The Hidden Power of Renegade Knowledge

From knowledge management to social business, nearly every framework or practical initiative tackling the human dimensions of organizational efficiency emphasizes on knowledge sharing. Most of social tools and features’ justification is grounded in the simple assumption that openly and transparently sharing knowledge is the best way to help workers achieving their tasks. So far so good, unless knowledge doesn’t want to be shared.

Most of the tasks we are trying to achieve in our daily job are either complex or complicated. They involve multiple steps, human-to-human or human-to-machine interactions, use of different tools, all of which require following procedures, navigating through -and sometime despite- hierarchical requirements and validations, mobilizing resources whose availability isn’t aligned to your needs, producing some outcome for clients, either internal or external, whose logic isn’t yours, all of that in a reduced time frame. Whether we run a home-based business, are a public sector clerk or a Fortune 100 executive doesn’t make much difference here.

In my last post, I wrote about how people often develop “grey behaviors” in order to compensate for the lack of appropriateness between most business applications and the way the work is really done. Moreover, interactions between people is ridden with uncertainty, inappropriateness and fuzziness, even in a business context. We are human, after all. While modern organizations have developed enough processes, procedures and control structures to avoid black swans and mitigate unproductive mist, one of the main driver of efficiency remains the ticking clock.

To keep the flow running

Have you ever looked at a torrent? Water always follows the least resistance path, but this path often winds in unintuitive ways down the mountain. Local slopes can trump the global direction of the flow, even if this proves ineffective, and would a rock slip or a change occur to the torrent’s banks, the water will eventually create an alternate path without discarding the old one, unless it gets highly inefficient.

The same prevails in the workplace. In order to keep the workflow running as fast as possible and get their job done, people learn a huge amount of small tricks and tweaks, and don’t give up on using them unless a really more proved-to-be-efficient procedure is pointed out to them.

Of course, everybody wants to work smarter and faster, but what everybody wants overall is to ease the pain caused by lenghty or known to be ineffective organizational bottlenecks. Whether it be by directly calling out someone who may influence a decision in order to bypass a manager or by removing a security shield from an industrial saw to avoid sawdust accumulation, we all have gathered such knowledge.

Getting “social” from talk to walk

While one of social software’s goal is to harness freeform communication to facilitate knowledge sharing, this kind of tacit knowledge, mostly learned by doing or exchanged nearly in secret between peers, is quite never shared. In a short exchange with Harold Jarche in the Social Learning Community created by Jane Hart (you should join it if you haven’t yet and are interested in the use of social media for working and learning ), I called it Renegade Knowledge, as it clearly subverts organizational behavior. Paradoxically, it is also the kind of knowledge which makes up for processes and procedures shortcoming and helps things keeping running.

Never documented, quite never openly shared, renegade knowledge is yet an important part of organizations’ assets. It is fully actionable, as it directly relates to people’s expertise, and has the power to help companies improve the way they operate. Nevertheless, it takes a really high level of trust and resilience to allow it to flow and be made explicit. Unleashing the hidden power of renegade knowledge is removing the ultimate barrier between believing how an organization works and knowing how things really get done. Until we get there, the truly collaborative enterprise will be mostly talk and little walk.

I would love to hear about your experiences, if any, and thoughts in dealing with renegade knowledge.

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10 Responses to The Hidden Power of Renegade Knowledge

  1. Nic laycock says:

    Thierry. This is a massively insightful blog. I agree with all except one of your premises! What you call “renegade knowledge” (as a result of your discussion with Harold Jarche in Jane Hart’s Social Learning Community) is only a subversion if it is looked at with institutional or governance eyes. The alternate view, is to recognise that this is in fact the true organisation behaviour – and in doing so to release oneself into being able to foster the “renegade” as the legitimate.

    Until we are able to do this we will remain in a position of fighting the institution and its contrl freak mentality, rather than getting into a situation of helping and nurturing

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      Thank you for these kind words, Nic.

      I guess that we, in fact, totally agree with each other 🙂 In fact, rather than “organizational behavior”, I should have used “organizational purpose”, since renegade knowledge questions the core purpose of companies: the “why” of their structure, rather than the “how”.

  2. J. Scott says:

    Hi Thierry, This is a good post, and Nic’s mention of perspective (where one stands, as it were) and governance is the key. What you call “renegade knowledge,” I’ve called “tribal knowledge,” or “how things really get done” and is related closely to Polanyi’s “tacit knowledge.” I’ve seen the phenomena in large businesses and government bureaucracies—-there’s the procedure, and then there is reality, and sometimes the two are remarkably different. Renegade/tribal knowledge is most visible/shareable in cultures operating in harmony, and harmony is hard work. More often than not in big organizations people assume leadership is out of touch because there is a seemingly insurmountable distance (lack of intimacy) between roles, no harmony, or obvious relevance between what these people actually “do.”
    By becoming aware of this type of knowledge and the inherent value, organizations can better reflect on whether they are what the want to be.

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      Hi Scott. I agree, the perspective from which one considers the organization is key.

      Usually, people set themselves in relation to organizational’s structure, to the interactions which occur in the course of achieving their tasks, but not in relation to the organization itself.

      Here might lie a part of the answer: people have a sense of the links which tie them to other actors through procedures and interactions, on a more or less wide scale according to their own interest, implication and role, but this awareness doesn’t extend up to the business as a whole. When leadership isn’t out of touch, it stands in the way, which is no better.
      What I don’t know is if an harmonious culture is enough to overcome this problem. I like a lot the notion of membership developed by Charles Handy, as a contract, not between people, but between people and the organization they work in.

      • J. Scott says:

        Hi Thierry,

        Truly enjoyed and shared your “kill math” Tweet, so thanks!

        I’ve been exploring/using the notion of harmony for some time. An old navy buddy gave me a cobbled together definition from the author Douglas Adams and a French philosopher: You don’t get harmony when everybody sings the same note. Harmony is the marriage of the contrary and of the similar; marrying discordant elements…”

        The problem of out of touch leadership is a problem largely of lack of curiosity and lack of intimacy (both are symptoms of ignorance and a lack of awareness, I think). I agree with you notion of people having a sense of the links—because we crave patterns, we are pattern creatures—your patterns and mine could be wildly different, but if we work together, it helps if our patterns have some relevance/intimacy—-that is where scaling can occur.

        What do you think? BTW, I sent you a Facebook request, was going to send a note, but I guess there has been yet another change in how one invites a “friend.”

        Cordially, Scott

      • J. Scott says:

        BTW, a quick joke on perspective is an old saw I’ve been hearing for years: “The view is always better when you’re the lead dog.” :))


  3. Maritza says:

    Great post! Fundamentally, social learning and collaborative experiments are subversive and “Renegade” in themselves, as they are geared towards overturning the way people learn and communicate in organizations in order to “work smarter”.

    A Yammer pilot that I started at work a few months ago was primarily aimed at getting remote product support consultants talking to each other to build rapport and share knowledge. This worked quite well, and the pilot was ticking on nicely, until a middle manager in the organization had a blow up because “Yammer was bypassing organizational process and policy and upsetting people”. To me, this “governance pushback” was a sign that the pilot was in fact starting to have a real impact.

    People bypass processes and rely on Renegade knowledge because the way many organizations work doesn’t work efficiently or effectively, as in your stream example. By making that information explicit through a social network and collaboration, you are creating opportunities for real change in the organization. If Renegade information remains hidden and “secret” – and is seen as part of the power of some special people in the organization to be more effective than others – organizations will remain mired in their inefficiency.

    Back to my example. Although the pilot was almost shut down as a result, it in fact gained it new attention in the organization and we saw a large second wave of people joining in. Sadly, the specific manager restricted use of Yammer by his team, allowing only one person to join as the “voice” of his team.

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      Thanks for sharing this experience, Maritza.

      It shows pretty well how many people are in fact more attached to their role than to the outcomes they bring in at the company’s table.

      The “it is upsetting people” remark you got is really interesting. My guess is that some managers, those who aren’t in the command-and-control state of mind, put a brake on collaborative efforts because they were taught to be the “guardians” of organizational efficiency.
      But this isn’t only a managerial behavior. People don’t share Renegade knowledge because they believe this would conflict with the way they are supposed to work, and that this feeling overcomes their willingness to make for a better team, department or company.
      Is it about power, or about the way most people are assigned a more or less explicit role they have to inhabit? This might be interesting to find out. What do you think?

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