The Modern Forager: Finding and Dispersing Information to Maintain Companies’ Competitive Advantage

Until about 12,000 years ago, our ancestors foraged for food. They found wild figs, strawberries, peanuts, and mushrooms. They tracked and hunted antelope and elephants; they dove for clams and mussels. They had to differentiate between edible and toxic plants and animals. And then—at least, in some communities—the food would be distributed amongst its members.

Today, foraging is more important than ever before, particularly in large organizations. Only this time, rather than wild plants and animals, it’s for information. Information is abundant, yet the most critical—that which saves companies time and money—is often hidden in a siloed group, or the mind of a long-time employee, or an archived manual stored in a buried online folder. And like our ancestors, who had to differentiate the edible mushroom from the toxic toadstool, we must distinguish the right information from the kind that will lead to bad business decisions. In this article, I will provide some context that describes the need to forage for information. Then I will share thoughts on whose responsibility this should be, and how this can be done in a way that minimizes the amount of critical information that gets lost in the recesses of the company.

The problems large organizations face are more complex than they’ve ever been. New cybersecurity concerns, the need for more advanced technologies that will meet evolving customer requirements, and the mandate to either cut costs or die drive the necessity for continuous improvement. Upgrading security, finding innovative technological solutions, and identifying the best suppliers are critical to a company’s success. But doing so requires teams tasked with these challenges to understand their company’s current systems or products; the safety or ergonomic standards for building new hardware (for example); and quality benchmarks for supplies to be purchased. And most often—in fact, I would be surprised if any 10,000+ person organization does this well—the information needed to make these pivotal decisions is not well-organized or maintained.

Foraging for information, and then distributing it in an organized way across the company, must be someone’s responsibility at any large organization. Right now, this tends to be something HR attempts, yet falls short. While HR is vital to ensuring that an organization has the right people in the right roles and setting up the systems for measuring this, training is an entirely different beast. Every large organization needs a Skills & Knowledge Division, headed by a Chief Learning Officer, whose purpose is to identify what skills and knowledge employees need—keeping a 5-10 year outlook—foraging for the information that will build these skills and knowledge, and setting up a scalable system to distribute this information effectively.

With proper investment in learning, the Skills & Knowledge Division would be broken into three separate teams:

  1. Learning Strategy Team: This team would deeply understand the company’s business objectives and work hand-in-hand with business leaders and HR to determine the skills and knowledge employees need to maximize the company’s ability to maintain its competitive advantage. This list should be granular, actionable, and audience-specific—for example, instead of “machine learning,” a better articulation might be “use machine learning to identify customer preferences”, with the audience being folks in marketing.
  2. Knowledge Team: These are the foragers. They form networks across the entire organization, build relationships with “champions”—experts in various areas who are willing to share their knowledge or point them in the right direction—and extract information that will meet the learning needs identified by the Learning Strategy Team. They should collaborate closely with the Learning Strategy Team to understand the basis of these learning needs and therefore identify who has the knowledge that will translate into the information needed. Through this work, they essentially become subject-matter experts at a high level, and can therefore guide the Learning Experience Team in designing curricula.
  3. Learning Experience Team: This is the team that develops the learning experiences—online courses, in-person workshops, panel discussions, etc.—using the information collected by the Knowledge Team. This should include a team of instructional designers, software developers (who, besides developing a scalable online content delivery platform, may also work with the Knowledge Team to enable an effective system for storing and organizing the information collected), graphics designers, a UI designer, and operations team (for things like building the content into the platform, managing logistics, etc.).

The rest of this article focuses on how the Knowledge Team can forage for the right information. (Future articles may focus on learning strategy and designing the experience; in fact, my Online Learning for Businesses program will cover how to design and develop online learning experiences.) The following recommendations are endless tasks. At an organization with 10,000+ people and 50+ roles, staying on top of these may require several full-time team members.

  1. Know what goes on at the company. Know the various business units and what their responsibilities are. Shadow people on-the-job. Only by knowing what people do day-to-day can someone on the Knowledge Team correctly link the skills that need to be built across the company with the knowledge needed to build them. For example, if I know that marketing teams need to “use machine learning to identify customer preferences” but I don’t know the context that this information is used to personalize each customer’s homepage with products that they would be most likely to buy, I might ask the wrong questions to the wrong people and gather information that isn’t relevant.
  2. Extract information through individual interviews. Set up 30-minute or hour-long interviews with experts who have the information you need. Ask open-ended questions such as “Why is this topic important for people in the company to know?” “Who is this information most relevant for and why?” “What should people be able to do on-the-job with this knowledge?” Ask them to send any materials they already have on the subject. This will set up the Learning Experience Team for success when they articulate the learning objectives and outline the topics to be covered for future learning experiences.
  3. Organize the information. Ensure you have a robust system in place for organizing the information collected. The Learning Strategy Team should have developed a system for mapping learning needs to roles, so the Knowledge Team might simply build off of this model. 

The process of knowledge collection should continuously improve since the greater the quantity of information collected, the more complex organizing it becomes. This team should also implement regular outreach initiatives to establish itself as the “go-to” team for anyone to share their expertise. This team in particular has the power to shift the company culture toward one of learning and knowledge-sharing on a day-to-day basis.

As business problems get more and more complicated, the importance of establishing a good system for finding and disseminating knowledge becomes increasingly critical. While companies can and should attempt to develop a system that easily enables people throughout the company to share knowledge themselves, foraging for knowledge will always be a key and ongoing task for any large organization.

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