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February 28, 2006

Finding New Use for Existing Knowledge

T.J. Elliott, Chief Learning Officer of ETS, would like members of the Babson Working Knowledge community to reflect and comment on a question that he and colleagues have been exploring at ETS. They would like to know what processes or practices organizations have devised (or stumbled on) to encourage the application of existing knowledge to new purposes.

One of the goals of knowledge management has been to support the creative re-use of knowledge. Knowledge developed in one area, the thinking goes, may be just what is needed to solve a problem in another or trigger important innovation (since most “new” ideas are really novel combinations of existing ideas).

The hope for this kind of productive matchmaking has led some companies to design cafes and lounges to encourage people to chat and possibly learn things from one another that can be used in new ways. Probably the best known case of applying knowledge developed in one part of an organization to an unanticipated opportunity somewhere else is the Post-it Note story. It was the combination of Spence Silver’s invention of an adhesive that didn’t stick strongly with Art Fry’s idea of the usefulness of notes that wouldn’t slip out of books or reports that produced the successful product. (In this case, 3M’s practice of encouraging internal seminars on new ideas and inventions helped bring the two concepts together.)

Let us know what practices you use or have heard about and what your experience has been in this important area. If you have spaces designed to encourage unplanned meetings, do you find that they actually work to get knowledge to where it can be used in new ways? Are there organizational practices or values that encourage this kind of knowledge re-use? Are there formal processes that work? Are there ways that electronic repositories can be designed to encourage new applications of existing knowledge? Is this a subject that people in your organization are thinking about and working on?

Posted by Don Cohen on February 28, 2006 06:03 PM | Permalink

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