posted 16 Dec 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 4
Your say: KM on trial
Throughout its evolution, knowledge management has faced criticism from all sides at every turn. Sandra Higgison puts KM on trial to evaluate the case for and against the validity of its proposition and balances the hype with the reality.
Discussions on the value and practice of knowledge management tend to conjure many reactions that are rarely short on contention. The extremes span a range of emotions, from the deeply passionate believers to those who reject its founding principles and concepts. As a set of disciplines, knowledge management has endured a roller-coaster ride that has peaked with praise and attention, not to mention resources and investment. The troughs, however, have been filled with war stories, failed initiatives, and wasted money and resources, which have encouraged the sceptical and scornful. As those involved in knowledge management seem to be taking stock of the industry’s developments and are consolidating ideas and concepts, it is perhaps a good time to turn a critical eye to the subject as a whole. KM stands accused of, among other things, evolving through hype, promising unrealistic solutions, generating misleading terminology and prioritising technology over processes or people. By putting the discipline on trial, we can judge whether existing success stories prove KM innocent or if these charges should be upheld.
The overall impression of knowledge management today is fairly mixed. Even if the term isn’t directly acknowledged, many firms are adopting KM ideas and approaches into their operations. However, Frank Miller, director at Fernstar, a consulting company on organisational issues, has yet to see any clear direction emerging. “I see only polarisation and entrenchment of views,” he says. “As many people see it in a positive light as greet it with scepticism.” These differences in perspective can be distinguished by region and industry. “I see a lot of enthusiasm in government, particularly in Asia Pacific and Africa,” says Dave Snowden, director of IBM’s Cynefin Centre. “In the US it’s still seen as a fad, while Europe is mixed as there is a more human-focused wave of interest emerging.”
This scepticism has many roots. According to Tom Knight, managing consultant at Fujitsu Services, KM has suffered from the cost and failures of other technology approaches, such as customer-relationship management and enterprise-resource planning. “Initiatives may not deliver promised returns, but this is not always technology’s fault as organisations often try to run before they can walk,” he says.
Verna Allee, president of ValueNet Works and author of The Future of Knowledge, believes scepticism has grown as knowledge initiatives have been undersold. “KM is often marketed as a technology solution that reduces costs, increases revenues or improves productivity, and is measured against a traditional ROI,” she says. “But this is an incomplete picture of the value return from something as complex as a knowledge initiative that can improve human competence, support innovation and build trusting relationships with stakeholders.” People are happier when the KM story has been expanded beyond financial measures to include a return on intangibles investment, which takes into account how capabilities for the future have been improved.
Fuelling the sceptics is the hype the industry has generated by itself. Solution providers and consultants are often blamed for overplaying their products and services by promising results that are way beyond their abilities. To some, the hype has abated while others feel that people have simply become less sensitive. “I think the hype has more or less gone,” says Knight. “Senior managers are focused on specific approaches to particular business problems and if KM can help it’s an easy conversation, otherwise they don’t want to know.” Snowden, however, has yet to see the hype die down. “Thankfully, people are tuning it out and paying more attention to self-organisation and evolution approaches based on incremental and organic change.” As long as interest in knowledge is strong, he continues, organisations should not get waylaid by embellished messages and will be better able to judge the realistic value of knowledge management.
Despite the hype and bad press, the value proposition for knowledge management remains strong and has evolved as the industry has matured. The specific objectives of an organisation will determine where value is created, but general trends show where shifts have occurred. Alignment to business objectives and a disassociation from technology have given KM what Knight describes as a harder edge. “Technology is emphasised less while change-management disciplines around skills and training, communications, project management and user involvement have become more important.” According to Snowden, fewer companies are looking to KM as a tool for reducing their dependency on humans by making all knowledge tacit. “Instead there is a greater focus on the strategic application of knowledge to improve decision making or create the conditions for innovation,” he says.
Allee has observed a similar shift from the efficiencies of creating and sharing codified knowledge to relationship building. “The value proposition is now about forming collaborative environments and pooling knowledge to enhance innovation and performance,” she says. Also, as the World War II generation is nearing retirement and experience is harder to come by she finds that communities of practice and knowledge networks can bring new hires up to speed and improve the overall competence of the workforce. The final change Allee has noted is the evolution of organisations into networks of autonomous units. “Relationships are the new hot topic,” she says. “Exchanges of knowledge and other intangibles, and the transparency of information and collaboration build stronger relationships, whereas those based only on business transactions are fragile.” Knowledge management plays a critical role in enforcing these relationships.
Knowledge management’s value propositions are clearly keeping pace with today’s business needs, but are organisations actually achieving these potential benefits? As there is no such thing as a generic KM initiative it is a difficult question to answer. However, good practice is not hard to come by and, indeed, fills the pages of this magazine every month. Buckman Laboratories, Siemens, the World Bank, Nasa and BP offer compelling examples of knowledge-focused enterprises that have excelled in generating and measuring the value of their various communities of practice, knowledge-sharing strategies and approaches to innovation.
Although the success factors involved here are intrinsic to each organisation, there are many elements that must come into play if knowledge work is to realise positive results. The importance of clear objectives and support from the top are two key aspects for Allee, while Knight recommends the deployment of appropriate technology applied with human and organisational dynamics. Hubert Saint-Onge, author of Leveraging Communities of Practice for Strategic Advantage and principal of the Saintonge Alliance, advocates the formulation of a multi-year knowledge strategy. “It has to be a building-block approach, where one initiative builds on the previous in a well thought-through sequence,” he says. For Snowden, success requires a balance between context management (knowledge learnt through experience and in trusted communities where people know things without them being articulated), narrative management (managing what people say but can’t or won’t write down) and content management (codified knowledge in documents, for example).
An exhaustive list of success factors could fill a whole volume of Knowledge Management and would repeat what many have said and written in the past. But if the critical elements are supposedly well understood and documented, and good-practice examples readily identified, then why are there so many knowledge-management casualties and what has induced such fierce criticism of the discipline? Areas to consider here include the messages delivered by software and service providers, criticism of the label itself and misconceptions that have yet to be dispelled.
Although the hype may have helped promote the status of knowledge management within organisations, it has mostly done the industry a disservice. “I'd find KM guilty of ‘complexifying’ instead of simplifying,” says Saint Onge. “It has been unrealistic and naïve in terms of what can be achieved and how it can be best realised.” Knight knows consultants can be guilty of leading clients to focus on grandiose strategies without clarifying the end business benefits, while software vendors have set unrealistic expectations. “I recall one salesman who told a mutual customer, ‘We can have knowledge management up and running here in six weeks’, which is highly misleading,” he says. Snowden also recognises this failing. “There exists an over-belief in the role of technology to interpret and represent knowledge in the form of documents manipulated by search engines,” he says. Without a doubt, IT is a double-edged sword, which, in the words of Saint-Onge, is absolutely necessary but totally insufficient.
Responsibility for these misconceptions does not sit on the shoulders of one group alone. Consultants and technology vendors must carry their portion of the blame as, according to Miller, the very human phenomenon of lusting after larger profits and reputations comes into play, regardless of the damage done along the way. However, the naïvety of users and over-zealous IT departments cannot be dismissed. “The worry is that customers are taken in by dramatic demonstrations and make technology choices based on sales pitches without first thinking through their requirements or constraints,” says Knight. The need to fully understand objectives before beginning KM initiatives cannot be over emphasised.
Allee has her own criticisms of knowledge management and finds the industry guilty of allowing mechanistic thinking to pervade the actual practice. “Value-chain business models and linear approaches are based on the industrial-age production line. We should know better than to bring them to bear on knowledge questions,” she says. “Knowledge is a slippery resource connected to everything, and it multiplies and replicates faster than rabbits.” People are the active agents in an organisation, and, as she says, we must move to more organic ways of supporting the enterprise as a complex, adaptive and living system. Snowden believes that conventional management education is also at fault as it focuses on the explicit, the measurable and process driven, and fails to appreciate the complexity of human interaction. The solution suggested by Allee is to educate ourselves in the radically new business thinking that underlies the knowledge question. “If we don’t, then we will not be able to guide our organisations and educate others,” she says.
An area that is almost guaranteed to provoke contention and debate is the validity of the ‘knowledge management’ term itself. Indeed, as a magazine operating under the same title, it is a discussion often heard at the Knowledge Management offices, and generates much talk but few conclusions. According to Ross Dawson, author of Living Networks, the term was a useful frame in the mid-’90s to help managers understand how knowledge and information were driving the lion’s share of value creation in business. “But technology vendors sidetracked the debate by using ‘search and replace’ in their marketing material to change every reference to ‘document’ and ‘information’ to ‘knowledge’,” he says. “Today, the term has outworn its welcome. It confuses and obscures more than it clarifies; there are far more relevant frames than ‘knowledge management’.”
This sentiment is echoed by Miller. “The term is a disaster,” he says. “‘Knowledge’ is a multifaceted monster, but when coupled with ‘management’' – another medusa – it adds up to semantic madness.” Tom Wilson, professor emeritus in information management at Sheffield University, pinpoints some of the main problems with the name. “Knowledge, in the sense of ‘what we know’, cannot be managed,” he says. “However when we record knowledge in some way it becomes information. People therefore see no difference between KM and information management.” Knowledge management is also used to describe attempts to change an organisation's culture to enable more effective information sharing. “KM offers nothing new at this end of the spectrum,” says Wilson. “Organisational cultures are extremely difficult to change in any lasting way. Management’s short-term thinking, driven by share price and shareholder value, has been attracted to KM as a commodity that can be bought. Once senior management realises that it has to change before the organisation can, interest is lost.”
Not everybody, however, has such fervent opinions over the title of the practice. “The term is OK,” says Snowden. “Management doesn’t have to be military or top-down stuff. It can be the way we manage children, for example, by creating clear boundaries and introducing ‘attractors’ around which beneficial patterns of behaviour form.” The battle over semantics is not a top concern for Knight either. “The label is less important than the practice,” he says. “I’m happy working under a variety of banners: knowledge management; intellectual-capital management; content management; change management. All of these disciplines relate to KM in a variety of ways and KM-related thinking provides valuable input to all.” Perhaps it is time to cease debating the terminology and start paying greater attention to putting knowledge-focused activities that generate real value into practice.
The failings inherent in the industry present dangers to the future of knowledge-based work. Complacency is a threat highlighted by a number of practitioners. “I keep hearing and reading the same KM ideas and issues over and over, usually in increasingly esoteric language that I assume gives it some semblance of credibility,” says Miller. Saint-Onge believes that the industry needs to synthesize what has been learnt collectively over the past few years and cleanse the domain of ineffectual practices. A lot of hard work clearly remains to be done. “Corporate issues around intellectual capital and information access haven’t gone away,” warns Knight. “We need to apply the lessons learnt from a decade of thinking about and practising KM to build organisational effectiveness.”
The final threat is the temptation to pull knowledge management back into familiar, industrial-age thinking. “This is our greatest danger,” says Allee. “As the hype is diminishing people are finding new tools and practices to support knowledge. We have to be alert to ensure we are constantly challenging ourselves to learn the economic language of intangibles and value-network dynamics.” Snowden and Miller also warn against the creation of making knowledge management a stand-alone initiative with a full-time knowledge function. The dangers here lie with senior management trying to fit KM, which is typically untidy and sprawling in nature, into the neat boxes that traditional business is more comfortable with.
The trial of knowledge management will continue so long as companies pursue knowledge-based activities. As with all developing management practices, especially ones that encompass such a variety of disciplines and approaches, these elements will remain under discussion. The challenge is to not only understand what KM can be guilty of and why, but also to work towards the value propositions that will, if approached strategically, generate organisation-wide benefits. With opportunities such as improved decision making, greater innovation, effective collaboration and ultimately, as Allee says, the evolution of global intelligence, yet to be fully grasped, a jury would surely grant KM a stay of execution.
1. Allee, V., The Future of Knowledge: Increasing Prosperity through Value Networks (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2002)
2. Saint-Onge, H. & Wallace, D., Leveraging Communities of Practice for Strategic Advantage (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2002)
3. Dawson, R., Living Networks: Leading your Company, Customers and Partners in the Hyper-Connected Economy (Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2002)
4. See Wilson, T. D., ‘The nonsense of ‘knowledge management’’ in Information Research (Vol 8, Iss 1)
Verna Allee is president of ValueNet Works and author of The Future of Knowledge. She can be contacted at email@example.com
Ross Dawson is founder and chief executive of Advanced Human Technologies and author of Living Networks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tom Knight is managing consultant at Fujitsu Services. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Frank Miller is director at Fernstar. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hubert Saint-Onge is principal at the Saintonge Alliance. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Dave Snowden is director at IBM’s Cynefin Centre. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tom Wilson is professor emeritus in information management at Sheffield University. He can be contacted at email@example.com