Building the brains trust: Is your organisation knowledge-driven?

Thursday, January 28, 2016 - 18:32

Most of us are too young to remember the BBC radio show The Brains Trust from the 1940s and 50s where experts tried to answer wide-ranging questions sent in from the audience. While the show itself is long gone, the phrase 'brains trust' remains lodged in our collective vocabulary and is still widely used, both sarcastically and sincerely. 

The reason for the phrase's popularity is simple - when you bring people together who are experts in their field, the result is something that is worth seeing (or hearing). Now, in 2016, organisations are considering how they might be able to replicate this same idea in a corporate setting, by building a business that is driven by knowledge.

Is your organisation building knowledge internally?

Finding growth in the knowledge economy

Whereas Australia's economy used to be focused on manufacturing and agriculture, the rise of professional services has seen us transition to a country based on knowledge and information.

According to research from Harvard University, there are two aspects to the growth of the 'knowledge economy'. The first is the expansion of services and digital technology, which requires employees to have a much higher level of knowledge and skill than in the past.

The second aspect is more relevant to managers and HR departments - learning and professional development are now central to the performance of a business. This requires a shift in thinking so knowledge and expertise are treated as the core drivers of value within a business.

Growth in the knowledge economy is more and more about how well an organisation can access new information

The study also found the rate of many knowledge-related activities, such as patent applications, are all increasing. The research cited the automotive industry, which has shifted from metal fabrication a focus on developing software and computing power to improve a vehicle's performance.

In short, growth in the knowledge economy is now about how well an organisation can access new information. The next question is: How do organisations achieve this?

Upskilling employee knowledge

At the core of any effort to build a knowledge-driven company has to be a strategic assessment of where an organisation's current expertise is and if knowledge gaps exist. Once these have been identified, it becomes much easier to target your learning and development efforts accordingly.

The over-riding goal here is to be strategic about how knowledge is created and retained within an organisation. The Brains Trust metaphor might be useful here: If you were going to bring together a diverse panel to address challenges in your business, what skills and perspectives would be on that panel? Are these skills actually found within your business? 

Breaking down the boundaries between teams

Just as important as building the knowledge of individual employees is being able to transfer knowledge between teams and individuals. Research published by Columbia University found that knowledge has become the core competitive advantage of working between teams. Achieving this involves building what the authors termed 'knowledge reservoirs' which cross teams within a business and drive company performance.

It's equally important to share knowledge between individual workers, particularly when it comes to succession planning for important roles. The ability to maintain this information within a business, even as individual workers come and go, is crucial for a knowledge-driven organisation.

Knowledge is one of the most fluid, intangible assets a business possesses. Transforming an organisation to the point where it’s driven by employees’ knowledge and has strong chemistry between experts can be difficult, but the modern economy now demands nothing less.