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Get Better at Reinventing the Wheel

To succeed with knowledge management, organizations should focus on getting better at reinventing the wheel instead of avoiding it.

by Jim McGee


In virtually every knowledge management proposal or deployment I have encountered, the cliché that "we don’t want to reinvent the wheel" is introduced as a fundamental justification for the effort. It sounds reasonable and suggests attention to business value, but in practice places organizations on the wrong path.

Taking the notion of reinvention superficially, the result is more likely to be a plagiarism support system that atrophies and fades away. Succeeding with knowledge management depends on thinking deeply about reinvention and how it contributes to meeting the demand for more organizational innovation. Done right, reinvention should be a key driver of innovation and doing reinvention right requires a different approach to knowledge management.

Reinvention the Lazy Way

Sold on a naïve notion that avoiding reinvention equates to reuse of existing knowledge assets, many organizations focus on collecting organizing, and cataloging the outputs of knowledge work. Repositories are designed; processes are designed to collect work products such as client reports, checklists, and data analyses from the field; and rewards for contributions and use are announced with great fanfare. After an initial surge of enthusiasm and energy, life generally returns to normal.

The unexamined assumption embedded in "don’t reinvent the wheel" here is that the value of a knowledge asset lies in being able to reproduce it instead of create it from scratch. That assumption confuses knowledge assets with physical assets and promotes an industrial mindset that values standardizing knowledge work products and practices as a path to more efficient, repetitive execution.

Not understanding what makes a software module for updating a customer account different from a crankshaft, for example, organizations wasted years trying to force developers to write their own code to be reused and to search for existing code modules to reuse before trying to write their own. Confounding knowledge work products with industrial ones blinds organizations to how developers use them as inputs in their work.

On an assembly line, workers need a crankshaft that fits specifically into the partially built engines sitting in front of them. Faced with a developing system in front of them, developers must first invest in understanding how an available “reusable” module might be fit into the new system. That understanding time plus the “adapt to fit” time has to be factored in and it has to be weighed against the time of starting from scratch. The calculus here is not that of standardization and reuse. Instead, it is a calculus of time tradeoffs in crafting a final deliverable to a user or customer. In software development, reuse of a sort can be valuable in the form of standard component libraries, but the value equation depends as much on the time investment of learning how to use the library as on the quality of the modules themselves.

Other knowledge work environments haven’t worked through this reasoning as carefully yet as the software development world. Professional service firms, for example, see that many of the reports they prepare for clients share much in common. Issues and problems surface regularly in all organizations, and good advisors draw on that commonality for each new client situation. In too many “lazy reinvention” cases, however, the systems focus on simply collecting and filing client reports and making them available. Couple that with pressures for performance, consultants on teams who have less experience, and naïve assumptions about reuse, and you have a recipe for embarrassment at least and serious client dissatisfaction at worst.

Clients pay consultants for two things: a deep base of relevant experiences and answers that are specifically tailored to the client situation at hand. What they risk getting from lazy reinvention is a mix of relevant and irrelevant experience and no more tailoring than can be done with a “search and replace” command.

A design approach that reduces reuse to sloppy plagiarism interferes with developing the knowledge work support systems that benefit from treating prior work as a rich source of inspiration and raw materials for innovation.

Intelligent Reinvention

Innovation is now seen as one of the driving forces of economic growth. Effective execution, in and of itself, will not sustain organizations; they must develop and deploy new products and services even as they manage execution of their existing products and services.

In this world, intelligent reinvention is essential. Clay Christensen’s groundbreaking theories on "disruptive innovation" are rooted in a systematic approach to reinvention. In Christensen’s work at the Harvard Business School, significant organizational and economic success flows from disruptive innovations. Disruptive innovations are defined as new combinations of existing technologies that create new markets, which then grow much faster than the existing markets for those technologies. The growth in these new markets drives a cycle of continuing innovation and performance improvements that ultimately overtake and displace the previous market and the previous market leaders.

Christensen’s research has tracked this phenomenon in markets as diverse as disk drives, construction equipment, and education. Opportunities for disruptive innovation come about through looking at existing technologies and markets through new eyes. They flourish in environments that are rich with knowledge of what has been done before without the assumption of simply copying prior answers.

Instead of something to be avoided, reinvention becomes a skill to be developed and a process to master. Knowledge management solutions will evolve to more closely resemble research and development and less like managing the file room. The goal will not be to collect every output or measure compliance with every standard operating procedure. It will be to search for the provocative deliverable or to boil down the lessons from multiple After Action Reviews into the insight that a new market is emerging or that an old service can be reconstituted.

Sometimes the knowledge management system might still offer up a software module for reuse (although most likely from a vendor supplied library); but more often it will offer up something more on the order of a design pattern that has been abstracted and synthesized from someone thinking deeply about the commonalities that can be safely leveraged into unique situations.

When innovation plays an equal role to execution, knowledge management solutions must understand and address how existing organizational knowledge contributes to innovation. From this perspective, "don’t reinvent the wheel" is ultimately a reminder of the value of deep knowledge over shallow. Knowledge management solutions will collect less material but absorb it more deeply and systematically.

Designers of knowledge work support systems would do better to look to interactive children’s museums as their model than to the National Archives. While that will entail harder work than simply collecting and filing every work product in sight, the value in making that knowledge applicable will easily offset the effort.