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Collaboration and the Oracle at Delphi


Collaboration and the Oracle at Delphi

The Oracle at Delphi was of great import to the ancient Greeks and a place where people went to get pressing, critical questions answered.  The questions and subsequent answers influenced many facets of life in their world – from the planting of crops to Empires going to war.  The Oracle was very influential because everyone knew how valuable it was to know what the Oracle knew.

The enterprise equivalent of the Oracle at Delphi is easily recognized because their name and prowess are widely publicized, repeated often in conversation, and they have proven indispensible over the years.  They know where the information is.  They have deep business and/or technical acumen.  They know who to talk to.  They are founts of knowledge and they are very good at what they do.  For many of these Oracles – I refer to them as Enduring Oracles - collaboration and the open exchange of knowledge and information can be intimidating and may be interpreted as undermining their stature in the organization.   This may sound counterintuitive given that most Enduring Oracles freely share the information they have; however, with the current model it is only shared when they are asked directly and it is mostly shared in ways not easily discovered by others seeking the same information.

Those two characteristics of the information they possess and disseminate – the answer is only available when asked for directly and the answer is not easily discovered by others seeking the same information – both of which are anathema to enterprise collaboration - can also serve to confuse the Oracles true value to the enterprise.

The first of those – how often an Oracle is asked a direct question – can be interpreted by Oracles as indicating the their value in the enterprise: “I am highly valued because people ask me lots of questions.”  The second aspect of this model – the answer is not easily discovered by others seeking the same information later – encourages people to contact the Oracle directly to seek answers to their questions and this serves to re-enforce the Oracles perception of value based on how often they are asked questions.  We all know it is their information, knowledge, and insights that make Oracles valuable, not how often they repeat the same answers to the same questions - still this needs to be clearly understood and conveyed to our Enduring Oracles.

Enduring Oracles do not possess predefined, limited, and unchanging information about their field of expertise.  Enduring Oracles stay on top of their game.  They are passionate about and crave the knowledge they possess and work diligently to maintain their edge.  They truly want to help and they help by accumulating, assimilating, and disseminating information.  (The Enduring Oracle is distinguished from a Transient Oracle whose specific information and skills have very short and specific time frames of value.  A Transient Oracle’s information is useful; however, its value fades quickly and disciplined enterprise collaboration accelerates the Transient Oracle's value cycle – for now, I am just interested in the Enduring Oracle.  I will write about Transient Oracles another time).

Just as knowing what the Oracle at Delphi knew was important to the ancient Greeks, it is important for today’s effective organizations to have the accumulated knowledge of their Oracles easily available to those who know they need it and – interestingly enough – to those who do not know they need it.  For the Oracle, collaboration offers a new way for more people learn what they know – something they truly want to happen – and for the organization it enables more people to know and find out what the Oracle knows. This increases the value of the Oracle to the enterprise - having their knowledge more widely available - and it increases the Oracle’s influence - more people know what they know and come seeking their sage advice.

How do we connect the Oracle’s knowledge to those who need it?

There are only three ways Oracles can reveal what they know:

  1. Answering a specific question
  2. Delivering prepared material
  3. Republishing/Recounting past work

There are only three ways someone can discover what Oracles know:

  1. Asking a specific question
  2. Observing prepared material
  3. Researching past work

This all seems simple enough; however, the reality we need to consider when we wax poetic about the value of an Enterprise 2.0 model and associated enterprise class tools enabling multi-discipline, multi-national, mult-location, multi-_______ (fill in the blank with your favorite high-impact organizationally descriptive word) virtual enterprise collaboration: the tools do not a collaborative enterprise make and they do not magically connect people with information and knowledge.  For collaboration to consistently connect an Oracle’s information with those who need it we need to create the means for an Oracle to easily reveal what they know and the means to easily discover and retrieve what they know: we need to create an disciplined collaboration environment for Oracles.

There is much work to be done to create the disciplined enterprise collaboration environment – in the form of providing the tools, educating people on collaboration practices, and developing a flexible and robust governance framework for organizing the information and knowledge for ease of creation, discovery and retrieval.  Without all three – tools, training, and governance – the Oracle’s information will not become as pervasive or fast moving in the enterprise as it needs to be.

In the arena of tools, I will assume we have a provided an environment with the hallmarks of Enterprise 2.0 and Collaboration functionality and not go into specific technical specifications.  I would rather broadly address the three ways for revealing an Oracles knowledge and making it pervasively and quickly available in the collaborative enterprise.

Answering a specific Question

This is the model employed by the original Oracle at Delphi starting around 1400 BCE and it is still the pervasive model used today.  Back then people seeking the information either went to the Oracle directly or had others go in their place – today we use email.

We know someone who knows the answer or we know someone we think knows someone who knows the answer.  This is sometimes an effective way of getting an answer; however, the answer is only available when (if?) the Oracle (or an Oracle’s Proxy) sees the question and is not easily discovered by those seeking the same information in the future.

This is a poor use of the Oracle’s time and the organization’s time as people forward, redirect, and resend the same questions and answers over and over.  It does lead to some great stories though.  In the past, I worked in large global organizations employing this model and on more than one occasion I have been asked for information and – because I did not know the answer myself - forwarded it to those I thought would know the answer.  Within hours I am again asked for the same information in a multi-forwarded request that travelled around the world once or twice and across several dozen desks - including mine earlier in the day.  A good story (at least in my opinion): yes.  A good use of enterprise resources: no.

In the collaboration environment for Oracles we need to create a highly visible means of having questions posed to the Oracle (or the Oracle's Proxy) and an easy way for people to see the answers and discover previously posed questions and corresponding answers.  This requires developing disciplined collaboration communities and governance (including taxonomy) around the Oracles’ knowledge-set and assuring all seekers of the Oracles’ sage advice follow the same method.  Without applying a consistent method for revealing and discovering an Oracles’ answer we run the risk of creating rich pockets of information no person can readily find.

This is most likely the easiest way for an Oracle to start placing their knowledge into the collaboration space – they are already accustomed to answering questions and the collaboration environment is just a different means for receiving questions and revealing their answers.

Delivering Prepared Material

In this case, the Oracle has information and knowledge that can easily be translated into prepared material.  In the old days this involved bringing people together in a stand up classroom and the Oracle imparted their wisdom.  Recently, we transitioned to recording these events using video, presentations with audio, etc. and making them available on-line.  All well and good except it is usually a one-way conversation in a more traditional pedagogy arrangement.  Except for the fortunate live audience able to squeeze in five minutes of Q&A at the end, the Oracle speaks and we listen.  This will not work for the collaborative enterprise.

We should help Oracles become accomplished bloggers in the enterprise collaboration environment – this includes setting up blogging (like vlogging) built around our more familiar means of delivering prepared material.  This requires an investment in training and a shift in the Oracles approach to getting their information out to the enterprise.  We should not assume an Oracle with in-depth knowledge and valuable insights is also going to be an accomplished blogger immediately.  We need to take the time to provide training on the tools, collaboration practices, and governance.  Just as world class athletes with strong fundamental skills require coaching and training, so will our world class Oracles.

It will also help to prepare Oracles for the impassioned comments, questions, and occasional disagreements they will see on what they publish.  This alteration to the Oracle’s relationship to the enterprise in the collaboration environment is subtle and something essential to effective collaboration.  New insights and knowledge abound and by connecting Oracle’s with others we create an environment where people share their thoughts and ask additional questions – days, weeks, and months after the original publication took place.  For many Oracles this may not be an issue requiring attention; however, the comments and passionate debates around blog content are part of the collaboration maelstrom and can take some getting used to – we need to make sure the Oracles are prepared for it.

This also increases what we ask of our Oracles - publishing and walking away no longer suffices.  Our Oracles need to deliver their material and remain engaged.

Publishing/Recounting Past Work

Enduring Oracles existed before the internet, wikis, and blogs.

There is a wealth of valuable knowledge available from our current and former Oracles – if only we could get the right eyes to see it.  Think of the work being done to digitize the paper based material published and sitting sequestered away in libraries and warehouses with insights and clues that - in the right minds - could foster new insights and greater knowledge.  In enterprises that trace their heritage back more than a few decades there are likely lots of non-digitized works that would be useful if brought into the digitized collaboration space.  This requires an investment of time and resources to identify, digitize, and properly categorize, but the enduring lessons of the past are not to be dismissed because they are in black & white and printed on wood pulp.

Enduring Oracles use the internet, wikis and blogs.

Seems obvious – Enduring Oracles stay on top of their game.  They are passionate about and crave the knowledge they possess and work diligently to maintain their edge.  They truly want to help and as an Oracle they help by accumulating, assimilating, and disseminating information.  Pretty much fits the definition of someone who is an effective blogger and some Oracles are using the tools that are integral to enterprise collaboration.  This is fortuitous and with the appropriate inclusion of this already digitized media into an disciplined enterprise collaboration environment it will be more pervasive and faster moving through the enterprise.  This also poses a challenge to the Oracle and the collaborative enterprise.

The Oracle will have to learn the governance of the enterprise collaboration model and they will likely need new tools – or new ways of using their existing tools - to do what they have already been doing.  Again, most Enduring Oracles will adapt to the changes – it is just a matter of making sure we help them make the transition.

For the collaborative enterprise it will start putting stressors on governance – we either enforce discipline or risk chaos.  In this case think of all the wikis and blogs throughout the enterprise that contain related information but can never be connected or found because product development, production, sales, finance, or _________ (fill in the blank with your organization’s name) never accounted for usage of their information outside of their specific professional or organizational context.

The Oracle’s Proxy

The fundamentals of collaborating with our Enduring Oracles in this model is a contrast to the ‘Find the Experts’ approach often pursued as an end game of passive collaboration.  We really are not interested in creating a line of people who wait to get the Oracles attention and ask their question.  Our objective is to enable the Oracle to reveal what they know and make these revelations easily discoverable and retrievable by those seeking their insights and knowledge.  The mechanisms outlined above form the foundation of the work needed to create an effective Oracle’s Proxy.

The Oracle’s Proxy will never completely eliminate the need for asking a direct question (assuming the Oracle is still available to be asked), but it will enable the pervasive and faster dissemination of their insights, knowledge, and information throughout the collaborative enterprise.  An Oracle’s Proxy includes both the specific application of governance and technology to support the creation, discovery, and retrieval of information and – by virtue of the resulting pervasiveness and speed of dissemination – the people who are learning from the Oracles.

By enabling the Oracle’s Proxy we allow our Enduring Oracles more time to focus on accumulating, assimilating, and disseminating information while simultaneously providing the collaborative enterprise the means to easily discover and retrieve our Enduring Oracles information, knowledge, and insights – which is of course an Oracle’s true value to the enterprise.

Sources/References/Additional Information

In developing disciplined enterprise collaboration models – in this case one focused on our Oracles - there are lessons to be learned from a multitude of disciplines and professions.

Kenneth Wentland's "Ford Flexes Back": Examples and insights of using digital engineering and design tools to support the parallel development of systems associated at Fors.  It includes lessons about effective virtual enterprise collaboration from product development to product launch - and the type of executive leadership and decisiveness required to embrace the usage of existing tools in new ways and developing the requisite discipline around large-scale virtual collaboration across professions and organizations. (

Passive vs. Active Collaboration:

Finding Experts: I especially like this one - though it goes back several years - because it intimates at the Oracle's Proxy described above and it provides concrete examples of savings when BAE Systems' approach revealed two different groups were solving the same engineering challenge.

Oracle at Delphi:

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