Sunday, April 05, 2009

When We Don't See the Baobob Tree

This is the picture I never took the first time I was in south central Africa.

The Baobob Tree is pretty unique (and strange) but relatively common in the southern Rift Valley of Malawi. You would think that seeing a tree this unique would require taking a picture. But this became a classic "can't see the tree because of the forest" story. Within in a month of working in Malawi, baobob trees just became part of the landscape. In spite of some outstanding specimens in Nsanje, I never took a picture. They were unique to a newcomer but part of the savanah for the locals. And while they were certainly noticeable, I even took for granted their importance as a local food.

A couple of meetings last week flagged that organizations are at risk of not seeing the "baobob trees" in their midst. As the recession digs deeper, the pressure is on to justify existing projects, collaborations and training. Even more important is to move onto the new and innovative that will position the organization to stay competitive during tough times.

Organizations are at risk of not seeing their core cultural and competitive strengths because they are taken for granted; simply assumed to "happen" and in some cases, something to be discarded in the rush to downsize and trim budgets.

Organizational learning, knowledge sharing and other corporate supports are easily at most risk. They are hard to explain; focus on behaviour rather than outcomes and require regular coaching.

But they also guarantee the highest levels of performance for organizations. When a team or corporation is not able to repeat their performance levels from the previous years (for example the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2008), you first have to look to changes in behaviour if there hasn't been significant changes in personnel.

Knowledge sharing is a behaviour. It is easy to have a slump and difficult to recover once the slide has begun.

Organizations looking at their competitive advantages for the future have to be careful to avoid the practice of not seeing the baobob trees. They are the competitve advantages that are taken for granted and if properly leveraged will be the platform for the next level of innovation in the organization.

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