posted 1 Apr 1999 in Volume 2 Issue 7
Plumbing knowledge for
Knowledge Management, having got off to a promising start, now seems to be suffering a backlash. Its central ideas are attractive, but the core question 'what is knowledge?' presents an obstacle to many people. They feel they cannot manage what they do not understand. Presenting concepts like 'tacit knowledge' or 'intellectual capital' is not immediately helpful. It is time to re-think how we articulate what knowledge management offers. In this article Geoff Smith suggests an innovative approach to explaining knowledge thinking, a view which is hopefully more accessible but also complements what has gone before. And in seeing the Knowledge Management story from a different perspective, we examine ways in which innovation itself can be fostered and encouraged.
Knowledge Management: Go with the flow
The gurus of Knowledge Management make a compelling case for recognising the new competitive frontiers of the Knowledge Economy, for the renewing power of the Learning Organisation, and for tapping into the untold wealth of our Intellectual Capital. The story is all the more attractive for bringing people back into the technology and process equation - it's hard to resist when the concept seems to reinforce our instincts that the power of a business is in its people and its know-how and the way the two are connected. So why the bandwagon backlash, the accusations of hype, the dismissal as fad?
Much of this mistrust is precisely because the concept seems too powerful: any view that seems to have something to say about everything from (and this is not stretching a point) curing the common cold to bringing about world peace is just asking to be knocked. But right in the middle of all this theory and abstraction about knowledge is the very simple idea of working smarter in a systematic, holistic way. We are working smarter if we can find the information we want quickly, if our computer systems and databases help us avoid being overwhelmed by a mountain of data rather than adding to it. We are working smarter if we can locate the experts and the expertise we need quickly, if we foster networks to share insights and learnings, and if we can relate our work practices to the best of what others are doing. We are working smarter if we set up good organisational and management structures that match what we're trying achieve, and if we recruit and train people to match these aspirations. We are working smarter if we learn from our customers, our suppliers, our competitors - and our past history (including mistakes). We are working smarter if we respond more quickly, more accurately, more thoroughly, more innovatively. Knowledge Management seems to have something to say about all these things - but how can it seriously address such a breadth of issues? If we went looking for the pieces of knowledge that would make any of the above happen, at best we'd be very lucky and at worst end up very frustrated. Seeing knowledge as a 'thing' that is 'out there' (whether in people's head or in some tangible form) is fundamentally unhelpful. Seeing knowledge as a process, as a flow, is far more productive. Because what keeps us consistently ahead of the competition is not an occasional improvement in services, but systematically learning from how we and others do it.
What makes us consistently innovate with new products is not the occasional flash of insight but a reliable process for cross-fertilisation of ideas. If we see working smarter in terms of being a flow of knowledge that informs us about the market, our customers, suppliers, competitors and the environment; if we then interpret this flow to improve or innovate, and then implement these insights in the form of new or improved products or services, then we stand a better chance of influencing our existing customers and having new ones knocking at our door. But why is going with the flow so important?
The Knowledge plumbing
The answer is very much in the K-word itself. We focus almost entirely on the knowledge content being pumped around the organisation's 'knowledge plumbing' - and fail to see that the pipes themselves are equally important. Knowledge may be the message, but the medium is key to making use of it - in other words the relationships within the organisation. What Knowledge Management (KM) has unlocked; has brought to the surface; has given us some common terminology to discuss, is the enormous complexity of internal relationships in today's dysfunctional organisations. Knowledge is a metaphor, a label for the relationships between people and their peers, their business processes, their IT systems, their management and their organisation. This is why KM seems to touch on so many important areas of activity.
What we are really looking at is a new perspective on how to fix, in terms of relationships, the misaligned, fragmented, conflicting and competing entities that make up today's semi-autonomous business units. We are looking at a way to build bridges between functional silos and structural divisions, make the energy of 'skunkworks' available to all; to make internal cohesion happen in an increasingly heterogeneous environment. In terms of 'Knowledge Plumbing', our organisational pipes aren't connected the right ways. There are pipes we don't know about or can't see, some are blocked or leaking, some are too small, some are too large or are otherwise incompatible. Like a metal detector, 'knowledge' enables us to locate pipes buried deep in the organisation that we didn't know were there. Having identified them we can fix the leaks, install better pipes and interconnect them in new ways.
Using the language of knowledge, we can explore the invisible relationships that make organisations succeed, often in spite of themselves. To use another analogy, knowledge is like the iron filings that makes invisible lines of magnetic force visible.
What matters is tapping in to this energy source, making the right connections, making new connections and eliminating the 'short circuits'. For example, the reasons people won't share knowledge will mostly be found in the nature of their relationships with co-workers and the organisation - not with the knowledge itself. Which is not to say the content is not important, this is of course the operational point of the exercise. In fact, examining knowledge from the relationships point of view, we see that the quality and nature of the content in many respects defines and is defined by the relationship. After all, you are hardly likely to communicate what you regard as high-value knowledge to someone you don't trust. Conversely, if one is sharing important insights, this indicates you have a high degree of trust in the relationship you have with the recipient. In the same way that the physicists tell us light has the properties of particles and of waves at the same time, so the nature of knowledge is simultaneously about content and the relationships that gives this content value.
Once we recognise that Knowledge Management is giving us the language and tools to deal with these internal relationships at all levels, we can see how the complexities can be tackled at the level of the basic units of relationship: people to people, people to group, group to group. What do I need to know to do a good job, where are the things I need to know, who and what can help me find them?
Knowledge and innovation - running hot & cold
As well as providing some accessible mental models for what 'knowledge' means in an organisation, the 'flow' or 'plumbing' concepts suggests how we can systematically work towards higher levels of effective innovation. As a famous golfer once said, 'It's funny, the more I practice, the luckier I seem to get!' . Innovation is not something that just has to be left to chance, to fortunate accident (although we need to be able to cope with that too!). From the 'knowledge content' point of view, a key component of innovation has to be simply becoming aware of the activities of others. We can then combine their work with ours, avoid re-invention, and leapfrog steps that others may already have taken for us. This is about creating new relationships to promote cross-fertilisation, not just swapping presentations. Trust is also crucial to these relationships, particularly where innovation is concerned. The best way to ensure someone keeps their ideas to themselves in the future is to let them feel they were in some way 'stolen' in the past!
At a recent innovation forum held by the Cap Gemini group in Paris, the enormous diversity of exhibits on show from colleagues world-wide was an inspiration to all who attended. They gave the crucial 'jump start' for new initiatives, or encouraged people to combine the exhibited ideas in entirely new ways with business campaigns already under way. The creating of relationships was crucial to this. Equally important from an effectiveness point of view was the way the process of creating this event actually sifted out duplication, encouraged people to work together or to combine ideas to make a more powerful hybrid. The flow of ideas was channelled and the 'knowledge pipes' in the organisation were systematically examined. Those which were in some cases blocked or going nowhere in particular were re-configured to mix and create a stronger flow of innovative ideas. Instead of innovation running 'hot and cold' we got a much more consistent organisation-friendly temperature - which in turn has made people more inclined to dip their toes in next time.
How was this achieved? Not just by calling for ideas! By careful development of new relationships with 'innovation champions' throughout the company, by encouraging personal recognition as the basic motivation, by positive feedback and encouragement to all who submitted ideas which were not necessarily taken forward. In other words, as much attention was given to the relationship issues of acknowledging originators, instilling motivation, offering encouragement, overcoming reluctance and providing reassurance as was paid to the content of the ideas themselves.
This was the knowledge management content - relationship duality in action.
Know your customer, know your supplier, know yourself
This relationships-oriented perspective also helps us answer a couple of other pertinent questions - what has KM got to do with the other two 'big ideas' of the moment, namely Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Integrated Supply Chain Management (ISCM)? And what does KM add to the other analysis methods and management perspectives that have become popular - and maybe had their critics too - over the past few years?
The current focus on CRM seems entirely appropriate as we move to a services-based economy. The fight is on to chase those elusive, high-value customers that your company knows it should be serving, and to disengage from those who cannot be served profitably. At the other end of the value chain, we have ISCM - otherwise known as Supplier Relationship Management - encouraging our suppliers to work in alliances, as just-in-time partners. But what about the bit in the middle? The key difference is that whilst the relationships focused on by CRM and ISCM are necessarily outward-looking, the relationships we are looking at with KM are in large part internal (although they may well deal with content that is connected in some way to the outside world). Rather like examining the back of one's own head, this is something we don't do too often, and is rather difficult without the help of an expertly-positioned mirror. Knowledge Management provides that mirror, and with it we can start to build an organisation which is better connected in the fullest sense: not only by re-engineering explicit processes, management and data networks, but also by optimising the 'hidden' tacit structures that lie behind them, and in many cases provide our real differentiators - such as the ability to innovate consistently.
So if we accept the notion that the nature of knowledge is inseparable
from the relationships that allow it to be exploited, an alternative identity
for KM suggests itself: it is Internal Relationship Management (IRM). This
should come as a relief to those who say they have always had a problem with the
concept of 'managing knowledge'. Understanding that they are managing
relationships should make them feel much more comfortable.
The knowledge paradox: a return to reality
So what of the other management techniques and philosophies that have attracted supporters and detractors over the years? How does Knowledge Management differ from them; does it really add anything? Is Knowledge Management going the way of other trendy concepts? The recognition that Knowledge Management is actually addressing underlying relationships is the clue to the essentially different nature of KM, why it goes beyond other approaches but at the same time compliments and extends them.
KM language, techniques and approaches essentially starts from people in the real world of work rather than the necessary simplifications that IT systems, process definitions and skill databases impose on us. We are dealing with how things really get done, rather than the idealised 'model world' which represents, whether in business process terms, IT systems definitions or quality procedures, how things are supposed to happen. We have seen the relevance of this thinking to a hard-to-grasp subject like innovation. KM gets us back to the real world in which people's history, needs and motivations are the primary drivers, and how these are influenced as much by experience, instinct and insights as by any externally defined processes. None of which is to say we don't want to continue to use our established methods for process optimisation, for IT systems engineering or for people development. We just have to recognise that each, with its own models of how the world works, falls some way short of reality. With knowledge, paradoxically we start from what is real and important in our work, and then meet up with what our systems, data and procedures are telling us. Rather like driving a car, we 'know' when there is danger on the road, and don't expect the dashboard to warn us. But nevertheless we could hardly claim to be driving safely if we did not keep an eye on the instruments.
So in summary, Knowledge Management is probably guilty of most of the charges levelled at it. It is complex, abstract and hard to define. But at the same time, it is blindingly simple and obvious. It is about the relationships that hold organisations together, and from that point of view is actually more grounded in reality than other approaches. What you know how to do is what you do: the knowledge is the business. Or more accurately, the relationships are the business. Knowledge just reminds us that they are there - or (rather more often) not there. And the good news is that, if you really can't get to grips with managing knowledge - you can start managing your internal relationships instead. You'll get exactly the same benefits, but feel better for it. You could even be starting an innovative new trend.
Geoff Smith is Business Development Manager for Knowledge Transformation Services at Cap Gemini UK. He can be contacted at:
©1999 Cap Gemini UK PLC