posted 12 Apr 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 7
Is KM finished?
Some prominent figures are questioning whether the knowledge management agenda has moved on.
By Jerry Ash
This is a case report about two KMs: KM the brand and KM the practice.
During its first two decades, KM the brand has had no shortage of soothsayers – naysayers, really – eager to declare the concept ill-conceived, failing or stone-dead. Since there has never been a consensus on what exactly knowledge management is, the evaluations of its health have been as unclear as KM itself and likely based on what each prophet thinks it is. We assume they mean technology-driven KM and, in that case, we hope it’s true. But who knows?
More often than not the prophet has a purpose, which is also variable. Occasionally, an analyst will declare that ‘KM is on the comeback’, even though others were not aware that it had even gone away. For these and other reasons, the most rabid champions of knowledge management have tended to dismiss these claims as suspect at worst and uninformed at best.
That’s been my position.
“As long as knowledge matters – and it does – we will try to manage it,” I’ve said repeatedly (mostly to reassure myself). Ignoring the doomsday crowd has always worked for me and I’ve always gone about my business unhindered.
However, during the last two weeks of February I decided to appoint myself as a guest moderator of the Association of Knowledgework’s STAR Series Dialogue and ask the expert members – KM thought leaders and practitioners – what they thought. Since it was to be a kind of ‘survey’, I gave it a neutral theme: ‘‘KM’ is Dead, Long Live KM’. My hypothesis was that the hijacked version – the software sales gimmick (which I often refer to as ‘km’, in lower case, to emphasise that it is a cynical derivative of something much greater) – was long dead and now the real KM could move on unhindered.
But while there was plenty of support on my side I discovered that there were solid KM citizens who argued that KM was finished and, since they were also on our side, I assumed they really did know what they were talking about, too. It shocked me so completely that I listened carefully. You will want to as well.
Calm before the storm
At first, the reports were reassuring. Alex Bennet, a former knowledge leader at the US Department of Navy and now the owner of a knowledge management think-tank in West Virginia, called attention to her recently completed PhD dissertation for which she interviewed 34 KM thought leaders and came up with these results:
- 33 per cent placed KM at a very early point of evolution;
- 17 per cent somewhere in the middle;
- 20 per cent saw a rebirth;
- 10 per cent said KM has always existed.
David Snowden was one of the respondents: “People who get into KM are passionate about it . . . it matters to them. You get a lot of people in KM. We went through the first cycle and we got the arrogant guys and the power brokers and the people who seize on each big management trend and ride it, then abandon it and move on to the next one, and you can see lots of those around.
“But as they went through, they attracted to them those who really cared about the subject and those people carried on after they moved on, and gradually we had the period where people know that technology doesn’t deliver.”
Carl Frappaolo, executive vice president of Delphi, a Perot Systems company based in Boston, Massachusetts, reported that a recent study by CIO magazine in the US found that half of CIOs are focused on two initiatives: creating growth and enabling innovation – innovation as in using acquired knowledge and collaboration to drive change and creativity. In the next 18 months to two years, that figure is expected to reach nearly 80 per cent the report said. “Sounds like KM thrives to me,” Frappaolo concluded.
There were many other fine reports, but within the bounds of this space, let’s skip along from what we’ve often heard from our quarter to the real shockers.
Claims coming from our own
Peter Marshall, a global practice leader at Helix Commerce, was the first to burst the bubble: “I have to respond to what I see as the increasingly self-congratulatory and even delusional tone of most of the posts here on KM's once and future state.” He went on to unleash a litany of critical claims that left the moderator almost speechless. “Humph,” was all I could say.
David Snowden called the CIO report a red herring. “You may want to ‘humph’ about it, Jerry,” Snowden wrote. “But I think Peter has done a good job of saying that the Emperor has no clothes. The CIO survey is a complete red herring. It talks about innovation, not KM. Now I agree KM is about innovation, but so are half a dozen other management disciplines.
“The reality is that while KM continues in many companies, in the market as a whole it is at the end of its lifecycle. The objectives of good KM (improved decision making, innovation and so on) continue, but under different labels. KM as a language these days means the IT department using collaboration tools.
“KM is not dead per se, but the agenda has moved on. It was special while it lasted; the first movement to force us (in part) to take humans into account. With hindsight I think we will see it as breaking the mechanical metaphor. However, it’s over guys; live with it”.
Responding to my protests, Snowden added: “The main issue I think you have to come to terms with is that ideas and approaches have a lifecycle just like products. At the start, there are many possibilities (remember the early days of KM?) but as the approach matures, the options become more limited. KM now means, in the vast majority of cases, an IT-led approach to collaboration of some type. The strategic agenda (decision making, innovation and so on) has moved on”.
Snowden makes no apologies for this view and directs people to his blog for further detail on the future of KM and ‘Hubert’s Error’ (see below).
Hubert Saint-Onge, the 25-year veteran of KM, was at least ready to find a better platform: “I find this question quite interesting but somewhat frustrating,” he said “I must say that I have developed somewhat of an aversion to what I call KM ‘fashionistas’ – ‘This is the absolute answer to KM,’ they claim, and any derogation is condemned with great fury (not seeing that this behaviour is, in itself, anathema to what knowledge work stands for).
“At the other end of the spectrum, I find myself working in organisations where the reputation of KM is so bad that the mere mention of the word ‘knowledge’ sends them flying. In those cases, I go into my material and do a ‘replace all’, switching from ‘knowledge management’ to ‘content/collaboration’.”
But for all KM’s liabilities, Saint-Onge didn’t pile on with the many others who came to bury KM as it is. “As usual,” Saint-Onge said, “I find the opinions expressed by my friend David [Snowden] to be most interesting. In fact, I find that we agree on most things about KM with the odd quibble here and there. But David has seen the error of his ways in the past and self-corrects with all the emotive skills of a systems thinker. The trigger this time is his pronouncement about KM. I find the need to offer a more nuanced perspective than to just declare that KM is dead.
“I could not care less if the label survives or metamorphoses. I do believe in systemic-knowledge work in organisations as a way of building collaboration and accelerating capability development. My sense is that there is a good possibility that collaboration and knowledge will at one point start to merge. I also have a problem with the description of the cycles of knowledge management where it is said that the first wave did this and the second wave did that. The fact of the matter, many good practitioners did exactly what is now described as the third or fourth wave way back in the first years of so-called KM.”
Saint-Onge acknowledged the disappearance of short-lived chief knowledge officers, blaming them for promising too much and delivering too little. Consequently, it is in those companies where the word ‘knowledge’ is shunned and Saint-Onge has to use his ‘search-and-replace’ tactic.
Bob Buckman, the KM legend behind specialty chemicals company Buckman Laboratories, hoped the term ‘KM’ was, indeed, finally dead and took the opportunity to remind everyone that he had never called it KM, even though he has been a fixture on the KM conference circuit for a long time.
“I never did try and manage knowledge,” he said. “What I really tried to manage and nurture was a culture that would encourage and expand the flow of knowledge. It was because economic value could only be obtained in our environment when knowledge moved across the organisation in response to a need.”
“In my view,” I contradicted, “you did indeed manage the knowledge. No, not in the command-and-control way of archaic management (of the industrial era), but in the new way of management, which is all about enabling.
“You see, I have no problem with the dreaded term ‘management’, as long as we understand that management is not the past, but the present and the future. Of course, you managed knowledge, Bob. You saw it as a valuable asset and you set about making it work for you. What else could you call it? When are we going to get past the fictional stigma of managing? To say you didn't manage knowledge is like saying you didn't manage money! You did! And you did it well!”
Newbies, KM and the Peter principle
The final commentary came from Doug Macnamara, president of Banff Executive Leadership. “I must say,” Macnamara said, “Peter Marshall's observations mirror my own. There are so many organisations completely dysfunctional in their knowledge processes.
“I have never personally been all that enamoured with the KM label, though I tolerated the description. Like any popular management concept, it has a shelf life,” said Macnamara. ‘Quality improvement’, ‘business process re-engineering’ and so on have all suffered the same fate, he added, yet quality improvement and business process re-engineering remain very much in demand.
“Organisational strategic thinking and strategy development/implementation will always need to consider the knowledge capabilities and capacities of the employees within the formal organisation and those in the network around it. Indeed, this will perhaps become even more critical as our social, business and political networks continue to overlap, intertwine and become ever more complex.
“I'm not so sure that it is KM that is dead, or whether it is that the new generation of leaders taking the helm of organisations are once again living the Peter Principle,” says Macnamara. That is to say, they have been promoted beyond their capacities and are finding that the way of thinking, the information about their surroundings and the behaviour they learned from their mentors, is woefully inadequate for today's leadership challenges.
“So many of the ‘A-Team’ of leaders have left their organisations and become consultants and the ‘B-Teams’ left behind have both competency and capacity problems when it comes to systems/network thinking. KM the label may well be dead (thankfully, perhaps), but the need for those of us engaged in this work continues. We need to find ways to apply the principles in new, more meaningful ways, with language that may better connect to the new senior and middle manager levels. This is complicated by the fact that the new senior leaders (still largely from the boomer generation) are very different in their thinking to that of the generation X middle managers/professionals and the ‘echo generation’ [the children of the 1960s ‘baby boomers’] new-entrant talent.”
Jerry Ash is special correspondent to Inside Knowledge, KM coach and founder of the Association of Knowledgework (AOK). To join, please visit www.kwork.org. He is also the author of the ARK Group’s latest major reports, Next Generation Knowledge Management and Next Generation Knowledge Management II. To order either of these, please contact Adam Scrimshire by e-mail, email@example.com. Jerry Ash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dave Snowden’s blog references