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Organizational behavior July 4, 2017

Knowledge architects wanted

By Tammi L. Coles
team meeting
Today’s fast-paced digitalization and increasingly turbulent global markets mean that the ability of an organization to renew itself, adapt, and succeed is more important than ever.

The effectiveness with which a company is able to respond to the increasing variability of markets and technologies is what we commonly understand as agility – its ability to adapt and swiftly reconfigure internal processes and resources to meet new challenges.

Back in 2006, researchers Stefano Brusoni and Andrea Prencipe wrote a case study for Organization Science called “Making Design Rules: A Multidomain Perspective.” In focus was the Italian multinational tire manufacturer Pirelli, who in the late 1990s introduced MIRS, the Modular Integrated Robotized System. At the time of that introduction, the tire industry was struggling with the dramatic potential of robotics in product development and manufacturing processes. Pirelli was in an especially difficult position, noted the researchers – caught between the high expectations of carmakers that required customized tires and its own low innovation trend. If Pirelli wanted to continue to meet the needs of customers in the medium to high-end market segments, however, innovation would be required.

After Pirelli’s bid to acquire a major competitor failed, MIRS was the company’s last hope to defend its reputation as a market supplier for high-quality tires. For Prof. Gianluca Carnabuci, associate professor of organizational behavior at ESMT Berlin, the MIRS strategic choice illustrates how radical innovation paired with architectural knowledge can navigate a company through organizational change.

“Organizational agility tends to get slower as companies mature,” says Carnabuci. “This is not a phenomenon of just traditional manufacturing companies – all organizations, without exceptions, tend to such inertia. What top management is challenged to do, then, is to design organizational processes and human resource (HR) systems that can make an organization sustainably agile. Knowledge architects are wanted and needed.”

Where specialization fails

Organizations are complex systems that need all parts to work well together. According to Prof. Carnabuci, for this to happen, they need to develop two kinds of organizational knowledge. The first – specialist knowledge – pertains to the organization’s distinctive competence areas, such as logistics, marketing, or production. The second – architectural knowledge – pertains to the interdependencies that exist across those areas.

“Most organizations recognize the value of specialist knowledge and are well equipped to develop it,” says Carnabuci. “For example, HR departments are often charged with recruiting and training personnel to fulfill competency gaps within a company’s competence areas. This is a widely accepted strategy, yet there is a problem – it is architectural knowledge rather than specialist knowledge that makes an organization agile.”

If building agile organizations necessitate architectural knowledge, why do many organizations fail to develop architectural knowledge? There are three reasons, explains Carnabuci:

  • First, architectural knowledge is mainly tacit, hence hard to detect. It resides in the minds of those who have it but it is difficult to see by (or communicate to) those who do not.
  • Second, the value of architectural knowledge tends to become visible only when it is too late, that is, when changing the organization’s resource configuration generates cascades of unanticipated, cross-competence problems because no one really understood their deep interdependencies.
  • Third, HR systems and managerial attention are still largely geared towards appreciating specialist knowledge.

 Carnabuci brings it to the point: “Because architectural knowledge is often hard to gauge, management approaches that promote architectural knowledge are systematically overlooked because they appear inefficient and poorly motivated. But if managers continue to reward, train and recruit specialist knowledge alone, they sacrifice organizational agility.”

Knowledge architects are key

As Brusoni and Prencipe note in their research, Pirelli succeeded with MIRS by recognizing, valuing, and furthering the cross-domain connections of knowledge architects. Yes, the company recruited those with specialized skills, such as tire designers and software engineers. But the introduction of robotics demanded an integrated approach, say the researchers so that such specialists could contribute their knowledge to the development of whole other areas of organizational competence. Such radical innovation would have been otherwise impossible.

Knowledge architects are important because they can help the organization adapt and swiftly reconfigure internal processes and resources to meet new challenges. Companies aiming to become agile should acknowledge, reward, and facilitate the role of knowledge architects as lubricants of the organization. “This may require rethinking existing human resource strategies,” says Carnabuci, “but it is vital for businesses aiming to thrive in environments that demand constant change

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