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The horizontal organizational ritual: the knowledge fair

Knowledge sharing creates a different dynamic in traditional hierarchical organizations, since it entails a shift from an organization that has operated vertically and hierarchically to one that will operate horizontally and collaboratively across organizational borders. For some, this means deliverance. Those whose careers have flourished in mastering the vertical hierarchical pathways have a different attitude to the shift.

And leaders who are orchestrating the shift are faced with the dilemma that all the existing rituals of the organization - the meeting, the personnel systems, the budget - are vertical in orientation. If the organization is to adopt and sustain horizontal modes of operating and co-operating then new rituals are needed to epitomize the new organizational dynamic.

Rituals and ceremonies are thus not restricted to churches and religious organizations. They are the props by which an organization maintains itself. If the rituals are inappropriate for what the organization is trying to be or become, then there is little chance that it operate in that way.

Not surprisingly, the knowledge fair has emerged as a horizontal ritual that is coming to epitomize the new horizontal mode of operating. Free-flowing, open, flexible, and non-hierarchical in its essence, the knowledge fair puts on display the knowledge activities and communities and makes them physically accessible to a section of the staff, and in some cases, partners and customers. People can see what is happening, can interact with each other, and can see what others are doing. It has the same characteristics as a medieval fair, mixing up all different levels and types of people in a pot-pourri of interaction.

Some dos and don'ts for organizing a knowledge fair:

  • Do get top level support
  • Do publicze the fair widely
  • Do put the fair on main thoroughfare where there is a lot of foot traffic, e.g. in the atrium of the organization
  • Do put your best communities of practice on display
  • Do be realistic about how much time it takes for communities to prepare and display
  • Do get common physical displays for booths so as to convey an image of diversity with integration.
  • Do plan ahead for electric power which can be substantial if computers are used.
  • Do plan to have technicians on hand when things break down.
  • Do plan for security of equipment when booths are not staffed
  • Don't plan in too much detail for the actual booths -- communities can self-organize within a common framework.
  • Don't accept a decision to put the fair in an out-of-the way space - location is essential for a successful fair
  • Don't be too serious - a fair can be fun.

  • Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations, Butterworth Heinemann, Boston, London: 2000.

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