posted 31 Jan 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 5
Persuading staff to open up to knowledge management requires a change in attitude and corporate culture. But that can be a long and arduous task. Nick Milton and Tom Young explain how it should be approached.
By Nick Milton and Tom Young
Introducing knowledge management (KM) into an organisation must be easy – just look at the number of books that tell you how to do it. However introducing it properly, across the entire organisation in a sustainable way, is very much harder. In our ten years working with, and consulting on, KM implementations (first with oil giant BP, then with a broad range of organisations) we have seen a number of outstanding successes – and some predictable failures – and believe we have learned some valuable lessons on KM implementation.
Some failures we have seen many times over. For example, one company that had run some very successful, high-profile knowledge-sharing events, had introduced two very active communities of practice and had a number of case histories of how KM had helped increase market share. Yet adoption across the rest of the company, even after four years, remained low.
In another example, an organisation implemented a state of the art portal for KM. Using it and the associated community software, the technical community in that company would have been able to revolutionise the way they worked. Yet the portal remained empty and the software unused.
In a third example, a client had run an exemplary implementation programme for KM. His team had developed new processes, new technologies and new roles. It had delivered a number of high-profile pilot projects and the team were widely recognised for their success on the conference circuit. Yet when the company needed to save money, the team was disbanded, its work abandoned and KM faded away in a matter of months, if not weeks. Why?
Implementation as a series of corporate decisions
Introducing KM into an organisation will not happen by accident. It will happen because someone has made a deliberate decision. Or rather, it happens by a series of decisions; very few CEOs wake up one morning and ‘decide’ to implement KM. Instead, like any other practice, implementation results from a series of decisions, and each decision rests on a basis of necessary evidence.
The chain of decisions is normally as follows:
1. The decision to investigate what KM would mean for us in our organisation, and whether we need it. This is a decision to set up a task force and commission some studies to gain some idea of whether KM is a practice that the company ought to invest in. The task force will assess the current state of KM in the organisation and decide whether it is good enough, or whether improvement is needed;
2. The decision that the organisation needs improved KM and to find out how much investment is required. If the task force and studies show that improvement in KM is needed, then further work will be required to scope out the scale of the implementation, to set strategic direction and to do a first-pass costing of what the exercise might cost. More assessment may be needed to fully map out the scale of the interventions necessary;
3. The decision to set up a KM implementation programme, with a full-time team and budget. Once the organisation understands the scope of the implementation it may decide to fund a team and get going. At this stage they will have developed a KM strategy and implementation plan and can start work testing KM approaches and technologies in the organisation to see if they might deliver the expected benefit;
4. The decision to pilot KM in high-profile areas. If the small-scale trials are successful, then the company may decide to run some full-scale pilots to properly road-test an integrated KM system in one part of the business. By this time, KM is becoming quite high profile – and quite high cost;
5. The decision to roll-out KM as a required discipline to the whole organisation. The pilots were successful, the value of KM to the business and staff has been proved and the integrated KM system is robust. Now is the decision – not to be taken lightly – whether to roll it out to the whole organisation as a part of the wider corporate-management framework. This is the point of no return;
6. Once KM is embedded, the decision to stand down the implementation team and hand over to management within the business. Once roll-out is complete, the company has to decide when to stand down the implementation team, and hand responsibility for KM over to a steady state organisation.
Treating KM as a series of step-by-step decisions has two main benefits. First, it allows for incremental investment rather than a ‘trust me, it will work out okay’ approach. This is simply prudent decision-making. Figure one (below) indicates that the investment in each stage will be a little larger than the previous one – a task force costs less than a team, which costs less than a series of pilots, and so on.
Each incremental increase in cost is built on a decision, which depends on the results of the previous stage and on how well KM has proven itself. And at any point up until decision five, the company can change its mind, because it is not fully committed. Beyond that the company is, of course, committed.
And that’s the second advantage. If each decision is made by the right people, based on the right information and the right criteria, then you shouldn’t have to re-visit the decisions later. Each decision should be documented and should stand on its own merits; without assuming a benefit that has not yet been delivered. You should not have to keep justifying and remaking decisions. So who are the right people to make the decisions? Well, they need to be senior and they need to have authority to spend the money.
Decision number five – to roll-out KM – needs to be made at the highest level. You need the support of the CEO to make a company-wide change like this. But by the time it comes to decision five, you ought to have a series of successful trials and pilots behind you that demonstrate that KM will work in your organisation and deliver real value.
Even if it is the CEO who makes the decision, you need the other key senior managers to support the decision. That is why we always suggest that a KM implementation programme sets up a senior steering team to help guide the KM programme to a point where the commitment decision can be made to everyone’s satisfaction. Buy-in is a group activity, not a solitary activity.
What are we implementing exactly?
When we talk about implementing KM, what exactly are we implementing? What’s the end point, the deliverable? The end point should be that KM is embedded in the management structures of the company, just like other management disciplines such as financial, people or project management. And just like these other disciplines, KM needs a management framework within which it can be embedded. A ‘management framework’ here means all of the management and organisational elements that need to be in place to ensure an asset (in this case knowledge) is managed properly and with rigour. The KnocoManagement Framework contains the following elements (see figure one, below):
A set of clear leadership expectations for how knowledge will be managed in the organisation, including accountabilities for the ownership of key knowledge areas and the definition of corporate standards for KM;
A KM system, providing the means by which knowledge can be managed. This is not just an IT system, but a holistic management system, which will include:
Roles for KM;
Processes for capturing, organising, accessing and communicating knowledge;
Technologies for capturing, organising, accessing and communicating knowledge.
A person or team monitoring and measuring the application of KM, to make sure that people are delivering on their commitments and applying the system in the way that they are expected to. Also, to identify the need for new interventions to improve the KM system and to ensure a continuous improvement in the ability of the organisation to manage strategic knowledge.
This management framework, once it is embedded, will deliver sustained organisational KM, but needs to be accompanied by a change in behaviour and culture, too. People need to understand the importance of KM in order to willingly accept their new responsibilities. Therefore, implementing KM is not just about introducing new roles, new accountabilities, new processes and new technologies; it is about new culture and behaviour as well.
KM and culture change
Implementing KM is a culture-change process – but culture change is hard and takes time. However, every management system requires a supporting culture and implementation always requires a concomitant culture change. Once upon a time, there were no financial-management systems; no budgets, no forecasts, no double-entry book-keeping. Now, every company has a financial-management system and a supporting culture that sees financial management as ‘part of the job’.
People now work from the premise that managing the company’s money is something they need to do, something they are expected to do and something that will help both them and the company. They know that competent financial management is a crucial part of good business practice and behave accordingly. Can KM deliver a similar supporting culture? Can competent knowledge management become seen as a crucial part of good business practice? Can people come to realise that managing the company’s knowledge is something they need to do, something they are expected to do and something that will help both them and the company?
Changing the culture of an organisation can be done, but it has to happen in stages – and it needs time. You cannot change the whole culture of a company at one single event or intervention, you need to change the culture piece by piece, person by person, starting where it’s easiest and building momentum as you go over a period of at least a year, possibly two or more.
At first, take-up will be limited to a few pioneers or early adopters, as the implementation team starts testing KM tools and technologies and piloting the knowledge-management system. Then the majority will begin to adopt the new approach as the proven system is rolled out across the organisation, and finally only a few laggards will be left still clinging on to old approaches.
Piloting – is this the only way?
Our experience with implementing KM at a number of organisations, is that a piloting strategy is the most robust approach for KM implementation. Piloting is a strategy where the elements of the knowledge management system are tested in small-scale trials, and then the complete system is piloted on small business areas, before final commitment to a standard approach across the whole organisation. It is similar to the approach taken to introducing a new product or service to the market. However, there are alternative approaches as shown in table one (below).
This shows six different possible strategies for KM implementation. Three of these are passive (and hence lower cost) where the implementation team is largely responding to requests and opportunities from the business. Three of these are active, where the implementation team is actively seeking to build a KM system. The arguments for and against each of these strategies are listed in table two (below).
Our experience has been that the passive strategies are unlikely to work. Without strong direction from the implementation team, implementation becomes reactive, slow, and hard to coordinate. For a higher probability of a successful outcome, we prefer the active strategies, of which the most robust is number six, the piloting strategy.
The biggest disadvantage with this approach is that, being cautious, it is relatively slow, taking a minimum of between 18 months and two years as a result. However, if it is done properly and the decisions above are consciously made and recorded, then this is the most secure approach to KM implementation that we know, and it is paced at the right speed for sustained culture change. Hearts and minds can be changed in parallel.
The staged implementation approach
So let’s combine what we know so far into a preferred implementation strategy. We know:
We need to work towards a management framework;
We need to work first with the early adopters and later with the majority;
We need a series of discrete corporate decisions; and,
That the elements of the KM system need to be tested and piloted.
If we take all these elements, then we end up with the staged approach to KM. Each of the stages is preceded by one of the decision points mentioned earlier.
The first stage is an assessment stage
This is where you really need to be clear about the scope of the problem which you need to tackle. What is your current state of KM? What is working? What is not working? How much KM do you really need? A knowledge-management assessment will occupy most of this stage, leading to an understanding of current reality, identification of the gaps that exist, and definition of the scope and scale of the implementation. This stage cannot be skipped or skimped, and it is a stage where external help and an objective overview is really important.
The second stage is a strategic stage
Once you have the results of the assessment and you know your current situation, you need to start thinking about where you want to be at the end of the implementation. You need a clear vision for what you want to attain – you must scope out which parts of the organisation you need to work with and which key areas of organisational knowledge need be managed. You need to have some idea of the implementation organisation, the size of the implementation team, the elements of the implementation plan and the sort of budget that it will require. All of the thinking and working in this stage is leading towards decision point three, the decision to set up a KM implementation programme.
The third stage is a testing or ‘proof of concept’ stage
Once this decision has been made, the third stage is where you start working towards developing a robust and workable system. Each element of the system needs to be defined and tested to make sure it works in your organisational culture and context. This stage will also provide some early success stories, and a vital ‘proof of concept’.
The fourth stage is a piloting stage
Once the elements of the system have been identified and tested, the fourth stage involves piloting the entire KM system. Here you find some small areas of the business – some pilot projects or pilot communities – and try KM as a complete system. This will enable you to make any adjustments to the system before roll-out, and it will give you some very useful learnings, success stories and case histories which you can use in later training. All of the experiences from this stage are leading towards decision point five, the decision to introduce KM company-wide.
The fifth stage is the roll-out stage
Once this decision has been made, the fifth stage is where you roll out the system and supporting management framework, across the organisation. This will be a very busy period of training, coaching and community launch. During this stage you would hope to get to almost all of the organisation’s knowledge workers through a training course or KM workshop. The case studies from the piloting phase will be very useful to you.
The sixth stage is the post-implementation, or operation, stage
Once rollout is over, stage six is where the implementation team hands over the integrated and embedded KM system and management framework to whatever organisational unit will support KM going forward. The implementation is over and KM is solidly embedded in the management structures of the organisation.
The three case studies mentioned in the introduction were only partial successes, but were all missing key components of successful KM implementations. The first had delivered successful pilots, but had not secured the company decision to roll-out KM (decision point five). The second team had run a successful introduction of one component of the KM system, but hadn’t completed it, or tested the other components. The third, like the first, had not secured the required corporate decision and the required roll-out of the KM management framework, therefore, did not happen.
It isn’t easy to implement KM as a sustainable new way of working. However it can be done, and it can be done successfully, provided you approach it as a change programme, with a staged series of conscious corporate decisions. Deliver your implementation in stages, with a tried and tested KM system and management framework, and your programme will not go the way of so many others.
Nick Milton is a director of KM consultancy Knoco. He can be contacted by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Young is chairman and director, Europe, of Knoco. He can be contacted by e-mailing email@example.com.
Figure 1: KM Management Framework
Monitoring and assessment
Is knowledge being managed sufficiently well?
The practical means to manage knowledge.
What to focus on;
What to do;
Who should do it.
Table 1: Implementation strategies
1. Grass-roots revolution:
a. Tell everyone KM is great;
b. Put together a support team;
c. Wait for requests;
a. Edict from above to ‘do KM’;
b. Put together a support team;
c. Wait for requests;
a. Have a plan to complete a KM system;
b. Do what you get an opportunity to do;
c. Hope the gaps will be filled eventually.
4. Move the whole business at once:
a. Developed to completion without test or trial and implemented;
b. Spend lots of time developing and planning;
c. Roll out to everyone at the same time.
5. Modular roll-out:
a. Complete elements of the system. For example, retrospect, Yellow Pages;
b. Roll-out the elements one by one across the business until the system is complete.
6. Trials and pilots:
a. Test each component of the system to make sure it works in the local context;
b. Pilot the entire system in a small part of the business, to make sure it delivers true value;
c. Roll out to the rest of the business.
Table 2: Arguments for and against each strategy
Approach 1: Grass-roots revolution
Arguments for: An attractive concept – that people will do KM because they recognise its importance. Management get a ‘feel good factor’ when KM is taken up.
Arguments against: Unlikely to work when KM is up against other more urgent work. Multiple diverse KM approaches are likely, can result in turf wars – ‘my KM system is better than your KM system’.
Approach 2: Passive management-led
Arguments for: Quick. Appeals to autocratic managers. Gives the impression of strong leadership from the top.
Arguments against: May create a ‘tick in the box’ ethic. Multiple diverse KM approaches are likely. Support likely to fade when management focus moves on.
Approach 3: Opportunism
Arguments for: A low-energy approach – go where the appeal and energy is. Always working with advocates, very rewarding environment for those involved as only working with those who want to be involved.
Arguments against: KM team likely to be rapidly swamped with some activities, while other components are not addressed. Key knowledge needs can be left un- addressed. Large areas of the organisation can ‘opt out’ and critical mass is often not reached.
Approach 4: Move the whole business at once
Arguments for: Fast. An approach often advocated by large consultancies, requiring large deployment teams to make it happen ‘all at once’. Has high management ‘feel good’ factor as progress can be reported on a weekly basis as the workforce is ‘converted’.
Arguments against: High risk, single-shot approach. For anything other than very simple organisations, very unlikely that a single, untested KM approach will work. If the chosen approach starts to run into problems, where do you go next with your KM implementation?
Approach 5: Modular roll-out
Arguments for: Enables testing of each component of the KM system.
Arguments against: Individual components will deliver only limited value on their own and the true potential value is delivered when they are linked in a KM system. Organisation will need to take the value proposition on faith until roll-out is complete.
Approach 6: Trials and pilots
Arguments for: Secure, robust, allows advancement by discrete steps and decisions.
Arguments against: Can be perceived as slow. Management may become impatient. Risk of being scuppered by organisational changes unless each stage is supported by a decision.