posted 28 Oct 2004 in Volume 8 Issue 3
The principles of knowledge management are often misunderstood and KM practitioners can become preoccupied by the debate over who should actually be managing knowledge. Jerry Ash steps into the breach to examine the conflicts the discipline is facing, and suggests winning the war, not by surrendering, but through compromise and collaboration.
Knowledge management is engaged in life-or-death battles on three fronts, involving a hijacking, a territorial dispute and colonisation. The contests are over who gets to manage KM. On the first front, some say the technology battle is already lost and they call for surrender. On the second front, the knowledge-management community is using management domination to secure its territory – while management may be winning the battle, it is losing the war. On the third front, KM professionals are merely wringing their hands in frustration over KM’s colonisation.
Pogo, an out-of-print cartoon character who disappeared from news pages before KM was even labelled, could have been referring to knowledge management when he said, “I have met the enemy and he is us.” Instead of fighting against these natural phenomena as enemies, we should be collaborating with them as strategic partners. On all three fronts there is energy that could be tapped and converted for the benefit of KM. Resistance is only counter-productive and misses incredible doorways of opportunity through which KM could step beyond theory and help organisations succeed in attempts that would otherwise fail.
The hijacking of KM by the technology industry is an age-old story, and the outcome more often than not has been one of bitter failure: money has been wasted, missions unaccomplished and the developing field of knowledge management has been sullied.
Dave Pollard, former CKO of Ernst & Young Canada and blogging specialist, notes that in most organisations KM is epitomised by the corporate intranet, the extranet, community-of-practice tools, sales-force-automation tools, customer-relationship-management tools, data-mining tools, decision-support tools, databases purchased from outside vendors, and sometimes business research and analysis. In other words, it is seen to be made up of specialised technologies and information-processing roles, with a thin wrapper of knowledge creation and knowledge-sharing processes in place to complete the picture.
But it is not just the technology industry that is to blame. In the early days, technology companies jumped out with information-management software that was re-branded as KM software, but the buyer was as responsible as the seller. Corporate decision makers were uncomfortable with the idea of dealing with the soft side of knowledge. They better understood the explicit nature of technology and dreamt of capturing knowledge and converting it into company-owned intellectual capital that could be neatly stored alongside tangible assets in the company safe. The thought of first examining and changing the way people worked was not considered an option. In short, organisations saw knowledge management as the next level of information management. Technology companies saw a new market and they capitalised on it.
According to one story, the steam engine was first used to drive the water wheel. Whether this is true or not, the story is used as a metaphor by those who warn that hooking modern information technology to an old process is as foolish as using a new power source to drive an old one. The modern-day parallel is an organisation investing heavily in up-to-the-minute computing hardware and networking software, only to do business as usual. It is easy to get caught in the technology trap.
We know now that organisations will have to do more than install new bells and whistles or go online if they are to remain relevant and competitive in a knowledge-driven society. “The techies tried to tell us – and we bought it, hook, line and sinker – that networking information was knowledge management: this is the equivalent of saying that tossing a ball around is baseball,” says David Hawthorne, vice president of NaviQuest in the US. KM leaders and practitioners know this, but they are having a hard time getting the word out while technology companies continue to dominate the term. To get some idea, have Google send you ‘as it happens’ news alerts on knowledge management for a few days and see how many of them are about technology: a news release about KM as we know it is rare. The technology industry is better at creating a buzz than we are because it has legions of people preparing news releases and marketing bulletins, while we tell our stories to small audiences.
For this reason alone, we need to jump on their bandwagon. However, there is an even more important reason to team up with technologists. They are as frustrated by the poor track record of KM technology projects as we are. Contrary to popular belief, technology marketers listen to customers and try to determine their needs. Selling technology that is doomed to failure is not a good marketing strategy. Vendors don’t just sell off-the-shelf software anymore; they write software to fit the business processes of the company. Unfortunately, new adopters of the KM strategy often also want to jump right into the technology before giving a second thought to addressing the issues of work processes. Technology consultants aren’t always viewed as business consultants. Therefore, they are not readily listened to when suggesting that a KM programme needs to be developed before KM technology can be properly developed and applied.
One technology professional and one KM-savvy professional can make a difference. For instance, take Corel’s Rene Schmidt and Dan Stepchuk. Schmidt, a Corel veteran with extensive experience and expertise in technology, was named chief technology officer by Corel’s president in March 2001. Four months later Stepchuk joined Corel as senior manager of organisation development, with expertise and experience in human dynamics, learning, organisational design and virtual teaming.
At the time, Corel, an award-winning producer of graphics and business-productivity applications, was positioning itself for rapid growth through acquisitions, partnerships and alliances. What had been a homogeneous company in a single location was about to go global. Though Stepchuk and Schmidt had entirely different backgrounds and jobs, they quickly discovered they had similar concerns about how knowledge would be managed, how people would be engaged in what they were doing, how they would be measured and how people’s work would fit into the strategy for a rapidly growing organisation. In other words, they teamed up.
Rather than surrendering KM to technology, both sides would be better off following the Corel example. KM advocates can gain exposure and access to decision makers and technology providers can secure better results by applying the right technology to the right solutions.
The territorial dispute
The revelation that people, not organisations, are the primary holders of the knowledge resource has set the stage for a battle over who gets to manage that knowledge.
This has been a silent battle until recently because individuals have largely been kept in the dark about the role they can play. Knowledge-management advocates have freely admitted that people are the original source of knowledge, but most have not dared suggest individuals should be given the freedom to manage it. Instead, knowledge management has been primarily presented as a corporate function with chief responsibilities assigned to people with new titles in the corporate chain. While KM strategy is seen by most to be aimed at resources outside the hierarchy, we have seen KM immediately plugged into top-down structures, with job titles like chief knowledge officer, knowledge manager and knowledge engineer.
Yet many KM thought leaders have felt uncomfortable with the idea of managing knowledge. Whether they’ve admitted it or not, the discomfort centres around the awareness that knowledge is personal and any initiative that aims to control personal knowledge could be seen as mind control. Terms like knowledge capture and knowledge mining come to mind – terms transferred from information management, which is not so personal. These terms were not troublesome when people were hired for what they did, not what they knew, and were judged on their performance to company standards, not necessarily their contribution of innovative ideas that led to increased company performance.
There are those who have boldly championed the idea of personal knowledge management (PKM), sometimes at their own professional peril. For example, Steve Barth, a business journalist in the US, has written extensively on the subject of PKM but observes that a Google search produces more contrarian views and counter-views than links to his own positive work.2 Barth says some people misunderstand him and interpret his opinions to mean PKM is about doing things alone. He says the issue isn’t between those who think knowledge is social versus those who think knowledge is personal. It’s between those who think knowledge is social or personal and those who think knowledge is social and personal. “In other words,” says Barth, “the two extremes don’t even agree on what they are arguing about.”
They do, however, seem to agree on what they are arguing against – personal branding. Perhaps the most negative catalyst for confusion surrounding PKM came from the publication of Tom Peters’s Brand You books. Peters is a popular and influential consultant, speaker and writer whose first chapter in his little Brand You 50 book declares, “Coping rests on your shoulders. Forget ‘they.’ This is your life. Period.” That’s Peters’s first of 50 ways to “transform yourself from an ‘employee’ into a brand”. It implies one should forget networking and collaboration and company loyalty and stick to ‘what’s in it for me’. If employers were a bit nervous about giving up control in a knowledge-based workplace, Peters’s view of the future worker was extremely threatening to senior and middle management.
Neither Barth nor his adversaries agree to the solitary approach to KM, although many can’t see the difference because branding and PKM are often seen as synonymous. However, this is not the case. “I like to focus on how we manage the interaction between three types of potential and kinetic knowledge,” says Barth: that which is explicit in documents and data; tacit in human education, experience and expertise; and implicit in cultures and communities. Stowe Boyd, president and COO of Corante, a news and business intelligence service on technology and science, called these “personal, impersonal and interpersonal”.
David Gurteen, knowledge networker and founder of Gurteen Knowledge in the UK, is also a recognised advocate of personal knowledge management, but he responds differently to PKM foes like Denham Grey, a KM consultant in the US. Grey’s unease with PKM parallels his thoughts on the paradigms that focus on individual competencies rather than social learning. For Grey, the greatest leverage and largest promise in knowledge work comes from the social aspects. “I find this to be a fundamental distinction,” he says. “Thus I often see myself at odds with the PKM camp on many fronts.” To explain, he examines some common PKM principles.
Focus on self-organisation
Organise your thoughts, gather and catalogue your knowledge assets, cluster and categorise your sources, document your network and track your activities. The claim is that knowledge creation starts with individual competencies. The focus is on fast and effective access to information. “No quibble with that,” Grey responds. “You need to capture and organise things, but should this be the key focus of your knowledge activities?”
The individual as the key engine for knowledge work
“Focusing inwards, you can no longer depend on others (community, company, professional group) for your learning, security or long-term future,” says Grey. “The road ahead requires you to look out for yourself, build your competencies, guard your IP, brand your IC and continually market your skills. You need to take personal responsibility for your future.”
Knowledge acquisition and learning need social connections. Getting ahead today means having a ‘mother’ community to test your insights, a group to share and learn distinctions, an intellectual guild to filter news and increase your awareness, and a network to increase connections and gather ideas.
Grey believes that the important issues in PKM are:
- The communities you belong to, your reciprocity and empathy;
- The networked relationships you have along which knowledge can flow;
- Your openness to new ideas, your willingness to alter your mental models and your ability to list them.
Gurteen agrees wholeheartedly: “If PKM is seen as the organisation of personal information then, like Grey, I can’t get very excited about it. It is useful but limited and does not have a lot to do with what I think of as knowledge management and learning.”
Gurteen believes we should drop the term PKM and come up with a new term that captures what KM is really about. At first he called it inter-personal knowledge management, but he wasn’t too sure he liked that term either. However, he used it as a ‘handle’ until he settled on people-centered knowledge management. “To be honest, the label is not that important,” says Gurteen. “As long as – in Grey’s words – it is about dialogue, community and collaboration.”
Surface issues aside, it is the labels, rather than the substance, that drive the debates. Underlying it all is the question of who gets to manage knowledge – the bearer of knowledge (the employee) or the customer (the employer). For KM to be successful, the CKM/PKM camps will need to come together to develop a common strategy that will serve both the individual and the organisation effectively: each needs the other.
Perhaps the most grievous strategic error of all is to view efforts by existing professional disciplines to adopt KM principles as ‘colonisation’. KM purists see these efforts as misrepresentative, fragmentary and incomplete. If it isn’t total KM, then it isn’t KM at all.
Joe Firestone, CKO of Executive Information Systems Inc in the US, says one of the continuing problems in KM is that of conceptual drift. Since the foundations of KM as a discipline are relatively undefined and we are in disagreement over what we mean by the terms used in both knowledge and information management, from time to time KM finds itself subject to claims that KM really is – or should be reinvented as – quality management, CRM, data warehousing, organisational learning, collaboration management, library management, information management, human-resource management, communities of practice, content management and social networking.
“I think such advice is incorrect, and thus far it has always based on a superficial account of the nature of KM,” says Firestone. “The reason these ideas often seem initially plausible is because those who offer such proposals do so without a careful analysis of knowledge and knowledge management.” Firestone is right to be concerned that colonisation could lead to the fragmentation and disappearance of KM on the grand scale we envision. If KM is absorbed into the woodwork of other disciplines without the broad view, its promise will soon fade back into business as usual. Colonisation, in that case, is a serious threat to knowledge management. The question is, how do we deal with it? Is colonisation only a threat; or is it an opportunity that could fit into the bigger picture?
Verna Allee, US-based consultant, speaker and author on a variety of business-management subjects, pictures KM at three basic levels that all have knowledge challenges at the core. At the strategic or business level, the challenge is understanding the dynamics of value creation. At the tactical level, the challenge is about evolving the context for people to do their work together. At the operational level, the question is how can we codify and share the routine knowledge people need to complete their everyday tasks.
KM practitioners have done a credible job at the strategic and tactical levels, but a great divide still lies between them and the operational level. What a pity it would be to overlook the opportunities presented by operational functions already in place and where interest in KM is already beginning to bud. Rather than do battle with these colonial invaders, why not tap their energy and use it to take KM strategy and tactics to the frontlines of the organisation? Instead of undermining them with complaints like “social networks or HR are not KM”, why not laud social networks and HR for the roles they are attempting to play, help them blossom as important players in the complex world of knowledge management, or even take our own advice and network with them?
We seem to be engaged in battles on all three levels – strategic, tactical and operational – with enemies who should be allies. In this way we are as territorial as the organisational charts we decry. Rather than seeing opportunities for collaboration, we see threats to our supremacy as true knowledge leaders. It is ironic but true – we are having as much difficulty in the transition from the industrial to the knowledge age as any we counsel. However, by admitting our own problems, we can understand ourselves and others better.
Giving up on these battles need not mean surrender. Connecting positively with technology, personal knowledge and existing professional disciplines at the delivery level does not mean the death of total knowledge management. Whether it is done within the context of the levels of knowledge work described by Verna Allee or another multi-layer structure, it will assure that the over-riding principles and scope of knowledge management are preserved, understood and actualised.