Agility = Knowledge Management + Response Ability
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Rick Dove, Paradigm Shift International,,

Agile enterprise, knowledge management, organizational learning, and collaboration concepts are all being explored by various groups of business managers, consultants, and academics. The general motivation for this interest is that organizations are finding it more difficult to stay in synch with the pace of change in their operational and competitive environments. Though many of these explorations are still myopically focused on a single one of these issues, more and more are recognizing a convergence.
   I examined this convergence in a paper for the Journal of Knowledge Management (3/99) from the point of view that all of these concepts are strongly interrelated, and argued that organizational agility is only achieved when knowledge management and response ability are balanced organizational competencies. Knowledge Management, Response Ability, and the Agile Enterprise is available in the library at
   My personal interest in knowledge management has come about through the back door - I was trying to understand how to design highly change proficient agile organizations. After an initial focus on systems engineering principles applied to the design of highly adaptable business practices and processes I eventually came up against the fact that changing anything requires that somebody learn something, and that this learning process is every bit as big an obstacle as rigid inflexible system design.
   Since learning is the process that develops knowledge, moving my focus on to knowledge management was a natural step. From this new perspective hindsight showed that I had been heavily involved in the key issues of knowledge management all along - in my attempts to understand the agile enterprise I had employed and refined collaborative learning mechanisms that brought hundreds of similarly interested people together in a mutual knowledge development quest.
   I now believe that knowledge management and response ability have a co-dependent relationship, and see them as the enablers for an agile organization. And I view the current interest and need for both as caused by the accelerated pace of new knowledge development.

   I view agility in organizations not as a goal or a strategy, but rather as a fundamental existence necessity. Organizations have always had to be sufficiently agile to adjust to their changing environment or cease to exist.

New knowledge has no value until it is applied.


This human thing we are distinguishes itself from other life by generating and applying knowledge. Our increasing population is building upon an increasing body of past knowledge - which increases the frequency of new knowledge generation and speeds the decay of old knowledge value - making the general business environment, which is built upon knowledge, more unstable.
   New knowledge demands to be applied. When one business applies new knowledge valuably, others have no choice but to follow, if they can.
   Knowledge has no value until it is applied. When new knowledge is applied it introduces a change into the environment which generates a value. Change that comes from the application of new knowledge is called innovation when the value is positive.
   Knowledge which cannot be applied has no value. Knowing about the canals on Mars is just as useless to an automotive assembly plant as knowing about a new assembly technology that cannot be implemented.


In 1991 I co-led an intense four-month-long collaborative cross-industry workshop at Lehigh University that gave birth to the concept of agile enterprise. Our intent was to identify the competitive focus that would be the successor to lean.
   The group converged on the fact that each of their organizations were feeling increasingly whipsawed by more frequent change in their business environments. With even faster changes expected it became evident that survivors would be self-selected for their ability to keep up with continuous and unexpected change.
   We dubbed this characteristic agility, and loosely defined it as "the ability of an organization to thrive in a continuously changing, unpredictable business environment." Not unlike defining a dancer as one who dances.
   Our thoughts at that time were that technology and globalism were the principle drivers of this changing environment. I have since come to know that it is more accurate to focus on the knowledge explosion as cause, and more useful to look at knowledge management as one of two key enablers for agility.

Response Ability

The other key enabler is response ability - a competency that allows an organization to apply knowledge effectively - whether it is knowledge of a market opportunity, a production process, a business practice, a product technology, a person's skills, a competitor's threat, whatever.
   I now prefer to define agility succinctly as: the ability to manage and apply knowledge effectively, as it offers more illumination than our earlier, still applicable, definition.

   Agile is a word we associate with cats. When we say a cat is agile we observe that it is both physically adept at movement and also mentally adept at choosing useful movement appropriate for the situation. Agile carries with it the elements of timeliness and grace and purpose and benefit as well as nimbleness.
   A cat that simply has the ability to move quickly, but moves inappropriately and to no gain might be called reactionary, spastic, or confused, but never agile. Picture a cat on a hot tin roof.
   Conversely, a cat that knows what should be done but finds itself unable to move might be called afraid, catatonic, or paralyzed, but never agile. Like the cat that's got itself up a tree.

   Up until that 1991 workshop my career was involved with start-up and turn-around management - where speed and urgency are important. First hand experience helped me appreciate the difference between developing a strategy and implementing it successfully. Knowing what to do was too often mismatched with the ability to do it. My engineering background started me looking for obstacles and solutions in the design aspect of organizational systems. Rather than go back to the entrepreneurial world I began a series of collaborative learning events with industry - seeking to understand what makes some business practices and process highly adaptable while most are extremely difficult to change.
   Concurrently the concept of knowledge management and learning organizations were capturing increasing interest in other circles - for the same underlying reasons. In recent years our collaborative investigations have converged on the co-dependent relationships of change and learning. You cannot do one without the other. As to knowledge management - nothing happens unless and until somebody learns something.
   The concepts of knowledge management and response ability are not new. Organizations throughout time have practiced both successfully or they have ceased to exist. What is new is the need for more formal and conscious understandings about these practices - raising them to the level of a recognized competency - brought about by the quickening pace of knowledge development and knowledge-value decay. What used to be done unconsciously and in its good old time is no longer adequate in competitive enterprise.
   Balancing these two competencies is important. A few years ago a Canadian auto plant decided to abandon the chain drive that moved all cars synchronously through the factory from work station to work station. They foresaw advantages in an asynchronous movement, and placed each car-in-process on its own automated guided vehicle (AGV), capable of independent movement and not in harness to the car in front. This promised more flexibility for adding mass customized features to individual cars without dragging all cars through stations where no work was performed. More importantly, if a workstation was shut down for any reason cars could be pool-buffered or rerouted to other stations first and then return - while the rest of the factory continued to operate.
   Unfortunately when the plant went live the expected high throughput turned out considerable less then the traditional chain drive had provided. Under the old system a failed workstation shut down the entire production line and the silence was deafening - gaining immediate and total attention. With the highly fluid AGV flow, cars simply bypassed out-of-service stations and the comforting noise of industry continued. A classic architecture for increasing response ability that resulted in a major failure because it was unmatched with the knowledge management issues.
   This shop-floor example may not appear to be what we currently call knowledge management. Perhaps because we do not yet have a general theory of knowledge management. Nevertheless, this situation occurred because of a disproportionate focus on response ability without a balancing knowledge base of how and why to use it. Thus, we have a mismatch of both strategic knowledge as well as real-time operating knowledge.
   As to a mismatched balance on the other side - revisit the classic story of Xerox and its Palo Alto Research Center. PARC was a collection of extremely innovative thinkers and learners, organized around active collaborative learning concepts. A very progressive knowledge management organization - yet unable to transfer its fruits into applied results within the Xerox family.

1999 RKDove - Attributed Copies Permitted
Essay #051 - Published 3/99 in Automotive Manufacturing & Production, Gardner Publications, Revised 5/99

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From: Date: Tue, 9 Mar 1999
Dear Rick - I am just looking at your article. I did not finish reading it yet. Statement that "New knowledge has no value until it is applied." made me furious. It is about the same as saying, that money have no value unless they are spent. Knowledge even not applied pays dividends as any knowledge potentially applicable can be build only on previous knowledge (very often inapplicable). Saying that I shell return to reading your article.
Regards, Zdzislaw Korytkowski, Proj. Engineer, ITW Spiroid

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From: (Rick Dove) 
Date:Wed,10 Mar 1999.
Thank you for your comment. Sorry you are furious - that's not good for the blood pressure. In the prior month's essay we said: "You have knowledge when you can use fundamental skills in creative ways". This puts our statements in context. I am speaking of knowledge that has a tangible and measurable affect in the working environment. It is this tangible and measurable effect that I am considering valuable here.

Physics teaches us about potential and kinetic energy. Potential energy is insurance and promise, but until it is transformed into kinetic energy it does no work. This is the sense in which my statement is made. Unapplied knowledge may promise to be applied some day, and so give the possessor a sense of personal "well being" value, but unlike (most) unspent money, knowledge that waits to be applied runs a major risk today of becoming irrelevant before it is applied. Was its short interval of potential value real or an illusion?

Dealing with the concept of "value" is difficult as it gets into the philosophical realm immediately. The context of my value argument was grounded with the example of the assembly line: which gained no value from knowledge of canals on Mars, neither does it gain value from a potentially good technology that cannot be inserted into the line for whatever reason.

When a piece of unapplied new knowledge is used later as a stepping stone toward additional new knowledge, which is then applied, the first piece is at that point applied and creates value. If, however, that piece of interim knowledge was not a real stepping stone but rather, say, an interim idea that somehow helped the knowledge creator eventually find useful knowledge, then in a very personal sense it would appear to have had useful purpose, but this gets too philosophical for my purposes again.

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From: Date: Thu, 11 Mar 1999
Dear Rick, As I read more of yours and others comments I am coming to conclusion that anything can be of value or of no value at all, depending on the personal or organizational hierarchy of values. I agree that for the company, which produces and sells widgets, knowledge has no value unless it is applied to make more or better widgets. On the other hand for the company or person who sells knowledge, widgets have no value unless they contribute to gaining more knowledge. Similarly for the person who values money, book has value, when he/she can sell it to somebody. For the person who values knowledge book has no value unless he/she can read it and learn something from it.

To generalize unapplied knowledge is like an inventory and is useless in a same way as any widget or book placed in inventory or money hidden in the pillow. Knowledge can be a product or tool and like any product or tool can be useless when in inventory. I believe thou, that knowledge is always used, consciously or unconsciously when its in the brain.
Zdzislaw Korytkowski, Proj. Engineer, ITW Spiroid

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From: Date: Thu, 11 Mar 1999
I really enjoy your latest work on knowledge management. It is a very important topic for corporations. Training has been the basis for learning in companies but that does not assure that it will be used. Knowledge management and organizational intelligence focuses on making sure the learning has occurred. Keep your ideas and thoughts coming.

I was thinking about your example of a Canadian auto plant driven assembly line. Something that might apply to this was our visit to an IBM plant where the halls were wide and used to be filled with inventory between process steps. They eliminated the inventory and enhanced (lowered) the residence time material was in the production line. It strikes me that the Automobile Company did the reverse of the IBM solution to the problem. At IBM they needed to use Knowledge Management to change the way things worked and only achieved the positive result when the organizational intelligence was raised to enable the system to operate efficiently. An industry shifting from "make to inventory" to "make to order" is one of those opportunities that could use a dose of knowledge management and a change in the organizations intelligence.

I will be making a presentation to our industry group involved with the safety and impact of our production processes. (If a pipe breaks we can kill our employees and our neighbors). This presentation, to be given in June, is to get all 10 Silicone Industry Companies using a tool so that the operational people react correctly and instinctively to any threatening circumstance as it arises. Their action will stop the sequence of events that are required in a pathway to a disaster.

John Oleson, Dir. of Manufacturing Technology, Dow Corning Corporation

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From: (kim dumford) Date: Fri, 12 Mar 1999
"You will observe with concern how long a useful truth may be known and exist, before it is generally received and practiced on" Benjamin Franklin
Dear Rick, I thoroughly enjoyed your article, your views, and your exchange with Proj. Korytkowski! I particularly was inspired by the concept that "New knowledge has no value until applied", though I do appreciate both views. A historical illustration: In 1534, while on expedition, Jacques Cartier and his crew become trapped by winter, their ship lodged on the St. Lawrence River. His men are dying from scurvy when a native Indian teaches them to prepare tea from pine bark and needles. The phenolic nutrients in the tea cures their scurvy. Not another man is lost. Though this expedition was honored for discovering the territory of Quebec, the cure for scurvy goes unheralded. Two centuries later the cure is rediscovered by Scottish physician James Lind. But again the world is slow to act. It takes more than another 100 years, and 100,000's of deaths, before this knowledge is applied. That's why I say, "The magnitude of a breakthrough become defined by its application, not by the discovery itself."
Best regards, Kim Dumford A.M.W.B. (a marketing wiz bang)

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From: "John Canter" Date: Wed, 17 Mar 1999
Rick: I read with more than casual interest your latest posting: "Agility = Knowledge Management + Response Ability." In many ways, your arriving at an appreciation (an epiphany?) that a balance between the management of knowledge (data-information-knowledge-wisdom) and proficiency at change (application of same) confirms and reflects what I have been counseling my Agility clients for the last two years - namely that Agility is achieved through the rapid and effective cycling of the OODA process. If one were to conceptually separate the first two components of the OODA activity (Observation and Orientation) from the later two (Decision and Action), it seems to me that one half of your balanced equation, Knowledge Management, is roughly equivalent to the OO segment, and the other half, Change Proficiency, aka Response Ability, akin to the DA segment.

In support of the OODA model, I employ the Balanced Scorecard as a tool to support Observation; the Capability Maturity Model as a support tool for Orientation; TRIZ and ARIZ as mechanisms to underpin the Decision component; and the application of RRSI-designed (reusable,reconfigurable, scalable, interoperable) technologies, organizational structures, et al as the mechanism for translation of decision into ACTION.

I'm going to be conducting a workshop/seminar on OODA as the unifying concept for Agility, and the various tools as support mechanisms for same, at Carnegie Mellon University later this spring for a group of senior foreign business and technology executives .. and plan to reference your article as corroboration of the necessity for balancing the Agility practice's learning and the doing elements.

Many thanks for keeping the beacon of Agility shining so that those of us who sail the uncharted waters don't run aground on the hidden shoals. John Canter

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From (Rick Dove), Date:Wed,10 Mar 1999.
John - you might take a look at the paper called "Response Ability, Knowledge Management and the Agile Enterprise" which is a more extensive version of that short essay. It is downloadable from: Best regards, Rick

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From:  (andreas winarno) Date: Fri, 23 Jun 2000
Your theory is right. I also apply the principles in senior management course in Indonesia. Very exiting.

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From: (andreas winarno ) Date: Thu, 1 Nov 2001
Very interesting. Your web site is very helpful. I use it to accompany training & development in various organizations. Thanks for your help. Andreas Winarno.

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