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Spring 2021 Advisory

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Tech Can’t Replace Learning, Unlearning, and the Strategic Deployment of Intangibles; Only People Can

Jordon Sims is a lecturer for Columbia’s Information and Knowledge Strategy M.S. program, U.S. Naval Academy graduate, and former 10-year Submarine Officer. He now leads the elective course, Navigating the Future of Work, along with Dr. Ed Hoffman.

How does your U.S. Navy experience intersect with information and knowledge strategy?

The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program is self-regulated. For that to not only work, but to sustain, we have to capture lessons learned from operations across the entire enterprise and, in the event of an incident, do a root cause analysis to bake that into what we do going forward. There’s constant learning from across the fleet. I wouldn’t be able to begin an operation on the fleet without the Captain’s initial inquiry being about who was consulted, past lessons learned, and how this knowledge is being tailored into our next mission. Knowledge sharing and transfer is foundational in this work. Not to mention, the framework is ahead of its time in that it also provides a massive feedback loop from operations across the extreme undersea environment to ensure what has made the program successful to date is constantly revisited and updated.

What would you say to a service member or veteran considering Columbia’s Information and Knowledge Strategy M.S. program?

It's always a challenge for any military veteran to translate their skills as they transition to civilian life. But I think the military has an advantage because knowledge transfers or training your relief are standard procedures. This isn't practiced as much in the private sector. In fact, one of the biggest challenges in the private sector is sharing knowledge. There is no shortage of information or data moving around organizations, but the actual knowledge of how to apply those for a market advantage or the sharing of the wisdom in how to truly drive team performance is often held back as a means of individual value This is a key hindrance to most organizations achieving the culture they vision. The IKNS program actually has service members and veterans enrolled as students today. The concept of “training your relief” is a powerful one, and lends many lessons to organizations that look to drive a culture of purpose, mission, autonomy, and variety of challenges to be solved to drive highly sought after employee engagement.

There’s this inherent human nature to say ‘I don't want to give up what I know to somebody else because that might erode my value.’ It’s challenging to shift the organizational culture to seeing knowledge sharing as something that’s rewarding."

In the military, it's completely different because my goal is to get you to come in behind me, within my 2- to 3-year assignment, and take over my role before I’m rotated out or provide junior personnel the opportunity to gain exposure operating in more senior roles of responsibility. I’m incentivized because… bluntly…  it's less work for me in the long run and I can focus on providing value in different ways myself. Beyond that, here’s quick career progression for those behind me, an increased sense of ownership by those advancing, and you’re constantly providing the right challenges to drive engagement of your team(s). Training your relief is powered by knowledge.

I recall being a Navigation Operations Officer and receiving a raised brow from my squadron leadership because we always had the youngest and most junior “navigation supervisors.” These are typically senior roles, responsible for leading us in sensitive operations. My navigation supervisors were two full ranks below their typical counterpart on another boat, but we had successfully paired the right training, challenges, and knowledge sharing evolutions to invoke two-way trust in their abilities and that of their leadership. A submarine runs on democratized access to knowledge – where everybody has a piece of the puzzle, from fire control and navigation operations to engineering. You don't see that as pronounced in other industries.

In today’s work, no one person can solve every problem. The quicker you can fuse team knowledge, the sooner you can solve the problem.”

How important will knowledge sharing be in the future of work?

The inhuman rate of change is the ultimate driver for why information and knowledge strategy is so important; no one human can keep up with technology. After the Navy, I led global government and corporate relations teams. I saw so many organizations trying to implement the next great thing in technology without fully realizing the implications of it in their business operations, regulatory environment, or even with how their customers might respond. To catch up with a piece of technology is to put the technology out of business; it will always be out in front of us for the foreseeable future.

That's the nature of technology – to always upsell the next feature or capability. People get distracted by that. What we talk about in this program is what actually drives overall value in an organization – the intangibles - leadership, knowledge, culture and strategy that transcend any particular technological solution.”

Focusing on knowledge is what allows teams to crowdsource skills and access them more rapidly. That being said, just like my days on submarines, unlearning is just as necessary as knowledge sharing. My good friend, business advisor and author Barry O’Reilly gives a great sports example with Serena Williams. After an injury, she trained the exact same way she’d always trained. The problem with this is that her competition changed. Similarly, it's important for companies to assess what has made them successful in the past that may now be ineffective. Pivoting to unlearn and remove outdated practices, processes, and tools adds to an organization’s competitive edge.   

We could implement all the new technologies in the world – AI, machine learning, and robots – tomorrow, but all that does is raise the baseline of productivity to a new level. The competitive advantage is your people, how they’re subsequently enhanced, and how that enhances your bottom line.

It's the intangibles that drive the true value of an organization. Leaders often gravitate to what they can see and touch, often limited to just the balance sheet. While an important facet, it is the ideas, leadership, knowledge, collaboration, and how quickly it all comes together. Steve Jobs said, ‘It's not always the amazing breakthrough and iconic idea, it's how you connect things in new ways.’ The people can do that.”

What stands out about the students in Columbia’s IKNS M.S. program?

In early 2020, the IKNS program had a great Navigating the Future of Work session with leaders from Boeing, Upwork, ANZ, and notable startups to name just a few. Throughout all of the case examples and discussion centered around some of the most cutting edge technology in aerospace, banking, autonomous drones, etc., the Q&A ended up centering on everything but the tech itself. This diverse cohort, spanning a variety of industries, academia, and government, very quickly recognized that the intangibles –  the people not specific technologies – set competitive companies apart. It’s all about the people. I am really impressed with how IKNS students gravitate towards this on their own when they put their own team and/or organization’s challenges in perspectives. They are focused on the right things, the intangible things, the value drivers, and it’s pretty amazing.

Learn more about Columbia University's M.S. in Information and Knowledge Strategy (IKNS).