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Organizational Intelligence – Living and Thriving in an Unstable Business Environment
Bob Mercer, a marketing executive from Manhattan, took two of his partners to the mountains where he and his father camped many times. Fourteen years have passed since his last trip. During the drive Bob recalled the wonderful memories he shared with his father. On arrival Bob decided to forego setting up camp for a short walk into the woods, to a river less than three miles from camp. They brought a backpack containing a few jugs of water, some light snacks and their fishing rod. Bob felt he had enough equipment for their short trip. After all, he planned to be back before sunset to set up camp, build a cozy fire, and fry up some of the day’s fresh catch for dinner. Along the way Bob bragged about the river he and dad had fished several times in the past. After they had traveled a few miles, the river was nowhere to be seen…Bob kept saying, “I’m sure it’s here. I’ve been here several times with my dad.” They walked on for a few miles, no river in sight.
What Bob didn’t know is that the river had been rerouted due to a heavy mudslide in the area several years ago. If they had read the signs along the road, they would have been alerted to the latest change in scenery. But wait, even the trail markers were burned by a local fire a few years ago, and since the campground became unpopular with the campers the markers weren’t replaced. The ridges and peaks seemed familiar to Bob but certain rest areas and other vital landmarks had been obliterated by the fury of the fire and subsequent erosion. Soon Bob and his friends were lost, and the weather above them changed rapidly; a small detail they did not foresee. The weather at these high altitudes can change at a moment’s notice and cause temperatures to drop dramatically. Suddenly the ominous clouds above them burst sending a flood of water over them. Bob and his friends had to respond quickly to the environmental changes. Although Bob was an avid camper for many years as a youth, he didn’t go for a long time, and his friends were city dwellers all their lives. They simply did not have the expertise or knowledge to respond to these types of situations. The hiking trails filled and flowed with water, which made it more difficult to hike up. After walking for several hours in the rain and mud they happily stumbled into their campsite late in the evening extremely exhausted, nursing the large blisters on their feet. Too tired and late at night to set up camp they simply spent the night in their rental car, thankful to have made it out of the desert alive.
As a business owner, can you relate to this story? Do you approach your business or the workplace with the same mindset that the economy will look and function the same way it did in the glory years of yesterday? When the current economic recession blindsided you, how do you react to it? Did you see it coming? Did you have a recession-proof plan ready to see you through tough times? In Bob’s story, what was required to make their journey less risky and more enjoyable? If intelligence is important in a simple hiking trip, then it would make even more sense in the way you run your business or run your organization.
According to Professor William E. Halal, “Organizational intelligence is the ability of an organization to create knowledge and use it to strategically adapt to its environment or marketplace. It is similar to IQ, but framed at an organizational level.” Author Verna Allee defines it as “the cognitive skills and abilities of an organization.” In short, organizational intelligence leverages the collective knowledge quotient of your organization, and then applies new learning skills to seize opportunities to gain an advantage in the marketplace. Leveraging organizational intelligence does more for you than just help you stay afloat; it’s about perceiving and taking advantage of new trends and changes in the market, then creating strategies to stay competitive in an unstable business environment. Organizations that place a high value on learning and accessing new knowledge grow in strength and are better prepared to absorb rapidly changing environments. How can organizational and business leaders prepare themselves and their teams to become more aware of the environmental changes in their sphere of business? This article deals with some essential ingredients to help you, the organizational leader, access new knowledge, and use this knowledge to adjust organizational strategy to meet the changes appearing in your environment. First, we need to look at our live systems to get our queues.
Note Living Organisms
One way the organization can make the adjustment is to think like living organisms that learn to live, adapt and survive in changing environments such as seasons of drought or when imminent danger threatens. Animals have built systems of awareness and networks that alert them to apparent changes occurring in their environment. Do you remember the tsunami that hit the beaches of Thailand without remorse on Christmas Day 2006? It was noted that birds and animals were seen flying away from the ocean to higher ground moments before the tide hit the beach. In other words, these animals sensed atmospheric changes in their ecosystem, which triggered an internal “flight” mechanism. As an entrepreneur, manager or business leader, can you sense the emerging trends in your business environment, gain knowledge, learn to respond and create strategic approaches that will help you thrive? The world of living organisms can teach us many things. Second, you will need to depend on your team and learn to optimize their collective intelligence.
Optimize Team Intelligence
Organizational intelligence requires constant conversation with your team, not only at the executive level but also throughout the organization, including the shop floor. It’s a top-down conversation. Therefore, as you collect the mine of your team members for their collective insights and knowledge, which are crucial for navigational purposes. You should not underestimate the wisdom of your team members regardless of their background, experience or education. Pure wisdom often comes from a simple mind. Some employees in your organization interact with suppliers, customers and others essential to your existence. Many times the information shared in these exchanges does not reach the top, and organizations miss out on vital information needed to lead masterfully. In the story you read, Bob’s two companions had no experience either camping or hiking, yet a conversation would be better than none. In this regard, community learning is essential to gain new knowledge. Rapid changes in the environment must also include rapid discussions. One leader can’t have all the right answers all the time, but a team’s collective insights, knowledge, and intuition can be the consensus in situations like Bob’s outing.
Stay Connected to Your Business Network
Your business operates between a network of networks inside and outside the organization. Your internal site consists of various departments, a reporting and accountability system, and employees with varying degrees of experience, knowledge, and education. Your external website consists of vendors, shareholders and consumers who may also interact with your competitors and other related businesses. As you become more intimate and connected to the whole web, you begin to feel the tiniest changes within your field of relationships. According to author Mary Beth O’Neil, “When anything comes into contact with a spider’s web, anywhere on its surface, the entire web moves … so it is with an interactive force field established between two or more people. It has its own anchor points , resilience and breaking point, and it is most often invisible to the members within it. When anyone in the field moves, all members feel the impact, albeit differently based on their positions.”
As you become more familiar with your internal and external business networks, you become more sensitive to small movements and their effects on your business. In the opening story in this article, at what point should Bob have sensed a change in his environment? Could it be the moment he felt the missing river? Remember he had been there several times before with his father. At this point he should have stopped and asked himself, “Something’s not right here. Let’s regroup.”
Back to Bob
If Bob had detected and considered the changes in his environment early and learned to use this information, he probably would have made better decisions and avoided an embarrassing trip. Some environments do not remain the same in time; they change, while others remain the same. Therefore, we must remain in constant vigilance or else learn life’s lessons the hard way. What else could Bob and his companions do? It is easier to gain insight from hindsight but even better to develop foresight; understanding fostered by perception and knowledge. Therefore, learning how to learn is the key to increasing intelligence capability, which must become a priority for every organization. A “winged” approach simply won’t help you survive the unexpected changes in your business environment.
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