posted 17 Feb 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 5
Knowledgeworks: Take no shortcuts and hurry along
Continuing the theme of this month's cover story, 'Running on Empty? Mainataining momentum as KM matures'. By Jerry Ash
Putting a positive spin on a sensitive story is par for the course in corporate America, but healthy scepticism of the account provided by current World Bank managers in this month’s cover story (page 18) is in order.
The KM-support unit at the bank has been in decline since around the time that Steve Denning left in 2000. Denning’s unit enjoyed strong executive and management support when the organisation was presenting itself as the ‘Knowledge Bank’. Helping enterprises and governments leverage knowledge in resource-poor countries was, in a sense, as important as making financial loans and grants. From the beginning, the KM programme was highly decentralised, but the KM unit existed to promote and co-ordinate KM activity among staff, contractors and clients throughout the world.
Before long, however, the KM unit became a nomad. The first move was positive enough: a shift from IT to operations. Then, after Denning announced his departure, the KM unit was moved to the World Bank Institute (WBI), a body responsible for instructional design, the help desk, internet development and applications. Explicit KM-support staff dwindled. During the subsequent three years, the KM initiative was poorly connected to the broader organisation. The grassroots KM programme itself remained in operations and proceeded under its own steam.
Finally, in 2004, the WBI’s dedicated KM staff was totally eliminated and the bulk of the responsibilities for knowledge management were transferred to the Learning Board, chaired by the bank’s CLO, Phyllis Pomerantz. With all the knowledge and expertise of the original unit gone, the character and direction of the new initiative is uncertain.
According to Pomerantz, “Complementary staff and consultants will be brought on board as needed. We are looking for staff members who fully understand the bank’s operational context and challenges, as well as those with knowledge expertise. I think a comparison of staff when the programme started and staffing for this stage of the programme in my office is not a valid comparison; the majority of those who are helping to shape the programme do not belong in my unit, but are located in the bank’s various operational units where they belong. My office does not do learning and it won’t do knowledge work. The reconstituted knowledge and learning board will set overall strategy and policies, determine resource allocations, monitor what’s happening and evaluate.”
The focus on operations and operational experience is positive and in fact corresponds to the make-up of Denning’s original staff, which, in reality, was heavily loaded with operational experience, including that of Denning himself. His original staff didn’t ‘do’ KM either, but in addition to operational experience, it had to be KM savvy in order to support KM managers and staff in the field.
In my view, there are both positive and negative elements to the new direction. On the positive side, management has an opportunity to turn corporate support for KM around. What’s more, the new managers have said they want to keep KM operationally focused, a key to any successful programme. They also want to keep KM decentralised in operations and make it responsive to the needs of operational staff. In addition, the structural measures of 1996-2000 are still in place – making changes in the mission statement or the personnel-review system of the organisation would require a major overhaul, and there is no sign of that happening.
Less positive, the new vision is not yet clear and, to date at least, there is no explicit emphasis on communities of practice. The CLO group isn’t in operations either, which is a potential handicap. That said, KM flourished when it was housed in IT, so the right leadership and staffing can help overcome this weakness. What remains to be seen is whether the CLO’s group will provide the championship and leadership of the knowledge cause and the nurturing of communities of practice that remain central features of all successful KM programmes.
The World Bank is not alone in facing challenges brought on by the ebb and flow of management attention. In our cover story, we include three additional cases: Xerox, where the original architect provides continuity of leadership even as management has become unfocused; BP’s initiative, which nearly died but is on the cusp of a comeback, with one dedicated KM staffer remaining; and Clarica, where the KM programme is now dead. Though each is very different, the common denominators in all these stories are questions of focus, championship, funding and operational support. What the case studies makes clear is that each of these factors is essential if a KM programme is to endure.
When organisations lose their way, it isn’t through bad intention but through poor judgement or lack of knowledge. Knowledge professionals would do well to recall a lesson from history: in 1846, Captain George Donner made a succession of bad decisions, and led his party of pioneers on an ill-advised shortcut across a formidable Nevada desert. The party eventually reached the Sierra-Nevada mountains dangerously close to winter. They eventually became stranded in the snow, and many died. Later, a 13-year-old Virginia Reed wrote to her cousin, who was packing for a trek west: “Never take no cut-offs and hurry along as fast as you can.”