The Collapse of Expertise and Rise of Collaborative Sensemaking
If organizations are going to thrive in turbulent times, they must surrender many of their most cherished assumptions and start leveraging the power of collaborative knowledge. But this won’t be easy as most continue to believe in the same top-down knowledge management strategies common to the machine age.
In the social era, the power of collaboration is key and collaborative knowledge generation–or sensemaking–is essential for staying competitive amidst the messy, complex challenges that define our hyper-connected universe.
But there’s a glitch: paying workers to collaboratively solve problems and cultivate ideas flies right in the face of traditional management thinking and its belief that the only valid source of knowledge is authoritative expertise. So, clearly, a new understanding about knowledge and the role of expertise is needed.
Traditional Management: In Authoritative Knowledge We Trust
Sociologist Bridget Jordan has observed that “The power of authoritative knowledge is not that it is correct, but that it counts.” How true!
Jordan’s point hits home on several fronts: First, it speaks directly to management’s long-standing use of expertise to justify its own authoritative management style. This is embodied in the belief that for every challenge there is only “one best way” to address it. This helps explain why authority is automatically bestowed upon the appointed “experts” assumed to know the “one best way”.
Jordan’s point also illustrates the false dichotomy organizations still foster between managers whose job it is to think and workers who are only there to do. This manager/worker split can be traced to the very origins of management thinking. It was a key premise that Frederick Taylor, the founding father of modern management, used in his theory of scientific management. So it’s not surprising that, even today, we still hear managers lament that their people “just don’t get the big picture!”
Integrating Expertise With Sensemaking
But I also want to avoid the risk of going to the other extreme and declaring that expertise has no value and needs to be banished. Collaborative sensemaking is crucial; yet it needs to be tempered and integrated with the broader perspective and enduring insight afforded by more rigorous and tested thought. In this way expertise becomes as an important but equal component of a dynamic and evolving sensemaking landscape.
Suggestions For Introducing More Collaborative Strategies
So what can managers do, and what about the role of leadership?
Peter Morville has said that those in positions of authority should see themselves as “decision making architects”. This implies using positional power smartly–not to control others, but instead to create cultures and contexts in which mutually-empowering decision-making becomes the norm.
For those looking to make a start on this journey, here are three suggestions:
- Look for pockets of resistance: If you know of departments or programs continually complaining that “management is out of touch”, they may be right! This may be a good place to start introducing more integrative knowledge practices.
- Change your story: Narratives are powerful tools for transformation; you may want to revise your own message about the power of expertise vs. workforce input. A more inclusive message valuing integrative knowledge validates workers’ knowledge and opens the door for more social sensemaking strategies.
- Create outlets for collaborative sensemaking to take place: Venues will differ based on the organizations’ size and type of work. But still be sure to seek out ways to incorporate social technologies for unlocking collaborative potential.
A Deeper Awareness of Social
As we move deeper into the often-awkward shift from industrial heroicism to social interdependence, organizations of all kinds must look closely at what it means to be “social”. Social is more than a buzzword, and it’s more than having a company Twitter account. At its center a social mindset is about a more dynamic and integrative way of seeing the world.
For organizations commited to thriving in this new era, social must be at the heart of their worldview–how its culture and leadership understands reality and their role in it. Nothing better reflects this understanding than how those in authority–day in, day out–balance their commitment between expertise and the creative processes of collaborative sensemaking.