posted 2 Jul 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 9
When a KM programme has been completed, it still requires ongoing leadership to keep it from slipping up.
By Jerry Ash
I have a friend who capped a long and distinguished career in business by working for a corporate turnaround company. It was a fascinating dozen years.
This particular turnaround company wasn’t a typical consultancy. It was, in a sense, a ‘temporary corporate takeover’ company – the last chance for the owners to solve serious problems before a real takeover or insolvency actually took place.
His terms were radical. The troubled client would be required to suspend the board and send the chief executive packing, leaving the keys of the facility to the turnaround team for a couple of years with total authority to govern and manage as they wished. No exceptions. No interference. No termination clause. It was a bitter admission that the leadership (or lack of it) was the main reason for the organisation’s impending failure.
Often, the clients were quasi-governmental organisations, university hospitals among them. Hard decisions were therefore difficult to make because governance and management were hindered by layer upon layer of political and sometimes social influence. Sometimes, key hires placed under-qualified people in the wrong positions. Alternatively, well-qualified hires were under-utilised.
The turnaround company was insulated from all that and took action everywhere it was overdue. It fired, hired, restructured, reorganised, wrote new policies and procedures, managed differently. For staff – from the executive suite down to the mailroom – it was either the turnaround way or the highway.
In two years, the enterprise would be returned to health and handed back to the grateful owners. The lessons of the turnaround would be obvious and the permanent leadership would be expected to maintain governance and management along the lines set up by the temporary team. The team, however, made a clean break: no more temporary management, no ongoing consulting.
The future would be up to those who took the reigns. The turnaround team would work itself out of a job. There was no guarantee the good management practices that had been established would survive the return of local control. If the company continued the solid management practices it inherited, it would succeed. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t. Too often, however, it didn’t.
This story comes to mind every time I think of those who say that the goal of a knowledge management (KM) programme should be to work itself out of a job – the assumption being that once KM is embedded in the work processes, central KM leaders are no longer required.
I can assure you there is no basis for that idea. Wherever a central KM staff has dissolved, the substance of KM initiative has either diminished or disappeared. Inside Knowledge has presented many true stories that illustrate this point. The reason is not just because of the lack of an enterprise-wide ‘spiritual’ leader. It is because funding dwindles and necessary support systems are no longer available where programmes are not universal and integral to the corporate business strategy.
Not many companies have managed to develop an enterprise-wide KM programme. Some of the piecemeal programmes have had only moderate success because of steady support (so far) at the departmental or business-unit level. Some of them have even been successful in extending the application of knowledge management throughout the enterprise because the smaller KM-driven unit has had a collaborative role to play across the entire enterprise. Some pioneering programmes have even inspired other units to adopt KM practices for themselves.
But spreading and sustaining pockets of KM is even harder than getting them started in the first place. They are fragile at best, doomed at worst, and vulnerable as long as they are peripheral to the critical thinking of the company as a whole.
Most KM pioneers have worried about taking on too much too soon, opting to go slow – ‘Let’s not bite off more than we can chew’. But we have also learned that going too slow, beginning with limited scope, can be just as deadly. Until KM becomes a priority in the executive suite, it is living dangerously. That’s why stories such as the Fluor case report on page 20 are so important.
At the engineering, construction and maintenance-services company, KM is not just a passing fancy. It is a long-term response to a changing marketplace. It is a recognition of the greater competition brought on by open communication and knowledge orientation in a fast moving, borderless world. It is a strategy, not just a way of working.
It is a strategic move to avoid a last-ditch turnaround strategy before one is necessary. The best time for a turnaround is now and at the hands of internal experts who won’t be leaving when the job is done.
The idea that change agents should work themselves out of their jobs is ludicrous. Some of the biggest threats to the future of corporate change management – including turned around companies – are complacency, stagnation, inertia and turnover. The worst is the return to business as usual.
Although there are never guarantees, KM has its very best chance of survival and success where it has achieved enterprise-wide prominence and dependable enterprise commitment as a long-term management strategy so ingrained into the company’s consciousness and culture that it will not be the first cost to be cut, but rather, the first weapon to be drawn.
If you aren’t there yet, don’t despair. Just get there. And when you do, stay.
Jerry Ash is KM coach, founder of the Association of Knowledgework (www.kwork.org) and special correspondent to IK. He is 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, contact Adam Scrimshire at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jerry Ash can be reached at email@example.com.