Knowledge brokering is an open innovation methodology used to improve business processes. It involves seeking external ideas from people in different industries, disciplines, and contexts, and then combining the resulting lessons in disruptive ways. To gain a deeper insight into how businesses are putting this methodology into practice, we interviewed an expert: Rhoda Davidson, Ph.D. in Management Science at emlyon business school. Our conversation explored the mechanics and benefits of knowledge brokering, and the role of brokers in today's dynamic business environment.

How does knowledge brokering work? What are the mechanics behind the process?

Open innovation is the process of bringing in knowledge from outside a company. Knowledge brokering is a systematic approach to bring in external ideas from a wide variety of industries, disciplines, and contexts, which are then combined with ideas from people within the organization. It's a way to innovatively redesign business processes.

Step one is to identify the business process to be re-designed and put together a diverse project team. I recommend choosing stakeholders who are involved in the business process to ensure that all relevant functions and points of view are represented as the process is redesigned.

Next, you need to analyze the problem space and decompose it into its main constituent parts by breaking down the problem into its basic elements, teams can expand the number of potential solvers and enhance the likelihood of successful outcomes.

Rhoda DAVIDSON, professeur à emlyon

Step three is to find brokers. These people can come from any industry or professional setting, even totally different fields. They might be doctors, orchestra conductors, you name it. The most important thing is that they have hands-on experience and tacit knowledge of one of the elements of the problem. It is crucial to spread the search broadly across different industries. Concentrate on businesses or sectors that have recently encountered the problem or where all players in the industry need to be proficient in resolving it.

Business schools or consulting firms can assist in identifying knowledge brokers – some consultants actually specialize in the field – but more often, valuable contacts exist within a team's own professional network. We've observed that experts are usually willing to share their insights freely, since they like to talk about their professional successes and benefit from the exchange as well. The key is to let the knowledge broker tell their own story and allow the team to ask clarifying questions.

The final step is for the team to use design thinking to incorporate the ideas from knowledge brokers with their own ideas to create an innovative solution. Just three or four innovative design elements are enough to create a “wow factor” with senior management. The new business process can be easily piloted and rolled out by the team.

Why is knowledge brokering so effective and what are its benefits?

Statistically, having more ideas and more diverse ideas allows a team to be more innovative in finding a business process solution. A key innovation barrier that knowledge brokering overcomes is the "not invented here" syndrome, where organizations dismiss external ideas due to a belief in the uniqueness of the company, leading to resistance to outside innovations. By employing knowledge brokering in tandem with design thinking, the distinction between internal and external ideas becomes blurred. This method can break down resistance, bridging the inside/outside gap and allowing external innovations to be considered as candidates for adoption. Knowledge brokering also cuts the time and cost of learning because these ideas have been deployed in other organizations or professional environments – they're already robust, proven methodologies. Studies show that the technique is much more effective than conventional project approaches and at least twice the speed.

How can knowledge brokering feed into training schemes?

Knowledge brokering is excellent for innovation training because it is not just an academic exercise. Participants work on real-life problems that enable them to develop their innovation skills in real-time. By working on business challenges selected by senior management, the company's best and brightest talents feel strategically relevant and can take pride in improving parts of the organisation.

Participants come out of the knowledge brokering process not only with new-found expertise in innovation but also valuable experience in the business problem they redesigned.
For instance, if they worked on redesigning a strategic process, they would know more about the company's strategy. Alternatively, if they worked an inventory-related issue, they would have a vision of the organization's supply chain. Finally, all participants gain leadership and teamwork skills, as they are pushed to work effectively within their business process redesign team and are coached throughout the training

In a single course, participants learn to innovate, deepen their expertise, manage strategic change, work in a team, and demonstrate leadership. But that's not all: in the end, the company has a better business process. So not only are you nurturing your best talent, you're also getting lasting value from the training.

How can disruptive new ideas brought by knowledge brokers be effectively integrated into the company?

Knowledge brokering should be a teamwork exercise. One of the first rules of good strategic change management is not to act alone. People who go alone go fast, but people who go together go far. And of course, in keeping with good strategic change practice, the process needs to be tested so that you can make small adjustments without necessarily changing everything at once. This steering process also enables you to get the backing of the stakeholders, by showing them that you have a credible new business process. Using this kind of combination of knowledge brokering and design thinking within a team accelerates buy-in and adoption of the process within the company. The success rate is remarkably high.

For example, I worked with a bank that was planning to set up subsidiaries around Europe but had a very low success rate in opening international subsidiaries. In fact, their opening procedure was totally inadequate. One of the brokers we recruited for this assignment came from Pizza Express, a pizza company. He was skilled at finding prime locations and knew exactly how to open a new restaurant effectively and efficiently. By adapting techniques from the restaurant business, the bank designed a more efficient process for establishing new subsidiaries. It turned out to be a surprising but highly successful blend of expertise!

With sustainability becoming an increasingly important part of corporate strategy, can knowledge brokering be used to make companies more sustainable?

Sustainability is the perfect candidate for knowledge brokerage. Because sustainability strategies and processes tend to be more similar than different, there are huge potential benefits to innovating in this area.. So many business leaders out there are keenly aware of the need for companies to tackle sustainability and social issues, such as reducing the carbon footprint, maintaining biodiversity, stopping child labor, and upholding safe working conditions and fair wages. We're all in this together. Solving these problems is good for society and vital to our planet. When it comes to these issues, often companies that have come up with good ideas have a vested interest in helping others to move forward effectively to create a more level playing field for competition and to gain economies of scale. It's a win-win situation.

How might Artificial Intelligence change or improve knowledge brokering?

AI takes vast amounts of explicit knowledge, i.e., information that can be codified and recorded, and summarizes it in a succinct and understandable way. But knowledge brokering is based on experience, on an analysis of real-life situations told by human beings. This is tacit knowledge.

While today's AI deals only with explicit knowledge, who knows what tomorrow may bring? Perhaps AI will be able to work with tacit knowledge. Maybe, as it advances, AI will be able to tap into our tacit knowledge simply because it has a better understanding of human behavior.

Another possibility links back to the first step of knowledge brokering, when you take a problem and break it into parts, stripping out the business and industry information. Maybe AI will be able to help with that because it has fewer preconceived and fixed ideas about what knowledge might be relevant in a particular situation. AI could be very efficient at identifying good knowledge brokers in the future. It may even suggest stores of knowledge we hadn't thought of for a particular problem simply because it looks at things differently.

Knowledge brokering is redefining how businesses improve their processes, showcasing its transformative power in today's dynamic business landscape. The use of external insights becomes crucial for promptly addressing strategic, operational, and organizational challenges with out-of-the-box solutions. In the face of urgent energy and climate challenges, knowledge brokering has the potential to act as a catalyst, fostering open innovation for the collective benefit.

Success story: E.ON UK's knowledge brokering for a responsible procurement program

E.ON UK, a subsidiary of the European power company E.ON, has integrated knowledge brokering into its operations to develop responsible procurement practices. Recognizing the importance of social responsibility - a core value of the E.ON Group - and the risk associated with inconsistent supplier practices, the company split the challenge into four areas: supplier and audit processes, supplier risk assessment, reporting and internal processes, and NGO relationships.

To address these areas, E.ON UK leveraged knowledge brokers from personal and professional networks. These brokers, from non-competing firms like HP and Hilti, shared advanced techniques in supplier audit processes, which the E.ON team used to create a standardized procurement process and code of conduct. From Marks & Spencer, E.ON learned how to assess and improve supplier standards, creating supplier questionnaires and audit checklists. IKEA, Shell and Nestle provided insights into capturing and reporting procurement data. Lastly, Philip Morris and HP shared their experience partnering with NGOs to improve CSR standards in supply chains.

The Supply Chain Director and Legal Counsel approved the resulting business case for the new responsible procurement processes, which were tested and rolled out. E.ON's responsible program went on to win two awards at the CIPS Supply Chain Management Awards. These best-practice processes were then deployed at other European subsidiaries.

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