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17-Lifetime Experience

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17-Lifetime Experience
Published in ET dated 16.11.2007 under CD

In both The Great Epics of India, Raamaayan and Mahaabhaarat, war ends not only with celebration of victory but also with transmission of knowledge. In the Raamaayan, Raavan lies mortally wounded on the battlefield and the monkeys are celebrating their victory, when Raam turns to his brother Lakshman, and says, "While Raavan was a brute, he was also a great scholar. Go to him quickly and request him to share whatever knowledge he can."

The obedient Lakshman rushes to Raavan's side and whispers in his ears, "O Demon King, all your life you have taken and not given. Now the noble Ram gives you an opportunity to mend your ways. Share your vast wisdom. Do not let it die with you. For that you will be surely be blessed."

Raavan responds by simply turning away. An angry Lakshman goes back to Raam and says: "He is as arrogant as he always was, too proud to share anything." Raam looks at his brother and asks him softly, "Where did you stand while asking him for knowledge?" "Next to his head so that I can hear clearly what he said." Raam smiles, places his bow on the ground and walks to where Raavan lies. Lakshman watches in astonishment as his brother kneels at Raavan's feet.

With palms joined, with extreme humility, Raam says, "Hey Lord of Lankaa, you abducted my wife, you committed a terrible crime for which I have been forced to punish you. Now, you are no more my enemy. I see you now as you are known across the world, as the wise son of Rishi Vishravaa. I bow to you and request you to share your wisdom with me. Please do that for if you die without doing so, all your wisdom will be lost forever to the world."

To Lakshman's surprise, Raavan opens his eyes and raises his arms to salute Raam, "If only I had more time as your teacher than as your enemy. Standing at my feet as a student should behave, unlike your rude younger brother, you are a worthy recipient of my knowledge. I have very little time so I cannot share much but let me tell you one important lesson I have learnt in my life. Things that are bad for you, seduce you easily; you run towards them impatiently. But things which are actually good for you fail to attract you; and you shun them creatively, finding powerful excuses to justify your procrastination. That is why I was impatient to abduct Seetaa but avoided meeting you. This is the wisdom of my life, Raam. My last words. I give it to you." With these words, Raavan dies.

There's a similar knowledge transmission after the Mahaabhaarat war is over and the Kaurav are all dead. As the victorious Paandav are about to assume control of Hastinaapur, Krishn advises them to talk to Bheeshm, their grand uncle, who lies mortally wounded on the battlefield. As a result of a blessing, death would elude him for some time. "Make him talk until his last breath. Ask him questions. He has a lot to tell," says Krishn.

Sure enough, when prompted, the dying Bheeshm spends hours discussing various topics: history, geography, politics, economics, management, war, ethics, morality, sex, astronomy, metaphysics and spirituality. Bheeshm's discourse is captured in the Shaanti Parv (discussions of peace) and Anushaasan Parv (discussions on discipline) both combined make up a quarter of the Mahaabhaarat. After listening to their grandsire, the Paandav have a better understanding of the world, and this makes them better kings.

Raam asked Raavan for his wisdom before his death. The Paandav listened a lengthy discourse from Bheeshm as he lay dying in the battlefield. This in the context of organizations is called knowledge management.

Both these stories draw attention to the value of knowledge. In triumph, it is easy to claim the material possessions of the defeated, but it is not easy to claim for their knowledge. Knowledge does not outlive death.

Every day, an organization churns out vast amounts of knowledge. Every day, people leave organizations, taking their knowledge with them knowledge which they acquired because they are part of the organization. They take with them knowledge of clients, markets, business processes, tricks of the trade. These may not be confidential information or patented information, but it is information that gives a competitive edge.

For long this knowledge drain has been recognized. Over the past decade, a whole new business process known as knowledge management has evolved that seeks to harness, store, transmit this knowledge. Every CEO agrees that it is a valuable business process, that investment in it is critical. Policies have been made, people have been hired and systems have been deployed.

Unfortunately, for all the initial enthusiasm, implementation has been lacking. Unlike retrieving cash, retrieving knowledge from employees, both current and future, is not easy. Often because they are like Sahadev.

Sahadev was the youngest Paandav and, in the South Indian Mahaabhaarat, he is described as an expert in many predictive sciences such as astrology, palmistry and face reading. But he is cursed: if he ever gave any information voluntarily, his head will split into a thousand pieces. That is why he is silent throughout the epic. He knows every fortune and misfortune that his family will go through, but he can never use his knowledge to forewarn anyone. When Yudhishthir finally learns of his brother's prowess he is furious. "Why did you not tell me all that you knew?" All he gets in response is Sahadev's silence. Most employees in an organization are Sahadev.

These Sahadev are of two types: either they are unwilling to share their knowledge or they don't have the means to do so. The former category knows that knowledge is power and will not give it away under any circumstances. The latter category is willing to share knowledge but either no one asks them for it or there is no system where they can make it available for others.

Knowledge Management is leadership driven. Only a Raam, not a Laskhman can do it. He must first believe in it. He must respect the fact that everyone in his organization, even those who he does not particularly like, are repositories of great wisdom not only knowledge of things that work but also knowledge of things that do not work. He must make conscious efforts to capture as much of it as possible.

The simplest method is talking to people, while they are on the job and especially when they are leaving the organization. An exit interviews must never be a ritual. Neither must it be an exercise to just get the venom out nor an exercise to expose the underbelly that has prompted the resignation. It must be a concerted effort to gather what was the knowledge acquired between joining and leaving the organization. Interviews work if the organization is small. As the organization grows in size one needs a more formal system, at the very least a simple archival system managed by a clerk or secretary but on a larger scale, a sophisticated knowledge repository, a kind of electronic cupboard where at least the final version of presentations, documents and spreadsheets of key business events can be stored.

This sounds very logical but most organizations do not do this. The effort involved is huge and the rewards are neither immediate nor tangible. A brand manager joining a reputed FMCG company, for example, once discovered that they did not have the brand deck (plans, tools, research, messages) of the past five years of a key product. What the organization did have is the financial numbers but not a clear history of marketing messages it had put out before the consumer. Previous brand managers had handed over all documents to someone and it was kept somewhere.

But no one knew who that someone was and what that somewhere was. In the absence of a simple archiving system, the new brand manager had to collate all brand related background information from scratch so that he could define the future brand positioning. A fully avoidable waste of energy and resources.

Every organization has a very powerful Finance Department that works round the clock to keep an eye on money flowing in and out of the organization. Internal and external auditors, controllers and accountants keep a hawk's eye on every bill and purchase order. But not even a fraction of that energy is used by companies to manage their knowledge. This indicates that most organizations do not believe that Lakshmee follows Saraswatee: they do not believe that existence of knowledge systems improve efficiency and effectiveness and can provide raw materials to provoke new ideas or prevent old mistakes. Unless a leader believes that Saraswatee is critical, he will end up with an organization of many Sahadev.

Take a step back. Check if you are creatively shunning this rather tedious matter of knowledge management. If you are, then remember the wise words of Raavan: it must be actually good for you.

Try to gain the knowledge from wherever you can, and whenever you can; but take it with humility not with pride.



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Created by Sushma Gupta on May 27, 2001
Modified on 10/01/13