Building Brand Consensus…One Conversation at a Time

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Organizations work hard persuading customers about their brand attributes, but not as hard at selling employees on these same concepts. This leaves most employees largely unaware about what makes their company tick. Without this knowledge they cannot work as effectively as they should to advance its fortunes. Striving to create a conversational organization is one remedy: employees who talk and share experiences learn about the brand from peers. Armed with this knowledge, they become a team that can “live the brand.”

Consider 3M CEO James McNerney’s problem – his organization’s abundant creativity. McNerney told Wall Street Journal that his employees “wake up every morning thinking about what new product they can bring to market.” But are they a team? Apparently not. Instead of thinking about collective success, employees focus narrowly on advancing and commercializing the discoveries of their individual departments. McNerney figures that to create their next breakthrough product, 3M must stem this fragmentation; everyone has to see the same big picture.

Whether you’re 3M or a small non-profit, internal consensus about the brand is crucial. Common knowledge about who you are and what you do can help reveal hidden and potentially valuable assets that can be transformed into new profits. Lew Platt, former Hewlett-Packard CEO, knew this: He once remarked wistfully “if only Hewlett Packard knew what Hewlett Packard knows.”

Even the companies that do realize the value of capturing corporate knowledge have not seen the desired results. Most are looking at the concept of knowledge management in the wrong way: they have put their faith in computer programs and database management, hoping these mapping tools are the magic formula that allow shared knowledge to flow through the company. But a company’s knowledge is not simply a compilation of facts that can be managed mechanically and it becomes trapped in databases – inaccessible and useless.

The particular element that makes knowledge management truly successful and useful is elusive –the quality of corporate culture. Managing knowledge successfully requires a community that values emotional care and personal relationships. How well people treat each other, and how well they talk amongst each other, can move companies toward greater self-awareness and common purpose. The informality of simple talk is a remarkably effective technique to get employees on the brandwagon and moving that wagon in the same direction.

This is the crucial lesson from Enabling Knowledge Creation: How to Unlock the Mystery of Tacit Knowledge and Release the Power of Innovation (Krogh, Ichijo, Nonaka, Oxford University Press, 2000). An early release among the second-generation studies about knowledge management, the book was overshadowed by higher profile works and never received its due. It is, however, an excellent book that deserves reading for its very sensible approach to the harnessing of knowledge in an organization.

Perhaps our age is too cynical to believe in the benefits of something as simple as good relationships. Still, here they are: long-term growth, sustainable competitive advantage, a culture of innovation. Few companies, however, choose to make this approach a priority. Instead of nurturing conversation and networking, which people are drawn to naturally, managers traditionally have stifled the creation of social knowledge within the rank and file through ambiguity, intimidation, and the exercise of authority. Krogh, Ichijo, and Nonaka ask, incredulously, “What good is a master carpenter who is never available to his apprentices?” And, what about the “master who protects himself from apprentices because he is scared to give away his preciously acquired skills and thus lose out in later competition?” In the absence of coaches willing to converse and bestow their insights on others, no wonder breakthrough products elude many companies.

In a way it is understandable that business cultures focusing on micro management and short-term measurement find it hard to take their claim seriously – how can conversations “represent the cradle of the future”? To people of this mindset, a conversational organization threatens their control. McNerney himself discovered that a person with a new approach – even at an uber-innovative shop like 3M – runs up against the short-term thinking of entrenched communities.

Short-term thinking is a scourge, yet Krogh, Ichijo, and Nonaka believe few managers have the courage to think beyond what is in front of them: existing knowledge, resources, customers, suppliers, and competitors. Instead they should be conceiving and implementing “advancement strategies” – their euphemism for proactive thinking. Conversations lead to the formation of a knowledge vision and to an advancement strategy that, in turn, provides the company with “a narrative of the future.”

Consensus about this narrative will only take place if the company is committed to tearing down two key barriers. The first barrier is the belief that all knowledge resides with a few privileged “gurus.” A company should be a classless society with few clear lines of authority and responsibilities, where managers accept free thinkers, creative chaos, variety, and a degree of redundancy. The second barrier is managers’ demands for immediately measurable results. A new system of values will only emerge if managers adopt a “broad view of the journey” and take the time to let conversations happen and let ideas percolate.

Tightly scripted, micromanaged organizations endanger their future when employees fixate on narrow, preexisting ideas. By permitting members to think imaginatively about what their organization can become, and communicating the kind of values the company wants to promote, a common understanding of the organization’s goals and objectives will emerge. And from this come the breakthrough products.

Companies need teams whose members can freely express its values and intellectual character. Conversation knits departments together, builds awareness of where the organizations strengths lie, and how to use those strengths. If you want your employees on the same brandwagon and acting like a team, this book has a simple solution: let them talk.

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, June 2002)

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