Knowledge Management – Hit or Myth?

· knowledge management

KM has its detractors; in fact, there are more things being said against the whole notion than have been said in its defence to date. Management sages, who have seen more soups and nuts of the day than they can recall, readily dismiss the tenets of KM as “just plain common sense.” Occupying a wide tier are those not quite as cynical, but none the less sceptical: they equate KM to BPR, IM, IT or possibly TQM-2. And remember where all that went. To start, we need to ask just what is wrong with “just plain common sense”? I like to think of KM in fact as “Knowledgeable Management.”

Thus far, we are yet to see any consensus around the interest in KM expressed as either a discreet new phenomenon, or as an emerging stage in evolutionary thinking. KM is usually attached to something else, defined as a more contemporary expression of something that we have all been doing for a very long time. Management reservations can possibly be explained in part by KM’s alleged fluffiness, but it is more likely that the concerns being expressed are based on two issues: (1) the sometimes rabid competition between competing interests for the attention of senior managers and the dollars they control, and (2) the difficulty people are experiencing in defining a context around the KM notion (that is – where does this stuff fit?).

KM ownership is claimed by a very diverse group indeed. Attend any KM gathering and you will find an eclectic mix of academics, business managers and process engineers, HR specialists, IT mangers and consultants. Whatever the forum, and whatever the group, the discussion invariably comes down to debate around people, and information. The people issues might revolve around organization, and learning, and change management. Or they may delve into culture, where many will express the view that Ludditeism lives in their home organizations. When information is the topic of interest, something very interesting happens. We hear the frustration of Information Management advocates who persistently maintain that KM is nothing more than what they have been saying for years. And we see both bewilderment and resistance from IT professionals who are convinced that information is their domain.

What is very, very clear is that we collectively know that something is wrong. We know that we are now working in a global economy. We know that something really weird is happening in this global marketplace. For example, state, provincial and national boundaries don’t mean a whole lot to the on-line crowd. And these people are causing a very significant power shift that is leaving us confused, and possibly threatened.

Customers are wresting control of our precious information assets and, when they feel piqued, are not adverse to setting up a gripe site where they can tell the whole world about their angst. Some customers (and some who will never be customers) actually have the audacity to think they should be able to make business complaints and suggestions to top management. Some of these customers are voting with their keyboards and eliminating elements of the supply chain. They not only want to go directly to the top, they want to go directly to the source. On the inside, we know we have to start doing things differently and better. We need to move a whole lot faster than we ever did before.

The nature of work has changed. Our employees are becoming more empowered, whether we intend it or not and whether we like it or not. We now, and all, have very powerful tools at our disposal. And we also know that building a better bottom line is getting tougher and tougher. Knowlegeable Management has something to do with, and say about these very significant changes in the workplace, and in the marketplace.

In my view, that KM is “claimed” by so many diverse interests is one reason why the discipline is not advancing steadily, or strategically. Tactical, expertise-specific promotion is widening the chasm rather than bolting the bridge together. The complexity of this situation is exacerbated by vocabulary and perception differences. For example, a KM professional might speak of “systems,” with IT the farthest thing from his mind. An IT manager may lay out new infrastructure “requirements” and make only passing reference to business issues and needs. HR professionals may speak of “networking” and “collaboration” and assume that everyone understands these things happen via a wide range of vehicles (only some of which are technical).

What is missing in this debate is business direction, and business impatience. KM needs to be told by general managers to get its act together. It needs to be told to set the turf aside and start looking at the big picture. And that big picture is about profit, delivery, efficiency, effectiveness, cost reduction and focus. Key elements in that scenario include the better deployment and management of Information Systems so that corporations and agencies can start effectively leveraging one of their most precious assets – corporate information. And out of that will come, unavoidably, a very long overdue practice and process re-engineering. For with Information Management in a knowledge based organization, overlap, duplication and gaps become glaringly evident.

The question is just who is going to marshal the troops and / or give corporate guidance to a KM initiative. Over the years, we managers have become generalists, but many of us do less and less general management. Our organizations have become function-specific. We have professionalized many roles and built practices and cultures around them. We are not really sure just whose domain “knowledge” falls in. Records managers, for example, often consider themselves the managers of the corporate intellectual archive.

Many IT professionals (who sometimes call themselves “information managers”) view information as a resource not all that different than coal or bauxite: it is a product that needs to be found, stored, mined and distributed. Human resource professionals intuitively know that the world of work has entered a very new phase – that of knowledge work, knowledge workers and something called “learning organizations.” But HR professionals are themselves challenged to say just what “knowledge work” is.  All workers know very well that every day the volume of data and information increases, but we seem no more knowledgeable for all that. We can, I think, agree that we are dealing with a complex universe and solutions will be difficult to design, and more than a little difficult to implement.

When desktop computing hit workplaces with the force of a tropical hurricane, each of us ran to our storm shelters: Every man for himself! C: drives became a precious commodity….that would be, interestingly, viewed as a personal work tool. There would shortly follow court tests about data ownership, and we would hear new debates about personal time and corporate time. “Yes,” employees said, “I do have my favourite recipes on my hard drive. But I keep my personal stuff in my P: Directory.” Though the issue got the attention of corporate comptrollers, the real issue was that enterprise data was also acquiring the moniker of “personal.” Internal and external observers (and of the latter, customers are the principal category) have watched this all happen with no little dismay. Industry experts agree that correlations just can’t seem to be found between IT investment and productivity improvement. Employees are becoming more stressed and overwhelmed by new technologies and work practices that whisk away what many either found more than satisfactory, or simply did not use. And there are organizational changes as well, some of which involve new methods for communication and decision-making. As time goes on, our organizations more closely resemble confederations of functions rather than integrated business enterprises.

Getting enterprise-wide compliance to using shared directories would prove equal to having people voluntarily undergo quarterly root canal. While individualism and isolationism soared, the IT industry proceeded to come out with better and better tools for enterprise computing. But employee acceptance of technology, tools and processes follows its own path. For many, “automation” has levelled out at the electric typewriter level. They and many others view computer “multi-tasking” as something done only by geeks with too much sugar in their systems and too much time on their hands. As a consequence, many organizations today have technology richness, and collaboration poverty. Some icons never get a double click, and work repetition becomes far more the norm than does incremental synthesis. The recipes may be shared, but unless the business line is food preparation, they will not contribute to the formation and growth of a learning organization. Nor will what everyone learns from testing these recipes ever get fed back into the knowledge pool.

Change advocates, who invariably bring a professional bias and functional focus find it impossible to resist working with isolated functions, branches, regions or product lines.  Their solutions may be expressed as needed changes in business processes (and later practices), product quality, customer service and flatter organizations. From time to time the suggested solutions seem borne of desperation. Then we will hear of virtual water coolers and corporate Intranets and web sites. It is almost a given today that the first bullet on the new corporate strategy will be establishment of a new web site. Less attention is paid to what will be put on it or what it is intended to achieve. Now, awareness is dawning that a complex malaise (for indeed we are coming to recognize it as such) does not respond easily, or even willingly to linear approaches. Managers are coming to understand that the problems are systemic. Solutions, they seem to know intuitively, will demand holistic measures.

Those able to get beyond linearity seem more than a little responsive to ideas built around “organic” models. They seem comfortable with the vocabulary that one would associate with organic….such as “fluid organizations,” “homogeneity,” “growth,” “nurturing,” “adaptability,” and so on. Pictorially they seem responsive to structures and systems that show many inter-relationships and inter-dependencies. They usually do not articulate their ideas and suggestions in rigid, stable forms. Employees who adopt this perspective seem less comfortable with pyramids, and more with post-it-notes. KM they will find, if it is presented appropriately will be fluid. It will be dynamic and flexible. It will not be off-the-shelf. It is anything, in fact, but generic. It is, indeed it can only be situation specific.

Is KM right for your organization? That depends on a great deal. It depends on whether, in the first instance, you are really ready to embrace empowerment. It depends too on whether you are willing to allow people to break free of the shackles of their domains. Finally, it depends on whether you are prepared to acknowledge that your success depends upon maximizing interaction within the work environment.

What does this mean in more practical terms? It means that people at all levels have to know what the company is about. It means that employees at all levels must have a say in defining purposes and processes. It means that everyone in your employ, and many who are not nor ever will be in your employ have a role to play in building your knowledge base. And it means that you have to start thinking of stakeholders and shareholders – that your customers and clients are why you are in business. And you have to really listen. It means that your building services people have to see all employees as their clients. It means the doorman and receptionist must be seen and appreciated as the “faces” of the organization  (and, I suggest, compensated accordingly).

Direction and commitment needs to come from senior management. But full agreement and participation needs to be gained at all levels. Information and Knowledge Management are not functions carried out by experts on the seventh floor, or in the Toledo office. They work only when everyone is on board. When you have achieved a collective agreement on values and processes, you may then start  leveraging your information resources and IT investments. For it is at that point that they have something to apply to, and people who will make use of them. If you are really successful, your organization will be integrated and focused regardless of how distributed it is. Employees at all levels and in all domains will have a clear sense of purpose and objective. Real teamwork, good decision-making, succession planning and a whole lot else may now be possible.

Does all or some of this sound very idealistic and “fluffy?” It may well sound that way in part. But as the tried and (assumed) true are proving incapable of meeting today’s fast paced and global organizational needs, perhaps we need to start working a little less on “getting wired,” and perhaps a bit more on defining why we appear to need new wire. KM, as hit or myth, is there for the taking. And all that takes is just a little common sense.


David G. Jones B.A., M.A.

Principal – Shibumi Management Canada

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