If Only We Knew What We Know: A book review by Bob Morris

If Only We KnewIf Only We Knew What We Know: The Transfer of Internal Knowledge and Best Practice
Carla O’Dell and C. Jackson Grayson
Free Press (2012, Paperbound Edition)

The Invisibility of the Obvious

Note: I posted the review that follows 14 years ago and recently re-read the book while preparing to review Critical Knowledge Transfer: Tools for Managing Your Company’s Deep Smarts and interview one of its co-authors, Dorothy Leonard. Obsessed as many people are to know (if not read) the “latest, newest” business bestseller, according to what “they say,” the fact remains that many books published ten, fifteen, even twenty years ago offer even greater value now than they did then. That is why they are viewed as “classics.” If Only We Knew What We Know is an excellent example.

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One of the exercises I conduct for consulting clients is quite simple but extraordinarily valuable. Here’s how it works. I ask to meet with 5-10 key executives, with or without the CEO included. Each of those present, in rotation around the table, says to each of the others (one at a time): “Here is what you and your people could do to make my life much easier.” The exercise continues until each executive has spoken directly to every other person. All this takes about 60-90 minutes. Invariably the response is, “I had no idea. No problem. We’ll be glad to do it. Why didn’t you mention this before?” Everyone is involved, either asking for specific assistance from everyone else, or, learning how she or he could provide it.

I mention this basic exercise to suggest what probably motivated Carla O’Dell and C. Jackson Grayson to write this book. They focus on what they call “beds of knowledge” which are “hidden resources of intelligence that exist in almost every organization, relatively untapped and unmined.” They suggest all manner of effective strategies to “tap into “this hidden asset, capturing it, organizing it, transferring it, and using it to create customer value, operational excellence, and product innovation — all the while increasing profits and effectiveness.” Almost all organizations claim that their “most valuable assets walk out the door at the end of each business day.” That is correct. Almost all intellectual “capital” is stored between two ears and much (too much) of it is, for whatever reasons, inaccessible to others except in “small change.”

O’Dell and Grayson organize their material as follows:

Part One: A Framework for Internal Knowledge Transfer
Part Two: The Three Value Propositions [i.e. Customer Intimacy, Product-to-Product Excellence, and Achieving Operational Excellence]

NOTE: Part Two will be even more valuable when read in combination with Michael Treacy & Fred Wiersema’s The Discipline of Market Leaders (1997) and aforementioned Critical Knowledge Transfer (2015).

Part Three: The Four Enablers of Transfer
Part Four: Reports From the Front Lines: Pioneer Case Studies
Part Five: The Four Phase Process: Or, “What I Do on Monday Morning”

In the Conclusion, the authors assert that “there is no conclusion to managing knowledge and transferring best practices. It is a race without a finishing line.” They are right, now and especially in years to come. In the concluding chapter, the authors share ten “Enduring Principles” which should inform and direct the formulation of any plan by which to manage knowledge and transfer best practices. During implementation of the plan, everyone involved must be willing and able to make whatever adjustments may be necessary. Perhaps the authors would agree with me that an 11th “enduring principle” affirms that change is the only constant. Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and The Dance of Change as well as William Isaacs’ Dialogue: The Art Of Thinking Together.

With regard to the exercise briefly explained in the first paragraph, one of its many value-added benefits occurs following the completion of the exercise when most (if not) of the participants begin to offer unsolicited suggestions as to how they can do even more to assist their associates. Four of the most powerful words in any organization are “I need your help.” But first you have to ask for it.

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