Monday, December 02, 2002

Knowledge Flow through Plastic Cigarettes
We know that strong ties between individuals provide a rich conduit for knowledge flow. The problem is that strong ties normally occur between people who are co-located. Eventually, the knowledge pool reaches homogeneity and stagnation sets in (just like an old married couple who think alike and have nothing new to say to each other). Managers try to make new strong ties with things like cross-functional teams that spend a weekend in a forest or trying to cross a river using boats made of flipcharts and drinking straws. This creates a strong common bond in the form of shared loathing of outward-bound events, but there's no evidence that it has a lasting effect back in the office.

What's needed is an ongoing ritual that reinforces a sense of shared adversity and encourages cross-functional encounters. Smoking seems to be the ideal solution. If you want to know what's happening on the grapevine, ask a smoker. Secretaries seem to be particularly over-represented, the ideal scenario for boundary-crossing knowledge events (i.e. gossip). Building-wide smoking bans enhance the effect by forcing smokers into a freezing huddle near the doorways so they can share bodyheat (the most basic form of tacit knowledge). Once you've gone this far, talking about a project failure hardly seems like you're going out on a limb.

The implication of this is that KM strategy needs to balance an overt discouragement of smoking (punitive official policy) with a tacit encouragement of the practice. As this would have health implications, I suggest that plastic cigarette substitutes would be ideal. Plan for January with a series of notices inciting employees to take up giving up smoking as a New Year's resolution.

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