Smart Idea – Recycling

As long as we’re talking about Franz Kafka, do you think that the Insurance Institute in Prague knew about his observational and writing skills? Could it have applied his expertise more effectively, say to writing marketing brochures or at least the corporate personnel manual? Sort of a knowledge management problem, don’t you think?

In business today, familiar ideas and phenomena are apt to crop up in new contexts. Knowledge management in general is one of those ideas. Certainly the notions of reusing intellectual capital, writing down your experiences and sharing your knowledge have all been with us for a while. But I must confess that I hadn’t heard of the old chestnut of programming code reuse as an example of knowledge management. Of course it is knowledge management, and The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) is smart to figure that out. Putting the code and documentation in Lotus Notes makes it somewhat easier to store and access, but the fundamental principle is no different than when the repository was the tape library in the computer centre.

Another time-honoured idea that’s been profitably recycled by the WSIB is the project notebook. In the old days, people working on projects of various kinds – most commonly product-development projects – would write up their decisions, observations, learnings and so forth in notebooks (actually, I believe project binders is a more apt term). These were put on the shelf for later generations of project managers and workers to peruse. I know of some cases, primarily in Japan, where project notebooks are religiously consulted before starting a new project. On this continent most workers are somewhat less religious about learning from the past, whether its lessons are recorded on paper or in electronic repositories.

WSIB CIO Valerie Adamo is dead right that the primary issue with reusing existing knowledge is culture, not technology. Most technical people avoid knowledge reuse primarily because they don’t get much credit for it and were never trained to do it in school. In Computer Science 101, it would have been considered cheating to start with an existing program that somebody else wrote and modify it for your own purposes. Adamo and her IS organization realized that the reward structure needed to be changed to reward speed and reuse. My only doubts about this case are whether the somewhat miraculous cultural changes it describes could be achieved so easily and quickly – usually it takes years and some pretty major changes in management attitude and reward structures.

Assuming that the culture of the IS organization has successfully been changed to value knowledge reuse, the next challenge for the WSIB is to change the entire organization’s culture in this direction. And if that weren’t enough, what about the culture of the WSIB’s customers? Wouldn’t it be great if they could use the WSIB knowledge to avoid disabling accidents in the first place? Franz Kafka would turn over in his grave if he saw that happen.

Tom Davenport is director of the Andersen Consulting Institute for Strategic Change and a distinguished scholar in residence at Babson College, Wellesley, Mass. He can be reached at