Hurdles and Helpers in Organizational KM

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Many who have initiated, or tried to initiate knowledge practices or programs in their organization have been surprised by the resistance they have encountered. To the proponent, KM’s values seem self-evident. KM offers new approaches that open up communication and collaboration channels, help establish focus, and put in place new methods that should improve productivity and efficiency while reducing confusion and ineffective activity. 

These are the promises of KM, and while not fully realized in any organization that we known of, there are sufficient success examples to prove that with careful analysis, planning and deployment, organizations can achieve radical and beneficial improvements. 

Why, proponents wonder, would anyone have a problem with such offerings? Why is it so difficult to get people on board, let alone embrace new thinking and practices? 

In developing and delivering organizational KM, one needs to be aware of the very real reluctance for change that managers and employees may express, or conceal without expression. KM is – if honest and appropriately configured – real change. Quite simply, it may threaten those who have a serious investment in the status quo. 

The solution to “getting everyone on board” is not found easily, or simply, through formal communications or some sort of buy-in exercise. While KM initiatives need to be communicated in a meaningful way so that people become aware of, and involved in initiatives, practitioners need to recognize that there will always be those who will remain intransigent. Sometimes the intransigent are at high levels in the organization. And while buy-in exercises can help reduce resistance and enhance comprehension, they often don’t go so far as to build enthusiasm and involvement. That second stage may take different techniques and possibly a good deal more work. 

What we are describing here is “organizational culture” or even what some people call “human nature” – the natural wariness that people have for things new, especially things new that are going to require them to do things differently. Consider for a moment the threat presented by new models, methods and values that ask people to also see things differently. 

Designing and building sustainable KM for the long haul requires that the proponents, and key practitioners, develop an understanding and sympathy to the organization’s values and perspectives. It is there that the links must be made if the proponents are going to win hearts and minds. Engagement and passion do not come from technical tweaks or marginal process enhancements. They come from belief, and evidence, that what is being presented will significantly enhance some or all of client service, program delivery, cost reduction, workplace enhancement or personal conditions. 

The first strategic need in organizational KM is to identify personal, structural or process roadblocks. And when that is done, one needs to then determine whether they are to be worked through, or around. 

An example or two may be in order here. An organization may be adverse to on-the-job-generic-training that has no specific relation to the work being done, say in the area of confidence building. The solution may be to introduce a series of brown bag lunches that uses employee “free time” in order to offer workshops and presentations that (in the eyes of management) have no direct bearing on competency or program operations. 

Proponents should also anticipate some degree of turf resistance. If the KM initiative is lodged in corporate services for example, what will be the views of HR’s training and development program managers for what appears ostensibly to be employee training? 

Consider well existing practices. Establishing an organizational mind-set around inclusivity and cooperation may be a long reach for people who have been conditioned to believe that shared drives is in some way “leading edge.” 

Km initiatives can also expect policy as well as practical constraints and limitations. An initiative that champions inter-organizational collaboration for example, may come up against firm policy objections to knowledge sharing, which some may express as legal prohibition. In this particular case, KM proponents will need to be more than passing familiar with the letter and intent of federal legislation concerning privacy and access. In our experience, organizations have tended to focus more on control than access in the way they have administered federal legislation in this area and significant resistance should be anticipated. 

Whatever the hurdles and whatever the degree of success KM practitioners achieve in getting individuals, groups and the organization on board, there will always be holdouts. We recommend that the KM practice focus on those who are committed, leaving the reluctant to catch up, or remain indifferent. Only when the reluctant become roadblocks to effective development and delivery should they receive any practitioner attention. 

As for structural constraints, it may well be the case that in the interests of time and costs, work-arounds may be the most effective strategy. That is, if the policy centre for training will not let go their hold on that function and is blocking activity, there may be a need for high level intervention – establishing a new vision for organization-wide commitment and involvement in training. 

First Days 

If a KM initiative is in effect, some resources have been identified and some one, or some group at an approving level wants this to happen. Those “resources” may only be a small piece of people’s time. And the “approvals” may be only tacit – a “wait and see” kind of endorsement that makes no promises about eventual funding and commitment. 

The grave danger presented by this scenario is that proponents and practitioners may move too cautiously. Awaiting “senior executive recognition and encouragement” and “significant resourcing,” they may avoid wave-making on the assumption that management will be alarmed by activity addressing core values and practices.  

We hypothesize that a good many KM initiatives have withered on the vine because of a reluctance to be bold. The danger here for the proponent is not in taking risks, but rather in not taking analyses and recommendations forward for consideration. In the latter situation, the proponent will discover quite quickly whether the organization is KM-willing or KM-adverse. But if the presentation is never made, the proponent will never know. And if the answer is “no, not now,” there should be no negative consequence for the proponent. 

The key issue for KM proponents is determining where the initiative(s) should start. The initial KM spark may have happened at a conference, or during a manager’s visit to another organization or another country, and the first expression may well have been tightly defined. For instance, a manager might return from an HR conference and be excited about the notion of “knowledge transfer,” and ask that activity begin in that area. 

If that task is handed to a KM professional, the first proponent question should be “Is this the initiative that the organization needs most at this time?” The second question should be, “Is this the initiative upon which we can build an organizational strategy for knowledge management?” 

Quite obviously there are risks associated with adopting a challenge role when a specific KM effort is raised by senior management. But in the interests of the program, the KM proponent must decide whether the wider, longer term and higher level interests of KM will be furthered by a start point suggested without the benefit of organizational analysis. 

Knowledge Auditing 

KM practitioners need to examine their organization and its needs, and work from that understanding. In KM parlance, this is known as “conducting a knowledge audit.” 

A knowledge audit identifies significant organization elements that define its culture, and the challenges that confront that culture. Issues might include the organizational form (for example, the organization charts may be more rooted in tradition than business relevancy), business and communications practices and processes, governance and decision-making and the handling of knowledge needs and assets. 

On the other hand, the issues might be all about workplace values including interpersonal relationships – whether vertical or horizontal. Knowledge auditing may unearth surprises – for example where employees complain of a culture of secrecy while senior management boasts of a culture of openness and collaboration. 

KM practitioners who consult with employees on knowledge matters will find employees are usually willing to identify and expound on issues that concern and interest them. But while they may be quite willing to share those views, the KM practitioner should also expect a healthy degree of employee skepticism that anything will ever be done. They have seen it all before, and many have given up hope that anything will ever be done. 

The challenge for KM proponents and practitioners in designing and developing organizational Knowledge Management is in being reasonably certain that what is being focused on is of critical importance, and that success in that area will allow incremental growth in the program over time. 

At the same time, the greatest possible caution must be exercised in ensuring promises are not being made that can’t be delivered. Here, the real need is keeping senior management briefed, gaining understanding and acceptance as the program proceeds. This is especially important when significant change is anticipated. Briefing and consultation and cautious change management can reduce the risk of program failure. 

With these opening considerations, we now offer a directory of hurdles and helpers for the guidance of KM practitioners. They are drawn from actual work experiences, referenced where appropriate to lessons learned in other domains by other practitioners. 

See my powerpoint presentation on knowledge auditing – it can be found on SlideShare.


“Hurdles” can be real or perceptual. In other words, expect to encounter individuals and organizations which face serious obstacles to change (including themselves), or believe that either they or their organization are unable to adapt and change. A useful development exercise for the KM practitioner at the strategy development stage would be to attempt to identify the key real and perceived hurdles. 


  • Personal comprehension. Practitioners will find that comprehension of KM principles and practices will vary widely; and importantly, the means to improving comprehension may require a diverse training program. In many cases, reading and lecture format presentation s will be found to be inadequate.
  • Habit and tradition. Many individuals have either self-learned their basic work practices or were taught in less than optimum ways. Accordingly, it will be found that it is not enough to gain adoption of a new way, but work will be needed to dispel the old.
  • Independence. The workplace is more a collection of independent than interdependent workers. A culture of collaboration will benefit from collaboration tools, but IM / IT developers often assume that new tools will drive collaborative activity where there was none before.
  • Uneven skills, equipment and employee-specific rules and expectations. A policy of “openness” in an organization characterized by unique workstations will be challenging.
  • Traditional (linear) transaction (and information) processing practices.
  • Low disdain for redundancy and repetitive mistakes
  • Personal expertise, skills and interests not widely known
  • Employee turnover
  • Terms of employment including job descriptions and contracts may be interpreted by the incumbent in ways that disallow KM-driven adjustments.


  •  A culture of exclusive (rather than inclusive) decision-making followed by top-down communications  can condition “wait and see” or “wait until told” mentalities.
  • Low expectations and provision for critical thinking and analysis
  • No allowance for risk-taking in ensuring innovation
  • No comprehension of the values and methods of asset leveraging 
  • Little or no access to mission critical information and knowledge resources
  • Low or non-existent authority delegation to teams and task forces
  • Limited or no experience with “continuous learning and improvement”
  • No standards and best practices around information and knowledge accumulation and re-use
  • Improvement (quality) expectation non-existent, not widely known or understood
  • Few if any identified authorities and experts – who serve as corporate problem solving and knowledge “go-to’s”
  • Maintenance of a “need to know” mentality and practice
  • Processing often one-off rather than conforming to defined standards and templates
  • Unclear relation between performance and reward
  • Organization uncertain or unclear about what business it is in, and what its key objectives are
  • Organizational change (including mission re-definition, new or terminated business lines)


  • Organization unsure who are its partners, stakeholders, users, helpers and competitors are
  • External community needs and interests unknown
  • No strategy and process for communicating with various communities and maintaining strong relations
  • Scanning for situations, issues and trends performed inadequately, or not utilized
  • Organizations describes self as a delivery niche, rather than client- or customer-driven
  • Management focus appears to be on issue-resolution rather than on long term sustainability

 The above is a wide ranging, but hardly complete listing of the sorts of situations that KM practitioners can expect to encounter. Most organizations will demonstrate more than a trace of what is defined here, but not all of these elements are always negative. Of those that are negative, the practitioner will find that the degree of the problem will vary considerably. In some cases, the practitioner will, and must decide that the problem is either too small to be concerned about, or too large to handle with allowed resources. In either case, that decision should be documented. 


 Knowledge Managers sometimes find help in the strangest places. Perhaps that’s because they often have to because resources seem to be always less than what is needed. 

Here is a guiding principle in the Helper category: KM is about change and improvement. That fact alone suggests deficiencies in the existing ways of doing things. So KM practitioners should not limit themselves to what has gone before but rather should take full advantage of what they observe in the wider community, and what they themselves can imagine working in their organizations. It may be that the first helper the practitioner needs is the authority from senior management to be innovative and experimental without fear of retribution. 


  • Enthusiasts can come from almost anywhere in the organization. Communicate widely. Invite participation.
  • Personal energy is a better measure than classification, level and job
  •  Individuals and business sectors considered important to the initiative should be identified and nurtured
  • One-on-one communications can precipitate and accommodate learning moments
  • If people have access to personal-need as well as organizational training resources they can learn in their own style and pace
  • KM “information repositories” in organizational libraries have been shown to be useful for those seeking specialized information
  • A dialogue channel – personal or electronic – can be useful for receiving comments, questions, etc.
  • As low tech as shared drives are, they can provide access to key documents and files, reduce duplication and help culture shift.


  •  Initiative(s) need to advance from perceived “fluff” to full credibility as expeditiously as possible
  • Initiatives that cut through the layers and stove-pipes – that are more than simply horizontal and vertical  – stand a better chance of achieving organizational engagement
  • Clarity, simplicity and evident practicality are more saleable and easily understood than concepts and philosophies.[1]
  • Achievements – even minor ones – that are consistent with the strategy can help change thinking if they are broadcast
  • There are already people in the organization working in knowledge functions, including policy development, IM, IT, ATI, library and research. You may already have a community, it just hasn’t coalesced.


 External federal government communities have people with skills that can be drawn upon. (Expect some reluctance to making such involvement happen – in both organizations)

  • Conversely, there are gains to be made for both parties by sending out missions, and accommodating others.[2]
  • There are Km associations that are independent of organization / function that are quite agreeable to providing advice and assistance and;
  • there are discussion forms that an organization can post to – anonymously – that can provide answers, referrals and references that could be highly useful.
  • As an organization is never free of its network that provides an opportunity for remaining in touch with where the service in general is heading.[3]
  • Consider the importance – for any organization – of maintaining a watch and being informed on new studies, research and findings.

[1]Determine right up front what language you are going to use for your initiative(s). Keep the high level language in the strategy, and out of the communiqués. Many practitioners find the term “Knowledge Management” counter-productive as it creates more discomfort and confusion that clarity and comfort.

[2]External missions and shared initiatives help nurture confidence but also give important impetus to self definition

[3]In times of re-organization, advance knowledge can permit a unit to better position itself in the context od a range of emerging scenarios



Did you find this article useful? You may be interested in remarkable discoveries made in China 2300 years ago in strategic planning and Knowledge Management (KM). Sound extraordinary? It is. 


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