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Our own worst enemy

April 16, 2014

A 3-Step Recovery Plan for Information Hoarders

When we hoard information we lose the ability to scale what works, to learn from our mistakes and we waste resources recreating solutions. While others are busy protecting their information you could be leading the sector by increasing your awareness of the knowledge and creation habits within your organization.

Traditionally, organizations protect their intellectual property (IP) because by controlling access to solutions they ensure their financial stability, specifically continued philanthropic funding or market share. IP rights are the legally recognized exclusive rights to creations of the mind such as copyright, trademarks, patents and industrial design rights. While some protection of ideas is necessary and responsible, an excessively protective hoarding mentality is rife with drawbacks—especially when the information relates to solving complex social issues with potential for global impact. Driven by the nonprofit sector funding model, social-change organizations have little choice but to hoard their hard-earned IP and repackage ideas to appear as “the next big thing.” But even within the present model there is room for change.

We’re facing a rapidly changing world in which the pace of mounting challenges is accelerating. Our ability to keep pace with growth is literally impossible if we continue to work alone or in silos. We do not have the luxury of time to continue to reinvent the wheel, to let lessons learned fade with memory and to compete against one another, internally or across sectors.

Step 1: Admit you have a problem
There’s no shame in protecting assets, the system was built on individual reward and constant competition for resources. But when it becomes hoarding, the entire sector and therefore your organization has a problem. To challenge the existing system let’s consider the costs of not sharing. Work is often done and redone by colleagues, iterative innovations are lost along the way, work is performed in silos, slowing and even stunting the impact potential at every turn.

An extreme example of the costs of information hoarding played out on 9/11. Had communication between the CIA and the FBI been healthy, the FBI may have prevented the attacks. Since then these organizations have been restructured to prevent information hoarding and a result several terrorist initiatives have been uncovered and attacks prevented. The 9/11 Commission published a report in 2004 which concluded the real issue was not legal barriers preventing sharing between intelligence agencies, but instead the result of the behavior of individuals.

Begin by identifying the costs of failure within your own organization. Naming these costs will help them stand up to the risks others will challenge you with as you start to work in a new way. Your list might include duplicate spending on redundant work, longer lead time to published results or a missed opportunity that’s right in front of you and your colleagues.

Step 2: Break your knowledge into blocks
Information hoarding is rarely intentional within an organization. More often organizations lack the structures and resources that make documenting their solutions easy and effective. By breaking solutions down into their building blocks you create highly-transferable concepts that are accessible across contexts. While it’s easy to get trapped in the mindset that every situation is unique and solutions should be designed from scratch, it is irresponsible to think that there is nothing to learn or incorporate from prior experiences of others.

For example, if you were a pizza chef, your “solutions” would be the various recipes you’ve created over the years. Overtime you’ve discovered your best pizzas had core building blocks such as hand-tossed dough, spices from a small purveyor in Sicily, and were cooked in a brick oven at 800F. While the other components such as the sauce, cheese and other toppings varied, sharing these fundamentals with all chefs in your restaurant allows them to be creative for your customers with some aspects, but also provides the chefs with the proven building blocks for success.

Consider the Resilience Initiative, an online platform for scaling solutions for social change, currently in development. An international coalition of partners including Ecotrust, Context Partners, the Grameen Foundation, Mercy Corps, Oxfam America and The Rockefeller Foundation came together to understand how they could better act collectively on behalf of people and the planet. As they listened inside their organizations they realized they had a wealth of proven solutions, but no process—no tool—for documenting, sharing, and transferring these solutions to new contexts. Together, the coalition is co-designing an online tool to distill complex social solutions into shareable building blocks that span various contexts.

Isolating the factors of your most successful work will enable you to see the building blocks that enable excellence. Once these fundamental factors, or building blocks, are known others can use them to impact their work, exponentially amplifying the value you’ve isolated.

Step 3: Measure and reward iteration
It’s time to leave the silos behind and instead, operate like a high-functioning network. This requires a shift toward documenting, sharing and utilizing existing knowledge (see step 2). To make this shift, nothing beats simple measurement and implicit rewards.

Before StateReforum.org, mapping implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was thought impossible. Too many players, too many decisions, too much politics. But by leveraging reputational rewards through affirmation and acknowledgement of implementors, StateReforum.org shifted implementation of the ACA from isolated, state-by-state silos to a shared pool of knowledge. To do this StateReforum.org asked government officials to share documents others might find helpful and acknowledged those who shared publically, activating the reputational reward center in participants, ensuring implicit value. In its third year, StateReforum.org now has more than 8,600 members who have shared more than 3,700 documents, accelerating the pace of on-the-ground results.

To encourage the sharing and use of knowledge building blocks in your organization you could create a dashboard to report on existing resources or building blocks leveraged in your colleagues’ work. By tracking and recognizing colleagues who are innovating rather than inventing you reinforce the desired behavior—sharing and iteration rather than hoarding.

We can’t address the massive and complex issues of the world by working in silos— within or across organizations. To keep pace with the growing demands of environmental, social and economic change we need a new system the enables and incentivizes exchange and collaboration. While systemic change is beyond the influence of any single organization, there are concrete steps you can take toward meaningful progress within your organization: admit you have a problem, break knowledge into building blocks, and measure and reward iteration. Not only will these changes help your own internal network function more effectively, this shift will enable your organization to be more innovative and help lead a necessary systemic change.

Our own worst enemy

Mela Drakatos

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