Organisational Agility: Exploring the Impact of Identity on Knowledge Management - by Neha Chatwani
In order to deal with VUCA, the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous turbulence of the 4th Industrial Revolution, it appears that management theory and practice has come up with a one-word coping solution for organisations: agility. The initial notion of the modern interpretation of agility is derived from the arena of software development where agile refers to methodologies-based short iterative phases of work steps emphasizing the importance of self-organizing, cross-functional teams, communication and the flexible (re)assessment of project planning.
The idea of continuous and incremental change itself is, however, not new and in fact it is the most natural form of change. Nature demonstrates these evolutionary cycles of change permanently. Trees typically will grow their roots and branches around obstacles while they continue to search for the nourishment they need for their growth (water and light). Trees also have a variety of ways to conserve or regulate their nourishment in the face of adversity, instinctively preserving their resource. Like organisations their main aim is to either simply survive and ideally, to grow, particularly with each cycle.
The revival of the idea of continual change in the form of agile organisations plays tribute to the fact that in an accelerated knowledge-base economy, organisations are not simply self-fuelling isolated machines that can afford to burn their human resource but that it is through the latter and their talent that the fuel needed for growth such as knowledge, learning and innovation is provided for. It is also a recognition of the fact that organisations are embedded in constantly changing environments. In agility, human beings take the centre stage because we recognise that they are the primary component of organisations and that they are the carriers and creators as well as gatekeepers of knowledge. As the economy rapidly races towards increased digitalisation, artificial intelligence and robotisation, the war for this human talent i.e. engaged learning individuals, is acute.
The original model for agile organisations as postulated by Dove (Dove, R. 2001) depicts how organisations, through their ability to sense or anticipate possible changes in their environment (Sense-Ability) and then leverage their knowledge (Knowledge Management) to initiate an agile response (Response-Ability). Therefore, the purpose of sensing is to proactively formulate a response to anticipated changes by adapting the organisation accordingly. In the world of big data, the information finding and analysis needed for this inner and external environmental scanning is enhanced. What remained unclear is how the needed knowledge flows are unleashed for responsiveness. Literature on knowledge management has often postulated that “We do not know what we know” and the challenge of regulating knowledge flow in organisations has been a major focus of knowledge management research for many years.
The regulation of these knowledge flows also depict an important difference between agility and flexibility. The consequential learning after responsiveness i.e. the creation of further knowledge; is an important agile feature. In addition, agility has an important evolutionary dimension. In agility, the organisation is consistently adapting and will seldom revert to what it was. By contrast, flexibility is more like an elastic band it can be stretched in multiple ways but will remain an elastic band going back to its original round form.
The research in the book Organisational Agility: Exploring the Impact of Identity on Knowledge Management investigates the question of how knowledge flows are triggered for agile responsiveness. The over-riding and simple case-study based insight is that whereas the question “why?” (strategy and purpose) is of importance in keeping the organisational focus; the question “how”, which is reflected in the organisational identity, regulates knowledge flow. Identity attributes are negotiated by organisational actors within a situational context to release adequate information, knowledge and even spark innovation for an agile organisational reaction e.g. the deportation of resource. Actors negotiate their contextual identity expression by means of “cognitive tactics” trading the importance of the various identity attributes to find the most suited reaction to a given situation. An important enabler in this process is the possibility of reflection after a response which results in learning and the creation of new organisational knowledge.
A prerequisite for cognitive tactics appears to be that Individual actors are fully aligned or identified with the mission of the organisation and are emotionally engaged. It is through this common understanding of their collective identity as an organisation and by means of a conscious cognitive decision (or so-called ‘cognitive tactics’) that even dormant knowledge is triggered and transferred, and learning is initiated. The use of story as a container of knowledge, a medium for sense-making, accommodation and assimilation of knowledge, a memory aid, identification and imagination trigger, is important here.
In this vein, the research in this book makes an important contribution towards understanding the agile behaviour in organisations. It challenges the checklist approach for agility, which emphasizes flat structures, cross-functional teams to remind scholars and practitioners alike that these are simply enablers or features but not a template for agility.
In fact, central to organisations is the behaviour of organisational actors and most organisations are always more or less agile at any given time.
(Dove, Rick (2001) Response Ability: The Language, Structure, and Culture of the Agile Enterprise John Wiley & Sons)
Neha Chatwani is the founder of the http://www.theworkplaceatelier.com/ a reflective space which offers services in change management bricolage. She holds a Master’s degree in Psychology fro the University of Vienna and a Doctorate in Business Administration from the Grenoble Ecole de Management. An academic practitioner, her clients include the United Nations and multinational for-profit companies as well as smaller NGOs and start-ups. She is an independent researcher and a university lecturer. Her upcoming book is Organisational Agility: Exploring the Impact of Identity on Knowledge Management will be published shortly at Palgrave MacMillan. Details can be found