how much more effective corporate intelligence, scenario planning, and other future-oriented work would be if it took full advantage of skills like the following: expertise in designing IT applications that improve collaboration; providing incentives for knowledge-sharing; nurturing communities of practice; creating an infrastructure for real-time, high-bandwidth connection between people however widely separated they are; and improving the ease and efficiency with which data and information can be searched.

There’s an even larger opportunity, which is to develop an epistemology for learning from the future.

As Scharmer points out, we more or less understand the learning cycle when we are learning from the past. But what is the cycle for learning from the future? Most of the great ones — like George Soros, who calls himself an “insecurities analyst,” or the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky, who skated to where the puck would be — can’t really explain how they learn what they learn. But wouldn’t you like to know?

Posted by on October 6, 2001