IT Management Issues: Network Intelligence—the IT Advantage

Unlocking the intelligence inherent to your network of contacts can breed significant intellectual advantage.

Romi Mahajan

The key to success in business, technology and other human endeavors is as old as it is new: network intelligence (NI). Ignoring NI could lead to the detriment of your organization. For IT professionals, the good news is that you’re already the most adept at leveraging the power of NI to generate value.

NI is about deriving meaning and creating value beyond the constraints of organizational boundaries. It’s about posing questions and finding answers outside the firewall. From a slightly different angle, NI is about getting and applying the right information from the right source in the right context. It’s a powerful concept that technologists should put into practice. 

In “Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science” (Princeton University Press, 2011), Michael Nielsen refers to “designed serendipity” and “conversational critical mass” as core processes of scientific innovation. The same ideas apply to IT.

“When we attempt to solve a hard creative problem on our own, most of our ideas go nowhere,” Nielsen says. “But in a good creative collaboration, some of our ideas—ideas we couldn’t have taken any further on our own—stimulate other people to come up with daughter ideas of their own. Those, in turn, stimulate other people to come up with still more ideas, and so on. Ideally, we achieve a kind of conversational critical mass, where the collaboration becomes self-stimulating, and we get the mutual benefit of serendipitous connection over and over again.”

This encapsulates my experience with truly great IT teams. Let’s turn to how you can apply NI to your work, goals and dreams. I have always defined and described the IT professional as: innovator; driver of the business; customer-centric value-maker. What I’d like to add to that list is the notion of the IT professional as collaborator. The modern IT professional is the poster child for what great peer-to-peer networks can bring about in terms of technology, business and organizational change.

A study I commissioned at Microsoft in 2007 revealed that IT professionals learn best through the process of peer consultation. In fact, most IT professionals consider peer recommendation the highest form of intellectual and technical validation of their ideas. 

In other words, they always seek out learning and ideas from others. They find the relevant people with relevant skills at the right time. This is a fundamental disruption of the model of hierarchical, vertically integrated companies hermetically sealing off their knowledge from the rest of the world. This degree or extent of collaboration and cooperation is rare among the ranks of marketers, finance professionals and salespeople.

The concept of NI is inherent in the structure of the IT professional. The goal should be to challenge IT professionals to take it even further. Here are six core aspects of NI, and a look at how each apply to the lives and work of IT professionals. Following on those six core aspects, I’ll end with five suggestions to get you up and running with NI.

Aspects of NI

These are some of the subtle aspects of NI:

  • NI implies instantaneous, high-fidelity knowledge transmission.
  • NI implies the concept of “spiky knowledge,” meaning you can utilize experts when relevant—not simply in an episodic, structured way.
  • NI is about flexible interpretation—codification for its own sake is anathema.
  • NI is about defrocking knowledge priesthoods.
  • NI hates disciplinary dogmas, as they are inimical to growth and innovation.
  • NI rethinks the concept of intellectual property, favoring application and sharing versus hoarding.

So how do these relate to IT? Here’s a step-by-step look at some of those concepts:

1. Knowledge Transmission: IT enables business. In fact, IT and business are close to a point of singularity in which the latter is presupposed upon the former. As such, the transmission of knowledge to solve problems and define new spaces is fundamental. IT professionals say that about 75 percent of their work lives is spent reacting to problems. Of that time, a good portion is spent in gathering knowledge. The ability to tap into the network—the very foundation of NI—can be the best way to gather knowledge and solve vexing problems.

2. Spiky Knowledge: Science and technology develop with sudden spurts of great productivity, creativity and brilliance—and times of relative barrenness. Given that, you need to be able to connect to resident knowledge when the time is right. NI lets you connect into the network when it’s relevant and when the time is right. Because NI implies reciprocity, you’ll undoubtedly help others when they need it most as well.

3. Flexible Interpretation: Rules and codes can be useful at times. More often than not, however, they’re poor excuses for preventing dynamic thought. IT professionals want to be able to exercise more creativity in their jobs instead of being driven by rules to the point of automation. Entertain ideas for their merit, not for their comparison to rigid documentation.

4. Knowledge Priesthoods: Knowledge and creativity are dispersed. They rarely correspond to titles. If you subscribe to the notion of The Peter Principle, you might argue that they’re inversely related to titles, salaries and power. NI seeks merit and creativity wherever resident. 

5. Disciplinary Dogmas: As with rules and priesthoods, disciplinary dogmas are anathema to creativity and innovation. Great ideas typically come from a variety of sources and almost always originate from acts of breaking boundaries. When speaking with an IT manager about the similarities between IT and marketing, he said something like, “Romi, what I love about marketing is that you solve problems at the intersection of all fields. So do we—but most people think we’re closed off and narrow.” With NI, this will no longer be the case.

6. Intellectual Property: A key piece of the innovation puzzle is to be able to let go of ownership and to share knowledge openly, as if it were air or water. IT professionals are simply the best at sharing in their organization. Developers are a close second. With NI, intellectual property becomes less relevant because it’s more about the cultivation and application of knowledge than it is about proprietorship.

Put It into Practice

So how do you start putting NI into practice? Here are five easy steps:

  1. Decide: Make a concerted decision to think “outside the firewall.” This decision is a freighted one. It means you’re ready to actively give and receive knowledge.
  2. Create: Make a list of people you know who are experts in different areas. Socialize the NI notion with them, and you’ve created your network.
  3. Utilize: Utilize online tools for collaboration and cooperation. My favorite is IdeaScale, because it’s easy to use and intuitive. (For another view of NI, see a white paper I coauthored.)
  4. Improve: Enhance your own skill sets with reading and online courses. You can start with O’Reilly Media’s offerings. The more you know, the more useful you are to the network.
  5. Initiate: Start using NI for a thorny project or problem you’re facing in your IT organization. Practice makes perfect.

The era of hermetically sealed knowledge is passing. While there will always be lone brilliance and secreted genius, most of the really pressing problems in technology will be solved by networks.

Romi Mahajan

Romi Mahajan is president of KKM Group. Prior to joining KKM, Mahajan was chief marketing officer of Ascentium Corp. A well-known speaker on the technology and media circuit, he serves on a variety of advisory boards and speaks at more than a dozen industry events per year.