posted 14 Mar 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 6
Knowledgeworks: Damned if you do...
Balancing a focus on the bottom line with strategies that allow CoPs to develop organically. By Jerry Ash
“Your observations on the KM programmes of Clarica/Sun Life, BP, Xerox and the World Bank are somewhat frightening.” Martin Roulleaux-Dugage, director of KM for Schneider Electric, Rueil Malmaison, France.
Good. That was the intention of our report on KM sustainability in the February issue of Inside Knowledge. There are multiple threats to the sustainability of KM in every programme that require as much attention as the work itself.
That said, it is not all doom and gloom. To balance last month’s scare stories, a ‘sustainability hypothesis’ is presented in the Halliburton case study (page 24). Central to the Halliburton hypothesis are the twin beliefs, articulated by director of knowledge management Michael Behounek, that KM must attach itself directly to the business process and that communities of practice must ‘do work’.
Three years ago this month, another KM leader – Hubert Saint-Onge, then senior vice-president of strategic capabilities and chief KM advocate at Clarica Life Insurance Company of Canada and the US – was saying the same thing. During
Saint-Onge’s keynote address at a conference in March 2002, he discussed the idea that some communities could be forced, not voluntary. He used a two-axis description of communities: one axis ranging from structured to unstructured, the other from project to functional. Saint-Onge proposed that structured communities could be appointed, and made accountable for a specific goal and part of the hierarchy.
The following week, Tom Stewart, then a member of the board of editors at Fortune magazine and now editor of Harvard Business Review, countered in a STAR Series Dialogue at the Association of Knowledgework that company-created work groups are not, in fact, communities of practice. “Yes, they can overlap,” Stewart wrote. “Sometimes a community of practice can emerge out of what began as a project team. And sometimes a project team can grow out of a community of practice – when a bunch of people who are already part of a community decide to undertake a specific job. But they are not – emphatically not – synonyms. And Hubert, whom I love and admire, is, for the first time in his life, wrong. Project teams and communities of practice do not belong on a continuum or as points on a grid. They are on different planes of existence.”
What followed in the dialogue was a chorus of voices supporting Stewart’s point of view. Communities were to be free-spirited places where knowledge sharing and creation could take place for the sake of it and without hierarchical pressure or purpose. Management would just spoil the party. If ideas had merit, they might filter unsystematically to a work group or project team, but communities were not to be inhibited by goals and objectives. In stark contrast, a STAR Series Dialogue with Michael Behounek in February 2005 drew barely a whimper from the participants when Behounek championed his pragmatic approach to sustainable KM using project-based communities of practice.
During the three years that separated these dialogues, communities of practice have become the bedrock of KM initiatives. Where communities remained rigidly true to the ideals of 2002, KM continued to find difficulty in explaining itself or providing hard, numerical evidence that the KM programme added value to the organisation’s bottom line. The frustration that knowledge or knowledge management was intangible and therefore not measurable grew. Many companies and executives who supported experimentation soon lost interest, and those who were unwilling to take a chance were glad they didn’t. Everyone believed, but few knew for sure – and executive decision makers rarely operate on faith. Under those circumstances, the future of KM was (and still is) questionable.
Of course, as the rest of the story makes clear, Saint-Onge’s bottom-line orientation did not assure his stellar programme would be sustained either. Even as he was extolling the pragmatic virtues of company-driven communities, he knew his KM programme was doomed under the pending purchase of Clarica by the larger Sun Life. His status as senior VP at Clarica would not save him or the programme. Sun Life knew nothing of KM and it was very unlikely Clarica would inspire changes in the management practices of the purchasing company.
All of which may lead practitioners to the conclusion, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
But KM is not the only discipline to that comes under threat when there are changes in the executive suite or among line managers. The devastation wrought by thoughtless or unknowing acts or failures to act are legendary among practitioners of every professional discipline in the world. KM is no exception. If KM is to put itself in the best position for long-term sustainability, the discipline’s best practices need to include strategies that will daily and forever make the business case for the ongoing practice of intellectual-capital management – yes, management. That is why the dual development of a programme and a sustainability hypothesis at Halliburton is so significant: each drives the other.
When we learn how to balance the bottom line – whether mission or money – with the vision, ideals and practices of passionate advocates of human-driven KM, we can be brave in the face of, not frightened by, an always uncertain future.