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Managing Knowledge Globally: Lessons Learned on the Great Barrier Reef

Earlier this year I spent a couple weeks in Australia visiting subsidiaries. I was amazed to see how the seemingly smallest of processes Australian companies use to communicate internally have major implications globally. It’s been tempting to create a maturity model that shows the wide gulf in organizations’ maturity at transferring knowledge globally.

I’ve resisted the temptation to go deep into analytical constructs, however, choosing not to be an accidental analyst, instead deciding to be a deliberate intentional tourist.

Exploring the Great Barrier Reef

Ironically, the allegories discovered while being an intentional tourist in the Great Barrier Reef region of Australia illustrate how companies cope with educating, infusing with knowledge and insight and enabling foreign subsidiaries to grow, much better than any analytical construct could communicate.

There’s no better allegory for starting a new subsidiary in a different country than “diving in” to it. Just finding the Great Barrier Reef takes experienced guides who have the unique skill set of open ocean navigation and adroitness at navigating through the crevices around the reef, submerged from 40 to 20 feet below the surface. It takes a combination of knowledge and skill specific to this reef, hardly something you can Google. When one considers the many challenges of creating a foreign subsidiary in this context, anything less than total immersion and guidance seems plausible.

Snorkeling to the reef you have to fight through some medium to strong currents that swirl around the reef walls, yet you can see the brilliant turquoise and light blue colors in the middle in the distance. Ropes line the areas that are safe for snorkeling and pulling along them you can eventually get to the top of the reef. Fighting to find the best views of the reef is work, but worth the effort.

What This Means to Knowledge Management Globally

Here’s the big insight from snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef and its connection to global knowledge management: There is absolutely no substitute for the visceral, over-your-head experience of life in your subsidiaries. No amount of e-mail, Google searches, et al could have prepared my family and I for the striking beauty and challenges of getting around the Great Barrier Reef. We had to live it to understand it. While this insight may seem so obvious, I think one has to be reminded that despite all the best applications, platforms, and tools, there really is no substitute for hopping on a plane and visiting subsidiaries and seeing what they deal with every day.

Reflecting on how knowledge management in so many companies could be improved while snorkeling through the Great Barrier Reef leads to these take-aways:

  • Rotating product managers is as essential as oxygen. — It’s breathtaking to snorkel over clams as big as your desk, and just as you gasp for oxygen at the site of groupers as big as your child, it strikes you that why on earth don’t more companies get their inward-centered product managers out the door and into foreign offices? Besides, some of the product managers I know deserve a trip to the Great Barrier Reef to recharge their batteries.
  • Resolve to put a face with all those foreign contacts in contact lists in Outlook. — We’re so insular in the United States because our nation is so wired. What we need to do is get out and get faces and personalities with the e-mail addresses we send to. Lives are happening behind all those e-mail addresses, get plugged into them. Its fun, and their voices resonate in your head when you read their e-mails, and that is invaluable. This all sounds so obvious, I know; but just stop and get to know these people, you will be better at your job for it.
  • Resolve to be an intentional tourist and not an accidental analyst. — Go support your subsidiaries in person, and if support people work for you, get them overseas at least once a year to learn what it takes to compete in foreign countries. Resolve to turn them into intentional tourists, not accidental analysts. In Australia, the analytical constructs that apply to many aspects of their culture — from software to even snorkeling through their incredible reefs — are unlike anything here in the U.S.
  • Align revenue recognition to incent support for subsidiaries. — It’s amazing in this era of heightened global competition, but so many companies don’t align revenue recognition in their companies to incent and strengthen global synchronization of marketing, selling and service strategies. This needs to be fixed to ensure global customers are getting a consistent experience across your company.

Resolve this year to get overseas and meet the people you only know by their Instant Messenger ID, e-mail address or country and city code. Get to know them and their challenges, and you’ll be better and stronger in your job for it.


Louis Columbus, a CRM Buyer columnist, is a member of the Cincom Manufacturing Business Solutions Team and a former senior analyst with AMR Research. He has worked with enterprise clients on defining solutions to their channel management, order management and service lifecycle management strategies. Mr. Columbus also teaches graduate-level international business and marketing courses at Webster-Loyola Marymount University and University of California, Irvine. He is the author of fifteen books on technology and two books on analyst relations. His book, Getting Results from your Analyst Relations Strategies, can be downloaded for free.


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