posted 8 Mar 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 6
Theory of KM evolution
The knowledge-driven enterprise of the future needs knowledge management – and KM is evolving for the better as a result.
By Jerry Ash
No one can say just when modern knowledge management (KM) began because no one practitioner, consultant or group gave birth to it on a specific and historic day. So, whether it was 20 or 30 or even 50 years ago, its beginning is ancient history by the standards of today’s hyperactive world, racing at warp speed and often leaving important parts in a wake of cosmic dust.
By now you would surely expect knowledge management to have reached maturity. Not so. Not yet. The most fundamental of the issues continue to swirl unresolved:
Who manages knowledge and how?
Who benefits from it and when?
And so volume two of Next Generation Knowledge Management (NGKM II) is framed around two parallel themes – personal/corporate KM and personal/corporate benefit. They are presented in parallel because both individuals and organisations need to understand where the other is coming from, that they are all managing and capitalising and that they are heading in the same direction.
Both individuals (citizens) and management (leadership) are engaged in managing and capitalising on knowledge from different perspectives. In truth, there is no dividing line between people and management in the knowledge-driven enterprise. Citizenship and leadership are one in the same – lead and follow, follow and lead.
KM cannot work without a balance – a blend, really – between individual and collective approaches. Organisational and personal agendas can’t operate at cross-purposes because they need each other.
Knowledge management is hardly in its own dark ages, but it is under construction as it is being applied – like an experimental airplane, it isn’t proven but it has to fly. The future of the individual and the enterprise depends on quick answers now and better answers later.
Call them ‘platitudes’ if you like, but these are the fundamental truths you may be missing if you have not had time to notice and understand the implications of social, political and economic changes rapidly taking place around you. NGKM II is a record of ongoing dialogues between some of the world’s leading KM thought leaders and practitioners.
The only way to stay abreast of the fast-paced development of KM is to stay connected and involved… always.
People whose lives and values have been tied directly to the knowledge-management phenomenon have lived and breathed this stuff non-stop, for years. They know. They understand.
Here are just a few of the lessons learned during 120 days of expert knowledge sharing.
Managing through communication
Steve Barth once headlined his own personal knowledge management (PKM) website with the title ‘Self-Organisation: Personal Knowledge Management for the Individual and the
Barth’s vision of PKM starts with the individual but works within social, cultural and organisational frameworks. Unfortunately, our systems and values are more often than not rigged to discourage shared responsibility. Instead, citizens too often expect the designated leaders to come up with the vision, see the path, make the tough decisions, and take the fall for when it all goes wrong – it was their decision, after all…
At the same time, management theory has always taught leaders to take the bull by the horns, propose explicit mission and value statements as if these underlying values are not present among subordinates.
Change is still hampered by misunderstanding, opinions and attitudes around PKM, but regardless of how it is perceived, personal knowledge management is a major factor in today’s organisations.
What matters most in the evolution of KM is the natural way ideas arise, merge and mingle, land in the practitioner’s path and lead to value through knowledge acquisition, application and results.
This puts even more responsibility on the individual, not less, and changes the role of management to leadership and facilitation. Productive collaboration doesn’t just happen by itself. The social and professional competencies people bring to a group amounts to networked citizenship in the knowledge age. How people interact with the team, share and learn with a community, negotiate emerging norms and generally help to make sense of unfolding events is ultimately everyone’s responsibility and the determining factor in personal, group and organisational success.
The knowledge-based view of the firm holds that the enterprise is a social artifact, more akin to a living system than a black box. Attempts to control, quality-assure or otherwise engineer these living social systems and subsystems ultimately and disastrously fail.
The rigid technocrats so prevalent in today’s KM universe need to take notice. The future will be determined not by outdated frameworks, eye-watering content and portal monoliths, but by social visionaries, collaborators and coaches who focus directly on networks, conductivity, adaptation, morphology and above all, authentic conversation.
Perhaps, given the growing emphasis on communities of practice (CoPs) and collaborative thinking, the individual role would be better described as inter-personal knowledge management (IPKM). Personal knowledge management is not a solitary exercise.
One of those good issues bubbling to the surface is understanding IPKM and KM on the basis of outcomes – assessing value propositions of their outcomes, not the value of knowledge itself but the value of its application. Like natural resources, the value of people is in their potential, but the pay-off doesn’t come until they are put to use.
Social-network analysis (SNA) has become a key diagnostic tool. It asks some of the key questions covering such factors as how people get their work done, and the knowledge, information, energy, sense making and trust relationships that help or hinder people to get their work done effectively.
While CoPs are often initiated by an organisation for a specific purpose, social networks are natural, more likely formed by people, with the organisation left to identify them, understand them and discover ways of incorporating them into the overall business structure.
As companies have become more interested in social networks, SNA has morphed into organisational-network analysis (ONA), very similar but coming from a different point of view. IBM Global Services started using the ONA term because its executive clients thought it was more business-oriented. ONA consultants also tend to focus on a few of the hundreds of SNA metrics/methods available.
Recognition of social networking further emphasises the human nature of knowledge work. The concept of ‘idea mavens’, the ones who accumulate knowledge and spread ideas, is catching on. It’s not so much what they know, but how they pass it along that gives them value.
Some CEOs have at least grasped the human value where the nature of business is changing the nature of work and management. For pioneer Bob Buckman, of pharmaceuticals company Buckman Laboratories, it wasn’t about the ‘mumbo jumbo’ of KM; rather, it was about common sense.
When he inherited Buckman Labs, he wanted to change the management style. “I didn’t want to do it Dad’s way,” he said, which required that every single business decision had to be approved by his father. Bob was also convinced the company was too product-driven and soon sought to make it customer-driven. And, he believed, cash flow was not company-driven but generated on the front line by associates who built relationships of continuity and trust, face-to-face with customers, one individual at a time.
He armed all his people with laptops and pushed them out the office door. The tools, though important, were a minor part of his reorganisation, the major emphasis being on culture changes among people and the organisation that would change the way the company conducted business.
His measurement approach was, and is, just as simple. “You do not pull up a tree by its roots to see if it’s growing,” he says. He measures the outcome, not the activity itself. “In our case, it is speed of innovation. The faster we innovate, the greater the distance we can put between our company and our competition.”
Capitalising through performance
Measuring the outcome of knowledge works fine if a KM strategy has actually been employed. But how do you make a case for KM value at the beginning when the executive is weighing budget against the anticipated impact on the critical success factors of an organisation? We are learning that KM initiatives are best valued at the start when they can be linked with business issues or objectives and shown to be best achieved through KM principles, practices, techniques, applications and so on. Foresight – not hindsight.
Yet, such values are anecdotal, not metric, and business leaders still try to evaluate based on the metrics of the industrial age. Some KM advocates continue to look for the miracle measurement à la Six Sigma, balanced scorecard, business-intelligence tools, customer dissatisfaction records, unintended consequences, call-centre metrics or innovation rates.
Meg Wheatley, an organisational-development expert, reminds us that the old ways are dissolving, yet the new ways have not yet shown themselves. “If this is true, then we must engage with one another differently as explorers and discoverers,” she says.
Many savvy executives and managers, in fact, are acutely aware of the changes occurring around them and are responding positively to what seems to be extreme idealism but, in truth, provides the answer to that singular management question: what do we need to pay attention to in order to be successful? Answer: not the organisation, but the organism.
KM advocates are actually coming from multiple working environments and academic disciplines. One started in KM in the oil fields of
Years later – and now an acknowledged KM expert – he still believes it is easiest to implement knowledge management in an organisation that practices teamwork, that works in projects, and that measures and manages performance. In such organisations, he observes, KM finds an easy niche and has been taken to levels of implementation and assurance that compare well with the management of other assets.
In practice, KM is gaining believers from the outset to the conclusion of business practice by applying itself to teamwork and projects which measure, and manage performance as well in other forms of group activity – CoPs, for instance, which can either be engaged in specific work projects or broader topic areas, not necessarily measurable.
Wherever groups think and share together, trust is paramount. Unfortunately, most American executives (and those around the world who model after them) are Skinnerians at heart – followers or supporters of the psychologist BF Skinner – having accepted a carrot and stick model of motivation originally developed on laboratory animals. They measure not for understanding, but for control.
Extensive research shows that rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin and the coin doesn’t buy very much. On the contrary, incentive plans as control mechanisms are likely to undermine quality and the more closely compensation is conditioned on performance, the more damage is done. Control, these statistics show, is incompatible with intrinsic motivation and excellence.
On the other hand, some leading KM practitioners support the use of performance incentives, if they are wisely applied. These advocates argue that good KM practice will be one of the factors that enable – not enforce – excellent performance. Rather than to reward the practice of KM itself, they would have the company measure and reward the performance that was enabled or enhanced by KM while leaving it to the successful team to draw its own conclusions about KM being a contributing factor.
Performance in that scenario, it seems, is not just to satisfy the organisation but to use KM strategies to satisfy one’s own personal entrepreneurial spirit. There is no better reward than personal growth and that’s one reward that doesn’t involve competing with others for a limited number of prizes. Everyone gets to be a ‘performance winner’, and KM is currently bridged to today’s reality as a new and powerful tool for the individual and the enterprise.
KM is still working through the transition from old to new. Simple definitions and process formulas would be handy, but to understand the complexity of today’s enterprise and the role of knowledge management in it is the key.
That is why dialogues such as the STAR Series are so valuable, because the next generation of knowledge management is now, tomorrow, the next day – and for the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, there are no absolute rights or wrongs, no formulas, no easy cookbooks. The best you can do is catch up and keep abreast of the latest stage of KM development. A NGKM report provides 120 days of catch-up in a single volume. Eventually, the entire series will be a virtual library, a living history of the learnings and logic that will have brought KM to its ultimate standards of practice.
Jerry Ash is KM coach, founder of the Association of Knowledgework, http://www.kwork.org, and special correspondent to Inside Knowledge. He is the author of ARK Group’s latest major reports, Next Generation Knowledge Management and Next Generation Knowledge Management II. Volume one is a complete sell-out, but there are still some copies of volume two available. To order, please contact Adam Scrimshire by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Jerry Ash can be reached at