Cover of Who Really Matters by Art KleinerWho Really Matters (Amazon, Goodreads, Powells) puts forth the theory that central to every organization is a Core Group of people who really matter.

This post is part of a series summarizing the book and covers Part 2: Leading the Core Group, Chapter 7. You may want to start with the introduction.

Chapter 7: A Core Group Way of Knowledge

This chapter explores the idea that all great Core Groups (which an organization must have in order to be great) have a common function: they hold an essential form of knowledge.

The Core Group members themselves may not actually posses this knowledge as individuals. But they set the context that establishes this knowledge as significant. They are two parts that fit together neatly: the knowledge of the problem to be solved, shared by every organization of its kind, and each organization’s unique way of solving that problem, which constitutes its own distinctive edge. (p. 65)

Kleiner provides a few concrete examples. He compares French and California winemakers. Both know how to make wine, but in unique ways. French winemaking is highly specialized and rooted deeply in the tradition of place, whereas California winemakers produce and market many different types of wine under a single label. Another example given is Coca Cola and Pepsi. Coca Cola has its secret formula and Pepsi its skill in marketing to certain demographics.

This organization-specific knowledge Kleiner calls an integrated learning base. Other terms for it include “comparative advantage” and “core competence.” This knowledge is tacit (in people’s minds and habits) as well as explicit (documented and transmitted from employee to employee).

Fundamental to the Core Group’s role in maintaining this integrated learning base is that it:

…maintains the significance of the knowledge and it’s link with the organization. Even if there are whole aspects of the integrated learning base that the Core Group members know very little about as individuals, they are ultimately responsible for it. There will always be some people in the organization who embrace knowledge for its own sake, but the prevailing body of organizational members can take it seriously only when they see the Core Group paying attention to it. (p. 66-67)

The integrated learning base includes not just technical knowledge, but a holistic understanding of the environment and context in which the organization operates:

An integrated learning base does not merely include secret technical formulas, or patents and trade secrets for that matter, but an embedded awareness of the market, the partnerships, the regulations, the aspirations, and the management techniques, so ingrained and deep that it becomes second nature to the people of the organization. It also includes deep sensitivity to the patterns of decision-making and relationship within an organization. (p. 68-69)

This is why it’s difficult to bring an executive from one industry to another, because the integrated learning bases are so different. It’s possible for such a person to be successful, but they will have to overcome a huge learning curve as they adjust to the “professional ambiance” of their new organization.

Furthermore, organizations should be weary of weakening their integrated learning base by laying off too many experienced staff in order to cut costs. Rather, they should build creatively upon their distinctive knowledge base. The Core Group’s attention is key in facilitating these kinds of creative approaches:

The Core Group need not feel obligated to invent all of this creative new approach–or any of it–by themselves. The Core Group’s role is to demonstrate, by where it pays attention, which forms of knowledge creation are significant. Once it consistently embraces a particular form of creativity in a wholehearted enough manner, then other will jump in and creative miracles will ensue. (p. 72)

What’s Next?

Stay tuned for our next post in this series, a summary of Part 2, Chapter 8: Guesswork, .


All quotes from:

Kleiner, Art. Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success. 1st ed. New York: Currency/Doubleday, 2003.

This post is part of our Book Summary series in which we share summaries of books about leadership, governance, and community building. To discuss the book, leave a comment below or join our Goodreads group.


Leave a Reply