posted 30 Jun 2011 in Volume 14 Issue 9
KM is dead!
Long live knowledge, says David Griffiths
Knowledge management (KM) has surrendered to the pressure of technology based solutions and is no longer fit for purpose. That’s my opinion and it might as well be clear from the beginning.
I believe in the founding principles of KM and I believe in technology as an enabler for KM. I do not believe in the operational concept of KM as it exists today. KM is a term owned by technology – just take a look at related job adverts. The vast majority are about the management of technology platforms or library positions.
Ask yourself, why does KM exist in the first place? You will probably arrive at the conclusion that it is in response to the demands of the knowledge economy, one that drives knowledge intensive organisations to adapt and to become more dynamic. What is it that enables the dynamic capability of a knowledge intensive organisation? This leads to creativity and innovation, which means that we are talking about people; people enabled by technology. Leave a computer on the desk and let’s see it spontaneously create new knowledge. Let’s see it get creative. Of course, it can’t, not without the intervention of people. Information resides within computers but knowledge resides within people. If you agree with that, then you will also agree that technology cannot provide a standalone KM solution. It can only enable the interaction of people with information and, where it can enable people to interact together, knowledge. So, why are we not focused on the management of our human resources when it comes to KM? Why do we persist with technology as the panacea for KM solutions?
The bottom line is that too many organisations are dissatisfied with KM as a strategic management tool because they have misinterpreted the drivers for the concept and invested in technology solutions, which cannot possibly deliver the dynamic capacity that the organisation needs. My opinion is that technology as a KM solution is similar to snake oil. It just doesn’t work. Technology exists to assist in the management of complicated information processes. People, on the other hand, are the platform for complex knowledge processes. The only way to improve satisfaction in KM is to reboot it and embed people as the platform for sustainable success.
This isn’t something new. People have been dissatisfied with the term KM since it first came on our radar. People like Larry Prusak and David Snowden have been quoted recently as saying that they don’t talk about KM anymore. Instead they speak of decision making. Why? Because it just doesn’t make operational sense.
The problem is that people now associate KM with technology solutions. They’re expensive and they don’t satisfy the drivers of the knowledge economy. Unfortunately, it seems to be getting worse. Technology providers, not satisfied with dominating the KM field, seem to have realised that KM is cresting and are seeking new domains to conquer. Take a look at concepts such as wisdom management and expertise management.
This is your life
KM is in its death throes because we cannot tolerate operational dissatisfaction for much longer. It’s not a case of if it will happen, but when. Regardless, in the end, the need for knowledge will endure. The evidence is in our past. KM is about 30 years old, it is not in its infancy and it is not an original concept. These highlights are taken from my article; ‘Are we stuck with Knowledge Management?’ published in October 2010, in the International Journal of Knowledge and Systems Science.
The first industrial revolution was a pivotal time, during which the weight of the knowledge-induced component of economic growth significantly increased.
In 1890, it was said that knowledge and its organisation contributed to capital value and was a significant engine for output.
This was being said in 1918: “The greatest problem for any nation is that of developing its resources to the utmost. The solution of this problem involves a thorough knowledge of all resources, natural, intellectual, manual and financial and thorough knowledge of all means of making the most of them?”
In 1933, Fisher recognised industry to be moving toward a tertiary stage, with an emphasis on knowledge based goods and services instead of traditional manufacturing and production.
Literature from the 1940s offers a glimpse of an early incarnation of the modern knowledge manager in the form of, ‘industrial efficiency engineers’. These were specialists who could critically manage knowledge to bring about what was described as: “An organisation, so arranged that the results of all its efforts are recorded and analysed. The lessons to be learned and the experience to be gained are thus made as much as a company’s asset as more tangible things, and can be used in the direction of future undertakings”
Subsequent to this there was as a knowledge explosion stimulated by events such as the post war recovery of Britain. This period brought with it a second incarnation of the knowledge manager, through the advent of the, ‘science of knowledge utilisation’. This focused on the need to coordinate knowledge that was deemed useful to man.
In 1959, Drucker famously stated: “Productive work in today’s society and economy is work that applies vision, knowledge and concepts. Work that is based on the mind rather than the hand?”
Machlup was discussing the economic contribution of knowledge in 1962. A position championed by Carter in 1968 as: “Something with which the Federal Government must be vitally concerned?[as] it needs to guide the overall development and conservation of such an asset [knowledge].”
In 1973 the term KM first appeared in articles on public administration. “By knowledge management, I mean public policy for the production, dissemination, and use of information as it applies to public policy formulation?”
In 1977 the term appeared in discussions on marine and environmental science and in discussions in the field of computer science.
So, KM has been around since the 1970s and evolved from industry effiency engineers and the science of knowledge utilisation. It seems KM really is nothing more than a new label on an old bottle. What this tells us is that the management of knowledge, just like the management of an organisation, has adapted to the needs of time and place.
The evolution of knowledge as a resource, its management and the emergence of KM shows that concepts adapt to meet the shifting needs of the environment, but the core need for knowledge as a resource has endured. It therefore stands to reason that KM itself will have to undergo a shift, especially with the field failing to overcome the dominance of technology based KM solutions. Regardless of what it might be called in the future and however it is reinvented, historical precedent shows us that organisations will continue to need to manage knowledge as a resource for value creation.
Mine is not a maverick voice in the wilderness. The following is from a top KM practitioner and author, responding to my blog on this topic:
“I am also a great believer of the importance of focussing on human elements when introducing any KM type of initiative. Not to say, that technology cannot play a role, but it will only be patchwork without that human focus. In my book that I published with Wiley last year one of the key themes was that HR should get involved and not let KM be dominated by IT, and part of that is also creating and supporting KM intermediary and support (not IT support) roles. Why are organisations spending large sums of money on systems, that go down after the initial phase, because acceptance and participation is way beyond expectations. With all the development, introduction, training etc. it is a waste of money if then after a couple of years everything goes down the drain, because there was no investment into the human support infrastructure ongoing.”
The message: forget the KM label and focus on the need of the organisation and the environment within which the organisation transacts. Given the drivers of the knowledge economy, and the need for dynamic capacity, it is fair to say that the only constant for sustainable success is change. We have no choice at this time, but to try and adapt to the dying constraints of an ill-fitting concept, but we also need to prepare for the future to make sure that the next incarnation can deliver success. KM is here today and will be gone tomorrow. The operational need for knowledge will live on.
David Griffiths is director at KM and HR research specialist K-Cubed Ltd. For more information visit www.k3cubed.com