posted 8 May 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 8
Your Say: KM and change management
KM practitioners readily accept the centrality of cultural issues in KM, yet few businesses set out to actively manage the change that effective knowledge management entails. Simon Lelic talks to representatives from FBC, Perceptor, Strategy Partners, Transitus and Xerox, and assesses the importance of the change-management aspects of KM, outlining a number of techniques that companies can use to facilitate a shift in working practices.
It has become something of a truism to describe knowledge management as primarily a cultural construct. Everyone involved with the discipline will have at one time or another heard the idea that KM is 80 per cent culture and 20 per cent technology, or some variation thereof. As Andrea Thompson, managing director of Perceptor, puts it, “Knowledge management is a culture shift. It is about transforming the way a company does business. It is about encouraging cross-functional working and improving individual performance for the benefit of the employee, the company and ultimately the customer.” As such, and as with any initiative that seeks to fundamentally alter the way people work, the ability to manage that change effectively is crucial to the ongoing success of your knowledge-management programme. Companies that fail to address the change-management issues that underpin KM will find knowledge management rapidly becomes an added, unwanted responsibility that employees are more than happy to ignore.
According to Jim Bair, senior vice president of Strategy Partners International, most practitioners are well aware of this imperative, but still organisations tend to act as if change were a one-shot deal, ending with the completion of the programme. Indeed, there is a consensus among this month’s Your Say participants that change-management issues have not received nearly enough attention in the past. “I think a lot of programmes put tools in place, announce an intention to become more KM active, perhaps appoint someone as a leader and then wait to see what happens,” says Dan Holtshouse, director of corporate business strategy at Xerox. Edmond Mellina, president of Transitus Management Consulting, notes the number of studies that put the failure rate of KM initiatives at somewhere between 60-80 per cent, a similar figure to that of other change programmes. “Various studies have concluded that the reasons change efforts fail are overwhelmingly related to a lack of attention given to the people dynamics,” he says. “When asked what they would do differently next time, most organisations say they would begin their change-management activities earlier, instead of viewing them as an add-on or an afterthought.”
A well-thought out change-management programme can, though, be the difference between failure and success with KM. In Bair’s words, the basic tenet of knowledge management is that knowledge is valuable and is required to do work, and that the way knowledge workers acquire and share knowledge can be improved. Improvement in turn implies change; as such, managing change should enable improvement. And as Mellina says, change management focuses on the human dynamics that accompany organisational change. Its objective is to drive a sustainable transformation in the way people work and interact. “Ultimately, the success of a KM programme is linked to the level of adoption of new behaviours and attitudes among knowledge creators and users,” he continues. “Therefore, a well thought-out change-management strategy is instrumental to the success of any KM initiative. Without addressing the human dynamics, a KM programme will fail to deliver its projected results.”
There are of course no prescriptive methods and no perfect ways to communicate change, but there are a number of techniques open to companies looking to establish a firm-wide commitment to KM. In Thompson’s opinion, communication is key. “Many different channels can be used, from a simple CEO memo to a full-scale staged event, and getting the balance of communication channels right is extremely important,” she says. “It is crucial to segment the audience and target messages and channels appropriately and consistently over a specified period of time. The overall lesson with regard to communication is the ‘closer’ you can get to the individual, the more effective communications will be.” In a similar vein, Holtshouse recommends developing contrasting statements of what it is the KM initiative is trying to achieve and what it is not trying to do. “Expect responses like ‘I’m already doing that’, and develop counter-arguments pointing out the differences between what they are already doing and what is being purposed,” he says.
Another technique that was to prove invaluable at Xerox was the creation of a community of ‘working champions’ who were able to learn from one another’s experiences. “In addition, we started a monthly newsline that reported on success cases inside the company,” Holtshouse says. “We found that telling stories and recording them for wide distribution added substantially to the amount of enthusiasm for the change effort.” Daniel Renson, director and owner of First Business Consultants, is equally convinced of the power of storytelling – after all, he says, it is a technique that has proven itself over the course of time; the Bible itself is full of parables, for example. Likewise, techniques such as coaching and gaming can prove equally effective, while the use of rewards and recognition schemes often provides a powerful incentive for workers to get involved in KM activities. According to Bair, for instance, AMS Consulting has in the past held annual award ceremonies, which had a tremendous effect on the level of employee participation. Chrysler, on the other hand, published ‘books of knowledge’, replete with editors, authors and reviewers, and rewarded all contributions accordingly.
All this is likely to be in vain, however, unless your knowledge-management programme is afforded explicit senior-management support. Admittedly, grass-roots projects can on occasion drive change from the bottom up, but one of the most frequently cited reasons for the collapse of a KM initiative is the absence of top-level commitment to the project. “The importance of strong leadership and the cascade process should never be underestimated,” says Thompson. “If the management team does not present a unified front, then what hope has the programme of succeeding? Sponsors should be seen to be giving visible support as often as possible in terms of face-to-face meetings, editorials, quotes and feedback.” She goes on to describe a project at GSK in which executive sponsorship became the key to success. The programme director made it a priority to keep senior management informed and involved in every step of the change process, thus ensuring they remained enthused and committed to cascading information through to their teams. As Mellina puts it, “The more radical the change in working practices, the more important senior-management buy-in becomes.”
On the flipside, a knowledge-management programme is just as likely to fail if it is seen to be imposed from on high, and is at odds with the experience and desires of those it will ultimately affect. “Before starting work on any KM project,” says Thompson, “employees need to be asked their opinions in order to gain a better insight into their needs and expectations. They should be encouraged to contribute ideas.” Indeed, feedback is critical at every stage of the KM initiative, as Mellina suggests. “There is a strong analogy between KM and marketing,” he says. Just as the objective of marketing is to understand customer needs and behaviours, to demonstrate how a given product or service meets the needs of various market segments, and to gradually increase market share by influencing customer behaviour, the objectives of a KM programme are identical – the knowledge worker merely becomes the customer. “Obtaining customer feedback is as critical to KM leaders as it is to marketers,” Mellina says. Bair offers a word of warning, though: it can often be more damaging asking for feedback and not using it than not asking for it at all. As he says, there is a careful balance to be struck.
This is just one of a number of pitfalls that companies often find themselves drawn into. As Renson points out, the difficulty often stems from the fact that knowledge management deals primarily with invisibles, whereas if a project is to experience long-term success, its results must be made explicit. In Mellina’s experience, the most common mistakes organisations make involve failing to define the KM programme as a cross-functional initiative, failing to recognise the hindering or enabling role that culture, rewards and recognition play, and choosing the wrong pilot project, ie, one that takes too long to deliver tangible, strategically important results. More generally, Bair points to what has become known as the Hawthorne effect, which, put briefly, states that any change in the workplace will improve worker performance for a given period of time, before the novelty wears off and work returns to previous levels. “With KM,” he says, “if the change is not continuous, evolving to ever improve knowledge practices and systems, then the positive effects will wane. There are many variables affecting KM-programme outcomes, but I believe the ‘implement it and walk away’ approach will fail.”
Above all, of course, the success of any knowledge-management initiative depends on the project’s ability to help workers to do their jobs better – the greater the benefits of adopting new working practices, the more likely employees are to demonstrate a lasting commitment to change. That said, this association is rarely immediately obvious, and ‘this is the way we do things’ is not a mindset that can easily be overcome. As Thompson puts it, having a well conceived programme is only half the battle – getting people to recognise it as such and to want to use it is just as big a challenge. Effective and explicit communication, storytelling, executive sponsorship, internal feedback loops, and rewards and recognition programmes: all have a role to play in a change-based initiative. While the precise tools and techniques you use will ultimately depend on individual context, the common denominator is that no organisation can afford to neglect the change-management aspects of KM. After all, change sits right at the heart of knowledge management; if you do not achieve a marked shift in the way your employees work, you will by implication have failed.
Jim Bair is senior vice president of Strategy Partners International. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Dan Holtshouse is director of corporate business strategy at Xerox. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Edmond Mellina is president of Transitus Management Consulting. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Daniel Renson is director and owner of First Business Consultants. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrea Thompson is managing director or Perceptor Interactive Brand Communications. She can be contacted at email@example.com