In reading Stephen Denning's latest book, I was most engaged by the preface in which he tells his own personal story about undertaking an ambitious quest to transform knowledge management at the World Bank.


In 1996, as part of a politicized reorganization, Stephen was stripped of his responsibilities and told to "look into information" which at the World Bank had "all the prestige of the garage or the cafeteria - a wasteland from which no traveler had ever returned."

After some investigation and reflection, he was struck by the immense potential to share the knowledge of the bank's world-class experts beyond the boundaries of the organization. This vision of "the knowledge bank" was received with strong enthusiasm and even stronger resistance. Several managing directors saw the idea as a serious threat to their power and authority.

Ultimately, Stephen gained the support of the bank's president, and was able to pursue his vision. What struck me most was his conception of this modern corporate experience as an against-the-odds quest:

I opted to set aside any idea of career advancement and commit myself wholeheartedly to making change happen, accepting whatever indignities I might have to suffer. I would do whatever it took, even if the effort were to take a decade.

This reminds me of Lawrence Lessig's mission to Change Congress (his recent keynote is well worth watching). Whether or not you agree with his politics, it's hard to deny he's on an ambitious, inspiring, terrifying quest.

As Denning notes, questioning oneself is a natural prerequisite to the quest:

Most of the great heroes of history have hesitated when faced with the issue of whether to proceed with leadership or not. Homer's Odysseus hesitated for seven years before leaving the island of Ogygia, where he was living with the nymph Calypso. Hamlet spent forever agonizing over whether to act or not.

So, if you're agonizing, perhaps you can draw inspiration from Denning and Lessig. But, if you're in the Northern Hemisphere, I recommend waiting, and enjoying the final few weeks of summer. Then, you can begin your quest.

Strange Connections

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea. - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I stumbled upon this great quote in Designing for the Social Web.