posted 30 Nov 2010 in Volume 14 Issue 3
The cult of KM
Contrary to the stereotype, building a knowledge management cult(ure) is not about brainwashing your followers, says Christian Young
Several months ago, while conducting knowledge management (KM) branding research, I was delighted to discover a typology of social movements based on the work of the late anthropologist David Aberle. His model proposed four types of social movements that revolved around two questions: (1) ‘Who is the movement attempting to change?’; and (2) ‘How much change is being advocated?’.
Alternative social movements seek limited change within a limited population.Redemptive social movements seek radical change within a limited population.Reformative social movements seek limited change across an entire population.Revolutionary social movements seek to radically change all of society.
As a reminder, the objective of KM branding is to provide education on (and promote awareness of) the value and benefit of KM, using a combination of marketing tactics and adult learning principles. Since two of my previous approaches – green KM and guerrilla KM ? ‘reformative’ and ‘revolutionary’, respectively) – were a surprising and unexpected fit, I challenged myself to round out the model.
Creating a KM cult(ure)
“It is important to recognise, however, that so long as only one person holds a religious idea, no true religion exists. We conceptualise successful cult innovation as a social process in which innovators both invent new religious ideas and transmit them to other persons in exchange for rewards.” (Bainbridge & Stark, 1979)
As organisations adapt to rapidly changing markets with continuous efforts to improve operational efficiency, change fatigue has increasingly become a common problem across industries. As a result, KM professionals are faced with creating a movement that elevates KM from good business to a religious experience. While cultivating this type of experience is easier said than done, building a foundation on the following components will be useful in securing the influence and social capital necessary to spread the ‘gospel of KM’ in any organisation.
Roping the mark: Dispensing Compensation
Bainbridge & Stark1 define compensators as “satisfying articles of faith, postulations that strongly desired rewards will be obtained in the distant future or in some other unverifiable context”. In KM-speak that means having a strong value proposition. However, in business – as in life – people prioritise relationships and activities that matter most to them, which means that compensators should be relevant to stakeholders (the ‘mark’). The key to developing beguiling and irresistible compensators is in thoroughly understanding the wants and needs of the mark. Only by understanding their motivations – money, power, fame, respect…genuine altruism – can you exploit them!
Roping the mark is not so much about selling KM as it is about selling yourself as a solutions provider, the answer to unspoken prayers; building a following by ‘roping’ stakeholders into a relationship in which you are regarded with great respect, thoughtfulness, and consideration. You want their confidence.
The Royal Road: Socialising KM
The classic idea of a cult is that it’s a con. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. Pull back the curtain and the all-powerful Oz is a powerless fraud, who was swept away in a hot air balloon. In light of this, one might reasonably ask, ‘If the needs being addressed and the solutions being offered are legitimate, why the con-like approach?’. The answer: because people like to be schmoozed, they want to be seduced! The ability to deliver solutions with an appropriate and convincing display of showmanship is an art that distinguishes good from great and crafting a mythology around KM, wrapping the KM vision and strategy within a grand illusion, sets stakeholders off on a great adventure down a royal road to the solution they’re seeking!
Mythologies, like fairy-tales, are an enduring, time-tested medium for imparting knowledge, wisdom and values. And, unlike, many traditional business communiqués, they travel well across an organisation (nothing travels better than gossip, conjecture, and enigmatic tales). A well-crafted mythology can be an effective tool for piquing interest in and sparking discussion about KM, socialising the KM vision and desired values of knowledge sharing, and promoting KM’s various services and benefits.
Parting the Sea: Asserting your ‘guruness’
Shameless self-promotion may be gauche but it can definitely benefit wannabe cult leaders! After all, what’s the use of spreading ‘the good word’ of KM if no one knows there’s a bona fide guru in their midst? You’ve gained their trust and spread the gospel now it’s time to reap the harvest!
Pursue stealth relationships. Acquiring the initial trust of your mark is only the first step in building long-term relationships that deepen your rapport, strengthen your influence, and enable you to discreetly identify and discover critical needs so that you can manifest solutions seemingly out of thin air.
Be a problem solver, not a problem explainer. Problem solve with minimal to no explanation of how. For solutions with long-term benefits, avoid speaking too much about them up front, so that you can mine them for future wins.
Keep it cool and zen-like. Fuelling the flame of (belief in) your enlightenment requires anticipating and planning for future needs and challenges in order to remain two steps ahead of stakeholders, while giving the appearance of either being nonchalant or excited (whichever feels right) about these developments.
Think before you act and act before you speak! Deliver on the promise of something great and transformative by speaking more with your actions and less with your words. When you do speak, speak plainly, directly (matter of fact) and succinctly, declaring your solution as if it were the most natural and obvious thing in the world.
Manage your accessibility. Social equity is conferred because your expertise is valued, respected, and greatly desired. If stakeholders fail to fully appreciate your time and talent then the social equity you’ve been questing after is lost. Remember that you are an expert providing critical solutions and at a minimum, be only as available as your mark.
Build (and maintain) the mystery. Lead stakeholders to believe that you have a gift for making KM work beyond anything that they could do themselves by creating the illusion that executing KM is a magical process, regardless of the actual work involved.
Herd the sheep, reinforce the message. Take responsibility for providing guidance and wisdom by seizing and creating learning opportunities to improve stakeholder understanding and awareness of KM and good knowledge sharing principles.
The Wizard of KM: Maintaining control
After cultivating your KM cult, implementing a combination of theatre and ‘thought control’ tactics will ensure its success against three significant hurdles:
Time constraints that interfere with stakeholder participation/indoctrination;
Stakeholder skepticism; and
Stakeholder belief that their regular input is unnecessary or irrelevant.
Theatre is a useful tool for engaging stakeholders (for example, creating a name and special language for the cult; using nicknames to promote camaraderie; assigning totems and gifting physical representations) while ‘thought reform’ tactics (AKA brainwashing) are preferred for ‘influencing’ stakeholders’ perception of KM.
Meditation, affirmations, and admonitions…oh my! Foster a stakeholder habit of asking ‘How can KM help (HCKMH)?’ each time a challenge arises. Impress upon them the criticality of reaching out to KM (KM helps those who contact KM). Consider a framed desktop admonition: Breathe in. Breathe out. Call KM. Also, consider tweeting KM affirmations.
Sharing in community. Lead KM workshops in which stakeholders ‘confess’ their thoughts and feelings about KM (i.e., concerns, level of understanding), share knowledge (i.e., impact on personal power) and discuss workplace issues, to help you discover opportunities and empower stakeholders (to turn to you… and KM, of course).
Stigmatise wrong behaviour. Instead of rewarding stakeholders for demonstrating good knowledge sharing (which is what they are supposed to be doing), reinforce standards and expectations by vilifying bad or poor knowledge sharing. Provide education (and stigmatisation) via marketing campaigns that target and criticise perpetrators’ behaviour (without naming names.
Build attention traps. Once you’ve ‘cracked the stakeholder code’ and succeeded in securing a measure of trust, bombard them with provocative and alluring attention traps designed to place KM, squarely, at the centre of their universe (KM is all) and enhance their commitment to active knowledge stewardship.
The tao of KM. Advise stakeholders of their ‘higher purpose’ in transforming the organisation. Entwine their needs with the organisational mission to promote congruence between their personal agendas and benefit to the organisation’s bottom line. Attribute problems experienced by those outside of the group as the consequence of being on the ‘wrong path’.
The Cult of KM
Contrary to the stereotype, building a KM cult is not about creating a mindless mass of followers… unless that’s your agenda. Hopefully, you’re more focused on building quality relationships and developing a level of KM understanding that enables its ‘institutionalisation’. The primary goal of a KM cult is building social equity (or capital) amongst a limited, targeted group of organisational stakeholders, who are in the best position to help promote and champion KM.
Christian Young is an independent KM strategist and blogger based in the US. For more information visit kmreflections.blogspot.com
1. Bainbridge, W.S., Stark, R. (1979). Cult Formation: Three Compatible Models. Sociological Analysis, 40, 4, Sects, Cults and Religious Movements, 283-295.