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What does a 21st-century organization look like?

6 min read


What does a 21st-century organization look like? Andre Mamprin of The Next Institute knows.

He has been studying organizational culture and knowledge management over the years, and has developed a Knowledge Ecology framework that transforms top-down, hierarchical Industrial Age organizations to lean, informed, responsive organizations for the Information Age.

Why shift to being lean, informed and responsive? The explosion of new knowledge has made it impossible to keep up with quickly changing information. Organizations need a new, more flexible approach to process diverse kinds of information and identifying trends with which they can evolve and remain relevant. KE offers such a systemic, organic solution.

Industrial Age organizations have centralized management perpetuating silos of expertise that rarely reach out to other areas of the organization. The KE model takes the traditional organization and flattens it, decentralizing authority and creating a system of communication, collaboration and knowledge-sharing completely across the organization. As KE takes root, it shifts the organization to a culture of trust, openness, inquiry and risk-taking. This culture becomes the incubator for creativity and problem-solving.

Looking at it another way, Mamprin explains that a traditional organization adapts newly acquired knowledge to fit into its existing vision. It does not see value in trying to integrate new information that doesn’t match what the organization is already doing. “I make widgets and all I need to know about is how to make widgets. Let somebody else worry about the emerging role of cogs in our industry. We’re widget-makers!” Information is internalized that reinforces the work already taking place. If you step back and think about it, this is consistent and appropriate for companies that flourished in the 20th century. The more standard your operations, the more efficiency could be realized and the larger your profit margin.

KE organizations, on the other hand, adapt themselves to new knowledge as living, evolving communities. They value the power of vetting new information to help identify where they should be concentrating resources. This is a more dynamic model, as everyone at every point in the organization has equal access to information and input. “When we come to the table to look at new information, we leave our titles at the door. Everyone is equal and the best ideas carry the conversation. Decision-making is much better informed and we move forward with the confidence of a communal sense of investment.” Does every accepted idea prove to be successful? No. But in a KE organization, it is acceptable to make mistakes and learn from them. The only unforgivable sins are to not ask questions, take risks and push the envelope.

The KE goal is innovation: identifying a point on the horizon where your organization needs to be and then figuring out how to get there. This isn’t about throwing darts at a board blindfolded. Identifying that goal on the horizon is an informed decision based on insight: new information combined with your experience and perspective. This, to me, is the genius of the KE model — the emphasis on communal collaboration AND the competitive vetting of information and ideas at the same time. There is a built-in tension to continually improve together.

What does this look like? Consider Apple as an example. When everyone else was satisfied sinking all their resources into desktop computers, Apple pushed for portability. First the iPod replaced Sony’s Walkman, and for the first time, there was no need to carry all your media (discs, tapes) with you to enjoy your music. But that wasn’t enough. The next challenge was to integrate iPod functionality into a cell phone. Apple created the world’s most popular cell phone, making huge profit even as its traditional competitors continued focusing on the production of computers. But that wasn’t enough. Apple next created the iPad, integrating all the functionality of an iPhone with many features of laptop computing. The rest of the industry continues to play catch-up. And once iPads are perfected, we have every reason to expect Apple will already be looking ahead to the next point on the horizon. Innovation never stops; KE organizations never rest.

How can Mamprin’s KE framework inform the transformation of public education in the 21st century? That is a potentially fruitful discussion full of possibilities. Here are some immediate and obvious implications as we consider what schools will look like by 2020:

  • Public education shares a common vision nationwide.
  • Schools become a network of personal-learning communities.
  • Trust and risk-taking are modeled by everyone.
  • District and building leaders are facilitators of inquiry and innovation.
  • Teachers are process experts, not content experts.
  • Mentoring takes place at all levels, free of age and grade labels.
  • Students and faculty use their own tools on an accessible campus network.
  • Students and faculty are free to pursue research based on insight.
  • Students and faculty create and publish new knowledge.
  • Public education is a clean, clear connection to college and career readiness.

There are, no doubt, other implications for using the KE framework in schools. In conversations I have had with Mamprin, he is very interested in education and the role it plays in our future — and rightfully so. If public education does not transform to meet the needs of 21st-century society, it will become irrelevant. We are already seeing the painful ramifications of a 20th-century education mindset clashing with 21st-century realities. It would help to have a compass that will help us find our way. KE offers us a roadmap for transition that embraces many of the values we hold dear as educators while opening up the windows of innovation.

Key in all of this is the first tenet of knowledge ecology: the move from top-down authority to decentralized empowerment of everyone involved. In transforming public education, we will need districts and then states to step forward and lead the way in implementing such a complete change in how they approach education. The political and economic climate is ripe for such leadership, but this is not a role for the faint of heart. Who will step forward and blaze the trail for us? I welcome all interested parties to join in the discussion.

Walter McKenzie (@waltermckenzie) is the director of constituent services for ASCD and an avid blogger. His interests and specializations include 21st-century learning, advocacy and public policy, curriculum development, education management, education research, mentoring and multiple intelligences.